In the dog days of summer 2016 I rode my bike from Taynuilt on Loch Etive to Findhorn on the Moray Firth using the wildest and loneliest ways I could find. Logging and estate tracks, stalkers’ paths, drovers’ and 18th-century military roads and disused railways, as well as modern cycle paths and tarmac took me from one coast of Scotland to the other. At the time, the adventure was simply an act of care for myself after months in a job I had to drive to, following decades of cycling to work. I was sad and weak as a result of hours wasted on the motorway, and waking up on 24 June to learn the result of the Brexit referendum left me needing time alone with my own country.
Riding a bike on wild paths turns what might be a slog on foot into a pleasurable amble. If you’re walking for several days in Scotland, the weight of food, fuel, camping kit and bad-weather clothing can be a real barrier to enjoyment. On a bike, I let the wheels take the load and put my effort into the pedals, revelling in the simple majesty of moving myself and my essentials through the landscape. It leaves time and energy for other pursuits. I’ve packed a wetsuit in the past, for dips in remote river pools.
So many people have cottoned on to this that bicycles, electronics, bags and camping kit now come in space-age designs with astronomical prices. And while some of that stuff is lovely, none of it is essential to a satisfying and safe bikepacking trip into the wild. All you need is a solid bike with chunky tyres and a means of carting ordinary camping gear: panniers, or a single-wheel trailer for longer trips. One constant is a decent map, as it’s all too easy to get carried away down the wrong forest path.
Any part of my coast-to-coast route would make a great overnight bikepacking trip, but one that stands out in its versatility is the first part – up Loch Etive and into Glen Kinglass. It’s easiest to start from the right bank of the River Awe, after the A85 bridge: from here I soon plunged off the tarmac on to a forest road, leaving the scant traces of civilisation behind. The track twists and turns, dips and rises along the eastern shore of the sea loch. It never rises to more than 50 metres but does so often and steeply, and the surface is loose. I found myself working harder and progressing more slowly than expected. But so what?
As I looked around I saw things that are more obvious from the saddle than on foot. After the first climb, you can pretty much see the whole sea loch stretching to the north-west. Looking down, you notice that Loch Etive is a proper Nordic fjord, a steep-sided gouge in the edge of the Grampians. Low-lying grassland is fringed with scrubby oaks and sandy bays fringed with yellow flag iris.
At Ardmaddy, I turned inland up the River Kinglass, a deep, dark channel with a magnificent conical mountain in the distance: Stob Dubh, summit of Buachaille Etive Beag, overlooking the pass of Glen Coe. Heading inland, I freewheeled down to the timber bridge and paused to look over the side, hypnotised by the peaty water, eyes scouring the bed for resting Atlantic salmon.
In Scotland you can camp responsibly on most open ground. The lower stretches of the Kinglass abound with perfect spots, with lush grass and the last remnants of the Atlantic temperate rainforest clinging to the foothills of the Ben Starav. I like to stretch out and feel for stones and hollows before I pitch my tent, and orient it for the best morning view. The bike goes out to pasture and the stove goes on, the lid gently chiming as water boils for pasta.
But there’s another possibility in Scotland: bothies. If you ride light and don’t mind who you share a roof with, these basic shelters are free for any passerby. When I got to the one in Glen Kinglass – a cruck-framed cottage – it was deserted, so I laid my sleeping mat on the bare earth floor, effectively camping indoors – and away from the midges. The bothy is set back from the track among broadleaved woods. The crag above is cut in two by the gorge of the Allt Narrachan and reminds me of a Chinese silk painting, the diagonal of the stream flicking side to side before leaping off into a waterfall with trees on crazy ledges either side.
Next day you can ride back the way you came or head on to Bridge of Orchy and Tyndrum for the train back to Taynuilt. It’s a wild trail with unbridged rivers and sketchy tracks at best. But the thing with bikepacking is that you go where you fancy and take risks and perils on the chin. It’s your choice and there are no rules. You have options that don’t make sense on foot. You are free.