BIkepacking has been around in some guise for some time now. The goal is probably take your bike places bikes rarely go, or even better people rarely go. The trips usually have a strong self-sufficiency element to them, with bonus points available for wild camping and carrying and cooking your own food. The development of more specialist equipment has meant more remote and technical terrain can be reached and covered more quickly, though speed is rarely a primary goal. Despite this, panniers have been invariably ditched in favour of lighter weight solutions such as bar and chunky saddle bags, but the aim of keeping weight off your back and on your bike remains just the same.
A packraft is an inflatable raft not dissimilar to what you might associate with a white-water raft however they are designed to be small and light, to be as mobile as possible. They can be used in water bodies that are hard to access or combined with hiking over mixed terrain. Weighing around 3kg and able to fold down into a fairly small backpack, these glorified (and expensive) dinghies facilitate the safe crossing of sections of water such as rivers, lakes or stretches of calmer sea – all of which Scotland has plenty of.
Marrying up these two adventurous disciplines into the ultimate amphibious journey didn’t take too long. In bike mode, the raft packs down and attaches to the handlebar and when rafting, the wheels come off the bike perches precariously on the front of your inflated raft. It’s safe to say the “go anywhere, do anything” philosophy more than appealed, so I headed up North for my very own bikerafting mini adventure.
There was no plan, well almost. Still recovering from a bout of uncharacteristic sickness, I consciously avoided my typical structured route and goals for the weekend. As is probably quite common among us adventure goers, I have a bad habit of planning overly challenging and lengthily routes, sometimes forgetting to find the time to have fun along the way. Not this time… My only goal was to use my bike and raft to access the renowned and remote bothy, Benalder Cottage at the foot of Loch Ericht, just outside the Cairngorms National Park.
My route: 75mkm loop (50km biking + 25km rafting) over 2 days
After hiring a lovely little blue number from the UK’s only packraft rental shop and the very helpful, Backcountry Scot in Aviemore, I grab supplies and head for Dalwhinnie to park, which lies the complete opposite end of the vast 30km ribbon loch. After glancing at the map, it would seem I could get a fair way down on bike before the path deteriorates to almost nothing. Buzzing to be heading out into the unknown with pressure off, I make fairly quick work of the smooth Landrover track toward the super swanky Ben Alder Estate lodges, not phased by the dwindling light. Facing a savage head wind ripping down the loch, and holding to my newfound relaxed approach, I pitched up on a wonderfully isolated beach at the road’s end.
Temperatures now starting to feel more autumnal in Scotland, I was grateful for my big down sleeping bag after a cosy night's sleep waking to a moody but more importantly, calmer morning. I poke my head out like a human wind vane and although the wind is still noticeably present, my minimal experience and positive mental attitude suggest after breakfast it’s raft o’clock. In an aim to avoid carrying unnecessary extras, the rafts don’t come with a conventional pump but instead an inflation bag. Though at first sceptical, these are very clever bits of kit. With the aid of a breeze, you capture the air then rotate the top of the bag and gently squeeze the air into the raft. Five to ten of these bags (or a few minutes later) and you’re ready to top up by mouth and off you go
Getting the bike aboard was easier and more stable than one might imagine, using thin climbing rope to secure it. Cargo on, zipped in, I begin the perhaps inevitably arduous assault on the blustery Loch Ericht, and it’s here I experience the first and perhaps only major limitation of packrafts – the wind. I’d read that they don’t paddle well in the wind and when you think about it, you’re paddling a balloon-like boat, so it shouldn’t really be a surprise. Despite the wind and waves relentlessly trying to push me back from whence I came, I was making progress, albeit slow. Hugging the shore for the little shelter that was available, I arrived at Benalder Bay 3-4 hours on, feeling like I’d been paddling for a long day, but elated to be at this fantastic bothy with all afternoon to settle in.
Though I was kept plenty warm paddling against the flow, I was absolutely drenched despite opting for the “cruiser” spray deck which is well secured by Velcro. Seemingly, in moving water at least, getting wet is pretty much unavoidable so best to accept it and crack on. There is of course some value in quick drying clothing here, but better off planning to get wet and dry quickly than avoiding getting wet in the first place (unless you’re willing to bring a dry suit). Embarrassingly punching the air when I clock the kindling and coal left by a previous visitor, I get onto getting the stove in and hanging my catalogue of soggy kit. Thriving on the solitude and simpler things in life, I thoroughly enjoy eating my lunch in front of the fire, feeling a long way from “real life” stresses and my working week.
After refuelling and a quick cat nap, I decided I had more to get out of my day seeing what trails I could find nearby. Ditching my bags. I shoot up towards Munro, Ben Alder feeling nimble and energetic after my rest. The riding does not disappoint, eventually deciding I’ve gone far enough and it’s time to blast back down, making good use of the all too familiar drainage ditches for air time. Arriving back loch side, I’m pleased to welcome some new arrivals before freshening up in the cool water. After some successful wood foraging from my new friends Magnus, Glen and Nikolaj, we’re all in front of the roaring open fire cooking our respective dinners and snacking on surprisingly gourmet starters joined by a few more throughout the evening. Sharing a bottle of Talisker (courtesy of Magnus’ generosity) that really hit the spot, we exchange stories and laugh until bedtime. Indeed, despite reluctantly going solo on this expedition, I was lucky enough to get the perfect bothy experience, meeting great people along the way.
Determined to maximise my Caledonian excursion, I wake early doors and go for an early morning coldwater swim. Quick breakfast, dry off and it’s time to go back into packraft mode, paddling to the very end of the loch before looping back the long way around. Final goodbyes to my Scottish pals, unusually turning down the offer of a bacon sandwich to get cracking. Pleased with my 15 minute transition, I settle into a big hill climb on the bike before dropping back down to the Loch which has since become subject to some serious wind creating a swell you’d expect in the sea!