Highland Trail 550 - 2019

Highland Trail 550 - 2019 self supported ride

By Stu Taylor>

In 2018 I completed the trail in four days and seven hours, this year I hope to finish in under four days, there... I've said it....no pressure!

So how does my approach differ for 2019?

Well last year was all about completing the trail, getting to the end and recording a time, this year it feels like more of a race to try and beat the clock, this is part of what makes these type of events so interesting as so many riders have their own agendas where you end up having a race within a race.

From the lessons learnt over the last year and other big bike packing events the French and Italy Divides I am a lot more in touch with my own body and capabilities, kit choice will be more streamlined “do not pack your fears” is a moto I stand by but it is a fine line also - especially in the remote Scottish Highlands!

Sleep management is what I have learnt most about myself and how much or when I need to sleep, this doesn’t have to be at night you could ride for thirty hours to get past a certain area or avoiding weather and take a two-hour break midday, everyday routines become a blur eating and sleeping when needed not necessarily because its dark. In terms of racing a lot of time can potentially be lost setting up and packing up your sleeping system so for this year I will be trying out a different set up this time with no tent or sleeping bag.

this years minimal sleep set up

This years sleep system

Instead I'm using a Filoment down jacket and elephants foot halfdown bag paired with ultralight Kloke bivi, using clothing layers for extra warmth if needed. This will be quick to setup particularly if I don’t take my Cloud Base sleep mat which I am currently deciding and awaiting theforecast on the morning ofthe event -the mat will provide extra warmth from the ground in lower temperatures, but also adds a bit of weight and time to inflate and deflate.

Last years sleeping arrangements

Last yeas sleep system - too cosy - meaning I spent too long resting.

The idea behind this is also not to be to comfy, losing an hour or so because your all warm and cosy makes it harder to get up, I literally want to lie down sleep get up and ride. If the weather turns I know how long I can ride through before resting, so it may turn out I need to keep pedalling through an area or until I find shelter. This is the biggest kit change and mindset for 2019 which will also significantly reduce weight on the bike, whilst keep packing to a minimum and overall be more efficient.

Kit List


Kloke Bivi

Prototype 'Elephants-foot' half bag paired with Filoment Hoody down jacket

Cloud base sleep mat – to be decided on the day.

Bike Packing Bags:

Stingray frame bag - custom made for my Sonder Broken Road

2 Lodo stem bags

Touko top tube bag

Fuel Pod for tools and spares

Tivaro 13L in reserve for sleep kit and extra space asneeded for food/supplies


Gravitas ultralight waterproof

Parallax lightweight waterproof trouser

Filoment Hoody light down jacket

Kelper Velo mid weight merino wool jersey

French Divide cycling jersey

Alpkit Draught Excluder

Floe cycling shorts

Rhythm Elite _ bib

Rana Waterproof socks

Defeet socks

2 pairs Gloves

Cycling cap


Garmin Etrex

Exposure Toro

Alpkit Head torch

Bike Spares


Battery Cache


Spot Tracker

2 x 750ml Alpkit water bottle

Chamois cream

The other big change in my set up for this year is that I will be riding a hardtail Sonder Broken Road Ti rather than full suspension bike.

TheBroken Road Ti has been kitted out with Rock Shox Reba 100mm forks, 29er x 2.4 Pirelli Scorpion MTB tyres, Hope components - withRace brakes, Evo cranks, Tech XC wheels, Evo hubs, Stem and Carbon bars, along with ESI grips, Thompson dropper post, Brooks saddle, Shimano XTR pedals.

Having ridden over 2,500 km on the Broken Road it has proven itself to be worthy of taking on the Highlands. The bike is at home eating up the miles on gravel roads, tackling steep climbs or tearing up single-track, when the going gets really tough the bike can turn its hand to the technical terrain the Highland offers during the trail with little fuss.

With everything in place to tackle the notoriously difficult event thanks to Alpkit and Sonder bikes I find myself excited and ready to go and take on the personal challenges during the Highland Trail 2019

So how did it go..

If you’ve heard anything about the Highland Trail this year you will know it was the toughest to date due to the adverse weather conditions and more riders scratching than ever before, forty-nine in total for which I was one of those.

So, what happened?

Well basically after the first few hours of riding the heavens truly opened and it didn’t stop raining for the around thirty-six hours, even with the wet weather forecast I don’t think anyone expected it to be that wet so soon into the event. In my pre-race report I put it out there that this year was to be an out and out race to beat my time from the previous year with an aim of completing in under four days. I also mentioned it was a very fine line in racing and completing an event of this nature as I discovered.

Crossing a deep stream while bikepacking in Wales

Packing light was a risk but so was chasing the goal, sometimes the case can the bigger the risk the greater the reward, either way, you have to finish. This was a time to be packed for completion, I wasn’t. After seven hours of riding in persistent rain my body, all my clothes, two pairs of gloves were cold and saturated, I had resorted to changing gear with the palms of my hand as I could no longer feel my thumb coming off the Corrieyairack Pass as the temperature dropped.

Blistered hand
Hand blister

Arriving at the iconic pizzeria in Fort Augustus I was freezing in a mild hypothermic state with my whole body was uncontrollably shaking and shivering, inside the pizzeria other riders gathered all looking in similar states trying to refuel, get warm and decide on the next step off their own journey looking round to see what others were doing. For myself it was simple I needed to find warm accommodation and try to dry kit ready for the next day, it wasn’t an option to head back out on the trail in my current state with the forecast getting worse would have been plain foolish, I booked a hotel for the night along with some fellow riders in hope of a warm bed and drying kit.

The next morning the forecast was true to its word and the rain continued to fall, scratching was well and truly at the forefront of my mind, after the first day I was 8 hours behind my previous years’ time with no realistic chance of making that back. We fuelled up with a full Scottish breakfast before summoning up the motivation to get back out there.

At this point I was riding with others who were also unsure really what to do so we just rode on, not long into the morning checking track leaders we became aware lots of riders were scratching and fast experienced ones at that. Reaching Cannich café, we learnt of some dangerous situations ahead with someone having to be pulled from a river, coupled with the fact that event organiser and race director Alan Goldsmith himself had scratched posting on social media “the trails are running a bit wet this year! It’s not that safe out here, the rivers are getting dangerous. Stay safe folks” this finalised the decision to scratch and join back onto the return loop whilst we could before committing to the point of no return further north past Oykel Bridge. Although at this point I hadn’t officially scratched as I hadn’t sent the dreaded text it was obvious for dot watchers what was happening, a small group of us were heading back.

Welsh stream in spate stops bikepackers crossing

How did I feel about it?

Sh*t to be honest, disappointed, frustrated, my mind full of what if’s. Now I have had a few weeks to let it all sink in, at the time it was the right decision to make I wasn’t prepared to deal with the conditions, it was dangerous and with being so far behind time trying to chase the impossible led to losing all motivation to carry on, I scratched. Looking back now I do wish that I had packed differently with an aim of completing the hardest Highland Trail to date by taking a tent, warmer sleeping bag, spare clothes, a stove to name a few items. Slightly cliché but I have learnt a lot my motto of “don’t pack your fears” doesn’t mean don’t be prepared and with the Silk Road Mountain Race only a couple of months away, the experiences of this year's Highland Trail could prove invaluable.

Hat off to all that rolled the dice in the first couple of days and managed to finish the event but also to everyone who rode and scratched, see you all next year!

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published