Mountain biking expert and freelance writer Hannah Collingridge gives us her top 10 recommendations for UK bikepacking adventures. Hannah's guide to the Pennine Bridleway is now available here from Vertebrate Publishing. To see more books we love and books that caught our eye, take a look at our book shelf.
Bikepacking, or touring, isn’t complicated. It’s just sticking some extra stuff on your bike, setting off and not coming back to your starting point that day. How long a ride you make it, where you go and where you sleep are entirely up to you. You can make it as challenging as you like: a tough route against the clock with minimal gear and sleep, or a gentle potter round country lanes, enjoying the sights. Or anywhere in between. Accommodation is also your choice – wild camping gives you the freedom to be flexible but that might not be your style. Staying in hostels or B and Bs means you’ll get a better night’s sleep, you’ll need to take less gear, but means you have a fixed point to aim for.
Similarly, with routes, the choice is yours. You may want to follow a route someone else has already done with a guidebook or a GPX file. You may be the sort to spend hours poring over maps plotting a route down interesting looking tracks. Or you may pick an area where there are tracks of a known quantity but you pick and choose on the day which you ride. There are suggestions for all of these below.
What sort of bike to ride? What have you got, and what sort of terrain do you like riding on it? Again, there is something for every sort of bike and riding confidence level.
Waymarked routes take most of the work out of navigation although signs can and do go missing so you’ll still need to take a map and be able to use it. For National Trails in the UK there will also be websites with much information about the route and matters such as accommodation.
Above High Birkwith, Yorkshire Dales. Joolze Dymond
The only National Trail in England and Wales designated as a bridleway along its length runs from the White Peak to Kirkby Stephen through 268 km of the Pennine landscape. Tougher than it may look at first glance, it uses many of the old trading routes through the hills to wind northwards. It’s fully waymarked and there is a guidebook to the full route out in May with accommodation suggestions and snippets about the landscape you are riding through. More suited to a mountain bike.
Avon Aqueduct, Union Canal. Joolze Dymond
From Helensburgh to Dunbar, a 215 km coast to coast route celebrating the life of the famed ‘father of the national parks’. This is also a waymarked route and there are some differences between the walking and cycling suggestions. However, because it is Scotland you can quite easily and legally follow the walking route on a bike. Not too technical a ride, it can be done on gravel and sturdy touring bikes as well as MTBs. It passes through a variety of scenery from the Loch Lomond National Park, the upstanding parts of the Antonine Wall, the Falkirk Wheel, Edinburgh and Musselburgh before heading to the Lothian coast.
With a Guide Book or GPX
Cycling UK have been busy coming up with some long-distance routes and providing the maps and other information online. Two of their offerings are below. In Scotland, there have been some exciting developments with suggestions for long-distance trails such as mountain biker Stu Allan’s Badger Divide, and a whole website of rides in Perthshire.
Winchester Cathedral. Robert Spanring
King Alfred's Way is a 350 km loop starting and ending at Winchester, capital of the West Saxons under Alfred the Great (d.899). It’s easily accessible to many southern cities and links in with the rideable parts of several other National Trails giving a variety of options for connections and further exploration. It’s suitable for a gravel bike and follows a variety of gravel tracks, woodland trails, sandy heathland, canal towpaths and rural lanes. If you like your prehistoric monuments obvious and plentiful, this is the route for you.
An absolute beast of a ride following the Pennine Bridleway for the first section but then continuing northwards from Kirkby Stephen up to either Cape Wrath or John o’ Groats. It passes through a whole wealth of stunning scenery and places of historic importance. The Great North Trail is 1,300 km long with a corresponding amount of ascent so the full trail is one to work up to rather than dash off and do as a first trip. The more northly sections of the trail are remote and so an ability to be able to look after yourself and get yourself out of trouble are required. But an absolutely unforgettable trip. With use of trains the route can be broken down into shorter chunks. Much is fine on a gravel bike but you may well be comfier on an MTB.
Gleann Fearnach, part of the Highland Drovers Perthshire Trail. Markus Stitz
Cyclist Markus Stitz has been busy in Perthshire mapping lots of rides suitable for gravel bike adventures. He’s provided a whole variety of places to start your ride from with several rides from each place of varying distance and difficulty. Information and downloadable GPX files are available from the website allowing you to take the guess work out of exploring this huge and diverse area. There really is something for everyone in this area for gentler family rides to big days among the mountains. Combine the suggestions to make longer trips or to serve as a starting point for your own inspiration. There’s also a four stage bikepacking trip included on the site.
East Anglia in general is a great area for touring – lots of quiet roads to explore, and several National Cycle routes through the area as starting suggestions for rides. Big skies and rolling countryside make it a fantastic place to slow down and do some sight-seeing. Castles, quirky little churches, seaside and estuaries, and Sutton Hoo. Suitable for whatever bike you fancy.
Gentler, relatively speaking, than the northern Lakes with a variety of tracks and bridleways. You can ride alongside Lake Windermere, cross it on the ferry, explore artwork at Grizedale Forest, eat lunch overlooking Coniston Water and find a secluded spot for the night. An area where you can add miles or loop back round on yourself depending on weather and inclination. There’s plenty that is suitable for a long, challenging ride – take a look at the annual #jennride organised by bike packing expert Richard Munro which is 100 miles, for instance. Best on a mountain bike.
Home of Bear Bones bikepacking and the Welsh Ride Thing, mid-Wales is another area full of quiet lanes, tracks and trails to explore. You can go towards the coast, get into the hills, visit the source of the Severn, and explore ruins and remains of all ages. The Welsh Ride Thing is a semi-organised bikepacking event every May for which there is no set route and the emphasis is on riding where you want and eating cake afterwards. There is also a full-on hardcore set route event over 200km with a time limit later in the year, not always known for picking the most straightforward way. The Bear Bones site is also full of really useful information and gear suggestions.
The Wild About Argyll Trail on the Ardgartan Peninsula. Markus Stitz
Off the beaten track, Argyll has much to explore. There is an abundance of prehistoric remains around Kilmartin that you could base a trip around. There’s also a suggested long route on Bikepacking Scotland’s website that can be done in one trip or as several. It’s an area of delightful variety, with plenty of water and the potential for using ferries to make trips longer. Again, lots than can be done on a gravel bike or MTB.
There is a joy to plotting a route you think not many other people, if any, have done. Evenings spent looking at maps and trying to work out if the dots on the map will turn out to be a rideable track or not, trying to feel is a route will have flow better one way round than another. Occasionally you get it all right with not too many bits that need to be walked or the bike dragged through a bog. Even if they’re not perfect, these can be the best rides if you’ve packed an open mind and a sense of humour. Stu Wright, the founder of Bear Bones has, for instance, plotted a route from Prestatyn to Chepstow as close to the line of Offa’s Dyke as he could get it along tracks and minor roads. Some of those he’s ridden before, some not, but it’s always worth finding out whether a track will go or not. If it’s rideable you may just discover a gem, and if it’s a boggy, tussocky mess you know never to go that way again.
So it’s up to you. Bikepacking is whatever you want it to be. But there’s nothing quite like it.