Saturday, 24 August 2013

Criminally Bad Bikepacking

Last night was my debut into the wild world of bikepacking, it was an experience I'll never forget, but whether or not it qualifies me as a fully-fledged bikepacker now...well, I let you be the judge!

For the benefit of any other newbies out there, like myself, I have to reassure you that it wasn't a straight plunge into bikepacking, because, especially as a woman, I must be honest, I had certain reservations. So, over the last couple of months my boyfriend, Dave, and I have taken every child-free opportunity to broaden my mtbing horizons with a few bike-camping excursions, pitching on campsites rather than wild-camping. Things didn't always go to plan...

From Bike-Camping to Bikepacking in 4 (not so) Easy Steps

Attempt 1; (Don't) find a campsite by a major roadway
First, we found a great little campsite in Newhaven, in the Peak District, with every amenity you could dream of and friendly, welcoming faces all round, all for £20. No complaints there...until we realised that lurking directly behind the picturesque greenery was the A515, the main Ashbourne to Buxton road, literally a stones throw away and incredibly noisey. Ironically, Dave was the seasoned camper, I hadn't camped since my late teens, but I slept like the proverbial countryside log whilst Dave didn't get one wink, despite stuffing his ears with loo-roll the traffic kept him up all night long!
Nevermind... it was all forgotten the next day. The sun was shining (always worth a mention round here) and the scenery was beautiful. All it took to drag Dave back among the living was a couple of campstove bacon butties and a pot of fresh coffee. We had a great day cycling all over the bridleways of the Peaks, I shan't lie and say it was easy, because there were moments when I could see myself sponateously combusting out of sheer exertion, but I'm still here, so I must have survived (I remember Dave showing me our progress on the map at one point and the drama queen in me escaping to whine about the 20mile we still had to was more like 3.5!). However, as a first bike-camping trip it scored a strong 4/5; shame about the roadside tent pitch (maybe Dave would mark it more harshly) and whet my appetite for more.

Attempt 2; (Avoid) camping on lowland  Mooorland in June/July

Next, we decided that with a little bit of extra research we could find the perfect pitch and so off we went for trip #2; Hayfield, in the Dark Peak region of the Peak District. The Dark Peak contains some of the most demanding trails in the Peak District, which means lots of rocky hills, ie; tricky descents and lung-bursting climbs. However, we were in the midst of a long, long overdue hotspell and with only 2 days free I decided to just rise to the challenge and enjoy myself. We found a campsite secluded from any roads and right by a fantastic singletrack...great! Not quite..when thinking about the warm weather and choosing a remote campsite, we hadn't thought about midges. They were everywhere, in our eyes, ears, noses and for such tiny guys, they itch like hell!

...and that was just my legs! For this privilege, spotty souvenirs inc, we were to pay over £50 per night, what we had also failed to spot in our research was that the campsite we'd chosen was a Caravan and Camping Club site, ie; a bloomin rip off! Fortunately, it rained during the night and cleared the midge infestation for morning, we were lucky that the tent withstood the midnight winds (including the shameless chorus of a different wind coming from the next tent along!), because the previous night we'd pitched it with sheer blind fury (literally, we had tops covering our faces from the midges). I have since read again and again that the Avon SkinSoSoft moisturiser/body oil range is an excellent insect repellent, also insect nets are available from most outdoor suppliers for just a couple of £. Alas, Dave still didn't get much sleep; this time he had head, back and any ole' ache you can think be fair, he's a 6' guy - in a tiny, hot and sweaty 2man tent, itching from head to toe midge-bites, he's never gonna be comfy!
The great thing about camping, however, is when ride day comes, you unzip and you're immediately in mtb country and you know the second you pedal away the grumbles from the night before blow away in a cloud of wheel dust. The trails were amazing, we followed a route that Dave found and I'm proud to say I tackled everything that he did - only a lot slower! There were a couple of unrideable segments where we had to push through waist-length grasses up the side of a cluster of rolling hills, which seemed to just keep rolling and rolling. But, of course, they didn't and the journey down the other side was awesome - I actually caught air(?) for the 1st time.

                              I think my helmet's gonna fall off if it slips back any further!

3rd Time Lucky?; Trails are (not) normally easier than the guidebook says.

The next time an opportunity arose we were able to camp for an extra night so Dave and I decided we to go a tad further afield and set off for the green, green valleys of Wales. Dave found a great looking trail in the Mountain Biking in Wales guidebook, and it had a campsite on it, the Gwern Gof Isaf. Idyllically nestled amongst the mountains of the Carneddau, part of the Snowdonia National Park, in a pretty little place called Capel Curig, this campsite was quite different from the other two. Guidebooks would described it as 'rustic' and 'charming', and it was. Ladies, if you need sparkling white power-showers, hairdryers and plugs for your straighteners, then don't come here! It had toilets and access to hot water and drinking water and sheep roamed freely all over...leaving little 'welcome gifts' behind them... there was a heavenly absence of caravans and monstrous RVs, and all other unnecessary attachments to 'civilized glamping'. For me, this is how camping should be, after all, isn't the whole point to 'get back to nature'? The Gwern Gof Isaf provides as unspoilt a patch of the countryside as you will ever find. Even Dave managed to get a good sleep here, the nearest road was far enough away to look like a shoelace in the distance, and there were NO MIDGES, sheep, but no midges, go figure?! At 5am a friendly sheep rolled by our tent, stopping to serenade us for 10 minutes (replace sheep for drunken idiot and I could have been back home in my bed), and the campsite assistant 'knocks' on the tents at 8am to check who's paid. Still, nothing could tarnish my memory of this site, both Dave and I loved it..and all for a cracking £5 ea/night

We still had some creature comforts - (L).watching a bit of telly in the tent the night before the big ride. (R).The Afon Llugwy, taken during a stop off in Betsw-Coed for chips!
The ride was the biggest challenge I have faced to date. So far all had gone well on the camping side of things, something just had to go awry. Within the 30minutes of setting off we had taken a wrong turn...across swampland! By the time it was agreed that we were on the wrong track (I use the term loosely) we had been out for an hour and the campsite was still within view - a U-turn and a 2nd trudge through swampland and we were back on track. The guidebook did warn that this route was black graded and the tracks were often undistinguishable but we weren't prepared for just how rough a trail it actually was. To make things worse I'd recently had a couple of silly falls so when I found myself cycling along a drop-away track, 500m up the side of a rocky mountain, unsurprisingly my confidence dropped away too! After a while, however, and this is for all other shakey novices that feel the same...I stuck with it and soon overcome my jitters, and had an bloody fantastic day! Finally, I think we had the camping nailed, even if the ride was maybe a challenge too far for me...I still loved every second and would do it again in a heartbeat.

The trophy shot - I hoisted my bike up on my shoulder and carried it almost 300m up a unrideable pass. At times I felt like we were re-enacting an old Girl Guide song; 'Can't go over it, got to go under. Can't go through it, got to go round....'

The point is each trip carried it's own set of problems, but each time another opportunity presented itself we leapt at it. I'm not a tom-boy, I still wear skirts...and I'll let you into a secret - I am terrified of slugs! But, I threw myself into each experience wholeheartedly and I've had an interesting, hilarious, nerve-wracking and thrilling time. Think you're not ready...just jump on in, you might find you're better than you thought!

And on that uplifting note here's my introduction to bikepacking (or baptism of fire),

How (not to) Bikepack For Beginners

The plan was to bike from Newcastle under Lyme up to Luds Church, camp for a night  and continue on to Buxton and camp for the 2nd night before heading back on the 3rd day having completed a round trip of approx 75km over the 3 days. However,having never bikepacked before I had no idea of the preparation involved and just how long it took to pack the bikes. Needless to say time drew on and we had amend the plan accordingly, for once it turned out for the best!

We were well prepared - as you can see we had double checked that all was sound with the new tent but I was totally unprepared for how long it would take to pack the bikes and we began to run very late. We had to revise our plans-instead of riding all the way we drove to the Roaches and rode the rest of the way up to where we were to camp, with just enough daylight to see us through, planning to make up for the loss of ride-time the following day.
Lud's Church (aka Lud's Cave) near where we pitched the tent and the root of so much trouble!

I have to admit, I found the thought of surviving with only the things we had on our bikes and ourselves for a couple of days really exciting. It may have been old hat to Dave, but I felt every inch the intrepid explorer.'ll understand this feat of determination - yes, I even managed the much-dreaded wild-wee! We pitched the tent without a hitch and settled in, as quickly as we possibly could - there were midges all over us, again, but I was not gonna let a tiny little spec of a pest ruin my adventure. The new tent, the uber-light Terra  Nova, was a smidge tighter than the old 1 and we were cramped, sweaty and smothered in midges but it didn't take too long for the extra effort of biking up with the added weight to take a hold and we were both soon drifting off. And then we heard voices...literally in the middle of nowhere, gangster chat! When we realised we couldn't both be dreaming the same thing we didn't know whether we should laugh or hide my jewellery - but one thing was for sure, with a few grands worth of bikes sitting by the tent, we had to do something. Dave stepped up and got out of the tent for a scout arou, but the voices had reduced to a series of stupid noises coming from the trees, no doubt intended to scare us. I think I must have been a bit shocked and dazed by it all because I was finding it all rather tedious. Seeing as nobody was having the guts to show themselves Dave got back in the tent but as soon as he did so the tent was jumped upon by our screaming, urban intruders. Well, Dave just flew back out, shouting a few choice threats and told them to either man up and show up, or he was calling the police. Clearly they weren't going to man up so we called the police and explained the situation. Funnily enough, after the call ended a sheepish, young Brummie guy stepped from the shadows and offered his hand to Dave. But Dave didnt know if he had a knife, or possibly worse- after this happening, anything was possible! His friend stepped out equally sheepish, both full of apologies and desperate to shake hands with Dave and make good a ridiculous situation. Apparently, they had seen a program on BBC2 about Lud's Cave a day or two earlier and an urge too great to ignore brought them all this way in the middle of the night. Eventually Dave took his hand in an attempt to keep the situation calm, but warned them that the police were on their way. Our 'new friends' were far too worse for wear to care and after asking which way to Lud's Cave, and ignoring  our warnings about the dangers of clambering about the steep gorge in darkness, off they went leaving only a whiff of vodka behind them. After this we felt that we didn't need to bother the police anymore, and called back to say so, but they wanted to check out the situation for themselves. Before you could say 'Hawaii 5-0', we received a phonecall to inform us that 2 officers were already on their way to us, could we please look out for them. It wasn't an easy place to reach, so Dave took the torch and set off to find them...he didn't have to go far, and it wasn't long before the city-boy wanderers stumbled back onto the camp, straight into the arms of the law! Sadly, with a quiet word in our ears that our gatecrashers were a bit too well known to the Birmingham police for them to feel happy about leaving us here, we were politely asked to pack up. And so the trip ended before it had even begun with us packing up under the light of a police torch and pushing the bikes all the way back to the car with our friendly police escort. I wonder, if we had cycled all the way, as originally planned, would they have loaded our filthy bikes onto their lovely jeep and drove us all the way?
Here ends my induction into the wonderful (weird) world of bikepacking (or just packing)...I didn't even get a bike ride out of this one!

I know our track record of camping and bikepacking isn't the greatest...but is it really criminal?


  1. Truly bizarre! But don't give up! You are bound to have a great experience. Although, the adventures that don't go as planned are the ones we always remember.
    Best of luck!

    1.'re not wrong! Ill always remember this one! At least it hasn't put me off (the curious side of me is kinda looking forward whatever my next trip has in store)!