What the Guidebooks Don't Tell You
The typical guidebook for traveling to a foreign country offers pages of swanky hotels, five-star restaurants, and historic locations. If you’re lucky, they’ll give you a little insider information about what the locals love — which is decidedly no longer “insider” information. But on my recent trip to Scotland, I was looking for a different kind of adventure: one that had equal amounts of beauty with a fraction of the crowds. And one that allowed my girlfriend, Kaitlyn, and I to save on lodging so we could splurge on the stuff we really wanted: world-class whiskey, delicious meals and more!
Planning the Trip Basics
Our inspiration for this trip came from a shared desire to explore Scotland’s rugged highland region, as well as our shared Scottish heritage dating back to the times of kings and castles. Knowing culture was important to us, we planned an open itinerary to allow for castle tours, and slow mornings at coffee shops… and of course, weather delays. The weather is no doubt part of Scotland’s culture.
With this goal in mind, we decided that seeing the country on two wheels was exactly what we were looking for, and we started preparing for our first international backcountry bikepacking trip. To be honest, it seemed a little daunting and dangerous at first, but now with 150 miles under our wheels, we can share a little wisdom from the trip, and the assurance that a little planning and the right gear goes a long way.
We chose a route that explored the Highland’s western islands, and rented bikes at a local shop that was able to provide everything we needed for the extended trip. Local knowledge is one of your best tools on a trip like this, and we weren’t shy about asking for route advice. A minor issue on a domestic trip can have very different consequences when in a foreign country. Luckily, Scotland has one of the best policies in the world for wild camping, allowing campers to pitch a tent on most unenclosed land. But laws vary from place to place, so be sure to check local regulations ahead of time.
Once we were packed up and on the road, the scenery definitely didn’t disappoint. Common sights included waves breaking on rocky beaches, fisherman heading out of protected bays, long mountain passes that climbed from sea level to what felt like the stratosphere, and millions of passing showers.
The route wasn’t always easy. We quickly learned why “The Highlands” are so aptly named as we pedaled through the brutal elevation changes, and we encountered our share of bumpy dirt roads filled with livestock. But even so, I still stand convinced that bikepacking is the best to explore a new country, and here’s why.
Five Reasons Bikepacking Is the Way to Go
Enjoying some of Tobermory Distillery's finest on the Isle of Mull.
1. Spend Your Money Where it Counts (Not on Lodging!)
Here at NEMO, we’ve said it once and we’ll say it again: a tent will beat an Airbnb any day. Sure, there is an up-front investment when you purchase new gear, but with proper care your tent will last you through many adventures and won’t require a security deposit.
As we researched, we realized that even budget-minded options for lodging would still burn through our trip cash before we even hit the souvenir stand. And let’s be honest: going to Scotland without fully experiencing a little Scotch, some Haggis and a few castles would be utterly disappointing. So we decided to take the guesswork (and price) out of our sleeping options to save more dough for these splurges along the way.
Camped out in our Blaze at the base of a castle ruin called Aros.
2. Simplify Your Packing Life
Backcountry trips are a great excuse to carry only what you need — and it is always surprising how little we actually need to be comfortable, warm, and dry. For this trip, we brought along a Blaze 2P tent, Tango Duo Slim sleeping bag, and a pair of Tensor 20R sleeping pads — all in all, 4 lbs, 12 oz. worth of gear that packed easily in our panniers.
We weren’t overburdened by outfits we never wore and books we never read. Our gear combo was perfect for the trip: it kept us cozy and warm when the mercury dropped into the 40's, and kept us dry when we got to experience Scotland’s famous wet weather. Honestly, the only thing we were missing was an extra piece of rope for hanging our socks to dry. Pro tip for next time!
Most importantly, all our gear, clothing, equipment, and footwear for this two-week trip was able to be packed into two carry-on sized bags — including formal wear for a wedding!
On a bike path heading out of Fort William.
3. See What Others Miss When You Travel the Backroads
For us, minimal traffic means maximum smiles. There is nothing worse than getting stuck in a crowd — and there is no easier way to escape the tourist crowds then by getting off the beaten path and exploring a country’s lesser-known roads.
I believe a country’s identity is made up in large part by its natural landscape; in Scotland that means rolling hills, grazing cattle, and mountains that stretch to the sky. We wanted to take this in fully.
This takes a little more work, but is a lot more rewarding and adventurous. We made sure to keep a map handy at all times, and be conscious of our sense of direction, not wanting to be lost with no one to help!
Hiking up to the castle ruins.
4. Use Your Senses to the Fullest
The best way to experience a place deeply is to immerse yourself — all senses —into the experience. And being outside, breathing the air, hearing the sounds, seeing the flora and fauna of a new place gets you closer and deeper to what makes that place unique.
In Scotland we found new flowers, new trees, and new animal calls that delighted us. Birds in Scotland start their day early, probably due to the sun’s rise around 3:45 AM during the longest days of summer. It’s an authoritative fact that coffee also smelled better in Scotland, probably due to the early mornings prompted by the sun and birds!
My advice: keep your eyes peeled and your camera close for a chance to spot a rare creature you’ll never find close to home!
5. Enjoy New Stars in a New Location
One of the best things about traveling to a new place is seeing a new set of stars at night. In our case, we didn’t cross into a new hemisphere, but if you do, there are constellations that can’t be seen in one hemisphere which may be visible where you are. For us, we spent our quiet evenings stargazing before turning in early, setting our clocks to this new place’s natural rhythm.