It's bikepacking without a tent. Genius!
Bothy biking is essentially bikepacking but without a tent. You use a bothy instead of a tent. Read on to get inspired to plan your own bothy trip.
What is a bothy?
A bothy is a basic shelter in a remote location that anyone can use free of charge. You can find them in all countries on the UK but they are most common in the highlands of Scotland.
Although they are free to use you can’t use them irresponsibly. Respect other users, leave the place as you find it and obey the toiletry practices. Follow the Bothy Code and you’ll be fine and won’t jeopardise their future status.
What you need to take
- A bike
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping mat
- Warm spare clothes (spare dry shoes are a Godsend)
- Portable stove and gas
- Food and drink
- Head torch
- Maps (backed up by a GPS if possible)
- A large hydration pack to carry it all (and/or some frame luggage)
- All your usual big-day-ride stuff
Read our Jamie’s bothy biking adventure…
One table, four rock-hard chairs, one bench and a stove. That’s it; the sole contents of the bothy we’re to spend the next 15 hours in, until the sunlight returns to this remote valley in the Cairngorms.
The place smells faintly of smoke and the furniture looks slightly scorched, as if someone’s tried to insert the pieces into the fire in an effort to stay warm. The sun has just dipped below the forested treeline and already it’s very cold, way below freezing.
I look round through the gloom at my three silent companions: all wet, tired and all called Andy. What have I let myself in for, I wonder.
Bothy biking was an adventure that began innocuously enough last December. Picking up the phone to our man in the north, photographer Andy McCandlish, I was cheerfully informed, “och aye, it’s a hoot, mon”.
OK, he didn’t actually say that; he said that biking into the hills before seeking shelter in a bothy, cooking your own food round the fire and sipping whisky would be great fun: “Try it tonight when you get home — turn the lights and heating off, set fire to the furniture and squat on your haunches eating raw food from your grubby fingers and you’ll get a taste for it.”
He actually did say that. I was instantly hooked, my flights booked for the land where the haggis roam.
Escape from the rat race
What better way to escape from all the nonsense of urban living that traps us into a salary, mortgage and dinner with the in-laws?
Who needs the aroma of finest Arabica beans, ground to perfection and piped with steam when they can smell the Scottish Highlands on a crisp winter morning; air so pure you nearly pass out trying to breathe it all in?
Who needs London nightlife when you can stand in perfect stillness and watch red kites soaring on thermal currents in the valley below you?
That was my dream, anyway. But heading north for the reality, I was starting to have doubts. A metropolitan southerner through and through, and the weather in usually-mild London now five degrees below, I was genuinely nervous that I might be found dead in my sleeping bag come the morning — the coroner wouldn’t even need to zip me into a body bag.
Too bad. I’d packed all the warm clothes I had and it was too late to turn back now anyway.
Thankfully though, coming off the flight at Glasgow airport, I already felt calmer — a bit like stepping off the plane on holiday, a wave of warm air hit me as the cabin doors opened and I realised Scotland was a balmy three degrees above zero. I was set.
Into the wee wild
Riding a bike with three wheels is surprisingly easy. Towing 50lb of kit in a Bob trailer up a mountain is unsurprisingly difficult.
Climbing up into the Cairngorms from the village of Kincraig, the trail heads upwards with unrelenting monotony, and soon the chat from the three Andys ceases as our heavy loads start to drag. Still, there’s an incredible amount of traction to be found from weighting your rear wheel, giving us tons of purchase on the muddy and slippy terrain.
We’ve left the hum of the A9 behind, crossing the river Spey and heading into the Monadhliath Mountains (say Mo-nah-lee-ath), a beautiful and wild stretch of terrain butting up against the western edge of the Cairngorms. It’s remote and much less visited than the mountains to the east or the built-up resort of Aviemore to the north, and the only people we’re likely to meet are the odd stalking party from the Alvie Estate or an angry gamekeeper.
A sign tacked onto a deer fence warns us it’s shooting season — enter at your own risk. It’s a nice reminder that this is no dude ranch; nothing here is for show and tourists are certainly in the minority, unless you’re up from London, blowing the tails off grouse or sniping at stags.
Every couple of miles we’re forced to stop and negotiate another of these deer fences, cramming the bikes and trailers through swing gates that really restrict our right to roam. Never mind; we get through by unhitching the trailers and wheeling them through, and as the sun comes out we’re treated to that most wonderful of winter scenarios — the temperature inversion.
“I’m a really sweaty rider”
It feels warmer the higher we climb, and soon Andy McKenna, our guide from mtb holiday company Go-Where Scotland, has stripped off his gloves. “I’m a really sweaty rider,” he says. He’d be down to his undercrackers if it wasn’t for the photos. We say a small prayer for the presence of lensman Andy McCandlish.
McKenna is a true mountain man, someone who refuses to touch the heating in his draughty cottage in Innerleithen even in the depths of winter (you can stay in the guest apartments he rents out, where, conversely, the heating is red hot).
He says after riding in Spain last winter and acclimatising to the roasting temperatures there, he came back to Scotland and felt the cold for the first time in his life.
The solution was to trudge up into the hills on an evening where the thermometer touched -20°C and spend the night in a snow hole. Cured.
Hame sweet hame
There’s nowhere near enough snow on this trip for a snow hole, so we have to make do with a bothy. Our original plan had been to head high into the hills, wade a couple of rivers where there had once been bridges, and check in to a high mountain hut. But a late start means the light is starting to go as we pass the first of two bothies within 100 metres of each other.
They remind me of bike sheds, with peeling green paint and rusting bolts holding the whole thing loosely together. The one we’ve got our eyes on has a veranda though, and an old iron stove — luxury items for a bothy, I’m told.
We rattle at the door but the handle turns uselessly. We rattle harder, slightly panicked, before walking round the side onto the veranda. I’m chuffed when I manage to jimmy the window open a crack, and wriggle through. Just as I hit the ground in a heap, McKenna walks calmly in through the back door, a smug look barely concealed by his beard. Bugger. Still, I bet he didn’t get anywhere near the sense of adventure I got.
Operation: Survive the Night
Cleats tapping on bare boards, we troop in and survey the scene in silence, before ‘Operation: Survive the Night’ commences.
The third Andy — Stanford — kneels respectfully down in front of the fire and begins carefully to arrange a wigwam of twigs around a scrap of newspaper, the tiny yellow flame nurtured like a can of precious Irn-Bru. He looks Ray Mears-esque, like he knows exactly what he’s doing (he should do; he’s an outdoor instructor for Glasgow City Council), so we ask if the furniture really needs to be this high? Surely we could saw a couple of inches off the bottom for firewood? No answer.
We slink away and busy ourselves with other essential tasks — dragging in dry, natural firewood and collecting water from the stream babbling 100 metres below us.
Back inside now, we can already feel the warmth of the fire as it fills the room with its smoke. Water boils on the stove and the smell of instant, self-heating all-day-breakfast is thoroughly enticing. The scrambled egg and toast (yes, toast) inside the pack is less seductive, but we’re too hungry to care and wolf it down, the view from the porch the perfect condiment.
The evening’s entertainment gets going — two of the Andys have brought along hipflasks, one with single malt whisky, the other a shoddy blend. I’m no whisky buff though and the only detectable difference is that one makes me shudder slightly less than the other. They both warm me from the inside though, and the banter flows all the better as we pass it along.
Andy McKenna recounts a story from his misspent youth when he nearly burnt his parents’ shed down, but lost all of his facial hair instead. He also tells us how material from a well-known brand of waterproof-but-breathable fabric goes up like a Christmas tree — he popped a knackered old pair of trousers into the stove just last week to try it out, he says proudly.
The fire dies down and as we run out of wood; none of us is prepared to donate our trousers, so we blow up our Thermarest mats and settle into down sleeping bags instead. I’m out like a light, the stench of smouldering all-day-breakfast packets acting like a calming Vaporub for my nostrils.
It’s Baltic when we wake up, not quite ice on the inside of the windows but it can’t be far off. It’s not that kind of damp cold you often get when you sleep in a tent, though, probably because the bothy has such great ventilation from windows that leave cracks big enough to get your hand through — the smog has thankfully cleared from the room too, and my eyes have stopped itching.
Strangely enough, I’m enjoying myself too — I’ve had the best night’s sleep in months and I’m itching to get going. Coffee and instant porridge gets everyone moving and soon enough, we’re packed up and ready to roll, having taken care of ‘business’ outside — you just dig a hole with the bothy-supplied shovel and then relax — and bagged up all our rubbish from inside, as per The Bothy Code.
We’re heading higher up the mountain this morning, very close to Munro height, so there’s plenty of snow as we slip and crunch our way up the inclines. Thankfully it’s frozen hard enough to ride on the crust so we make steady progress most of the time. We’re inspired too: the vapour trails from two jets high in the atmosphere cross an otherwise perfectly blue sky, forming a perfect saltire — my Scottish hosts take this as a good omen for a great day’s riding.
It’s a natural high for us, as we reach the top of the climb and look around this vast landscape. We’re 15 miles from the nearest track, which sounds pretty crummy in numbers but it’s about as remote as you get in the UK, and the tough terrain guarantees solitude.
Red kites are lazily looping round us, and a hare, resplendent in its white winter coat makes a break for it between the heather: these are the only other creatures sharing the landscape. We hang around taking pictures, trying to get the obligatory silhouette against an increasingly darkening sky before deciding it’s time to head back down — black clouds are gathering and the wind is starting to chill us.
Retracing our steps was never part of the plan, but we’ve run out of time so the loop we had mapped out is canned. I take the lead, my trailer bouncing and jumping around like Jeremy Clarkson towing a caravan.
Taking in the first switchback, I try to use the whole track, made wide by the snow filling every ditch and rut, but disaster strikes! What had been a hard frozen crust on the ride up has been busily melting in the sun, and my front wheel plunges two feet into a drift. I’m neatly ejected, flying five feet into another comfy ditch, leaving the bike and trailer jack-knifed off the trail.
I feel like a wally, but it’s a lesson learnt: I take the more sedate lines back until we’re below the snowline, my inner Clarkson thoroughly deflated.
Tow to tango
Towing trailers means we’re not tackling the most technical of singletrack, but none of us seems to mind. The addition of snow and ice and 50lb of unbraked load following us down lends enough spice to the ride. But there’s more to it than that.
It’s a kind of two-wheeled enjoyment I’ve been sorely lacking in my riding up until now — the pure joy of experiencing a fantastic and wild environment with friends. It’s a unique experience for me. I can easily imagine myself spending a week up here, leapfrogging from one bothy to the next as I cross the Highlands.
We could all easily afford it too — this has got to be the cheapest weekend riding getaway you could have. My flight costs aside, four people have spent two days riding for the price of a bottle of whisky, a dozen packets of instant grub and half a tank of diesel.
Back at the van I’m shattered, but on the ride back down I’ve been thinking about what makes this kind of adventure so appealing. I ‘get it’ now: It’s about putting ourselves in an uncomplicated situation.
If we can find enough dry firewood to keep us warm through the night, enough water to make gallons of tea and enough food to fill us up, we’re gloriously happy. And without any single one of those most basic of human wants we’d be desperately miserable, in as tough a mental place as any we’d experienced.
That’s what I felt in the Cairngorms — I no longer cared what I looked or smelt like, or where my phone was. Bliss.
Originally published back in 2012.