Wheels Spiels: Wild-camping Cycling Get Away

Wheel Spiels is a regular feature in which we ask members and non-members alike to share their stories of cycling. In this time Jon Phillip shares his late summer getaway that took him across Scotland on his bike.

I was really hoping to get away on a cycling trip this year but given the COVID-19 restrictions and limited leave it needed careful thought. A wild cycle-camping trip in Scotland was the answer: allowing me to pack an adventure into a short, Covid-secure (and also pretty cheap) break. 

I started at Inverness (normally a direct link from home in York). After an early start, and having wrestled with LNER’s less than satisfactory bike storage, I was cycling out of the small city by the early afternoon. Past the Culloden battlefield towards Nairn and through gorgeous woodland, I turned east towards my first night’s camp: Loch Lochindorb, where I was greeted with fabulous lochside views and even more spectacular midges! Repellent was the one thing I had forgotten, thinking I’d be safe in September… I was proved horribly wrong as my badly bitten legs demonstrated… 

With wild camps and hilly riding, the joy is that you can get to sleep early and be off promptly the following day – it makes the absolute most of the light. The following morning, a lovely descent to Carrbridge for provisions was followed by a minor road to Grantown-on-Spey. Then a spell on a – thankfully – quiet main road into and through the Cairngorms proper with a steep ups and downs towards Tomintoul. I spent my second night at the old Lecht mine-workings at around 700m and so mostly out of the reach of the insects!

A steep climb after breakfast took me up to the Lecht ski area and a magic view of a temperature inversion. Past Cock bridge and Corgarff Castle, I followed the lonely Military Road through beautiful grouse moorland towards Balmoral Castle and a gem of a minor road between Ballater and Aboyne – very attractive towns with glorious woodland and river views in between – and as a bonus red squirrels! (all the traffic uses the main A Road the other side of the River Dee so its pretty quiet). I left Deeside along more minor roads and had another steep climb up towards Cairn ‘O Mount. I was searching for a suitable pitch for the night when I spotted a quiet track that led me to a spot above the river in Glen Dye. It was a glorious evening and the perfect site.

Woken again to grouse calling (happily no answering guns). After my usual porridge breakfast, I had a steep climb but was rewarded by spectacular views across the Howe of the Mearns and to the sea! A long, long descent took me away from the Cairngorms, and then minor ‘lumpy’ roads west to Glen Clova – a picture-perfect Scottish glen with a lovely hotel at the end for a well-timed cuppa. I began my search for a camping spot which was a lovely feeling as the day visitors headed home…
After a final pack up and, with a bit of care, I found quiet roads into Dundee and was rewarded with the views of the sea and the spectacular V&A Museum whilst eating my remaining provisions before the train home.I spent around £90 on train fares (advance tickets) plus approximately £50 on camping food and some cafe stops. Wild camping means you get a lot of ‘bang for your buck’. Using a weekend and 3 days leave gave me 5 days riding and 4 unique wild camps and I felt tired but very exhilarated.

Total distance: Approx 235 miles (including some detours)
Total height gained: Around 2,800m
I was glad I had: A hybrid bike with low gears, waterproof panniers, warm sleeping bag and stove, couscous for evenings and porridge for cold starts, and an understanding family!

Thinking of doing something like this yourself?

If you’ve not cycle toured before start with a much lower daily distance than you’d normally do to allow plenty of time for stops or for headwinds/punctures especially so if camping to allow time to pack up etc. (Just because you can ride 40 miles in a day doesn’t mean you have to!)

Book your cycle tickets as early as possible – train space is limited.

Use Google Streetview to recce roads (if they are not part of the cycle network) and potential wild-camps (which are legal in Scotland if you follow the rules).

If you have a story you’d like to share with us please email YorkCycleCampaign@gmail.com. We welcome stories from anyone so long as its related to your own personal experience of cycling, whether positive or negative, and it doesn’t even have to be about York – we love hearing about other places.

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