A bothy is a communal chalet in the mountains. It is a shelter, free for all to use, that is mostly left unlocked. It is generally found in remote mountainous areas of Scotland, Northern England, Northern Ireland and Wales. Bikepacking is about getting out into the wild and exploring off the beaten track.
We decided to combine both and packed up our best mountain bikes for a wild weekend of adventure and to discover more about the humble bothy and how these simple, often little more than four stone walls and a roof can be like an oasis in the desert to the weary and weather-beaten adventure cyclist.
Our adventure would be set in the heart of the Cairngorm National Park, Scotland and would test our bikes, kit and friendships in the Cairngorms’ wild and challenging environment.
The team consisted of myself and friend Amy Shore. Experienced riders Cat Sutherland and Donald Shearer, Donald would be our ride leader and mountain guide for the route. Amy and I collected the bikes from Shand Cycles the previous day. Shand had kindly loaned us their wonderfully named Bahookies and Stooshie bikes that are hand built in Scotland. They would be the perfect machines for what lay ahead. We had arranged to meet Cat and Donald in Aviemore around midday and had a nice drive up from Edinburgh, discussing a variety of subjects, including the Beatles, camera settings and catching colds from toddlers.
Once we met up with Cat and Donald, we geared up, set the bikes up and headed for our starting point, Glenmore. It was meant to be an easy loop around the north of the main Cairngorm massif to ease us into the saddle. The plan was to spend the night in Ryvoan Bothy, a single-roomed bothy with a sleeping platform for four. We were hoping that we would be the only people staying the night.
Ryvoan Bothy was a fairly easy cycle up from Glenmore Lodge, with some steady climbs and downhill sections. It was pretty enjoyable for Amy and me, as we were only getting back in the saddle for the first time in a while. We stopped at the famous Green Lochan for some shots and realized that we had forgotten the firewood, which wasn’t ideal on a cold October night in the Scottish Highlands. After a brief debate, we decided that we would head to the bothy anyway and see if there was any wood left by its previous occupants. Unfortunately for me, there wasn’t and after emptying my bag, I decided to cycle back in the dark to get the firewood.
The cycle back up to the bothy was tough, with the climbs feeling longer in the dark and the weight of the wood making it a testing return journey. I was joined by a small herd of deer, keeping me company and randomly crossing my path, I was glad to see the candlelight glow from the bothy window as I finally made it back.
Once back at the bothy, Donald fueled the fire and we settled in with some hot food, a few drams around the fire and settled in for a cozy night.
The next morning, we set off for our main day of riding. After a fairly easy cycle on our first day, day two was looking like a more serious endeavor. Our route would cover a whole load of terrain from tarmac to gnarly single track, through the ancient Scots pines and a few tricky river crossings, only to finish at Feshie Bothy, Ruigh Aiteachain. We would then have a feast prepared by Pete Roobot of FireChef Cookware. Throughout the day, I kept hoping that I’d sent him to our intended bothy... “Time will tell”, I told myself for the hundredth time.
Once we got off the tarmac track that led us right into Glen Feshie, we could see down the glen. With a heavy flowing river as our only company, I began to wonder about the river crossings ahead. The first one was negotiated with ease as we cycled into the forest, going up and down some lovely trails, marveling at the ancient giant pines that lined both sides of the trail. When we entered a single track covered by a few roots here and there, Amy put her Endura helmet to a field test with a crash that brought her over the handlebars, resulting in a nice dent in the helmet, but thankfully, no serious injury.
The trail suddenly came to an abrupt end with a massive drop down to the river. Donald informed us that a bridge had once stood there, but it was swept away in a storm a few years back. “Some storm,” I thought to myself. On the steep and loose ground, we made it down to the river and picked our way across. Our feet were wet, but fortunately, we weren’t too cold as we scrambled to the other side, stopping for a warming dram and some photos.
As we continued down the glen, we could see that the weather was changing. The sweeping belts of rain and angry clouds were now in store for us. We focused on that delicious bowl of warming stew that awaited us at the bothy as we approached the next obstacle, our old river friend; the third crossing of the day. As we debated on the points of entry and exit, Donald had decided to impressively cycle over the obstacle.
Cat, Amy and I decided to push through it, using the bikes for balance. As the river hit knee level and the cold water nipped at my exposed skin, I was glad I decided to push – unlike Donald, I would have probably crashed and been seriously soaked. Our horse friend kept a watchful eye on us as we crossed the river and hit another climb up the side of the glen. Thankful for some tarmac as the rain started to fall, we realized that we had unnecessarily crossed the river. Our bothy was now on the other side of the river. The fourth river crossing of the day lay ahead.
As we searched for a suitable point, Cat commented on her seeing “a giant of a man, carrying what looked like a bouldering mat” on the other side of the river. “That must be Pete,” I announced with optimism! But the mystery man had now disappeared from view.
However, it wasn’t too long before we arrived at our destination. Another cyclist was outside and asked with curiosity, “are you the guys that the big man is cooking for?” I hurried inside to greet Pete and listen to his story of how he’d carried an incredible amount of ingredients and kit, including a massive cast iron pot, from the same starting location as ourselves.
We selected our sleeping points for the night in what can only be described as the lavish surroundings of the Feshie Bothy, the most comfortable and welcoming bothy I’d ever been in. I was looking forward to an evening of food and whisky.
Before such pleasures were to be ours, we needed to do more cycling. In front of us, there was a Munro, Mullach Clach a’Bhlair, the most westerly point in the Cairngorms, looking angry, surrounded by clouds and rain. We headed in its direction with the plan of summiting before supper. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. With the weather and time against us, we called it quits on one of the painfully steep climbs and headed back to the bothy. As it came into view, we could see the smoke billowing out the chimney and as we opened the door, we were greeted with the delightful smell of Pete’s cooking and an excitable welcome from Nelson the Dog who had arrived with his humans while we had been away.
Settled in the darkness with head torches and candles, we eagerly awaited our supper. Oh, was it worth the wait! Venison and dumpling stew with seasonal veg, followed by pancakes with a butterscotch and whisky sauce. What a feast to ease the tired limbs! With the fire roaring and an ample supply of firewood and whisky, we drank, chatted, laughed and listened to music into the early hours of the morning before settling down for a restful sleep.
We awoke early the next day feeling refreshed and ready for our final day in the saddle. We said goodbye to Pete and set off, our plan was to head to the higher ground and attempt to find a mythical shelter in the Cairngorms, the Secret Howff. Remarkably, its location is a closely guarded secret and as such, it is not marked on any map. It was going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack! However, with the weather closing in on us, zero visibility and a heavy frost, we decided to give it a miss and have a low-level ride back up Glen Feshie to the warmth of our vans and the long drive back to Edinburgh.
Amy and I said goodbye to Cat and Donald and our Biking the Bothies adventure came to an end. It was an unforgettable experience! We made some amazing memories, and we came home with a few bruises, aches and pains as souvenirs.
The Cairngorms National Park provides a unique and challenging environment. It's the UK’s largest National Park, a vast and remote area with constantly changing weather and conditions. We advise that you research your route and kit required carefully.