Bikepacking – basically off-road cycle touring – has seen a surge of popularity thanks to lighter equipment and round-the-world record breaking adventurers like Markus Stitz, as Gayle discovers…
The light was fading, the air becoming distinctly cooler as Markus Stitz rode his bike down to the head of remote Loch Ossian.
Clouds hung low in the sky, truncating the tops of Munros he had set eyes on earlier in the day, and the smell of wood smoke drifted across the wilderness, spurring him on towards the hostel’s flickering light.
“It was dark when I arrived and I was hungry and tired, but relaxed and happy,” recalls Markus.
“I knew I had a warm place to stay and a nice bottle of wine waiting in my bags.”
This was one of the most memorable moments in Markus’s experience of “bikepacking” – a form of off-road, adventure cycling with as little strapped to the bike as possible.
On this occasion, he had cycled across the Road to the Isles, a wild and rugged landscape in the West Highlands, during a weekend in March.
His journey had begun when he had boarded the train with his bike in Edinburgh and alighted at Pitlochry.
He then cycled – complete with all his gear, including food, drink, sleeping bag and clothing – all the way to the hostel, on the banks of the glassy loch.
“The trip really was bikepacking at its finest,” muses Markus, 39.
“I was enjoying the here and now and wasn’t thinking about what was ahead. As I rode, daylight faded, the light changing from light grey to dark blue as I came to the last descent, with Loch Ossian in the distance.
“I could imagine the smell of freshly cut wood, the crackling of an open fire. And then I saw the hostel and really enjoyed almost ‘flying’ down the rough gravel track. It was magic.”
Markus, who hails from Germany, moved to Edinburgh in 2009 having fallen in love with the city during the world-famous festival.
He made his very first bikepacking trip in 2014 – the self-supported Highland Trail route – when the discipline was relatively unknown and, he says, “underground”.
He tackled route, which explores 550 miles of some of the most remote, inhospitable terrain in the Scottish Highlands, on a singlespeed bike.
“It was brutal!” he says. “There were steep climbs and ‘hike-a-bike’ sections, where, you guessed it, I had to walk with my bike. But I absolutely loved it and couldn’t wait to plan my next adventure.”
He didn’t wait long. The following year, in 2015, Markus set off to become the first person to bikepack round the world on a singlespeed bike – 21,186 miles through 26 countries – all in one gear!
Back in Scotland, he continued to push his body to its limits with epic bikepacking trips.
Surprisingly, Markus, who owns eight bikes, says he was never a sporty child.
“I did the odd cycle but I was never in any clubs. I spent the first year of university eating too much and then in second year, I started running and gradually got into long distance cycling.”
In 2016, realising bikepacking could – and indeed should – become a bigger, more accessible sport in Scotland, Markus founded his company Bikepacking Scotland.
This allowed him to market the sport via tourism organisations and create new bikepacking and cycling routes across Scotland, all of which would be free to access online and ride.
These included the Capital Trail, the Central Belter (Scotland’s longest off-road bikepacking trail), Fife Coastal Trail, Go East Lothian Trail, West Highland Rover, West Island Trail, Reiver Raid, and the Wild About Argyll Trail.
“Scotland is great for biking – the opportunities are limitless,” he says.
“It’s got hills, mountains, stunning coastal tracks and rolling countryside. What better country to ride in?”
For those new to bikepacking, Markus recommends tackling the Cateran Trail, “but starting and finishing in Alyth as the section from Blairgowrie to Bridge of Cally has a lot of gates that are not currently bike-friendly”.
Otherwise, there are loops all over the Angus Glens, and in Fife, Markus is a big fan of the Fife Coastal Path.
A weekend in April saw Markus take the train to Dundee, cycle to Glen Doll Ranger Centre where he left his bike.
He then ran part of Jock’s Road, camped up high, and then the next morning walked over Cairn Bannoch and Broad Cairn and back to the Ranger Centre.
He picked up his bike and then cycled over the Minister’s Path to Glen Prosen and over Backwater reservoir to Alyth and Dunkeld.
“I’m training for The Type 2 Fun Run, an 85km ultra race in the Highlands in August so this trip was training that combined cycling and hill running!” he explains. This man is made of tough stuff!
The basic kit required for the beginner bikepacker? Markus suggests keeping things simple.
“You need stuff to fix the bike and yourself, stuff to keep you warm and dry (on and off the bike), and stuff to keep you fed. Keep things as light as possible. You might have to lift the bike over gates. The less you take, the more enjoyment you’ll have but take enough to be safe.
“You also need communication tools if things don’t go to plan. That can be a phone or a satellite tracker.”
There are no hard and fast rules with bikepacking – you can stay wherever you want, whether that be in a bivvy, tent, bothy, hostel, bunkhouse or even a B&B.
Ultimately, Markus is passionate about promoting sustainable tourism experiences in Scotland that won’t wreck the beauty of our country.
“Bikepacking is exactly that for me – a great way of travelling at a decent speed but being able to stop, look and listen as much as possible without damaging the environment,” he reflects.
“While cycle touring does in many ways provide the same experience, bikepacking takes you into places a conventional touring bike wouldn’t be able to reach, and also forces people to think about how much stuff they take, and focus on what is really necessary.
“Living in the here and now, taking very little, and spending money on experiences like local food, visiting great historical monuments and talking to local people – that for me is the future of tourism in Scotland. And bikepacking is all of that. That’s why I’m so passionate about promoting it.”
Having travelled and cycled extensively in Norway and South America in 2018, Markus is keen to make 2019 all about Scotland in a bid to offset his carbon footprint.
He even has a dynamo on a bike which enables him to charge batteries and electronic devices, so he can go off-grid.
When it comes to racing, Markus isn’t a big fan, preferring to ride solo, or at least with like-minded people, at a pace which allows enjoyment of the route’s beauty.
“Mass groups do nothing for me. I prefer to enjoy the solitude of the mountains, lonely roads and tracks,” he says.
“But I do want to inspire people to get out there and enjoy similar adventures. It would be shame not to share that.
“I’m an adventurer at heart. But for me, journeys are more about connecting with the places I go through than the physical challenge.
“Certainly, adventure cycling has given me the life I love, with many superb friends across the globe.”
Markus spends a great deal of time bikepacking across Tayside and Fife, and is keen for more people to follow in his footsteps.
Put off by the idea that kit is expensive and you need to be mega-fit to bikepack? He says this is not the case at all.
“You can pick up a decent bike for a few hundred pounds or less and while it helps to have state-of-the-art, light equipment, you definitely don’t have to spend a fortune,” he says.
“The main thing is to get out and explore, whether for a day, a week or longer.
“There are so many places you can access on a bike, especially one that’s light, and because you make better progress than walking, you cover a lot of ground.
“There’s so much beauty and history in Tayside and Fife – so much to be discovered.
“Being out in the wilderness and reconnecting with nature provides you with a fresh perspective.
“And the good thing about the east of Scotland is that the midges are not as bad as they are on the west coast – a definite advantage! Check out some of the bikepacking trails, get inspired and get hooked!”
New to bikepacking? The best source for advice is the Bikepacking Scotland Facebook page. Also check out Markus’s site at bikepackingscotland.com which has bikepacking trails ranging from day and weekend trips, right up to longer options like the 407-mile Wild About Argyll Trail. Some trips are created in partnership with Hostelling Scotland and Scotrail, combining scenic train journeys and comfortable accommodation with fantastic bike rides. Markus gives regular talks on his exploits. For more details, see markusstitz.com/talks