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North Highlands - Plan for Adventure

The North Highlands is usually on most mountain bikers' bucket list as a must-visit destination. As we roll into summer many riders will be planning rides and exploring new areas. As a rider its important we are able to understand the trails we plan to ride and prepare accordingly. Here we offer inspiration to visit the area and advice to keep you safe.

North Highlands Credit Scotty Laughland

We were delighted to be able to make this suite of films with Scotty, to showcase the spectacular riding across Scotland. In this film, we focus on the breadth of riding and adventure available across the North Highlands - have a watch and click on our more in-depth preview of the riding across the North Highlands in our Ride Guide. Many thanks to Ella Conolly for getting involved too!

So you are planning a day out on the bike. How you plan probably depends on a few different factors - your experience and capabilities, how well you know the area and its trails, who is in your riding group, weather conditions, time of the year, and more. Coming into summer many riders will be venturing further away from home, maybe a trip to more remote areas like the North Highlands - a few laps of Golspie on the east coast or a big day out in Torridon on the west coast.

Whilst Golspie is a trail centre, it is a long climb onto Ben Bhraggie - a fairly exposed hill top, followed by a very rough and rocky decent. Compared to a trail centre like Glentress, it is is very quiet, and the terrain and exposure to the elements and consequent risk is probably higher. Whilst the east coast can be quite dry, it does has a cold wind, especially given Golspie's location in the far north.

The other option, Torridon, is a completely different environment - On the west coast is can often be wet and windy, the hills are big and uncompromising, their is very little shelter and trails lead into remote and high ground, on very rough and rocky ground. The routes are also not managed for mountain biking - don't expect way markers and trails that flow.

Golspie lower

Golspie is like a mini mountain experience!

Having started to think about where you want to ride, and the conditions you expect, it's time to get more specific. #

Focus in on a route you want to ride. Looking at it on a proper map will help illustrate the terrain - how steep the ground is, how it undulates up and down, whether there are water crossings or flat areas that are likely to be boggy.

Reports and pictures can also help build up your understanding of the trails and the ground, and if you can combine these with maps you can really start to build up a picture of what to expect.

Once you have a route in mind and know what it will involve, look at your maps again for alternative routes you can have ready if you need to change plans. These could be completely different routes, or options to detour if you end up taking longer than expected, the weather changes or you encounter some problems.

Do these plans match up with your groups capabilities, and will you all enjoy the experience?

If you are not confident in remote terrain, are not confident in your navigational skills, or just want to get the best out of your ride in more remote terrain, then hiring a professional guide is a great way to go.

A good guide will take the stress out of planning your ride, make sure you are accessing the countryside responsibly and keep you safe, allowing you to focus on enjoying the trails!

DM Bin S North Highlands 25 1

Based on your expectations of the route and the variables you will need to manage on your ride, its time to start preparing.

A big hard day out on the bike in rough and demanding terrain will put strain on both bike and body. Make sure your bike is working well and you don't start the ride with a potential problem. Similarly, consider your fitness, capabilities and whether you are carrying any injuries that could limit your potential to complete your route.

Decisions on what to pack is always a compromise. Do you carry everything you might need, or try to trim it back to something more minimal. Carrying a big bag means you are more likely to deal with any situation, but its likely you will travel more slowly and be less agile. So what should you carry?

Big bag

Lots of stuff to squeeze into a bag

If you decide to take the more well-prepared and cautious approach you will end up with a relatively big and heavy bag. You can keep adding more to your bag but it becomes a compromise - eventually, you will need to make decisions on what to leave out - food, spare clothes, emergency supplies, tools?

A bag around 30 litres is probably a good size for a long ride into remote terrain, or if you are responsible for a group. It is big enough to carry a reasonable amount of kit and food, while still being able to enjoy riding. What you pack it with depends on what you have available, what size and weight it is, and what conditions you expect. The picture above is only a guide - how you pack is personal and comes with experience.

Waterproof jacket, warm insulating gillet, spare gloves - light summer and warmer ones don't take up much space but give options to be comfortable. You will have checked the weather and have an idea what clothes you may need.

Planning and route-finding - map compass. A phone is good too, and remember to take a charger pack!

Tools to cope with every eventuality - decent pump, tubes, tyre levers, useable multi-tool. Separate tools are much easier to use, so consider things like an adjustable spanner, spoke key, pliers if you need to get more resourceful with repairs. Stuff like cable ties and tape can help bodge a repair.

Spares - spare brake pads, chain link, spokes, a few washers, bolts, bits and bobs depending on your bike. Rear mech hanger. The bag in the photo above also has a singlespeed tensioner that can be handy to replace a broken rear mech.

Emergency supplies - a bothy bag, foil blanket, first aid kit including things that are relevant to the sorts of injuries we might have on bikes - lots of wipes to clean cuts, and sterile dressings to cover them. The picture also includes things like hand warmers (can really improve someone's mood and capability if they get very cold hands!) and a SAMS splint and shears that can help with common bike injuries. Head torch and spare batteries for any devices you have.

Food and drink - spare water and some proper food you enjoy, plus some gels for when things become a struggle.

What you decide to take or leave depends on making good decisions and will always be a compromise. You cant take everything. Think about your route and the people you are riding with. A well-packed bag for a long ride is likely to weigh 6-8kg, so potentially 10% of your body weight and is likely to feel like a bit of a pendulum on your back as it swings around - this can feel really cumbersome but once you get used to it shouldn't really affect how you ride.


Riding a bike is just more fun and more efficient the less you have to carry. With experience, you can start to slim down your pack and understand what you are likely to need. The trails you ride, the weather and your group will all affect this. If you know the trails, the weather is good, you carry all you need spread between your group, and trust the riding skills, fitness and resilience of your group you can go lighter.

Modern bikes with in-frame storage also help reduce pack size - stashing spares and snacks in your down tube means you could get away with a smaller and lighter bag.

Having trust in your bike allows you to pack light. Is your bike solid and working well? Do you trust your tyres not to let you down? If you do have a problem, you might need to be prepared to just walk out rather than fix it (this may be a safer option - just walk down quickly rather than struggle to fix a bike in a difficult environment with compromised tools and spares.

The picture above is a pretty extreme example of a lightweight bag, but totally appropriate if you use your judgement to decide it will allow you to complete your ride in safety.

Small bum bag.

Bottle of water.

Enough snacks for a shorter, faster ride our ride.

Tiny light weight multi tool - not much use but it might help, and you trust your bike anyway!

Lightweight softshell jacket, summer gloves and glasses.

Phone for navigation and emergencies.

DM Bin S North Highlands 3

'Right to Roam' is a well-used term that many people associate with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. What is less easy to understand is the right to responsible access.

The access code is very open to interpretation which allows it to be relevant in different situations. What this means is that as access takers, we need to be able to understand what is responsible in different situations. For example, mountain biking is so well established and understood in the Tweed Valley, but in places like the Cairngorms or the North Highlands as riders we should be aware that we are moving into areas with different cultures, sensitivities and user groups.

By integrating sensitively into these environments we can maintain positive relationships between mountain bikers and others, whether other outdoor enthusiasts, land managers, or local communities.

For more information on everything covered here, have a look at our Do The Ride Thing access guidance, particularly the 'into the wild' section on riding in more remote areas.

Do The Ride Thing

Good practice guidance and advise on how to behave when riding in Scotland’s outdoor spaces.

Learn more

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Do The Ride Thing

Good practice guidance and advise on how to behave when riding in Scotland’s outdoor spaces.

Learn more