MUD IS THICKER THAN WATER: WHERE BIKES MEET BOATS
Words and photos by Huw Oliver
Huw Oliver and Annie Evans are highly experienced bikepackers, packrafters, and route finders often undertaking pursuits that require all three skillsets in abundance. Here, Huw gets into some of the planning details he utilizes when deciding how to travel through a chosen environment, what factors to consider, and what to pack.
Among the like-minded folk of the adventurous outdoor community, we all share a unifying passion for creative ways to see and experience this crazy, breathtaking planet of ours. Some of us hike, some ride, and others want to find the steepest line to climb or ski, but the motivations behind all of them share a common thread. Why would you climb, paddle, or hike somewhere when there’s a nice new road on the other side of the lake? Because the way that we get there matters; the “how” is just as valuable as the “where.”
Since you’re reading this, I suspect you already knew that, which is where we arrive at the glorious new horizons offered by bikerafting. When the trail peters out and the water beckons, inflate a boat and load up your bike. You can paddle out towards places you hadn’t realized you needed to visit!
Fat bikes and packrafts are like evolutionary cousins, and their common ancestor would have to have been from Alaska. The largest U.S. state is arguably the home of both modes of travel in their modern form, and you only have to take a look at some of the stupendous journeys being made in that part of the world using a combination of boat and bike in order to see their potential when paired together. Both of them excel on journeys that don’t rely on pre-existing trails and established routes, relying instead on vision and ambition.
As a mountain biker first and foremost, I was already driven by the scope for human-powered bike adventures when I was introduced to the idea of packrafting, and the unlikely inflatable boats instantly seemed like a missing puzzle piece when it came to adventurous route-finding. The northwest of Scotland is a patchwork quilt of water, rock, and dirt, where some trails disappear into a maze of waterways, and some are simply so old and neglected that taking to the water is the best way forward. The addition of a packraft completely changed my outlook on these challenging and rarely visited stretches of land.
By definition, “adventure” involves learning and growing along the way. Still, in this post I wanted to share some of the thoughts and considerations that come into planning one of my own recent trips, so that when you push off on your bikerafting adventure, you can be a little savvier than I was the first time around.
Where Should I Go Then?
Some imagination is going to be necessary. Bikerafting can be applied to a simple afternoon adventure up and downriver, riding up to a lake to go fishing or the aforementioned sufferfest wilderness traverses. It’s all out there to be discovered, and the limit really is you and your imagination. Where I find that bike and boat really complement each other is when two trail systems don’t quite link up, which is frequently the case in the northwest of Scotland. It is immensely satisfying to complete a route in which both water and land travel is integral.
In this case, we headed to the Knoydart Peninsula, which is on the mainland opposite the Isle of Skye. Despite not being an island, it has a reputation for being more remote than some of the islands, and the only village on the peninsula, Inverie, is accessed by boat rather than by road.
Knoydart is almost cut off from the mainland by two fjord-like sea lochs, Nevis and Hourn, with strong tidal flows that can be harnessed to speed you along in the right direction if you time it well. Further inland, a 1950s hydro scheme has raised the level a loch and cut off some of the old trails that ran through the glen, so the boats come in very handy again to traverse that section. With its broken sections of water and remote, unconnected trails, Knoydart is the epitome of a good time if you want to go bikerafting!
A few more pointers:
A packraft is incredibly light and packable. My lightweight kit (Alpacka Caribou, inflatable Baltic PFD, and Aquabound Whiskey paddle) weighs around 6.6 lb all in. However, that’s still an extra 6.6 lb minimum on top of your existing gear, and it’s going to have an effect on your setup and plans on the bike leg(s) of your journey. A daytrip? No big deal. On a longer expedition, it will take some more thought to work out where to carry that extra gear, and it will increase the physicality of the riding somewhat. I feel that a good approach is to aim to ride familiar trails as you find your bikerafting legs and leave a little leeway in terms of physicality and technicality to compensate for the extra weight of gear that’s coming with you.
Similarly, your loaded boat is not going to paddle like a canoe or whitewater kayak! While packrafts are incredibly stable, even experienced paddlers would be best advised to plan a flatwater boat journey for their first time around. You’ll quickly work out what feels comfortable for you, but moving water always demands respect.
So, you’ve got a sweet trail to ride and are planning on crossing the lake to access even more brown gold on the side. Awesome! When you’re planning, remember to factor in the time needed to get there. The ‘transformer’ process of breaking down and packing up takes some time and is worth practicing at home before you head out. A super short crossing of a river will still take at least half an hour from start to finish, and the first time I went bikerafting, the initial transition took me an hour! Mastering it and making it slick is very satisfying.
Water, Weather, and Wind
October is a challenging month to be out bikerafting here in Scotland. Rain often makes an appearance, but it’s the wind and dropping temperatures that influenced our decisions on this trip. Remember that packrafts are slower than kayaks and canoes and are more affected by the wind as almost all of its surface area (and that of the bike) sits above the waterline. Making headway in anything above force 3 on the Beaufort scale (12mph) is going to become seriously challenging. Autumnal gales had ruled out some of the options we had been considering for this trip, so we avoided open crossings and stuck closer to the coastline when we paddled. The forecast also told us that the wind (a westerly) would help us rather than hinder us on the first long paddling section.
As well as the wind, another factor is temperature. I’m envious of those folks that seem to be able to stay warm around water because I’m not one of them! I’ll happily go riding in colder weather, but I’m wary of the ability of cold water to put a damper on my enjoyment. With that in mind, we expected to be a little colder when we got off the water than we would in Summer and factored in a little more snacking and some extra warm gear. When paddling, it’s usually easy enough to stay warm, but it’s incredible how quickly that body heat disappears when you get out of the boat and spend 20 minutes packing up!
Not every factor is working against you. Our first paddling section on Loch Nevis passed through a narrowing, or caol, in which the strong equinoctial flood tide forces water over a rocky shelf at crazy speeds. We zoomed up that section at around ~6 mph, whereas if we had set off later in the morning without checking the tide table, it would have been impossible to paddle against the ebb tide.
Whether it’s fresh or saltwater, flat, or moving, it’s essential to have an understanding of how the water will behave and how it might work for or against you. In Greenland last year, we discovered that tidal eddies aren’t always small, and wondered why we were making no progress as we tried to paddle against one that was several kilometres long!
There’s a tricky balance to be struck here. No, the addition of a packraft isn’t monumental. Still, it adds up, and with it comes at least one extra warm top, if not insulated trousers as well (I would generally pack expecting temperatures below 10 degrees C (50f) at any time of the year in Scotland.) The temptation is always going to be to skimp on other gear, be that food, clothes, or sleeping gear, to offset the weight and bulk of that boat and make it easier to pack. Let’s break this down into the major gear groups that we took on this four-day trip. I won’t be exhaustive, but the following are areas that get some extra consideration on this sort of trip.
On a short, day trip, the simplest way to do things is grab your bike and put all of the boating gear in a rucksack. Easy. With overnight gear and food added, things get trickier. Dedicated bikepacking bags let you get that gear spread out over the bike, which is going to make that section of the journey a whole lot more pleasant. A raft rolled into a long, thin shape fits perfectly into a handlebar harness. Otherwise, my setup is the same as a regular bikepacking trip. I like to have options, though, and I will generally take my Porter 70 pack as a flexible storage space for light but bulky items. It’s light enough to go unnoticed when I don’t have much to put in it but large and comfortable enough to load up with most of the gear from my bike when pushing (which helps A LOT), or while in the boat.
I’ve mentioned it already, but don’t be tempted to go light on clothing. I’m a lot more likely to get soaked through when packrafting, even if it is on mellow water, and it’s very easy to underestimate the chilliness of being on and around water, especially if wind and spray are involved. I love the phrase “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best,” and will always pack on the assumption that I’m going to get soaked! With that in mind, an extra synthetic layer will come with me and be accessible while I’m on the water so that it can go over a PFD if necessary. My warm clothing for camp always gets packed into a drybag and usually goes inside the boat’s cargo fly to ensure it stays dry.
Small things, like neoprene socks and gloves, can be total game changers if things turn chilly and are more than worth the weight, so they also get added to my “paddling suit” on the packlist, alongside that synthetic insulation, waterproof jacket, trousers, and a PFD. That was the case in Knoydart, as the first afternoon saw heavy showers rolling off the Atlantic that had our boats filling with water and spray coming in. In fact, Knoydart is so wet and boggy (check out the rainfall stats for Mallaig) that I kept the neoprene socks on most of the time.
Almost any packraft will have the gear capacity to carry a bike, but some will handle it better than others. We were both using the Alpacka Caribou, which has a bulbous bow section to keep everything shipshape with extra weight loaded there, and a longer midsection to allow enough space to get a decent paddle stroke. Apart from a seat and grab handles, it has virtually no outfitting, which keeps it one of their lightest boats and the one I reach for immediately when going bikerafting. Low weight and high gear capacity will always be higher priorities than whitewater capability when bikes are involved. However, the Caribou is still more than capable of taking on mellower whitewater.
I realize that I’m talking about bikerafting here in fairly broad-brush terms. If you’re intrigued but want to know a little more detail on gear, planning, or some simple inspiration, I would recommend checking out the links below for a combination of all the above!
Huw Oliver is a Scottish educator, guide, and endurance athlete with the best attitude in the world. He's traveled the far reaches of the globe by bike, foot, and packraft, and has recently relocated to Canada.