Planning a cycle tour in Scotland
There are some fabulous places to cycle in Scotland given its great scenery and culture. Some well-known routes include the North Coast 500, the Five Ferries route and the UK’s highest hill climb over the Bealach na Bà, near Applecross.
Having done some cycle touring around the west coast as well as Land’s End to John O’Groats I thought I’d share some hints and tips on planning a cycle tour including: finding a route, places to stay, bikes on trains and online resources. This is a slightly longer version of the guide to cycle touring in Scotland that I recently posted on the I know Scotland online tourism community, and is aimed at those new to either cycle touring or to visiting Scotland.
Cycle friendly routes
Sustrans is the UK’s national cycling charity and supports an increasing number of routes in the National Cycling Network (NCN). You can search for recognised routes on the Sustrans website – everything from long distance rides to easier, family-friendly rides – and search for them on an online map.
Of course, you don’t need to be restricted to recognised routes. Since population densities are much lower in Scotland than the rest of the UK and most other European countries most rural roads are relatively quiet. While there are sections of car-free cycle paths in the NCN, and lots of minor roads, even main roads (‘A roads’) away from larger towns are relatively cycle friendly.
Cycle friendly accommodation
Depending on your budget (and in order of decreasing cost), the main options are hotels, B&Bs, hostels, campsites, wild camping and free local hospitality. The VisitScotland website is a good place to start, particularly for hotels and B&Bs. There’s a good network of around 70 youth hostels and also an increasing number of independent hostels.
Campsites can vary in quality but generally offer washrooms, toilets and showers. Some have heated, ‘en suite’ washing facilities and sheltered cooking areas but the most basic (sometimes the best!) may just have a small wash room and an honesty box for payment. The best websites to find campsites include ScottishCamping.com, www.campsites.co.uk and www.pitchup.com.
Scottish land access legislation is among the most progressive in the world and wild camping is a convenient option for cycle touring across most of Scotland. However, this ‘right’ comes with ‘responsibilities’ – set out in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code – and so if you want to camp wild it’s important you adopt the ‘leave no trace’ principles, have read the Code and be aware of any local byelaws and the advice on lighting fires.
Finally, another free option is the Warm Showers international network, where local hosts offer to put up travellers either by giving them a bed, couch or place to camp.
Taking a bike on a train
Train operators all have slightly different arrangements regarding carrying bikes but all trains will have a small number of racks or spaces for bikes in one carriage or more (look for the bike sign on the carriage door). Most trains in Scotland are operated by Scotrail (currently Abellio has the franchise) and information on making reservations for bikes is available on their website. It’s worth remembering that most trains will only have 2 or 3 spaces for bikes so it’s advisable to make reservations as soon as you can to avoid disappointment. Further tips on taking your bike on the train can be found here.
Ordnance Survey maps cover the whole of the UK and give the best detailed mapping available at a range of scales. Some good free online mapping resources to plan routes include PlotaRoute and Cycle Streets as well as Google Maps of course. My personal favourite is ViewRanger, whose app allows maps to be downloaded to your smartphone and used offline.
Finally, there are many, many other sources of information on cycle touring in Scotland out there. Cycling UK’s discussion forum is the best place to get advice from other cyclists while both Lonely Planet and Cicerone publish good cycling guides.
Have you got any good tips for cycle touring in Scotland ? What I have missed ?