Emily's first winter bikepacking adventure with her kids
Emily, our head guide, has had some epic adventures with her family over the years. This is her account of their first family bikepacking trip back in April 2018 when her children Jas and Harris were just 9 and 7yrs old.
It’s truly amazing what kids can do if they are motivated. Over the last year we have been pushing hard on the boundaries of what adventures ours can cope with. Last May they rode, pushed and dragged their bikes into Affric youth hostel and back for an overnight stay with a group of our running friends. Last summer they did a 9-hour day of walking over Pyrenean passes, and arrived back at the car singing. This year we have started running our local 4-mile trail loop as a family. No longer do we feel we need to do short, low-level, “child-friendly” activities. With careful planning, good logistics and investment in some key equipment for them, we are now able to take them on trips that are challenging to all of us. It’s very liberating!
At our January family “adventure planning conference” cycle camping was one of Harris’ most enthusiastic ideas. This year Easter eggs were, therefore, replaced with the slightly more expensive, but much more exciting gift, of handlebar and seat bags for Jasmine and Harris’s mountain bikes.
And so, with Spring nowhere near sprung as the Easter weekend approached, but with a fine, but cold, weather forecast for the Sunday, we were all itching to put our shiny new kit to the test. But where to go? Harris wanted to stay in a bothy. Andy wanted to do a 1-way trip. Jasmine didn’t care as long as it didn’t interfere with her getting an Easter egg on Sunday morning…
Jasmine in her element
With overnight temperatures of minus 7 forecast we decided that Harris was right, and that overnighting in a bothy would be the best option. Andy spent hours poring over routes into and out of every bothy he could think of within 100miles of home. Most were not fit to cycle into, others were closed, some had been burned down since he last saw them 30 years ago, making him feel very old!
So, with all this in mind we finally decided on our route.
Day one: Glenshee ski car park – Braemar – Linn of Dee – Bob Scott’s Bothy at Derry Lodge. This would be 17 miles with some lovely “freewheeling” for the kids on the run down from the ski centre car park into Braemar. More on this later…
Day two: Derry Lodge – Linn of Dee – White Bridge – through Glen Tilt to Blair Atholl. 25 miles with more lovely “freewheeling” down Glen Tilt.
brrrrr half way to Braemar
The British Army has a well-known saying, involving lots of words starting with P. It goes along the lines of if you Plan Properly you will avoid P**s Poor Performance. It doesn’t specifically mention embarrassment, frostbite or hypothermia, but I’m sure that’s also implied. So you may, therefore, think that two er..“highly competent” ex British Army officers would have taken the shiny new bike luggage out of the wrappers, and checked that all the kit fitted the bikes before departure. Yes. Well…
After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing to drop a car in Blair Atholl, our faithful old camper Yellow Hamish chugged up to Glenshee ski resort atop the highest public road in Britain and attempted to execute our amazing plan. And…
Glenshee car park ready to go
Harris’ bike was too small to fit any kind of seat bag. Jasmine’s just about fitted one. At the start… “We” ie my lovely husband, also forgot to pack the kids’ helmets. (It’s amazing how well an adult helmet can fit a 7 year old if he’s wearing 3 hats…). Three miles in Jasmine needed her seat lowering, making her seat pack rub on her back tyre…..much faffing and re-arranging of kit later her seat bag had to be removed and attached to the top of mine. The “freewheeling” miles into Braemar were anything but! The temperature was around zero degrees and there was a headwind, laced with snow... The kids were well wrapped up in their thermals, layers, waterproofs, buffs, ski gloves and snow boots. We battled our way down the road, eyes streaming in the icy wind. Harris’ face seemed frozen in place by the time we reached Braemar. A planned quick picnic lunch stop of oatcakes and cheese was replaced with a full-on café stop to defrost, drink hot chocolate and have a hot meal instead.
brrrrrrrr half way to Braemar
Warm and revived we carried on our way. Heading West we were now sheltered from the wind and things became much more enjoyable. Jasmine spotted a mountain hare; the road was quiet and the last 10km off-road was great cycling. Finally, the Bothy was spotted and smoke was coming out of the chimney. Excellent! Warmth and company.
This was going to be Jasmine and Harris’ first night in a bothy. We didn’t quite know what to expect as bothies can often be quite adult environments. However, having made the decision to leave the tents at home there was no other option. We were greeted by two walkers and it soon became apparent that they were fine with the kids. Phew, always a bit of a worry when you have a child like Harris, who despite having cycled 17 miles still has energy to burn. And was excitedly jumping up and down from the sleeping platform. One of the men told us he was sleeping in a tent outside because, he said, he snored very loudly. “Oh how thoughtful’ we all thought.
Jas writing the entry in the bothy book
In the morning the whole experience for the kids was still really exciting. Not even tainted by sleep deprivation caused by walker number three. A third man had arrived the night before and proceeded to keep the kids awake with some whisky fuelled bothy chat and then some monumental snoring. Unfortunately he hadn’t brought a tent with him. At 10am we were breakfasted, packed and ready to go. Temperatures overnight had been around minus 10 degrees, but the sky was blue and the heat from the sun would reach us soon.
snack stop - can't beat a boiled egg
The first 15km was easy cycling on good tracks. Then we came to our first river crossing. After a quick recce, Andy and I chose the best place to cross; took our trainers off and waded across with our bikes. The knee-deep water was so cold it made me feel physically sick. Our intention initially was to carry the kids across, but it became apparent very quickly that this was not a viable option without us both ending up submerged in the freezing meltwater. Oh flip! The kids were going to have to take their boots off and walk across themselves. This was really NOT COOL as the water was, literally, freezing. I headed back over the river at a shallower wider point, thinking that this might be easier for them, breaking ice with my legs and slipping on ice-covered rocks as I went - OK so that crossing point was DEFINITELY not any better than the original. “Right kids, you are going to have to be really really brave, the water is freezing. Colder than any you have ever been in. But you are brave, and we have to get you across” I said, blood dripping down my legs from cuts caused by the ice… So in they went, expecting cold water, but not really understanding how fast-flowing knee-deep water with chunks of ice floating in it would feel. (in case you’re wondering, it hurts. A lot.) They were both amazing, waded across in floods of tears, because crossing a freezing cold river when you are 7 and 9 in bare feet is absolutely not cool and no fun whatsoever. One emergency pack of Haribo was quickly consumed, lots of hugs and praise given, feet warmed, boots and socks on, and a discussion about Types of Fun ensued. It was decided that winter mountain-river crossing was most definitely Type 3 Fun, (now at home and looking back it has been upgraded to type 2 fun, but on the upper end of the scale…). It was at this point that Andy and I looked at each other and vocalised the nagging doubt of “have we bitten off more than the kids can chew??”, although going forward was pretty much the only option, so nothing else for it but to carry on. The next two river crossings, luckily, were much smaller and involved us pushing the kids across on their bikes whilst lifting their feet high to avoid the water.
river crossing number 2, no time for pictures of the first one!
Glen Tilt, is stunning and has a fantastic 10km stretch of single track. Lovely rocky single track through beautiful Scottish countryside, amazing, apart from the steep drop to the left and certain death at the bottom of the glen. Best to put potential catastrophic incidents going through my head to one side, trust in the kids’ ability, and believe that they would not end up at the bottom of the ravine. Jasmine rode on ahead, quite obviously in her element, loving being on her own, enjoying the technical challenge. Harris, on the other hand, was finding it tough. He was struggling with the constant on and off his bike to push the harder bits. Andy and I sometimes forget that he is still only 7. But he never once complained, just carried on. My little hero.
Then, finally, came some easy miles of mostly downhill. The kids were both smiling again, we zoomed down the hill to the car park at Bridge of Tilt, and our adventure was finished. Harris was beaming from ear to ear. I asked him why, he replied “that was so cool, I can’t believe we rode all that way and are here”. We stopped off in Pitlochry for well-deserved fish suppers, which were practically inhaled by the whole family. Home to plan our next adventure!