Aled BathChief Outdoor Officer for Stohk beer. When not behind the Stohk bar, Aled can often be found down a muddy track, writing and photographing gravel bike adventures. Prone to overpacking and taking the scenic route.
Back for 2022, Short Day Out is here to make the most of the shortest daylight hours of the year. Between 16-21 December, we want to see as many adventure stories as possible using #ShortDayOut.
To get in the mood for this year’s event, Founder of the outdoor beer company Stohk, Aled Bath hooked up with his friends John and Jonathan from Wild Cycles, along with Warren and Esther who helped dream-up Raiders Gravel & Galloway Cycling.The plan was to ride gravel bikes out along what was fabled to be one of the longest gravel roads in the UK out into the wilds of Scotland for a night in a bothy, with rumours of a possible sighting of the Northern Lights. Aled recounts the story and offers up an invitation to give it a go and a few tips for planning your own Bothy Raid.
We awoke to a frost and shards of golden light piercing through the trees. Between us and the bothy was about 50km off-road and 1,000m of climbing which we’d do on heavily laden bikes. The daylight is in short supply at this time of year so we knew that if we were to get there in daylight, we needed to hit the road.
After a final pack down and what seems to be mandatory faffing we rolled out of Gatehouse of Fleet just after 9am. We had met up with the others and picked up warm Kilmarnock Bridies to stuff into our jerseys for some short lived warmth and future sustenance. On the long gentle climb up towards the forest we quickly gain altitude and despite the warmth in my pocket I can feel the temperature descending further.
There are no Munros (official mountains over 914m) in this part of Scotland but you do get Donalds (over 610m) and Corbetts (over 762m). Our routeheaded north through the rolling hills towards the Merrick, the highest hill in southern Scotland at 843m.
With the low winter sun, the skyline was a rich palette of golden browns glowing and contrasting against the emerald forest. Heading further up along smooth gravel tracks into the forest park, we passed deep ink blue lochs, rivers and streams and a beautiful camping spot at Otter Pools.
Taking full advantage of the cake and coffee at the cafe on Clatteringshaws Loch we then headed west following the River Dee, under the watchful eyes of kites and stags. As we rolled along the shores of Loch Dee the rain started. It was forecast to be heavy overnight, so we made an effort to get a shift on with the light already fading.
Leaving the smooth gravel, we had a section of hike-a-bike up to the bothy, perched on the side of the hill above the loch. A bunch of hikers had beaten us to it but in the spirit of camaraderie we were welcomed in and shared hot coffee and Warren’s birthday cake.
We then headed west following the River Dee, under the watchful eyes of kites and stags
In the spirit of camaraderie we were welcomed in and shared hot coffee and Warren’s birthday cake
With the storm starting to blow in, we got to work cutting wood for the fire, before hunkering down for the night. I was glad we weren’t bivvying. Under the flickering light of candles, with the rain beating down outside, we told stories over beers and several rounds of Bananagrams, before whisky and sea shanties flowed late into the night until we were all ready to collapse into the warmth of our sleeping bags around the fire.
I was woken in the middle of the night by the sound of John rustling around. It sounded like the rain had finally stopped and through the window could I maybe see a few stars flickering behind swirling clouds? I rolled over and drifted back off to sleep.
Waking in the morning John was buzzing – having woken he stepped outside for nature’s call. And do you know what he saw? You’ve guessed it – the Northern Lights. The icing on the cake.
We rolled back south with the heavy clouds hugging the tops of the hills, occasionally breaking up the dappled sunlight. The landscape glowed a rich palette of bronze and gold. As we made our way nearer to town, I felt like I could ride on this road forever and never tire of the beauty around us. Maybe it was the magic of the light or perhaps it was just the call of the wild.
Do It Yourself
Unplug to recharge
If you want to unplug and recharge, there is nothing better than heading off-grid on your bike to a mountain bothy. No phones, no power, no running water. Less is most definitely more. Try it – you’ll come back feeling like a much better person with memories that will last a lifetime and and if you’re lucky some new friends too.
New trails make new tales
When planning your bikepacking trip to a bothy, a little extra local knowledge will go a long way to helping you score a great bothy night. We hooked up with local riders at The Frothy Bike Co and Scottish bikepacking legend and author of the author of Scottish Gravel Rides Ed Shoote to gather some tips over a few beers the night before our ride. Ed’s advice was to bear in mind that the Scottish landscape is constantly changing due to things such as forestry and wind farm development, which can mean older paper maps can be a bit unreliable for plotting bikepacking routes.
Use an open-source mapping platform to ensure you have the most up-to-date maps and route info. We used komoot to plot our route, as well as getting advice from local gravel gurus Galloway Cycling.
Best served shared
The Mountain Bothy Association is a charity which maintains around 100 bothies across Scotland, England and Wales. For all those who seek wild and remote places, this is a great place to start your planning.
You can’t book a bothy so be prepared for there being no room in the inn. Bothies are popular with hikers and mountaineers and expect to find a crowd in the good ones.
It’s recommended you keep your group as small as possible as they’re usually pretty small. And if you’ve biked in a long way you need a plan B and perhaps even a C in case there is no room. But on the whole, people are happy to cram in – that’s part of the fun. As soon as you’ve shared a few beers, maybe a dram or two and got the games out, you’ll quickly become good friends! But do think about packing a bivvy or a tarp as a back-up.
As we were heading out near the shortest day of the year, we also took our lights so that if we needed to we could bail and head back to the pub!
We stayed in the White Laggan Bothy (above) and although they’ve finished the roof since this photo it hasn’t changed much over centuries. Old image courtesy of the Mountain Bothy Association
Bothies can vary massively and you need to be prepared to adapt to what you find. The buildings are often old shepherds or mountain huts and it’s a bit like stepping back in time – they’re super basic and how well they’re maintained varies massively, so it pays to be pretty self-sufficient.
We planned to make a night of it so I packed cooking gear, candles, firelighters and a water filter. With all that extra stuff I needed to save some weight and space by making some smart clothing and sleeping choices. I combined Universal Colours merino cycling gear with an extra base layer, beanie and their amazing packable insulated jacket, topped up with extra insulation from my cold defying Sea2Summit Spark 2 Summer bag and a Thermarest NeoAir.
Even though it got down near freezing, with the log fire burning I was toasty! This set-up all packs down so small it meant I had plenty of room left in my Apidura Backcountry bags for a stash for food, a few Stohk pale ales and an amazing bottle of local Man O’Swords single malt for extra warmth.
At this time of year you may well encounter some boggy hike-a-bike too, so waterproof socks make a lot of sense and of course no self-respecting bikepacker should leave home without their foam birkies strapped on, which are perfect for bothy life.
Leave only laughter
The MBA has a simple code aimed at keeping things nice. The easiest way to sum up the code is ‘do as you would be done by’ and ‘leave no trace’.
Quiet is the new loud
Bothies are usually pretty remote and if you’re bikepacking a long distance it could be a long walk home if you have an issue. One of the joys of Galloway is the sense of remote wilderness – very few people live there. The population density is less than 10% of our backyard, the Chilterns (which is hardly crowded), the phone signal is patchy at best, and you’re 8 times more likely to run into a sheep than another person.
The bothy is reached by cycling along what is possibly the longest gravel road in the UK, starting out near Gatehouse of Fleet. The gravel round here is notorious for shredding tyres, particularly in winter. 40mm+ ‘robust’ tubeless tyres are essential. Make sure you also have tyre repair kits, spare sealant, tubes and other spares as there’s a high likelihood you might need all of them!
The buildings are often old shepherds or mountain huts and it’s a bit like stepping back in time
Outside beats inside. Always
Perhaps the most unique and amazing part of a bothy experience is the night sky. We chose Galloway Forest Park because it is the largest in the UK (774 square kilometres metres to be precise) and so remote it is an official Dark Sky Park. So before you hit the sack, head outside to take it all in. Use the AuroraWatch app to make sure you don’t miss an opportunity to see the Northern Lights.
Sign-Up. Get Out.
Between 16-21 December, we want to see as many adventure stories as possible from the shortest days of the year.
By using the hashtag #ShortDayOut, you could also win some a bunch of awesome prizes from our event partners. Click here to find out more including details of how to enter.