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Trying out bikerafting

I’ve had Alpackas a couple of years now but I’ve been a bit slow about trying out bikerafting. I like pushbiking, walking or packrafting in the wilds and combining walking with paddling = packrafting to me and is well suited to northwest Scotland.
But add a bike and any off-roading becomes marginal; most of the time you’ll be pushing or carrying, especially with an overnight load. No MTB is really rideable on the footpaths up here (plus cycling on footpaths is bad form). Off the footpaths at times you can barely walk, let alone ride a bike.

I like the simplicity of walking with paddling – you can traverse both surfaces most anywhere you like. A pushbike requires rideable terrain and on an Alpacka gobbles up payload, space and buoyancy, requiring you to design routes that combine flat water with ridable terrain or even roads to make the most of the configuration. Then you got the faff of securing the bike reliably to the boat (or so I thought); the last thing you want mid-loch is 15 kilos of Cro-Mo steel slipping off and turning into an anchor just as the wind kicks up.

But let’s give it a try. The winds had backed down to a forecast 15mph (yesterday it was three times that) so we nipped out with the Gumotex Solar for a scoot around Loch Oscaig. I hadn’t tried it before, but with the front wheel off, strapping the bike on was actually pretty easy. The four Alpacka loops line up just right and two short straps plus the boat’s bow line were enough to secure the load without even a smear of chain grease. A loop of inner tube was handy to hook the handlebars around the top tube to stop one end dragging in the water. Once on the water, my arrangement was by chance correctly balanced, too.

My bike’s at the time was a single-speed Marin with hydraulic brakes so there were no cables to worry about rusting, but on the move it was clear the back wheel got in the way of a full stroke on the left, making for unbalanced paddling. I got used to it but for a longer stage it would be better removed, even if it leaves the chain flapping around. To me it’s a light bike, but the Marin probably weighs 30lbs, about the same as overnight loads I’ve carried. The good thing is, such a weight on the front of the Yak only improves the tracking by reducing yawing.

The wind got up while we were out and at the downwind end of the loch it got a little choppy with splash coming over the sides, but the Yak bobbed over it. Here the Mrs set off against the wind for the two clicks back to the boathouse, while I hopped out, unloaded, aired down, rolled up and rode back along the road. 

Having now tried it I’m a bit less sceptical about bikerafting. On the boat it was less of an encumbrance than I thought. I’m not sure it would work well up here in the Assynt without contriving a route, but maybe all packraft trips are contrived to a certain extent, and anyway the motorable roads here are very quiet.

I suppose the real advantage of a bike with a raft over walking is that, providing the terrain is amenable, greater distances can be covered off the water which extends your range. But combining a multi-day trip with a bike away from roads gets challenging. I’m thinking of something like the 2008 Lost Coast bikerafting trip in Alaska I read about a few years ago, which ran northwest from Yakutat. Roman Dial, Erik Parsons (from ’08) and a couple of other guys did a similar route last year, but heading southeast towards Glacier Bay this time. Check out their superb vid below or Roman’s blog post and pics. The vid doesn’t not show much rafting but look at the route maps: they sure put in the days on the water.