Wales on wheels: bikepacking for novices

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Take a bike, add a tent, hit the road: welcome to the pared-back pleasures of bikepacking. As the name might suggest, this is a multiday ride in which a cyclist pops camping kit into various bags on their bike frame. It’s a purist’s perfect bike adventure, and is fast becoming a popular way to explore the UK’s wildest corners on two wheels.

The (literal) nuts and bolts of planning for a bikepacking trip can seem a little intimidating to beginners like me who don’t know their panniers from their puncture kit. That’s where new travel company Roam Bikepacking comes in, offering self-guided camp-and-cycle trips on some of Wales’s most gravel-tastic mountain trails. The founder, Joe Armstrong, designed his two- to three-day itineraries to help would-be cyclists who don’t have the confidence (or the kit) to explore solo. Roam provides a bike prepacked with everything you need to camp, books pitches and makes reservations at nice pubs along the way. Then it gives you a map and sets you free – so all you have to do is pedal.

Roam offers choose-your-own-adventure weekends all over Wales to suit different fitness levels, and our trip is on the remote mountain passes of southern Snowdonia. Joe deems this route “challenging but rewarding”, and promises that we will clock up 100 miles over three days on hilly track, coast roads and as much gravel as our tyres can chew through.

Cregrennan Lakes.
A pitstop by Cregrennan Lakes. Photograph: Sian Lewis

I’ve brought my partner, Jake, who is as new to bikepacking as I am, but who is slightly better than me at mending punctures. We meet Joe in the Mid Wales town of Machynlleth on a windswept Friday morning, where he has set up two British-made Temple bikes, sporting tough gravel tyres and frames laden with bags. He walks us through our kit list: a two-person tent, squished into two bags attached to my bike wheels; a camping stove stored in Jake’s pannier; two packs strapped behind our seats, stuffed with clothes and dehydrated food. Bike tools are stashed on the handlebars, and a GPS device follows Roam Bikepacking’s preset Komoot routes, displaying a reassuringly big arrow for us to follow and chirping loudly whenever a turn is coming up.

We wobble away, getting used to the weight of our fully laden packhorses, and join the famed Sustrans Route 8 cycling trail, which snakes the length of Wales. The pretty slate village of Corris, with its hipster coffee shops, is our last brush with civilisation, and from here we head into wilder landscapes. It’s relaxed going until mile fifteen, when we hit gravel in a remote valley. At first, it’s satisfyingly crunchy, and our wheels roll without difficulty. Soon, though, we’re rumbling over bone-rattling rocks the size of cobblestones.

The payoff, once we hit the sweet smoothness of asphalt, is an eye-watering speedy descent that skirts around the beautiful jagged landscape in the foothills of Cader Idris, the highest mountain in southern Snowdonia, at 893 metres.

Thirty miles later, we climb ungracefully off the bikes at Bunkorama campsite, a backpacker-friendly camping field with far-reaching views across Cardigan Bay from its perch high above the town of Barmouth. The seaside pubs, we soon discover, do a fine line in hearty fare for weary cyclists, and we’re so tired after a pint that our sleeping bags feel like feather-soft beds.

Packing up the tent and cooking kit as perfectly as Joe did proves tricky the next morning, and we resort to a “shove it in and hope” method that would break Marie Kondo’s heart. Once we are packed, though, I find it very satisfying to be carrying everything I need on one bike. In a world full of endless choice, it’s liberating to wear the same clothes each morning, to eat the same (instant porridge) breakfast and then to get on the saddle and simply pedal my way to the end of the day.

A dip in a hidden river pool.
A dip in a hidden river pool. Photograph: Sian Lewis

We start the second leg along the mercifully flat Mawddach estuary, but soon we’re back on gravel in the Coed y Brenin forest. The wooded track is long and tilts ever upwards, the sun beats down and the smell of hot pine sap scents the air. Sunscreen, sweat and dust form a gritty film on my skin, but there’s a wonderful surprise waiting around one of the trail’s endless corners. Joe has marked our map with a big red X where treasure – in this case, a deep river pool – awaits, and we scramble down a hidden path to what might just be the most beautiful wild-swimming spot I’ve seen in Britain. A waterfall feeds a basin of clear water the colour of peridot. We peel off sweaty Lycra and plunge in.

The Welsh weather gods have smiled on us once more on our final morning, but ahead is the final challenge of our three-day stint. Hellfire Pass is an infamous 12-mile hill climb with a punishing 20% gradient in places. “It’s not as bad as the name makes it sound,” Joe had reassured us back on Friday as he traced the sharp contours of the pass on the map. It is bad. My legs beg for mercy as we climb each metre, glacially slowly. But like the rest of our route, the views, now of the rolling green Dyfi valley and far-off Cader Idris, are worth the work. We pause for a breather and watch a farmer and his two efficient sheepdogs give us a private show of One Man and His Dog; then we put the pedal to the metal, and it’s not long before we’re standing proudly at the top of the pass, looking down on the snaking road looping through the sunlit hills below.

We freewheel downhill back to Machynlleth along narrow lanes where bluebells and cow parsley jostle for space in the hedgerows, and as we cruise into town with 97 miles under our belts, I realise I don’t want the ride – and the simple, repetitive pleasures of packing, pedalling, unpacking and camping – to end. Roam’s beginner-friendly approach to bikepacking has worked its magic. By graduating from their school of rock I’ve gained confidence in the saddle, a knack for packing light and a new appreciation for padded shorts – and I’m raring to plan my own gravel-hopping Tour de Wales.

Roam Bikepacking offers two- and three-day self-guided circular bikepacking trips across Wales from £265pp, including all kit and camping accommodation. Roam’s three-day south Snowdonia camping itinerary costs £325pp