The North Coast 500 are about 500 miles of road – a lot of it single track – with some of the most breathtaking landscapes in Britain. The circuit starts in Inverness to the west, winds itself along the west coast up north and then along the rugged north coast back down to Inverness full circle.
And besides the amazing views of mountains, coastlines and sunsets there’s countless waterfalls, castles, ruins and distilleries to discover.
As it is a road trip by design, many people choose to do this route by car. But because it is so remote – even in summer there aren’t too many people about. More often than not you will find yourself in the middle of nowhere with nothing far and wide to see but the outlandish raw rugged landscape of the highlands or green lush forests full of life. You are very likely to cross paths with deer, rabbits, otters and a wide range of bird species, including cute puffins around the north coast!
But these prospects seemed not enticing enough for us a few months ago and we wanted to truly immerse ourselves into the Scottish Highlands: having discovered that bikepacking or cycletouring had become a thing, we were eager to go on our very own first adventure! Needles to say at the time we hadn’t quite considered the scope of our endeavour…
So here goes my top tips if you would like to tackle this beautiful and exhilarating trip yourself!
1# Book your accommodation in advance
Although we weren’t anywhere near fit enough yet to tackle the North Coast 500, accomodation that troubled us most. The infamous bad Scottish weather makes planning days out in advance a game of roulette. We had decided against camping on our very first trip. The plan was to take babysteps towards true bikepacking. The route seemed challenging and we wanted to do it in 9 days. That’s why we had to book B&B/Bunkhouses/Hotels very far in advance. From previous experience we knew that accommodation in the highlands is booked up REALLY fast. Even months in advance! We were reminded by this fact when I tried to book a bunkhouse instead of the nearby hotel and it had already been fully booked 6 months before! Needles to say this led to panic-booking all our accommodation in the same evening..
So be aware if you are planning this trip – by bike or by car make sure to book well in advance to have a choice in where you are going to stay!
Bonus: if you are arriving in Inverness by train make sure to book the tickets cheaply 8-12 weeks in advance when they become available including a bicycle reservation. The bicycle reservation is free but mandatory to bring your bike (Glasgow-Inverness).
2# Choose your travel time wisely
The issue with having to book your accomodation in advance is truly the Scottish weather. We strategically decided to go for the end of May, as May often has the best weather here. But who am I kidding both pooring rain or even snow could have been possible. We lucked out and the weather we had could have not been much better even considering the mini-hailstorm – but hey it all makes for a good adventure story! Another good time to visit Scotland is end of April and also September It may be a little cooler but perhaps less chance of rain compared to the middle of summer. And don’t forget the midges! Tiny little beasts that come out of the woodwork in the summer months to make life hellish.
The motto: Always cycle faster than a midge can fly.
3# Don’t use Google maps to check your daily elevation gain
Although google maps is an invaluable tool, I must say it vastly underestimated the elevation. I had pre-planned the route in detail so we knew what we had to cycle daily. Interestingly on route, using Strava and Maps we realised quickly that our daily elevation gain was higher that expected. In total we cycled up 10.500 m whereas Google maps had told me it was ‘only’ going to be just under 8000 m. This was a bit of a shock at first, but on the road all I focused on was tackling and conquering each hill and was filled with awe and satisfaction on breathtaking descents!
So when planning this trip use apps such as to decide on how much you want to cycle everyday to not be faced with more than you expect!
4# Pack as light as possible
Carefully consider what you really NEED on your trip. Every gram counts when you are cycling and it might be a toss up between more comfort and camera gear. Think about clothing, food, hydration, emergencies, electronics and hygiene, bike repairs. I will write a post on the specific details of what we took with us soon.
5# The roads are probably better than you think
This is something I was a little worried about. On few short cycling trips in the past the roads were pretty rough sometimes. 9 days on cracked roads did not sound like a whole lot of fun to me. Especially the single-track roads though seemed as they had been refurbished in just the last couple of years. Many of them were a delight to cycle on! There was just a few stretches of main roads that were quite rough. This includes a stretch just after Kylesku and a large part between Melvich and Wick. The rest was very much acceptable and it was a pleasant surprise to see signs that most of the refurbished single track roads had been built with help of the European Union. So fear not fellow traveler – your not in for a too bumpy ride!
6# Plan in time for sight-seeing
This depends on your own goals for the trip, but it is important to consider when planning your daily cycling routes. We were more focused on enjoying the natural beauty during our cycle rather than visiting off-road historic sites and waterfalls.
7# You will need to eat a lot
One thing I learnt fast on this trip was not to be a picky eater. We had to consume A LOT of food. Tearooms on route were a safe haven for the lunchtime slump in energy and the opulent breakfast set us up for the day. It was a little hard on the wallet having to order dinner and desert and then still eating left over snacks back in the room! You can save some money by picking up some food every time you cycle past a Spar supermarket.
8# Cycling the North Coast 500 will give you true grit
If there’s one thing this trip gave me is more grit. Imagine it being 3 pm in the afternoon you’ve cycled most of the day and you still have 3 major hills ahead of you before you reach your day’s destination. You have no choice but to press on! This may sound a little more like torture than a vacation but although it was harsh at times it was unbelievably fun. You start turning it into a competition with the hill your cycling up in your mind. An argument about who will win and you will succeed. Conquer the mountain! This type of perseverance can help you in other areas of life.
9# Don’t overthink before you set off enjoy the trip of a lifetime
All I have to say is: Prep a little with some exercise and just do it!!