Machair Coast: Bike-Rafting the Outer Hebrides

  • Distance

    72 Mi.

    (116 KM)
  • Days

    5

  • % Unpaved

    90%

  • % Singletrack

    1%

  • Difficulty (1-10)

    7

  • % Rideable (time)

    95%

  • Total Ascent

    2,350'

    (716 M)
  • High Point

    110'

    (34 M)

Contributed By

Huw Oliver and Annie

Huw and Annie

Guest Contributor

Huw and Annie are Scottish outdoor educators and guides, who practise what they preach by riding their bikes to the interesting-looking bits of the map, whether it’s racing or simply a night out under the stars.  A trip to Iceland in 2014 convinced them that the view from the saddle is the best, and deepened a love for beautiful, lonely places. On Instagram: @topofests & @a_girl_outside

A bike-rafting circumnavigation of Scotland’s weird, wonderful and windswept outlying islands. White sand beaches, wildflower meadows and Norse heritage make this route a challenging but unique way to explore Europe’s north-western corner.
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Look at a map of the Outer Hebrides and you will quickly see why both bikes and boats are required for this route, as there is more water than land! This is as close to true expedition biking as you can get in the British Isles, with few resupplies and little contact with trails, roads or people. The rewards? Stunning beach riding, abundant wildlife and the satisfaction of combining multiple modes of travel. Fat tyres are a must, as is a healthy attitude to the phrase: ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes’.

  • Machair Coast, Fatbiking and Packrafting The Outer Hebrides
  • Machair Coast, Fatbiking and Packrafting The Outer Hebrides
Route Difficulty: While the riding is mostly non-technical, the boating section is potentially very serious, being subject to very strong and localised tidal flows, rapidly changing weather and frequently strong winds. The physical demands of bikerafting are a given. Access to the islands is relatively simple (if long) by public transport. Resupplies are governed by sporadic opening hours on the islands and limited choices. Almost all riding is across machair or sand. There are some vague, sandy vehicle tracks that make easy going through the dunes.

Route Development: The route was developed by Huw Oliver and Annie Lloyd-Evans, although original inspiration came from Rob Blackhall and Iona Evans having braved stinky seaweed and raging headwinds to fatbike some of the western portion.

  • Highlights

  • Must Know

  • Camping

  • Food/H2O

    💧

  • Trail Notes

  • Top-notch wild camping options among the machair meadows
  • An ascent of Eabhal, North Uists highest point (347m). The summit panorama of moors, lochains and the rest of the Hebridean island chain is priceless on a clear evening.
  • Plentiful wildlife: otters, seals and whales, as well as white-tailed and golden eagles are all common sights.
  • Empty white sand beaches and turquoise seas on the west coast.
  • The uninhabited tidal islands of Vallay and Kirkibost.
  • Scottish island life: it’s not uncommon to hear gaelic spoken in the pub, or to see peat being cut and dried for fuel on the moors. Ferries on the Sabbath were only deemed acceptable fairly recently.
  • The many ruined island-dwellings (brochs), standing stones and Norse sites that bear witness to the thousands of years of human habitation on the islands.
  • The route is best started from Lochmaddy, which can be accessed by ferry from Uig on the Isle of Skye. Uig can be reached via a long (but beautiful) 7hr bus ride from Glasgow.
  • The midsummer months provide long hours of daylight, but May and September can often bring spells of settled weather and a lower likelihood of the dreaded biting midge making an appearance!
  • A packraft, and the knowledge to use it safely, are essential, as are fat tyres (4” minimum). The saltwater is not going to be nice to your drivetrain, so a singlespeed setup is recommended.
  • Expect the unexpected in terms of weather. The Atlantic will most likely throw wind and rain at you, but the respites are more than worth it.
  • The crossings to Kirkibost, Bhaile Shear and Benbecula are best tackled at low tide. Along with the crossing of Loch Euphort, they are short, but subject to strong tidal flows and strong swells from the Atlantic, and the waters of Loch Maddy also contain a Class 3 tidal rapid at mid-flow (grid ref. 904719). Beware of strong offshore winds on the east coast. Make good choices on the water!
  • Scotland’s outdoor access code allows wild camping on almost all unenclosed areas. If you are near a home or farm, then saying hello and asking permission will likely go down well. Leave no trace of your stay and avoid areas with grazing animals, for your sake as well as the animals because tick numbers around them will be higher.
  • Take a tent that can cope with strong winds, and ensure it has a bug net. If the wind drops low enough for biting midges to fly, you will regret that lightweight tarp setup more than you could ever imagine.
  • B&B’s can be found in most villages, although price and quality is likely to vary.
  • Very little will be open on a Sunday on the islands, so stock up.
  • Food shops will likely be small and fairly expensive, so bringing a few dehydrated meals over from the mainland isn’t a bad idea. There are larger shops in Sollas and Baile a Mhanaich, although these too shut on a Sunday.
  • The Westford Inn in Cladach a’ Bhaile Shear is the only pub on North Uist, and offers somewhere dry to find a warm welcome and hot meals.
  • Water can, strangely, be a challenge if the weather is dry. Loch Obasaraigh is brackish rather than freshwater, and many of the small streams are prone to drying up, so a bladder to store water and a water filter are worth taking.

The provided gpx file is one way to ride and paddle this route. Its beauty is the freedom to add or subtract as your motivation (and the conditions) dictate. Be creative! We were unable to paddle the Loch Maddy section north of Lochmaddy this time due to strong winds, but it is a beautiful, sheltered coastal section that is full of wildlife. We would also recommend avoiding the coastline to the east of Loch Obasaraigh as it leaves paddlers very exposed to the fickle winds with limited landing spots.

The route can be extended further south on the western half, crossing to South Uist and continuing down the sands (pay attention to warning flags when passing through the military training area). The east coast of South Uist is exposed and unsuitable for packrafts, so this detour would be best run as an out-and-back.

Terms of Use: As with each bikepacking route guide published on BIKEPACKING.com, should you choose to cycle this route, do so at your own risk. Prior to setting out check current local weather, conditions, and land/road closures. While riding, obey all public and private land use restrictions and rules, carry proper safety and navigational equipment, and of course, follow the #leavenotrace guidelines. The information found herein is simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due-diligence. In spite of the fact that this route, associated GPS track (GPX and maps), and all route guidelines were prepared under diligent research by the specified contributor and/or contributors, the accuracy of such and judgement of the author is not guaranteed. BIKEPACKING.com LLC, its partners, associates, and contributors are in no way liable for personal injury, damage to personal property, or any other such situation that might happen to individual riders cycling or following this route.

  • Hamish Osborn

    That’s a great trip and superb photos. Looks like you had a great time. Thanks for sharing it. I was wondering though if a few pictures of Colonsay/Oronsay had sneaked into your photo set? That seaweedy track and view of a far off island (Jura?) looks very familiar and it’s got me puzzling.

  • Peter Hedman

    Incredible imagery and a fantastic route. Scotland is a very special place… Poor drivetrains!

  • Kyle Inman

    Please talk about your camera gear and packing technique with that. Thanks!

  • Michael Maclean

    Looks incredible! My dad grew up on Tiree, beautiful part of the world.
    How do you manage the maintenance of your chain, etc with salt water on a trip like this?

  • Huw Oliver

    Hi Michael, we loaded the chains up with wax lube to avoid sand sticking to them, and gave them a rinse with freshwater before drying and re-lubing every couple of days. It worked okay, but bottom brackets and chains were kaput at the end of it.

  • Huw Oliver

    Hi Kyle, we used an Olympus EM-5 with 9-18mm and 45mm Olympus lenses, and a few spare batteries. That’s pretty much it. All electrical gadgets lived in the waterproof Revelate Yakataga pocket on the front of my bike, which I clipped to myself in the packraft as well. We had to be careful to avoid getting sand everywhere, but I enjoy the simplicity of the setup, and the light weight/low volume.

  • Kyle Inman

    Splendid photography really dramatizes the adventure. Always love learning from the well accomplished. Thanks.

  • Huw Oliver

    Hiya Hamish. Ah you’re right, a couple at the end there are from Colonsay! Oops. It’s more than worth a visit too though, such a beautiful little island.

  • Hamish Osborn

    Cool, thanks, they had me thinking and looking at my photos (which aren’t a patch on yours). Yes I agree Colonsay is great too…. As is so much of Scotland :-)