Machair Coast: Bike-Rafting the Outer Hebrides
72 Mi.(116 KM)
% Rideable (time)
Huw and Annie
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
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’.
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.
- 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.