Skip to main content

Riding The Badger Divide In Winter With Lady Luck

Posted by Steve on 02/04/22
Last modified: 02/04/22

Riding the Badger Divide in Winter header image

Words by Steve Bate

I lie on the ground and feel the cold breeze against my face, the only piece of skin that is exposed. As I wiggle in my sleeping bag trying to warm up, I feel a cold draft down my body — I must not have zipped up my bag properly in my haste to get in and warm up. I curse as I fumble around in the dark trying to close the zipper. The more I struggle, the more it opens and cold air attacks my body. Frustrated, I switch on my head torch and the bright light glows orange, the colour of my sleeping bag. My breath condenses in the cold of the night, obstructing my view. I investigate the problem and my heart sinks when I realise the zipper of my bag has burst open. I try to force it back, and it works. But this result is short lived. As I pull the tired little zipper gently northwards, it does nothing and the bag peels apart. With all the heat gone from my bag, I reach for the clothes down by my feet and start layering up. The next three nights are going to be interesting.

The Badger Divide is a gravel cycling route that runs between Inverness and Glasgow, Scotland. It snakes through some of Scotland’s most wonderful countryside and mountainous terrain for 200 miles, with plenty of climbing to add to the challenge.

I learned of this route a couple years ago when I heard someone drop it into a conversation: “Well, the Badger Divide still hasn’t been completed in under 24 hours!” My ears perked up as I was intrigued to find out what this route actually was. The 24-hour barrier has since been cracked on a fantastic ride by Donnie Campbell, who stopped the clock in just under 20 hours. However, reading this Komoot description of the route, written by the lovely Katherine Moore, I was hooked at these sweet words:

“The best time of year to tackle the Badger Divide is either late spring to early summer, once the ground has dried out a little, yet before the onset of midge season, or after it in September/October. Its not recommended for the winter season due to potential severe weather and dangerous river crossings.”

A winter traverse of the route it had to be. I enlisted the help of my good friend, Ibrahim Park. He and I go back a long way and have been getting up to adventurous no good in the Scottish Highlands for a decade or more. We’ve done everything from winter climbing to summer climbing to fat bikepacking together.

Riding the Badger Divide in Winter - 2 col image 1

Riding the Badger Divide in Winter - 2 col image 2

Ibrahim’s knowledge of the Highlands is outstanding. He can’t remember the name of someone you’ve introduced him to five minutes ago, but he can sniff out a bothy in the dark and lashing rain, having pedalled past it many moons ago. He’s one of those slightly annoying types who’s naturally good at anything he turns his hand to, and thus the perfect partner for an adventure with many unknowns.

The Plan

We decided to ride the Badger Divide in three days, with a late start from Inverness as my train arrived at 8 pm. We would ride out of town and attempt to find a bothy about 25 km down the Great Glen Way. Then we’d play it by ear as to how we got on.

On the first full day, we’d get over the legendary Corrieyairack Pass (the route’s high point at 770 m) and down to the Ardverikie Estate, where we would wild camp. From there, we would ride past Loch Laggan, over the Baron Rannoch Moor, and on to Loch Lyon. This would leave us within a day’s ride to Glasgow, though the lowlands proved to be more challenging than we thought due to Storm Arwen passing through a couple of weeks earlier.

The Ride

I’m a huge fan of winter epics, and this trip didn’t disappoint. We did have our fair share of luck involved in our success, however. We left the Inverness train station at about 9 pm and headed for a bothy just off the Great Glen Way.

Thankfully I had packed my lightweight Alpkit bivvy bag, so busting my sleeping bag zipper on the first night wasn’t an issue. We struck calm weather on the mighty Corriryairack Pass, and although we lost daylight at the top and had to descend the icy, snowy switchbacks in the dark, I felt like we got off lightly.

Then there was the beautiful tarmac’d road through the Ardverikie Estate — well I think it was tarmac, but it was under eight inches of fresh snow. With a slight headwind, this would have been a big ask on loaded fat bikes. However, the morning before we hit it, a vehicle had driven all the way down the road, leaving tyre tracks to ease our burden. It was still hard graft but we were certainly fortunate.

Both of us were nervous about climbing up and over Rannoch Moor. We didn’t know what the road surface would be like and thought there was a good chance we would have to push the whole way due to the amount of snow. To our surprise, the path was better than expected and the wind had swung around to a gentle tailwind. This made riding through the snow that much easier, and we rode the moor without a hitch.

Riding the Badger Divide in Winter - 2 col image 3

Riding the Badger Divide in Winter - 2 col image 4

It wasn’t until we hit Callander that our luck ran out. Storm Arwen had passed through three weeks earlier and left its mark on the forestry blocks. I’d never seen so many downed trees on such a big scale. The fully grown pines snapped in half and the uprooted trees looked like a giant had just pushed them all over. It was a scary sight to see, and it blocked our progress through the Achray Forest. We tried to find a way through the fallen trees with no luck. In the end we backtracked and had to ride a longer section of road to get around the forest and into Aberfoyle. We stopped here for some food around 6 pm and chatted with some locals. It was clear the next section through the Loch Are Forest would be the same, so we headed around the woods on the road again.

This brought its own challenges; with the temperature below freezing, the back roads were covered in ice that was hard to spot. Ibrahim found this out the hard way, as his bike disappeared underneath him, sliding across the glazed surface (thankfully without injury). We rode over countless patches of ice until we rejoined the route, which took us back off-road and into Glasgow via the West Highland Way.

Journeys like this always ebb and flow. Sometimes you think it’s smooth sailing and then you hit a load of trees blocking your progress. Or you think it can’t get any harder and you want to call it a day, then the wind gives you a gentle push to help you up that killer climb. I’ve learned that it’s important to keep your emotions in check when undertaking challenging adventures. Know that when the going is good, it won’t last. But when it all seems to be a pointless, endless fight, know that the tough stuff will end, and you’ll be okay. I think so many people give up when the going gets tough because they think the situation won’t change, yet it almost always does a few miles down the road.vv

Riding the Badger Divide in Winter - 2 col image 5

Riding the Badger Divide in Winter - 2 col image 6

Lessons Learned

I thought I would add a few lessons from this trip to help you in the future and to prove that we all make mistakes. Hopefully we can learn from them and progress as adventurous people.

1. As I type this a week after reaching Glasgow, I still have a pins-and-needles feeling in my fingers. It’s a strange feeling, or lack of in this case, due to overlooking the impact that riding on rough terrain has on your contact points with the bike. I had decided to change my ergo grips to standard foam grips, thinking this would be better in the cold, as I’m using alloy handlebars. In hindsight, I wish I had stuck with my ergo grips, as I’m sure I wouldn’t be in this situation. My hands are improving day by day, thankfully.

2. I ran a Salsa fork on my bike with four Anything Cage mounts, which is a game changer. On the two forward-facing mounts I ran Salsa Anything Cage HDs, which held five-litre dry bags with various stuff in them — I won’t bore you with the details.

The two rear-facing fork mounts held bottle cages, one with a one-litre drink bottle and the other with a flask, which worked brilliantly. This was the first time I had brought a flask bikepacking and I would do it again for sure, in winter at least. The only thing I would change is running the bottle cages lower (on the bottom two holes). Sitting higher made them easier to reach, but they interfered with the front mud guard on my down tube. Double-bagging my dry bags on the fork would have been better since they were covered in mud by the front wheel, and I would have preferred to take clean bags into my clean, dry tent.

3. I used a pannier rack (the Salsa Alternator 177) for the first time on this trip, instead of the classic bikepacking saddle bag. It adds a bit of extra weight to the bike, but when you are riding a fat bike in winter conditions, weight is irrelevant in my opinion. You take what you need and deal with what you have to ride. This was never going to be a “fast and light” kind of trip. I liked that I could add more bags to the side of the rack for extra storage if I stopped and stocked up on food, for example. I ended up strapping an eight-litre dry bag to the side of the rack for the whole trip, which was brilliant. This also meant that none of my other bags were crammed full, making it easier to get into them and grab what I needed. Most of us pack light, shoving anything we need into the smallest space while we’re in the warmth of our homes, but once you open the bag out on the trail you find it’s hard to get everything back in, and your packing system goes to pot. I think even for summer bikepacking trips on the fatty I will run this rack, I’m a convert after this.

Riding the Badger Divide in Winter - 2 col image 7
Riding the Badger Divide in Winter - 2 col image 8

4. Technology is a wonderful thing, especially when it comes to mapping out a route. I uploaded a couple of different versions of the Badger Divide onto my Garmin 830, which worked well. I also use the basic Komoot app on my phone and splashed out and bought the OS mapping on their own app, which works really well. Between the three, it was pretty straightforward to work out where we were and what was to come, and to find wild camping spots on the move. You just have to make sure you can charge your devices without relying on cafes or pubs, as we found out in Aberfoyle. Apparently, it was the owner’s policy to not let people charge their device on the premises, even though we were buying food, and offered to pay to charge our stuff. Would I carry a paper map as back up? Probably not for something like this where you aren’t that remote. If I was crossing the Greenland Ice Cap, then yeah, I would.

5. Knowing your route will help you anticipate what’s ahead of you and navigate the terrain quicker. The research can be a fun part of the trip. Understanding what you are getting into and the challenges you’ll face is all a part of the buildup. If it’s a big trip and you have a few folks along, you can break the route down into sections for everyone to research individually. It’s always good to know where you can bail if you need to, or where you can get to a phone for help, as mobile devices don’t always work in the wild. We were surprised how little phone signal we had on the Badger Divide. Always let people know where you are going, what you have planned, and when you expect to return. If you think this is pointless, I recommend you watch “127 Hours”!

I found our journey down the Badger Divide pretty tough going just four months after hip surgery, and the most unfit I’ve been on a bike in eight years. But it was absolutely perfect, and I would do it all again tomorrow — just slightly differently, as you read above. Hopefully the story and lessons I learned help in your own planning and make your adventures a little bit easier.

It’s a wonderful thing to sit and read about journeys or watch other people’s adventures brought to life on YouTube, but I hope this post has you planning your own adventures into the wilds of this great playground we have out there.

If you have any specific questions, feel free to get in touch via direct message on Instagram @stevebatembe.

Enjoy your year of adventures and stay safe out there.