The Badger Divide - Everything You Need to Know
The Badger Divide was 2023’s planned bike-packing trip for me, but as ever so many questions… How far could I ride in a day? Camp, wild-camp, hostel, B&B? Hard tail mountain bike or gravel bike? Which tyres would work? Which direction? North to South (conventional) or South to North?
The Badger Divide at a glance …
Start/finish: Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum in Glasgow to Inverness Castle (whichever direction suits you)
Maps/guides: OS Landrangers 26, 34, 42, 57, 64
The route: view this here and download the GPX file here
Ride length: 338km/210 miles
Bike type: Gravel bike or hybrid with 40mm+ tyres
Ride level: Regular/experienced
Day 1 – Glasgow station to Loch Venachar (67Km)
When I originally planned my route, I’d planned on getting the train to Glasgow, riding five days, and then on the seventh day, taking the train home. Circumstances meant a change in train times, and me arriving in Glasgow at 1245 – which allowed me to get started right away!
Brimming with excitement, I switched on my Garmin, and started my ride. “And I’m off!” I cheerily called out to no-one in particular, full of excitement. Five minutes later, I was back at the station, having cycled exactly around the block. (I always struggle to make my Garmin work properly on the first day).
I eventually started the journey proper. I was giddy to just get started, and to get some miles under my belt, and in turn I failed to really take any pictures on this first day. And while the scenery was very much urban on my way out of Glasgow, looking back I wish I had at least got some pictures and video footage along the river, winding its way through graffiti murals and parkland as I pedalled my way on.
Fifty kilometres or so later, I found myself in Aberfoyle. A bit worn out, but not yet finished. A bowl of soup and a bite to eat helped me up and over the Duke’s Pass. Eventually (via a detour to scope out the pub at Brig O’ Turk) I found my way to a camping spot at the far western end of Loch Venachar (pronounced, I think like “vinegar” with a hard G).
Camping in Scotland
Now, Scotland is lauded as this land where you can camp anytime, anywhere. This is not entirely true! From March to September, the local byelaws of Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park require you to have a permit to stick to certain Camping Management Zones. More information here. Luckily for me, it was October (and dark!) and so I happily pitched my tent where I wanted!
The reality also of camping in Scotland is that many places are too boggy or are covered in tussocks or are fenced off. To that end, if you’re planning on camping on this route, you’d be wise to adopt a flexible approach and to more than one option.
Day 2 – Venachar to Lubreoch (64Km)
I reckoned that there was no rush, and so it was a relaxed start to my day. One joy of packing light is that the rituals of unloading and reloading each day are relatively simple and quick. It had been a chilly night (colder than forecast and expected) but at least it was dry.
An easy 10Km or so took me along the Loch towards Callander, before turning onto the Rob Roy Way. Some miles on, I saw a sign waypointing me along another easy 11 miles, along the valley to Lochearnhead: my Garmin beeped angrily that the Badger had other plans for me.
There was to be no further ease, but instead the adventure of the Badger! I reluctantly turned onto the main road and shortly later, up a gravel track. Too steep to ride, I started to push my bike up hill and on for the delights of Glen Ample.
Instead of fully enjoying this first Scottish solitude, I had to fix some teething errors with my bike. This was the first time it was being properly tested, off-road and fully laden. Various bolts worked loose, and my pannier rack collapsed at one stage onto my back wheel. Spare nuts and bolts carried in my tool kit meant that this was easily rectified.
Ready for lunch I descended into Lochearnhead where I knew there to be a hotel/pub. I’d begun the journey a bit paranoid about my electrics losing charge, but so long as you’re happy to spend some money locally at such places, there are many places to plug them in.
When I get back to the Rob Roy Way, I’m delighted to see that actually it is a proper designated cycleway. It’s lovely and easy to ride! On I go, talking to couple of local cyclists as I ride.
Eventually I’m back on the road and then heading off again, up another track, up another hill. I get off and push; I’m not in a race, and besides, nobody is watching! In no time, I’m cruising along a sunny track, in between pine plantations. A deer running across the way to my front reminds me where I am and how lucky I am to be here.
I get to the end and turn left, steeply down a trail. Faster my wheels roll and then, ignoring an obvious turn off to the left, my GPS leads me onto some steep, fast, gnarly and technical single-track! This time, pride and stubbornness kept me in my saddle (only just) as I worked my way down a section really fit for mountain-bikers only. Amazingly, the bike and I got to the bottom, unscathed, and rolled into Killin with a big Hurrah! Those 700 x 45 tyres I’d fitted to my bike for this very trip were proving their worth!
Killin looked inviting. Pubs, cafes, hotels and B&Bs abound, and a campsite too. I could have been easy on myself and stayed somewhere warm, and maybe enjoyed a pint somewhere … But no, that wasn’t the adventure I’d planned for!
I did stop at the local CoOp and scoffed down some much needed fresh fruit. Looking at my map, I decided to ride the road out of town and then to camp maybe on the pass that would lead me to Glen Lyon. High winds and rain were on the cards, but the black boundary lines on the map told me there’d be walls to camp behind up there, rendering the wind impotent. (Ha! So I thought …)
With the last rays of light, and rain in the air, I was now riding wearily towards the high pass of Learg nun Lunn. The wind was blowing hard and adding a notable bite to the temperature, and it was at about this point that I realised that the bloody Scots don’t do walls! They’re fences!
There was no way I could camp up here – apart from the lack of cover from the wind, the ground was boggy and tussocky, and so with my lights now shining, I rode down the other side, desperately searching for anywhere to stop for the night. As I reached the bottom of the road, there to my side was a small patch of grass, flat enough and big enough for me to sleep on. The ground was slightly dipped too, and I figured that lent it a feel of being ‘sheltered’.
It was now dark, wet and windy. I unpacked my tent and begun setting up. I took an age looking for my headtorch: I was certain I’d packed it somewhere “logical” but couldn’t find it. In the end I used my bike’s light and worked with that.
Pegs in, and poles fitted I then tried pushing the tent up into shape. But the the tension in the poles just wouldn’t allow me to fit the ends into the flysheet eyelets. By now my hands were cold, wet and numb and just sliding along the pole as I was trying to hold it tight whilst simultaneously stretch the tent’s fobs back enough to make it all fit together.
By now I was shivering and hypothermic and just wanting the tent to be up. I was cursing whoever it was that had designed this tent so there was no adjustability in the fobs to fit and tension the poles into place, wishing they were here as well, so that I could shout at them – “see, THIS IS CRAP! What were you thinking!?“
But that was not going to help me now, and so I worked out what I could do. I planted the poles into the ground and held the tent’s flysheet down using the pegs. It was enough, and it would do. Quickly I unpacked the rest of my bag into the tent and started the process of unpacking, and getting some dry kit on. It was as I unpacked my brewkit, that I found my headtorch. FFS what was I thinking, packing it with my stove!? Clearly I hadn’t bargained on another dark finish.
About now, I should also explain, that in a bid to lighten my load, I didn’t have my tent inner for this trip – just the fly. Also I only had a summer-rated sleeping bag, though I did have a bivi-bag to go with it. My wife and children thought I was bonkers as I left the house two days before, but I had been adamant that the forecast was looking mild and that I wouldn’t need the extra weight. That night I gibbered and the words “any fool can be uncomfortable” echoed through my mind.
If I ever bike-pack through Scotland in October again (and I definitely will), I’ll definitely bring a winter-rated down bag!
When’s best to ride the Badger?
I hate midges, and so the summer months for me were a firm no. In fact, I was determined not to have midges eating me, I didn’t even want to ride in September (just in case). Instead, I opted for October. It was dry, and generally great, but also it was cold at night, with temperatures around zero for all three nights that I camped. Combined with the wind, on the second night at least, I shivered!
November through to the end of April and there’s too much risk of snow. (It begun snowing on the tops whilst I was there). With snow comes road closures, and smaller pubs and cafes etc closing. Eg the hotel in Lochearnhead closes during the daytimes midweek. The cafe at the Bridge of Balgie closes during the winter months. Be sure to plan ahead!
Day 3 – Lubreoch to Corrour Station (75Km)
Packed up, I headed to the cafe at the Bridge of Balgie 10 miles away, which I knew to be opening at 10am. The sun was out and the wind behind me. I rode along Glen Lyon and marvelled at its beauty. As if to lend extra confirmation to the legitimacy of the scene, I also witnessed two men in their tweeds cross the road in front of me, with their rifles slung over their shoulders. Glen Lyon was beautiful and I was LOVE LOVE LOVING this ride.
With ten minutes to go, I arrived at the cafe. I took out my wet gloves and arranged them flat on a bench to dry in the morning sun. Moments later I was allowed in and thereupon enjoyed a lengthy second-breakfast, whilst my phone and Garmin recharged.
I was in no hurry, and enjoyed a conversation with another tourist. Eventually, I was back in my saddle and headed up and over the hill. Riding high above Lairig Ghallabhaich looking down the deforested hillside I was absolutely in my element.
Some mountain bikers were on my tail and it wasn’t long before they were overtaking me. They too were riding the Badger Divide, but with a van and driver in support, they were traveling light. I considered the 10 miles I’d ridden on tarmac that morning, and the 20 miles I’d ridden the evening before, also on tarmac, and I couldn’t help but think to myself, “wrong bikes fellas”. Those big fat tyres were overkill for these trails and would have been like riding through treacle on the roads – though they were overtaking me now!
I then chanced upon another rider, coming the other way. (As we swapped notes, I couldn’t help but notice, enviably, the size of his sleeping bag, strapped to his rack). He told me of a reported landslip further on and explained that I’d need to divert down to the road by Loch Rannoch.
Grateful for the heads up – I continued down an awesome descent to the loch. The wind had been behind me to the cafe, but now riding west, the wind was hard in my face. Hard going, but beautiful nevertheless. I passed the mountain bikers by their van, having a late-lunch, and turned up the hill. Two riders coming down stopped to say hello, and amongst other things, recommended that I visit the Corrour Station House for my dinner that night.
Having battled this headwind for the past 10 miles, I wasn’t looking forward to the added task of climbing this one last hill, but somehow the change in direction was just enough for the wind to no longer be such a hindrance. As I looked over to my left I could see the familiar outline of the mountains of Glen Coe – which I’d visited with my daughter just two months previously. Slowly the gradient eased and the white buildings of the Corrour Station and Restaurant were now coming into view. The trail turned west again but the wind was no longer an issue – I was riding beautifully downhill, down a super track offering both technical interest, and flow at the same time. To my right was Loch Ossian, and ahead was the setting sun giving the whole scene a wonderful orange hue. This was BRILLIANT!
Corrour Station House
Over the years, I’d heard of this place, the station which you can only access by foot or by train. It’s always been an intriguing idea, but not a place I had ever had the need to visit before. And, even on this trip, I’d planned on simply bypassing it and camping somewhere on the shore of Loch Ossian. It was only for the recommendation of the two cyclists coming the other way, as I begun the final leg, that I decided that I definitely would visit.
And I was so glad that I did. You walk in and the welcome warmth of the place hits you in the face. And why I was surprised I don’t know, but everyone there is a cyclist or a walker (obviously!!). It felt such a natural environment to find myself in, and a place where I was able to swap notes with other cyclists.
The excellent food, beer and whisky on offer also helped! They also allowed me to camp right out back, which meant I was back first thing in the morning for a proper breakfast with fresh coffee. (Heaven!)
If I ever rode this trail again, I would definitely make every effort to stay at this place. (They also offer bed and breakfast accommodation).
Day 4 – Corrour Station to Fort Augustus (79Km)
I found myself in the strange position of now having three days to finish this ride, yet I could see that I only needed two. I consulted the map and the internet, and saw that there was a bothy either side of the Corrieyairack Pass. So my plan for this day was to ride down to Laggan, maybe get a brew, and then head on up to the Melgarve Bothy, which was a few miles short of the pass.
The ride to Laggan was a mixture of wide forestry gravel trails, which were not too interesting, some head winds for the first part, and some super fast down hill riding. The ride by Lochan Na h-Earba was lovely however, and I contemplated how in my very first plan I’d have been camping here. (Not many places to do so, I noted!)
Hugely disappointingly, Laggan had no cafes! In fact, where the Badger crosses the A86 there is simply nothing. With no coffee or cake to hinder me, I rode onwards, and upwards.
The Corrieyairack Pass was playing on my mind. I couldn’t bare a journey without hills, but somehow you never look forward to them. I rode through the Ardverikie Estate and loved seeing all the herds of dear there.
It was only about 3pm when I arrived at the Melgarve Bothy. I tried the door, but it was bolted. I tried some other buildings nearby, but they too were inaccessible. I needed a brew and so took a break to get my stove out.
The weather forecast was for high winds and rain, yet the prospect of stopping here for the day just felt wrong. It was too early and there wasn’t anything to do. But simultaneously, I knew that taking on the Corrieyairack Pass, with tired legs, head winds and rain was probably not an entirely wise decision.
I looked at the map, and reckoned that this side of the pass at least would be sheltered. So if I had to, I could always camp. The decision was made, the Corrieyairack Pass it would be!
I set off into the depths of the hills. The pylons handrailed the way for me, leading my eye to where I knew I’d be riding. And to be fair it didn’t look too bad. I crossed numerous streams, and mostly managed to ride them. And eventually I came to the zig zags.
Without a second thought it was time to hike my bike up this hill. It was fine. I’ve walked up a million hills, and with just 200m of ascent or so, this was not a problem for me.
In no time I was at the top and starting to get my pay-back as my wheels picked up the pace with the descending gradient. I now had 13Km of pure downhill. In my head I was high-fiving all the way.
I could have camped, I could have stayed at the Blackburn bothy, but being this close to Fort Augustus, a B&B plus a pub dinner meant that I had other ideas! And so, by the lights of my bike I entered Fort Augustus.
Day 5 – Corrour Station to Inverness (75Km)
For some reason, I always imagined that this final stage would be easy. I imagined that I’d never be far from the loch-side and maybe a tailwind would see me home. Well back in the parallel universe of reality, my day ahead was going to be a long one and a steep, hilly tough one. It was to be a day of big climbs and some really great flowy descents. But I think that what makes this day a tough gig is the relentless mono-view. Trees, trees, trees, lake, more trees.
Finally the sign posts told me that Inverness was approaching and for one final time, by the lights of my bike, I swooped gloriously down the trails and to my final destination. For good measure I had my picture taken in front of the station, which for me was the end point of this epic journey.
If I rode the Badger Divide again …
1. As a bike-packing trip with wild-camping I would hardly change a thing. I would sleep where I slept, and definitely ride a gravel bike. I would bring a far warmer sleeping bag though. I would also take some lube for my chain, which got washed clean of oil and was quite dry by day three.
2. If I were to go light and enjoy accommodation along the way this is the way I would do it …
Day 1 – Glasgow to Killin (100Km)
Day 2 – Killin to Corrour Station (92Km)
Day 3 – Corrour Station to Fort Augustus (79Km)
Day 4 – Fort Augustus to Inverness (75Km)
3. I would definitely definitely definitely ride it on a gravel bike. Thick mountain bike tyres would slow you right down on so many sections of this route, since there is a lot of easy gravel and tarmac along the way.
4. Most people ride this north to south. (Why!?) While there is no set direction, I rode this south to north and in hindsight there’s not a single section I would want to ride any other way. Plus, the wind in the UK is predominantly a south-westerly, so why not ride with a tail-wind!?
My bike …
I ride a Planet X Tempest, a titanium gravel bike. It’s the only gravel bike I have ever owned, and this bike cruised through this ride without any problems whatsoever.
Fitted to the wheels I rode Pirelli Cinturato Mixed 700 x 45 Gravel Tyres, which worked a treat. This route isn’t that muddy, but it is rocky in places. I ride tubeless which I reckon saved me from a million pinch-flats.
And since Planet X offer lots of kit direct to the public at good prices, I also went equipped with a load of Pod Sacs which they sell, and a Zastrugi Tent. I loved the bike, the bags did what bags should do but the that tent is let down by the fact that you can’t get it up if you have cold, wet fingers.