Bikepacking solo for the first time can be intimidating. Especially for women, prejudices against riding solo are commonplace, which can create many a doubt from within.
Claire Frecknall explains how she took the leap, overcame her fears and offers advice to both male and female novice bikepackers, so that they too can head out on an adventure without being overshadowed by doubts.
As Is often the case with big life changes, my journey into the world of bikepacking and solo travel was brought about by a relationship break up.
My boyfriend at the time wasn’t interested in the great outdoors, adventures and cycling in the same way I am, so after a few years together we decided it was time we went our separate ways.
A few months earlier, we had booked flights for a holiday to Stockholm. But rather than cancel the trip, I decided that I’d go alone, trading his human company for that of a inanimate but very special object… A bicycle.
Although I’d never travelled alone, or even attempted bikepacking, the idea wasn’t totally alien to me. The previous year my friends Jim and Tom had been to America to ride the Tour Divide and I had found their photos and tales so inspiring.
I mentioned my bikepacking idea to Jim and he enthusiastically offered me advice and gave me encouragement to take the plunge…
The decision was made: Now I had told people I was going, I felt I couldn’t back out!
St Olavsleden is a pilgrim route that stretches from Sundsvall on the coast of Sweden to Trondheim on the coast of Norway.
It the most northerly pilgrim route in the world and -at around 580km long- it stretches through forests, along lakesides and over mountain ranges.
It sounded like the challenge and adventure I was hungry for!
I booked a flight home from Trondheim, and immediately found a sense of focus and purpose.
I was doing something I really wanted to do, and I was doing it all on my own!
Aside from the fact I already had a flight to Sweden booked, St Olavsleden seemed a good choice for my first solo trip. I’d spent a lot of time in Sweden, it is a safe country, wild camping is allowed in most of Scandinavia and -as the path I was following was a recognised route- I knew there would be pilgrim shelters along the way, should I need them.
This didn’t stop my parents from worrying and trying to convince me not to go alone.
As a solo female, no matter what you’re doing, it is likely that your friends and family will worry more so than if you were a man doing the same.
We are more at risk of sexual assault, seen as more vulnerable and less able to defend ourselves.
We are brought up to be distrustful of strangers and to see men in particular as a threat.
In fact, most people you meet will be intrigued and fascinated.
Most people you meet will be intrigued and fascinated as to why you are out doing this on your own, and will probably want to help you -even more as a solo female.
You need to use common sense and judgement to minimise risk.
I knew a few people who would have liked to have joined me, but reasons such as finances, family commitments and lack of holiday time meant none of them were available…
By this time I was really working on my mantra:
Don’t rely on anyone else to make you happy…
Do what you need to do.
So this is how my first solo adventure came about!
I absolutely loved my trip and since then I have also bikepacked solo around Slovenia.
There’s nothing like a good scrub before retiring to appease the body and mind
But what soap to use?
-For our personal health and that of the environment, we should firstly look to eliminate the most toxic.
It’s a goodbye to the toxic substances, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Polyethylene Glycol et Alkylphenols !
-We can also limit the use of products packaged in plastic… Even if they are listed as being recyclable, as they are only recyclable a single time. Then it’s into the bin! So it’s goodbye to shower gels! In any case, these products are 70-90% water based, useless weight to carry anyway!
-The best solution is the good old soap bar, composed of simple ingredients and no added perfumes (which attracts mosquitoes anyway). Soaps such as Aleppo or Marseille.
-If you want to go further in reducing your carbon footprint, there are cold-process soaps which are manufactured in a way that is less demanding on energy than traditional soaps.
In any case, any soap, even biodegradeable, has no place in flowing water.
It is advised to be at least 60m from any water source and to put any contaminated water in a cat hole so that it degrades. Not so easy!
And you, how do you wash in the wild?
People often ask me how I deal with…
Personally I am relaxed in my own company when I’m cycling, I don’t get lonely, scared or bored.
I can easily spend my time in silence, just pedalling, moving forward, taking in every sight and sound of the country I’m riding through, always excited to know what’s around the corner, content in the company of my bike.
I try to camp near a stream or river every night so I can have a wash with water and eco friendly soap.
I take two pairs of bike shorts, which I wash and rotate on a daily basis using the same eco soap I wash myself with. One quick drying jersey is enough, along with a merino wool top and shorts for off of the bike.
Sometimes if the weather has been bad or its been tough day I stay on a campsite or book a B&B or hostel. When you’re filthy and all your kit is wet, you won’t sleep well in the wild.
Having a hot shower, a warm bed or a place to hang your stuff to dry can feel like heaven!
The only times I can feel anxious is when finding a place to stop for the night.
Even in Scandinavia where wild camping is legal, I prefer to hide myself away from view. Being sure no one knows I’m there is the only way I can relax at night.
I still get nervous, it’s natural, you’ll hear things that sound like footsteps, animal noises or trees creaking, but generally I feel safe when tucked away in my tent.
The trips I have done solo have been based on existing routes, downloaded as GPX files. This is an excellent place to start as they’re put together by people who know the area.
Asking for tips on forums is also good: there’s always someone who has done a similar trip and will be more than happy to give tips.
I tend to use the route as a rough guide once I’m riding, I’m happy to go off course if I see something I like the look of or to extend/shorten my days riding to fit in with my schedule.
In a lot of ways I prefer to travel like this alone.
It gives you so much freedom and sense of achievement.
I would have these tips for anyone considering their first solo trip
I rather threw myself in the deep end with a 10 day foreign trip!
If you’re unsure, then maybe it is best to plan a local weekend trip. This gives you a chance to test your kit, experience riding your bike fully loaded and find out how you deal with camping alone.
Take some basic tools and repair kit
Know how to use them for your bike, tent and a first aid kit for yourself!
If possible, ask friends
… if they have recommendations or equipment you can borrow and test before you buy your own.
Most of the stuff I took to Sweden was borrowed, even the bike!
Decent lightweight bikepacking gear can be expensive, but it is definitely worth the investment if you know you’re going to use it.
Make yourself comfortable
If fear of sleeping alone in the wild is the thing thats stopping you heading off on a solo trip, you could start by staying on campsites.
On multi-day trips, campsites are also a welcome stop for a hot shower and to charge your electronic devices.
And above all
Just get out there and try it!
You might get lost, cold or wet. You might wonder why on earth you’re doing it at points, it won’t always go to plan so don’t expect it to. Just roll with it, it’ll work out in the end.