I could not get enough of kit lists in my HT550 preparation and poured over many blogs comparing and contrasting my possible setups against others. Some were super light while others not so and many options were considered. Stu and myself had planned to avoid the complications of camping and spend our nights in bothys or bivying depending on weather and enthusiasm. Our goal was to finish in around six days (full write up can be found here), far from speedy compared to those monsters who race the route but still a respectable mileage each day. We also had the advantage of a few extra days flexibility should things take much longer than expected. I finished packing minutes before leaving the house so didn’t have time to take any trendy pictures of kit neatly laid out on the floor so this will be a bit word heavy, deal with it.
Surly Karate Monkey
In reality if you want to set a course record on the Highland Trail 550 you will likely be best serviced by a comfortable full suspension bike. However this was not our goal and the Karate Monkey was a fantastic combination of comfortable climber and descent smasher. The route has many rocky technical sections and the composed Karate Monkey flatters your riding, especially when fatigue begins to set in and lines are poorly judged. Even when fully loaded with kit the handling is nimble on tight sections while still maintaining superb stability on flat out 40mph descents. I would love to see what this bike could do with some front bounce however there is something nice about riding a rigid fork, plus it has all the mounting options should you wish to use them.
The biggest stand out for me was the 29er wheels. It has been a while since I last had a proper ride on a 29er and the advantages of a large rolling diameter frequently showed its benefits. 27.5 is still going to get you to the end but the 29″ wheels maintained momentum and managed chunky terrain with an outstanding poise that would not be as achievable on a smaller wheeled bike.
A break down of the specs can be found here but to summarise everything worked well. The only trail side attention was a brake pad change, a little lube of the chain and a couple of punctures.
On the subject of the tyres these are the only thing that I would change. The Schwalbe Nobby Nics in 2.35 were noticeably draggy on the long stretches of gravel. I ran high pressures but having a faster tyre with a lower pressure would have been preferable. That said the Nobby Nics gave me reliable grip on a range of surfaces which was very welcoming when negotiating bogs and rock slabs on remote mountain sides.
Straight Cut Design Frame Bag
Considering that the Karate Monkey is a big bike the main triangle will feel quite compact if your accustomed to gravel bikes. Due to the limitations of running bottles in the frame (no space for two) I opted for a full frame bag and to use a bladder. Ross from Straight Cut did a great job of maximising the available storage with a removable two tier frame bag giving plenty of scope for storage customisation.
- 2 litre bladder filled half full.
- Arm warmers, leg warmers, buff and gloves
- Loo paper (later upgraded to baby wipes)
- Tool roll (Topeak Ratchet Rocket Lite DX tool, a terrible Birzman mini pump, tyre boots, patches, spare gear cable, spare pads, chain breaker, lube, quick link, zip ties and some more miscellaneous bits and pieces)
- Tubes x2
- Ti Spork
- Midge net
Restrap Handle Bar Roll
This 14L bag was dedicated to my sleeping things. The holster system is equal parts great as it is annoying. Once a few Polaris velcro straps were deployed to stabilise the dry bag things become much better although most days still involved some form of re-tightening. I have since come to the conclusion this holster is best if the load is kept below 8 litres. The little magnetic pouch proved to be a flight risk in testing and was left at home. Over the 6 days the holster straps mauled the paint work, not even the thick 3m protective tape was enough to protect Surly’s lovely yellow finish.
- Sleeping bag was an old Karrimor bag, its probably about a thin 2 season in terms of warmth.
- Alpkit Hunka Bivy
- Alpkit Cloudbase mat. Very comfortable when it was inflated, developed a hole on the first night.
- Sleeping/emergency long sleeve baselayer and socks
Restrap Saddle Pack
The saddle bag housed all my miscellaneous items. I have had this saddle pack for a while and have learned 2 things about it. 1) My supplied dry bag is too skinny and develops holes easily. 2) That anything over 8 ish litres and you are going to start noticing a lot of sway off road. This sway can loosen the straps which can cause things to jump about a lot. Not entirely Restrap’s fault as I packed this bag terribly, often just stuffing things in whatever way. I have since tested the holster with a fatter dry bag (Alpkit 14L) and can report that it is solid at higher loads.
- Spare clothes which consisted of a base layer, socks and a cosy hat
- Toothbrush, sun cream and first aid stuff
- Stove and cooking things, with a smaller stove this setup would have all packed into my 750ml Ti mug
- Anker 20100 battery pack and cables
- Bontrager 180 soft shell, this was not an ideal jacket as it does not pack small
Alpkit Rolltop Stem Cell
I was never a fan of stem cells and thought they the would be flappy and dorky. I was wrong. It is actually a super handy addition to a cockpit for storing things that you need to easily grab. I am not convinced that my Alpkit model is actually waterproof as Alpkit claim as a fair bit of moisture collected in the bottom. There is a possibility that it snuck in when I occasionally opened and closed it as Day 3 had no shortage of rain.
- Camera (Ricoh GR) when the weather was bad
Alpkit Fuel Pod
Another dorky bikepacking bag that quickly won my heart. It suffered a little drooping when empty but the fit was super secure and gave me another place to stash things that I needed on the move.
- Snacks (predominantly snickers and wine gums)
- Sometimes my camera (Ricoh GR) or phone
On Myself and the Bike
Most of the days we were blessed with lovely sunshine so clothing was fairly minimal. Although not great at drying the best decision was my Five Ten Pros. Super comfortable and hold fast grip on pedals, rocks and river beds alike which made sections of hike-a-bike trouble free. If the mud factor was higher I would definitely want something with a chunkier sole as some sections would have been a slip and slide with Five Tens dotty sole pattern.
My GPS performed with mixed success. On one hand the battery life was superb, easily lasting everyday. However it lost some data which was frustrating, I am unsure what caused the corruption of the data file and I haven’t experienced the issue since. The breadcrumb navigation was unsurprisingly terrible on meandering mountain tracks, nothing replaces good old Ordinance Survey mapping.
- Jersey with pockets and a full zip for sunny jersey flapping
- DHB Rain Defence bibs
- FWE Ridgeway shorts
- Marino socks
- Five Ten Pro shoes
- Giro Helmet and Morvelo cap.
- Lezyne Super Enhanced GPS attached to the handlebars with an out front mount mounted backwards.
In reality our six day pack list fell awkwardly in the middle of light weight shredder and multi day wilderness survival. The setup was a bit too heavy for making good time on the hike-a-bikes but limited my progress as I needed to make certain villages and towns in daytime to restock. This planning was an error on my part and we would have benefited by using a different approach. Either aiming to crush the route into four ish brutal days or cruise it over nine with full tent or bothy luxury. Should you attempt to bothy your way round you will be faced with at least one big day to clear the northern loop.
If I find myself in Tyndrum looking for redemption I would like to aim for a lighter and faster setup. Easing hike a bike efforts, maximising fun on descents and potentially having more open shops available.
I would also make improvements in the catering department. Breakfast was taken care of with porridge and coffee which was a fortifying morning kick starter although a little slow to prepare (a wee foldable cup would speed things up). My lunch and especially dinners were far too reliant on shops which caused timing issues and was likely the cause of my energy crash on Day Three. I had also planned to pack isotonic and recovery tablets but I forgot them.
Fork mounted bottles would allow me more frame bag volume (for food, stove or tarp) and make storage much more streamlined. Stu’s setup worked well with faff free river refilling but I am still unconvinced that bottles wouldn’t escape on bumpy descents. I am not great at staying hydrated so one advantage of the bladder was having the hose on the handlebars and a constant reminder to keep drinking. Even though I am more than happy to drink from streams a water filter would be a good fail safe to minimise the risk of health issues like the unfortunate incident on Day Five.
Clothing worked well and although we resorted to wearing animal feed bags on day three there was not really anything that I would change that was available to me at the time. If I was to critique, I would want my clothing to be more pack-able especially on the jacket front. This would allow me space for more layers incase of horrible weather or increase empty space for snacks which is always welcome. I would maybe factor in a change of socks for the sake of any persons near me in the latter stages of the route.
And that pretty much covers it. I didn’t feel that I did much wrong but after being spat out the other end I can see there is lots of room for improvements. For me reducing volume of equipment, some better preparation and general streamlining of kit to reduce faffing throughout the day would make a big difference. Oh and baby wipes, I will always make sure I pack baby wipes. On to the next ride…