Thinking of bikepacking the North Coast 500 cycle route?
The North Coast 500 is an unforgettable adventure that takes you through some of the most beautiful landscapes Scotland has to offer.
You’ll encounter incredible wildlife, stunning scenery, and charming towns and villages, all while challenging yourself physically and mentally. If you’re up for an adventure, this is one route you won’t want to miss.
With around 500 miles (830 km) covered alongside 26,800 feet (8168 m), depending on which route you choose, it is one of the toughest bikepacking routes in the UK.
If that’s not enough, you’ll also be tackling Bealach-Na-Ba, which boasts the greatest altitude gain of any road in the UK.
Sounds like a lot? Don’t worry – in this article, we will lay out everything you need to know before you go!
We’ll be covering:
- Overview Of The North Coast 500
- NC500: Planning Your Route
- How Long Does The North Coast 500 Take?
- North Coast 500 Cycle: Sleeping Options
- Bikepacking the NC500: Essential Gear
- Best Time Of Year To Cycle North Coast 500
Ready for the lowdown on a Scottish epic?
Overview of the north coast 500
The North Coast 500 is an awe-inspiring cycle route that takes you on a journey through some of Scotland’s most breathtaking landscapes.
It’s a 500-mile route that starts and ends in Inverness, taking you on a circular tour of the Scottish Highlands, showcasing some of the most stunning coastal and mountain scenery in the world.
The quaint villages and towns that you pass through along the way add to the charm of your journey. Most locals will be amused by your seemingly bizarre decision to cycle 500 miles around the coast; warm words of encouragement will add to the sense of camaraderie and adventure that accompanies any cycling trip.
You’ll feel a wave of accomplishment at the end of each day. The sense of freedom and adventure that comes with cycling through such magnificent scenery is unparalleled.
The combination of stunning natural beauty, undulating terrain, and warm hospitality make cycling the NC500 an experience that is both challenging and unforgettable.
NC500: Planning your route
There are two main routes that people usually choose to do; we’ll also include a third, shorter option for those not yet ready to tackle the full route.
You can ride it clockwise or anti-clockwise, with most riders opting for clockwise. The length and elevation tend to vary depending on which route planner you use. But it’s far and steep!
Here are the three options:
#1: NC500: Avoiding The A9
- Length: 802 km (499 miles)
- Elevation: 10,733 m (35,213 feet)
First and foremost is a slightly deviated route from the classic NC500, championed by Mark Beaumont (check out the map here), NC500 legend.
You get all of the beauty of the classic route and more. The A9 is a really grim stretch of road to cycle on, with fast lorries and cars with plenty of questionable overtakes; the small bit that you cycle on in this route is more than enough.
On the other hand, the A897 deviation takes you through captivating and remote gorse-laden hillsides. You’ll likely only meet a handful of cars.
The chief downside is that you miss John o’ Groats.
You’ll join the A9 for a short segment between Lothbeg and Greenhill, but before you know it, you head back into the hills.
There is another deviation earlier on in the route, in the form of a left turn before Drumrunie, with breathtaking mountains and stunning lochs; it’s not one to miss, even if you later opt for the A9! You rejoin the classic route after Lochinver.
#2: official North Coast 500 cycling Route
- Length: 817km (507 miles)
- Elevation: 10,380 m (34,055 feet)
This is the official route, which includes John o’ Groats, a small village known for being one of the most northerly points of the British mainland.
This route also avoids the left turn at Drumrunie.
The vast majority of these two variations are the same; if you aren’t fussed about cars, then sticking to the A9 may be for you.
#3: NC500 – shorter option: Strathcarron to Dingwall
- Length: 432 km (268 miles)
- Elevation: 5743 m (18,842 feet)
500 miles is a long way; not everyone can get the necessary time off or feel up to the physical challenge of cycling 500 miles with a bike laden with gear.
The shorter route takes riders from Strathcarron to Dingwall and includes arguably the most stunning portions of the full NC500 route.
The western coast of Scotland is a real gem, featuring dramatic landscapes and wild windswept coastlines.
How long does the north coast 500 take?
You can take as long as you like! If you are a beast like Christina Mackenzie or Mark Beaumont, you’ll be back in time for supper.
In 2022, both ultra-endurance riders completed the route in record-breaking times, ith Christina Mackenzie setting a blistering 36-hour 39-minute benchmark and Mark Beaumont completing the route in 28 hours and 35 minutes.
They didn’t have bikepacking gear, though, right?
Most riders will look to complete the route in 7-10 days.
Whatever speed you choose to do really depends on what you want to get out of the ride and who you are riding with.
For those looking for a real challenge, 3-5 days will test your resolve. Bring a lot of chamois cream.
Here’s what you can expect as a daily distance for each timeframe:
- 3 Days: 266 km (167 miles)
- 5 Days: 160 km (100 miles)
- 7 Days: 114 km (71 miles)
- 10 Days: 80 km (50 miles)
- 14 Days: 57 km (36 miles)
north coast 500 cycle: Sleeping options
#1: Wild Camping or campsites
Wild camping is legal in Scotland, which gives you a unique opportunity to camp on beaches, besides Lochs and near mountains. Just remember to be respectful and keep your impact on the environment to a minimum. Leave no trace!
You won’t have trouble finding areas on the route, and can always have a little reccy on google street view if you you know where you are finishing for the day.
The worst-case scenario is you have to carry on a little further in order to find a decent spot, but that means fewer kilometers the next day!
#2: Hotels and Hostels
There are plenty of places that will offer you a bed for the night, but be sure to book ahead. The NC500 has become a very popular route for cyclists and road users alike, so reasonably priced accommodation is hard to come by at short notice.
If you are booking accommodation, let them know you are bringing a bicycle, especially if there is a group of you. There are few things more demoralizing than being turned away after a long, rainy day in the saddle.
Lots of riders who attempt the NC500 go for a mixture of wild camping and hostels. A night on a mattress will feel extra special after a night on the cold ground, and a night on the cold ground will feel more manageable after a night on a soft bed.
Bikepacking the NC500: Essential Gear
Having the right gear is essential for a comfortable and safe adventure.
Here are some essential items you’ll need for bikepacking:
- Bike: Obviously, you’ll need a bike for bikepacking. Get it serviced before the trip to ensure no major faults whilst you’re adventuring.
- Bikepacking Bags: You’ll need specialized bags that attach to your bike frame to carry your gear. These typically include a handlebar bag, frame bag, and saddle bag. Look for bags that are durable, waterproof, and designed to fit your bike frame.
- Sleeping Gear: Depending on your plans, you may need a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and a pillow, although scrunching up your clothes will probably work as a makeshift pillow. There are many lightweight, compact options available for bikepacking that won’t take up too much space on your bike.
- Food and Water: Generally, on the NC500, you will be able to restock once per day, with the option to supplement your hunger at a cafe. So you’ll need to carry enough food and water for a day. Look for lightweight, high-energy foods that are easy to pack and won’t spoil quickly.
- Repair Kit: Flat tires and other mechanical issues can quickly derail your bikepacking trip. Make sure you have a repair kit that includes a spare tube, tire levers, multi-tool, chain tool, pump, and any other items you may need to fix your bike on the go.
- Navigation: It’s essential to have a way to navigate during your trip, whether that’s a GPS device, smartphone app, or paper map. There are some signposts on the NC500, but they can be easy to miss. Make sure you have a way to keep your navigation tools charged, such as a portable battery pack.
- Clothing: You are going to be in Scotland. Even if you are there in summer, it can get cold and will almost certainly rain. Make sure to bring rain gear, warm layers, and breathable, moisture-wicking fabrics. Don’t forget to bring a helmet, gloves, and sunglasses for protection and comfort.
A special mention for insect repellent or a head net. The midges in Scotland are quite infamous. Believe the hype and come prepared.
Best time of year to cycle north coast 500
The months of June to August will give you the best chance of getting good weather, with average temperatures ranging from 12-18°C (54-64°F).
Good weather is a relative term; you are in Scotland. The route is still doable in spring or early autumn, but if you can, go in summer.
Getting to Inverness
There are several ways to get to Inverness, depending on your starting location and your preferred method of travel.
Here are some options:
- By Train: You can take a train from many cities in Scotland or England to Inverness, with direct services available from Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Manchester, Birmingham, and Newcastle, among others. The journey times vary depending on your starting location, but direct trains from London take around 10 hours.
- By Bus: There are several coach services that operate between Inverness and other cities across the UK, including National Express and Megabus. The journey times and prices vary depending on your starting location, but direct services from London take around 14 hours.
- By Car: If you are driving from the south, the most direct route to Inverness is via the A9 road, which runs from Perth to Inverness. The journey time varies depending on your starting location, but from London, it can take around 10-12 hours.
- By Air: There are several airlines that operate flights from various cities in the UK to Inverness, including British Airways, EasyJet, and Flybe. Direct flights are available from London, Manchester, and Birmingham, among others, alongside some international flights. If arriving from abroad, you can also fly to Glasgow or Edinburgh and rent a car or take public transport.
Whichever method of travel you choose, it’s a good idea to book your tickets in advance to get the best deals and ensure bike availability.