Plans in the outdoors do not always work out. That does not always matter.
In fact, much of the time plans are important for only one thing: giving you the excuse and the impetus to get out of the door, and go.
Make a plan, by all means. Have an objective. But be alert that the objective is not the objective. (It is the exercise, the clear air and clarity of thought, the company, and the ‘No Service’ notification on your phone.)
Our plan was hatched by @anke_is_awesome [please follow her as I promised that in return for her local adventure expertise I would try to get her up to 500 followers!] and it sounded great: mountain bike through a forest, packraft across a lake and up a river to enjoy a swim in a beautiful waterfall before setting up camp.
My favourite aspect of bikepacking is how much stuff you can do with so little stuff. With the bags on the bike frame and a small backpack we were equipped for biking, hiking, camping, and packrafting. I kicked myself for forgetting a fishing rod.
The sun shone, the Bavarian Alps were splendid, the lake was an astonishing chalky blue, and I was in ridiculously over-excited mood as we pedalled into the forest, the warm air heady with the scent of pine woods and mountain lakes. I love how well bikes handle with bikepacking gear compared to the chunky panniers of my youthful cycling journeys. The ride feels fast and light. I hammered off down the singletrack path, swooping and curving and generally feeling rather pleased with life.
But it turned out that we were not the only folk in Bavaria who had decided that this forest track would be a nice spot to be on this warm afternoon. There were hikers, bikers, horse-riders galore, and this irritated me! I realised that I am accustomed to being off the beaten track and away from popular spots (and soggy toilet roll and fire circles). And so being on a busy path reminded me how fortunate I am that I have the experience and skills and imagination needed to usually come up with my own adventure plans rather than following the prescribed recipes of formulaic guide books. (Because this issue was in my mind, I noticed several times over the coming days when people had chosen to sunbathe close to busy roads, to hike on crowded trails rather than small paths, or to cluster together on crowded lake beaches. There is a knack that has to be learned in order to escape from crowds, the key part of which is realising quite how easy it is to do.)
Fortunately the path grew quieter the further we cycled, and I grinned as we rode faster and faster through the woods.
Arriving at the lakeshore where we planned to launch our packrafts, we saw that the wind was far too strong for us to be able to paddle. (Part 1: fail)
Instead, we hopped back on the bikes to ride all the way round the perimeter of the lake to our waterfall river. There we discovered that the epic summer of 2018 had dried up our waterfall. (Part 2: fail)
But it is hard to feel too much of a failure when you’re out riding your bike on a sunny day. So we leaped into one of the clearest, most inviting rivers I have ever swum in, as turquoise and clear as a swimming pool but without the veruccas and chlorine. It was as perfect as a river can ever be. And then, refreshed, we jumped back on our bikes and zipped through the forest to another lake, with a new plan of camping there, paddling on the lake, and cooking up a feast. It sounded like an excellent back-up plan…
Every year I plan to use my packraft more. They are the coolest of adventure toys, a lightweight piece of kit that can turn a day (or month) in the hills into a more intriguing, memorable experience. I crossed Iceland using a hardcore, tough @alpacka_raft. Eight years on it still serves me very well. Out here in Bavaria we carried much lighter (and therefore flimsier) @anfibiopackrafting boats. It had a clever, compact design, a handy adjustable paddle, and extremely small pack size. The key thing to remember with packrafts is that they are compromise craft: you always sacrifice something in order to gain something else. For example, although it would not have survived my Iceland trip, this raft was so light it was a pleasure to carry when bikepacking. I have stiffened my resolution to get out on the water more often!
There are two approaches to cooking when camping. You can treat food as fuel and simply pack the lightest, easiest to cook calories. Or you can be like Frank.
I’md never met Frank before. He was waiting for @anke_is_awesome and me outside the train station when we pulled up in our van. We loaded his bike and gear on board then headed straight for the supermarket. The mountains were calling. Shopping for camping food with someone you don’t know can be a frustrating exercise in diplomacy — “which nuts do you want?” “I don’t mind. You choose.” — so my usual approach is to just let the other person decide everything. Frank had seemed like a placid sort of guy, but it turned out he had plenty of opinions when it came to food…
“Let’s get garlic.”
“How about a chilli?”
He picked up a box of eggs. “We’re going mountain biking, Frank,” Anke reminded him.
“That’s OK – I’mll put them with my camera lenses.”
Frank, it appeared, intended to eat well tonight!
“We need salt. And olive oil.”
Anke and I by now had made a beeline for the checkout, concerned about how on earth we were going to carry all this food.
Soon Frank appeared sheepishly round an aisle clutching a bottle of red wine. “Don’t worry – I’mll carry it.”
Then he put wine glasses in the trolley.
And finally Anke and I had to draw the line when he began casting around for a corkscrew. “I promise I’mll open the bottle for you, Frank,” I said, “we can use a stick or a tent peg.”
That evening, on a beautiful lakeshore beneath a ring of mountains, Frank cooked up a storm. Was it worth squeezing wine and eggs and chilli into our already laden bags? Hell, yeah!
Cooking is more of a fiddly hassle outdoors than in your kitchen, but that additional effort forces you to slow down, to pay attention, and to savour what you are doing. Back home I slice, sizzle, gobble meals in minutes, then dash on to whatever comes next. Sitting by a lake with one small penknife and a single gas stove, scooping our water from the lake, it took far longer to prepare the meal. But that was part of the pleasure. We sat and chatted, sipped and savoured the decadent delight of outdoor wine, and truly enjoyed every mouthful. Hunger is the best sauce, and outdoors is the best restaurant. Danke schön, Frank!
Full with food and happiness, I lay back in the warm wood and looked up at shooting stars. Something caught my eye, close to my head. It was the pulsing, faint light of a glowworm. This made me very happy. What ingenious little creatures they are. I wish I could work out which combination of buttock muscles to tense to make my own backside glow.
I do my best to resist, but I too am susceptible to social media envy. For a long time I have looked at and lusted for those beautiful Alpine mountain huts you see from time to time. So when @anke_is_awesome and I were planning this trip to the Bavarian Alps, a night in a hut was high on my wish list. I am well-accustomed to British bothies, so was anticipating a slightly souped up version of a bothy. That was to be proved spectacularly wrong. But first, we had to get up there…
It was a fiercely hot day; I guzzled from a fountain until my belly was bloated heavy like a camel. My pack was somewhat heavier than I might have opted for thanks to Frank the foodie photographer’s insistence on me carrying a sack of potatoes, a weighty German loaf, as well as an extra bottle of wine! And Germans have a strange fondness for sparkling water, so I burped and sweated my way up the mountainside.
But it was such a beautiful climb, making our way up through quiet pine forests and open Alpine meadows with flowers and lush grass and long-eared sheep wearing clanging bells. We looked down at a tantalising emerald lake in the valley and dreamed of cool swims. Up above the treeline, at last, we were treated to a spectacular panorama of the whole Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain.
I was by now extremely sweaty and extremely excited, and therefore impatient to reach the hut, perched overlooking the valley a couple of thousand metres above sea level. Frank immediately cracked into our first bottle of wine and tore up a loaf of bread. Barefoot, sweaty, and smiling, we toasted our good fortune to be up here.
And boy, oh boy – my anticipation of a slightly tidier version of a bothy was ludicrously wrong. This hut had beds and mattresses and blankets and red/white checked pillows, and flushing toilets, and porcelain sinks and a shower, and running water, and a wood burner (and, tellingly, wood furniture that had not been smashed to pieces and chucked into the fire by whisky-drunk bothy guests), and a kitchen vastly better stocked than my own at home. There was a wood-fired Aga (and piles of firewood), china crockery, wine glasses, a whisk, a steak mallet, and even one of those spinning wheel ham slicer thingies that I thought only existed in butchers’ shops! Oh, and it had electric lights as well.
Frank, inevitably, was by now getting thinking about dinner, so I lit a fire in the stove, then stood back and let him get to work cooking up a feast.
In other words, this ‘hut’ was not quite what I thought a hut would be like!
The view was spectacular, the grass was soft, and the sun shone. I was really looking forward to sleeping out here, in particular so that I could enjoy the dawn view down the valley to the village far below. I think the other two thought I was a bit weird because the luxury hut was right next door! In the end, however, I was immensely grateful for the hut as a cataclysmic thunderstorm swept across the mountain after dark, dazzling the sky and smashing us with waves of thunder. Rain sluiced in the flashes like a Hollywood deluge. It would have been undoubtedly the most miserable bivvy of my entire life! Instead, the storm was thrilling. We watched from inside the hut, wincing at the bright lilac lightning strikes, whooping at the visceral, violent energy of the thunder. I adore being safe and dry at the very heart of a storm.
You don’t have to go far to be original. Memorable experiences don’t have to be expensive. A tiny detour from your beaten path can create a strong memory. Look at the familiar in fresh ways. Rain is fun and beautiful, if you decide that it is. Swimming is good for the soul. Camping on small islands is fun. And bivvy bags make great flotation bags for your gear.
Cycle to a lake. Swim to an island. Come back happy.