Go Wild: Planning Ahead

How to find the best off-road routes


Britain has some of the best wild mountain biking in the world but more and more riders are forgetting all about it. Time to stop queuing round kitty litter trail centres like a flock of sheep and take a real ride on the wild side…


We’ve nothing against the convenience of neatly packaged, pine-scented trail centres, with a proper car park, gravel for guaranteed grip and enough berms and drops to make you feel ballsy before a nice latte at the end to get you back home.

But what about finding that perfect ride? One that has as much technical riding as you want and lasts as long as you want. An epic adventure that brings you back wired, with a sense of achievement and excitement to create your next challenge. A route where the singletrack will have you thinking and responding to every metre of multiple line trail. A ride of repeated heart-in-mouth reactions to unseen rock gardens, long drops, bottomless bogs or climbing challenges. An experience that brings out the true character and ultimate challenge of an area. Basically a ride with real identity and individuality, not some same Scots pine-lined Scalextric track that could be in any forest from Devon to Dumfries.

Unlocking this perfect ride and unleashing your wild side is far less scary than you think. So grab a map and a couple of inner tubes and put some mountain back in your biking!

Planning ahead

With thousands of miles of superb trail to choose from in Britain, finding your perfect wild ride might sound impossible, but you only need some basic knowledge to find the best ride…

1] Which route?

You can take your mountain bike on most tracks in Scotland, but in England and Wales you can only legally ride bridleways, Byways Open to All Traffic (BOATs), Roads Used as Public Paths (RUPPs) and some council roads. In OS map terms, that means the long dashed lines (green on 1:25,000 scale maps, red on 1:50,000), not the dotted ones (which are footpaths). Ones that follow a fine double dotted line are likely to be well-surfaced tracks, while single lines or no line at all are more likely to be sheep track singletrack.

2] Spot the hill

The closer those brown contour lines are together the steeper the slope is. Then check the elevation numbers to work out overall climb and which is the top and the bottom. Next use the symbol guide sidebar and some common sense to work out what the ground is probably like. Tracks near marshes are likely to be wet, ones near crags or mineworkings are likely to be rocky. Tracks that join up roads or go to farms or other buildings are likely to better maintained than those heading into the middle of nowhere.

3] Cheat

If you’re nervous about popping your exploring cherry, then cheat. Look at online route sites such as www.bikely.com, or use a route from a mag or guide book. Follow the ride as you do it, cross-referencing the map and any contour or symbol clues to build up your experience until you feel confident enough to modify a recommended route or plan a totally new one from scratch.

4] Make it fun

You’ll often find that route guides don’t always share your trail tastes. You know what you like, so run the route that way round. For example, we always do steep climbs on roads or doubletrack and use long flowing trails to maximise descending time. Don’t just stick in shitty farm tracks for the sake of minimum road/maximum off-road either – especially in winter or wet conditions. Use tarmac to link up as many good bits as possible in the time you’ve got. It’s your route though, so go with whatever floats your boat.

5] Go with the flow

Finally, always be flexible – especially if the route turns to shit. Always have a few emergency shortcut options. Be prepared to change routes mid-ride if things start to look ropey, or have extra bits ready to add if you find you’re flying and running out of route.

Essential Skills

What you need to know before you start

The most essential skill is knowing how far you can push yourself, both physically and in terms of terrain. It’s always a bit more than you think, but don’t rely on that.

You don’t need to know how to start fires or cook worm lasagne, but knowing where north is, is very useful for map reading (clues include the sun swinging east, to south, to west throughout the day and moss always growing on the north side of trees). For more help, check out www.abc-of-mountaineering.com/ navigation-skills.asp.


Basic first aid – how to stop bleeding, how to spot hypothermia – is definitely worth learning (www. redcrossfirstaidtraining. co.uk). If you really get stuck, the international signal for SOS is three short light flashes or whistle blows, three long ones and then three short ones again.