Like any bikepacking race, the Highland Trail 550 has its own unique set of demands that makes packing the perfect kit a proper head scratcher. While our weather rarely hits the extremes that give races like the Arizona Trail race or winter ultras their notoriety, it’s always… interesting. Ground conditions vary from a surprising amount of tarmac road through to unwelcome amounts of trackless blanket bog. It’s quite possible to ride through snow, sun, wind and rain all in one day, even in May, and even 24 hours out our weather forecasts can be a total fantasy. To complicate things, the route is either full of plentiful resupplies, or you need to pack for 24 hours+ at a stretch, depending on the exact schedule you end up riding.
So with varied trails and varied weather, it’s tricky to get the right gear packed. Since the majority of folks who arrive at the HT550 start line don’t have access to the Highlands’ unique terrain from their own homes, those of us who do have a slight advantage. Over the years of testing out foolish route plans, being over-ambitious with weather windows and generally seeing what’s out there, I feel pretty comfortable with what works and what doesn’t for long rides in these parts. Also, I’ve always enjoyed getting ideas and cautionary tales from other people’s blogs, so I thought I’d share my gear list from this year’s HT550 here, if that’s your kind of thing. It’s evolved slowly over several attempts/finishes on the route, and I doubt I would change anything much if I was to ride it again in future.
I’ve been riding this Salsa Spearfish for a couple of years now. It’s incredibly similar to the Santa Cruz Tallboy mkIII that I rode from 2017-2020, with the main difference being a waaay bigger front triangle to fill with a big frame bag, and the suspension curve is far more active in the first portion of travel. That makes it easy to set up with comfort and traction in mind, which to my mind makes it brilliant at long rides on rough terrain.
Suspension – The fork and rear shock are nothing weird, just a Fox 34 SC fork and DPS rear shock. I don’t change the air pressure in either from riding unloaded, so that the lightly loaded bike ends up being fairly soft/slow. Riding it aggressively would feel a bit sloppy, but it works well over long rides to provide comfort and traction.
Drivetrain — Again nothing weird, a mix of Shimano XT and XTR parts, but I switched to a 28t chainring to allow for spinny gears to conserve energy — I’m always really surprised that more people don’t use teeny tiny chainrings for bikepacking races. On day 3 no-one is wanting to grind a big gear up a big hill! I don’t find that I spin out until I top 30km/h, which just means I get a chance to chill out and not pedal! I also use a 165mm crank to give better ground clearance.
Brakes — as I’ve said before I’m a huge fan of Hope brakes. They’re super reliable, very easy to work on and have given me precisely zero issues over the 10+ years that I’ve been using them. I use their E4 calipers with 180mm rotors to provide extra power for the extra weight of gear.
Wheels — The Reynolds TR249 wheels that came with the bike are perhaps the only thing I would change out in future. They’re very light, but they’re also a little narrow at 24mm internal, and the relatively deep rim feels a little harsh to me. Still, they were the fastest thing I had available, and they’ve been reliable over the last 2 years.
Touch points — For what it’s worth, I really get on well with Specialized’s power saddle, it seems to fit my bum like a glove. And the grips are Ergon’s GA3, which have a slightly flattened profile that seems to reduce hand pressure a bit, but they’re nothing crazy. I make an effort to spend any time on tarmac with my elbows on the bars, to get a slight aero boost but mostly just to give my hands a break.
The frame bag on this bike is a custom Revelate Designs bag that Dusty made for the Spearfish, with just one main pocket and a slim pocket on the non-driveside. It’s much like any other Revelate bag in that it’s very durable, and the zippers are chunky with their stretch material backer, which allows you to squeeze those extra snacks in without bursting the zip or causing it to snag.
In here I keep heavy items like tools and spares down the bottom (where hopefully they won’t be needed). My tools and spares mostly live in a Revelate Tool Cash to keep them organised, while my ‘adventure’ puncture repair kit lives in its own little case.
As well as repair gear, I kept my electrical and self-care stuff in a little wash bag, a third soft flask which I didn’t actually use that much, and food.
This is a Revelate Pronghorn, with a medium-sized dry bag containing sleep gear and spare clothes:
- Enlightened Equipment synthetic quilt. It isn’t the lightest or smallest, but down bags get damp after the first bivvy in our humid climate, and after that they’re dead weight as they’re not keeping your knackered body warm. This quilt cinches up to become a sleeping bag, pretty much and despite getting damp it stayed warm and let me rest for a few hours. I think its rated to around 5 degrees C, which was about right for chilly May nights.
- SOL bivvy bag. This thing claims to be breathable, and to be fair it does as good a job as other cheap-ish bivvy bags. It also has a reflective coating on the inside which certainly can’t hurt. It’s very light and compact, and while not as cosy as a ‘proper’ bivvy it is waterproof, is orange (handy in an emergency) but fragile enough that I only ever use it for races.
- Klymit sleeping mat. This mat looks stupid, but is very light and compact, and very quick to inflate/deflate. It’s comfy *enough* for a few hour’s sleep, but is another race-only bit of gear, really. For the comfort and added warmth of not sleeping on bare ground it’s worth bringing, and also plays well in that hypothetical ‘what if’ scenario in which either I or another rider need to stay in one spot in bad weather to wait for help.
- Sleep socks. These are pretty important! Wet feet cause a lot of issues for folks, so I filled these thin wool socks with anti-fungal powder and kept them in a little bag. They went on while I was stopped, and did a really good job of drying my feet out in between times. No trench foot for me this time.
- Puffy jacket. A lightweight synthetic puffy jacket doubles as both sleep insulation and moving insulation.
- Thin insulated vest. The forecast was on the cool side this year, with northerlies dominating the first few days.
- Neck warmer and merino hat
- Tailwind energy and recovery stick packs
- Dry bag containing Inov8 waterproof mitts, windproof gloves and merino hat
- Food capacity
Montane Gecko 12l running vest, which is a really handy flexible way to store all sorts of crap that you might need to access while riding. I have no idea what we did before the running vest! Mostly used to store excess food, waterproofs, and random bits and bobs bike sun cream, headphones, my actual phone, and helmet light (until I left it in a bothy on night two, an expensive mistake).
I think personal clothing can be one of the trickiest things to get right for a route like the HT550 — it’s enticingly easy to underestimate how cold the Highlands can be at 4am in a lonely glen in May (sub-zero is fairly common) or when you’ve been riding through rain and spray all day and are soaked through. Every year I see people, usually at the pointy end, riding in ‘roadie’ jerseys and jackets, and just bibshorts. Not to say that it doesn’t work for them, but after the excitement of the first day I’d say it’s harder to pack too much than it is to pack too little. I’m pretty fussy about clothing and give it a fair bit of thought, so here’s what I ended up packing to wear:
7Mesh Skypilot jacket and Revo waterproof 3/4s
- I’ve been using these since December, and they did the job through a particularly damp and unpleasant Scottish winter. I’ve toyed with thinner/cheaper jackets before, but they rarely deliver beyond the first soaking. For warmer summer temps ¾ shorts offer a good balance between ventilation and coverage.
7Mesh Mk3 shorts (no bibs = easier pooping!)
7Mesh Farside long shorts (lycra on its own lets the wind and water through a bit too easily)
7Mesh Elevate tee
7Mesh arm-warmers (can be pulled up and down nice and quick without changing layers)
7Mesh Northwoods windshell
Mountain Equipment lightly insulated vest
On the bike
There was the usual assortment of things on the bike, but as much as possible I like to keep the handlebar area clean with as few things as possible dangling off them.
- Revelate Mag-Tank 2000 for snacks
- Garmin etrex
- Exposure Toro handlebar light
- Exposure Joystick helmet light (on my head until I lost it. Doh)
- Garmin Edge computer (for HR pacing on day 1, although I ended up mostly ignoring it).
- Exposure TraceR rear light
- Garmin Inreach Mini tracker
I’m sure there are some things that I’ve forgotten, but that’s the gist of what I packed, minus food and water. I packed lighter than this in 2017, but that year had a better forecast and to be honest I think I got away with it, just. I’ve learned a lot since then, and while slightly lighter gear will gain you a *slight* advantage over 4 days, it also increases your chances of scratching or ending up in an unsafe situation. I like to apply the same ‘what if’ questions that I would to any trip plan, i.e. ‘plan for the worst and hope for the best’, and that can still end up with a light setup.
I’ve always really appreciated scavenging little bits of information here and there, about what works, what doesn’t, and the thought process that drives different decisions. My style works for me and is based on a lot of ‘ah!’ moments when I’ve realised that I was way off the mark… So feel free to fire away with questions, this is a safe space for geekery!