So the plan was to ride my retro hardtail loaded with overnight kit for three complete days, about 35km per day, and spend two nights camping in Exmoor. This wasn't to be epic wild camping, bivvying on a bed of moss, drinking from a mountain stream and foraging for breakfast that I often read about, no, this is Entry Level bikepacking. Accessible bikepacking. Wild camping is all well and good but it requires a certain amount of tactics and planning that I didn't want to get into this time, particularly packing up early in the morning, something I have never been good at. “Early” for me and “early” for landowners likely to catch me differs by about 3 or 4 hours so for this trip, campsites were on the card.
I also couldn't face packing all the food I needed for three days - dehydrated meals or tastier, but heavier boil in the bag meals - either way they add to the bulk of stuff to be carried. And for lunch? Would sandwiches I prepared on Friday night still be edible by Monday lunchtime after three days in the summer heat with no fridge? No, my plan was to mix up a little bit of campstove cooking with eating at pubs or tearooms on the way.
Exmoor was a perfect location for all of this. Only an hour and a half’s drive from home in Bristol, I could easily get there in time for a full days riding on Saturday without a ridiculously early start. In terms of all the creature comforts mentioned above, Exmoor has it all - villages such as Exford, Withypool and Winsford are all within striking distance from anywhere and all boast places to eat. There are enough campsites around, all big enough to find your own space even if its busy. And of course, the riding. If your looking at this website, chances are you are already acquainted with the trails on Exmoor, but the variety and quantity is immense. Woodland singletrack to high open moorland stone tracks, views over the coast to Wales, wild ponies and a real feeling of being out there.
Bike and Kit
My companion for this trip, was my 1992 Orange Prestige with upgraded Pace RC35 forks and sporting state of the art V-brakes. While retro MTB fans usually give me an approving nod when seeing me out on this, others may think this a strange choice, but I wanted to use this because it had lugs for fitting a pannier rack to use the equally ancient pannier luggage I already had, as well as double bottle cage mounts. Nowadays I realise there is a plethora of bike luggage out there that will fit everywhere on your bike without special frames or mounts enabling me to take one of my more modern, more comfortable bikes instead but I figured I would give the old Orange its day. This bikepacking has become its sole raison d’etre and besides, the more sedate, less gnarly pace of a bikepacking trip I think suits its old school geometry and style.
My setup was basic, being summer and with the aforementioned pubs, I didn't need loads of kit: sleeping bag in a dry bag on the handlebars. Stem pouch with inner tube and tools. Tent poles just in the bag they came in strapped to my top tube, 2x water bottles underneath. Pannier rack with top mounted pack containing the rest of the tent, sleeping mat, waterproof jacket and gas canister. 16L Camelbak with clothing, titanium mug, stove and food (some noodles, dried pasta, pitta breads, chocolate spread, porridge pots and coffee).
My route was part stuff I knew, part stuff I didn't, with as much off road as possible - I wasn't making any concessions due to the bike I was riding.
Day one’s gentle start was the perfect introduction to the trip with a flat track through the beautiful woods near Dulverton - under a canopy of trees, surrounded by thick green vegetation and riding along side a tinkling stream, it was hard to believe I was in England.
After a gruelling half hour push up a grassy potholed track, I had never before been so pleased to see a section of road, and a nice 4km flat section let me take my helmet off and cruise along with the wind in my hair, enjoying the view, the peace and quiet and the expanse of this section of Exmoor, accompanied by the highland cattle, running along the moor beside me, long blonde locks bouncing lazily like some 80’s shampoo TV advert.
The rough track down to Withypool that followed showed me that a descent that is a blast on a lightweight full suspension bike, hopping and bouncing over the ditches and rocks may not necessarily be as much fun when ploughing down on a fully laden old school hardtail with 50mm of front wheel travel. But as I was to discover, the reverse would also be equally true.
The fun descent into Exford was a new find for me, setting me up nicely for the pints and hot food awaiting me at the White Horse pub in the village, handily serving food all day.
Westermill farm campsite is huge, so much so that despite one field being booked out for a private party and the one field where fires are allowed being pretty full, I still managed to get a whole field to myself, carefully pitching my tent next to the sole tree to ensure it was in the shade of the morning sun. Walking to the shower block in bare feet, I really wished I had packed some flip flops...
The first off road section of Day two was a real treat, taking me northwards towards the Doone Valley. A fairly smooth but fast track, I'm sure it would seem tame on any other ride but it was spot on today. Shortly after this came the only bit of the whole trip where I was worried I might go the wrong way. I went the wrong way, and getting back on track involved 15 minutes of dragging my bike uphill through thick, tussocky, slightly boggy grass. Only a couple of contour lines and mere millimeters on the map but felt like such a struggle!
The path along Doone Valley was as amazing as the times I'd ridden it previously, but perhaps looked even more stunning on this gorgeous summers day. So many potential spots for a swim or a picnic or just a nice walk and I really wanted to come back and enjoy the valley at a slower pace, instead of racing through on a bike not able to look at much more than the ground in front of me. Such was my euphoria in this spot I crossed the footbridge to the tearoom at the campsite to enjoy the surroundings for longer. A pot of tea and a bacon baguette later and I started chatting to the lady who runs the place. She told me she came here on holiday several years ago and had also fell in love with place and and told the owner she didn't want to leave. “Don't then” he had replied, and offered her a job. She’s been there ever since. I told her I wanted to come back later that summer with the baby that we were expecting, as our first camping trip - she said that she had other regulars who first came here with a months-old baby and have been coming back every year since. I had a good look round - the site was massive and plenty of corners to try and hide away from others with a crying baby.
I climbed up to the the Culbone Inn for some liquid refreshment and then came probably the sketchiest descent of the whole trip heading towards Poole Bridge. Short, but steep and littered with loose rocks, I thought this really isn't the terrain to be riding this sort of bike on. No dropper post, hard narrow tyres, steep head angle etc etc and all this extra weight in places I wasn't used to. I probably should have walked it but either momentum or bravado kept me going and it was all I could do to just sit back as far as I could, hold on and just hope muscle memory would guide me through rubber side down. It worked, just..
That night I was one of about 5 campers in the expansive Poole Bridge. I camped at the far end, and whilst riding my bike barefooted to the toilet block, again, really wished I had packed some flip flops. As I had forgone a fire the night before, I was keen on one tonight, and finding the dying embers of the previous campers, for the first time in my life, got a fire going without even striking a match.
Straight out of the campsite, Horner Woods served up some sublime singletrack for breakfast, long, narrow and flowing alongside the stream. From there came a long series of steep uphills to Dunkery Beacon, reminding me that if two days back to back hadn't already killed me, Day 3, The Day Of Climbing would do. A couple at the Beacon took my photo and seemed impressed with my efforts; the ride down made it all worthwhile and seemed to go on forever, and although possibly the least technical descent off the top, was perfectly suited to my setup.
Not fully acknowledging the steep road down to Exford that would need to be climbed up again after, I made a last minute decision to detour there (again) for lunch, this time in a tea room rather than the pub. I watched another cyclist arrive with a bike bearing luggage, although not as much as mine, so I figured he probably wasn't camping. I got chatting to him and he was nearing the end of an epic John o’groats to Lands End bike ride (staying in BnBs mainly) - riding around 100 miles a day, it really put my efforts to shame, but having said that, he seemed equally impressed with me for riding almost all off road, and choosing Exmoor to do it in - from his experience, the hilliest place he had ridden on his journey since Scotland! (He obviously bypassed the Lakes then…) Just goes to show, a challenge is in the eye of the beholder, or something like that.
A hidden and eerily quiet but beautiful section of the River Exe eventually led me to Tarr Steps, definitely not quiet but still pretty stunning. The tracks round here are a bit confusing with the official bridleway crossing the river twice at deep fords. As in shoes and socks off, knee-deep wading deep. Nice in summer, not so good when riding around here in torrential rain in winter (another story…), and I managed to miss what may the best bit that I had ridden on that aforementioned rather soggy day. I made up for it at the Tarr Farm Inn with an ice cold pint and then went for a paddle - stepping gingerly over the rocks and pebbles, I wished, for the third time, that I had brought flip flops with me.
With just one tedious road climb and a descent left, I wanted to make this moment last, so went to buy an ice cream. I managed to persuade the stall holder to let me have 20p off the cost of one as that was all the change I had left on me, but any hopes of lying by the river to eat it were dashed as he seemed to want to chat. Ah well, the least I could do after getting a discount ice cream. We talked about local riding and Australia, where we had both spent considerable amounts of time and about the reality running an ice cream stall in an idyllic location.
Finishing back in Dulverton at the end of three days and the bottom of a long descent that just got faster and faster as it progressed felt like it necessitated some sort of high five or celebration but alas there was none to be had. My reserved woo-hoos were for me alone and there wasn't even a post ride pint or cake. The cafes were all starting to close and it felt like a bit of an anticlimax, but I guess I’d had my celebration at Tarr Steps. I didn't really want to go home, and dreamt of just carrying on riding, just keeping going until either the weather broke or my wife demanded I went home. Still, that's one of the signs of a good ride, leaving you wanting more. I had discovered new tracks and new campsites, had some good chats with inspiring people and spotted other places for further exploration. I had proved to myself that I could ride 100km over 3 consecutive days, navigating without the use of a GPS, and how straightforward it all was, luckily with no mechanicals or other problems. So many possibilities for upping the ante - next time I could go for more days, go harder and longer on a full sus bike or go somewhere completely different and unknown (up north?) - or I could just do the same thing with the wife and daughter or friends, and show them the delights of simple bikepacking with pubs and campsites (and pack the flip flops next time).
Hugo and Tom are trail hunting fanatics, travelling around the UK to find the best and most beautiful wild riding locations for their mountain bikes. We write about our findings and provide professionally guided mountain bike trips to our favourite spots. We're also big believers in outdoor education for children.