How to bike the North Coast 500

aerial shot of stunning Scottish scenery - a winding road through a golden valley

Meet the pro

Mark Beaumont lives with his family in Edinburgh and is best known for his round-the-world record double: in 2008 he set a record of 194 days for nailing 18,000 miles by bicycle, a record which he bettered in 2017 in an astonishing 78 days, 14 hours and 40 minutes.

cyclist Mark Beaumont stands by bike, packed up for bikepacking the North Coast 500

When the route was launched in 2015, I had set the inaugural record on the North Coast 500 with a time of 37 hours and 58 minutes. On 25 September 2022, I went back and set a new record with a time of 28 hours and 35 minutes, beating Robbie Mitchell’s previous record by half an hour. In between times I bikepacked the NC500 with Si Richardson from Global Cycling Network (GCN).

All-in-all, I feel a bit dizzy from pedalling laps of the north of Scotland! Even when you cycle the route at a fast pace and with a limited view of the road in front of you, you’re still much more connected to the true nature of the North Coast 500 than if you drive.

You’ll get to experience just how wild it is and how beautiful the changing road conditions are. Experience the changing weather patterns first-hand, the coming of the night and dawn, and if you are super lucky, you’ll even get a sight of the Northern Lights.

I think the physical effort of cycling the route makes the appreciation of the landscape that you’re going over all the greater. You’re earning every mile, you’re living it, as opposed to being a passenger.

Here are a few tips on how to best enjoy the North Coast 500 route, no matter how fast or slow you would like to go.

mountaintop shot of stunning Scottish scenery, loch and green hilly land far below

The North Coast 500 route

At 516 miles long, the North Coast 500 is one of the world’s most beautiful road trips, with stunning coastal scenery, white sandy beaches, rugged mountains and remote fishing villages.

In 2019, I mapped an alternative version of the route for a GCN documentary, which takes you on to smaller roads. You can download the route on Komoot here.

For an even shorter variation of the route, which is great for gravel and mountain bikes, try this itinerary from Bikepacking Scotland.

aerial shot of stunning Scottish scenery of a white sand beach

My favourite spots

Bealach na Bà
The longest climb on the North Coast 500winds from Loch Kishorn through the stunning mountain scenery of the Applecross Peninsula. The name is Scottish Gaelic for ‘pass of cattle’, as historically this route was used by drovers. Although the Bealach na Bà is ‘only’ the third highest road in Scotland, the dramatic setting rivals the Alpine passes and is the longest climb on the route at 627m above sea level.

Gruinard Bay and the beaches in the North West
The rocky coves and pink sand beaches of Gruinard Bay and the beaches that follow further north are some of the most scenic stretches of the North Coast 500, especially at low tide. From an elevated rest area at the southwest end of Gruinard Bay, the route offers spectacular views of the Summer Isles.

Drumbeg Road
I call this section the ‘shark’s teeth’. Even if the climbs and descents on the B869 are not particularly long, you often reach the limit of what is possible here with 25% on the steepest climbs in the route. The B869 runs 22 miles from Lochinver to Unapool. This section is also part of the popular Highland Trail 550 route.

tent pitched, with bike lying on floor outside, ready for night. Little snow in the background

Where to sleep

Scotland offers accommodation in all price ranges. The VisitScotland Cyclists Welcome scheme promotes bike-friendly accommodation, where you’ll find drying facilities, secure bike storage and flexible dinner times. They display the Cyclists Welcome logo on their website and premises.

Scotland’s access rights extend to wild camping, as long as it is done in small numbers and for only up to three nights in any one place. You can camp wherever access rights apply, but avoid causing problems for local people and land managers by not camping in enclosed fields of crops or farm animals, and keep well away from buildings and roads. Read more.

I’d recommend tents from the bikepacking range at Vango, including the F10 Hydrogen Air and Helium Air for their ultralight designs. A good-quality sleep mat is also a must, like the Vango Aotrom, as well as a packable sleeping bag with a suitable temperature rating, such as the Vango Cobra range.

A good network of hostels can be found across Scotland, with many offering bike shelters, self-catering kitchens and shared or private accommodation.

Scottish Hostels is the organisation for independent hostels, bunkhouses, backpackers and activity accommodation providers, and Hostelling Scotland provides youth hostel accommodation, either run by the organisation or affiliated hostels

What to wear to cycle the North Coast 500

Wear what you are most comfortable in, and make sure you check the weather forecast before you head out; the longer you ride, the more likely you are to face changing circumstances. While Scotland enjoys a wide range of weather conditions, you are unlikely to experience extreme heat or Arctic frost. Wearing multiple layers gives you much greater flexibility to adapt.

In all seasons, try to avoid getting wet, either by sweating too much or from precipitation. Waterproofs are a must, even in summer. Bags strapped to the handlebar, frame and saddle are the most common choices for bikepacking, so I used those as examples. Make sure your bags are waterproof or have waterproof liners, this is Scotland!

What to pack is often a personal choice and differs depending on the kind of trip you are planning. The following kit list has been tried and tested on many trips that involved camping, and is intended to help you think about your own list of items to bikepack the North Coast 500.

What to pack for the North Coast 500

Front roll

  • Beanie/skullcap
  • Gloves
  • Waterproof jacket with hood
  • Tent/bivvyn
  • Inflatable mattress
  • Down jacket

Accessory pocket

  • Spork, cup, bowland knife
  • Lighter
  • Stoven
  • Tea/coffee bags
  • Chlorine tablets
  • Trowel and toilet paper

Frame bag

  • Power bank and phone cable
  • Food and water for the day
  • Pump
  • Spare tube
  • Tools
  • Basic first-aid kit
  • Sunscreen
  • Midge-repellentor net

Saddle pack

  • Long-sleeve top
  • Tights
  • Liner gloves
  • Warm socks
  • Underwear
  • Waterproof shorts
  • Sleeping bag
  • Micro travel towel
  • Emergency food
  • Gas canister
  • Personal hygiene products
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Head torch
  • Spare batteries
  • Other chargers and cablesn
  • Charging plug