5 Ferries Challenge Route – Scotland

“Are you sure you want to wild camp?” I said, “because after a day in the saddle a shower and a supply of drinking water is quite a nice thing to have”. 

“I want to wild camp, this is supposed to be an adventure” said Sarah, my wife.  

Everyone has a different focus for a cycling trip. It may be distance, it may be about height gained or epic mountain passes. It may simply be about taking the time to immerse yourself in the landscape and the solitude of being out in it. Watching the sun set and rise and taking time to be out there away from all the home comforts and distractions, instead of rushing to get going all the time. I’ll admit it, I have a tendency to put big miles into my cycle touring days, and can sometimes feel pressured to get the miles in. So this was going to be a very different experience for me. 

This would be my wife’s first cycle touring trip, and as cycling is my thing (running is hers) I felt the responsibility lay with me to make sure she had a comfortable adventure. We’ve camped many times before using the car, but camping by bike means tiny cramped tents and thin sleeping matts. Wild camping by bike means lugging extra water from the last shop to the camp spot to drink, cook and brush teeth with. 

Preparation: 

We’d chosen some small Scottish islands to cycle around, using 5 ferries to complete a very modest length route, but we were here for adventure not for endurance. I’d used Google Maps to find the most beautiful beach possible to wild camp on for the first night, and had a few options in mind for the second night. I’d printed off the ferry time tables and plotted a basic route. My bike was fully loaded with camping kit, and Sarah’s bike was modestly loaded in comparison to achieve a relatively equal climbing speed on the longer climbs of the trip. Not in a woman vs man way you understand, but to address the everyday cyclist vs an occasional cyclist imbalance. She’s fit, she’d just run her second marathon, but the muscles used are not quite the same. In order to get to the ferry for an early start we had booked an AirBnB just a short drive from Ardrossan to stay the night before.  

The Route: 

Our chosen route made the most of the islands, but longer and shorter routes can be done, in total it was approximately 120 miles (190 km). It can probably be done in one day (my usual thought process) if you get the ferry times right, but that wasn’t what this trip was about, so we were taking our time.  

Day 1 

We bought our 5 ferries ticket is Ardrossan, and boarded the ferry to the Isle of Arran. They say Arran is Scotland in miniature, with both mountainous landscape to the north and lush green lowlands. The ferry was packed with cyclists, many just doing a lap of Arran and getting the ferry back. We opted to take a medium length route across Arran, heading over the climb of the Ross to the Western coast and heading north into a solid head wind to the ferry at Lochranza. On the way we cycled past wild deer, colonies of seals and watched gannets diving into the sea as we ate our lunch on the coast. 

The ferry would take us back to the main land, to Claonaig. With the next ferry leaving Tarbert in 45 minutes and 11 miles of fully loaded cycling (and a descent sized hill) to do this was the only point we really put the hammer down. We made it in good time but were glad we didn’t just miss it, as an extra hour waiting would have meant cycling in the dark to our camp spot. 

We arrived at the beach as the day visitors were leaving. We rolled our bikes onto the sand and sat on our sleeping mat, staring back across the sea to the mountains of Arran. A few barbequers and romantic picnickers were still on the beach, but as the light faded they slowly dispersed. We walked barefoot on our deserted beach, paddled in the sea and felt miles from anywhere. Zipped up in our tent away from biting insects and wrapped up warm in our sleeping bags we slept soundly alone on the sand. 

Day 2 

As the sun rose, we roamed the beach once more, still beautiful and remote. We became aware of the plastic waste that had been both washed up and discarded by the day visitors. Plastic bags, remains of picnics and barbeques just left in this once pristine landscape. Once you start picking things up it’s hard to ignore the other bits, so we collected bags full. Bottle tops, bags, the plastic tubes from cotton buds it was all here in this remote wilderness. We chatted to a local dog walker who offered to remove the bags of rubbish we had collected, which was much easier than us cycling away with it. I don’t understand why someone would seek out to a remote beach like this and then leave their litter on it. If you seek beautiful wilderness then you must appreciate the beauty and the wildness of it, so why ruin it because you’re too lazy to tidy up? If you’re that lazy, embrace it, stay at home! 

Note: The beach we had camped at on the first night has a sign up stating “No Camping”, which when you see how some people treat it is totally understandable, however we left the beach better than we found it so figured our wild camp on it was acceptable.  

After spending the morning cleaning the beach, paddling in the sea and walking barefoot on the sand we hit the road and headed to a café for a big lunch to power us up and over the biggest climb on the route. With worthwhile views from the top Sarah felt an overwhelming sense of achievement, the biggest climb she had taken on so far on a bike and the view was a welcome reward.  

The 4th ferry of the trip seems like you could almost swim across, it’s such a short trip over to the Isle of Bute. We planned to spend the second night of our trip on the island, just because we had the time to do so. So we set off exploring the island, with no particular direction to go we set about looking for beaches and just rolling around, looking for lunch and spotting dear in the agricultural landscape. We eventually settled on a shower being a nice idea and climbed up to an official campsite for the second night. What a contrast to our first night! Though a shower felt great (Showers also available at the Victorian Toilets on the dock in Rothesay if you do wild camp) the noisy families, and beer fuelled barbeques did not have the same feeling of solitude. 

Day 3 

Ferry number 5 took us from Rothesay back to the main land at Wemyss Bay. With a long section of main road being the only part of the route we weren’t particularly happy about I’d plotted a route through the smaller back roads. This back road route however was very undulating, climbing up only to return back to the flat main road on the coast again, so we eventually gave it up and stuck to the main road. We headed to the sea front at Largs, cruising along and stopping for refreshments at one of the tempting cafes.  Heading out of town on cycle tracks we detoured to Kelburn Castle for a look at the “unique” graffitied castle. 

Continuing on cycle tracks where possible to avoid the busy main road we detoured through the quiet leafy lanes around Hunterston, crossing the main road into West Kilbride and taking the back roads back into Ardrossan where we’d left the car.  

From peaceful solitude to busy seaside towns and main roads in the warm sunshine. The 5 ferries route can be as long or as short as you have time for. The ticket is valid for a month for the crossings, so how long each route is between the ferries is entirely up to you. Ferry information is available from the Ferry operator’s website here

If you have done this route and wish to share any (or ask for) info or advice please add it to our forum page on the 5 Ferries to help others

Note: I’m publishing this write-up during the Covid-19 lockdown, but we did the ride way before that. I hope you enjoy planning for future adventures and vicarious adventuring whilst in lockdown. Stay strong and stay safe, we’re all in this together. 

2 thoughts on “5 Ferries Challenge Route – Scotland

  1. Sounds like a great trip. What camping equipment do you use? Not tried a camping tour yet (I’m normally one for a shower, water, and a full fat mattress) but interested in trying some wild camping

    1. My advice would be to keep it simple, only what you need, as you have to carry it all. So a small tent, thin inflatable mattress and a sleeping bag would be the minimum. You can always eat out or eat cold food so cooking kit is not always needed. Try a short overnight trip to test out what you feel comfortable with. You can just do a vivid bag if you’re hardcore but I like a tent for insect protection and reading a book on a rainy evening

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