Author Interview: Emma Kingston, Bikepacking England
- Monday 31 May 2021
Emma Kingston is an outdoor adventurer, writer, teacher, and self-confessed map geek. Emma is an expert mountain biker, having travelled extensively around the UK, Europe and further afield. When not travelling around on her bike, Emma resides in Bristol, and has an enviable knowledge of the South West, having ridden, walked, climbed and camped in the area for over 20 years. Her first book, Bikepacking England, features 20 great multi-day mountain bike adventurers across England. In this interview Emma tells us why she was reluctant about bikepacking at first, and how she overcame this to the extent she has now written a guidebook on the subject!
Emma navigates the winding singletrack carved into the stony hillside © Emma Kingston
Firstly, congratulations on having your first book published. Can you tell us where the idea for Bikepacking England began?
Thank you. It’s been a big project but so much fun to do! I’m incredibly excited about finally being able to share all the routes, stories and photos with you. Bikepacking England actually started off as something just for me – the weekend trips were a way to decompress, carve out some time to myself in the outdoors and have fun riding my bike – plus I love the challenges and complexities that come with route designing and planning. Long story short, just before the pandemic, I spent a number of months recovering from a knee injury and while I was unable to cycle I did the next best thing and relived the trips vicariously through writing about them. Bikepacking England is what eventually emerged from these early scribbles.
Can you tell us how you got into bikepacking?
In the book, I’m pretty candid about my journey into bikepacking being a bit of a reluctant one. I’ve been mountain biking for as long as I can remember and, despite having enjoyed backpacking and wild camping in the past, let’s just say I wasn’t sold on the idea of strapping lots of kit to my bike initially. Needless to say, after my first trip I had to eat my words and I’d like to think that even the briefest flick through Bikepacking England would be more than enough to show you just how much I enjoy bikepacking now!
With so many great bridleways in England, how did you decide which routes to include?
It was a tricky decision, as, like you say, there was so much to choose from. I wanted to include a collection of routes which reflected the breadth and diversity of England’s off-road riding - from coastal riding and scenic gravel trails to flowing singletrack and technical descents - as well as having plenty of interest just off the trail to explore too. The routes go past castles, old pubs, hill forts, caves, beaches, waterfalls, stone circles, rock carvings and some truly excellent tearooms, and each one is designed to offer up a different sort of bikepacking experience.
Riding amongst the southern flora and fauna © Emma Kingston
If you had to choose, which is your favourite route in the book, and why?
Dartmoor, hands down. It’s the first route in the book and links up all my favourite trails with some of the country’s best prehistoric monuments in one big loop around the national park. The route cuts across Dartmoor’s vast moorland interior, dips into pockets of ancient woodland, and crosses rivers using old clapper bridges and stepping stones which present a novel challenge with a loaded bike. It’s proper old school mountain biking – you won’t find manicured trails here – and there are some excellent pubs on route too.
Northumberland and the Cheviot Hills come a close second. Unlike most of the routes, this area was totally new to me and I spend over a week up near the border riding as many of the trails as I could, constantly scraping my jaw off the floor. It’s just so beautiful and wild up there.
What advice would you give to someone just getting into bikepacking?
There is no right or wrong way to go bikepacking. You do you. It’s not cheating if you stay in a yurt. You can wear what you want. Flannel is optional. Slow is ok. Oh, and you don’t need fancy, expensive kit to go bikepacking. There are things that are a good idea to invest in, like a good quality sleeping bag that packs down well, but it is amazing what you can do with the bike you already have, a couple of dry bags and some bungy cords or straps.
Joyously setting up camp after a long day's ride © Rob Kingston
What is a must-have piece of bikepacking kit that you cannot ride without?
Oh, great question! Well, what is considered ‘essential’ will undoubtedly vary from rider to rider. I mean, I love to pack a spare pair of socks for that almost clean morning feel, but if I forget them it is unlikely to spell doom for the entire trip. Other than a trowel, I would say a topographical map – preferably a 1:25,000 scale OS one. Bikepacking England comes with downloadable GPX files to help with navigation for each route but you need a map to be self-sufficient and get yourself out of trouble. Also, when I’m out riding I like to know where I am and what I can see around me. Bikepacking by its very nature necessitates a slightly slower pace of travel and this makes it the ideal way to immerse yourself in your surroundings rather than blindly following a line on a GSP unit.
Now that the lockdown restrictions are easing, how will this affect your bikepacking adventures?
International travel is always tempting, but I have no plans to go abroad for a while. Researching, riding and writing Bikepacking England has only helped reinforced how good the riding is here in the UK – you really don’t have to go far to have a memorable adventure. I guess a lot more people have been discovering this for themselves during lockdown and it is great to see more people exploring their back yards and getting outside responsibly.
Taking the scenic route along the South West coastal path © Rob Kingston
Do you have any advice for riders who might be anxious about getting back on their bikes for less local and/or multi-day rides?
I was unsure about a lot of things emerging from lockdown, so I can really relate to anyone going through this. Despite having just finished writing a book on bikepacking, I spent my first solo adventure feeling like I was a beginner again and I caught myself interpreting the smallest of obstacles as definitive proof that I was a fraud. My two cents? Practice self-compassion. Start off small. Stop often. Celebrate your successes. I often find that a good number of my worries tend to disappear once I start pedalling.
Aside from Bikepacking England, can you recommend any other cycling narratives or guidebooks that you have enjoyed?
Wild Swimming in the Lake District by Suzanna Cruickshank has been a great inspiration over lockdown. It is beautifully written and photographed. I also recently heard about an exciting new book project by Heather Dawe and Jo Allen called John’s Race - the story of the Three Peaks Cyclo-Cross. I touch on this remarkable annual race created by John Rawnsley in my book and I was absolutely fascinated by its history when researching the event.