We are pleased to welcome Annie Evans and Huw Oliver to our Salsa sponsored rider team. Annie and Huw have taken on some amazing adventures, including a winter bikepacking expedition to Greenland (unfortunately cut short by the COVID pandemic). We speak about that trip and more in the interview below and look forward to sharing more of their amazing experiences in the future.
SALSA – Before we dive into Greenland, can you share some of the thinking that goes into choosing a destination for one of your rather large-scale adventures? Are you both generally on the same page, or is there a fair bit of back-and-forth?
Annie: I’d say we mostly agree, and we’re both drawn to similar landscapes, but we each have our own preferences: I like a hot climate, which might not be Huw’s first choice. Sometimes we have to sell our idea to the other by researching cool places and pictures.
Huw: Yep, we normally know pretty quickly when an idea has struck home. It usually starts with something small, like a photo or a story that grabs our attention and then smoulders for a while into an idea. Sometimes it gets put on the back burner for a while to develop, but we’re both drawn to similarly remote landscapes and I’m learning to appreciate the heat after an amazing time in Arizona in 2019!
SALSA – Greenland in winter strikes me, and probably many of our readers, as a fairly daunting prospect. Was that the case or did you have extensive cold-weather experience already?
Annie: Yes and no. We had already cycled across Iceland in winter and looking back, that is probably the highest-risk trip, both in terms of safety and getting the right conditions, of all the trips we have done. We also spent a month riding snowmobile and ski touring routes in Sweden, so we had a good idea of our kit and personal systems to stay warm and comfortable. Going to Greenland, we knew a lot of what to expect. But there was an unusually cold spell right before we got there, with temperatures below –40° C. That was incredibly scary as we had planned for –25° C. Although it warmed up a bit, we were probably sleeping in around –30° C. I had a very real feeling of “don’t mess up”—I was hyper-aware that one small mistake with layering or on overflow ice could become a life-threatening issue quite quickly.
SALSA – Can you share a bit about the route planning and research phase for the Greenland trip? And is that process something quite similar each time?
Huw: We visited that part of Greenland back in 2018; we knew from chatting with folks that the route in question is a rough summer hiking trail but an exquisite winter trail. Greenlanders have used it for thousands of years as a way to access winter hunting areas from coastal settlements. It links long chains of frozen lakes for efficient backcountry travel, and the fact that it is a historic and culturally important line of least resistance made it appealing to us. We did have additional routes in mind before the trip was cut short, of course. The starting point was generally to find which lines across the country hunters used, as fat bikes do require a groomed trail of some sort to follow. Some of those lines cross sea ice, so we spent all winter looking at sea ice satellite images from the Danish meteorological office, and learning to interpret sea ice “egg charts”, which are more complex than they seem and were a really interesting window into that world.
SALSA – Hut-to-hut-type opportunities are (unfortunately) not as common here in the United States as they are in some other countries. They seem to offer really wonderful opportunities for experiencing a place.
Huw: They were definitely welcome in this case! We hadn’t planned to rely on them at all, but as luck would have it, we kept finding ourselves in the vicinity of one at the end of each day. Since the temperatures were around –30° C most nights it seemed silly not to make the most of the available shelter. That said, we don’t often use the bothies here in Scotland. On the right winter’s night they can be magic, but we generally prefer the light, cosiness, and flexibility of a tent.
SALSA – You needed to cut short your Greenland trip due to COVID and its associated difficulties. How disappointing was that? Or does it in the end just start to feel like a part of that given experience?
Annie: It was a very hard decision to make. We had dreamed of that trip for years, and felt we were only warming up. I’d wanted to make a film and I had interviews with some incredible local women lined up, so I was sad not to meet them and hear their stories. But we were very grateful to be able to get home before flights stopped. In all the worry and stress of the first UK lockdown, I was grateful to be with my mum and to know that she was okay.
SALSA – Some folks are probably curious how you are able to take on these trips (aka live this bikepacking lifestyle).
Annie: This is such a common question! The truth is never as glamourous or romantic as people seem to think. We have both lived in vans for around seven years, with short periods of house sitting or renting in winter. This enables us to save as much as possible and also work freelance. Van life in Scotland is hard! If it’s not raining, there are midges. If we mountain bike, our kit will be muddy and soaking, and our bikes get a hard time by not being able to dry out. So we both ride gravel more than we would like. Freelancing gives us the ability to take extended periods off to fit in trips. And that’s it really. No magic wands, just a lot of sacrifice to do what feels most important to us right now.
Huw: It’s definitely the result of a lot of conscious decisions, but ones that we think are worth it. Whether it’s a trip abroad or an impromptu week of riding here in Scotland, we both get a huge sense of fulfilment from bikepacking and living with the memories and skills that come from it. The downsides are having no fixed abode and dubious financial stability! I suppose I would say it’s a case of choosing to acquire memories rather than stuff.
SALSA – While you both ride all sorts of bikes, can you speak a bit to the fat bike, and the particular experiences a bike like the Mukluk has helped you have?
Annie: I think of my Mukluk as a kind of ice-breaking ocean ship. She takes me places I never imagined would be possible and allows experiences so far removed from a traditional cycling one. From riding on remote beaches to our boggy, barely-there highland trails and, of course, cruising through several inches of fresh powder, it seems the only limitations to her are my legs and imagination.
Huw: I get more excited about packing up the Mukluk than any other bike, I think. I associate it with proper adventures, where you’re uncertain about the outcome but excited for the journey. We actually just had one of the best winters in recent memory in Scotland, so we managed to spend quite a few days riding perfectly groomed winter trails where normally we would be riding gravel or mountain bikes — it totally transformed places that I thought I knew! Fat bikes really are one of the few ways to travel efficiently through a winter landscape, which I think makes them extra special. The hum of soft tyres on packed snow is one of my favourite sounds in the world.
SALSA – You are also well versed with packrafts. Can you speak a bit to the possibilities combining bikes and boats offers?
Annie: Here in Scotland, it wasn’t all that long ago that a lot of places on the west coast were accessed more often by boat rather than road. Today, that’s left us with a lot of trails that end at water, be that the sea or a large fresh-water loch. Using a packraft, we can link up the trails to make some very cool routes. We have also used, and plan to use, packrafts to create big wilderness journeys in other parts of the world. When the water on the map stops being a barrier and becomes another type of trail, it really opens up so many cool possibilities. Paddling offers a very different way to interact with the land than riding does. We have had some pretty cool wildlife encounters as we have been able to drift past without disturbing them the way a noisy, sweaty person on a bike would.
SALSA – Gear is often (but not always) progressing. What is one piece of kit that each of you feels you would never choose to upgrade?
Annie: I mean, I don’t see how my Mukluk could be better. But I’ve had the same sleeping mat (Therm-a-rest neo air) for about seven years and I don’t see myself ever changing it. Its light, warm and comfortable. And sleep is very important to me!
Huw: If we're being literal, then I’d say that the humble liquid-fuel stove is pretty perfect. Our little Primus has literally kept us alive night after night, but is not too different from the stoves of decades ago. If we’re going a little more metaphorical, I’d say that mindset is the only constant in a world of developments and advances. What goes on upstairs is exactly the same today as it was for the first person to take a push bike off the beaten track. Curiosity and resilience will always outperform the flashiest of gear.
SALSA – Of the trips you’ve done, is there a favorite bikepacking trip?
Huw: Nope! Each is different and each is memorable for its own reasons. Sometimes it’s the people and sometimes it’s the lack of people, for example. I would say that distance and expense don’t correlate to enjoyment—some of the absolute best nights of bikepacking I’ve done have been really close to home.
SALSA – Without a doubt, many reading this are jealous of the trips you’ve managed to take. What steps or encouragement can you offer them that might push them forward toward having an adventure (big or small) of their own?
Annie: Just go and try it! We all start somewhere with shonky kit and dreams bigger than our bank balance. I bikepacked for years without a stove or sleeping mat and whilst it was uncomfortable, it allowed me to adventure on my budget. Start small, work out your limitations in a relatively safe environment, and then expand on that. Often your best adventures are right in your backyard, without the stress and expense of travelling.
Huw: Adventures are not found on a sofa. Often the hardest part is getting started, and then things just sort of...happen, whether according to plan or not. But they do happen! Finding a partner in crime makes a huge difference. Don’t feel restricted by what other people say is (or is not) an adventure—it can be a short overnight trip from your front door to a spot you haven’t visited before, or something bigger. Either way, if it leaves you feeling elated, alive, and hungry for more, then you’re riding the adventure train.
SALSA – Imagine a post-COVID-19 world (which, thankfully, we will eventually have). You’ve got four days with nothing booked, nowhere you have to be, no responsibilities to attend to…how will you spend those four days?
Annie: Whilst we are dreaming can I also have a unicorn and four days of windless sunshine? I would hop right on a ferry over to the Outer Hebrides. We have several bikerafting routes planned there but it’s rare that our time and weather align. They have no shelter from the Atlantic weather system so gale force winds and a big swell are common. But it’s been a few years since our last visit so I’m very excited to go back.
Huw: As much as I love a solo trip, I think this one would be with friends. Is it sunny in this hypothetical world? There would be mile after mile of flowy singletrack, someone has brought some cider, and there’s not a midge to be seen. Oh, and each afternoon a swimming spot magically appears at around 3 pm, just when you’re getting too hot. Actually, that last one often does come true!
SALSA – Is there a big dream trip you are thinking of?
Huw: Right now, no...mostly because we’re still so deep in the COVID-19 pandemic, and it feels like there’s still a long way to go. The events of the past year have us looking a lot more locally and exercising the creativity muscles: there are always new ways to experience familiar places, and sometimes that’s just as rewarding as travelling somewhere new.
SALSA – How can people follow you on social media?
Share this post: Tweet
I love being outside. I prefer to ride on dirt. Or snow. If I was born a hundred years earlier I might have been a polar explorer. There's a great natural world out there to see, smell, taste, listen to, and experience. Life slows down out there and the distractions we've created will disappear if you let them. Give me a backpack and let me go.