1. Planning the trip (ideally over several nights and glasses of wine) and
2. Talking about the trip endlessly once you've finished.
Since you have to earn Number 2 via all that tedious mucking about outside in the rain, it is all the more important to savour Number 1.
Admittedly, my first ventures off the beaten track and into the hills were based on a guidebook. But not just any guidebook, this was Mountain Bike Scotland Volume 1 by Kenny Wilson.
Hours of reading/planning/cursing.
Otherwise known as '50 walks with my bike in the Highlands' by Kenny 'F***ing' Wilson (not my words!) this book contains trails ranging from well mapped simple fireroads to ambitious and often unrideable Highland epics. Many have bought the book only to be left disappointed at the intermittent nature of some of the trails, or the lack of fast, flowing descents, or any other of a number of factors.These are all valid complaints, but to quote myself from a few years ago:
"I think the book is very indicative of highland's riding (unsurprisingly). When the riding is good, its astonishing. When the riding is no good, enjoy the scenery instead. If neither is good, enjoy just being there. If you don't enjoy just being there, then what are you doing in the Highlands?"
Writing this now I realise just how inspirational I found the book, I may only have actually ridden two or three of the routes proper, but I referred to it endlessly when planning my own routes, trying to include the best of Mr Wilson's suggestions while also exploring other trails on the map which took my fancy. A must buy, if only as a coffee table book.
As I grew more ambitious, it was only right to start investing in OS maps. These exist in electronic form (more on that later) but I would definitely suggest starting a collection of the paper maps, if only for your first trip or two.
The constraints of a paper map mean that there are always limits to what you can see. This in turn always leaves a little mystery, which can only be resolved by buying another map (see where this is going?). Returning home from Tiso's with your new map and spreading it out on the table next to your existing map can reveal all sorts of new twists and turns to your route (it can also reveal some of the vagaries of OS mapping, such as the popular hiking circuits which somehow contrive to straddle 4 separate maps).
Once you have run out of space for paper maps (tip, buy the 1:50,000 scale, save youself some cash!) you may be tempted to invest in digital mapping. The only program I can comment on is Memory Map, but the principals will apply to any brand or program.
Splashing out on the digital maps for the whole of Scotland suddenly afforded me hours of frivolous planning, to the point where I had plotted more potential routes than I had time to ride. However, for every ten whimsical routes I plotted, I would at least ride one, and I was gaining a fantastic insight into the possibilities across the Highlands.
The climax of my digital route planning was the Cape Wrath route which I am slowly getting round to posting on this blog. The advantage of Memory Map is that when my girlfriend unwisely left her printer unattended, I was able to selectively print out every section of my map in a great bundle of A4 sheets which I still have folded up in a drawer somewhere.
Cost the equivalent of 20 OS maps in printer ink, but so worth it.
For road cyclists, a quick lunch time diversion at work is to plot new routes on Google Earth with the 'Terrain' option turned on. Using the little orange man function (otherwise known as 'Streetview') gives you an accurate impression of the road you will be riding however be warned! Google Streetview cars never seem to venture out in the rain, which gives you a dangerously warm and sunny feeling about the roads you may be contemplating riding...
Blue sky! Lies!
So what is the point of this rambling, semi-coherent post you ask? Simply that the planning of a trip can sometimes be the best bit, so savour it, plan your own routes, research them, and don't be afraid of following that enticing black dashed line on the map, for all you know it could be the best descent you'll ever ride*.
*It won't be, but still, you've got to try.