Bikepacking the Lüneburg Heathland of Northern Germany

chriswoody

Legendary Member
Location
Northern Germany
One of the largest features of the Northern German plain is the Lüneburg Heide. A large area of heathland, geest and woodland that covers much of Northern Lower Saxony. The geest is a gentle rolling landform created from glacial till after the retreat of the last glaciers and has left behind a predominately sandy, gravelly soil. These poor soils were home to extensive forests, populated by Birch, Pine and Sessile Oaks. Later Neolithic farmers started to extensively graze the land and the animals would eat the juvenile trees, causing large gaps to appear in the forest cover, grazing resistant heather would colonise the over grazed areas and the heathland started to emerge. Successive generations of farmers have found ways to manage the poor soils and create farmable arable soils. The resultant balance of the three landscapes, heathland, woodland and farmland, has been in steady flux for thousands of years now and the whole area is regarded as a cultural landscape, rather than a natural one.

My route would take me from my house and through the heart of this landscape over the course of three days riding. The route was based on a course originally designed as a gravel racing route, starting in a town to the far North West. I modified it to omit the town and instead a smaller diversionary loop to the South would bring me to my town. The plan was to pack as light as possible, given the rough sandy nature of the route. I also wanted to be completely self-sufficient, so no food re-supplies en route and wild camping only. The only two problems that lay ahead were the fact that water was scarce, especially in the Wendland to the far east and wild camping is not technically completely legal, so any overnights would need to be very discrete and strictly follow the Leave no trace principles.

I set off from home on a cold and overcast day. The wind was strong, but blowing from the SW, so for the most part it was a tailwind. The trails I was following were the same familiar ones I'd been riding all winter, firstly North through Wildech and up onto the Teifental, the first open Heathland I would encounter.
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Then quiet roads and trails led me on to the small town of Müden, the traditional wooden framed buildings are typical of the architecture around here.

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Müden, marked the edge of my local knowledge, from here it was all fresh and new. The route continued on into the forest, nice tracks weaving and twisting through the stands of pine. Then it was out onto farmland traversing between the fields waiting to be planted for the season ahead. Overhead the clouds were boiling up and the skies growing ever darker.

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Before long I'd crossed the A7 motorway and started to swing due North. Then as I rode North of Soltau, the first patch of Heathland appeared. The soil changed to sand and lonely Silver Birch and Scots Pine were dotted all around.

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The route alternated for a while now between the woods and the heathland as I slowly wound North. The temperatures were still quite low and the rain had started. Then 80km from the start I rode on a small track between two fields and straight out onto the heathland that marked the start of my ascent to Wilseder Berg, the highest point of my ride at 169m.

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The Wilseder Berg is the highest point of the Lüneberger Heide and a popular tourist destination, today though the sandy trails are almost deserted. The heathland all around is wide open and exposed, very reminiscent of Exmoor or Dartmoor from where I grew up. By now the rain was started to really come down and there was no shelter from the wind. My route takes me close to the summit of the Wilseder Berg and I make a short diversion to the top, taking a short break in the wind and rain.

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The descent down is fun and exhilarating, the sandy soil, broken by hard heather roots, the bike is clattering and skittering all over the place. The descent soon dives back into a forest and we turn this way and that, before I make a small diversion to a small stream I'd seen on the map. They're two ponds linked by a small brackish trickle, but this is the only water supply for miles and I need to top up for camp. So I filter 2 and a half litres and with everything topped up I head off to look for a discrete camp spot. I find the most ideal place, right at the edge of a large patch of heathland, is a small square of grass with a hunters stool overlooking it. I gratefully climb up into the hunters stool and pop my down jacket on. The small hut provides shelter to cook and dry out, before I set up my tent and retire with my Kindle for the night.

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It's been a long day with 95mostly off-road kilometres covered and 561m of height gain.
 
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chriswoody

chriswoody

Legendary Member
Location
Northern Germany
Day Two

Day two starts with the steady patter of rain on my tent fly and I prevaricate over emerging. The rain stops as I pack away and eat breakfast before heading out over the Hiede.

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The morning starts pleasantly, traversing between cultivated fields and Hiede. riding through a small village, the route dives down into a small wildlife reserve and at the bottom a small river is flowing. I stop and take time to gather and filter water for the day ahead.

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The route then climbs steadily uphill through the forest before plunging back downhill and under the A7 again. The first kilometres are cold and windy still, thankfully the wind is on my back and we make swift time through some amazing gravel roads. One road through the forest goes in a straight line for over a kilometre, gently rising and falling between the closely packed pines. Not long after the A7 I start to return to the roads as we weave intermittently through small towns and forests alike. The small towns I pass through, show the standard model layout of a farm house and barns in the centre with houses and other amenities on the outside. The farms are built in the traditional wooden framed long houses style.

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After one town there is an amazing section of track that goes through an ancient woodland vaulted over with Sessile Oak, I'm riding across a series of dykes and ditches, following faint trails in the leaf litter beneath my wheels.

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Then it's the first crossing of the Elbe canal on a scary piece of road with the cars giving no quarter, thankfully, were soon off back into the woods and I'm soon stopping for lunch at an old watermill. The sun is finally out and I shed my layers as I eat some food.

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Moving on I arrive at Bleckede on the banks of the Elbe, the edge of town is marked by a large Dike, riding over it I'm then on the washlands for the Elbe, a wonderful flat open plain, struck through by the most amazing gravel road. Several kilometres of the flattest, most perfect gravel roads, assisted by the warm sun and stiff breeze on my back, some of the most delightful kilometres I've ridden in a while.

After the initial climb this morning it's been a flat old ride so far, now it's all set to change. I'm just reaching the edges of the Drawehn ridge, the remains of the terminal moraine from the glacier that created this landscape. The first hill is short and sharp, up through the forest and I'm reduced to pushing the bike the final metres.

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The top is rewarded with spectacular views through the trees and down to the mighty Elbe, one of the large rivers that are so important here in Germany for the transport of goods.

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The route pitches up and down several times now, rising and falling over the old remains of the moraine, vaulted over today by ancient forest of Beech and Oak, so different in character to the managed forests of pine that dominate other sections of the route. Along with the brutal and sharp uphill's are the wonderful short punchy singletrack trails, snaking and weaving their way back down in exhilarating switchbacks between the trees.

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The day is drawing to a close though and my thoughts turn to stopping for the night as we pass over some train tracks in the middle of the forest.

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After crossing another section of forest I scout out a clearing, but I can't bring myself to camp in the heart of the forest. The thought of Wolves and Wild Boar keep me moving on and I find a delightful spot instead on the side of a small copse, bordering some farmland. Far from anyone, I bed down for a quiet night after 109 kilometres and 594 metres of climbing.
 
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chriswoody

chriswoody

Legendary Member
Location
Northern Germany
Day Three

I awake just before dawn and under the light of the full moon I prepare some coffee and eat some breakfast before packing away. I start the day by backtracking a kilometre down the trail to a cemetery I'd passed late yesterday and fill up all my water bottles. Yesterday hadn't been too bad for water opportunities, but today the Wendland lay ahead and water would be scarce to say the least.

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With my water replenished, I set forth, first on tarmaced cycle paths, then across paths between fields. Traversing between the fields was always filled with dread, the ground was often deeply rutted and hard as nails, it was truly uncomfortable no matter how slow I went. I was slowly making my way up towards the Drawehn ridge, but first several small hamlets passed my way, farmers were out ploughing the fields ready for the planting of potatoes and asparagus. At the small hamlet of Spranz, I turned from the road and into the forest. The trail soon turned really steep as we climbed up onto the ridge proper and I had to dismount and push the last metres.

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The deciduous woodland was stunning in the morning light and reaching the crest of the ridge, I followed a faint trail through the leaf litter weaving and turning between the stands of trees a stunning start to the morning.I was heading to the summit of the Hoher Mechtin, just 146m, but one of the highest points in this landscape. At the top, a 30m wooden observation tower had been built, affording stunning views over the surrounding landscape.

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After the ascent of the tower, it was time to turn my attention to the trail once more and what goes up, must come down. The single track down from the Hoher Mechtin was an absolute highlight, made all the more challenging by my loaded up gravel bike. As we emerged onto flatter trails at the bottom, the road underwheel changed to sand and progress slowed for a while as we slipped and weaved our way South. After the ridge the ride flattens out for a while through the forest and slowly the words of a song from Lord Huron start to play in my head:

Aimless drifting into a far off place
Hurtling through the vast unknown

My last tours have all been predominately off-road and relying on my Garmin, so invariably I often end up dis-orientated with all the turns and twists of the forest and for me the joy is in the unknown and the surprise of whats around the next corner like emerging from the woods onto roads like below.

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Invariably I have no clue where I am, no context, questions fly through my mind, where do these roads go to? who travels down them. They are perfectly maintained, yet I see no traffic at all whilst I briefly travel on them. Patches of forests and fields border them, but no settlements or people in sight. I'm soon leaving these roads behind and back into a mix of forest and field tracks, flying along in the sunshine having a wonderful time.

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I stop for lunch in a deep patch of forest under a canopy of Pine. As I eat my food I listen to the sounds of the forest, overlaying the songs of the birds and the relentless hammering of the woodpeckers there is another sound. The trees themselves are crackling and popping in the unseasonable heat, it's the pine cones opening to deposit their seeds into the wind and its noise is everywhere.

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Moving on through the forest I finally I emerge into the town of Bad Bodenteich, where a pedestrian bridge brings me over the Elbe Lateral canal, an artificial waterway that connects the River Elbe with the Mittleland Canal. Again these huge construction projects emphasise the importance of waterways as the means of moving goods around this country.

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Soon I'm back into the solitude of the forest and heading further south, the heat has increased and I'm down to a t-shirt in the beautiful sunshine. The trails are increasingly hard work to travel on as the floor turns increasingly sandy, I'm reduced to walking at times, traction no where to be found.

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I'm not far now from leaving the circular route and heading South West back home. A few more trails through the forest lead me this way and that, the ever present soundtrack of the popping trees and woodpeckers accompany me. The sunlight angles down through the canopy and lights the forest up in a blaze of colour.

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A gravel path marks the beginning of the last section of my ride and I start to pick up speed on the relatively smooth surface. I'm heading down the last kilometres to Eschede, it's not far to home now. From the fish ponds it's on familiar trails again, wether it's the wind in my back or the prospect of a hot shower and home, the speed slowly increases. The gravel roads are flying by, past Starkshorn, on to Reberllah and then finally the last of the gravel roads leads me out onto the country roads for the final kilometres home after 118 km of riding and 844m of ascent.

It's been an exciting and interesting trip exploring the geography, both human and physical, of my corner of Germany. The sparsely populated nature of the area coupled with predominately off-road route has meant I've hardly seen a soul for three days. It's been a great route to ride with some lovely scenery and challenging trails.

Overall during the three days I travelled 322 kilometres and ascended 2000m.
 
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AbSoLuteLy feckin' brilliant!

Thanks for sharing!!
Damn but I miss Germany!^_^

There's a few places like that in NL, but more "processed", accessible to all. And in NL there is always someone knocking around, no matter the time or season^_^

Couple of questions..... (Sorry!)
When was this? It's looking cold! Was daylight an issue?

They're pretty long days (offroad and by my standards^_^). Any idea of your average speed?

What do you use to filter your water?

I'm assuming you ate "emergency rations" or suchlike?

Was there a reason you didn't sleep in the hut?

I know you encountered very few people. How were the ones you did encounter? Friendly? Curious? Or gerroffouttahere?
I always wonder what the locals think when they see me, typically early in the morning. They have to know I've slept rough/broken the law, yet I never detect any illwill.

There's one fabulous shot, presumably of you riding past the camera!

I'm in awe of the hardship you'll willingly endure!^_^ I'd have a go at similar, but I'd be more comfortable!^_^

A wonderful distraction from my studies! Thank you!
 
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chriswoody

chriswoody

Legendary Member
Location
Northern Germany
Thanks Hobbes. This pandemic has certainly made me look closer to home for my adventures and made me see my adopted country in a new light. Whilst we may lack the "wow" factor in our landscapes, I've learned to appreciate it in a whole new way.

When was this? It's looking cold! Was daylight an issue?
It was only last week, just after the clock change, so 7:00 am sunrise and 7:50 sunset. So daylight was something I had to keep in mind, but not too critical. Weather wise, I was making the most of a rare window of good weather, but the first day was still cold, highs of 10 degrees and in the windchill it felt much lower. The last day hit 19 degrees though and that was sublime! The cooler temps did help preserve my water though.

They're pretty long days (offroad and by my standards^_^). Any idea of your average speed?
They were long days, especially given the terrain, according to my Garmin I was hitting about 15 kph across the three days.

What do you use to filter your water?
I'm using a Katadyn BeFree water filter. it's quite effective against a lot of things, just not water borne viruses. It worked really well folds up real small when not in use, but can also be used as an emergency water supply. You can see it under the bungees of my rear bag in some shots.

I'm assuming you ate "emergency rations" or suchlike?
I did ponder emergency rations, but they're generally really salty and not so nice. For the first day I ate filled tortellini with pesto, pine nuts, and sunflower seeds. Second night was reheating some homemade veggie chilli I cooked before I left and freshly cooked rice. I also ate flapjacks, dried mango, pate and flour tortillas amongst other bits. There were a few supermarkets en route, but given the current pandemic I thought it prudent to steer completely clear of any contact, I didn't want to be accused of spreading anything.

Was there a reason you didn't sleep in the hut?
What's hard to see from the photo is how narrow it is. Just enough room to sit on the bench and rest my stove next to me, but no room to lie down. Besides they are also fairly open and drafty.

I know you encountered very few people. How were the ones you did encounter? Friendly? Curious? Or gerroffouttahere?
I always wonder what the locals think when they see me, typically early in the morning. They have to know I've slept rough/broken the law, yet I never detect any illwill.
Generally folk where quite friendly, I was often riding when I did encounter people and they just nodded a friendly hello and no more. Two people did walk right past my tent on the first night, just as the sun was setting. I was sat inside reading and heard them mention me, but they didn't wander over and confront me. Generally it's not a problem if folk see someone like me, they will turn a blind eye, the laws are more to deter the groups of youngsters who turn up for parties in the wild and trash the place.

There's one fabulous shot, presumably of you riding past the camera!
Thanks, I carry a small Manfrotto tripod and like to experiment a bit with my photography, it can get a little dull just taking photos of forest tracks! I like to maintain my anonymity to an extent so generally shots published are of my back!

I'm in awe of the hardship you'll willingly endure!^_^ I'd have a go at similar, but I'd be more comfortable!^_^

A wonderful distraction from my studies! Thank you!
I think hardship is all relative. I carry small, lightweight kit, but it is effective at keeping me warm and comfy. I will admit that the one week long trips or less, that I undertake, you can compromise to an extent and put up with a bit more. If I was contemplating a trip like your's then I probably would re-think my approach. As it is, I was carrying an Alpkit Soloist tent, a Sea To Summit Ultralight full length air mat, plus Aeros ultralight inflatable pillow and a Mountain Equipment Helium down sleeping bag. Cooking was with a MSR Pocket rocket and 750ml cooking pot. Coffee was freshly filtered with a Java drip coffee filter (I love my morning coffee!) So generally I was comfy and warm.

Thanks again and always happy to answer questions!
 
Thanks for the very detailed reply. There's a whole lot of info in there.

I'm glad to see that you were eating well - a trip like that would be so much less fun without decent food - or at least in my world. And no instant coffee!^_^

Your write up genuinely got my heart pumping and lifted my spirits. Thank you!
 

Once a Wheeler

Senior Member
Wunderbar! Definitely one of the best times of the year to tour: open roads, little traffic, occasional sunny days to confirm that winter is over, overflowing rivers, a time of year when the locals have time for you. Tell us about next year's trip when the time comes.
 
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chriswoody

chriswoody

Legendary Member
Location
Northern Germany
Thank you. Do you have any map plots, please?
I based my ride on a gravel race route, which is here:

https://ridewithgps.com/routes/34784874?privacy_code=04aDUl6dMH6bh6vh

I modified the route by closing the circle at the top left corner and avoiding Buchholz, but the rest of the route I followed.

https://ridewithgps.com/routes/35496911?privacy_code=6K4yRmvYrOVN9GIq

There used to be a website with a route description as well, but it's been taken down in the last couple of days.

Google "Orbit 360 Niedersachsen" and a few sites pop up in German with photos. Some crazy folk actually raced this last year and completed the 320km in a day! my mind can't contemplate just how fit you would need to be to do that.
 
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