May 2016 - BICYCLING & MOUNTAIN BIKING
The Art of Bikepacking
By Shawne Camp
Bikepacking is a chance to explore the world by bicycle utilizing gravel and dirt roads or trails. Picture loading your bicycle with your camping gear and heading off into the wild for a night or longer.
Bikepacking comes in many forms. You have your “touring” rider. This rider might have more food and gear strapped to their bike than you can haul in your car. This sort of riding is about comfort not speed! They’re on a journey to explore places off the beaten path most would never see while meeting awesome people along the way. The rider may be riding across the state or across the country.
On the opposite end of this are the “ultralight” race setups. These riders race hundreds if not thousands of miles self-supported, utilizing dirt and gravel, as opposed to pavement. A perfect example of this is the “Tour Divide,” which is a 2,745-mile route that starts in Banff, Canada and ends in Antelope Wells, New Mexico. Services are far apart so racers need to be strategic on how they will replenish food and water.
Lastly we have what I’ll refer to as the “weekend warrior.” This is the rider who cuts out of work early on a Friday and sets off on their bike into the wild blue yonder for a night or two of camping under the stars. They may have only ridden 20 miles from home, but it’s not how far you’ve gone, it’s about what you experienced along the way – and what you take away after you’re done. Imagine the “weekend warriors” conversation around the water cooler on Monday when people ask, “What’d you do this weekend?”
So what bike should you use? Ah, this is a trick question! Don’t run out and buy a new bike because you think you want to try bikepacking. Simply start out with the one you currently have and see if it’s something you even like. There are many bikes that are designed with bike pack touring/expedition or ultralight racing in mind. When you’re ready, I encourage you to visit your local bike shop and see what bike best fits your needs and budget.
For gear you’ll need a minimum of the basics such as food, shelter, water, and the basics for trailside bike repair. Tent, bivy sack or hammock for my shelter? This really depends on the person and season, but using an ultralight tent is my favorite out of the three. Other items that may vary are sleeping bag, stove, meals, a water filter, solar power, bear spray, headlamp, etc.
There are many factors that go into planning what you will need. Some considerations would be how far are you traveling? What services are along the way where you can replenish or get your bike repaired? What is the usual weather for that area? Does the route have a lot of lakes and streams or is it the desert southwest? Carefully planning your route or travelling a known existing route will help you make educated decisions on what you will need.
Are pannier bags and racks cool to use bikepacking? The simple answer is “yes!” Pannier bags and racks are great for the touring or weekend warrior. They provide a great way to securely carry a lot of gear – sometimes too much. If you are using a front rack, it’s best if the rack can carry your pannier bag both low and high. This allows you to elevate the bag on the rack if you get into rocky sections that the bags may otherwise hit. All racks are not equal! If you’re going to be carrying a lot of gear across rugged terrain the same rack that works great for bike commuting may not hold up. Again check with your local bike shop and find out what’s the best option for you.
The other very popular option is “frame bags.” A number of companies are creating lightweight and sometimes waterproof bags that attach to your bike frame, seat post, handlebars and top tube. These bags are designed to streamline the bike, while forcing the rider to think more about what they will actually need on the trip, as opposed to what they want. If you go with the frame bag option, make sure the bag is waterproof. You do not want to ride through rain all day and arrive at camp with a wet sleeping bag. If the bag is not waterproof, consider bringing dry bags or garbage bags that can be utilized inside the bag.
Once you have your system of carrying your stuff and your gear sorted out, I strongly encourage you to take your bike out a few times loaded up and check for durability, stability and weight displacement. What looks good and ready in your garage may be a different story on the trail.
This leads me into route planning, which I find to be the most fun. Sitting down in front of maps, and sorting through my gear is all part of the experience, and may take months or longer to plan. National Geographic has waterproof topographic maps, which are very detailed and broken into sections, so depending on where you’re travelling to you may need a lot more than one.
The important thing to note here is that if you are designing your own off-road trip “Is this route legal?” Many areas are not legal for bike use or may be private property. There are many resources and maps for routes online. The people who created these routes already did their homework and legwork with the NYS DEC (or similar group) or land owners. One of my personal favorites for information is bikepacking.com. Here you can basically find information on everything you need to know.
The Adventure Cycling Association also has a wealth of information related to bicycle travel and they also have cycling maps (adventurecycling.org). These maps detail a specific route that already shows you where to find camping, hotels, food and bike shops along the way. A great resource for bikepacking in the Adirondacks is theadirondacktrailride.com, which is also the site for the second annual Adirondack Trail Ride, a 550-mile self-supported ride/race on Sept. 9 that starts and finishes in Northville. Carrying a GPS is smart, but it uses power so you must have a way to recharge it. Pairing a GPS with a map is a great way to travel!
Clothing is a critical item to consider and it could be the difference between life and death. No matter what time of the year it is I prefer to wear wool. Wool keeps you warm, even if it gets wet, and you can wear wool for days without odor. The weather forecast looks sunny for my two day trip, so no need for rain gear? Wrong answer! Carrying a simple raincoat and pants could save you from a miserable trip and possible hypothermia.
I cannot emphasize safety enough! Bikepacking is fun and adventurous, but it comes with inherit risks, which is probably why so many are drawn to it. You could have a crash, get sick, get stranded in extremely bad weather, or have a mechanical issue rendering your bike useless. Letting people know your plans and route in advance is critical. Having a way to keep your phone charged along the way gives you that peace of mind, but remember cell coverage isn’t everywhere. I carry a SPOT, which is a battery powered satellite tracking system that allows you to get 911 help, and let people know where you are. People can literally see your real time position on a map, which makes it fun as well for anyone spectating your trip or race.
A first aid kit can come in handy, along with basic knowledge of bike repair. Carrying a spare tube, patch kit and an extra master link for your chain, could be the difference between riding with a smile and pushing your bike with a frown… Take a few simple steps to be prepared for the unknown. Get outside and explore more by bike!
Shawne Camp (firstname.lastname@example.org) of Malta is a passionate cyclist and enjoys exploring by bicycle. Shawne is a certified bicycle mechanic and married to his favorite cycling partner, Janay Camp.