Mountain biking in general is growing at a rapid pace. As the sport grows, new genres of riding get fancy names, definitions, and certainly loads of expensive genre specific gear that you must buy to be cool.
Shrek’s Cabin, Pittsfield, VT during a three day two night trip.
“Nah bro, can’t ride today, we’re riding cross county, I only have my downhill socks.”
I’ll admit, I’m a gear junkie, I have a bike for every day of the week, and then some. I enjoy all types of riding, and am fairly active in most aspects of bicycling.
One genre of riding that is picking up a lot of momentum is bikepacking. The easiest way to describe it is backpacking on a bicycle, although as a general rule, the weight is primarily carried on the bike, not in a backpack. Packing up your bike, bikepacking. BRILLIANT. Ride bike, ride far, ride fast, ride faster than other people, camp, repeat, bikepack racing is born. Most bikepacking races are underground races, organized by a random internet forum, with nothing more than bragging rights on the line, governed by the honor system, GPS trackers, loyal fans, and competitors. Sanctioned races do exist, and are gaining popularity along with the sport, often advertised as ultra endurance. As a finisher of the longest recognized mountain bike race (Tour Divide, ~2750 miles) I think it’s pretty cute when a 100 mile race is labeled “ultra endurance.” Maybe I’m jaded…
Richmond Pass, MT Tour Divide 2014
As much fun as racing is, there is so much more to bikepacking than just racing. In 2013, I road toured from Maine to Washington. I loved the high mileage days, I loved seeing the county via bike, but I’ve never been a roadie, and my best days were on dirt roads and gravel rail trails, even with 700c x 28 road tires. I would frequently come to a town with rumors of awesome singletrack, but no bike worthy of riding it. When I reached Washington, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to ride a bike, I just didn’t want to ride the road. This was when plans to race Tour Divide began. Looking forward, I have many routes on my list, some are races, some casual tours, and others are ridiculous routes designed to push myself, and test my own limits in preparing for other races.
Potentially viewed as a sport where you’ll need to travel a long way, or find an established route, bikepacking routes are popping up everywhere. Well, you may need to travel for certain destinations and races, but the essence of the sport lives in riding out your backdoor, into the woods, and just keep riding. This could be a challenge for those living in a densely populated concrete jungle, but a few miles on the street will eventually get you to a farm field, with a dirt path that leads to a four wheeler trail through the woods, etc.
Earlier I mentioned gear, the cost, etc. What do you really need to start bikepacking? Well, if you’re reading this, you probably own a bike, a very important start. For a fun over night to a cabin or shelter, you could get away with a bit of food and water, a sleeping bag, sleeping mat, and maybe an extra clothing layer, or so, depending on your location and weather. Personally, I always bring my rain jacket, it has saved my life during more than one unexpected storm. Clearly this list would leave you seriously unprepared for repeated long days, in bad weather. I am not going to publish a full gear list here, as this article is not intended as a “how-to.”
Somewhere in CO
If you’re looking into adventures a bit more involved, you’re probably going to want a cross country style bike for the pedaling efficiency and lighter weight. Almost all bikepacking is done on hardtail frames, and many racers choose a rigid fork for further weight saving and efficiency, but your intended terrain and comfort level will be the ultimate deciding factor. As with all long trail rides you should have enough repair equipment to get you at least back to civilization.
Taking a step beyond the local bike shop, you’re gonna need some camping gear. If you’re not doing hut to hut riding, you will need shelter to stay dry at night. This can range from a tarp, to a bivy, to a tent. A sleeping bag rated for the temperature range you expect to encounter, and a pad to match should keep you sleeping cozy. Pack rain gear, and one layer more than you think you’ll need. Some expeditions may require carrying a camp stove, and other cooking equipment, but if speed and weight are a concern, you should be able to pack enough food to get to the next resupply point without cooking. As far as food and water are concerned, there are too many variables to say how much you’ll need. Some form of water purification is always a good idea. If you haven’t had much camping or survival experience, you’ll want to start ready and work your way up.
I tend to ride alone, often with no phone service or advanced notice as to where I’ll be. Even on single day adventures, I now carry a Spot locator beacon, that I leave off, because if I’m conscious enough to know I need to be rescued, I hope to be able to turn on and activate my beacon. I also always travel with what I call my “oh-shit-kit.” This kit varies bad on the season, but I always carry a lighter, knife or small multi tool, some string, and any time temps below 50 are expected, I carry an emergency bivy if I don’t have other shelter on board. Oh yeah, pack your damn jacket!
Wow, that’s a lot of stuff! Where do I put it all? Most bikepackers now ride rackless bikes, with three primary storage areas: under the seat, on the frame, and on the handlebars. This system keeps the weight close to the midline of the bike, maximizing mobility and agility. Custom frame bags specific to a riders main frame triangle are becoming the norm. Big Dave Wilson of Nuclear Sunrise Stichworks makes beautiful bags, for very fair prices. I started riding with a hydration pack on my back, but I well be happy to take that weight off my back and butt for long days in the saddle.
The riding options are limitless if you are creative. To find well known routes you may be looking at global travel, which is fun, but the right coast is starting to have some new routes pop up. I personally have started planning a route through the Green Mountains of Vermont, and have met some others with similar plans and much more to show than myself. I hope to have some more available for curious eyes sometime in 2014. Virginia has a 480 mile loop. Georgia has the 350 mile Trans North Georgia Route to offer.
In this day and age, exploration often begins at the keyboard. Topo maps and Internet forums are your friends.
Rock Pillar near Platoro, CO
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Find yourself, go get lost in the woods!