Two years is a long time to daydream about something before being able to make it happen, but I am infamously stubborn and will hold onto desires for unreasonable amounts of time. So it was with off-road bikepacking, which sparked something in me the moment I discovered it existed, but that I didn’t actually attempt until last weekend in Moab, Utah.
Several friends and I have a tradition of going mountain biking in Moab each May. This year, I found myself without a long-travel, full-suspension bike which, at my skill level, is necessary to keep up on technical trails. Instead, I decided to use the trip as my opportunity to bikepack for the first time. Moab is best known for OHV riding, Jeeping (yeah, it’s a thing) and mountain biking, but I found it to also be an enchanting place to pedal for several hours along a remote dirt road.
I cheated a bit on this trip—it was more of a shakedown to figure out where and how to pack the bags and to begin to learn the nuances of fully loaded bike handling. I did not actually ride somewhere and camp alone. Instead, I loaded up everything I would have needed for an overnight, pedaled for six hours, then returned to the group site and re-established camp. After one night in a tent, I gave up in the face of rain and high winds and slept in the bed of my truck.
The route I chose was Kane Creek Road up and over Hurrah Pass, which snakes through BLM land southwest of Moab. From town, the road is mostly smooth dirt suitable for gravel bikes and two-wheel drive cars. The farther you push toward the pass, the rockier and narrower the road becomes. Beyond the pass, multiple river crossings and deep, sandy two-track make for slow and steady work. But the remote landscape is jaw-dropping gorgeous, and I couldn’t help but ride with a permanent, appreciative smile.
Even when I slipped and went down in water up to my neck, even when dust devils swarmed and packed every orifice with orange dirt, even when my front brake gave out and my rear derailleur threw a temper tantrum, I was unfailingly giddy.
How far did I ride? That’s what everyone wanted to know when I rolled back into camp muddy, bruised and grinning. I honestly have no idea. I rode for a solid five hours during my six-hour trip, taking one rest break to enjoy a hearty lunch, another to dry out a bit after slipping into the river and a final stop to brew a cup of coffee (since I was carrying all of that crap I figured I might as well use it). Otherwise, I have no idea and I’m OK with that.
The steed I called up from my stable is the venerable Surly Pugsley which—to be clear—is a personal bike that I spent my own money on. As much as I appreciate a modern gravel grinder or finely tuned all-mountain bike, the Pugsley’s classic geometry and steel frame are my Goldilocks. It’s also unpretentious, easygoing, indestructible and versatile, which is how I happen to fancy myself.
We get along smashingly, the Pugsley and I, so much so that it’s my only named bike. It’s well-known to friends as “Bluecifer,” which is what we Coloradans call the creepy blue horse statue with glowing red eyes that rears over Denver International Airport. The understanding that Bluecifer and I have developed over our years together made it the obvious choice for my first bikepacking trip.
Throwing a leg over the loaded bike for the first time wasn’t without trepidation. I didn’t bother to bring a scale to the desert, but my guess is that the setup weighed close to half of my body weight. And yet the first pedal stroke was unremarkable. Each one after that, along an increasingly technical stretch of two-track, was no less familiar. I found myself surprised that the ride wasn’t awkward or heavy-feeling, but rather normal. My only complaint was a wish for more hand positions, as I simply used a traditional mountain bike handlebar setup.
Somehow, a Pugsley rides the same loaded as it does unloaded. I mean that as a compliment: The handling and predictability were largely unchanged by heavy, amateurishly packed gear draped all over its bits. I didn’t have to re-learn how to maneuver nor did I feel I was losing any feedback from the machine. I’m sure I’d love any of Surly’s made-for-loaded-adventuring bikes, but Bluecifer got it done without complaint. While it remains to be seen how a Pugsley’s wide Q-factor will affect my knees on multi-day trips, I am so far well pleased.
As a longtime backpacker, I glibly assumed I had enough lightweight gear and a good understanding of packing to nail this adventure. Instead, I struggled to cram everything into the bike bags on my size small frame, despite regularly seeing people who travel with far less equipment. The biggest offender was my sleeping bag, which doesn’t compress well. Finding a place to stash it left me scratching my head, and I ended up carrying it in a backpack along with a water bladder and my rain gear. Since I almost always ride with a hydration pack, I barely noticed it.
Up front I hauled my tent, extra clothing and sleeping pad in the handlebar bag. The top tube bag carried a sack of dark chocolate almonds, a camera, lip balm and a knife that I purposefully clipped in a spot visible to anyone who stopped to talk to me. In the frame bag, I loaded heavier items such as bike tools, hand pump, spare tube, sunscreen and food. The saddle bag carried my cooking equipment, eating utensils, headlamp and toiletries. I forgot the first aid kit and camp shoes, which I probably would have put in dry bags attached to fork-mounted cages.
A note about tires: I chose four-inch Surly Nates for this trip, knowing I’d be riding over a combination of deep-ish sand and rocky terrain. A few people chastised me for such a large, heavy choice, but on a loaded fully rigid bike I appreciated how the plush tires tamed the ride, floated through the sand and gripped tenaciously on steep climbs. I’m glad that I didn’t focus too much on weight weeny-ism, but rather sought to be practical and realistic.
- Olives: I brought along a small packet of seasoned, pitted green olives and their briny tang was a delightful snack. In other words, treat yourself. Dry goods are nice because they’re lightweight, but too much of them can be demoralizing, especially in a desert landscape where you always feel parched.
- Distribute soft things among metal and plastic things, or else the rattling of your cup against your fuel canister will drive you nuts. Also, think about what you might need to access during the ride and pack accordingly. Physically, it’s not a big deal to remove everything from one bag to get to your coffee canister but, mentally, it can be excruciating.
- Be aware of your personal limits. Know your strength level, ability level and what you can expect from your body, which will determine how far you travel outbound, how fast you can ride and when you know you can push through something or should stop and rest. I ended up being under-ambitious on this first outing (I easily could have ridden farther and/or faster) but that’s not a bad thing in an area with zero cellphone reception.
- Know some beyond-basic bike maintenance for peace of mind, rather than catching the “it won’t happen to me” disease. After an endless string of silty river crossings, I had to tinker with Bluecifer’s squealing, gunked-up mechanical disc brakes. I let the rear derailleur persist in its misery until I got back to camp but, had I been spending the night miles from my car, I would have needed to deal with it that evening.
- Wave and smile at everyone. It immediately diffuses any potential annoyance that other users (especially those with engines and go-fast agendas) have to share the road/trail with you and your lumbering load. I quickly learned that moto riders raise a balled fist to one another in greeting, so I started doing it, too. I also pulled off to the side of the road for larger Jeeps and four-wheelers, allowing them to pass comfortably.
Otherwise, I found bikepacking to be not a big deal. By that, I mean this: if you are a moderately-competent bike handler, are experienced with some form of camping, have at least half your wits about you, possess a respectable fitness level and can do some pre-planning, then you can bikepack with relative ease. Also, take the advice my winking friends left me with before I embarked: “Make good choices.”
The biggest revelation I came away with was that bikepacking is a damn good time. Sure, nothing went disastrously wrong and returning to a campsite packed with friends, cold beer and a roaring fire made the outing much easier than spending a night in the wilds alone, but every pedal stroke was full of stoke. Attaching a mission to cycling makes it an entirely new experience.
I had to wait two years because graduate school ate up all of my free time. If this is something you want to do, then just go do it.
“Journeys are the midwives of thought … There is an almost quaint correlation between what is before our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, and new thoughts, new places. Introspective reflections that might otherwise be liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape.” — Alain de Botton in “The Art of Travel.”