By Justin Steiner
In a past issue of Bicycle Times, I gave some pointers on planning a cost-effective, single-day adventure ride (“Rambling Around God’s Country,” issue #3). Now we’re going to build on that planning to take your adventure to the next level in the form of an overnight trip. One of my favorite aspects of a bikepacking trip is the ability to ride for a whole day without having to worry about getting back to your starting point. The freedom afforded by knowing that I have everything I need to spend a comfortable night, or two, in the woods just about anyplace (legal) I fancy is quite liberating. For many people, overnight bikepacking will involve acquiring some camping gear that is packable, not to mention a reliable method for carrying equipment. Most of this gear doesn’t come cheap, but I’ll shed some light on how to maximize affordability.
Having Salsa’s new adventure touring bike, the Fargo, in for test naturally required going for a true adventure, in the name of product testing of course. For this springtime long-weekend trip, I headed just an hour and a half outside of Pittsburgh to Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, home of some excellent whitewater boating on the Youghiogheny River, not to mention two of Frank Lloyd Wright’s amazing homes, Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob. This area also contains thousands of acres of PA State Forest land, which is ripe with singletrack, forest roads, and dirt roads just begging to be explored.
Like most of my adventures, this trip was a result of poring over maps, linking together various points of interest via interesting routes. I used a combination of my Delorme Atlas & Gazetteer and Google Maps discussed in issue #3, supplemented with a Forbes State Forest map (free in Pennsylvania) for the singletrack and forest road sections. See last issue’s article for tips on using these cost-effective routemapping strategies.
On the Road
One last check of the weather before leaving work Friday showed no more than a 60% chance of rain through Saturday with an improving forecast for Sunday and Monday—little did I know. A low-hanging misty fog and temps in the middle 50’s made for a serene, almost dream-like start to my ride. The fast and flowing Forest roads, in surprisingly good condition considering the previous week’s rain, were just technical enough to keep things interesting with a fully loaded bike. Swinging off the road at one point for a break and a bite to eat, I stumbled upon an amazing waterfall, followed by some bomber singletrack, and a cold, swift, knee-deep stream crossing. After a few more hours of long, winding climbs and ripping gravel descents, it was time to find shelter before nightfall. I made my way over to a group of shelters built along a local hiking trail only to discover one is supposed to reserve shelters ahead of time—something that hadn’t turned up in my research. These three-sided hiking lean-tos are simply awesome, especially in adverse conditions, and they even had hammock hooks! Despite soaking wet wood, I was eventually able to coax a fire to a dull roar, and establish a system for drying wood near the fire.
After waking to a steady rain on day two, I decided that unless the rain quit before I finished breakfast, I’d bag the next phase of my plan to visit a nearby State Park and simply spend the day lounging in my hammock, alternately reading and napping, since there was nowhere else I had to be. The rain never let up, but an abundance of great food and a good book made for a super-relaxing and comfortable day. The cool, damp weather and my sloth-like activity level meant I was wearing nearly everything I brought, but I remained comfy by the fire. The group of shelters in which I was staying did have a water pump, but the liquid coming out looked more like a rusty-orange sport drink, wholly justifying my decision to bring a water filter.
On day three I again woke to rain, which didn’t let up after breakfast as I was hoping. After waiting until noon for the day’s temp to get above 50°F, I had little choice but to ride back to the car in the steady rain, which took me roughly four hours via the most direct route on tarmac and dirt roads, at which point I was soaked—claims of waterproof and breathable clothing don’t hold up to such sustained exposure.
Despite the damp weather, this trip was truly enjoyable. My day spent reading and napping in the hammock was one of the most relaxing days in recent memory—certainly my kind of adventure. Experiences like this make me truly believe that you should approach a trip with a solid plan, but don’t be too eager to stick to it—modifying your itinerary in conjunction with changes in the weather will maximize your enjoyment.
As usual, I did come away from this experience with a few nuggets of wisdom. First, always bring rain gear with you, and if you want to ensure that you’ll stay dry in an all-day rain, go for a non-breathable plastic or rubberized rain outfit. As a bonus, these old-school rain outfits are significantly cheaper than today’s wonder fabrics. Also on the water theme, don’t forget to bring heavy-duty freezer bags for any electronic gizmos. Gastronomically speaking, always carry extra food, as bringing home extra food is better than going hungry. Also, always remember your flask with liquor of choice; mine was sorely missed on this trip.
Finally, when going solo, keep stupidity and risk-taking to a minimum. Always inform a friend or family member of your plans with an itinerary and a timeline, including deadline to call in the appropriate authorities if you don’t show. Devices such as SPOT’s Personal Tracker provide peace of mind for both adventurer and family.
You’ll need to invest in a fair amount of gear eventually, but you can slowly acquire items over time. Buying used gear will cut the price of outfitting yourself in half. Don’t forget that the holiday gift-giving season is right around the corner, too. Asking for some items you’ll put to good use is far better than getting another pair of underwear.
Let’s start with bike set-up. Your touring rig will obviously need to be up for the demands of your ride. Road bikes make OK light touring rigs, but their quick handling and lightweight frames don’t make for the most confident loaded touring ride. Cyclocross bikes, mountain bikes, and everything in between generally work pretty well for touring, as long as you’re able to mount racks to carry your stuff. Obviously true touring bikes work well unless you’re planning to ride singletrack or extremely rough forest roads.
After your bike and rack situation is sorted, you’ll need bags to haul your gear. There are plenty of options available, from fancy waterproof bags to basic saddlebags. If you can’t spring for a fully waterproof setup, simply pack your gear in heavy-duty plastic bags to keep water out. If your bags require some sort of proprietary plastic clips to fasten the bags to your rack, you might want to carry a set of spares. Handlebar bags add accessibility and organization for smaller items.My set-up:
- Salsa Fargo reviewed in issue #143 of Dirt Rag
- Jandd Saddle Bags out back, Jandd Mountain Pannier on a lowrider front rack, and Jandd Handle Pack II on the handlebars. Used a SealLine dry bag to store raingear on top of the rear rack. Camera gear carried in a backpack.
- Jeff Jones H-bar (personal preference)
- Tool kit: multi-tool, chain tool, spoke wrench, zip ties, needle-nose pliers, stainless steel safety wire, small bottle of chain lube, duct tape.
- Two tubes, plus patch kit, and C02 for emergency situation (in seatbag)
- Frame pump
Your sleeping system can be as simple or complex as your comfort needs demand. Shelter options are many: tarp, bivy sack, tent, or hammock. Sleeping pads are recommended if you’ll be sleeping on terra firma, but not necessary. My preferred setup is a camping hammock due to its small pack size, sleeping comfort, and good availability of trees in my usual haunts.
- Hennessy Hammock Expedition Asym – Weighs just 2.75lbs., and allows me to leave my sleeping pad at home. Quick to set up and quite comfy, this is my choice for solo trips. A rain fly keeps you dry and the hammock doubles as a lounge chair.
- Mountain Hardware 20° synthetic sleeping bag – More than a decade old, this bag is more like a 35° bag these days, but is still going strong. Something lighter and smaller would be nice, but I’m too cheap.
- Emergency space blanket – One of the downfalls of hammock camping is the lack of insulation between you and the outside air. Great in the summer, but gets cold quickly. A space blanket between the hammock and sleeping bag reflects heat and provides a wind barrier if temps drop unexpectedly.
- Therm-a-Rest seat – Comfort around camp.
Again, kitchen options are many, ranging from hobo—can of beans in the fire—to gourmet. I’m on the gourmet end of things, preferring to carry the additional weight of good food and the ability to heat it up. I simply love sitting by the fire in the morning drinking a good cup’o joe.
- MSR Whisperlite International Multi Fuel Stove – Nice highend stove, good heat control and will simmer nicely. Ability to burn just about any liquid fuel (including unleaded gasoline) was the selling point for me.
- MSR Alpine Stowaway Pot – Got this cheap used. Nice and tough, not terribly light. My kitchen accessories store inside: stove, fork, spoon, can opener, matches, Lightload towel, olive oil, soap, and abrasive pad for the dishes.
- Titanium coffee mug with MSR Mugmate Coffee/Tea filter.
- MSR Miniworks EX Microfilter – For water filtration. Filters out everything down to 0.2 microns in diameter. Doesn’t filter viruses, so bring sterilization (iodine or chlorine) in any area were you’re worried about viruses. For the most part, we don’t have to worry about viruses in North America, but nothing is guaranteed
- Orikaso folding bowl – Highly functional space saver.
- Nylon cord (50ft.) for hanging food away from critters, and a shorter section for miscellaneous use.
- Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight .5 First Aid kit –Supplemented with Ibuprofin and medical tape.
- Matches, both regular and REI brand storm-proof, along with newspaper
- Pocket knife
- Breakfast: instant oatmeal with trail mix added for additional calories, coffee. Nutritious and hearty breakfast with a minimum of preparation—simply add hot water.
- Lunch & Dinner: pouches of pre-made Indian food, rice, and garlic naan from Trader Joe’s. These meals are quick, delicious, and calorie dense. Simply heat up the sealed pouches in hot water on your cookstove and pour them into a bowl. Since these dishes are hydrated they are heavier than dehydrated foods, but they’re so tasty I’m more than happy to carry around the extra weight. I also took macaroni and cheese as a lightweight spare meal.
- Trail food: Clif Bars, Lära Bars, granola bars, three varieties of trail mix (savory and sweet), beef jerky, and of course, chocolate.
[Ed notes: This article originally appeared in print in Bicycle Times issue #4. Photos by Justin Steiner. Click here to subscribe to Bicycle Times.]