Words by Jeffrey Stern, photos by Dylan Jones
One of the best things about mountain biking is planning for the excitement and adventure of escape. Escape from the real world, into mountains and pastures unknown that can lead to any number of amazing experiences. Simply planning an overnight trip of any magnitude stirs the pot of thrill and prepares you mentally for exiting the confines of society: roads, cars, traffic and often times unnecessary business.
Heading off into the wilderness often requires a bit of planning and preparation, but you likely have most of what you need in the form of camping and biking gear ready and waiting for your use.
On a recent overnighter deep into the vast Los Padres National Forest and to the summit of Big Pine Mountain, we packed smart for what were fairly extreme conditions for an early summer trip. Highs jumping into the 90s during the heat of the day and lows with windchill dipping into the 30s at night required us to bring enough gear to be ready, while not overloading our mountain bikes. After a few dozen trips, we’ve whittled down the essentials to one list divided into three sub-groups.
Cooking/Food/Water – bring more than enough food
As a general rule of thumb, bring one extra meal and a couple extra snacks more than you think you might need. If you’re planning to spend 36 hours out in the wild (one night), bring another meal and a few extra energy bars of your choice just in case it turns into a two nighter. Same goes for water, especially in the hotter summer months. It’s easy to run through double the amount of liquids when carrying an extra heavy load. And always, always bring a water filter of some kind. For cooking, we like lightweight gas-fueled portable stoves similar to the Jetboil. A lighter, Swiss Army type multi-tool and double-sided utensil are must haves as well.
Clothing/First Aid – plans for the extremes
Conditions change quickly in the outback, so you need to plan accordingly. Beyond your standard riding gear, always bring an extra base layer and a lightweight, packable jacket for warmth and as well as a rain shell. A second pair of socks, long finger gloves and beanie to keep your head warm if the temperature really dips is a great idea too. Comfortable, warm pants and a compact set of shoes will protect your legs and feet in the evenings from unwanted bug bites or while walking around camp. A simple first aid kit with small bandages, tape, disinfectant, antibiotic ointment, needle/thread, bug spray and tweezers will cover most of your basic injuries. Don’t forget the ever important sunscreen either; a bad sunburn can dehydrate you and put you into a more serious conundrum than you might think.
Bicycle Maintenance/Bags – don’t forget the little things!
Included in your standard (pump, tube, multi-tool, chain link, patch kit, tire boots and irons) flat kit should be an extra tube, extra chain link, extra wheel spoke/nipple, an extra set of shoe cleats, electrical tape, a few random sized hex bolts, and zip ties – all good things to have incase you get in a pinch. On the bag front, we like to carry small backpacks because of their water carrying capacity, but these can be easily replaced with a frame bag if you’re not in too technical of terrain and running a hardtail. A larger seatpost bag should carry most of your bigger volume gear and a smaller handlebar bag can carry items you might want to get to quickly.
Falling outside these three sub-groups, but just as important are lights, a portable USB recharging stick and if you’re really going off the grid consider investing in a satellite GPS device. Don’t forget your lightweight tent (or hammock), sleeping bag and pad so you can enjoy your rest in comfort before heading home the next day!
By Adam Newman
Handlebar Pack -$130
In the name of simplicity and secure attachment, Ortlieb chose to design its handlebar bag to hang below the handlebars, where it stays put and doesn’t slip or bounce, rather than trying to cantilever it out in front. The laminated, ripstop nylon waterproof body has a roll-up closure at each end and Ortlieb lists its volume at 15 liters. I found it plenty large enough for a lightweight solo tent and sleeping bag. There are a myriad of ways to attach things on the outside too, beyond just the accessories pouch. The compression straps can hold extras like your tent poles or a second stuff sack, and there are some bungee cords on the exterior for a jacket. The attachment system is very secure, with a few foam spacers to make room for your brakes, shifters and cables. A super heavy-duty strap secures it in place and a secondary buckle strap cinches it up tight. The build quality is worth a shout-out, as I never once feared tearing a seam with repeated stretching, pulling, crashing, stuffing and smashing.
Accessories Pack -$75
If you go with the Ortlieb handlebar pack, you should really pick up the Accessories pack too. It attaches with the compression straps from the Handlebar pack and is big enough for several days worth of food. Having my snacks right on the handlebars made them easy to access, and when I needed to hang a bear bag at night I simply detached it and strung it up tire combo in here. It can also be attached to the handlebars on its own as a daypack, or worn around your waist or shoulder with the included waist strap.
Seat Pack -$160
Here Ortlieb chose to refine a common design rather than reinvent the wheel. The volume is adjustable from 8 liters to 16 liters, and it attaches to the seat rails with two quick release buckles and to the seatpost with heavy-duty Velcro straps. At the base of the bag, extending about a third of the way from the seatpost, is an internal cowling that gives it shape and keeps it from bulging. A really cool feature is the addition of a purge valve, which lets you squeeze all the air out of it after it’s been rolled. Getting the seatpack to work well comes down to proper packing. I found that one big item like a sleeping bag worked better than a collection of small items like clothing. Also you need to make sure the contents are stuffed firmly into the bottom of the pack, because otherwise you’re guaranteed to suffer from Droopy Butt Syndrome. After a few days of struggling with it sagging I took better care with packing and the results improved. I also started putting my tent poles in there for more support. One curious design quirk is that even with the bag nearly full I was maxing out the adjustment straps that secure the roll- top, seen here just above the Ortlieb logo. They’re also impossible to tighten while buckled, which makes adjusting them a chore.
Ortlieb has always built some insanely bomber gear, and after working these bags hard I have no doubt they’ll last a while. I would definitely recommend the handlebar pack and accessories pack for their simplicity and carrying capacity. The seat pack, on the other hand, faces much stiffer competition (intentional pun) from designs with rigid frames. It requires careful packing and its massive size is a blessing and a curse. It’s a solid choice but not a home run.
The second annual Bikeout will take place September 9-10, 2017 in and around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This overnight cycling adventure aims to bring together riders, make bikepacking accessible and showcase the natural and civic resources surrounding Philadelphia.
The 38-mile ride starts near the Philadelphia Art Museum and utilizes the paved Schuylkill River Trail and as well as some back roads to get to Sankanac CSA, a 15-acre farm just outside of Phoenixville. Riders will camp at the farm and enjoy a farm-to-table meal, craft beer, live music and more. Morning will bring a farm-sourced breakfast, bike mechanic workshop, yoga, organized bike tour of the surrounding area and more before heading back to the city.
This ride is designed for anyone from experienced cyclists looking to meet people and enjoy a fun weekend to newbies looking for a challenging, yet attainable, experience. Organizers hope that this ride will introduce more of the local community to bike touring, which has been emerging in urban centers as more bicycle commuters search their region for new, farther places to go without a car.
Last year, this ride sold out in just under four hours and brought together 125 riders. This year, Bikeout organizers are doubling the cap due to the popularity of the event.
Tickets go on sale on July 12 at noon and are $100 for a standard ticket and $110 if you would like your camping gear transported to the farm for you. Head on over to bikeoutphl.com for more info.
Sometimes, you need a full year to plan an overnight.
Last fall, my uncle William and I had succeeded in talking each other into an off-road bikepacking trip (and acquiring a bunch of cool new gear), so he went out into Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest to find a route and a camping spot. I eventually had to cancel and the trip—which would be a first for each of us—was shelved.
At the end of July, we finally made it happen. We started with a shakedown ride, a bowl of my aunt’s delicious homemade chili and a sendoff from my 16-year-old cousin that consisted of an eye roll. Our two-day ride began above 10,000 feet and took us even higher over steep, chunky Jeep roads and along barely-visible singletrack before reaching Heart Lake. We pitched our tents in a field of wildflowers and proceeded to catch up on about 10 years of not seeing each other very much.
Just one night? One has to start somewhere and one night is absolutely worthwhile. Philosopher Alain de Botton explained in his book “The Art of Travel” that appreciating and holding onto small experiences with nature was an ideal of poet William Wordsworth. Even though two or three days vacation can’t solve all of your problems, they can reside in your mind as a comfort.
The poet celebrated what he called “spots of time.” Those are, essentially, scenes that may have seemed minor in the moment but that nonetheless stick with us, and that we return to in our memories for contentment when everyday life feels crushing. Daffodils moving in the wind; the smell of a stand of pine trees—anything is up for grabs.
There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue…
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.
— William Wordsworth, re-printed in de Botton’s “The Art of Travel”
That, to me, is the value of these experiences. Sure, they are fun to share on Instagram, but in thinking back to my first backpacking trip 20 years ago as a comparison, I realize how many times I have called upon that memory and savored it fondly. That is what I know I will do with this trip, and likely every one after, even those that inevitably don’t go well.
That is the excellence of bicycles: they give us spots of time. Even if you simply ride a couple of miles to work and back every day, it’s a unique moment in your 9-to-5 or equivalent. Even if it’s just a one-night bikepacking outing, it’s a unique break in the regular routine of life.
I read recently (in relation cycling) that, essentially, the only rides worth remembering are the really difficult ones. Nah. Suffering certainly tightens memory’s grip, but so do beauty, camaraderie, relaxation, novelty. And fun. If you spend two days riding a bike with a giant grin plastered irremovably on your face, that ride is probably going to get filed away in a safe, accessible place.
I may not precisely recall every stream crossing, or how beautiful our tents looked set up in a field of flowers as the light of the sinking sun illuminated them in pinks and oranges, or how silly giddy my uncle and I both were when I busted out a SPAM single in the morning to fry up and share and we launched into a 30-minute conversation about different types of camp stoves and their merits, or how that kid backpacking with his mom brought a soccer ball and we could hear him kicking it in the distance as we rode away from camp.
I may not remember each of those things individually but, collectively, they will engrain themselves as a new spot of time in my memory, hopefully one that I get to hold onto. And, nothing could have motivated me more to go bikepacking than actually going bikepacking. When is my next trip? When and where can I go for two or three nights? How quickly can I start working my way up to an adventure that is classically “epic?” I knew from the first few pedal strokes that this Wyoming trip was just a beginning.
The outing had the enhanced glow of nostalgia because it took me back to the same mountain range where, at age 10, I followed the same Uncle William and my parents into the woods for my first backpacking trip. Twenty years on, it seems that neither one of us has fundamentally changed all that much, which was somewhat of an unexpected relief. There’s an indescribable comfort at being able to slip into familiarity with a kindred spirit, especially in the process of exploring a shared passion.
This isn’t where I tell you that you need to go out and do something like I did or that it was a big deal or that it wasn’t a big deal. There’s more than enough finger-wagging in the outdoor media about how you’re not doing it right but someone else is. We meticulously planned a one-night trip and only rode a handful of miles each way. Our way is certainly one way to do it. There are many others.
Define your love of cycling and the outdoors in whatever way you damn well please. That’s something I learned from Uncle William and have always admired. I appreciate that he doesn’t chase trends or exclusive toys. Besides, as he puts it, “if you want only expensive bikes, then you can’t have very many of them.”
So, I suppose I am going to tell you what to do, and that is this: Do what you want.
You can’t talk about bikepacking without talking about the bike. My Surly Pugsley has been a faithful friend now for the last three years and has broadened its usefulness from winter snow machine to adept touring rig.
Following my shakedown trip in Moab, I shod its stock 50-mm rims with 26×2.75 Surly Dirt Wizard tires, swapped in a Jones H-Bar up front and a Brooks Cambium saddle out back and called it good. I don’t yet know how the 100 mm bottom bracket width will affect my knees on longer journeys, but that width offers the benefit of preventing my legs from rubbing a stuffed frame bag.
I was extremely grateful for the stability, cushion and grip of extra-knobby, plus-ish tires paired to the great ride of a steel frame. The new crop of up-and-coming bikes designed around plus tires might seem like just a fad or a phase, but I don’t think I’ll ever do loaded, off-road touring on anything else. I’m sold. Now that some bike companies are turning to 26plus tires for smaller-frame and women’s-specific mountain bikes, I might have more tire options in the future.
Backpack: Water bladder, sleeping bag, rain cover for pack, ultralight wind vest, arm and leg warmers (the only items I did not use), wallet, phone, keys to my truck
Apidura seat pack: alcohol fuel stove and small fuel bottle, small cook pot, collapsible bowl that doubles as a tiny cutting board, titanium fork and spoon, waterproof matches, insulated mug, insulated vest, insulated jacket, rain jacket, small pack towel, spare clothing (socks, underwear, wool hat, warm gloves, baselayer tights, long-sleeve shirt) and camp shoes attached to the outside (Crocs clogs)
- TIP: Make sure you don’t strap so much on the top of the seat pack that you can’t get your rear back off the saddle on steep, loose descents.
Revelate Designs frame bag: toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, glasses, contact lens solution/case, wet wipes); breakfast (SPAM single, oatmeal, almond butter, instant coffee); dinner (freeze-dried backpacking meal); small bottle of cooking oil; bike-specific toolkit; spare tube; tire pump; ultralight one-person backpacking first aid kit; headlamp; camp knife; small roll of biodegradable toilet paper; pocket-sized sketchbook with pencil
Revelate Designs handlebar bag: one-person tent, ground cloth, tent poles/stakes, sleeping pad, camp pillow (the only thing I’d leave at home next time)
Fork-mounted dry bags (made by Salsa): Left: lunch/snacks (bagel, dried sausage, marinated green olives, dark chocolate-covered raisins, small container of peanut butter, Clif Bar energy food pouch-sweet potato flavor); Right: 1-liter water bottle, SteriPen for water purification
Revelate Designs stem bag: compact-ish camera (Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100), lip balm, DEET bug juice, sunscreen
Did I forget anything? Yep: a small flask of bourbon and an evening hot drink such as cocoa or decaf tea. Luckily for us both, my uncle brought fire starters (cotton balls rubbed with petroleum jelly) since everything around us was wet. A small folding saw would have been welcome for firewood gathering and trail clearing, but not necessary.