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.