Alex Howes diary: Bikepacking 101

by Alex Howes


So, it has been about a month since my last entry, and what a month it has been.

My girlfriend and I put a solid 3000 miles on our little Tacoma as we played vagabonds in the great American west. We hugged monster trees, had weird parties in Portland, chased mountain goats, played softball with giant mounds of grizzly bear poop, played with river otters, chased waterfalls, herded 1500 sheep in Idaho, dodged a bear in Jackson, braved three-foot waves in a Craigslist canoe, summited sand dunes, became junior rangers, lit emergency fires, built emergency shelters, and high-fived Kiel Reijnen’s four-day old baby girl.

Oh, and we went bikepacking.

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Now, because this is a site dedicated to cycling, and not a site dedicated to keeping yourself and significant other alive in some of the most rugged and wild terrain in the northern hemisphere, we’ll go ahead and save the grizzly business for another day and I’ll elaborate a bit on the bikepacking.

Let me make one thing very clear: When we set out on our little bikepacking adventure, I didn’t know a damn thing about how best to do it. My poor girlfriend knew even less. In fact, this was to be her baptism by fire into the mountain biking world. With a three-day (literal) crash course of mountain-bike skills under her belt, we joined up with the Yonder Mountain Journal crew and set off into the wilderness — where our real schooling took place.

Here are is a FAQ of sorts, along with a few lessons I learned about bikepacking:

What is bikepacking?
It’s like backpacking, but with wheels. Now, wheels were invented to help transport loads across distances. In theory, bikepacking makes an awful lot of sense. In practice, it seems to oscillate between pure bliss and wondering why all your bushcraft tools are tied to an inanimate, awkward aluminum pony.

Where to go bikepacking?
Go out, and go up. If you see other people, go in the opposite direction. Go talk to your wild friends. Ask there where the wild things live. Go there. Avoid towns. In towns, bike-packers are often confused with cyclotourists. Cyclotourists are cool and all, but you’re a bikepacker. Avoid towns.

What should you bring bikepacking?

  • You’ll need a bike. Duh. I recommend something with big tires to spread the load. Something durable and low maintenance, because field repairs are no fun. Make sure it has a granny gear for real-life grandmas, not fictional, super muscular grandmas that only need a 25 in the back. And ride something lovable. You’ll be spending lots of time with it so you best love it.
  • A tool kit. Shit happens out there and if you ever want to see a flushing toilet again you’ll need to be able to keep your whip functional. Functional also means not squeaky. Nine hours is a long time to listen to a squeaky chain.
  • Sleeping bag and sleeping pad. Don’t screw this one up. This is important. Keep it nice and dry. Don’t crash in the mud and stab a wet muddy stick through your dry bag and into your sleeping bag. That’s for amateurs, and after reading this you are not an amateur.
  • A tent
  • All of the food
  • A stove for cooking all of the food. Make sure you didn’t accidentally break it in the big storm in Yellowstone just prior to your trip. Only idiots do that.
  • A spoon for eating all of the food
  • A first-aid kit. Because you, or someone you know, will comply with the laws of physics and ungracefully become intimately familiar with the forest floor.
  • Bike pants, bike clothes, camp clothes. You will be deep in the woods far away from the judgmental eyes of society. Take the liberty to wear all your weirdest garments.
  • Cards for a group game Euchre
  • Booze for celebrating your Euchre win
  • Water, and multiple ways to get more water. You’re avoiding towns right? You need ways to get fresh, cool, not-going-to-give-you-diarrhea, wash-away-the-hangover-from-the-Euchre-victory-celebration water from your surroundings.
  • Buddies and babes

What to expect?
It will be beautiful. There will be plenty of Instagrammable FOMO (fear of missing out) moments. You will have fun. Your ass will hurt. You will probably crash while piloting your heavy-ass, awkwardly weighted bike. You will do lots of hike-a-biking. You will learn to hate hike-a-biking. You will have to poop in the dirt. Your friends will be smelly. You will hate your friends. You will love your friends. You will be stinky. If you are out there long enough, Mother Nature will eventually turn on you. You will have fun.

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Little tips and tricks

  • Don’t worry about getting all the fancy stuff right away. Even the bikepacking pros know that sometimes you just have to tape crap to your bike. A decent backpack and some creative lashing is just fine for your first few outings.
    Anticipate a collective hangover when planning the routes and distances.
  • On that note, know that most adults, when stripped of their daily responsibilities with nothing but blue skies and a nice little bike ride on the horizon, will drink a staggering amount of whiskey. You’re avoiding towns, so pack double rations of whiskey for all.
  • If you don’t know how to ride a mountain bike, fake it until you make it. Smile when people are watching, and cry after they all leave you behind. When you finally do make it to camp, enter with style with a monster skid that would make even the nastiest BMX bandit jealous. By the end, you’ll be right up there.
  • If you have a Cannondale Lefty fork, strap a hatchet to it. They’re great for backwoods trail maintenance, chopping firewood, sharpening marshmallow sticks, garnering smiles from local hunters, and convincing your girlfriend that you stand a chance against a bear (you don’t).
  • If you can’t walk in your riding shoes, get riding shoes you can walk in. Simple as that.

I sure hope this all helps you out. We had a blast out there and I cannot wait to have another go. Hopefully Jonathan Vaughters will make the Cannondale-Drapac December training camp a winter bikepacking survival trip, or maybe a group bikepacking trip across the Australian Outback to welcome our new Aussies to the team. Either way, I look forward to hearing about your adventures and bikepacking tips in the comments below.

Now get out there!

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About the author

Alex Howes is a senior member of the Cannondale-Drapac Pro Cycling Team. Born and raised at the base of the Colorado Rockies, he has acquired a nearly insatiable thirst for adventure and all things wild. He’s completed every grand tour he’s started, including the Tour de France, three times. He took his first career win at the 2014 USA Pro Challenge, in Denver, Colorado, and finished as the top American at the 2015 world road championships in Richmond, Virginia. Follow his adventures on Twitter, Instagram, and Pro Cycling Stats.

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