This post would be best subtitled as “The Anti-Capitalist Guide to Bikepacking”. By that I mean that what I will outline below are a few thoughts on the gear that was brought on our fall bike packing trip to the Chilcotins and reflect just a little on why light gear makes a difference but how with a few caveats bike packing can be an accessible sport. For details of our route please consult Skyler’s contribution to Pedalling Nowhere’s Route Guides.
Bikes: Skyler – Surly ECR (29+ rigid) Panthea – Rocky Mountain Soul/Hammer (hardtail) Nick – Norco (full-suspension mountain bike) Lena – Giant (full-suspension mountain bike) Erica – Rocky Mountain Hammer (hardtail) Knut – Kuwahara Roc D’Azur XT, 1994 (rigid) This trip was a bit of an experiment. We all ran different systems and quite by accident we managed to have a pretty representative sampling of a number of common bike-setups. Skyler used his Surly ECR which has featured prominently in the blog – for those who follow our Facebook posts, he did manage to crack the chain stay on the second day of the trip resulting in a long days walking out to the cars. It should be noted that the fracture was at the weld (i.e. not user error) and this was promptly warrantied by Surly which meant that after some deliberation Skyler is now rolling on a Krampus. Panthea used the hard tail which has also been featured on the blog, having been her steed throughout the adventures described in Skyler’s ‘Sudamerican Dispatches’. Nick and Lena rode their full-suspension mountain bikes which while they might restrict what can be attached to the frame proved to be great bikes for ripping along Chilcotin trails. Erica’s hard tail is, I believe from 2005, and features a very light Mavic wheel set. Bought used off craigslist this bike ticked all of Erica’s boxes, it had to be steel, a hard tail, light wheel set, rack and fender braze-ons, and have disk-tabs so it could be upgraded in the future. For under 500$ Erica was rolling on an adventure bike which should certainly see her through most things. Last but not least I rode my Kuwahara Roc D’Azur. All the way from 1994, this bike is Ishiwata steel with the original Deore XT drivetrain. Bought used off craigslist for $200 this bike was the one I used for everything – commuting, touring and mountain-biking in Squamish.
Bags: Bags are perhaps the piece of gear which most defines bikepacking – they are what set the style of touring apart from regular touring. There are lots of reasons to avoid panniers in a back-country, off-road setting but the most important one is that by keeping weight closer to the centre of the bike, control is improved and the handling of the bike will be easier. Specially designed bags are available from many retailers and are certainly a worthwhile investment, but if you’re starting out they do represent a pretty hefty chunk of change and if like me you’re dipping your toes in the water then experimenting with other options is probably not a bad idea. There were six of us on this trip in the Chilcotins and we each ran different systems. Skyler and Panthea are our resident bike-packing experts and they have fancy setups of special bags made by Cleveland Mountaineering and Porcelain Rocket which they have used with great success the length and breadth of the Americas.
Nick and Lena rode their full-squish mountain bikes and put their gear into a small daypack (not more than 30L) each. They also used ski straps (also called Voile Straps) to attach a small bag of heavy food each to their handlebars – with the goal of keeping pack-weight down. Their setup worked great, but was certainly facilitated by the fact that they are ruthless packers and being hyperactive skiers and climbers they have their gear pared down to super-minimal levels already.
Erica and I took a sort of third approach where we each rode with a small (~10L) pack with some food and a jacket and sundries and each had a handlebar bag, a frame bag and a seat bag. For my frame bag I used a half-frame bag by the now-defunct Serratus, this allowed me keep some food weight inside of the frame but also allowed me to use bottles which I prefer as they are easier to fill in small streams than a bladder. Up front I ran a Wald Basket with a dry bag in it which had my sleeping bag and some clothes and I bungeed a foamie behind it. Under my seat I strapped a dry bag which had our tent in it.
Erica is a keen sewer and so made her own frame bag using a number of instructions from the internet as well as making her own handlebar harness which was used to carry a dry bag full of her sleeping gear and clothes. Under her seat she ran the largest saddle bag we could find (an old one from Mountain Equipment Coop ~1.5L) in which we kept all our tubes and tools. Shoes/Pedals: I mention shoe and pedal choices because this is a personal interest of mine and if my cycling experience has taught me anything it is that contact points matter. All six of us ran large flat mountain biking pedals which I think are much the best option for this sort of thing. They mean you don’t have to bring multiple pairs of shoes and allow you to move your feet around if for some reason you develop any soreness in your knees etc. Shoe choices were all different – climbing approach shoes were perhaps the most popular as I think four out of six of us were wearing our pairs, Nick used some mountain biking shoes by FiveTen, and Panthea wore her Blundstones. My point in highlighting this is simply to say that I think the common thread here is simply that we all wore robust, comfortable shoes that could be walked in. This is an important consideration in bikepacking as it is not uncommon to encounter (depending on location) hills that are too steep or loose to bike or sections of trail which are too rough to ride.
The verdict: We all survived (despite Skyler’s frame malfunction) and had a whale of a time. It’s hard to say what system worked best, as I think it really depends what sort of a ride you are going for. The system Nick and Lena went with works great but does require wearing a backpack and having very lightweight packing systems for sleeping and cooking. I didn’t regret having a fully rigid bike so much as I wished I had a 29’er – an issue since remedied as I’m now rolling on a Surly Ogre (to be reviewed shortly). The dry bag strapped to my seat was remarkably stable, and the Wald basket is indestructible. I have overloaded it and crashed on it and it still survives being bent back into shape. Having a heavy front end does make for frustrating mountain-biking though, so both Erica and I will be amending our weight allocations on our next bike packing excursions.
To return to my proposed subtitle, outdoor recreation can sometimes seem like an incredibly privileged thing. That’s because it is. To have the freedom to recreate is a remarkable luxury. But part of what we want you to realize as you read this blog is that we explore and adventure with limited budgets and sometimes limited access to gear. We are by no means professional athletes (though we may yearn to be professional adventurers!). Money and fancy gear undoubtedly make life easier and can make trips sometimes more fun, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do trips and get after if without that latest ultralight gadget. While there may be no substitute for experience or knowledge it has always been my experience that a wooden spoon is just as good as a titanium one.