Last year, I was having a perfectly good time backpacking the Tahoe Rim Trail when I became unnerved by all the people passing me on mountain bikes. The reason for my frustration: They were clearly having more fun than me.
So I did what any self-respecting outdoor enthusiast would. I bought a full-suspension Marin mountain bike the next week.
My interest in backpacking didn’t wane, though, with the purchase of the bike. I began to see mountain biking as an extension of the same love for exploration driving my backpacking. So I asked myself: How could I take overnight trips into remote areas like I did backpacking, except on my mountain bike?
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It’s backpacking crossed with mountain biking, except most or all of the gear is stowed in bike bags, not backpacks. Bikepackers often take the same trails as backpackers — sometimes to the chagrin of hikers — and value scenic locations and challenging terrain.
Kurt Refsnider, co-author of “The Bikepackers Guide,” points to the explosion of new companies making bags specifically for bikepacking — three in 2008 to up to 50 now, including Revelate Designs and Porcelain Rocket. The number of bikepacking races has increased, as have the number of companies making bikes aimed at bikepackers. That includes Salsa, which sports the slogan “Adventure by Bike” and publishes Refsnider’s book.
Refsnider teaches geology at Prescott College in Arizona and offers a class called Geology Through Bikepacking that brings students to the Colorado Plateau for overnight bike trips. Refsnider got into bikepacking through his prior experience as a bike racer, but he thinks the sport has grown due to people who, like me, saw a quicker and more exciting way to explore the backcountry.
“It’s more comfortable physically than backpacking and you can cover more ground,” he said. “It’s an easier way to have adventure.”
Bikepacking does not require a special kind of bike. Refsnider said bikepacking can be done with road bikes and mountain bikes, depending on the terrain.
That said, certain bikes are better suited to long-distance bikepacking on dirt trails — “hardtail” mountain bikes that don’t come with a rear shock. Hardtail bikes are a good choice for longer trips because they have more space for the biggest bags in the center of the frame where the shock would go on a full-suspension bike. Eliminating the shock also reduces the chances of mechanical problems in the middle of nowhere.
Bags are typically connected to the seat, the open space in the middle of the frame and the handlebars. My bike has a rear shock, so I can put only a half-size frame bag in the middle. I bought three bike bags from Revelate Designs for $250.
My setup doesn’t have a lot of storage space, but I can stow most of what I need to eat and sleep during an overnight trip. I also use a lightweight backpack to hold water and some food. Pulling this off requires lightweight camping gear and not the big tents and sleeping pads used when car camping. Keeping the carrying weight low maximizes your fun.
One way to bikepack without spending money on specialty bags is a bike trip with a backpack. I tried this once after I bought my bikepacking bags, simply as an experiment. But even with a lightweight bag and gear weighing less than 20 pounds, the backpack significantly hindered my enjoyment. Mountain biking requires a lot of body movement, and having to move with a weighty backpack is a drag, particularly for an extended trip.
Refsnider recommends that newbies purchase a seat bag and secure a stuff sack to the bike with cords. You can find a good seat bag to store your sleeping bag and inflatable pad for about $100 online.
For a first trip, Refsnider advised, go on a route you’ve taken before, and turn it into an overnight trip. That will help you get comfortable with your gear and give you an idea if you want to try a more ambitious trip.
Short trips and overnighters
As the birthplace of mountain biking, California has many wonderful routes for bikepacking. On the California State Parks website, I found about 20 parks that met my criteria for a good bikepack route, sporting bike trails or dirt roads and backcountry campsites. Those include four of the six biggest state parks: Humboldt Redwoods, Henry Coe, Auburn State Recreation Area and Anza-Borrego Desert. National parks are more restrictive when it comes to mountain biking, but some trails are open to bikes at Point Reyes National Seashore, as are the jeep roads at Joshua Tree National Park.
My first bikepacking excursion expanded on Refsnider’s recommendation. I took a series of short trips at state and national parks around the Bay Area, going to Henry Coe and Big Basin Redwoods state parks, and Point Reyes National Seashore. I also took a day trip at Wilder Ranch State Park outside Santa Cruz, which has fantastic trails but doesn’t allow camping.
Linking together short trips took me to a variety of landscapes. Other than Wilder Ranch, the parks I visited had designated backcountry campsites and great trails for mountain biking.
On my trip to Big Basin Redwoods near Santa Cruz, biking wasn’t allowed on one of the trails I had to take to get to my second campsite. The Berry Creek Falls Trail would be difficult to bike even if it was allowed, but the stately redwoods, moss and lichen-covered trees and two shimmering waterfalls were better savored slowly, on foot.
When I got off the Berry Creek Falls Trail on my way out of the park, I jumped on my mountain bike and bounced between the redwoods on the 5 miles of trail leading to the Pacific Ocean.
After each day of invigorating and challenging riding, I ate dinner while enjoying the sunset and the rustle of trees.