I want to discuss my experience with the gear I used for the California bikepacking tour. The reason for this tour was to give all of us, but especially Erik Mathy some real world bikepacking experience. He is getting ready for next year’s Tour Divide Mountain Bike Race and is dialing in his gear to successfully complete that beast of a race. I was there because I was lucky enough to get invited and the planets aligned just right to allow me to go.
Here is where I am coming from on this report. I have no experience bikepacking. None. I have done a handful of overnight camping trips in my life, none with a bike and none ultralight. A year ago, I didn’t think this kind of thing was within my reach. But alas, since I started feeding the Adventure Monkey within, I have done many things I once thought were never possible.
The guys on the trip let me borrow everything I needed. And by everything I mean everything except the bike, my short legs, backpack I would pack too full, a crappy camera and a few other items. I was going in completely fresh.
Looking at gear online sends me into a tailspin of confusion because there is much bikepacking gear available and all the opinions out there lead me in a circle. I found that by doing instead of thinking, wondering or pondering is always the best way to learn something. Being in the middle of nowhere pedaling on a California mountain assured me a good education.
The very best bike to use is the one you already have. Seriously, unless you have a butt-ton of money sitting around, the obstacle of “not having the right bike” will keep you from experiencing a great adventure. I started my adventure cycling again on a 19 year old bike with the original chain and components. Soon I wanted a new bike and saved up my overtime pay to buy a Salsa Fargo late last year.
I do believe many bikes would work for this trip, but I was glad I had a bike with a stretched out touring frame for more room for a frame bag, 29er wheels, big tires and disc brakes. It’s not the fastest bike in the world, and climbing hills isn’t the most fun on this bike, but it is just about perfect for this kind of riding. It was designed for it. That being said, I think my Cyclocross bike could have been used too, although the frame bag for my small frame Fargo is too large to fit in the triangle of the cross bike, but I think I could make it work if it was my only bike. I would also consider using a mountain bike with front suspension for a ride like this too. I had no suspension, but the 29er wheels and big tires did me well.
Remember the bike you have is the best bike to use. Don’t let that keep you from a great adventure.
Tires and Brakes
All I have to say about brakes is you will definitely want some. I recommend mechanical disc brakes for their excellent braking ability even when wet and their ability to be easily adjusted. I am very glad I wasn’t using the rim brakes on my cross bike for this trip. I have never ridden the brakes so much in my life as I did in the California mountains. And not just because I’m a wimp, it had more to do with me NOT falling off the side of a mountain. Hydraulic disc brakes scare me for a trip like this. I like to keep things simple. The mechanical disc brakes fit my idea of simple and reliable.
There’s so many tires out there today. For a tour of any kind, durability is the most important factor to me. This trip had lots of climbing, braking and all kinds of substrate to ride on from loose and sandy to hardpacked to loose gravel to rocky to grassy to pavement. I was not happy with my tire choice. I was running the WTB Vulpines. They are great tires for fast riding on hardpack. They offer low rolling resistance with tread on the sides for some gripping in the turns. I was fast on the downhills for sure with these tires. The reason I didn’t like them was I needed more grip in the climbs and descents. I lost traction while climbing, but really disliked them on the extreme descents. I had no traction and it had me a little scared a few times as I skidded down the mountain with little traction. I was wishing I had left my Hutchinson Toros on the bike for this trip. I love those tires. They are durable with a good tread pattern and the rolling resistance seems pretty low to me for having such big tread. I would have been slower on the paved sections for sure, but would have loved them in the mountains. It’s not that the Vulpines are sucky tires, they are great for what they are made for, I just needed a better grip on the trail. Bad choice on my part.
Since I am talking about bikepacking and not traditional bicycle touring, I would not consider trailers or panniers. As light as possible is the key here. In my opinion, the way to go is to get a frame bag, seat bag and handlebar bag and be done with it. You can also use the pockets on the back of your jersey for quite a bit of stuff too. More than that is too much. Check out the best bags HERE from Revelate Designs. Panniers have their place, and their place is not on bumpy gravel and off-road trip. Those that have had to fix a broken clip on a pannier know what I’m talking about.
On this trip, I borrowed bags, and didn’t have a big seat bag so I used a backpack. I used my Wingnut pack that is lightweight and rides low on my back where it rests more on the hips. If you can handle a backpack it is a good way to carry too much stuff with you. My lower back was sore and it’s a good thing I packed some Advil for the trip. If I do go with a backpack (mainly for camera gear) next time, I will make sure to pack it very light. On my next trip, I am going to try to leave the backpack at home. I like the feeling of having nothing on my back, and I learned from this trip that my body doesn’t like to carry extra weight on it.
I wondered about a frame bag and how it would be with wind and if it would rub against my legs as I pedaled. After four days, I loved the frame bag. I kept most of my food and water in it along with a few other things. Since my calves aren’t as large as dinner plates like some people, they didn’t rub against the bag at all. It stayed securely put and I really didn’t notice it except for the fact that it took three liters of water off my back. I highly recommend one and would leave it on the touring bike all the time.
The handlebar bag affected the handling of the bike of course, but it wasn’t bad at all. I never found myself wishing I didn’t have the weight up front.
Also, I had never run water bottles on the front fork before. That worked quite well, They were easy to grab and every morning I would make an Emergen-C drink in one of the front water bottles.
What I would I change
I am planning on purchasing my own setup and want to thank Erik, Jason and Joe for making this trip possible and loaning me the equipment to survive. I learned a lot and now am in a much better position to choose my own gear.
This is still up in the air a little bit for me. I definitely need a lightweight sleeping pad and the one I had worked wonderfully. Also my ultralight down sleeping bag worked well and packed into a tiny ball with the help of a compression bag. Jason slept out in the open, Joe under a tarp and the two Erics were in bivys.
I didn’t like the bivy. It will work and it’s lightweight, but condensation was very bad. It was basically a little cocoon to sleep in with protection from crawlies and the elements. There’s no sitting up, but I did use it to change clothes while on the beach to stay out of the sand, although it took some wiggling.
Joe’s tarp setup was lightweight and roomy, but it lacked protection from the crawlies. A tarp is lightweight for sure, but I am that one guy that gets eaten up by mosquitoes even when others aren’t. Come to find out there are some tarps out there that do offer a little more protection. A tent would be great if I can find one light enough for the bike. Here are a few links to some tarps and tents I am considering:
just to name a few.
Some people are fine with weight on their back. I found out that I am not. This is something I want to leave for shorter trips.
As Joe says, less is more. Yes I know that makes no sense, but don’t question Joe. Actually the key is to pack smart. Bring things that are lightweight and that have multiple uses. This also depends on the distance between resources too. Different tours will require different packing, but on this one, I could have brought less. For example:
- too many spare batteries.
- heavy multi-tool with tools that I never will use
- need to find a tiny container of deodorant next time (yes, instead of a regular sized container). Yes, this is unnecessary, but I hate to stink.
- I brought a full size leather wallet. I need a tiny, waterproof wallet or ziplock bag to hold those necessities.
- My smartphone is something I wouldn’t leave without, but it’s a brick.
- I am pretty sure I won’t bring the GoPro video camera for multi-day tours. I will use a camera for video. I am still up in the air because I liked that I shot some video, but I had to bring extra batteries and store the camera when I wanted to take it off my head. And that’s that other thing. The GoPro kind of makes me look retarded when it’s on my helmet.
- smaller toothbrush, like those disposable ones
- smaller container of chain lube
- although my knitted hat with ear flaps was quite stylish, I needed a smaller. lighter skullcap to keep the ears warm
- I want a better point and shoot camera that shoots video
- Joe’s GPS worked very well and kept us on track. I want one someday.
The main thing I learned was that bikepacking is not that difficult and anyone can do it. I do realize the bags I recommend are not cheap, but they will last and are definitely worth it. If you can’t afford them, save up, and in the meantime use what you have. Use a backpack and your racks for now. The main thing in bikepacking as in life is you have to get out there and experience it. Try one night at a time and learn as you go until you get out there for a week at a time. Now I just have to figure out how to get the rest of the family out there with me.
Feed Your Monkey!