What does it take to embark on a trip, especially one that involves a new activity? Planning. Lots and lots of planning. It involves incorporating the skills and equipment you have into a new framework, finding the gaps and filling them. This post will walk you through the process I’m using to prepare for my annual head-clearing trip.
Last year, I headed down to the Lost Creek Wilderness for some solo backpacking. This year, I’m trading my feet in for wheels and bikepacking the Vapor Trail race route over three days. The trip will, again, be a solo endeavor. I won’t be doing any stupid experiments this year. I’ll be playing it straight with food and equipment. The challenge will come, instead, from the difficulty of the route and maintaining a bike in the backcountry.
What is Bikepacking?
Bikepacking is backpacking with a bike. Instead of carrying everything on your back and walking, gear is distributed across a few different bags strapped to your bike. If you pack things properly, ie. heavy things low and centered, you can load the bike up without changing the handling characteristics too much.
Why Bikepack in the First Place?
When Karl Meltzer set the FKT for the Appalachian Trail last year, he averaged 48 miles per day. That’s nuts. Good through-hikers on the AT average 16 miles per day. Karl tripled the average speed of a good through-hiker.
To compare directly, Mike Hall (RIP) holds the FKT for the Tour Divide, a bike race that runs 2745 miles along the spine of North America. He averaged 194.1 miles per day for the 13 days, 22 hours, and 51 minutes it took him to complete the course. Using the same ratio as Karl, an average bikepacker would be able to ride about 65 miles per day. That means you can cover about four times the distance bikepacking as you can backpacking.
Plus, you’re biking!
How to Carry Gear Bikepacking
You may be familiar with the backpacking big three – tent, sleeping pad, and backpack. Well, meet the big three of bikepacking – frame bag, seat bag, and handlebar bag. The three of them make up the bulk of carrying capacity on a bikepacking trip.
A frame bag sits inside the main triangle of your bike’s frame. Its volume, then, will vary from bike to bike, but expect at least 3 liters of space in an XS frame and over 10 liters in an XL frame. This is where heavy things go, centered and low on the bike. You’ll end up packing water and food in a frame bag, along with long items like pumps and tent poles that won’t fit anywhere else.
Most cyclists are familiar with seat bags. They’re the little pouches that strap under your seat to carry tubes and tools. A bikepacking seat bag sit in the same spot, but that’s where the similarities end. Instead of a small pouch that fits only the bare necessities, bikepacking seat bags dangle up to 14 liters of storage under your backside. Manufacturers design the bags to be as stable as possible to prevent them from swaying as you ride, but it’s still good practice to pack lighter items like clothing and sleeping bags in your seat bag.
Finally, the handlebar bag locates where you’d think – under the handlebars. You can find both integrated bags and harness systems that allow you to strap a dry bag to your bars. Expect to be able to fit up to 20 liters on your bars, but again, be conscious of weight. Handlebar bags sit high and the mass of the bag and its contents can mess with your steering. Keep light, bulky items in your handlebar bag.
Between the big three, you may have mathed and figured out that you already have up to 44 liters of space. That’s enough for most ultralight back-packers and you should be considering the overall weight of your kit when bikepacking. Just because the gear is strapped to your bike instead of on your back doesn’t mean you should be carrying a six pound tent.
Most backpacks also have hip belt pouches and top bags to carry small items like food, cameras, and sunscreen. In addition to the big three bags, most companies also offer small pouches that attach in various places to hold small items. You’ll find various forms of handlebar drop bags; they’re usually cylindrical and can hold water bottles, energy bars, or cameras. You’ll also find small bags that sit behind your stem or at the seatpost/top tube junction. These are great for tool kits, phones, and food.
You can also add cages or bags to your fork for extra capacity. Salsa’s Anything Cage and Cleaveland Mountaineering’s Everything Bags offer mounts for large water bottles, cook kits, or even your tent.
All told, you can easily spend $700 outfitting your bike with bags specifically engineered for bikepacking. If you want to cut back, consider getting a frame bag that fits your bike and strap a pair of dry bags on as a seat bag and handlebar bag. They won’t be quite as stable, but they’ll function and cost a heck of a lot less.
One thing I look forward to – not having to wear a backpack while I ride. If possible, I’m hoping to pack everything on the bike. As a fellow who gets sweaty easily, it’ll be nice to have direct airflow on my back.
Gear for Bikepacking the Vapor Trail
A lot of gear for bikepacking parallels backpacking gear. You’ll still need somewhere to sleep and something to sleep in. You’ll still need clothes, though some will be bike specific. You’ll still need a cooking system and utensils.
We have a heck of a gear library at Engearment, so I was able to pick and choose what is coming along and what stays behind. My choices were based on weight, function, and bulk. Here are a few highlights:
OnX Maps provided access to both of their mapping apps, HUNT and ROAM. The apps are similar. Both allow you to save map areas for offline access. Both allow you to add and subtract layers as you need them – things like US roads and trails, private vs. public land, public land types, etc. HUNT has a few extra layers gear specifically to hunting use. Where HUNT beats ROAM, however, is the ability to upload GPS tracks via GPX files. Why OnX decided to make that exclusive to HUNT, I can’t say.
I’ve uploaded the Vapor Trail GPX file to my HUNT account and saved the map offline on my phone. With all that in place, I can track my position along the course even when I’m out of cell range.
I’m also borrowing a Delorme (now Garmin) InReach Explorer SE that will update important people with my location and allow two-way messaging and SOS calls. It will also allow a double-check on my location.
And, of course, I’ll have a paper map and compass, just in case. You guys know how I love maps! National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated maps 130 and 139 will be stashed somewhere. I don’t think I’ll need any USGS quads, as much as it pains me to say that.
I chose the Sierra Designs Divine Light 1 FL, new for this summer. The Divine Light is a mashup of Sierra Design’s Tensegrity and classic Clip Flashlight tents. The tent body packs down to the size of a grapefruit. It uses two straight poles at the head and one arch pole at the foot. Set up and tensioned properly, it ends up being a bomber shelter despite looking like a stiff breeze would blow it away. I like the two-door design – one side door and one that leads out the front vestibule, allowing gear access. For backpackers who hike with poles, you can leave the tent poles behind and set up using your trekking poles. Or, if you carry both, you can set up with the tent poles and use your trekking poles to turn the vestibule door into an awning.
While the Divine Light is mostly a single-wall tent, it has ventilation on both long sides and at the head and foot. It weighs in on spec at 3 lbs, 5 ounces in the original sack with all of the original equipment. I plan on replacing the stakes with my own titanium shepherd’s hook stakes and leaving the stuff sacks at home. Overall weight as carried will be 3 lbs, 1.375 ozs. When you think about it, that’s a bit heavy for what the Divine Light is.
While I’m hoping not to need it, there will be a waterproof breathable jacket in my pack(s). I’m bringing along Patagonia’s redesigned Storm Racer jacket. Constructed of 12-denier, 3-layer fabric, the Storm Racer weighs in at 6 ounces. There are lighter jackets out there – the Arc’teryx Norvan SL jacket uses Gore Shakedry tech and weighs 4.2 ounces – but the Storm Racer’s nylon face fabric is a known quantity. I know it will handle minor abrasions, for example.
A local Colorado company, Defiant Pack, is sewing up the bags for the trip. They approach things a little differently than some other bag companies. For example, there are no zippers on their packs because zippers are a failure point. On their frame bags, Defiant uses a flap closure that buckles on the drive side of the bike. Seat bags are roll-top only. Their handlebar harness system holds your favorite dry bag up front and uses a roll-top on the accessory bag. The only zipper they sew in is a small one inside the handlebar accessory pouch to secure small items like keys and wallets.
Defiant Pack offers a few seat bag designs, including one with a rigid, aluminum frame-stay. Their handlebar harness uses XL ski straps instead of velcro or nylon webbing. And, while they stock a few standard frame bags for Borealis fat bikes and Rocky Mountain full squish frames, most frame bags are custom made to fit your frame specifically.
What I really liked was their fit system for frame bags. Most companies ask you to send in a paper template of your frame. This requires that you have access to paper large enough to cover the inside of your main triangle and that you trace it properly, indicating all water bottle bosses and cable stops in the proper location. Defiant just asks that you take a picture of your bike with a tape measure in front of it for scale.
I’ll be riding my Stooge on this trip. It’s a rigid, 4130 steel frame with room for plus tires. The fork is also from Stooge – also rigid, 4130 steel.
My wheelset is a pair of Light Bicycle 50mm carbon rims laced on to Chris King universal disc hubs. Pretty sure the spokes are 14/15/14, but I’d have to ask. The nipples are brass. Notice that the front wheel is 29″ and the rear is 27.5″. I can’t do anything normal.
Drivetrain is Shimano XT, 1×11, 11-46. Up front is my trusty Truvative Stylo crank with a Wolftooth 32t oval ring. I hope it provides enough gearing to get me up the hills. Brakes are also Shimano XT, bumped up to 203mm front and 180mm rear. Stem and seatpost are Thomson Elite; handlebar is an Answer Protaper Carbon 20/20 with 20mm of rise and 20° of sweep and ESI Chunky grips. Finally, the most important part, the saddle, is a Selle Anatomica NSX. It also has a bell.
Does coffee count as gear? Maybe. But after years of bringing along stupid Starbucks Via packets and tolerating crap coffee, I’ve finally found a true, backcountry brew. Kuju Coffee makes single-serve pourovers. Maybe there should be an exclamation point after that sentence. Each pouch contains a cone filter that opens up and has arms that hold it at the lip of your cup. Inside, you get one of three roasts – light, medium, or dark.
Of course, we wouldn’t partake in coffee that didn’t have a whole bunch of badges attached to it. And Kuju, founded by a bunch of Eagle Scouts, likes badges too. Their coffee supports 1% for the Planet, donating 1% of sales to the National Parks Foundation. They also go above and beyond Fair Trade, sourcing beans from a small family farm that employs former sex trafficking victims and pays above-fair-trade wages.
Could I carry plain old ground coffee and use a coffee press in my Jetboil Sol Ti? Sure. I could do that. But, I like keeping my pot clean by never putting anything into it but water. Meals are rehydrated in their bags, coffee is made in the cup. Bob’s your uncle.
As luck would have it, I ran into Jeff Curran, founder of elevenpine apparel, over the weekend. He’s put together a team from Nike, Pearl Izumi, The North Face, and others to develop a bike short that transitions from baggies to skinnies and back again. I’ll be riding in their Uprising short and Liberator liner. I only have a few rides in them so far, but I like the concept and execution. And, while elevenpine would probably point to their 11P system as the best feature, for my purposes, the fact that their chamois has an antibacterial treatment means I don’t have to carry a small spray bottle of alcohol to clean my chamois every night.
On the flip side, both the Uprising and the Liberator are really long. I’m 5’10” and wearing a large. Both the liner and short go down to the top of my knee and I’m rolling the waistband on the short. I don’t notice it when I’m riding, but it’s messing up my tanlines!
A few random pieces that are coming along, in no particular order:
Vargo’s titanium trowel – one has to be able to bury one’s poop.
Snow Peak 450 single-wall Ti mug – for coffee, of course.
Jetboil’s Sol Ti stove – Could I go lighter with something other than a Jetboil? Yeah, but Jetboil is still an awesome, integrated system and the Sol Ti is the lightest one they’ve ever made.
Delorme InReach SE – as mentioned above.
The Vapor Trail 125
The Vapor Trail route is based upon an annual race. This isn’t just any race. It’s nuts. Riders start in Salida, Colorado at 10pm and ride 125 miles, through the night, to finish back in Salida. It includes over 18,200 feet of climbing (and descending). The course record is under 13 hours.
Once upon a time, some gonzo guys at Absolute Bikes in Salida were bored, or drunk, or both, and decided to create the VT 125. The race has run every year since 2005, with a few course changes to account for road damage, landslides, tunnel collapses, etc. All things you want to hear when you set out on an adventure.
I plan on taking about 22 hours of ride time with plenty of time to rest, eat, and sleep. Rather than cover all 125 miles in a single night, I’ll be taking three days. I’ve divided the course into three chunks of about 40-42 miles each. The Vapor Trail folks were kind enough to break the course up into nine segments with elevation profiles and mileage. I’m not married to my plan. In fact, Absolute runs a tour for folks like me where they carry all your gear for you from site to site and camp at the campgrounds I plan on skipping. They break the miles up very differently. We’ll see how it goes.
On the bright side, the route is entirely laid out, mapped out, and set. I have a GPX file of the course that I can follow.
Training for Bikepacking
How have I been training for the trip? I’ve been riding, a lot. Over the 4th of July weekend, I went for three rides totaling 7600′ of climbing. One was a road ride up Vail Pass. The other two were rides to Eagles Nest on Vail mountain – one on the Stooge and one on a gravel bike.
I also get in 11-12 miles of riding in the mornings, 4-5 times a week, with a 20-plus-mile long ride on the weekends. If the weekend ride is a mountain bike ride, it usually clocks in between 20 and 25 miles. On the gravel bike, I tend to try for over 35 miles with annoying climbs.
When the bike bags arrive, I’ll be tossing the frame bag onto the Stooge and adding some weight to the bike. Sustained climbs with a load should be mighty helpful. And, of course, there will be a taper! You have to taper.
Of course, there’s no way to be absolutely, 100% safe in the backcountry. But, you can set up tools, gear, and plans to make your trip – any kind of trip – as safe as possible.
I’m already screwing up an important part of backcountry safety. There’s safety in numbers. The ideal group size is at least three. That way, if someone gets hurt, the second group member can go for help while the third stays behind to tend to injuries. Instead of travelling in a group, I’m bringing the Delorme InReach. As long as I’m conscious, I can call for help.
I’ll also be packing a first aid kit. My kit contains a SAM Splint, QuickClot, Steri-Strips, an irrigation syringe, and a compression bandage. If I knew how to suture, I’d include that as well. I might have a few adhesive bandages in there, but scrapes are a low priority. I want to be able to self-treat trauma. I ran my kit by my local SAR team. They gave it a thumbs up.
Finally, bike condition is an important aspect of bikepacking safety. I do most of my own maintenance, but I’ll be running the Stooge by my local shop to have the pros go over it before I leave. They’re going to regrease my hubs and bottom bracket, bleed my brakes, check for wear and tear, and make sure nothing needs to be replaced before I head out.
Follow My Trip
Check in on the Engearment Facebook page for a link to follow my trip on the Garmin website. You can check on my daily progress, tease me about how slow I’m riding, and have a general hootenanny while I’m out there.
After it’s over, check back for a full mission report with photos and lessons learned.