Bikepacking 101 - Lessons Learned in the Mountains

by Liz Blair

Over the past few years, I’ve become increasingly intrigued by bikepacking. Mainly, it seems like a great way to cover more ground and see more over a weekend. My boyfriend, Mike and I finally decided to try it out this September on the Alpine Loop in the San Juan Mountains.

I’m a trail runner at heart, but wanted to try something new so I picked up bikepacking. Mike has been biking since high school, so I knew I’d have a good teacher. He’s also completed a few big bikepacking trips, namely the Colorado Trail and bikepacking to the Grand Canyon and back from Flagstaff. Given the fact that it would be my first trip, I expected it would be physically challenging, but there were a few other lessons I did not expect to learn.

The Alpine Loop isn’t exactly the easiest route for a first time bikepacker. It’s 60+ miles over two 12,000+ foot mountain passes, and there would most likely be OHV traffic. On the plus side, the route is very easy to follow and not very technical.

The plan was to car camp Friday night in Silverton then get up early Saturday morning and bike over Cinnamon Pass into Lake City where we would camp Saturday night. The following morning, we would bike up and over Engineer Pass back down into Silverton.

When packing for this trip, my only point of reference was backpacking. Fortunately, Mike had a spare set of bikepacking bags, which included a handlebar bag, saddle bag, and a frame bag. I quickly realized I needed to develop a new packing strategy. I was able to fit my sleeping bag, tent, and rain fly into the handlebar bag. I decided to fill the saddle bag with a stove, sleeping pad, and down jacket. The frame bag carried a 2L water bladder and snacks. I wanted to keep as much weight off my back as possible, so my daypack just had rain gear and food.

In the end, I brought the same gear as I would for backpacking, with the addition of bike tools. Mike and I split the tent and cookware between us, like we do backpacking. The only piece of gear I would change is my 15-degree sleeping bag - it was a little too bulky for the bikepacking bags. In the future I will most likely invest in a smaller sleeping bag for better packability; specifically, the Nemo Rave or Western Mountaineering Ultralite.

The mornings were quite chilly, so layering was the name of the game. Bike sleeves were probably the best packing decision I made. They’re easy to slip on and off, to add or subtract an additional layer. I was also happy to have the Outdoor Research Overdrive Convertible Gloves - they provided the right amount of warmth without impacting my bike handling.

I was doing this trip off the couch and wasn’t exactly in mountain biking shape, let alone bikepacking. My main strategy was keeping a high cadence up the mountain passes and shifting into my highest gear (i.e. granny gear) as soon as possible. Regardless, the climbs definitely tuckered me out. Fortunately, the OHV traffic wasn’t too bad and those that we did encounter were considerate and frankly, we became a bit of a spectacle.

For anyone that’s mountain biked, the descent is the reward. I was worried though that the additional weight would throw off my balance and I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the descent. I’m happy to report that I hardly noticed the additional weight. The saddle bag I was using; however, was unstable to the point where it was bouncing and scraping my back wheel.

The biggest surprise was my appetite. I found bikepacking to be higher intensity than backpacking, which meant I was consistently in a higher cardio threshold, burning more energy. My food strategy was based on how much I normally eat backpacking, but in the end, I needed about 50% more.

Overall, I had an incredible experience. The weather was perfect and the scenery breathtaking. My main fear going into this trip was my fitness level, which in the end, proved to be the biggest challenge. My other fear was managing the additional weight on descents, which didn’t end up being an issue at all. The greatest surprise was my nutritional needs. Next time around, I’m going to bring more food, invest in a Bedrock saddle bag, and train!