Pass/Fail: Go Bikepacking

Triple the mileage with next to nothing on your back? A longtime hiker tries two-wheel camping to figure out the catch.
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I had only two criteria for a last-minute trip this past March: I wanted to go somewhere new and I wanted to try something new. A friend of mine had been singing the praises of bikepacking and suggested a route in central New Mexico’s Lincoln National Forest, where the desert rises into rust-colored mountains just beyond the town of Ruidoso. It was far enough south for good spring conditions, the network of mostly dirt roads wouldn’t outmatch my commuter bike, and trip reports praised both area’s natural beauty and historical significance. Bingo.

Bikepacking has gotten more popular over the last few years—even gear companies are getting on board with dedicated bikepacking tents and equipment. Plus, as cycling has grown to be a daily part of my life thanks to my 10-mile commute, it seemed like a natural fit: Here was a way to combine a bike I already had with all the camping gear I already had and leverage the new collab to see a lot more
wilderness.

My bike: a steel, all-purpose, drop-bar cyclocross machine equipped with the widest tires that would fit (in my case, 41 millimeters—wide enough for better traction, but not wide enough to smooth out a bumpy ride). Without my usual overnight pack to dump my gear in, loading up was a little messier. Tent poles fit on the top tube, wrapped in place with a couple of ski straps. I stuffed food and clothes into the bottoms of two panniers and onto the rear rack and put my sleeping bag on the front rack. I added a few extra water bottle cages from the parts bin, and my friend and I were on our way to the middle of the Land of Enchantment for a two-night, 100-mile route.

After a night spent in town, we rolled out of the ranger station and were soon adjusting to our newly laden steering.

There was only one problem: Our first stretch followed a highway. Semis passed within an arm’s length of us at 70 mph, weaponizing the wind. After five minutes and approximately five years of my life had elapsed, we pulled onto our first dirt road and stopped to let the stress sweat dry from our armpits.

“Geez, dude.”

“Right?”

“That road did not look so big on the map.”

Rolling again, we passed a shooting range, reflexively ducking when echoes made the rounds sound incoming, as we switchbacked up the first major hill. There, we rested amid the tire tracks in the flour-fine dust.

Somehow, I never put it together that cars and their passengers shed more than a dog in springtime—and that when you’re picking a bike route on shared paths, it’s worth checking how trafficked they are. Bits of glass, cigarette butts, shards of cans that looked like shrapnel in some scorch-the-earth battle that everyone forgot about, Lego pieces, hub caps, junk food bags—this is what cars leave behind, salting the earth to bicycle tires, and leaving us with flats.

Nothing a patch kit and some patience couldn’t solve—and unlike hiking, with a speed that encourages tuning into intricate, underfoot vistas, cycling is all go-fast and big-picture, which is to say you think ahead 50 feet instead of 5.

After a few hours, we stopped noticing the detritus as our eyes filled with desert landscapes where yuccas spiked the foreground and low, purple-hued mountains mashed the horizon. We trundled over rocks and around ruts. I could feel my wimpy tires getting tossed around, but I didn’t care—the sagebrush desert felt born out of sunlight. We rested in the shade of junipers where my riding companion gave me a knowing look and handed me a small sachet of something called Chamois Butt’r, then reached elbow deep into his shorts to apply the stuff. We were sunbaked, wind-whipped, and having a blast.

We joined the Billy the Kid Trail (he roamed this area, as did Kit Carson) and camped on the bank of a small creek that fronted Fort Stanton, where German sailors and Japanese-Americans had been locked away during World War II. The wood ceilings of the main building had been left to collapse inward, as if the evidence was too shameful to save yet too important to destroy.

The next morning, dirt roads joined with pavement, then gravel where our tires gave off a sound like chewing lettuce. We lounged in the shade wherever we could find it, navigated rutted double-track across windswept scrublands, and took photos with a life-size, roadside Smoky the Bear.

On our last day, we climbed dirt roads high up the shoulder of 9,957-foot Nogal Peak, and coasted alongside a creek and its clutch of tall cottonwoods.

There was magic out there in the miles, but I had to strain to see it. Looking back, what I did was the equivalent of wearing sneakers to a class 4 scramble. As a backpacker, I ought to know that matching your gear to your objective is more art than optimism. Next time I will.

The Verdict: Fail

Bike travel adds a new element to trip planning, but those big distances come with tradeoffs like sharing infrastructure with cars. Next time, I’ll plan a route that goes where cars can’t more of the time. But I’ll need a new bike to do it.

Key Skills: Prep Your Bike for the Long Haul

Keep your center of gravity low. The lower the load, the more stable and predictable your ride. Pack food and heavy items at the bottom of your panniers or frame bag.

Pack for balance. Distribute weight evenly on the left and right sides of your bike. Otherwise, you’ll have to lean to one side the entire time to offset the difference.

Go easy on the front fork. It’s nice to have things handy, but steering gets really twitchy with even 10 pounds over the front tire. Store water in bottle cages on the frame, and save the front rack for on-the-go essentials and lightweight gear.

Ride the widest tires your frame can fit. Large-volume tires can take the sting out of rocks and washboard roads and generally improve grip by increasing contact area (aim for a 2-inch width if you can). Downside: more rolling resistance.

Bring a beefy repair kit. Add two extra tubes to your normal kit, plus a tire boot, chain lube that won’t pick up tons of dust (like Boeshield T-9), and, of course, Chamois Butt’r

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