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Bikepacking Curious

As someone who enjoys both bicycling and backpacking, the opportunity to blend the two – “bikepacking” in the modern outdoor recreation lexicon – has provided me with some of my most memorable trips in recent years. Although I’m fortunate enough to be able to easily bike to several trailheads that access the third largest wilderness area in the Lower 48 (Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness), I’ve found myself becoming more interested in doing trips where the bike is part of the on-trail journey, rather than just part of the commute. Given the restrictions on mechanized travel in wilderness areas, this meant that I’d have to look for other nearby areas that allowed bicycle travel, but ideally were otherwise non-motorized. My past experience with mountain biking on mixed-use trails that allow dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles was underwhelming, to say the least – the trails usually proved to be cobbly, steep, and generally unpleasant. Simply touring on gravel roads, especially those blocked by gates or snowdrifts, proved to be far more enjoyable than pushing my bike up a rocky and rutted path that was most definitely designed for the enjoyment of those with motors attached to their bikes.

a tent pitched up in the woods next to a motorcycle
Even after a few trips, it still feels a bit incongruent to see a wheeled vehicle miles away from the trailhead in my campsite.

But the allure of biking along a single-track trail to an awesome campsite kept calling out to me, so I committed to leaving the roads behind and planning out trips that would take me – and my bicycle – to more remote corners of the Northern Rockies. I remembered from past backpacking trips that several nearby mountain ranges had trails that had no restrictions on mechanized travel but did limit motorized travel. Those seemed like ideal areas to try out this new-to-me activity, so I set about planning a trip that would allow me to use a mountain bike to cover more ground than I could hope to on foot and thus pack more into a five-night trip than would usually be possible.

However, my enthusiasm for bikepacking was tempered by the fact that I wasn’t a particularly skilled or experienced mountain biker. Although I’ve pedaled thousands of miles in urban areas as a bike commuter for nearly the entirety of my adult life, plus a few thousand more on rural roads for recreation and transportation to trailheads, I only had two hundred mountain biking miles to my name when I began to plan out my first multi-day bikepacking trips. While the consequences of being a novice bikepacker probably weren’t particularly great when compared to other outdoor pursuits, I thought it best to treat it with the same mix of preparation and trepidation that I treated my first foray into backcountry skiing. With it being too late in the season to execute the route I’d drafted up, I decided to use the shoulder season to hone my skills on less committing trips.

a bike parked next to a sign in the woods
When pedaling into a Forest Service rental cabin, the minimal kit required allows me to focus more on the fun and flow of the trail than on maneuvering a fully loaded bicycle.

Rather than starting off with a multi-night trip carrying the same kit I would when backpacking, I decided to warm up with a trip into a Forest Service rental cabin. I’d hiked the trail several times over the years and was familiar with its conditions, its gentle gradient, and the amenities of the quaint, creekside cabin. This allowed me to have a “soft launch” into the bikepacking realm. I didn’t need to carry a sleeping pad, shelter, stove, or heavy insulating layers. This allowed me to cut down on the weight and bulk of my gear considerably and made the bike much more forgiving of my limited skills, particularly when negotiating the few rocky sections of trail. It was a six-mile (10 km) ride into the cabin with a laughably modest elevation gain. This took me just over an hour, which was slightly less than half the time it usually took me to hike in. Although I certainly didn’t feel like a master mountain biker on the way to the cabin, I was able to enjoy most sections of the trail and was especially enamored with the efficiency of rolling through terrain at twice the speed of hiking. Plus, it seemed like I was having at least three times the fun pedaling along the trail compared to merely hiking it.

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