Big rides are nothing new for me. I’ve now done dozens of multi-day tours and races, but my recent month-long tour was markedly different from any of my previous long rides. In today’s world of GPS units and digital over sharing, there is abundant information available on virtually every ultra-endurance racecourse or popular dirt touring route. I’ve spent countless hours meticulously planning past big rides – water sources, resupply options, estimated times to get from one point to another, etc. My plans for this summer, however, involved nearly 1000 miles of country about which I knew virtually nothing. Beyond that, I did not necessarily want to spend hours trolling the Internet for tidbits of information about this trail or that Jeep road. So I inadvertently came up with a new [for me] general planning sequence for a long tour. These steps may or may not work well for you:
1. Determine a likely starting point and an end point for your ride. These were conveniently constrained for me by an area in western Utah in which I had to do some reconnaissance for an upcoming course I’m teaching, and the town of Durango, from which I would have a ride home at the end of June.
2. Acquire maps for everything in between the likely launch and end points. These were all already conveniently piled on my dining room table.
3. Hastily search for and download GPX files for any routes in the region put together by other bikepackers. Bikepacking.net is probably the best place to look. Also consider who put the route together to gauge the challenging nature of said route.
4. Pack your typical bikepacking kit, including a few creature comforts for longer rides. Be prepared for long stretches in between water sources and resupply. I added some Crocs, a light tarp tent, a bomber little alcohol stove, and a couple extra items of clothing to my typical kit.
5. Confirm that your bike is up for the challenge. This usually means you’ll be frantically swapping out worn-out components and tires the night before you plan to leave. That’s never the best timing for important repairs, but let’s face it, that’s the way many of us operate.
6. Let your significant other, a trusted friend, or similarly caring individual know that you really don’t know where you’ll be on any given day, or what your exact route will entail. They hopefully know to trust your navigational, first-aid, and bike repair savvy in the backcountry.
7. Now go ride and forget about everything else. It’s just you, your bike, and whatever territory through which you decide to travel. What’s simpler than that?
Planning a route that’s many hundreds of miles in length can be a daunting task. I took advantage of some previously explored routes to start the ride before transitioning to day-by-day planning. My tour began with a series of singletrack and quad trails linked together by Dave Harris for his Dixie and TransUtah routes (the latter of which only extends halfway across the state). I made use of GPX files and some brief information on water sources Dave compiled. But beyond central Utah, I relied on topographic maps (by Trails Illustrated and Latitude 40) for planning out my route on the fly and identifying likely water sources. There are few things that instill as strong a sense of freedom as seeing an intriguing feature on the horizon, figuring out how to reach that feature, and then pedaling to it simply for the sake of exploration.
Prior to the onset of the summer monsoons (usually mid-July), the southern Colorado Plateau has very few streams and springs, so I relied mostly on my past experience to make educated guesses about where I might be able to locate water. I also met a few folks along the way that provided appreciated advice on water sources. Springs are actually relatively common below the edges of the high plateaus, and pockets of dense aspen or cottonwoods highlight many of them. This makes them easier to locate. Atop the plateaus, stock tanks, providing water of highly variable quality, were not too difficult to find. In the higher mountains like the Abajos and La Sals, there were beautiful small streams providing clear, cold water. Even in the hottest, driest sections of my route, I never had to carry more than 2.5 gallons of water, enough for close to two full days of riding. To haul all this, I carried one gallon in my frame bag, one gallon in my pack, two bottles on my fork, and a third bottle on the underside of the downtube. I used Aquamira for treating all my water when it came from questionable sources.
For cooking, I carried a Trangia alcohol stove. It might not be the lightest stove option out there, but it is the most durable and efficient alcohol stove I’ve used, and is quite inexpensive to boot. Eight ounces was enough fuel for two weeks, heating water for dinner most nights and for breakfasts roughly half the time. But exercise caution using alcohol stoves in dry conditions, and be aware that the USFS and BLM may not actually allow alcohol stoves when fire restrictions are in place.
My bike worked almost flawlessly for the full ride, requiring almost nothing more than daily fresh chain lube. I rode my El Mariachi Ti hardtail with a trusty old 3x9 drivetrain and rolled on a Maxxis Ardent 2.4” tire in the front and a sadly discontinued Michelin tire on the rear, both filled with ample sealant. I snapped off one derailleur hanger thanks to an errant aspen branch that jumped into my spokes, and my chain and rear tire needed replacing in Moab. That was it.
If a long tour like this piques your interest, don’t hesitate to dive right in. Rely on your experience from shorter multi-day trips and let your route plan itself as you go. If you need some more inspiration, you can follow along with a couple of my friends, Gary and Patti, who just began a yearlong tour with no route or destination in mind: http://rollingwiththemoment.wordpress.com
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After growing up in Minnesota, I’ve been lured away by the rugged charm of the mountainous west. I relish every opportunity I find to spend a day (or days) on the bike, linking together unknown trails and forgotten routes through deserted country, enjoying the simplicity and unpredictability. When driven to race, I am growing ever fonder of pushing the limits of endurance and sanity. www.krefs.blogspot.com