Neither Kaitlyn nor I have yet to return from a bikepacking trip, even a quick overnighter, without having learned a few things. Longer trips provide far more learning opportunities. And while I have done a bit of bikepacking abroad in the past, immersing ourselves in our first big tour on another continent taught us quite a few lessons, a few of which I’ll share here. Experienced world tourers will likely chuckle at many of these lessons, but we wish we would have had a bit more insight into these things prior to hopping over to Europe.
Don’t neglect the vertical gain.
The Alps are big mountains—the largest either of us had spent much time riding through. Prior to our trip, Kaitlyn suggested that maybe we should plan our tentative itinerary based on daily elevation gain rather than distance. I chuckled nervously, but in reality, that was probably the best way to plan. On a typical day, we climbed something like 6,000 to 8,000 feet, which usually included one big pass, perhaps another lesser one, and ample hiking. That climbing, descending, and probably a bit of traversing on either end usually took six to seven hours. Had this been six hours of riding in less rugged topography, we could have easily ridden 50 miles or more, but here, 30 miles was more typical. So plan accordingly and bring your hike-a-bike shoes (or track down a pair of the SPD-compatible hike-a-bike boots that are apparently available in Europe).
As I wrote in a previous post, the trail signage and route development in the Alps are amazing. Our conclusion was that as long as you know the names of villages in the general direction you want to go, you won’t have a problem finding your way using just trail signs. But some knowledge of where the different possible routes would take will let you determine the most efficient and least difficult option (or alternatively, the steepest, highest col possible).
Another neat aspect of the trail network in the Alps is the number of long routes that stretch for hundreds of kilometers. We were not aware of virtually any of these until we found ourselves on long stretches of the Via Alpina, Alta Via, GR5, and Tour des Combins. Entire guidebooks are available for some of these routes. These routes are all geared toward hikers, but some stretches provide fantastic riding. Others provide maniacal hike-a-bike sections and may cross through national parks that do not permit bikes. Ironically, the popular and oft-guided Tour du Mont Blanc and Mountain Bike Haute Route provided some of the lower-quality riding we experienced.
Switzerland also has an amazing system of both national and regional mountain bike and road touring routes (http://www.swissmobile.ch). Many of these mountain bike routes though, seemed to be predominantly gravel and two-tracks rather than singletrack. France also has an extensive network of marked mountain bike routes thanks to the French Cycling Federation (http://www.ffc.fr). We both lamented many times at how much American cycling could benefit if the U.S. Cycling Federation put some energy into identifying and publicizing good bike routes.
Don’t ride into a village here expecting to grab a Mountain Dew and a few donuts at the gas station. Finding food while touring in Europe can be quite different than what we’re accustomed to in the States. Gas station and convenience stores are almost non-existent here. Small markets and grocery stores often have very limited hours, closing for lunch, evenings, and Sundays. And many villages may not offer anywhere to resupply at all. Fortunately, in most areas, villages and larger towns are not too far apart, and as long as you plan accordingly, it’s really not a problem to keep your bags filled with food. We also discovered that energy bars and sports drink mix, should you desire such things, are often be found in pharmacies rather than food stores.
Fog. Rain. Snow. Hail.
Our trip was wet. Quite a few folks had told us that July in the Alps could be wet but that we probably wouldn’t see too much rain. In reality, it rained on us most days, quite a few nights, and we spent countless hours riding through the clouds. Along the way, we were told by local residents that this was the wettest summer in many years. We could not have been happier that we had good rain jackets, pants, and a full tarp tent rather than a tarp or bivy sacks. But waterproof mitts and maybe even waterproof socks would have been very nice to have.
Bring your own bikepacking bags.
Bikepacking in the sense that we know it here in the United States has yet to become widely known in the Alps. Seat, frame, and handlebar bags are notably absent, and instead, large backpacks were worn by each of the dozen or so bikepackers we saw. We couldn’t imagine being able to tolerate wearing such packs while riding the steep descents or pedaling up cols for hours on end.
Pitching your tent.
Prior our trip, we were a bit nervous about camping in the Alps. We had been told camping was prohibited in many areas, that the Alps were too steep to find anywhere suitable for a tent, and that no one here camps. After camping on most nights of our tour, we can happily say that camping was easy, though we only saw a half-dozen or so other folks sleeping in tents. Most hikers and mountain bike tourers opted for the hut-to-hut style of travel, something that is quite easy in the more popular mountain destinations.
Obviously, in populated areas (towns, agricultural valleys, etc.), there are limited camping options, and for a couple nights, we were forced to pay a bit to stay in grassy campgrounds that were filled mostly with camper vans. We did, however, get the luxury of showers, dishwashing stations, Wi-Fi, and a morning delivery of baked goods straight from the baker. In the mountains, though, we were able to camp as we pleased. Some parks restricted camping, but in general, we found ourselves alone in the mountains, sometimes sleeping at sites hikers had clearly used in the past. And we never received anything more than waves or smiles from any hikers, shepherds, or other folks that passed our camp.
We shipped a few small boxes with supplies ahead to ourselves, and one box to our ending point with some gear we did not need. Postal services in Europe offer a “poste restante” service that is essentially what we know as “general delivery” in the States, where a post office will hold your package until you pick it up. But we discovered a few caveats. Firstly, in some areas, post offices in different [nearby] villages have the same zip code; so make sure you use the correct street address so you don’t end up chasing down your mail at a different post office. And be aware that any mail sent between countries is subject to customs regulations and tariffs. This can slow mail down, complicate things, and cost considerably more money. If possible, only send mail to yourself from within country.
Bikepacking through the Alps was an incredible experience, and Kaitlyn and I hope some of this advice might be of use to you, either in planning a similar Alpine adventure or touring elsewhere. Feel free to post questions about any of this. And stay tuned to Salsa’s Culture blog for one final piece that will share some of the highlights from our ride.
CLICK THE FOLLOWING LINKS FOR PREVIOUS BLOGS FROM KURT & KAITLYN’S L’AVENTURE ALPINE, 5-WEEK BIKEPACKING TRIP THROUGH THE ALPS…
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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