Sometimes I need to sleep outside, away from manmade things, to recharge my soul. I needed my tent and sleeping bag this past October. Nothing particularly bad had happened in October, it had just been a busy time at work and at home for my wife Ashley and I. We both reached our collective breaking point and made the official call, “We’re camping this weekend.”
The leaves had just peaked in northern Minnesota and the weather looked good with no major systems coming in. We decided it would be a great time to try our first bikepacking trip together. We chose a place we were both very familiar with: the Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota.
Our trip was a blast. We took off for the north country right after work and made it all the way to a random flat spot off of a random dirt road in the Superior National Forest, and slept in the back of the truck; our standard operating procedure for a weekend getaway.
Saturday morning proved beautiful with wide-open skies greeting us as we began the bikepacking portion of the trip. We made it all of 250 feet before we had to stop and make adjustments to the bags on our Fargo bikes. The next two hours can be described in four words: Ride, Stop, Adjust, Repeat. It was actually a great learning experience. We knew we wouldn’t get it 100% perfect from the start, so we gave ourselves two extra hours, and we wound up using it all taking pictures and rearranging our gear.
The roads narrowed as we pedaled deeper into the north woods. Gravel roads became minimum maintenance roads. MMR’s became ATV trails, and for some stretches bike-only trails. We had all kinds of trail conditions; mud, rock gardens, steep climbs, and technical descents. Each obstacle was a learning experience. For both of us, it was the first time we had negotiated these things on bikes while carrying all our camping gear. After reminding myself that this wasn’t a race, picking and choosing my lines became much easier.
We rode about 25 miles on Saturday until we came to the place we’d call home for the night. We found a nice flat spot next to Rice Lake. When we got there, we turned on the autopilot. We tossed up the tent, added boiling water into the freeze-dried food, enjoyed after dinner libations and a little campfire. The soul was getting recharged.
Morning came with some brisk temps. The nearest weather station said it had been 43-degrees overnight. It was cold enough to put a little frost of the fuel canister. After the morning cup of coffee and a little oatmeal, we hit the trail on a new route back to the truck. We were treated to the same beautiful skies and that familiar pine smell that’s forever associated in my mind with the best times of my life. We had 25 miles to get back to the truck but we were in no hurry to get there.
Our conversation while riding on Sunday was centered on our next backpacking trip. We decided we will definitely be doing this again and for a longer period of time. We also tried to come up with some decent metaphors that describe bikepacking to friends and family who are new to the concept. Here’s what we came up with: Bikepacking is just like backpacking in that you take in the world around you with greater fidelity than you ever could from a plane, train or automobile. You still get that feeling of exploring the world around you for the very first time. The only difference is that you can go way further each day on a bike.
We’re both experienced backpackers. We’ve walked our share of miles and spent more than a few nights living off of what we carried on our backs. I expected to roll into this weekend getaway like a grizzled bikepacking veteran right from the first pedal stroke. The learning curve for bikepacking wasn’t actually as flat as I’d anticipated. I wouldn’t call it steep though. If you have ever been backpacking or kayak camping overnight, you can bikepack this weekend no problem. Below is what we learned and how we transitioned from backpacking to bikepacking.
• It’s the same stuff. You just pack it differently. I’ll admit it…I’m a gear junkie. I was really hoping bikepacking would be an excuse to buy all new camping gear. Sadly, that was not the case. Aside from frame bags and seat bags, we used the same stuff we have used for backpacking. The difference was how we packed it. For backpacking, we would have had dedicated compression sacks for groups of items. One for the tent (minus poles and stakes, of course), one per sleeping bag, and one per set of clothes. Bikepacking forced us to use very small compression sacks and to break up the large groups of items because of the narrow shape of the frame, seat and handlebar bags. The tent body was separated from the fly and ground cloth. I used a couple small compression sacks for my clothes, etc. Once we got used to filling nooks and crannies in the frame and seat bags, everything fell into place like one big Tetris game.
• Frame bags and big seat bags are awesome in technical terrain. We’ve biked with racks and panniers before and expected the same kind of feel on this trip from frame bags and seat bags. We were wrong. Our bikes still felt agile and maneuverable in technical terrain. Keeping the weight on the centerline of the bikes helps maintain good handling.
• We allowed for extra time both days on the bike and we needed it. Remembering our first canoe trip together and how much re-organizing and fidgeting happened, we realized we would need some extra time for figuring this whole bikepacking thing out. We’re glad we had the extra time as it meant we were pressure-free when stopping for adjustments.
• We were floored at how well the Fargo did over all the terrain we faced. I don’t want this to sound like a sales piece for the Fargo…BUT having a bike that was efficient on gravel roads and capable on technical, eroded descents is worth noting.
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