Overnight bikepacking has offered Bjorn and I incredible experiences, mostly of the kind that could never be recreated even if we repeated the exact same route. The stories that we’ve accumulated over the years meld together into a memory montage of swirling winds, big water, navigational confusion, rare wildlife encounters, unexpected friendships, glowing pride and glorious failures. Often, it’s the unanticipated events that end up being the centerpieces of our most entertaining stories.
But how do you plan for adventure, when adventure itself is defined by the unexpected? This post is a breakdown of our preparation and planning methods for overnight outings, and a lot of advice on group dynamics.
More often than not, our adventures are conceived around a giant map of Alaska that is in our living room. This intrigues our company and initiates all kinds of discussions, many of them about potential routes. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a map, but if you intentionally expose yourself to something inspiring and coercive, you just might find yourself planning more trips.
The other major influence on our trip planning is carving out the time. In general, we embark on two large trips a year, one in the winter and one in the summer. March is simply the time for our winter trip, so we start scheming about what we will do when that time comes, and make sure to postpone all other obligations. I also have friends who always do a full-moon overnight, or a first-Friday kids’ trip. The idea is that you intentionally make the time, and the rest will follow.
Once you have the time reserved, ask yourself what your objective is for the trip. This may seem obvious: you want an adventure! But it’s really worth giving it just a bit more thought. Are you wanting to do something that’s never been done? See spectacular landscapes? Forge new friendships? Get some tranquility away from your busy life? Do a route in record time? If you start the planning process by knowing what it is you want, you are more likely to design a trip that will be fulfilling to you.
A creative route that takes us to new and wild places is often our motivator but doing something novel can take a bit of experience. Whatever your approach, your chosen route will be the central theme of your trip planning. You may want to do an out and back for the sake of simplicity, but I find loops and through-routes much more exciting. You often end up on unexpected terrain just to link some sections together, and this can really add some flavor to your trip. Don’t be afraid to do something ridiculous in order to make the whole thing come together. It’s fun to have sections where you’re not quite sure how it’s going to go. Leave room for improvisation so that you don’t plan the fun right out of the trip.
Next, consider with whom you are going to do this trip, if anyone. A novice may not fully appreciate that the number of people—and who those people are—will greatly affect the trip dynamic. Some adventurers almost always go solo so that they can operate strictly on their own terms. This of course means that you will have no one to help you should things go bad and you have to be highly self-reliant. A team of two is fabulous, so long as you both get along really well. It’s a very intimate experience for both friends and relationship partners. Be aware that your attitude will have a huge sway on the other and vice versa. Three is theoretically a magic number, though that will probably leave you with more choices to make about gear arrangements.
Any more than three and it’s a party. Expect to move slower (sometimes a lot slower) as you are only ever as fast as the slowest person at any given time. The more people you add, the more you increase the ‘slowest common denominator,’ which is fine as long as you are cognizant of this effect and ready to wait for or help people who need it. No matter the number, I am a huge advocate of staying together, which means being clear about that expectation from the beginning.
When it comes to team dynamic, familiarize yourself with each other before you do anything too outlandish. You may have been friends with someone for years, but not fully know how they operate in the backcountry. Going on a trip with someone is a ‘relationship accelerator’ for better or worse. A good trip partner is far more valuable than any piece of gear you can own and you never know how good a trip partner is until you take the plunge together.
Consider the balance of experience levels with your team. Are you encouraging someone with minimal experience to join your escapades? Have you agreed to take an eager beginner along? Then you will need to facilitate their learning process with patience and flexibility, so don’t try to take too many people under your wing at once. On the other hand, if you yourself are relying on someone else’s expertise or guidance, then be honest and open about your skill level, and figure out how you can be more help than hindrance. Prevent a follow-the-leader and blame-them-for-everything-that-goes-wrong scenario. No one is forcing anyone to go along (hopefully), so even though some may be looking to others for guidance, the fool who follows the fool has only themself to blame.
However, you don’t NEED an experienced trip leader to go bikepacking, and a crew of total amateurs is perfectly fine. In fact, it’s an awesome idea! You’ll all be ready to face a steep learning curve, probably bring way more stuff than you need and make plenty of silly mistakes. The stories from those early days will forever be a source of entertainment in the years to come. It’s how most people get started and it’s a very effective way to learn what works and what doesn’t.
Planning can be a big job, so divide up the work and play to people’s strengths. Bjorn is a great route planner and mechanic, while I tend to gravitate to risk mitigation and on-the-ground navigation. We divide up gear in a similar way. I bring the navigational equipment and first aid kit, and Bjorn brings the tools and repair kits. Newly formed partnerships will require time to sort out. With luck, you may form a solid and reliable team, and preparation will get easier and easier with each trip that you do together.
Before embarking on anything big, do some shorter trips together to familiarize yourselves with each other and your equipment. If you’re planning your first-ever overnight, pack your bike up and ride it around the block before heading to the trailhead. If you are planning a longer, multi-night trip, try a preliminary one-nighter with your whole team and the equipment you plan to bring. These ‘shake-down’ trips are really good at revealing the flaws in your plan before they become bigger problems, and they have become an indispensible part of our larger undertakings. We have learned in the hardest ways imaginable that even experienced wilderness cyclists should do these trips first every time.
Something that I have come to learn is that ‘equal’ is not always ‘equitable’. Your team is moving together as one, so it’s not helpful to have some people moving way faster than others. Bjorn and I learned very early on that what is good for your partner is also good for you, so you should be shifting slack and burden as the situation demands. A great example of this occurred during a long, remote bike-rafting trip in which we had four people and two styles of packraft. We soon ended up trading the rafts around so that the stronger paddlers had the slower, less-efficient boats. Our team as a whole was instantly stronger and we were able to cover more miles in a day. That said, I would be reluctant to assist someone in carrying a whole bunch of their extraneous crap that they chose to bring (1,000-page wilderness survival manual, set of throwing axes, or watermelon for example). Hopefully you can avoid this with your ‘shake down.’
You may have noticed by now that I have hardly mentioned gear at all. This is because your gear is going to be highly variable depending on your location, type of trip and personal choices. In the lead-up to your trip, keep a checklist of your supplies. We also have a whiteboard that reminds us of all the things that we need to accomplish in the lead-up to the trip. This helps alleviate some of the mental burden that comes with trip prep and ensures that we don’t neglect to bring anything critical.
Our motto is, “If we don’t need it, we don’t have it.” In our case, we do ‘need’ our cameras and nature journals to fulfill the type of experience that we want to have. Those may not be necessary for the goals of other cyclists, but a fishing rod might be. Someone we encountered on a remote trip once asked, “Do you guys carry some kind of survival kit?” and my reply was, “This whole thing is a survival kit.” The bike provided a means of travel; we had food, fire starter, tools, shelter, and bear protection. Everything we carried related to our survival on the land and we hardly carried anything that didn’t.
Another key part of that survival is to consider the risks that you are taking, and what you would do in case of emergency. Run through a few bad-case scenarios and come up with a plan to deal with it. How are you going to contact help and who exactly is that help going to be? How will you evacuate at various levels of injury severity? Ask your team if they have any preexisting conditions that the group should know about.
Let other people know where you are going and what you’re doing. For our remote trips, we always have at least one person who will be reachable and has a list of resources and emergency/transportation contacts that we put together ahead of time. We carry an InReach tracking device and highly recommend them. Knowledge is incredibly powerful, so take a wilderness first aid or wilderness first responder course.
Get to know your area before you go, especially if it’s a place that you are unfamiliar with. Learn a bit about the natural and human history, including indigenous cultures. Take a look at the weather records, risk of wildfire, water levels, or tide tables. How available are drinking water sources and good tent sites? If these are sparse, you may want to plan your camping sites ahead of time, but our favorite way is to just stop when we’re ready to camp and see a good spot.
Gather local knowledge. If you are going on a wilderness route, it can be extremely helpful to reach out to people who know and travel on the land. We love to carry around our map and chat with people that we meet along the way. We gain all sorts of insights, though we have also learned to sometimes take advice with a grain of salt depending on who’s doling it out.
When it comes to making judgment calls in the field that affect the safety of any individual or the group, I actually discourage the democratic process. Voting on arbitrary decisions is one thing but making a safety call as a group might not take into consideration all individual comfort or skill levels and can also be too heavily swayed by voters who lack perspective or are more willing to take risks. Bjorn has a harrowing story about being out-voted in a group of inexperienced sea kayakers that chose to go out in building winds so that they didn’t have to camp out another night. This is called ‘back-to-the-barn’ syndrome and it is deadly. Everyone capsized and all were lucky to escape with their lives. Making decisions based on time restraints can lead to poor judgment calls. Listen to your gut instincts and speak up if you have a bad feeling, even if it seems illogical at the time. Keep the time frame of your trip somewhat open-ended and bring some extra food so you’re not in a rush to get back.
I have found that diligent preparedness allows me much more mental freedom to enjoy myself while on a trip. I am often filled with a huge sense of relief as soon as we get going. All the effort of planning and preparing is behind us, and now we just get to live the experience. The more that you practice, the easier the preparation will get, until it just becomes second nature to throw your junk on a bike and go camp out like it ain’t no thing.
Once you develop a method for preparing by considering your objectives, trialing your gear, building your crew, and mitigating your risks, you will soon find that overnight, or multi-day/multi-week, adventures will offer a much more immersive cycling experience. When you are untethered from the need for an indoor place to sleep and eat, the map for your potential adventures will exponentially increase in size and scope.
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I like to cover a lot of ground, but racing and finishing routes quickly is not usually a primary goal of mine. In the winter, I ride snow machine/dog sled trails, which can stretch for hundreds of miles across the frozen Alaskan landscape. In the summer, a combination of beach riding, pack rafting, trail riding, and 'bike-whacking' allows for innovative and explorative routes.