Just What’s Needed: Learning To Bikepack On The Back Roads To Ponca

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a series from our sponsored rider Greg Gleason about turning his pedals into the world of bikepacking for the first time. New tricks to bikepacking reveal themselves every time you head out, and Greg shares what he’s learning as his journey begins.

“Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

We all have our reasons that we love riding our bikes. It’s fun. Makes you feel like a kid again. If you ride enough, you can eat (and drink) more of things you enjoy. It cleanses the stresses of the day. Exercise. Transportation. Community. And much more. And when you combine biking with an adventure like riding to a new place, your brain reacts by rewarding you with dopamine. Dopamine produces a feeling of enjoyment, bliss, and even euphoria. With this basic understanding of your body’s chemistry, it is easy to understand why bikepacking is one of the hottest growing segments in the cycling community. When you allow yourself to explore, you start to break the cycle of routine in your life. Everything feels new like when you were young, and your body rewards you with a happy pill, and better health and well-being.

When I started riding many years ago, it was to improve my weight and overall health. Once my health was in hand, I started meeting people that inspired me to go further, eventually leading me to discover and watch a documentary “Ride the Divide” by Mike Dion. After watching the documentary for the third time, I made the decision to embark on the Great Divide race when I turn 50. Ever since that moment, I have created mini-adventures to test my physical and mental abilities, and to test the gear I want to use during the race. Spring in the upper Midwest consists of cool, windy and freezing nights which mimic conditions at altitude (with the exception of the thin air– no way to test that on the prairie.)

Once winter had finally loosened its grip, I embarked on my first 2016 mini adventure, loading my Garmin with a back road route to Ponca State Park just across the South Dakota border into Nebraska. This being my first adventure in these conditions, I spent a lot of time analyzing and over-analyzing what extra gear to pack on my Salsa Spearfish so I’d be comfortable along the way. I wanted to make sure to pack the right clothes to keep warm during the cold nights along with the proper sleeping bag and tent to be nice and cozy. Of course, I have read about what gear works for others, but I consider that just a starting point. I need to know what works for me. My super-light setup was probably heavier than others’, but I wanted to be safe and able to enjoy myself. Finally, with the bike all loaded, it was time to get started.

Grand departure…

Springtime gravel can be as unpredictable as the weather, so planning for a couple-hundred-mile bikepacking trip can be tricky. It is usually very soft and loose as the winter thaw begins, and counties send out the road graders to start working on it. New gear, new route, and spring weather are a perfect recipe for learning and adventure, and I learned many good things on my first solo 200-mile bike-packing weekend.

Freshly grated gravel south of Sioux Falls, SD…

The first thing I noticed was that the bike was very heavy, so it handled very differently than if it was not fully loaded. I never weighed the fully loaded bike, but it was challenging to control, and climbing was quite a bit more work. The wind was picking up with 30+ mph gusts so keeping the bike on the gravel in the cross winds and head winds was a struggle. The conditions were starting to challenge my goal of making the 125-mile journey to my camping spot with a couple of hours to spare before dark. I started doing the math to make sure I left myself time to set camp up in the daylight. Shortening my resupply stops and pushing the pace on the tailwind sections helped me make up time, arriving a Ponca State Park Nebraska with only a single hour of daylight to set up camp.

Unexpected paths with a bridge out during the journey…

Riding gravel…

Ponca State Park entrance…

Ponca State Park map…

Ponca State Park, my home for the night, sits on the south shoreline of the Missouri River and offers 75 primitive camping sites.

Ponca State Park primitive camp site…

With camp all set I started a camp fire to get dinner ready and to keep me warm as the sun set.

Trying freeze dried food to see if I liked the taste and consistency…

The fire was perfect and warm creating the ideal campsite setting as I ate my meal. I had never tried a freeze dried meal in the Jetboil before but found it to be pretty tasty so maybe I’ll try another in the future. Around 9:30 p.m. I was beginning to feel the effects of the difficult 125-mile ride earlier in the day, so it was time to test out the tent setup. Temperatures were forecasted to be in the 20’s – great conditions to test my 19-degree down sleeping bag with an added fleece sleeping insert. I also brought a Big Agnes pillow for a little extra comfort. All bundled up, I was ready to hit the hay.

Ready for bed…

After getting a whopping eight hours of sleep, (that doesn’t even happen most nights at home in my bed!) I was well rested and ready to pack up for my journey home. My Ponca mini-adventure had taught me at least some of what I needed to know to plan for my next adventure, the Black Hills Expedition, a 430-mile bikepacking route in the Black Hills of South Dakota. More on that adventure soon!

Enjoying a cup of morning coffee in my favorite titanium mug…

“Knowledge without application is simply knowledge. Applying the knowledge to one’s life is wisdom — and that is the ultimate virtue” - Kasi Kaye Iliopoulos

Lessons learned:

A heavily-packed bike will make negotiating my next trek of singletrack trails in the Black Hills very difficult. Need to pack as light as possible but stay safe.
I don’t need a tent if I’m racing or needing to go fast.
JetBoil is nice but not needed unless it’s a winter race.
Pack real food, but items that don’t need to be cooked.
Put as much of your pack weight on the back or center of the bike so controlling the bike is easier, especially in very windy conditions.
Plan lots of convenience stores on your route so you can carry less.
Practice, practice, practice.
Adventure by Bike = routine buster
Push yourself. Be epic.

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Gravel Greg Gleason Mountain Biking Overnighter Spearfish Split Pivot Sponsored Riders

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Mike Riemer

Mike Riemer

I love being outside. I prefer to ride on dirt. Or snow. If I was born a hundred years earlier I might have been a polar explorer. There's a great natural world out there to see, smell, taste, listen to, and experience. Life slows down out there and the distractions we've created will disappear if you let them. Give me a backpack and let me go.


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RP | October 26th, 2016

A group of riders from Lincoln have been bikepacking up to Ponca for many years. Nice to see we aren’t the only ones!

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mark willmore | October 26th, 2016

Very very inspiring. Thanks for sharing

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Gwynn Lyell III | October 31st, 2016

Nice post. Hope you will come to Salsa Ride Camp 2017, I plan to. Actually eagerly anticipating it, even though I’ve never been. Currently own a El Mar single speed and about to get a Bear-grease, not single speed, for now, but who knows. I believe in Old Man Power.


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GoCamp24 | December 29th, 2016

Thanks for an inspiration!
Great pics, great trip!

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Bike Master | September 8th, 2017

Thanks for the article you share here. I have learned lot more thing.

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