L’aventure Alpine - Part Two: Route Planning

Click here to read Part One of L'aventure Alpine.

L'aventure Alpine - Part Two: Route Planning

One of the reasons I relish long rides is that they can take me deep into unknown country. Bikepacking trips provide even greater opportunity for pushing into new territory. But planning these adventures, large or small, can be quite challenging, and at times, intimidating. Where should I ride? How can I connect this jeep road with that trail? Can I even push my bike over that pass? Does the trail dashed in on this map actually exist on the ground? And then after most of these questions are answered, I need to be able to follow the route I’ve picked out. Furthermore, what happens if it turns out that my route includes countless miles of horrendous and naively unexpected hike-a-bike or impassable snowy passes? What options do I have to modify the route on the fly to make my trip more enjoyable?

I find myself going through the process of asking and answering these questions every time I plan a bikepacking trip - pull out a gazetteer and some topographic maps, get in touch with anyone I know who has ridden in the area of interest and then dig a little deeper by examining satellite and aerial imagery of the most ambiguous trail sections. Eventually, I draw tracks for use on my GPS unit for navigation if route finding using printed maps alone might be difficult.

Planning a five-week bikepacking trip traversing an expansive mountain range on another continent, however, has been a new challenge for me. Map resources are more difficult to find, languages differ, and my ability to predict what trails might be like by simply looking at topographic maps and aerial imagery is entirely unreliable for unfamiliar landscapes. And given all this uncertainty, it becomes even more important to plan alternate routes around particularly questionable terrain and have the ability to modify plans further while on the trail.

Some of the route options we came up with...

So for our upcoming L’aventure Alpine tour in the Alps, Kaitlyn and I have decided to start in Nice, ride north to Chamonix, loop around Mont Blanc, and then continue as far east as time permits before heading north to Zurich. We inquired with a few European friends, examined popular guided multi-day routes, trolled through forums and GPS track repositories (e.g., VTTrack), read up on the impressive Suisse national mountain bike routes, found some helpful resources from other folks who have done long dirt tours in the Alps, and became well acquainted with online language translators.

Our anticipated route starting from Nice...

We then compiled all the reliable bike-specific track files, drew tracks in Google Earth and TopoFusion for some routes described by friends, and filled in some route gaps by finding dirt road and trails. The bike-oriented OpenCycleMaps  was one helpful resource for finding these trails. Finally, we chose our most preferred route, trying to maximize dirt, scenery, and remoteness.

OpenCycleMaps basemap with route options...

The result? The most intimidating route profile I have ever seen - 1,000 miles and 300,000 feet of climbing! Fortunately, we can turn north toward Zurich any time after mile 600, providing ample flexibility and eliminating the common stressor of "having" to cover a set distance in order to reach an predetermined endpoint.

Bring low gears and spare brake pads...

Our planned route incorporates pieces of a route ridden by a friend through the southern Alps, a popular loop around Mont Blanc, the Haute mountain bike route, a little of the Suisse Alpine MTB route, and a few sections out of Lukas Stöckli's “Hardest Bike Tour in the Alps” when we might want to get down to mellower terrain. There will also be a long, rugged stretch in the central Alps about which we know very little beyond that it has been ridden. The easternmost part of our route, which we may not actually reach, is from one of Andi Gletchersau’s Alpencross trips.

Given the amount of hike-a-bike we will likely encounter, as well as the possibility of snowy passes, we have a few route options that will keep us lower. All these will be downloaded to our Garmin eTrex 20 GPS units. We also will be using the detailed and inexpensive OpenCycleMap topo basemaps on the GPS units.

Our plans for carrying paper topos, however, were stymied. The dozen maps we'd need for Switzerland alone would have a price tag of more than $400. Maps for France and Italy would probably have doubled this cost. The solution to this dilemma seems to be a little seven-inch tablet armed with the GaiaGPS app and an OTG USB/microSD card reader. High resolution topographic, OpenCycleMap, and aerial photo map tiles can be downloaded and saved on the tablet, tracks can be created and edited, and these tracks can then be transferred to our eTrex units via a microSD card. With more than ten hours of battery life on the tablet, we should be able to preview, modify, and create routes in our tent at night, far removed from Wi-Fi or cellular coverage.

Our means for route planning/revising on the fly...

And in order to be able to find the nearest towns should we run out of spare electrons in the tablet and suffer dual GPS failures, we’ll also be carrying a few printed regional maps available from Michelin. Apparently Michelin makes tires and maps.

We will now see what all this planning yields as our wheels rolling north from the warm, blue water of the Mediterranean Sea. Wish us good luck and great trails!


This post filed under topics: Bikepacking El Mariachi Explore Kaitlyn Boyle Kurt Refsnider Mountain Biking Sponsored Riders Travel

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Kurt Refsnider

Kurt Refsnider

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. [url=http://]http://[/url]


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Sacha | July 3rd, 2014

also check out strava’s heatmap—shows where cyclists tend to ride, both paved & dirt.  i used it a bunch on my current cycle tour through the pyrenees & alps from barcelona to italy.

have fun
my routes


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Trashbag Trudeau | July 4th, 2014

What, only 300,000 ft of climbing!!  I thought it was gonna be 300,000 METERS of climbing!!!  Hope it’s going good for you two, monsoons have hit AZ, shred on!!

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Claudio | July 7th, 2014

What a great adventure!
this site may be of interest in mapping route:

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Florent | July 25th, 2014

Thank you for quoting which is one of the best website for MTB :)

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Gijs | August 29th, 2014

Route making on a 7inch tablet and through an app, that’s new for me!
How did your “cartography” set up work?

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Kurt | September 8th, 2014

Gijs, the tablet and app almost worked great. The tablet was perfect, but GaiaGPS ended up having a few bugs that didn’t work well on our tablet. We switched to Orux Maps and that was the solution. It worked flawlessly and is exactly what we’d choose again.

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