Bikepacking 101: How to plan, prep and survive a multi-day mountain biking trip
For the first week after Anne St. Clair rode 550 miles in 11 days on the fabled Colorado Trail, the local mountain bike coach and pro enduro rider wasn’t even sure if she had a good time.
“A lot of times when you’re backpacking through a downpour, you might get a little wet on your feet or your pack,” said St. Clair, who set her sights on the CT mission a few summers back after shorter, bite-sized bikepacking trips. “On a bike, everything is getting soaked because you’re moving faster, the bike is spraying water. Riding in wet conditions gets you covered in mud and cow poo.”
And St. Clair rode through some of the wettest conditions of a wetter-than-usual summer. She and her partner left Durango for Denver in late July, when the early summer drought finally lifted for day after day after day of rain. Of the 11 days the duo was on the trail, it rained at least eight or nine, she remembers, with constant drizzles during the day and legitimate downpours at night. She admits that, if she woke up at home in Breckenridge on more than a few of those days — including the summit of high-alpine Wheeler Pass at Breckenridge Ski Resort — she most likely would have gone back to sleep. Instead, it became a highlight of the trip.
“(That was) a day when I would not have chosen to do that ride because it would be so seemingly miserable, but what happened was the rain tapered off when we got up high and left us with these low, high-moving clouds,” St. Clair said. “It was very dramatic.”
Colorado Trail by bike
Dramatic is a fitting description for the entire 550-mile Colorado Trail bikepacking trip, an epic (yes, epic) ride with 71,800 total feet of vertical gain. St. Clair and her partner covered about 50 miles and 6,500 vertical feet per day from Durango to Denver, sleeping under a roof just twice and under a ground shelter the rest of the time. The rainy weather threw a slight wrench in the gears, but a month after wearily pedaling into Denver, she wouldn’t trade it for the world.
“I wasn’t sure if I had had fun yet, but now I’m really sure that I did,” St. Clair said. “It hooks you, you know? Thinking about where I could’ve gone faster or where I could have pushed more.”
The Colorado Trail is a popular destination for bikepacking, simply because it is already well known to backpackers. As St. Clair’s duo was riding, a group of 50 or 60 hardcore riders were pedaling the opposite direction for the Colorado Trail Race: a non-sanctioned ride held every year on the CT. (Of those 50 or 60 who started, St. Clair heard that only 15 or 20 finished due to the conditions.)
Frisco resident Zach Husted is planning a solo trip of his own to raise awareness for High Fives Foundation, a California-based nonprofit for action sports athletes, and hopes to get better weather this September than St. Clair had. But if it does rain? Well, that’s why he just spent the past few months biking and living out the back of a van in New Zealand.
“It’s hard to train for it, but I enjoy when the rain starts coming down,” Husted said. “Things won’t always go to plan on a long trip and I think that’s when I shine most — when all of the s*** starts to crumble down.”
Like St. Clair, Husted expects to spend most of his 10-day journey sleeping outside with occasional rest stops when the trail passes by towns like Leadville and Buena Vista. That’s where he’ll stock up on food and other supplies that won’t fit in his backpack or frame-mounted packs, like the slices of pizza St. Clair ate for dinner, breakfast and lunch several days during her trip.
“We lived off of pizza,” St. Clair laughed, saying they would get a whole pie, eat until they were full, and then wrap the rest in foil for the next day’s food. “It’s adding a whole other dimension to mountain biking to have problem solving out there — to adjust to weather or find food or if you aren’t feeling well.”
Plan, prep, plan again
Both St. Clair and Husted agree that anyone with a bikepacking mission in their future needs to be familiar with backpacking in general: the gear, the routes, the rhythms of spending days at a time in the wilderness with no support but what you brought with you.
“Knowing your gear and doing some trial runs before you leave is important,” said St. Clair, who considered doing the Colorado Trail Race but opted to ride with a partner so the two could split gear. “The things that I would have potentially sacrificed to go lighter and faster ultimately became the most crucial things we had because the weather got to be so bad.”
One of the crucial things: the ground shelter. While most bikepackers choose bivvy sacks to cut down on weight and bulk, St. Clair brought the Black Diamond Megamid: a simple, single-pole shelter with no floor or walls like a tent. It kept her gear, clothing and stove dry during those constant downpours, and when Mother Nature decided to rain all night, it was a blessing to have hot coffee on dry ground.
“For me, having that hot cup of coffee on a cold, wet morning when I’m dry under a shelter, it went a long way given the conditions,” St. Clair said. “That made a difference.”
Husted plans on going the bivvy route, but he knows that bikepacking in early fall comes with a whole slew of other concerns. He’s packing extra layers for the Colorado cold, as well as a stove for morning coffee.
“I don’t want to sacrifice warm clothing because I know there will be cold nights, so I’ve been going with multi-use clothing,” Husted said. “You just want to stay safe out there, from exposure to whatnot. There could even be snow.”
St. Clair rode on a hard-tail with an oversized back tire for extra cushion and Husted is riding his standard full suspension, but both agree that preparing for mechanicals of all sizes and shapes is key. St. Clair had to change a shift cable at one point, and after several earlier trips with a post bag and no post dropper, she decided to pack differently and keep the dropper for comfort.
“It’s funny: I’ve packed differently on every trip I take,” St. Clair said. As a woman, her bike is smaller than a standard men’s bike, and so a smaller frame posed another challenge for packing. Husted has an easier time loading all of his gear in frame-mounted packs, including a post pack, but he’s still careful to have everything he could possibly need for remote fixes.
“I’ve got to be ready for anything,” Husted said. “Mechanicals are always a possibility, and when I get into that section between Monarch and Silverton weather will be a factor. You have at least two days above 11,000 feet.”
For St. Clair, those most remote portions of the ride were the sublime. The wildflowers near Silverton were incredible — “They were so tall and lush, to the point you almost get numb to how gorgeous it is in 8 miles, but you never do,” she said — and that stretch in her backyard on Wheeler was an unexpected delight. The final few days leading into Denver weren’t her favorites, such as an area known as Sargent’s Mesa filled with “the results of cows,” but when she saw the end was near, she realized the mental training she’d done was just as important as the gear prepping and route planning.
“You get into some really dark places mentally,” St. Clair said. “At the time it’s really hard, but looking back on it you realize that’s why you go.”
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