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Fully Loaded: Lessons from first-time Bikepackers

Big meals, steady miles, and chamois butter?

From the rocky ridgeline above Star Pass, I watched a line of eight excited bikepackers pushing their loaded bikes up the final few switchbacks, now well above treeline. The air above 12,000 feet was thin, but the pace of the group was impressively steady despite their fatigue. It wasn't long before the first pair reached the top of the climb, dropped their bikes and whooped in delight, spinning around in a circle to take in the views. This pair was quickly joined by the rest of the group, proud of the day's accomplishment and relieved to have completed the trip's biggest climb. Collapsing in the grass amongst their bikes, food for lunch came out, and a discussion ensued about how they probably couldn't have so confidently tackled this rugged terrain just a couple weeks prior. And after starting the morning with several hours of pedaling through near-freezing fog, the afternoon sun felt so energizing.

These riders were all Prescott College students in the midst of a course called Geology through Bikepacking. Developed and taught with Adventure Educator Kaitlyn Boyle, this 4-week course helps students transform themselves from first-time bikepackers to veterans with the skills needed to potentially lead groups of other bikepackers, all while studying the geologic history of the Colorado Plateau region.

This course began with a warm 3-day ride from Grand Canyon to Flagstaff on the Arizona Trail—a trial by fire introduction to multi-day bike travel and the region's "early" history. Then we headed to the rugged and quiet mountains of the Navajo Nation for another 3-day trip to explore Colorado Plateau's history from the age of the dinosaurs. We followed that up with a cool, low-oxygen route through the Elk Mountains of Colorado, rolling into Crested Butte mid-ride as a dirty and decidedly stoked crew.

It was on this third trip among the yellowing aspen, autumn rain, and icy morning fog that it became clear how quickly these students had become competent bikepackers. As a group, the individuals learned from one another's successes and mistakes. They took advice to heart and experimented with their gear, their diets, their pacing and their note-taking. A few of the lessons they learned stand out prominently when I look back on the course—lessons that may benefit all of us—even seasoned bikepackers that occasionally get a bit overconfident (I say this holding up a rather large metaphorical mirror as I write.)

Spread out the miles.

In perhaps the most important lesson these ambitious students learned is that there's no need to be an endurance cyclist in order to set out on a "big" bikepacking adventure. And there's no need to plan huge miles when bikepacking. For most of the riders coming into the course, 25 miles of trail was a pretty big ride beforehand. Our planned itinerary of 20- to 30-mile days on loaded bikes had some members of the group feeling admittedly nervous. But instead of riding all those miles in just a few hours like the typical weekend warrior might, we milked the entire day spreading out the miles. Slow the pace down. Take long lunches. Spend time along the way deciphering the local rock record. Enjoy regular scenic snack stops. Nap in the warm afternoon shade. And use the span of the daylight hours to get to the next camp location. Trying to rush through the miles or packing too many miles into each day is a perfect recipe for Type II fun, and for most of us, that's not what bikepacking is about.

To keep pedaling, just keep eating.

A lot. A round of laughter is invariably evoked when someone starts talking about how one of their favorite aspects of bikepacking is getting to eat all the time. This crew of bikepackers chuckled at the idea of "eat to ride, ride to eat" shared with them by Kaitlyn on the first day of class, but it was their debut trip that demonstrated to everyone just what that actually means. Regular snacking through the day is indispensable. On that first trip from Grand Canyon to Flagstaff, energy levels decreased predictably each day as calorie consumption generally fell behind most riders' needs. But what better way to learn to prevent the dreaded afternoon bonk than by experiencing it a couple days in a row? Riders' rations increased in size notably for the next trip, snack stops became far more regular, and smiles became more regular all afternoon long.

Go big on meals.

A pack or two of ramen or a marginally-digestible freeze-dried meal-in-a-bag rarely offer the calories and nourishment a bikepacker needs. Planning sizeable, wholesome meals to start and end each day is paramount. Ramen may be cheap and light, but a generous portion of rice noodles, sausage, cheese, and some veggies will help with recovery from one day's efforts and energy for the following day far more effectively. And your stomach (and any tent mates) will be much happier with this menu than with an overly spiced, partially rehydrated "meal."

Pare down what you carry.

This is the easiest way keep smiling on the trail. There's no denying that loaded bikes can be heavy beasts to pedal around. The concept of shaving grams off a crankset seems absolutely laughable when you're carrying 10+ pounds of gear and clothing, not to mention food and water for an entire day or more. But within all that gear, ounces add up fast, and carrying excess weight is still extra work. We watched as one another's backpacks and bike bags got lighter from one trip to the next – camp shoes, the value-sized tube of sunscreen, and that third pair of socks were left behind. Cook kits became refined to the minimum. Water bottles and bladders were filled more wisely, making use of more water sources along the way instead of leaving with a few liters after each fill-up. Lighter bikes and lighter packs seemed to help everyone in the group be a bit more enthusiastic. Just because you have every style of bikepacking bag for mounting in every possible location on your bike, there's no need to fill them all. Better yet, leave some of those bags and excess gear at home. "Smiles for miles," the saying goes.

Chamois butter isn't just for roadies.

Rough trails, a few hours in the saddle, a pair of not-quite-right shorts, and an over-filled backpack can all lead to show-stopping chafing in the nether regions if you don't take care of the problem as soon as it rears its ugly head. Carry some chamois butter (but not the entire tub!) and put it to good use if need be. Just be wary of sticking your hand down your shorts in front of non-cyclists—they likely won't understand.

Roll with sturdy tires.

So many bikepackers have had to bail from a route after having their lightweight tires mauled by a rock. Between the added weight of gear and food and the rougher nature of many off-the-beaten-path trails and 4×4 roads, fragile tires have no place on a bikepacking rig. The Southwest is notoriously hard on tires, and we insisted that everyone ride tires that have some sort of reinforcement. Despite the razor-sharp limestone chunks of the Coconino Plateau, blocky volcanic rocks on the San Francisco Peaks, and angular sandstone fragments in the Lukachukai Mountains, only one of our collective 18 tires suffered a flat. In this case, durable tires are well worth their added weight.

The end of Geology through Bikepacking is always accompanied by mixed emotions. Wrapping up an endeavor like that with no major mechanicals, no injuries, nor meltdowns is no small feat for any group, so I've breathed many hearty sighs of relief. Knowing that these new bikepackers will embark on their own pedal-powered adventures with well-earned confidence and read the story of the landscape in a new way gives me a great sense of accomplishment. But the antics, collective enthusiasm, and fast-paced learning of the group will be impossible to replicate in any other crew of bikepackers. And we can all take something away from that, even if the antics are irreproducible.