Words by Graham Averill
Photos by Aaron Teasdale
THERE’S A PICTURE OF CASEY GREENE FLOATING AROUND THE internet that looks a little ridiculous. He’s walking up rocky singletrack through an evergreen forest toting a big red backpack. A disassembled bike is strapped to that backpack, and there’s a raft rolled up and strapped to the top of the bike. A neon-green trucker’s cap is hooked to one of the wheels, adding a bit of color. It’s all so very “Beverly Hillbillies,” in an adventurous, “What the hell is he doing?” sort of way.
Backpack, singlespeed, pack raft, sometimes an ice axe and crampons–these are the key items that Greene takes on multi-day mountain bike trips. Greene, 33, is a cartographer for the Adventure Cycling Association, a nonprofit that promotes bike travel. When he’s not mapping new routes for the ACA, he’s pioneering a new discipline of mountain biking he calls “packbiking.” Forget hanging your bags on your bike, á la bikepacking. In this version, Greene straps the bike itself to his back when he encounters terrain he can’t ride, like a glacier or a steep rock climb. In his mind, the ride doesn’t have to stop just because the trail stops.
“I’m not just a mountain biker,” Greene said from his home in Missoula, Montana. “I love mountain biking. But I also love back- packing and climbing and paddling.”
Packbiking is Greene’s ingenious way of combining all of his passions into one seamless, human-powered trip. Last summer, he packbiked Tobacco Roots, a daunting, 10,000-foot-high divide that’s flanked by snow cornices. He and his cohort rode until they couldn’t ride anymore, then post-holed through the snow with their disassembled bikes on their backs as they gained elevation. After navigating cornices and climbing scree-filled slopes, they had the chance to ride isolated, high-elevation singletrack that led to a bomber descent to a remote lake. On another trip, Greene rode from his house in Missoula to the boundary of Rattlesnake Wilderness, hiked his bike through the federally protected area, then continued his ride on the other side.
Greene credits his inspiration to an article he read in National Geographic in the late ’90s that detailed a three-man traverse of part of the Alaska Range using bikes and packrafts. They spent a lot of time shouldering their bikes and called it “hellbiking.”
“I liked the style of that trip, but I wanted to see if a different approach could be used, where carrying the bike didn’t suck. So I decided to strap it to my backpack,” Greene said. “And packbiking was born.”
Packbiking is tailor-made for Montana, which has a lot of federally designated Wilderness and snow that lingers in the high country until well into July. In other words, Montana has a lot of land you can’t ride on a mountain bike.
“There are so many sick trails that head into Wilderness areas, but mountain bikers have to stop at the boundary. Put a bike on your back and you don’t have to stop,” Greene said. “Is it technically still illegal? Maybe.”
According to the Wilderness Act, it’s illegal to be in possession of a bicycle within a Wilderness area, but Greene posits an interesting question: “If that bicycle is disassembled, is it still a bicycle? Or is it a bunch of bicycle parts?”
After some trial and error (Read: Don’t strap any part of the bike to your forehead), Greene has dialed in that bunch of bicycle parts. He uses a rigid, titanium GT singlespeed circa ’97 that weighs a svelte 19 pounds. He can break it down on the trail into packable parts and have it on his back in less than 15 minutes, using a backcountry ski pack with ice-axe loops.
“It’s really not that much of a pain in the ass,” he said. “I tell people about these trips, and it’s like there’s a mental block. They can’t fathom carrying the bike on their back. But it’s only 40 pounds of total weight. A lot of backpackers carry heavier packs.”
Greene’s first packbiking trip was a solo overnighter into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. He rode 30 miles from his house to the trailhead, pedaled 3 miles up singletrack to the Wilderness boundary, then packbiked 10 miles up to a remote lake where he watched avalanches tumble down a distant slope. The next day was 12 miles of hiking, 5 miles of downhill singletrack, then 30 miles back to Missoula.
“When I first started riding bicycles as a kid, I wondered if I could ride across town. Then I did it, and I thought, ‘Can I ride to the next town?’” Greene said. “These trips are an extension of that childlike curiosity. Can I do this?”
With so many moving parts and logistical considerations, so much can go wrong on a packbiking trip, but Greene claims the risk is nothing compared to the reward: cherry singletrack that rarely sees rubber.
“You get to go to places where nobody else is riding–trails that people don’t go to because they’re so far out there, so isolated by snow or regulations.”
He’s eyeballing a big trip into the Northern Rockies that would span Glacier National Park in the States, Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada and the Castle River Drainage to the north, which has identical terrain to Glacier and Waterton, but trails that are open to mountain biking.
“Trails around town are fun,” Greene said. “But this sort of remote riding is what excites me. This is on the edge for me.”