October 13, 2010
For decades, climbers and backpackers have embraced “ultralight” as a strategy for moving faster and farther on difficult terrain.
And while cyclists are constantly trying to shave grams, bicycle travelers have been much slower to jump on the lightweight bandwagon. This could be because many of us don’t really care that our extra-large air mattresses and portable espresso makers are slowing us down on the hills when it means a comfy night’s sleep and energized morning. But for others, the image of a loaded cyclist laboring up a hill, face strained beyond recognition beneath the weight of four bulging panniers and a trailer, is daunting enough to discourage the idea of a multi-day ride. Add technical terrain, such as singletrack trails, rocky jeep roads, and muddy logging routes to the mix, and it’s no wonder that mountain biking has long been a single-day affair.
That’s all changing with the growing trend of “bikepacking,” whose enthusiasts understand that one can’t clear the gnarly stuff with a trailer swinging from their rear wheel, but they can pare their belongings down to a manageable size. Bikepackers have taken all of the classic ultralight camping gear that backpackers have long used, and developed bike-fitted bags that maximize space while minimizing profile. The end result is an overnight kit that’s hardly more bulky than some of the packs day riders often use, but allow mountain bikers to extend their trail rides days and even weeks at a time.
In the coming weeks, this column will explore bikes, gear, tips and trails for the ultimate bikepacking experience. The obvious place to start is the ever-present question: “Which bike should I use?” The simplest answer is “your bike.” Bikepacking doesn’t require a particular type of mountain bike, at least not in the same way road touring usually calls for a “touring bicycle.” Any bike designed for off-road and trail use can be taken on an overnight off-road and trail trip. Most mountain bikes are sturdy enough to handle larger loads, and already have comfortable geometry for longer rides. While hardtail mountain bikes offer more versatility of space (and a few less parts to potentially destroy), even full-suspension bikes can make room for camping gear.
Marshall Bird of Woodland Park, Colorado, has a few tips for what makes the best multi-day bike from a “purely practical point of view.” Bird is an veteran mountain bike traveler, with experience on both the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route and the singletrack-heavy Colorado Trail. Here are Bird’s tips:
Wheel size: “29 inches. A shallower angle of attack has many benefits for the multi-day rider. It smooths out the bumps more than a smaller wheel, works better in the sand and a 29er in the front means a tired rider is less likely to 'endo' on steep descents with large drop-offs.”
Tires: “It’s a personal choice but should be suitable for the chosen route and should be run tubeless to avoid wasted time with unnecessary flats.”
Frame material: “Titanium is best because it is: 1) Durable; 2) Has the best damping characteristics; 3) Light. No other material can offer all three; steel comes in second.”
Frame design: “Hardtail (or soft tail) with full main triangle. A full main triangle allows for a full frame bag or a large bag plus a water bottle. This is important to the multi-day rider so as to remove as much weight as possible from the backpack and also to ensure good weight distribution and handling.”
Front Suspension: “There is no technical or ‘reliability’ reason to use a rigid fork with today’s offerings of durable, lightweight front suspension forks.”
Drivetrain: “Standard 9-speed in the rear, with one, two or three rings in the front depending on intended multi-day route.”