I've always enjoyed a bit of mountain biking but despite being an avid outdoors-woman it had never occurred to me to mix my love of hiking with the sport. When I first heard the term bikepacking I thought of all of those sad looking people I saw on the highway through to Arthurs Pass, struggling in the wind and rain to push their bikes, laden with panniers, to some undisclosed location. I've never been one for road cycling so I couldn't think of anything more miserable to be honest. Then a while back I came across a blog by Mark Watson of Highlux Photography fame (a beautifully curated photo blog following his path from Alaska to Patagonia) and it got me all intrigued about the idea of multi-day, off the beaten track expeditions by bike. Since then we've dabbled in a few adventures of our own and learned a thing or two about what makes the art of bikepacking pretty darn cool.
Still not sure what this is all about? In a nutshell, bikepacking is a combination of trail riding and lightweight, minimal camping. It allows you to cover much bigger distances than you might do on foot and enjoy riding in areas that are can't be reached in a single day of biking. The terrain might range from reasonably technical single track right through to forest trails and 4WD tracks. The best thing about it is you don't have to run out and buy a bunch of really specific bike packing gear, as long as you have a bike (that bit's pretty important) you can adapt your current hiking kit to suit riding instead. Alternatively, if you want to dive right in, wallet first, there are a plethora of awesome brands out there making seat packs, frame bags and handlebar bags so if nothing else, you'll at least look the part!
STEP ONE: WHERE AM I GOING?
It's all very well saying you've become a bikepacking machine but finding the right trip for you may be the difference between Instagram glory and a miserable weekend away. If your'e a confident rider then look for tracks that will challenge you enough to be fun but allow you to still maneuver with the added weight of your camping gear either on your back or attached to your bike. If you're less technically able like myself but have a good level of fitness then choose a 4WD track or forest track that will be easier to ride on but still get you to some super good looking wilderness. If you're not used to riding for 6 hours then I wouldn't recommend making your days that long unless you don't mid a seriously sore butt the next day!
From Christchurch I would recommend the following:
For the Purist: The Old Ghost Road - 84km of Grade 4 Advanced biking with 5 bookable huts along the way. The logistics are a little more involved as this is a one way trip but you'll be rewarded with incredible views (unless it's raining) and a pretty good yarn to tell your mates when you get back.
For the Weekend Warrior: The St James Cycle Trail - 64km over 2 days of mostly intermediate riding. The weather in this part of the country can change dramatically in a small space of time so be prepared for anything including snow. There are several huts along the way with great camping spots at each to set up a tent if needed. As a bonus when you get to the ed it's a 20 min drive back to Hanmer Springs for a soak in the Hot Pools and/or a cold beer.
For the Newbie: The Hakatere Conservation Area - Mostly Grade 2 biking across a wide expanse of land littered with tracks and huts. Head into Manuka Hut via the Stour River or Boundary Creek Hut from Buicks Bridge (add in a side trip to Mystery Lake if you like punishing climbs!). Connect up several huts for longer days in the area or keep it short and sharp the options are endless.
STEP TWO: WHAT DO I TAKE?
So you've got a bike and helmet but what else are you going to need to make it in this new world of bike hiking? As a general rule go as light as possible without skimping on safety and without rushing out to buy new lightweight gear (unless that's what you really want to do!). The old adage to "beg, borrow or steal" is a good place to start and even now I still operate on a communal gear supply within our extended family depending on what I need for a trip. Let's start by breaking down your bike gear vs your camping gear.
A bike that can handle the terrain you plan to ride on. It doesn't need to be fancy but if in doubt get it serviced at your local bike shop before you take it miles into the wilderness.
Helmet and Gloves - If you can get hold of some padded bike shorts these will make a huge difference also!
Basic Repair Kit - Tyre levers, set of Allen keys, patch repair kit, chain breaker with missing link, spare tyre tubes (preferably learn how to change a tyre before you leave)
Any packs/bags you plan on attaching to your bike
Lightweight Tent Solution - I take a tarp like the one above as it packs down small and weighs next to nothing but any small tent will suffice. A second tarp to sleep on is a good idea if you think the ground will be wet.
Sleeping Bag (go small and light but still warm enough for the conditions)
Sleeping Mat - you can lose a little weight by using a short mat and stuff your pack or a dry bag under your feet
Stove, Pot and Gas - You're probably going to be eating freeze dried food due to the weight restrictions so you'll only need a set up big enough to boil 2 cup of water
Spork - eat straight out of the bag or your cooking pot to save space rather than bringing a plate
Along with food and clothing, you should be able to fit the above in a backpack of around 25l if that's your only option. If you can attach some of your gear to your bike with compression straps, bungee cords or similar, then you will be much more comfortable riding and you can substitute the bigger pack for a smaller hydration pack or none at all.
Don't forget to add in appropriate personal gear and a first aid kit + Locator Beacon if you have one.
STEP THREE: WHAT DO I DO?
Planning a bikepacking trip is not dissimilar to a hiking/tramping trip although you may want to take a few things into consideration. Bike fitness is different to walking fitness so if you're not sure of your ability plan a trip that's slightly shorter or easier than what you think you can do. That first trip will be a good gauge for what you're capable of and more importantly what you're going to enjoy in future!
Before you go:
- Most importantly, let someone know where you're going and when you intend to return - just like a hiking trip.
- Check the weather. Riding in the rain can be dangerous especially if you're a novice and tracks can become muddy and difficult to negotiate. Make sure you have enough warm gear and a change of clothes for the end of each day.
- Make sure you've got some way to transport your bike to the start of the track and a pick up option if you're not coming back the same way.
- Check you have enough food and snacks to last the trip as well as some emergency rations in case you get caught out for an extra night.
- Get your bike checked out by a mechanic or if it's already had a recent service make sure the chain is lubed and your tyres are pumped up.
- Rethink packing any of those luxury items you might normally walk with, they'll feel twice as heavy especially if you're carrying them in a backpack
On yer Bike:
- Riding with the added weight of camping gear will slow you down and make it harder to maneuver your bike. You will also use more energy as your whole set up will be heavier and harder to get uphill. Allow yourself extra time and plenty of rest stops when you need them.
- Drink lots. It's easy to forget to drink water when you need to stop and get the bottle off your bike (if you're like me and can't ride on uneven trails one handed) so schedule regular breaks and fill up whenever possible. Even better, if you know this might be an issue grab a hydration bladder that you can sip away at hands free while you demolish those trails.
- Enjoy waving to all of the walkers as you cruise effortlessly passed them in a cloud of dust and superiority.
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