Thursday, July 20, 2017

Bikepacking: The Poop Loop

Bikepacking: The Poop Loop
Sometimes adventure is flying by the seat of your pants, stretching time, letting the wind rip the sail of expectation to shreds, and clearing your spectrum of all blur and clutter. So, when I started bikepacking, the Poop Loop sat in the recesses of my mind. I knew if everything clicked there was a potential for something bigger and longer, like I knew something would have to satiate my drive and wanderlust. 
After 2016's 6.5 months and 6000 miles of hiking----the Sky Islands Traverse, the PCT, and the CDT----a nagging injury attributed to overuse developed over the Winter. My left foot developed plantar fasciitis in two separate places and the pain that blossomed was severe enough to cancel my hiking plans for the Spring and Summer of 2017. Emotionally, after hiking last year, I was drained. The culmination of the physicality of such an endeavor that resulted in the overuse injury, as well as many intestinal issues, simply wore my brain down. After a seemingly careening emotional Winter, eventually I understood that only I have control over my emotions and my situation. So, I decided to experience the outdoors differently, to adventure and enjoy life a different way. 

So, on April 4th, I went down to Aloha Mountain Cyclery in Carbondale and bought a bike. Well, I ordered a bike, and with conversations with the staff, as well as fellow long distance hiker and bikepacker Charlie Day Hiker, I ordered a bike to my specs and a simplicity that would suffice the terrain I would encounter and the knowledge base I had, which was limited. Two weeks later my bike was ready. I quite literally rode the bike twice before even embarking on the AZT. 
I started from the AZT on 5/1 not knowing what to expect. I had dreadful fears of what I would do during maintenance failures or occurrences, like a shredded side wall on a tire, a broken chain, among others. Heck, I didn't even know if I would enjoy bikepacking. However, deep down inside I have a strong belief in my will power and my instincts for long distance human powered travel, so I knew I had a fighter's chance. My experience backpacking and exploring routes in faraway places, and spending countless hours outside are an advantage I have even over the most experienced bikepackers. My gear is very light, I have simple needs, and I have a motor that seemingly doesn't want to stop. All that being said, my goals were one to two days out, keeping them close at hand to not to overstep any boundary until I could confidently assess the adventure, as well as my injured foot. Basically, I had a blank slate. And I could start over at any time----and that time then was now.

Below are stats from the trip, details, as well as gear and tips info, goals and mental transition from backpacking to bikepacking.
  • Route: The Poop Loop

  • Timeframe: 
    • 5/1-7/9
    • 70 days total
    • 9 zero mileage days
    • 61 riding days
  • Mileage:
    • Total: ~5190.5m 
    • ~2688.5m North
    • ~2502m South
    • 74mpd at 70 total days
    • 85mpd at 61 riding days
  • States:
    • AZ: ~869m
    • UT: ~474m
    • NV: ~583m
    • ID: ~745m
    • MT: ~886m
    • WY: ~438.5m
    • CO: ~537.5m
    • NM: ~657.5m
  • Route Details:
    • Using the AZT mountain bike north from the Mexico terminus including a 25m hike across the Grand Canyon; parts of Aquarius Trail, Comstock Epic, Pony Express Trail, my Great Basin Traverse, ICT, Idaho Hot Springs Mtn. Bike Route; plus my own route design going north to Canada border at Roosville MT.
    • Using the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route south while having diversions at a few points to go in and out of towns to visit friends; then depart GDMBR from Silver City NM to cross the Chihuahua Desert and back to the AZT terminus at the Mexico border.

  • Maps and Navigation:
    • Guthook App for the AZT, the mountain bike beta and version.
    • Benchmark Atlas books of each state, excluding the southbound route.
    • Gaia GPS app for uploading GDMBR southbound.
  • Comments on Route creating and Navigation:
    • Benchmark Atlases gave a very good perspective on potential recreation areas and public lands with a surprisingly good scope on little used dirt roads. Couple that with a very familiar and intimate knowledge of the intermountain-desert-basin region I felt confident in finding ways and a route that was little traveled.
    • Because of my extensive experience backpacking and creating new routes I wanted the northbound route to, in a way, be just as wild on a bike as with hiking. This, however, is nigh impossible with the well-thought out wilderness regulations from the Wilderness Act of 1964. So, I couldn't go to the most wild places on a bike, which, I believe is certainly fair with the overall impact on the land and wildlife. I digress, and maybe I'll speak on that topic later on down the line. 
    • I wanted loneliness in a vast region, empty, away from the typical culture of whatever I thought bikepacking was and is, which is to say is the same as my backpacking motivations. So, in essence, my northbound route turned out to be much more difficult than the southbound route consisting of the GDMBR. I won't sugar coat: the GDMBR is hyped up as something way more wild and rough than it actually is. I admit I have a bias, especially after hiking the rugged CDT 2x, as well as not doing the route in a racing fashion, which I am certain would make the route way tougher, but I was surprised at the amount of pavement and the crowds. I think I also didn't like being within a documented route. I wanted my own creativity and instincts to dictate where I went, which I believe creates a more organic experience. To me, I just felt too conforming to actually be on a route that others were on. Maybe it was my state of mind, or because what I had established ethically and personally going northbound, or my experience on other popular and crowded long distance hiking trails where I typically stay away from the herd. Most likely all three influenced my route going both directions.
  • Mountain Bike:
    • Surly Karate Monkey
    • Revelate Design bag systems, including the Sweet Roll Handle Bar Bag, Viscacha Seat Bag, Tangle Frame Bag, Gas Tank Cock Pit Bag, (2x) Mountain Feed Bags
    • DaKine Hydration Pack

  • Gear:
    • See my Gear List for Adventures. I definitely tried to keep my gear simple and use what I already had in place. The idea I had was to keep the mountain bike as simple as possible, to let the bike do all the work while letting this newbie the role to just pedal and hold on. So, with that in mind, my complete set up with the bike, frame bags, and gear, everything weighed between 40-45lbs. Going southbound on the GDMBR I noticed other mountain bikes and riders with huge set-ups, like bags everywhere and tons of non-necessary gear. So, I typically saw set-ups of over 60lbs. At first while going southbound I kept wondering why most were walking their bikes up climbs on decent roads. Then it dawned on me that it was their weight that inhibited them from being efficient, and maybe their overall experience level within the light weight gear culture. I don't know, it actually is whatever floats your boat and I wasn't judging. I really was simply enjoying mashing up the uphills and flying down the downhills while keeping on my bike the whole day. 
    • This, and my light weight, philosophy, in particular from backpacking, translated really well into bikepacking and eased my fears and stress levels when it came to maintenance on the bike. I constantly looked for ways to be more efficient, find multiple uses for gear to limit gear, relied on my efficiency of resupply and self-reliance of going into strange towns to look for items.

  • Tips:
    • When setting up my YAMA Mountain Gear Cirriform 1P tarp I used the handlebars to be the prop-up for the pinnacled lower end of the tarp. I laid down the bike and angled it to be under the apex of the lower end of the tarp. Rather than the usual staking out the two sides first, I staked out one side, then staked out the middle crux. This left the open side adjustable and became easier to roll over the handlebars. I also brought along Gossamer Gear's LT5 trekking pole, which at 5.3oz. double as a functional tool for hiking across the Grand Canyon where bikes aren't allowed, as well as pitching up the higher pinnacle of my tarp. The LT5 fit snugly and out of the way with a Gossamer Gear ThinLight 1/8 inch foam pad on the outside of the Sweet Roll.
    • Quilts make sense on a bikepacking adventure. Katabatic Gear's Palisade 30 worked perfectly and fit ideally into the Sweet Roll. In fact, I had all my camping gear in the Sweet Roll: quilt, tarp, sleeping pad, Montbell Superior Down Jacket, tights, and socks.
    • Unlike in hiking when you think you've got enough food for a stretch of trail, bikepacking is somewhat opposite. I immediately realized this and discarded about a dozen bars and a couple dinners. In actuality, you can hit a restaurant at least once a day, let alone a convenience store of some sort. A few times I even had breakfast, lunch and dinner at restaurants all in one day and still hit the 120m mark.
    • I used a pair of Altra Olympus rather than using a clipless pedal system. Mainly, this was because of my injured foot which couldn't handle the inflexibility within the limited foot movement of the system. However, in the end, I was glad to have a very cushioned shoe to hike-a-bike in during difficult or snow-clad sections of trail, as well as to have something around camp to loaf around in as well as for town to walk around in. Plus, this meant I didn't have to carry or find additional storage space for a pair of shoes. Like in ultralight backpacking I wanted gear that performed two functions.
    • Having a worn experience and comfort level in regards to water really helped me in finding and drinking water. Having hiked in very remote places I have been accustomed to drinking water others would scoff at, as well as having a very sensitive nose for finding water sources and how to use rural tanks. This meant I frequently had less water on my person. In fact, the most I carried was between 4 liters. Depending on temperature and terrain I could attain between 50-60 miles between sources.
    • Keep your gear simple and know your limits and comfort level before going out. A bikepacking set-up has a ton of pockets and moving parts. So, develop a routine for packing to keep things organized and efficient. This saved me headaches when it was cold in the mornings, or wet, or hot in the afternoons, or even in town when I needed items, like a wallet, immediately. Although bikepacking can seem easier than backpacking, the packing of gear and organization of gear is much more simpler while backpacking.
    • Ok, here it goes, 2 nagging questions:
      • What do you like more, bikepacking or backpacking?
        • Ultimately, my heart is in backpacking, however, bikpacking is in my future with ideas of mixed adventures brewing. Certain environments and landscapes lend itself naturally to bikepacking. So, I envision places like Central Asia, South Africa, or Australia to name a few. In the broad scope of both endeavors, I can go farther into places with backpacking. Additionally, I will assess myself emotionally before tackling adventures in the future to see what I need at that time to fulfill me emotionally and physically.
      • Which is harder, bikepacking or backpacking?
        • By far, backpacking is way harder. Now, excluding the 5% when bikpacking can be excruciating slow and hard, bikepacking is just easier. If you get a good bike and set-up the bike does alot of the work for you. Momentum is your very best friend out there on the bike. Indeed, I definitely felt less strain on the body while biking than hiking. There just seems to be less pounding on the body. The bike itself carries more of the weight with gear, food, and water, as well as parts designed to absorb impact such as wheels which lessen overall body impairment. Additionally, my hunger wasn't as ravenous while biking as with hiking, which leads me to believe I burn way more calories on foot than on the saddle. Hiking is constantly moving and putting strain on the body, while bikepacking there are instances where you can rest while the bike is still attaining 10-15mph, like on a long coast of a downhill. Funny observation: the need for showers is greater while biking than hiking, mainly to rid the taint and nether regions of salt and other slimy liquids.

  • Goals and Mindset between Backpacking and Bikepacking:
    • A wonderful complement to bikepacking is the mental shift from drifting in thought at 3mph while backpacking to focusing 30ft in front of you. It's like this: I needed something to get my mind of my nagging foot injury. With riding a big bike, not only did my foot not hurt, but I couldn't drown in my emotional thought process that had been plaguing me over the Winter. If I drifted in my mind too far while riding the consequences of crashing became really real. I had to maintain a focus that was present in the fleeting and changing moment. 
    • Bikepacking seemed less poetic than backpacking. I felt like I was able to work really hard all day, like a long workout, and pedal things and emotions into the ground. The more I kept pedaling the more freer I felt from the emotional strain of the injury that had been nagging me. At times, I felt like a warrior flying on a strong magical horse across an open landscape with the roaring wind and going into some invisible battle.
    • Timing. This took some adjustment in comprehending. So much so, I am still constantly amazed at how far you can travel, how quickly, on a mountain bike. At times, especially in the beginning of this adventure, I became exhausted and 60m seemed a world away. But because you had to keep that 30ft vision along with the aid of wind or a downhill, 60m would come in a flash. I remember this astonishing feeling bringing a smile to my face. Sometimes while backpacking you can get bombarded or bogged down by mileage of what's ahead or what you are averaging. With bikepacking things flow quicker and a 100m goes in a snap as opposed to a lingering 3-6 days backpacking. I mean, I basically did the same mileage of the PCT and CDT, 173 days combined in one year, in half the time on a mountain bike, 71 days. Still unfathomable to me as I write this.
    • As when backpacking is tediously slow with involved and challenging terrain, bikepacking can be even more so. Hike-a-biking may be one of the most excruciating and exhausting exercises out there, especially in hot temperatures and very rugged and hilly terrain. So, at times when bikepacking lent a powerful and quick way of travel, the opposite would occur. Most of the times with hiking you can float between a 2-4mph range, even in very challenging terrain. With bikepacking the range is huge, maybe even going from 5-6mph to 30mph. I saw with some instances of hike-a-biking I averaged and toiled 2mph.
    • I struggled with my senses not being as sensitive or heightened while bikepacking as is common while hiking. The roar of the wind and the speed of travel dims and filters out the smaller noises: the rustlings and rufflings, the birdcalls, a trickle of water, a scurry in a leafy pile and thicket. Eventually, I just accepted the newer way with bikepacking and, as with everything after some practice, everything slowed down. I heard the smaller noises, maybe not with as much volume and clarity, but I still did and my brain began to comprehend what I was hearing.
    • The bikepacking scene is very similar to the backpacking scene, especially within the herd. However, I did notice a more social presence and forced interaction with non-bikepacking people. I think for a couple reasons: riding a bike is more relate-able to people than backpacking, and the ability to hit towns, even multiple towns, every day. Now, when I venture out on a personal mission having alone time, isolation, and solitude is very important for me. I saw some attitudinal traits within me come out differently while bikepacking. Frankly, the amount of people interaction was a bit too much for me in those shorter gaps between towns. Usually while backpacking I relish the 3-6 days of being out while the excitement for social interactions and town days only grow. With bikepacking I didn't have time to process one town visit before I was even in another town. To say I was grumpy or even more elusive and aloof on some town visits while bikpacking is an understatement. My favorite times were the alone times, just me and my bike in an enormous landscape with no one around.

  • Highlights:
    • The Great Basin, from western Utah to Nevada. Epic, vast, and lonesome landscape great for bikepacking. I also rode with Snot, a fellow long distance hiker and maniac, in Nevada for some 250m. In a lot of ways I wish he kept riding with me. I truly enjoyed his company.
    • Friends: Li Brannfors at the Grand Canyon, Steve Roberts in Escalante UT, Cliff and then Ory in Montana, Disco and POD in Salida CO, Roger for an awesome encounter in Cuba NM, and Sirena in and around the Tucson AZ area including the Poop Loop southern terminus.
    • Wildlife: the large wild horse herds in the Great Basin, the dodging of elk at dusk in the high plains in NM, the grizzly bear I spooked in the Swan River Range in MT, the 2 mountain lions laying in the dirt road directly in front of me 45m south of Steamboat Springs CO.
    • Elk River ID. I spent my 40th birthday here. The locals treated me kindly with cold beer, elk steak, root beer moonshine, and riding ATVs under a full moon. Then, a day later I unexpectedly rode from Idaho into Montana under the Bitteroot Divide through an old railroad tunnel about 2m long.
    • The flow of the ride, all of it.
  • Thanks:
    • Gossamer Gear, Katabatic Gear, YAMA Mountain Gear
    • Bike shops along the way for all the knowledge they lent me: Bristlecone Bikes in Elko, The Garage in Helena, SubCulture Cyclery in Salida, and Aloha Mountain Cyclery in Carbondale for the dope build.


  1. Very impressive! In my 20s I did several long bike trips (road touring). Across the US I carried about 45lbs. In South America, 65lbs. In Eastern Europe, maybe 50. Now I wonder what the heck all I was carrying. Of course, in the 80s I hadn't yet heard of pepsi can stoves, etc. and the nylon was a lot heavier. Applying UL backpacking thinking to biking is a great thing to do, and I hope your philosophy spreads!

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  3. I ride bikes. A lot. I love making my own routes. I don't have a blog, even though I've been told I should - especially to get sponsorship. I just want to find routes and ride them. My friend Cliff Kipp gave me your link - and I love what you're doing.
    Even though I don't have a blog, I have written about my experiences - that always transcend from the physical to the emotional or psychological.
    I love these passages on your realizations, because I too have experienced these exact emotions:
    1.) "I had to maintain a focus that was present in the fleeting and changing moment.

    2.)"... I felt like I was able to work really hard all day, like a long workout, and pedal things and emotions into the ground. The more I kept pedaling the more freer I felt from the emotional strain of the injury that had been nagging me. At times, I felt like a warrior flying on a strong magical horse across an open landscape with the roaring wind and going into some invisible battle."

    I also used to ride horses - and they made me feel similar emotions.

    Anyway, I'm sorry an injury drove you to the bike, but I'm happy to hear you got to do it. And of course am so delighted I'm not the only one to experience the freedom, and the present and fleeting focus.

    Adventure on!
    Zana Faulkner
    Kalispell, MT

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