As a 25-year resident of Colorado (and someone whose passion for getting outside started in the mid-Atlantic region in the 70’s and 80’s), there are few activities that have not been woven into my life. Be it rock and ice climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, backcountry skiing, fly fishing, camping, etc…there is not enough time in the day (or in the year for that matter) to tackle all that our hearts desire. And speaking of hearts, I had a rather gigantic health scare last year when some routine exams following a yearly physical revealed potentially deadly blockages building up in my arteries that left untreated, likely would have killed me. In April of 2022, at the age of 48, I had a quadruple bypass surgery and set my sights on bouncing back into a life of adventure ASAP. A good buddy of mine proposed the idea of a surgery-versary trip…looking out one year from the surgery and marking the occasion and comeback with a trip.
Gathering a group
Bikepacking was something that had been gaining steam in my circles of outdoor friends and we thought, really, how hard could it be? We’d all tackled big days on the bike, we’ve camped, we’ve backpacked, and that all rolled into one weekend trip sounded amazing. About 9 months following my surgery and clearly back to 100% (maybe better than pre-bypass) we locked in the weekend, the plans, and all started collectively geeking out on the routes, the gear, the food options (and water) we’d need to complete our journey.
Picking a route
Shout out to bikepacking.com as a resource for us newbies, looking for solutions for first-time bikepackers to avoid costly upgrades and ensure we had the right kit, the route info we needed, and a bevy of resources linked off the site to point us in the right direction for our first foray into bikepacking.
With a group of riders from SoCal to Reno to Salt Lake to the Boulder area all looking for a solid 2-3 trip to test the waters of this new activity and offer semi-equidistant approaches, we landed on A Swell Night Out. A proposed 2-3 day, 70 mile excursion with 8,000’ of climbing through the beautiful San Rafael Swell in Utah.
The weight of water
One unique variable on this trip was water. The one source, Muddy Creek, was deemed unreliable, and the site suggested leaving prepared to do the whole trip w/o a resupply. For 2-3 days that meant leaving the trailhead with 11 liters (that’s about 23 pounds) of water, camping gear and food. Setting out from the trailhead, I estimate I had 40 pounds on the bike and my back.
Building my pack
My setup ended up being the following:
- Bike - Canyon Spectral 29’er
- 2 main bags
- Handlebar bag containing 35-degree down sleeping bag, ground cloth, some food, and supplies
- This was secured to the handlebars with 2 x 6” Nite Ize CamJam Straps – These offer good compression, are easy to adjust, and afforded more tail end should I need to lash something else along the way
- Seat bag containing sleeping pad, food, clothes and camp sandals
- Top Tube Bag
- Topeak Midloader Bag
- 3L Hydrapak Seeker
- 2 x 18” Nite Ize GearPro Straps to help hold this bag and load steady on my top tube
- 2 x 32oz Nalgene in handlebar mounted soft holsters (these were great as they had lots of mesh storage for an endless supply of snacks on the fly too)
- 20L Mountainsmith Zerk Pack – This included:
- Bike tools/repair kit/tubes (kit was held together with 18” Nite Ize Gear Tie)
- Food (this pack has an ultrarun type harness for easy access to snacks)
- 3L HydraPak Bladder
- 2 x 24 oz bottles (one with more water, one with cold brew coffee)
- A variety of Nite Ize RunOff Waterproof Bags for electronic and toiletry carry – including the RunOff Small Travel Pouch and RunOff 3-1-1 Pouch
- Problem Solvers Bow Tie: These aftermarket brackets allowed for easy lashing of an extra 32oz. bottle to the down tube with 2 x 12” GearPro Straps
Practice makes perfect
In the weeks leading up to the trip, I got in 2-3 rides with the almost-complete kit on the bike to test how it handled all the extra weight, as well the security of all the gear on the frame and pack. I am happy to report that except for some minor adjustments and periodic tightening following long, bumpy descents, the set up was amazing despite the crazy amount of weight it added.
We banged the trip out in 2 vs. the intended 3 days as we were all running dry and underestimated how much water we might need on the trip. The one filterable source was surrounded by cow patties and even with good filter systems, we felt uneasy about drinking from the source. Some friendly ATV and overland camping folks we stopped and chatted with along the way topped off a couple bottles here and there and got us to the finish line after a roughly 40-mile day one and 30-mile day 2.
Ready for more
Getting to see 70 miles of the San Rafael Swell from the saddle in just two days was an unforgettable experience. The intimacy with the terrain, the real immersion into this geologic wonder of this area, and the literal ups and downs of the varied tread from smooth gravel roads to 4WD roads to technical ATV trails made for a unbelievably challenging and rewarding experience. The crew on this trip is already plotting another adventure, knowing what we’d do the same (and differently), the types of improvements to the bag systems we’d seek, and what we did not need in our packs vs. what we wish we’d had.
I loved the challenge of researching the route, vetting the gear options, test-running various set ups, and seeing how you can cobble together the needed gear to turn your everyday ride into a bikepacking machine—especially with a little help from some killer Nite Ize load management solutions.
This was an adventure to remember and a great way to celebrate my surgery-versary! I hope my story shows that with the right motivation, research, and a little help from friends, bikepacking is definitely worth the ride. Good luck on your journey!