Based in Jackson, Wyoming, canceled plans to visit family in New England this summer, and the tendency to say, “Hey, I can do that,” coincided to create a perfect window to give bikepacking a try. I originally wrote this article for our local bike shop in Jackson Hole - a trade for some gear they let us borrow. In editing it for the North Star Monthly, I came across the Super 8, a 640-mile gravel bikepacking route in the shape of an 8 through Vermont, and the Green Mountain Gravel Growler, 248 miles connecting 13 breweries across the state. While the Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route is a good addition to any bucket list, those two routes surely deserve a spot too.
I went on my first bikepacking trip this summer. For nine days my husband, Brendan Levine, and I followed Adventure Cycling Association’s Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route. We rode 517 miles primarily following gravel roads, climbing 46,000 feet, and passing by 42 hot springs. We swam in the South Fork of the Salmon River and Middle Fork of the Payette, camped every night, and were on our bikes from 7:45 a.m. until 7, 8 and one time 9 p.m. (sorry, Brendan).
We averaged just under 60 miles and just over 5,000 feet a day. Admittedly, the glamor of 42 hot springs outshone the reality of the elevation profile. This trip was harder than we expected.
Don’t read that as a lack of planning, though. We dug deep into trip reports and blogs; we spent hours picking the brains of our favorite bike shop staff. What follows is a list of what we were grateful to have known and what we learned, applicable to anyone on their first trip. While photos are meant to be inspirational - the route was stunning - the ultimate message is to get out there: strap your sleeping bag, stove, and tent to your bike (that’s all it is!) and give bikepacking a try.
The best bike is the one you have. We rode gravel bikes, Salsa Warbirds. Of 517 miles, there were two downhills and 25 miles of washboards where I wished for something cushier. However, what we lost in feeling in our hands, we made up for in efficiency. I imagine folks with suspension would have a similar short list of sections they would have traded for bikes like ours. Whatever you have will surely work.
Put the widest tire you can fit on it (not to be confused with “the widest tire you have”). I rode 700x37; Brendan, 700x42. His ride was less squirrely around some sandy switchbacks but given the loads we were carrying and variable road conditions, both of us would have felt more stable had we invested in wider tires.
There are bags designed for this sport. You want them.
You’ll find blogs that encourage you to DIY your gear setup with drybags and a couple of ski straps. As someone reluctant to buy gear for one more sport, I almost fell for it, but there’s enough potential for equipment failure on a bikepacking trip. Manage the risk and you can enjoy velcro and buckles that snuggly fit your bag to your bike.
The most overwhelming part of the preparation for me was the packing puzzle. Bikepacking bags are handy but they’re designed to fit your frame which makes for serious space constraints. When we left our truck in Ketchum, Idaho, we were carrying food for four days, our bulkiest load (we knew we’d hit towns every two to three days for groceries after that). It took us two days of practice in the basement to identify and find space for the critical items (stove, fuel, Starbucks instant coffee), what we could make fit (third pair of socks, second flask of whiskey, smashed Kettle chips in a plastic bag), and what had to be left behind (that extra avocado).
It’s a wilderness trip - as much as you want it to be.
Bikepacking allows you access to remote, beautiful landscape faster than backpacking - with the added luxury of quick detours through town when you need them. Especially with food, this allows for flexibility (you only have to carry what’s necessary to make it to the next town). The same could be said for lodging if you wanted a break from camping, I suppose.
While it was tempting to cruise by towns with miles to go each day, the meeting of wilderness and small communities are what make bikepacking (and this trip) special. A campground host we chatted up cooked us bacon and eggs for breakfast; we befriended a pack of dirt bikers who gave us the tastiest warm beer of my life; we ate delicious tater tots and got spot-on route advice from the owner of the quirky (visit, then send me a more accurate adjective) Featherville Cafe.
Embrace the pace
Our second morning, eating breakfast at the Stanley Bakery, the owner asked us how our trip was. “My friends tell me bikepacking is fun,” he said, “as long as you’re OK with how slow it is.” On any day, accounting for all reasons to stop (checking the map, filtering water, taking off layers, tying down flip flops, lubing chains - all activities that never took us far from our bikes), we averaged 6 miles an hour. Bikepacking is slow.
But the great thing about bikepacking is that biking was all we did. We learned quickly to camp at the base of a big climb which made our routine for nine days look like: wake up, pack up, ride uphill, ride downhill, ride more, set up camp, go to sleep. It was methodical and meditative which brings me to the most important point:
I’ve been beating myself up for how I’ve spent my COVID time. I haven’t made sourdough, my house is no cleaner than usual, rather than facing anxieties I’ve only discovered new ones. This trip was a perfect response. I thought about nothing but what I was doing: the potholes in front of me, whether I wanted a snack, how I could adjust myself on my seat to be comfier. Brendan claims the one time his mind wandered was the one time he fell off his bike. We fully checked out, were fully focused on the present, and it left us so tired there was hardly any energy left to talk when we rolled into camp. I brought a notebook to write down all the good thoughts I was sure to have - it came back empty. But so did my mind. It was me and my bike for nine days and I felt so refreshed when I got home.
You don’t need nine days or the enthusiasm for a route like ours to get a taste of bikepacking. That’s unnecessary. You could make an overnight out of a ride to Groton State Park, connect campgrounds along some of Vermont’s Rail Trails, or ride to two or three of those breweries on the Gravel Growler and get a buddy to drive you home. Whatever your route, my message is the same: getting out to spend a night or two or nine on your bike is doable - and worth doing.
Emily Hoffer is a graduate of Danville High School and the daughter of Terry and Kathy Hoffer. She now lives in Jackson, WY and works as a school counselor at Jackson Hole High School.