Skeeno’s Bikepacking Experience
Words and Photos by Matt ‘Skeeno’ Soileau
Lots of us enjoy Axial products. For some reason, we also enjoy other outdoor adventure activities. For me, and other Axial staffers, bicycles and camping are two of our other interests. Most of the time, I take my Axial SCX10s and mountain bike with me on a camping trip and do a little scaling and riding whilst at a campground. A couple years ago I tried bikepacking after stumbling upon some posts about it on mtbr.com.
You may be asking yourself, what is bikepacking? Bikepacking is a combination of camping and bicycling. There are many variants of bicycle camping from road touring to mountain bike bikepacking. I gravitated towards bikepacking because I love mountain bikes and I love the cool gadgets that go along with lightweight backpack camping.
After researching as much as I could, I decided to give a bikepacking trip a go. I easily roped in my good friend, Mike, to accompany me on this journey. My riding buddy and I started to prepare by sorting through our collections of mountain bike parts and camping supplies. What we didn’t already have, we acquired. We didn’t want to spend too much money on bikepacking, in case we decided it wasn’t for us on our first trip, so economy was major decision making factor while gathering our supplies.
First up was a steed to ride. We both had hard tail mountain bikes, so that’s where we started. Mine was a little old and definitely shaky. I started with new tires and a tune up to make sure the brakes and shifters were working properly. Once they were, the next step was to make sure the gearing would suffice for our trip. Our first bikepack was up near Lake Tahoe, so I needed some low gearing to make sure I could spin the climbs. Luckily, I had the parts to create the lowest gearing combo on my 26″ wheeled bike, 22/36. My legs and lungs would be my limiting factor.
The second order of business was to collect camping gear. With the help from some local connections, I was able to get some steep discounts on some budget brand backpacking supplies. I got hooked up with a Eureka Solitaire one man tent and a Teton Sports Trail head sleeping bag, both solid, but not Gucci, choices; and I got both for under $100.
I also needed a way to heat up my Mountain House meals. I decided to try making some alcohol stoves out of old beer/soda cans, practically free and simple to build. Testing the stoves was also fun, as I compared various designs to determine the easiest and most efficient to use.
Last order of business was figuring out a way to get all my camping gear on my bike. Some bikepackers are pretty hardcore about weight and bring only minimal supplies such as a tarp to sleep under at night. Since we are a bit glampy when it comes to camping, I had quite a bit of stuff to load. I decided to try out a frame bag. That’s a bag that goes into the frame of your bike. These cost around $150+ from cottage companies such as RockGeist, Porcelain Rocket, and Relevate Designs. I decided to go a cheaper route and enlisted Grandma to do some sewing.
First, I made a pattern for Grandma to follow.
Then, I bought some fabric supplies and Grandma worked her magic. She even made one for Mike.
For well under $20, it was great result. Definitely not as sturdy and fancy as the retail choices, but absolutely serviceable.
I ended up finding a rear rack and pannier bag set on sale at REI for 33% off, so I splurged.
Then, it was off to Harbor Freight for a $10 pad. Had to cut it down a bit, as it was a little long.
I loaded up all my supplies and did some test rides around the hills behind my house to make sure everything would stay fastened during our rapidly approaching real ride.
Once we were prepared as best we could, we headed out on our first overnighter. Some people call these S24O, or sub 24 hour overnighters. With our bikes fully loaded, I soon learned that the weight adds up quickly. I never weighed my bike, but it was very heavy fully loaded. I would guess over 60 pounds, probably closer to 70.
Our destination was a back country campground above Lake Tahoe and Marlette Lake. We found this campground a few week prior on a ride along the Tahoe Rim Trail. I quickly discovered that my legs and lungs were not prepared for the miles of steep sandy climbs.
The ride up to Marlette Lake was only four miles, but humbling. I had to push quite a bit up that climb. At this moment I decided it was time to get serious about my bicycling cardio and leg strength.
I jumped in to get a little refreshment. Marlette is even colder than Tahoe. It woke me up and got me steeled for next half of the climb.
The ride into the single track was prettier and much more fun that that sandy fire road.
Lucky for me, the second part was easier than the first. I was able to make it up to the campground with a little energy left.
The sign at the campground did not inspire confidence. Luckily, I brought some bear spray. I hoped that it would work on mountain lions. Mostly, I prayed that I didn’t need it.
Once off the bike, I changed out of my sweaty riding clothes and into some fresh coverings.
Then, we got to work setting up our campsite. See the green bear box. I think that helped keep the bears away since no accessible food makes for an unfruitful hunt.
Water is one thing that you need to make sure you have access to on a bikepack or you will have to carry it in. And at 8lbs/gallon, it’s not light.
We had this water pump to access water at the top of the mountain. We were also blessed by swarms of bees that flew out of their hive every time we pumped it. Luckily, they were not aggressive.
My homemade alcohol stove worked great even up here at elevation.
I had my favorite Mountain House meal ready to go in no time. Louisiana Style Rice, Mmmm. It’s amazing how wonderfully good these meals are when you are hungry.
Of course, you gotta have dessert. First lesson of dehydrated meals, get a long handled spoon. This shorty LightMyFire spork got the job done, but I had to lick my fingers clean.
On this first night of bikepacking, I learned that a Harbor Freight foam pad is worse than sleeping on concrete. I highly suggest investing in a high quality inflatable mattress, especially if you are a side sleeper. I’ve got a Big Agnes air mattress now and sleep like a baby.
After a little morning breakfast, we packed up and prepared for the ride back to the car.
The ride back was easy, since we mostly coasted back down the mountain. Our first bikepack was a success. We wanted to go again, but first I needed to make some adjustments to my camping kit, because this first trip taught me many things, so many things have changed since that first trip.
One thing it taught me was that I wanted some new bike parts. Since this first trip, I’ve changed lots of parts on my bikepacking steed. It now has a different fork, wheels, tires, brakes, front derailleur, stem, handlebar, saddle, crank set, and bags. Most of these parts were swapped to reduce the weight of my bike, but comfort and reliability were also factors in my choice of parts.
This is what my bike looked like on its second outing.
I also bought a new tent. The Solitaire worked fine, but I wanted to be able to sit up in the tent. This Spitfire is ultralight, and it was less than $50 on the Eureka Outlet. But it requires stakes, so I’m currently on the lookout for a deal on a freestanding tent. I also got that REI backpacking chair. It’s a 1.5lb weight penalty, but well worth it to sit in a proper chair at the end of the day. Like I said, we’re a little on the glampy side. We’d rather suffer the weight penalty than sit and sleep in the dirt. If you try bikepacking, these are all decisions that you make for yourself.
I got Grandma back on the sewing machine making new sleeping bag and tent bags.
And, I also swapped the rear rack and pannier bag for a lighter seat pack set up. Seatpacks are just as expensive as framebags. I sourced a seatpack from Uraltour.com, a couple from Russia. It took a few weeks for delivery, but the price was 1/3 of my retail choices. But, with bikepacking gaining popularity, companies such as Blackburn and Giant have started producing some budget friendly options. The benefit of going with a cottage manufacturer like the ones mentioned earlier is that you can have the bags customized to fit your bike and needs perfectly. With the less expensive options, there are some compromises you have to live with.
Mike decided to take some sewing lessons from Grandma.
He made these great feed bags for our handlebars. I’ve got some on both of my bikes. He’s also begun making some new bags for his bike.
We also started to use Google maps to help us plan our route.
Google Maps can help with distance as well as elevation. Ride time is a little optimistic for my slow legs.
You can even use Google Earth to find good stealth camping spots.
I’ve also gone through a few different stove options. This Vargo one was titanium and awesome, but my cook pot didn’t quite fit on it.
Got an MSR Pocket Rocket as gift, but it’s a little more than I needed.
I finally settled on this Trangia stove and Snow Peak pot. Simple and effective for me. I also finally bought a long handled spoon to reach the bottom of the Mountain House bags without getting my hands dirty.
By now I’ve acquired quite a collection of camping supplies and gadgets. My cabinet is beginning to fill up.
At the end of the day, we like to toast to a good ride…
…and in the spirit of glamping, we watch a movie out in the middle of nowhere.
So, this what my bike and kit looks now. Can you see Mike’s yellow feed bags he made to match my wheels? I’m really digging this current set up. Could it be the final configuration? Probably not, since the next bikepack will most likely result in me wanting something else. It’s sort of like RC, you can never leave stock alone.
So, we’ve learned not to be in a hurry. We plan rides that don’t require monster, all day efforts to reach our stopping points, so we can relax and enjoy the scenery along the way. For us, bikepacking is like RC, it’s about having fun. That’s why we do what we like. If you decide to try bikepacking, you can customize your kit and routes to do what you like, just like RC.