A Newbie Tackles Ultralight Bikepacking on the Great Divide
By: Glen Van Peski
It was my birthday, and Mike and I had been looking forward to a birthday brunch in Wise River, Montana. Mike is a neighbor across the alley in Bend, Oregon, who my son Brian terms my “main adventure buddy.” A couple of years ago, we were talking in the alley, and he expressed a desire to do a big bike adventure and mentioned the Great Divide.
The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR) is a route from Banff, Canada to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, traveling 2,700 miles along mostly gravel and dirt roads. We hatched a plan to ride from Banff to Jackson, Wyoming along the GDMBR. Originally planned for 2020, Covid-19, along with me going over the handlebars on a training ride, postponed the trip to 2021, and the starting point became the Canadian border.
So, here we were in Wise River, day 17 on the road, riding up to the Wise River Club for a birthday breakfast. There was a sign taped to the door indicating, as we had seen a lot of on this trip, that they were operating limited hours due to staffing issues, and my birthday morning was not included in those limited hours.
The last time I had a birthday on a bicycle trip was in 1976, when I rode my bicycle 4,200 miles across the country. In the intervening decades, I had focused more on backpacking than bicycle trips. So, when Mike proposed a bikepacking trip, I faced a considerable learning curve. I was pretty confident about the camping part of bikepacking, but the 900 miles of day-to-day traveling between the campsites was going to be all new. Luckily, our local bike shop, Project Bike, helped me put together a good gravel bike, and gave me solid advice on kitting out the titanium Knolly Cache for the intended trip. It also helped that I can sew, and have a good collection of materials and hardware at home, so I could construct my own custom solutions where necessary.
Naturally, I wanted to minimize the weight of my gear. It’s just the way I think—about life in general, and travel in the backcountry, in particular.
On a bicycle, with the advantage of wheels and gears, weight doesn’t carry quite the same penalty as when it’s on your back, experienced with every step you take. However, on a trip like the Great Divide—which included roughly 15% uphills, 20% downhills, and some sketchy single-track, including deep ruts filled with rocks and roots—lighter is still better. Especially when you’re hoisting your full-loaded bike over a fallen tree.
My first surprise was the number and weight of the packs required to carry the gear. I can fit everything I need for a backpacking trip into my 8 oz. Murmur. I wanted to avoid the weight of racks and panniers, but still ended up with the following bags on my bike:
- Hand-sewn frame bag
- Salsa cockpit bag
- Salsa EXP Anything top load handlebar bag
- Salsa EXP front pouch
- Revelate Designs Terrapin 16L seat bag
- 2 Revelate Designs feed bags
- Revelate Designs Joey bag on down tube
The total weight of these bags, with the cradles and mounting hardware, was 4.6 lbs! I’ve been backpacking with a base weight below that.
Over the years, I have honed the organization of my Murmur for backpacking trips. But, optimizing gear placement for bikepacking was more complex, including having to consider the:
- Weight (wanting to keep the weight low for better handling, and avoid too much weight on the handlebars)
- Volume (bags have limited volume)
- Accessibility (how often I anticipated accessing an item, how quickly I wanted to be able to access an item, and what time of day I would be accessing the item)
After some trial and error, I ended up with a system that worked well for the entire trip. The handlebar roll bag contained my sleeping bag, with a few dehydrated dinners filling in the nooks.
The handlebar easy access bag contained my large stake and hygiene kit, Garmin InReach, paper maps, small items bag.
The small cockpit bag held my bike multi-tool, puncture repair kit, tire irons, and water filter.
The feed bags contained two 1-liter bottles with flip tops, one that I used for an Emergen-C mix, and the other for straight water. In the feed bag side pockets were Probars and other snacks for the day.
The seat bag held my cooking kit, bike repair/cleaning items, up to five days of food, and clothes not in the frame bag.
The frame bag had multiple compartments, and held rain gear, tent poles, Chopstakes, first aid, 2+ liter platypus (for additional water storage, seldom full), and bike lock.
Traveling by bike instead of foot generated some different gear choices. Not having trekking poles meant I needed to carry tent poles, and they needed to be short enough to carry in my frame bag. Having the bicycle meant I needed to carry tools and parts to repair and maintain the machine I was counting on to carry me 900 miles. I had a light multi-tool, a toothbrush, and rags for chain cleaning, a kit to plug any punctures in my tubeless tires, some tire sealant, chain lubricant, spare spokes, and spare valves. While I used the chain cleaning and lubrication items regularly, the only two times I took out the multi-tool were to tighten things on Mike’s bike.
My typical backpacking trip is five days or less, but the Great Divide trip involved 24 days on the road. We mailed food resupplies to ourselves every 3 to 5 days, which worked great.
For water treatment, I usually just take a small bottle of bleach. When I started to look at mailing bottles of bleach in resupply packets, I thought it would just be easier to switch to the Sawyer Mini. It was harder squeezing to get water, but it was nice to have it instantly. There were lots of streams, but also cattle everywhere, so we filtered virtually every water source that wasn’t coming out of a pipe.
The food resupply plan was efficient, but we ended up with extra food. We anticipated that the days we would be in town for the night didn’t require a dinner, but also ended up scoring more restaurant breakfasts and lunches than we anticipated, so had extra food to share with fellow bikers.
One of those unanticipated restaurant lunches ended up being my birthday lunch. After swallowing our disappointment that the Wise River Club was closed, we went to the post office and picked up our resupply boxes. We went to H Bar J Café up the road, to use their outside tables to sort our food. As we were getting ready to pedal off, a lady with keys came up, and said she was opening up. We ended up having a birthday lunch in lieu of breakfast, and when the waitress learned it was my birthday, she made us a free cocktail at the bar. We continued down the road with full bellies and overflowing hearts.
Glen Van Peski is the Founder of Gossamer Gear and a leading proponent of lightweight backpacking.