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A scene from the All-City XC Race in June. The mountain bikers hope to extend the network of trails down through the forest of highway overpasses, but have

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Multiday self-supported riding—without the excess baggage

MB Month ‘09

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Words and photographs by Aaron Teasdale

We carved skyward as the alpine of Bluerock Ridge unspooled beneath our tires.

romance right out of the whole wild horses thing. After cursing their impossibly prolific colons through several meadows and deciding the wild horses should all be used for glue, we finally found a flat-ish, crap-free area on the edge of a small meadow with mountain views to the west, where our first task was setting up our four individual sleep systems. John, the hard-core minimalist, was the most spartan with his directly-on-the-ground, space-blanket bivvy sack. Jeff, the artisan ultralighter, used the skimpiest of air mattresses under a featherweight tarp of his own making. I, the not-exactly-hard-core, comfort-loving photographer, used a posh, 2.5-inch-thick, full-length air mattress (see gear sidebar) while Todd, the racer, and I used the same style shelter—a superlight oneperson tent in fast-fly mode, with just the rainfly, poles and ground cloth. If a tent were a crayfish, this would

Dodging omnivore scat of a disconcertingly large variety of sizes,

be its removable exoskeleton, a nylon shell that delivers tent-like

we cut across open-aired scree slopes and rode deeper into the

weather protection without the weight of an actual tent.

of-the-saddle climbing and this was the payoff. It was the end of

Less is so much more

June, and across a deep, trail-less valley to our left, snow filled the

Weight, and carrying as little of it as possible, was a central pillar of

creases of vaulting limestone peaks. To our right, forested hills

our trip. It was our second night out and we intended to continue

dropped away like receding waves onto the eastern plains.

riding exquisite backcountry singletrack for a full five days with

“Skittle break!” I called out, as we neared the end of the

only what was necessary and making it as light as physically

the brightly colored, elixer-like sugar pellets. After gorging

possible. In other words, none of us had handles on our toothbrushes.

on Yellow and Red #5, and a quick map session to survey the

Well, Todd, who was on his first multi-day, backcountry ride,

day’s route options, we were back on the trail, now plummeting

originally had one until he saw our handle-less brushes, at which

joyously around tight switchbacks into the valley below.

point he excused himself and quietly broke his off.

For hours we rode, on singletrack, jeep roads, and more trails,

Shoes, insoles and socks surrounded the campfire that night,

along new ridges, through tunnels of trees, and across the

positioned as close to the flames as we dared. Several creek crossings

sweeping meadows of Alberta’s Kananaskis country, a sprawling

had left our footgear soaked. The first day had been much the same,

swath of mountains that spills south for 1,600 square miles

but possibly even more scenic. It definitely had more creek crossings—

from the wild country between Banff and Calgary. Now riding

12 to be exact—from shin- to thigh-deep. Unless you’re the frozen-

the rolling hills we’d looked down on during the Skittle break, in

legged photographer, that is, and you decide to leave your sunglasses

one aspen-lined clearing, we saw six unbridled horses standing

on a rock four creek crossings back. In that case, there were 20 creek

casually in the distance. Looking at the map a bit further on,

crossings, each one more supernaturally cold than the last.

we realized we were riding on “Wild Horse Trail,” through “Wild

As our socks steamed, we cooked our respective dinners on

Horse Meadow,” and along “Wild Horse Creek,” which, thanks to

miniscule camp stoves. John, ever utilitarian, cut pepperoni and

our formidable powers of deductive reasoning, led us to conclude

hunks of cheese into a pot of boiling Ramen. Jeff, ever ingenious,

that these had likely been wild horses.

mixed instant mashed potatoes with Stovetop Stuffing. I, ever in

As the sun slipped toward the horizon the map also told us

search of the perfect combination of convenience and tastiness,

that our current creek crossing was the last water we’d see for

poured boiling water over my freeze-dried dinner, waited 10

miles—so we filled every bladder and bottle we had and rode on,

minutes, and—voila—had beef stroganoff. Todd was following my

in search of a good place to camp. It turns out an estimated 300 to

culinary lead and experiencing the easy joys of astronaut food

500 wild horses live in this area, feral descendants of Blackfeet

for the first time. Each night he would take an inquiring bite of his

Indian steeds from centuries past. Which is pretty cool. Unless

entreé, pause for a moment, then proclaim, “I can eat that.”

you’re trying to find a place to sleep in the meadows where they

everything we needed on our bikes and backs. Which meant bringing

ridge and Jeff promptly produced a half-gallon Ziploc bag of

The next morning brought a scene that would replay, in various

live, in which case you’ll find hoof-pummeled, unrelentingly lumpy

forms, several times during the trip. Two mountain bikers rolled up

ground carpeted in horse manure. Which pretty much sucks the

as we were breaking camp and the usual trailside banter followed.

MB Month ‘09

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Canadian wilds. We’d just sweated up 1,600 feet of technical, out-

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A scene from the All-City XC Race in June. The mountain bikers hope to extend the network of trails down through the forest of highway overpasses, but have

MB Month ‘09

A scene from the All-City XC Race in June. The mountain bikers hope to extend the network of trails down through the forest of highway overpasses, but have

Osprey Talon 22 pack This pack carries loads astoundingly well, and with a weight of only 1 pound, 11 ounces, and 1,300 cubic inches of capacity, it may just be the ultimate bikepacking pack. $100;

MB Month ‘09

11 feathery pieces of gear you need for a multiday bike trip

Big Agnes Fly Creek SL1 tent In flast-fly mode this mountain-ready shelter weighs 1 pound, 5 ounces. $300;

MontBell U.L. Spiral Down Hugger #3 30degree sleeping bag Weighs 20 ounces and packs down to the size of a cantaloupe $249;

MontBell U.L. Down Inner Half Sleeve jacket Otherwise known as the “sh-vest,” this 6ounce wonder is warmer and more packable than fleece, but weighs less than a T-shirt. $125;

Therma Rest NeoAir 72-inch sleeping pad This 2.5-inch-thick wonder pad weighs 14 ounces and rolls up to the size of a 1-liter Nalgene bottle. $150;

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Pack Lightly

How’s your ride going? Great, etc. Then, a pause as they took in the scene, noticed us packing up our tents, and said, “You guys camp here last night?” “Yeah, we’re on a multiday ride,” Jeff said, “You

world devoted to going ultralight began creating possible. At the same time a coterie of endurance

with new curiosity. We could almost see the word

mountain bikers bored with lapping 24-hour courses

“bikepacking” slowly sinking into their brainpans.

(led by John Stamsted, and later by Mike Curiak),

“How are you...” one of the guys said, cutting

started racing multiday routes like the 2,700-mile

himself off when he spied the seat, handlebar and

Great Divide Mountain Bike Route and the Kokopelli

frame packs festooning our full-suspension trail rigs

Trail, with no outside support. As endurance

and Jeff’s rigid 29er. “Whoa, what are those bags? “ he

riders and others adopted and adapted ultralight

said, walking over to look at them up close.

backpacking gear to mountain biking, modern-day

“He’s the one that makes them,” Todd said, pointing to Jeff.

“bikepacking” was born. Now, with base gear weights (all carried gear

Jeff gives them a quick tutorial on the system—

except food and water) of 10 pounds readily attainable,

shelter and sleeping bag in the handlebar bag, clothes

serious mountain biking for days is readily feasible.

in the seatbag, food in the frame bag in the main

For riders willing to put in the extra effort—and make

triangle. Each item chosen for its diminutive lightness.

no mistake, carrying the weight is extra effort—it’s as

“Everything you need for a few days on the trail,” I added. “Totally singletrack-worthy.” “Wow! That’s really cool,” the guy said. After discussing where we started they said, “Holy shit! That’s a big ride,” and dreamy looks settled over their faces, as they played through the possibilities.

In the Beginning...

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Then two critical things happened. First, a

lighter camping gear than anyone had thought

Then, another pause as they scanned our camp

really mountain bike for days on end, was still limited. subculture of maverick nerds in the backpacking

know, bikepacking.”

Marmot Essence jacket, PreCip pants Super packable, waterproof-breathable hooded jacket (8 ounces) and pants (9 ounces) double as rainand camp-wear. $150 (jacket), $75 (pants);

or trailers. But serious singletrack riding, the ability to

grand an adventure as you can have on two wheels. Even for non-Herculean riders, like your not-exactlylightening-fast writer. I’m no Stamsted. I just want to have fun and find new nowheres. After saying goodbye to the dreamy-eyed riders, we talked over breakfast about our personal bikepacking histories. Jeff, who’s been at it in California’s Sierras for a decade, became tired of rack

Of course, there’s nothing new about heading out for

breakages and started creating his own custom gear-

days at a time on bikes. Ever since velocipedes were

carrying systems that have since helped take the

first invented in the 1800s, adventurous cyclists have

sport to a higher level. Todd, a former pro downhiller

been pedaling off with provisions to see what was

who was busy soaking up all the bikepacking

over the horizon. The first cyclist to circle the globe

knowledge he could, became smitten with the concept

was Thomas Stevens, who did it on a penny farthing

after hearing about the Tour Divide, one of the races

from 1884 to1886. When mountain bikes arrived

held on the Great Divide Route. He rode 400 miles on

on the scene 30 years ago, a new generation caught

the route last year with just a daypack and a credit

the exploration bug and set out with laden panniers

card, staying in hotels along the way—“I just headed

Carousel Design Works bike bag system Superlight, rackless gear-carrying system that fits almost all mountain bikes. Handlebar and seat bags are standard; frame bags are custom. prices vary;

ActionTec Ringleader 20-tooth titanium chainring Fits on most mountain bikes and delivers lower gearing that you’ll appreciate on tough climbs. $50; actiontec. us

Princeton Tec Scout headlamp Not bright enough for riding, but good enough for camp and weighs less than 2 ounces. $45; princeton

Trail Designs Caldera Keg-F alcohol stove system At 6 ounces for the entire system, this is the simplest, slickest, most efficient ultralight stove system on the market. $60;—A.T.

MB Month ‘09

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A scene from the All-City XC Race in June. The mountain bikers hope to extend the network of trails down through the forest of highway overpasses, but have

MB Month ‘09

out knowing that I had to get there, and if I didn’t, I had to get there,” he said. John, who unlike me is a John Stamsted—or, more accurately, who is John Stamsted—has been out of mountain biking for almost a decade. Now an ultrarunner, he jumped in for the first two days of the ride to see how the sport he helped pioneer in the 1990s had progressed. “You just couldn’t do this 10 or 15 years ago,” he said about the era when he was knocking off his storied rides on dirt roads. “Not on technical singletrack. It’s awesome what the new gear allows you to do.” After Stamsted bade us farewell and pedaled back to the world beyond campfires, the three of us spent our day threading through forest and meadow. We passed more wild horses, imbued once again with all of their original romance, and whooped while lofting off rocks and roots on the downhills. We skimmed the fringe of the frontcountry, drawing the stares of scrubbed car campers as we passed, dirty and weathered. Heading back into the high mountains, we turned up Little Elbow River and climbed for hours past fortress-like mountainsides weeping with melting snow, on our way to the cold winds of Tombstone Pass. As daylight waned, we rocketed down from the pass into the Big Elbow River Valley, blowing past a hiker-packed backcountry campground, and pedaling on to a grassy bench overlooking the river that we had entirely to ourselves. With the valley spilling away into the distance and a half moon slowly brightening overhead, we ate and talked around the fire, watching the day’s last light blush the surrounding peaks. We all agreed it might well have been bikepacking’s finest day. “You’re riding for five days with that?!” said the three riders we met the next day, our fourth out. They were muscling overstuffed B.O.B. trailers along a rocky Jeep road. After informing us there was a big grizzly just up the trail, they looked from their Rosie O’Donnell rigs to our Jessica Alba ones and said, “We gotta get a photo of you guys.” Then, as if to prove what our sveltely loaded rigs could do, and determined to make our last night out memorable, we headed up the steep trail toward Picklejar Lakes. A 1,400-foot, two-mile climb brought us to a talus-chunked hike-a-bike and then through rock fields to a knoll between the high-mountain lakes where we would soon be lounging around the trip’s last campfire. Our final descent the next morning was an adrenalized plunge down a wildflowerand aspen-blanketed mountainside, the buff, twisting ribbon of dirt shot us into rocky cruxes and along nerve-jangling exposure. After five days on our geared-up

“we’re on a multiday ride,” Jeff said, “You know, bikepacking.” Then, another pause. We could almost see the word “bikepacking” slowly sinking into their brainpans. bikes we’d mastered the micro-adjustments—the extra pull to lift the front end, the dampened flickability, the increased traction that more weight delivered on corners— and railed that trail like wild horses jacked on Red Bull. When we finally, inevitably reached Todd’s truck, we found ourselves filled with that peculiar, end-of-trip mix of elation and melancholy. On one hand we would soon be feasting on soda, burgers and bag after bag of blissfully salty chips. On the other, the minute Todd picked up his Blackberry and said “Ahh, back to the world,” our magnificent ride was officially over. “I can’t wait to take my chamois off,” Todd said a minute later, giving an undeniable boost to the elation side of the ledger. With the bikes loaded and the truck speeding down Alberta Highway 40, we

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talked about how great it would be if we could just keep going. Or, better yet, legally ride the long distance hiking trails like the Continental Divide and Pacific Crest trails. As Canada slipped away outside the car windows, and we watched the world of mountain singletrack, campfires and wild horses fade farther and

How to Bikepack Start Easy Bikepacking doesn’t have to be epic; bite-sized overnights are a great way to get started. S24O, which stands for “sub-24-hour overnight” is when you bike out of town after work with a friend or two, dinner and basic camping gear. Ride ’til you find a camp spot, watch the stars come out, and laugh at all the suckers sleeping in town. Then wake up and ride back in time for work the next day. It’s fun, easy to plan, and serves up a mini-adventure without requiring a ton of time or planning. For more, see Pack Smartly Given that most backcountry areas lack laundromats, you’ll be wearing the same unwashed clothes all ride, which is a good reason to wear wool—it doesn’t get as stinky. On trips like this, you accept a certain grunge factor. We dried our shoes and socks around the fire on days we crossed creeks, and I kept a second pair of dry socks exclusively for sleeping. For the best on-trail performance, stuff and compress your gear as tightly as possible into your bike bags (presuming you go with one of the frame packing systems; see “Pack Lightly,” p.TK). For this reason down is vastly superior to anything fleece. Keep lighter items (sleeping bag, shelter) in your handlebar bag where they won’t diminish handling. Heavy items, like food, go in your frame bag. Stoves are best in backpacks, where they won’t get as jostled. Jackets, or any clothes you want handy, are the last things to go into the seat bag, which is easiest to access on the fly. For more on bikepacking, check out bikepacking. net, or, where Todd Tanner guides ultralight multiday rides (rental gear available). Eat Light Instant oatmeal is good for breakfast. I also brought tea and small containers of powdered milk and turbinado sugar. Nuts have the highest calorie-to-weight ratio of any trail food. ProBars, at 400 calories per bar, are also a good pick. Mountain House makes the best freeze-dried dinners; I always add a bit of pepper (carried in a miniscule Nalgene bottle) to taste. Visit Kananaskis The Kananaskis area south of Banff and Calgary is packed with provincial parks, drunkenly scenic vistas, and hundreds of miles of singletrack. For maps, check out Backroads Mapbooks at for landscapescale planning and GemTrek maps at for on-trail navigation.

farther into the distance, Jeff said what each of us was thinking, “I’m just thinking about where to go next.”

MB Month ‘09

Riding Loaded  

Four cyclists head into the Kananaskis area of the Canadian Rockies for five days of self-supported backcountry riding with the latest ultra...

Riding Loaded  

Four cyclists head into the Kananaskis area of the Canadian Rockies for five days of self-supported backcountry riding with the latest ultra...