Bike-Hacking: Lessons Learned On Backcountry Bikepacking Sojourns

words and photos :: Ben Haggar

An empowering satisfaction awaits any who ride beyond the constraints of a single day. Time holds much less weight when you’re pedalling into the backcountry with everything you need to survive (and thrive) jammed into a pack and strapped to your bike. And as time’s hold diminishes, all kinds of possibilities open up…

Bikepacking strikes the perfect balance between necessity and weight—that sweet spot where the travel is fast enough to cover great distances into lesser-known zones, but also maintains a slow enough pace to absorb the surroundings. Looking back at distant mountain passes overcome during difficult struggles the day before creates a tangible connection to the landscape that is rarely found on a single-day adventure.

Throughout my years of bikepacking, the mountains have taught me a few lessons about this niche sport. Here are some adventure hacks for the bikepack.

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Be ambitious, but realistic

While traversing the French Alps by mountain bike, I was amazed and even shocked at the distance and elevation numbers our group was able to clock up. Day after day, we ascended thousands of metres and traversed more kilometres than I thought my legs were capable of handling.

By stacking the huge days back-to-back, we added an engaging element of mental challenges to the physical ones. What motivated us each stiff and sore morning was having a specific goal in mind, and we were able to stand on the shoulders of the previous day’s triumphs to push through.

On some trips, terrain dictates progress

Not your average climb trail.

I once had to bail down a logging road and cut short a trip on the Upper Sunshine Coast Trail after slow progress on rough ground during the first few days. We were lucky to find this shortcut. On a solo trip in Greenland, there was only one way out—keep going—and I was forced to ride an extra two days while rationing my remaining food (I lost 8kg). The lesson here: be prepared (either with extra food, or to suffer through).

Strike the proper balance

When you pedal your tent deep into the mountains, you get campsites like this—just don’t bring too much.

A good trip can easily be compromised if you are getting thrown over the handlebars on steep descents by a top-heavy load. The beauty of bikepacking is that you can strategically attach the small heavy items onto your bike frame or in a seat bag. Balance is key to being manoeuvrable while riding and hefting your bike over downed trees and through rivers. Testing your setup and planning your meals, snacks, camp clothes, and sleeping kit before you head out is essential (and maybe you’ll be able to find a spot for a sneaky beer). Get creative—if you want to go super minimalist and not bring camping footwear, you can always use empty dry bags to walk around camp (yes, I’ve seen it done and was pretty impressed).

Think of others

Remember the excitement of discovering that first pristine meadow full of wildflowers and beautiful green plants? Keep that stoke alive for the next bikepacker by choosing your campsite wisely. Use designated campsites if they exist, or if you’re really far out in the wilderness, try to find flat rock slabs or gravel bars without many crushable plants. Most plants have a short growing season in the alpine, so do your best to preserve that wild nature for the next person.

Pack your inner MacGyver (hairstyle optional)

More equipment and spares equal more weight and less fun, but you don’t want to get caught with your bike shorts down either. Save space for necessary equipment by wrapping duct tape around your pump or Velcro-ing a spare tube and tools under your seat. It’s amazing what can be fixed with a little ingenuity and random things in your bag. If your gear can have multiple uses, all the better—ski straps can perform a host of different duties and little things like bringing an actual climbing carabiner instead of a cheap plastic one can save your ass. Pneumatic seat posts seem to be an item that fails with more regularity than others, so bringing a seat post clamp can be a life saver.

Dry feet aren’t all they’re cracked up to be

Many a time I’ve been a little overzealous around a campfire and played the sneaky sneaker game, inching ever closer to the flame with socks, shoes, and insoles in a feeble attempt to dry them out. Inevitably, they catch on fire and sometimes melt beyond use. What sucks more than having wet feet is having sharp plastic daggers from melted polyester shoes and socks shredding your Achilles tendon. Beware the flames!

Never turn down a swim

You won’t regret it—we promise.

The only regretful swim in an alpine lake is the one I didn’t take. Cold water sucks, even if you’re into Wim Hoffing, but nothing shakes off a long day and makes you forget about sore muscles and bug bites like a freezing cold shock to the system. For some reason the colder the water, the faster the sweat seems to come off—and we all know that a little cleanliness helps prevent chaffing downstairs.

Pick up your TP!

Nothing screams ‘human interference’ like trailside toilet paper flowers (the worst invasive species in BC). You can help prevent their foul spread by simply bringing a separate Ziploc bag for the used stuff and packing it out. You can also burn it if fires are permitted—but finish your cooking first. And if you get grossed out, just be thankful you’re not a big wall climber and having to shit into a tube.

Amen, Aristotle.

With an uncertain summer ahead, there has never been a better time to dust off those old maps (or more likely your phone) and plan a bikepacking mission close to home. Here in the Coast Mountains, we are blessed with endless terrain for the keen observer and we can always strengthen the bond with our own backyard by learning the species of trees, names of rivers, and checking out new views of known peaks. Ride hard, but remember to appreciate those long days and slow ascents that reveal even more of the unique character of our home mountains. —ML