This story first appeared in print in the Summer 2020 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. Read the e-edition here:
The first person to bicycle around the world was Thomas Stevens, in the mid-’80s. On April 22, 1884, he strapped some clothes and a bed-roll to his penny-farthing (those bikes with the giant front wheels), holstered up his pocket revolver, and headed
east from San Francisco. He crossed the United States, took a steamship to England, biked across Europe to Constantinople (now Istanbul), made his way to Iran, and then pedalled through India, China, and Japan. He caught a ship home in January 1887.
When you look at pictures of his gear and consider the roads at the time, Stevens is the world’s first bikepacker. Of course, people didn’t call it that at the time, or really any time until recently. Today, bikepacking has become a buzzword, a way for companies to sell more bikes and specialized gear. It’s also a way of exploring, it’s “go light, go anywhere” ethos adopted by thousands of hardy cyclists to reach remote regions no matter the condition of the road or trail. Some even bring packrafts along to extend their adventures onto rivers, lakes, and seas.
Bikepacking has supplanted bicycle touring as the terminology of choice for travelling by bicycle. You’ve probably encountered the term somewhere. You may have dove in, or you might have wondered what’s wrong with your Surly Long Haul Trucker, rack, and panniers.
What is bikepacking?
To some people, bikepacking is about the terrain. It involves dirt roads, rough ATV tracks, singletrack, and maybe even a little bushwacking. The rougher, the better, and pushing is only an inconvenience. Pavement is only ridden as a necessary evil to connect sections of dirt. If the majority of your route is on pavement, then you’re bicycle touring.
For others, bikepacking is about the gear. These people eschew traditional rack and panniers to soft bags that you strap to various parts of the frame. These bags include oversized saddlebags, frame bags, handlebar rolls, and others like feed bags, top tube bags, gas tanks, and cargo bags. Generally all your gear is minimalist because space is at a premium. For these types of bikepackers, it doesn’t matter if you’re on pavement or dirt, but how you carry your gear. Of course, that leaves tons of grey areas. Like what if you set out on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route — the world’s most famous bikepacking route — with panniers? Or if you ride the Trans-Canada from Victoria to Newfoundland with bikepacking bags? Personally, I lean towards the first definition of bikepacking, which is that the terrain matters more than the gear. I did a six month trip in South America that was largely on dirt roads, but I used panniers to carry most of my gear. Of course, lightweight equipment definitely makes life easier when pedalling steep mining roads and navigating singletrack, and panniers get in the way when you have to push.
As bikepacking has exploded in popularity, so has the number of companies making bikepacking bikes. These can either have drop bars like a road bike or flat bars like a mountain bike, but what they tend to have in common is they generally use mountain bike tires, or at least wide road tires. Most use rigid frames, but people do bikepack on front suspension and full suspension bikes, particularly those aiming for primarily single-track trips.
The rise of bikepacking has also led to an explosion in companies making bikepacking bags. Most are small shops selling bespoke gear that is hand-sewn in North America, like Porcelain Rocket in Calgary and Thief Bikepacking in Jasper. Generally, the gear isn’t cheap, but the quality is high and it is Canadian made, which is always a bonus.
There are three main pieces of gear associated with bikepacking:
- The frame bag fits inside the large triangle of your bike frame. The benefit is that it allows you to keep gear low and centred on your bike, which helps with handling. It’s the place to carry heavier items. The disadvantage is that it takes up space where you’d normally carry water.
- Handlebar rolls are basically dry bags that you strap to your handlebar. People generally use them to carry bulky but light gear like sleeping bags and clothing.
- Over-sized saddlebags are attached to the seat and are used to carry other lighter gear like your tent, air mattress, and clothing. They stick way out behind your seat, which makes it harder to get behind the bike on steep descents, but they do make for a streamlined profile.
There’s lots of other smaller bags used for bikepacking and what you end up with depends on how much space you need. If you go for a bikepacking set up, you also need to invest in other ultra-packable gear because you don’t have much space to work with. Bikepacking in its purest form is not luxurious.
The best source for bikepacking routes is Bikepacking.com. That website has helped turn bikepacking into what it is today, and it hosts a library of over 100 ridden and researched routes, along with a tonne of other information. The routes range from overnighters to cross-country epics like the Great Divide. At home, the Bikepack Canada website, has several route guides, and they will be publishing a guidebook to bikepacking in the Canadian Rockies by the late Ryan Correy. Gravelmaps.com is another great source for those seeking out dirt road routes.
If you want to make your own routes, check out Ride With GPS and Komoot. Both contain route=planning software that lets you connect the dots using a variety of online mapping software, such as Google Maps and Open Street Maps.
Where to bikepack around Revelstoke?
Here’s three trips near Revelstoke to get you started:
Green circle: 12 Mile
Riding out to 12 Mile via the Columbia River Flats in spring is one of the most beautiful bike rides you can do in Revelstoke. With the reservoir low, you can follow old farm roads from Kovach Park all the way to 9 Mile. The open landscape provides perfect views of Revelstoke’s iconic peaks, and few creek crossings make it feel slightly adventurous despite being so close to home. At 9 Mile you have to jump on Airport Way the rest of the way, but that’s no big deal. This is a great option for families or if you just want a quick escape while leaving the car at home.
Blue square: The Galena Loop
This is beautiful, 300-kilometres loop combines highways, dirt roads and rail trails south of Revelstoke. Starting at the Shelter Bay ferry, it takes you through Nakusp, New Denver, Kaslo, Meadow Creek, and Trout Lake. There’s many great camp spots, quaint cafes, cooling swim holes, and bits of history along the way, making this a fantastic long weekend ride and a great way to explore those bits of the Kootenays you’ve probably blow by many times in your car.
Black diamond: The Perry-Gorge circuit
This loop starts at the old Skyline Gas Station on the Trans-Canada Highway 50 kilometres west of Revelstoke. Follow the Perry River north to the power lines, turn west, then head back south via the Gorge Forest Service Road. This 100-kilometre loop offers numerous glacier views as it passes along the western flanks of the Monashee Mountains. Frequent rough surfaces and a decent amount of climbing make this a tougher route than it seems. If you’re up for it, a 35-kilometre detour (each way) will take you to Seymour Arm, where you can camp on the lake.
Alex Cooper is the former editor of the Revelstoke Review. He quit that job to bikepack in South America for six months and has done several trips in B.C. since then. He’s now addicted and spends his time dreaming up new routes when he’s not at work for Avalanche Canada and the Canadian Avalanche Association.