|High in the Selway Bitteroot Wilderness, Idaho. Photo Aaron Teasdale.|
Two occurrences lead me to write this post.
First of all, there was GearJunkie including me in their 110 Outdoor Ambassador project. Now, there is no doubt that part of me was humbled and honored to be featured, but another part was super-embarrassed and wanted to decline. I just couldn't figure out why they would include me on this list. I'm not a super athlete. I have not contributed to conservation or industry in any revolutionary way. My resume is only 6 years old, and that's being generous. So, when you strip all of that away, what your left with is that I design - and sometimes complete - unique backcountry trips. Packbikng, bikepacking fire lookout towers, and the Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route - they are all the same thing.
The second reason for this post was a question on an internet forum I came across the other day. It's one I come across fairly regularly, and goes something like this: "How do I plan a bikepacking adventure?" Seems simple enough, but most of the time the true question is hiding. This person isn't trying to figure out what maps to use, or what website to visit, or even what gear to use on an established route. What they really want to know is how to design their own dream, and nurture it into a reality.
My response to that question is what this post is about. I'm going to dissect the approach that I've unconsciously used to design backcountry bike trips over the past few years. The same one that has been getting me publicity lately - or at least the only reason I can figure. At the same time, I'm going to bring it back together by designing a short trip for myself that I hope to complete this spring. Which can be seen in the rough map below.
So right off the bat, I am going to let you guys know that I am a graphic designer, and that is how my mind works. Basically graphic design is visual communication. It that's too much, think of it simply as problem solving. The difference between art and design can be boiled down to expression vs communication. Both require a certain amount of creativity, but design ultimately deals more with constraints. And rules. Within this box things have to make sense, and in doing so clearly speak an intended message. This is the starting point of my adventure planning. I first focus on what I want the adventure to communicate to myself, then establishing constraints. Then much later, creativity.
Know the rules. Then, you can break them.
|Lets call this short trip the "Outer Canyonlands Hackle"|
Step 1 - Determine Initial Goals
This is you chance to put your loose goals on the table. These can be as simple as "I want to ride my bicycle and camp in the woods." Or, as complex as "I want to test my limits to see what is accomplishable to further the activity of bicycle travel by swimming across Lake Superior with my bike on my back."
These are your goals and they are personal. The point here is to sketch them out to establish why you are doing this trip, and what you hope to accomplish. At the same time, don't worry about having definitive answers right now. You don't need to be super-serious. Again, these are loose goals. You'll have a chance later to add or take away from them. You may even change them entirely.
Outer Canyonlands Hackle - Initial Goals
- Skip out of Montana for warmer weather.
- Experience a climate zone and landscape that is unfamiliar.
- Do a 3-4 day human-powered self-supported trip that involve bikepacking and flat water canoeing.
- Test gear strategies for an upcoming summer trip.
Step 2 - Determine Moral Constraints
For most self-supported adventures, the best moral style for a trip is one which negatively affects the environment the least. The logical extension of this would mean to head out the door naked, using only your feet and hands for transportation, forage for food, and encounter no outside human assistance. Since we are planning a bike trip, that is unattainable, but it is healthy to understand what the logical end of the spectrum is. Ultimately, you will have to decide how close to this you can get by deciding what is ok for your trip, and whats not.
You'll also have to morally deal with cultural regulations, such as areas where it is illegal to use a method of transportation. Or, areas which require permits to travel through. These regulations may go against your ethos, but they may be the best for the environment of that area, which if you went against, would comprise your moral constraints entirely. If any doubt exists, it's best to follow cultural regulations.
These constraints are intended to narrow your focus, and make trip planning easier. Ask tough questions. Is this a human powered trip only? Are re-supply airplane drops ok? Hitchhiking? Amtrak? Train-hopping? Staying in hotels? Can I ride from my front door instead of getting a ride to the trailhead? Is burning trash in the wilderness ok? Would a SPOT tracker compromise my wilderness experience? Phone? iPod? eBikes? Headlamp? Helmet? Toilet paper? Is riding a bike in a designated Wilderness ok? What about just that trail that barely dips in? What about packing a disassembled bike on a backpack through designated Wilderness? What about using a guide book? A map? Inquiring trail info from locals?
These questions are but a few. The rabbit hole runs deeps. Dive in. The more questions you invent to ask yourself, the stronger your convictions will be, and the more meaningful your adventure will become.
Outer Canyonlands Hackle - Determine Moral Constraints
- Human powered travel only.
- Practice leave-no-trace.
- Resupply at the car is allowed.
- Since I am not experienced navigating in this environment, digital navigation is ok.
- Get permit floating the Green River through BLM.
- Obey all rules in Canyonlands National Park.
- Study more about the environment which will be encountered and treat it well.
- Deal with human feces properly on the river.
|Forest Fire Lookout Towers make wonderful destinations.|
Step 3 - Establish Destinations Constraints
Do not think of a route as just a line between a start and end. Don't limit yourself. Instead find intermittent points in an area to connect. If you glance at a road/trail network in an area with the goal to just bike tour, it can be pretty daunting and/or boring to suss out a route. Instead find destinations. Then, connect them.
One technique that has worked for me is to plotout interesting locations in your chosen area and try to link them. Here in the Northern Rockies, I love hot springs and fire lookout towers, but you may prefer waterfalls, quaint towns, ice cream stands, breweries, knitting shops, gold mines, ghost towns, idyllic streams to fish, or desert towers to climb. Don't be afraid to narrow your focus even more by making it a themed trip.
Really get down and dirty with this. Study the cultural and natural history in the area. There's always things that will make your trip more interesting.
Your destination constraints do not have to be points. They can also be linear parts of the greater route. Such as singletrack you've always wanted to ride, a river to packraft with your bike on board, or a hill to skin up with your bike on your back.
It helps to also work in where you are going to sleep each night. Again, this can be a point. Such as a campground, cabin, or bed and breakfast. Or, it can be a rough area. Like camping somewhere along a certain creek. If it is a longer trip you will need to locate resupply destinations, and work them in. It also helps to figure out water sources, especially in the desert. On some desert trips, water becomes the main destination constraint.
Lastly, mix in as much of your destination goals as you can. Make this personal. Connect destinations that give you that warm fuzzy feeling of excitement. Or, that grizzled sufferfest feeling of accomplishment. Or, don't - this is your adventure.
Remember, these constraints make planning easier by limiting your routing options, and narrowing your focus.
Outer Canyonlands Hackle - Establish Destination Constraints
- Since I do not have a lot of experience in this environment, I will be conservative with my routing strategy, limiting unknown off trail travel.
- Upon looking at the Moab area. The Green River between the town of Green River and Canyonlands National Park, and the Colorado River between Moab and Canyonlands National Park, both feature contiguous class I boating. Both would fit in with my initial goal of canoeing flatwater. Because of this, these destination constraints become part of the route, but I also have to locate put-in and take-out locations, and connect those via roads or trails. To ultimately meet my initial goals, these points become the most important destination constraints I face.
- Since resupply is ok, the car becomes a destination constraint naturally worked into the route.
- The largest challenge will be exiting the Colorado River and off-trail navigating to Potash Road. I have located 3 possible routes to exit the the river bottom via 2 different canyons.
- Both nights will be spent along the rivers for easy water access.
|Multi-sport tool options|
Step 4 - Determine Tool Constraints
Now is the time to figure out what gear you need to get you to your destinations, within your moral constraints. This could mean choosing a road bike over a mountain bike, deciding you're going to try multi-sport travel, or, it could mean the trip could be better accomplished without a bike at all.
Ultralight, SUL, Disaster, Yardsale - these are all gear ethos to work from, but they will ultimately be determined by your mental and emotional experience both within the environments encountered, and chosen method of travel. They will also be determined by your physical abilities, and the destination and moral constraints you have already established.
Light is right, until it's not. Don't fall into the trap of thinking one gear style is better then another. This includes bikepacking bags vs trailers vs panniers. Again, don't limit yourself - especially due to something being culturally in vogue. Each trip might call for a different approach. A lot of people think I run on the lightweight side of things, and on the trips where my destination and moral constraints call for it, I do. Truth be told, I also do my fair share of yardsale-in', and it's awesome too.
Outer Canyonlands Hackle - Determine Tool Constraints
- Ride simple mountain bikes on land.
- The canoeing sections will require use of a lightweight boat. The Alpacka Gnu fits this criteria perfectly.
- We will be testing a prototype boat. I'm confident in it's ability, but still will prepare for a failure by packing as if we were not taking it.
- Pack as lightweight as we can, but still be comfortable lounging in camp. Bikepacking bags + 20L backpack with frame removed.
- No need for MegaLight center pole. We will use a paddle instead.
- Will not bring a pfd.
Step 5 - Analyze and Adjust
Now that you have setup your constraints and rules, you know them. And now that you know them, feel free to modify them while still holding true to your initial goals. Manipulate your proposed story so it communicates better - to yourself. Maybe, you want to add some of you moral, destination, or tool constraints to your initial goals. That's great. This is the time to do that and work back down the list.
Repeat until you are 100% satisfied. If you are not 100% on this, scrap the whole design, and start over. Or maybe, just half of it. Don't get stuck on trying to put a square peg in a round hole. Although, sometime the square will fit with the right modifications.
This part also involves the heaviest amount of research, but because you've whittled you trip down with all of those constraints, it becomes manageable. Again, and I can't say it enough - these constraints make trip planning easier by limiting your options, and narrowing your focus. Which will hopefully lead you to design your perfect dream adventure.
- While we have been discussing a simple bike tour here, this technique works for an incredible amount other situations that call for problem solving. The easy ones to appropriate it to are other outdoor adventure activities, but it can be also used for road trips, overseas travel, and even day-to-day life.
- If you choose to take on a trip partner, you are now a team. Act like it. Realizing your goals now depends on being a good teammate, not a competitor. If your teammate fails for any avoidable reason it is your fault for choosing the wrong teammate.
- Look outside the bicycle and outdoor industry for inspiration and techniques you can adapt to your adventure.
- If an adventure seems too hard at first, design a harder adventure and choose to do the easier of the two.
- If this process seems serious at all, it's not. Have fun, with design.
- Listen to this. Then, practice. Design lots of trips. Try to design one a week. Or, one a month. I personally have tons of trips in my head, that have been sitting there for years, waiting to be done.
More: Going beyond the map: Missoula cartographer links bikes, packs and paddles (newspaper story, and great photo!)