Bikepacking – “To Fredericksburg and Beyond”
What is bikepacking? It is backpacking with a bike, and typically includes an overnight stay along the way. Have you ever done this type of ride?
A couple years ago I was looking at new ways to get out on my mountain bike, in ways other than burning up the same loops. We all know that after a while you basically memorize the course and know exactly when to shift, brake, and know every nuance of the trail. You get faster but even that gets somewhat mundane. Then you start riding the courses backwards…..time for something new. Trips to the mountains are still basically day trips or weekenders basing out of a campsite or your vehicle, still fun but I wanted to take it a step further. What if I could ride a bigger loop and camp when I wanted, where I wanted without being tethered to a base? I discovered mountain bike packing which begins the adventures. Remember that bike packing is not necessarily about the necessity of camping in the woods but sometimes a choice. All of the routes I have done to date have been solo and could be ridden in a day but that wasn’t the point.
I would like to say that it is always enjoyable but my first venture into the mountains with my bike packing setup was a suffer fest. It was an extended version of the Southern Traverse in the George Washington National Forest (GWNF). I was working way too many hours and not riding enough so the ride was not as enjoyable as it could have been. The trail was overgrown to the point of not being discernible at points; stinging nettles annoyed me and forced me to put on leg warmers in the summer to protect my legs. Berry briars pulled at my flesh and the bloodletting occurred. Shut up Jim…Excuses don’t fly in the mountains so you suck it up and survive to live another day. Speaking of berries….being that both blueberries and black berries were in season a bear wandered into my camp during the night but my best barking dog impression scared it away. I’m sure my HRM would have exploded during that non-encounter. Glad I hung my food, trash, etc. in a bear bag. Anyway I survived the trip and learned and enjoyed the trip. This was a sub 24 hour (S24O) adventure. And yes it was fun!
My next adventure was again tough but posed different challenges. This trip was to take my up and down Elliot’s Knob in the GWNF, the 12th highest peak in Virginia at about 4,500 feet. The beginning trail was softer than I anticipated and not as rideable and parts of the route involved more hike a bike (HAB) up and DOWN! Still, I was not in as good of shape as I needed to be but better than the first trip and I was more mentally prepared. The night was colder and windier than my 45 degree bag limits and I had to get creative with all the other clothing I had with me and I slept relatively well. A buddy later told me that he checked the temps in the valley the night I was up there and it was in the high 30’s so no doubt with the wind it was in the low 30’s and windy. I had a nice fire that night before hitting the sack and really enjoyed a hot breakfast and coffee tin the morning, watching the sun rise higher in the sky, warming me up. Going to sleep and waking up with the views from the top of a mountain are pretty incredible. Another great learning experience and getting stronger all the time and getting the gear dialed in. This was another S24O adventure and much more enjoyable than the first one.
There are three key lessons learned from my first two trips; the first lesson being that I had to lose weight and get myself much fitter. I’ve since lost over 20 pounds and have had much more saddle time, loaded, unloaded, road, and trail. If you have poor endurance and fitness it’s going to hurt. Let’s be real…it’s still gonna hurt at times anyway but at least being fit its less likely that it will hurt as much.
The second lesson learned is that routes on a map are not always what they seem. On my first trip one of the Forest Service (FS) Roads on the map turned out to be a crappy, rocky, rutted, slightly overgrown path requiring a lot of HAB…once I reached the single track it was very nice, totally rideable and I was able to get some miles under my tires. Conversely, on the second trip the starting single track does not see much traffic and the dead vegetation built up on the trail surface was soft and felt like riding in sand. Unless you recon trails or scour blogs (info is scarce for east coast trails) this might be unavoidable and you just have to deal with it. Building mental toughness helps, a lot.
The third lesson learned is that you ARE going to push your bike. Add whatever weight of your gear, food, and water to your bike weight and that’s what you are dealing with. You probably are not going to be able to pedal up and maybe not even down everything. Get used to riding with a load, the bike handles, brakes and climbs differently but not nearly as different as you may imagine. HAB is not fun but it is a good break from the saddle and uses your legs differently. It uses your upper body so you might need to work on your noodle arms. Ride your local trails with the loaded bike, push some hills, see what it all feels like. Back to the story.
The last trip was to take me back up Elliot’s Knob again but adding in Crawford Mountain as a bonus. I used some of the route from the first trip up Elliot’s. I opted to take a FS road to bypass about 6 miles of the spongy single track. Wise choice, smart route selection kept me fresher for later in the ride since I was extending the mileage and climbing on this trip. I made it to camp in about half the time I did on the first venture up Elliot’s. About 30 minutes before I hit camp it started raining sideways so I threw on my rain coat and kept cranking away. How many miles do you go when you are stopped? That’s right, zero, may as well keep moving. The cool rain revitalized me and motivated me to get to camp and get set up for the night. I changed into dry camp clothes, set up camp in a stand of pines and built a small fire, set up my tent and laid out my sleeping gear, and relaxed with a hot meal savoring the silence.
Day two was going to take me into the unknown, I had been down Elliot’s Knob but this trip would take me up Crawford Mountain. The ride down Elliot’s starts out rocky then gets rockier before turning into some of the best contour line single track I’ve ridden, anywhere. I stopped at Buffalo Spring coming off Elliot’s and topped off with water. Crawford Mountain was a total unknown but it looked good on the map, albeit steep on the climb up. Yep, it was steep and the HAB commenced but it was a wide path and I made rather quick work of the climb. Yep, fitness helps. Once I got to the ridge, I stopped and took a break, had a snack and then got rolling on the awesome ridgeline single track. If you have not done any ridge riding in Virginia you are missing something special. You don’t get the vistas like out west but the riding is generally great. Heck, riding in the mountains whether on the ridges or contours is great and the elevation is not bad. You WILL experience rocks though so if you always ride around the tiny rock garden at Quantico you might want to start riding it. Anyway, back to Crawford.
So I had a choice to make, ride down a legal MTB trail off the side of the mountain that I did not want to be on or down a trail that was marked for hiking…but did not prohibit mountain bikes, to where I wanted to be. Ok, down the hiking trail I went. Certain points were rocky and not rideable (loaded) for me. (NOTE: When riding solo you have to realize that there is no buddy to come to your aid so you err on the side of caution at times.) 95% of the trail was totally rideable and I had a big smile on this long downhill. I’m sure that I could have cooked a meal on my brakes as I maintained a sane speed with the load on the bike. I came across a few hikers who inquired about my setup and I happily shared my knowledge and they were quite impressed knowing where I came from the day before. The Coalpit Hollow trail dumped me out on a dirt road which would lead me to Deerfield Valley Road taking me south down the valley to Dry Gap Road and back to my truck. But first…outrun the HUGE black lab that was apparently more interested in me than the BM that he was in the middle of. There’s nothing like a dog chasing you to get your heart rate up….especially on a bike. Onto the pavement, shock and fork locked out….check; let’s cruise. There’s a little market in the middle of Deerfield that is owned by Cooter from the original Dukes of Hazard. I always stop there and have a Coke, Snickers, and PowerAde for the final push to the wherever the truck happens to be. It’s a beautiful cruise down the valley through farms and trees along the Calf Pasture River. There are a few easy graded climbs along the way but its paved so easy riding.
The turn up Dry Creek Gap Road is a welcome site but it’s 100% gravel road uphill from here as the truck is parked on the ridge. It’s simple, find a gear and go, enjoy the views and make sure you listen for oncoming vehicles ‘cause there are lot of blind corners and vehicles that are not always fully on their side of the road. Sneak past the house with the dog that followed me and barked at me for ½ mile last time…..no dog in sight, good. Before I know it I’m back at the truck thankful in ways but knowing that soon I’ll be itching for another adventure. Maybe someone will join me? BTW…stay tuned for the next report(s)….they should be bigger and better!
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Written and produced by Jim Owen.