I’ve found fat biking and winter camping to be an awesome way to keep trail riding and stay connected to the outdoors during the winter months. But, around March when the birds start chirping and the snow in my backyard starts to expose a winter’s worth of dog poop I become pretty eager for an overnight trip into the backcountry on dirt. This year the Coronavirus got in the way of my spring trip to the Maah Daah Hey Trail, but not before I had already spent a few weeks planning.
Bikepacking early spring can provide empty trails and campgrounds, perfect riding weather, and an abundance of water sources. That said, when you live in the Rocky Mountains trying to find a clear route and cooperative weather without heading to the desert isn’t always easy. I certainly haven’t mastered spring bikepacking, but this guide to shoulder season bikepacking will cover everything I’ve learned in two sections: planning and packing.
Route Planning: I’ve found planning a concise route to be the most difficult part about bikepacking during the early months of spring. Sitting on Ride with GPS, looking at the same route over and over again isn’t going to help you predict the weather or trail conditions. Mostly, it will just drive you crazy.
When determining a spring route that has a good chance of being rideable I tend to look for areas with moderate elevation gain that I know tend to have dryer winters within driving distance of Missoula. I know many people are thinking, “Moderate elevation gain? No thanks, boring,” and I understand your gripes, but for me, especially in the early riding season it is more about getting out there and seeing new places. There are some really great rail trails, bike paths, and river bottom networks that clear up early and provide some epic overnights.
Once I’ve pinpointed exactly where I want to ride and surely gotten my hopes up that I will get ride said route, I start investigating the weather. There are a ton of really great ways to check in on snow line, river crossings, and trail conditions. The list below will get you thinking about different weather elements and how to factor them into your trip.
National Park Service Webcams: If your trip is going to be in or near a National Park this is a great resource to get up to date activity of what is happening in your proposed area.
U.S. Forest Service Snow Map: Snow is something to consider when backcountry in the mountains, sometimes even through June. There are many snow cover maps available, but this Forest Service interactive map can give great detail on the depth of snow in your riding area.
U.S. Forest Service & BLM: Websites for both these land management agencies are a great jumping off point. Reaching out to a local ranger is a great option. They can provide you with local advice and current conditions.
USGS Water Data: If your trip is going to take place anywhere near rivers, streams, or floodplains this water data site is a great resource to check conditions. River crossings can be tricky and dangerous in the spring. Knowing the cubic feet per second and taking it seriously is crucial.
MDT Road Conditions & USDA Montana Snow Depth: Both state Department of Transportation and the USDA provide some excellent information. These are two resources I turn to when I want snow depth at a pass or live webcams for certain highways. I may not be traveling on that specific road but it can give me insight on conditions in the area.
Knowing these conditions won’t guarantee your trip is going to be flowers and sunshine, but it will help you learn to navigate elevation, local conditions, and potential water issues during your planning process. Because there is no such thing as foolproof route, planning for a spring adventure I always try to have at least two backup routes or plans.
Missoula is lucky to be within a ten hour drive from many different types of environments and riding areas. Planning for a long weekend on the Maah Daah Hey trail in North Dakota I have 600 miles of Montana to prepare some backup plans if the trail is too caked with wet bentonite clay. Due to the remote proximity of the Maah Daah Hey trail the bikepacking backup options are a bit slim. I generally negotiate this type of problem by looking at local mountain bike trail networks for day rides, hiking trails, or some good state parks and camping spots.
The last thing you want to do is drive all day to find out your route is impassable. But, having a back up plan anywhere in between home and your destination will make accommodating for the poor weather or trail conditions easier. This will also save you time, which will get you on your way to Plan B quicker.
Packing: Now that you've thoroughly scoured maps, talked to a local ranger, and determined whether you can cross that creek in the middle of your route the next challenge is knowing what to pack. This can be a tough task in the spring. Many ultra-light riders are only going to worry about nutrition and shelter while some folks are going to pack for the worst. Experience with both types of packing has helped me realize a nice in between is best.
Clothing is a place to carefully consider what you are bringing as it can really make or break your trip. I aim for one “off bike” set of clothing and one “on bike” with a few exceptions. I really rely on layers. I’ll generally bring an Endura rain jacket and/or soft shell, a flannel, and long sleeve wicking base layer. These can cover all sorts of conditions and when layered will keep me warm even in snow. I know many people are going to sneer at bringing a flannel and say, “cotton is a bad choice, you’ll never dry out”. Well, I love riding in flannel, it is lightweight and suits the swing season weather. Not to mention, it acts as an off bike long sleeve that helps me look a little less “bike tourist” when I stop somewhere for a beer or burger. So move on haters.
I’ll ride in a pair of Yeti Cycles mountain bike shorts and usually pack just one pair of chamois. As the wind and weather can change rapidly in the spring I bring knee or leg warmers, two pairs of gloves (one insulated, one full finger mountain bike gloves), and a skull cap for under my helmet.
I know they are going to get crusty, but one pair of bike socks is enough for me, because the catch is this “pair” is three socks. The story here is, I was drying socks on my tail bag while riding through the middle of the Superior National Forest and at some point along the trail just one sock jumped ship. I loved those socks, so I bought a new pair and started carrying the three together. Now I carry all bike socks in a group of three and rotate in a different sock each day. This keeps the crunch level down and if I lose one again I’ll still have two to keep on riding.
As I mentioned I try to stick with one set of off bike clothing. You know that I’ve already got my incredibly versatile flannel, but now for more bike touring controversy. A pair of Carhartts or Kuhl Rydr’s are coming with me. I know they are heavy and bulky, but over the years I’ve made the space for them and if I’m hiking or climbing around camp I’d prefer to have a durable pair of slacks. One knit beanie, two pairs of wool socks, one pair of skivvies, and a swimsuit, because you never know when you may get to swim, round out my clothing. The second pair of wool socks are great for riding in if the weather sucks.
Gear tends to be pretty similar to what I would carry on any multi-day bikepacking trip. My toiletries consist of my toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, and some wet wipes. The wipes are great for more than just your butt. This kit is pretty minimal, but shampoos, soaps, and lotions can add quite a bit of weight and will be used only occasionally. I’ve found that if I’m going to find a shower somewhere the likelihood there is shampoo or soap is strong.
The shelter to carry really depends on where you’ll be camping. I generally use a Eno Pro Rain Fly in place of a tent. It packs much smaller and can fit two people and gear under there just fine. If staying at a Forest Service or private campground along the way I think a tent is a good option. This allows for some privacy in a more populated camping environment. During the early spring months most Forest Service campgrounds are not open to vehicle traffic yet so the need for privacy isn’t as necessary.
Due to the colder spring temperatures a sleeping pad is really a must have item. Providing insulation and comfort really helps with better sleep through chilly nights. This also allows for the use of a thinner sleeping bag if you don’t want to carry that 0° bag. Because of the likelihood of wet conditions during a spring tour a synthetic or synthetic down sleeping bag can be paramount. On the bummer of an occasion your bag gets wet the synthetic material will dry at a faster rate than traditional down.
Kitchen gear and tools should really be pretty similar to what you’d use on any bikepacking excursion. A small pot, water filter, stove, and fuel will get you cooking and drinking. While a spork, cup, and bowl should be enough to enjoy your meals. If you are a coffee drinker I’d suggest the AeroPress or the Stanley Mug French Press which works well with tea too. I carry the same small roll of tools that I also carry while I mountain bike. What that consists of can be very particular per person and the contents of mine can wait for another blog post.
Due to the potential snow, cold water crossings, flooded roads, and overall unpredictable nature of spring, bikepacking during March or April may seem completely foolish. But again, exploring new or familiar areas void of crowds, cars, and summer heat can be pretty marvelous. Just be sure to pack properly, plan for the worst, plan again, and let us know if you need a hand or have a rad trip we can join you on. Cheers.