Bike Explorer-ing 101 - A WTF adventure through Sisters, Oregon
Taking in the vista - The Oregon ‘Hoo doos’, a posse of balancing rocks in the center, and Lake Billy Chinook winds into the distance on the Left.
One hazy day, I rendezvoused with three of the organizers of the WTF Bikeexplorers Summit and nine more women in Sisters, Oregon. We strapped a few supplies onto our bikes and headed further into the dramatic wilderness of the Oregon high desert for an overnight excursion.
One of the things that made this trip so special was the wide range of experience levels present, from Instagram certified shredders to casual riders and a few experienced cyclists looking to get their dirt legs. This created a great opportunity to learn from each other while we swapped adventure stories and inspiration for the next adventure. As someone who still feels inexperienced of the road after years of bike touring, I acquired a list of tips and lessons, as well as a sizable stack of photos which I would love to share with you here.
One of the biggest differences in the gear required for bike packing compared to your ‘standard’ on-road adventure is your luggage. Panniers tend to rattle around quite a bit. In addition to forcing you to listen to nothing but the metal hooks clanging against your rack as you try to take in the peaceful respite of nature, this can cause the rack or the hooks to crack on particularly rough roads (but that’s a story for another time… ) Luggage sold for bikepacking tends to not require a rack, and be soft, so it can cinch down onto your frame or handlebars and won’t jangle around. In addition, front loading the weight is better for navigating tricky terrain. A seat pack, handlebar ‘roll’ and frame bag is a great option if you plan to be shredding a lot. Relevate, Oveja Negra, and Apidura all make great versions of these, but a full setup can easily exceed $400.
A variety of ways to strap large things to small bikes. Photos: Cayla Small, @caylosaurus
Luckily, there are a variety of options depending on the type of bike you are riding and your budget. Salsa anything cages are a great, affordable way to carry dry bags and weirdly shaped objects if you have mounts on your fork. Cinching dry bags to your handle bars using Voile straps is a great alternative. These little accessories ended up playing an oversized roll in our trip; On Friday Glori made a rather dramatic entrance after her bike fell off the car rack and was dragged down the highway, held on by only one Voile strap, and by the time we rolled back into town on Sunday several more of us had to reattach our luggage to our bikes with spare Voile straps, leading me to wonder why I had opted for a $110 handlebar roll instead of a pair of $6 straps and a dry bag.
Mary Lyttle giving REI a run for their money with a simple bag hack Photo: Jocelyn Gaudi Quarrell @joceygq
Baskets are another versatile and pretty damned cute option, allowing you to pile up bulky items on the front and quickly strap them down with a bungee net. While they may not be ideal for bombing down singletrack, at around $25 Wald baskets are tried and true sidekicks for all sorts of bicycle adventures.
A basket (and a solid dose of Oregon sunshine) makes anyone look like they are having a better time than you
Plan a route… or just meet a route planner.
Jocelyn scoping out the terrain
Jocelyn had trekked out to the high desert several weeks prior to pin down the most scenic campsites and work out a combination of roads which would balance epic views with beginner friendly terrain. Our route was composed of a selection of Central Oregon forest roads with navigable trails and unique landmarks which had come recommended from other mountain bikers and bike packers, stitched together with a bit of pavement. After turning off a country highway and into the Deschutes National Forest, we discovered the striking view across lake Billy Chinook and the mysterious ‘Hoo-doos’, or balancing rocks, which made this route the clear winner.
Asking for recommendations on routes from more experienced bikepackers and mountain bikers is one of the best ways to discover an exciting new route. Once you’ve gotten a recommendation for a destination or trail which appeals to you, and seems within your skill level, you can stitch it together with other nearby routes through using Ride with GPS, which includes pictures and descriptions for routes which other users have designed. If you are in National Forest Land, The Forest service maintains an interactive map of all of the tiny roads and trails that run through these areas, how developed they are, and the average grade. Keep in mind that riding gravel can be significantly slower than pavement, so you will be able to cover less miles in a day. Once you’ve loaded up your bike and plotted out a route, it's time to hit the road! (or trail, or unimproved gravel track)
Trust your bike, trust yourself
Our first day of riding took us across a dusty patch of the Deschutes National Forest, underneath fragrant ponderosa pines and through ashy clearings. As the terrain began to slope down, the forest parted to revealed the neighboring ‘Three Sisters’ Mountains. Soon the well maintained gravel forest service roads decomposed to double track comprised of silty red sand studded with rocks the size of a baby’s head. With little off road riding experience under my bibs, I initially tensed up and braced my arms to try and stop my handlebars from turning each time the front wheel glanced off a rock. As soon as the riding got a bit more technical, Jocelyn, one of the ride organizers, shared some solid bike handling advice- ‘Trust your Bike’...after all they are made for this! Loosen up a bit, and give your handlebars some freedom to move as your bike finds the path of least resistance. It's also important to keep your own skills and comfort level in mind, and to know when you need to walk your bike around an obstacle or technical bit of terrain. With this in mind, I bounced across the rocky terrain with significantly more confidence.
Amy doing a really amazing job of not running into that rock!
After a ten mile descent into the gorge carved by the Metolius River, we reached the secluded campground which would be our home for the night. Despite being an ‘official’ campsite, the sprawling area was completely empty, and we found a site nestled in the crook of the river, guarded by an osprey nest, and saturated in golden light and the rich, herbal scent of Central Oregon. After a long day in the saddle, everyone settled into the comforting camp routine of staking out tents and hammocks, stoking a fire, and purifying water to prepare a well earned dinner.
My preferred abode: an Eno hammock and down sleeping bag, both of which can smush into my saddle bag
On the road, you can usually count on passing a few faucets and a grocery store or snack filled grocery store. That’s not an option in the woods, so be sure to pack a water filtration system or enough water for your trip.
Cayla fighting off evil water bacteria using the force...and a UV water purifier
How remote your trip is also affects your choice of food. The majority of my travel companions opted for dehydrated camping meals which could be quickly prepared with a jetboil stove and some water. There are any number of recipes for making satisfying substitutes for the processed pouches which can be found at any outdoor store. Two of my accomplices opted for a beige mush of instant mashed potato flakes and bacon bits inspired by a loaded baked potato, which was actually quite tasty. My favorite recipe of the sort is a pad thai type creation with dried peanut butter. Grilling your meals is a delicious option which avoids the necessity of carrying a pot or stove. Mary wrapped up some homemade seitan sausages, and made a satisfying and very photogenic meal by simply throwing them on the grill.
The most photogenic vegan sausages east of Portland.
No matter how light you are traveling, it is almost always worth throwing in one ‘luxury item’. We arrived at camp with plenty of time to sit in the sun as the rays grew longer, and had plenty of jokes and stories to share as the campfire grew brighter. Cayla had stashed a tiny little chair in her bags in order to more fully enjoy story time, and Mary opted for a selection of the finest Oregon marijuana to share with the crew. I had a flask full of premixed Manhattans. Just adding a splash of vermouth to the whiskey made this seem like a luxurious treat in even the most dinged up camp cup. On the way back into Sisters the next morning, Jocelyn surprised us all by pulling a rainbow kite out of a tiny pocket in one of her bags, providing plenty of amusement for the crew as we regrouped and waited for everyone to adjust their luggage and finish their lunch.
The next day we aboutfaced and began climbing out of the gorge carved by the Metolius River where we had spent the night. Despite demanding some extra watts, Sunday’s uphill route provided rewarding new scenery. We had plenty of time to take in views of Black Butte and Mt Washington as we worked our way back into Sisters for Burritos, Margaritas, and the slow reacclimation to the bustle of civilization.