A Guide to Desert Bikepacking

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Feeling the itch to head south? Make the most of the American Southwest desert season with our guide to fine tuning your bikepacking rig for a winter adventure. Glean techniques on repairing tubeless tires, helpful tips to get you started, a suggested packlist to get you going, and ideas on where to ride.

A Guide to Desert Bikepacking

Aside from the relatively newfound joys of winter fat biking, the dark and frigid winter days can be a challenging time for bikepackers. But fear not… if you’re dreaming of sunshine and blue skies, a bout of desert bikepacking provides the perfect antidote to tide you through till spring. What’s more, there’s little to beat a desert adventure to lift the spirits. Far removed from sprawling cities and their pervasive light pollution, kipping out under a night sky crammed with stars is a grounding experience that’s hard to match. Likewise, exploring the bizarre and prickly world of desert cacti, grasses, shrubs, and wildflowers is a wonder in itself.

  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking
  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking

7 Desert Bikepacking Tips

Like anything else, desert bikepacking has its own set of considerations and gear refinements. Given that locals inevitably have their own, well-honed take on the subject, we talked to Gary Blakley, an experienced Southwest bikepacker, about what he packs on a typical desert tour. Here’s the tips he had to share.

1. Don’t run out of H20!

On a typical desert bikepack – particularly where water points are unknown – reckon on carrying a maximum of to 5-7 litres (170-240oz) of water at any one time. Gary stores up to 3 liters in his framebag, using a Platy Bottle, 1 1/2 under the downtube using an extended cage (see Bike setup below), and up 3 more in a backpack when necessary. Keep a beady eye out for windmills and solar powered wells. Unless pumped water is flowing strongly, filtering water is generally recommended; use a bandana to strain it first to remove particulates, if needed. Gary normally packs Aquamira drops, or a Sawyer Mini Filter. The USB-powered STERIPen Freecom, which can be charged via a dynamo hub or solar panels, is also a good option.

160210_southern_NM_bikepacking_267-2

  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking
  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking

2. Bring electrolytes too

Drinking water isn’t always enough on its own. Electrolytes help your body absorb H2O more efficiently, replacing valuable salts and minerals that are lost through sweat and exertion. They’ll also a great way to replenish your energy levels at the end of the day, setting you up for the next round of riding. Nuun tablets are a favourite, while Gary opts for Hammer Endurolytes.

3. Ditch the Tubes

Go tubeless! The American Southwest is mined with cacti and goatheads; tubeless is really the only way to go to enjoy puncture-free outings. Be generous with the amount of sealant you load into your tires. Add an extra ounce or two for each relevant tire size and carry 2-4oz spare too. Here at Bikepacking.com, we’ve had lots of success with both Stans and Orange Seal; the later seems to ball up a bit less in dry climates. In the unlikely event that your sealant won’t plug a hole, make sure you check your tire thoroughly first before you fit a tube. If you do insist on running tubes, choose the kind that feature a removable core and gorge them with with sealant. Take extra care not to stray off trail, as that’s where the majority of goatheads lurk. Lastly, choose a tire with a robust sidewall, as volcanic rock and lava flows can be razor sharp. As a general rule of thumb, the heavier the tire, the stouter the sidewall.

A Guide to Desert Bikepacking

4. Know how to repair a sidewall

Given that desert terrain can be a jumble of razor sharp rocks – and tubeless tires are more prone to sidewall failures than regular ones – knowing what to do in an emergency is extremely useful. Tire plugs will repair most cuts – use them with the tool provided to blot a tire wound. To fix larger cuts without unseating the tire, use a heavy, curved needle (size 6 or 7) and a length of dental floss or better still, kite string. Superglue dabbed over your needlework is recommended too.

For longer, 2-3” gashes where the tire bead needs to be broken, clean the area thoroughly and add a section of sidewall cut out from an old tire or motorbike patch, using Shoe Goo (REI has small containers) to glue in the boot after sewing the cut (if you’re running tubes, Park Tool’s TB2 glueless tire boots work well). Ideally, let the glue dry overnight with an inflated tube in place to hold pressure on it. When carrying out this repair, try not to break both sides of your tire bead – this will make it far easier to reinflate tubeless using a trail pump. If your in-the-field fix won’t hold, make sure you remove all the thorns from the casing before you fit an inner tube.

  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking
  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking

    A Guide to Desert Bikepacking

    A Guide to Desert Bikepacking

  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking

Sidewall repair

5. Leave the stove at home

If you know you’re sure you’ll have regular resupply points en route, save weight by indulging in local cuisine. The Southwest abounds with great Mexican restaurants; a take out burrito makes the perfect, transportable, bikepacking dinner. Coffee drinkers may well find Instant Starbucks Via, mixed with whole dried milk and cold water in a bike bottle, surprisingly agreeable. As for breakfast, instant oatmeal will rehydrate fine in cold water.

  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking
  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking

A Guide to Desert Bikepacking

6. Leave the tent at home

Always check the weather before you go. For the most part, a simple, lightweight and minimal tarp will suffice – to cut blustery evening winds, more than anything. Note that spring can bring strong wind conditions. Otherwise, sleeping out under the stars is one of the great treats of desert bikepacking. Generally speaking, critters hibernate during the winter, so there’s not too much to fear… Arroyos offer soft, thorn and wind free cubby holes in which to roll out your mat. But choose elevated ones and avoid at all costs if the weather is mixed – especially if there’s any risk of a flash flood. Although critters are rarely an issue over winter, sleep away from vegetation where possible.

A Guide to Desert Bikepacking

7. Protect yourself from the sun

Last but not least, protect your pasty winter hue from the sun! Long sleeve, synthetic tops often work best for riding in. Don’t forget your sunglasses, and be sure not to skimp on sun cream. Dermatone offer a good range of compact, lips and face protection.

The bike

Aside from running your tires up tubeless, setting up your bike for a desert adventure doesn’t require any radical changes, except for the provision to carry extra water. Water bottle cages can easily be supplemented to suspension forks with hose clamps, or even just electrical tape. As you can see from the images below, Gary’s AM Peirce is a custom frameset built with bikepacking in mind. For off the shelf options, you can always invest in a bikepacking-specific rigid fork from the likes of Surly or Salsa that features eyelets for water bottles cages, a Salsa Anything Cage or Blackburn Designs’ Outpost Cargo Cage, freeing up framebag space to carry extra H2O. Centering the weight, frame bags provide the perfect place to stash an extra water bladder, along with a water bottle cage under the downtube – some frames even have room for an Anything Cage, with a 64oz Kleen Kanteen (Revelate’s Washboard straps are great for holding it in place). For more water hauling ideas, see here. Unless your route demands extended hike a bikes, we’d always recommend getting your bike to do the heavy lifting, and not your shoulders. Gary uses a mix of lightweight bikepacking gear – some of which is constructed with Cuben Fiber – from Porcelain Rocket and Oveja Negra.

As for tires, large volume and ‘Plus’ sizes help considerably when negotiating both rocky and sandy stretches. If you have one in your quiver, a fat bike will open up potential for serious arroyo explorations.

A Guide to Desert Bikepacking

  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking
  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking

The Desert Packlist

We asked Gary to share his typical packlist – which, as you can see, is a mixture of purchased gear and homemade items. Treat it as a good starting point/checklist to be adapted and honed for your own needs, factoring in local conditions before making your final selection. Note that Gary’s packlist isn’t aiming to be a race-light setup. Rather, it’s a streamlined, time-tested suggestion that caters for a variety of conditions, without overly sacrificing comfort. Remember that deserts can get cold and windy at night, especially when they’re at high elevation.

A Guide to Desert Bikepacking

  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking
  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking
  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking
  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking
  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking

CLOTHING

  • Regular bike shorts worn under Endura Humvee ¾ length pants or Endura Singletrack shorts, depending on temperatures.
  • One Smartwool and one polypropylene top; if it’s cool I wear them both. I like zips on at least one of them. Most people love wool, and for wet environments it may be best. But for dry places I prefer Poly as it dries faster, feels cooler, and lasts forever.
  • A super light windshirt (less than 4 oz). Mine is by Montane. It’s one of my most used pieces of clothing, as it breathes really well and adds warmth for very little weight. It also dries very quickly.
  • Leg warmers; that I roll up to make knee warmers.
  • Gloves; a set for cycling, along with over gloves for cold/rain
  • Sunglasses
  • Bike-specific shoes; Pearl Izumi’s X-Alp series are by far the best hike-a-bike shoes I’ve worn. I far prefer a rubber sole over a plastic one, especially for hiking and walking.
  • Light wool cap and thin balaclava
  • Patagonia rain jacket; for desert trips where there’s not too much chance of rain, it only needs to be light and basic.
  • Montbell UL down jacket; one of my favorite pieces of clothing, it offers a lot of warmth for very little weight, and packs down quite small.

During the day, I keep the clothing I think I’ll need in my Osprey Talon 11 backpack for easy access.

At night, I always sleep with long underwear to keep the bag clean and help with comfort. In colder weather I wear a light polypro or thin wool top and bottom, and in warm weather I use very thin silk. The socks I wear depend on the expected temperature.

  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking
  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking

Sleeping

  • Homemade Tyvek bivy – Kite Tyvek (available on Ebay) is quieter and less stiff than the regular house wrap. I used spray adhesive to hold it together, with velcro strips where a zipper would go. The design is modelled around a Montbell bivy.
  • Western Mountaineering Summerlite (32 deg, 19 oz); amply wamr for most situations, especially when teamed with my homemade Tyvek bivy, along with extra clothing. I can sleep fairly comfortably down to the mid to low 20’s (-5c).
  • 6 Moon Designs Deschutes tarp; if I’m expecting wind or any rain. Note that tent stakes designed for sandy conditions – like MSR’s Blizzard stakes – can be useful, depending on terrain.
  • Thermarest Neo Air; the Short version to save bulk and weight.
  • Ground cloth; I use a piece of Polycryo ground cloth, a heat shrink window film that’s amazingly tough and weighs virtually nothing. It’s a pain to set up in the wind though – I use rocks to hold it in place.

A Guide to Desert Bikepacking

Kitchen

  • Homemade beer can alcohol stove (click here for fabrication ideas)
  • Homemade pot support and windscreen
  • Evernew 900ml Ti pot
  • Lexan spoon
  • Pocket knife
  • Lighter
  • Matches
  • Wool hat as cozy or mylar bubble insulation pot cozy
  • GSI insulated mug; a nice ‘luxury’ for when you have time to sit and enjoy the morning coffee.
  • Aquamira drops; I have a Sawyer Mini filter too but prefer the drops unless I expect nasty water, as they’re less hassle.
  • Sit pad; I use a small section of car windshield heat reflector to sit on, well worth the extra weight.
  • Trowel; indirectly related to eating… eg Deuce UL trowel. Please remember the Leave No Trace principles.

Electronics

  • Lumix DMC-Zs25 point and shoot carried in pouch on shoulder strap of pack.
  • Smartphone with a spare battery. Mine is a Galaxy S4; batteries are inexpensive and it has an SD card slot for storing base maps, downloaded via Gaia’s Navigational App.
  • Garmin GPS
  • Headtorch; I love my Black Diamond Revolt. It can be charge via USB, but conveniently, also uses AAA batteries.

Spares/Tools

  • 2×29” tubes w/removable cores, QBP brand
  • 2 oz. bottle of Stans sealant (I take 2 of these on a long trip)
  • Topeak multitool w/chainbreaker, separate small hex wrenches
  • Leatherman Squirt (tiny tool w/pliers and scissors)
  • Bolts; extra water cage bolt, chainring nut and bolt, cleat bolt
  • Tire repair: tire boot material, needle and thread for tire repair, tire plug kit, shoe goo, super glue, patch kit
  • Shift cable
  • 1 set of brake pads
  • Fiber Fix spoke
  • Spare alloy nipples
  • Around 6 extra chain links and 2 extra quick links
  • Safety wire, lots of zip ties and assorted rubber bands
  • Duct tape and electrical tape wrapped around a pump
  • Small bottle of lube and rag; desert conditions strip oil in no time.
  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking
  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking
  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking

Where to go

In the States, the Southwest abounds with great desert riding over the winter, including Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada and Southern California. Grab a Delorme Gazetteer, or plug into Google Earth, and start exploring. Pipeline and powerline roads are inevitably direct, but can often be monotonous or exhausting, as they’re not known for following the contours of the land. For the most part, large swathes of National Forest and BLM land means access is very good in the Southwest – just be aware of private ranchland and federal Indian reservations, the borders of which aren’t always shown on maps. To help figure out boundaries and avoid privae property in the US, CalTopo is a great program to become familiar with, thanks to its Land Management layer.

Some of our favourites winter desert tours include:

Have more time to ride? Head south to Mexico’s Baja California:

  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking
  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking
  • A Guide to Desert Bikepacking

The images for this post were taken on a winter bikepacking trip in Southern New Mexico, a section of which was part of the Monumental Loop. Thanks to Gary Blakley for his insights and the bikepacking crew in Las Cruces for their excellent trail advice.

Have any desert riding tips to share? Let us know in the comments below!

Tags

  • swbackcountry

    Like it!

  • Jake Kruse

    cool post. may be relocating to las cruces in the near future, look forward to this kind of desert exploration!

  • Cass Gilbert

    Jake, there’s some great desert riding there! Drop into Outdoor Adventures – they’ll put you in touch with the bikepacking crowd. A really cool ride is being developed there at the moment – the Monumental Loop – which will take in some of the best trails in the area.

  • Matt M.

    Still riding hard on that ripped Chronicle. Patched from the inside, sewed and superglued from the outside.

  • Christophe Noel

    As a desert dweller myself, this is one of the best bikepacking editorials I’ve read in a very long time. Great job! The one other thing I bring in the desert is a small bottle of lube and a swatch of rag. I did the White Rim last year and the silty sand made for one of the most annoying drivetrains ever. A little lube and clean and it was quiet again.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks Christophe.

    Quite right about the lube. Desert conditions strip oil in no time. My mistake – Gary mentioned he does the same as you. I just forgot to list them.

  • Matt M.

    Or just ignore all this nonsense and call your wife for a ride home if something goes wrong.

    Jake Kruse–not sure when are moving to LC but there will be a presentation on bikepacking in southern NM on April 22. More info at http://www.nmbikeed.org/?page_id=20

  • Cass Gilbert

    (-;

    Matt, look forward to meeting up in the summer!

  • Christophe Noel

    Again, I really enjoy the thoughtful and comprehensive approach to your editorials. I do enough of them to see how much effort you put into them. Despite living in the desert, I sure hate getting dirty. My wife jokes that I used to be a cat in another life. I find myself using my precious water supplies to wash up before getting into my sleep layers. Dirt. Ew!

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    I carry wet-wipes, no matter the locale :)

  • Matt M.

    Me, my curved needle, and glue will be ready. So will the little one.

  • Christophe Noel

    I still carry action wipes, but I started to not like having a pile of dirty wipes to lug around for a few days. They are convenient, though.

  • Jake Kruse

    Matt, great heads up. Coincidentally I will be visiting that weekend. Will put it in the plans to attend!

  • Joel Masson

    Great writeup. What bike is that? I’m looking for a new bike and just trying to explore my options.

  • Matt M.

    The plan is ride out into the desert for an overnighter following the event and you’d of course be welcome. Either way I’ll look forward to meeting you and sharing a bit about LC.

  • Jack Kirby

    Great write-up – thanks Cass. I live in Las Cruces, and somehow managed to miss all of the rides that contributed to parts of the article. OK (Matt) – I’ll give up the stove, but you will hear me complaining about cold coffee…

  • K7

    The Mojave Rd from Needles to Baker could be an epic trip. Water is a concern – the route follows an old route which horse riders and wagons found water every 12-14 miles. I think iodine and a water filter would be 100% necessary. You’d need food for three days also.

  • Dan Carter

    Great article! We also just completed a route from Las Cruces to Silver City that mostly follows the Butterfield Overland Stage Route. It only has about 20 miles of pavement and a stop at Faywood Hot Springs! There is so much riding down here!

  • Cass Gilbert

    Sounds fantastic! Would love to see the route if you have a gpx.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Details are in the post – it’s a custom Andy Peirce frame.

    See ‘The Bike’ section in this post for advice, rr the Bikepacking 101 part of the site:
    http://www.bikepacking.com/bikepacking-101/

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks for the ideas!

  • K7

    I might be available for that ride in the fall. If you decide to give it a shot, let me know.

  • Jake Kruse

    Officially moved in to LC now. Just went out and did some riding in the Lincoln NF this week. Would love to get plugged in with the local bike packing crew, the riding down here seems excellent.

  • Jake Kruse

    Matt. Sorry I was not able to make it to the presentation. I am all settled in to Las Cruces now and would be excited to hear about routes you are working on, or meeting up for some trips and riding. Let me know how to get in touch!

  • Matt M.

    Riding is indeed excellent. A few of us just did a 60 mile loop in the rain and cold up in Cloudcroft. Felt great to shiver uncontrollably in August!

    Hit up the folks at Outdoor Adventures and they’ll get you my contact info.

  • Matt M.

    Jake–didn’t realize until just now that I raced SS with you this weekend. I was the idiot on the fat bike.

    The folks at Outdoor Adventures know me and can get you my contact info. Big weekend rides are happening and longer overnights will be more frequent as the temps cool.

  • samgreene

    At Bosa donuts in Las Cruces, pictured above, get two brisket burritos.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Good to know, thanks!

  • Kristopher Dennan

    Is late April, early May get me in the high heat zone and “critter’s” looking to sack up with me at night?
    Just can’t pull of a mid-winter trip right now

  • Saad Bendrioua

    the tent it’s so important on desert to avoir insects and snakes !!

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