Bikepacker Seeking Overnight Companion

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Riding companions who are up for last-minute bikepacking trips are often few and far between. Thankfully, the online bikepacking community is quite active, and it’s growing every day. Turning to platforms like Instagram and Facebook is becoming a viable option when seeking romantic partners, high school friends, or in our case, bikepacking companionship. Read on for three of Miles’ latest meet ups, unofficially dubbed “bikepacking with strangers…”

If there’s one thing each of these tales has in common, it’s that they all revolve around fellow bikepacking enthusiasts that I’d yet to meet in person. Our communication was purely digital, which is far too common in today’s day and age, happening almost entirely over email or social media messaging. There’s also a certain element of last-minute planning in at least two of the following trips, a familiar situation I often find myself in. Every now and again I’ll put my head down and plan the perfect trip, but that often only happens for longer trips that actually require some decent foresight. When it comes to weekend trips or overnighters, I embrace the excitement of not knowing what’s in store, or in the case of the following stories, who I might be sharing the trail with.

Truth be told, I do most of my riding alone. When I have time off from my day job, you can pretty much guarantee I’ll be riding somewhere on my bike. An irregular work schedule in retail means planning rides with other people becomes a hassle, and sometimes I just want to wake up, pack my bike, and go. However, I must admit that I crave bikepacking companionship every now and again. Sharing a flowy section of singletrack with a friend, hooting and hollering down a particularly enjoyable descent, or swapping stories around a campfire are just some examples that add to the entire experience. And so, I present three different locations in Western Canada, three very different styles of trip, and a handful of new friends. This is bikepacking with strangers.

A Weekend in Whistler

Sproatt Mountain & Elfin Lakes / British Columbia

A quick Google search for Whistler will leave you dreaming of all sorts of adventurous weekend getaways. I had never visited British Columbia’s west coast before, but heard about the fantastic riding available straight out of the popular tourist destinations of Whistler and neighbouring Squamish. Both locations are more popular for their enduro and downhill mountain bike scenes, but with plenty of sub-alpine camping options accessible by foot or on bike, I figured bikepacking wouldn’t be too far fetched.

  • Bikepacking Whistler
  • Bikepacking Whistler

A long weekend and access to my girlfriend’s car meant I was in business. Although I would have been happy tackling this new terrain on my own, I wanted the guidance of a local. I’m not sure whether that was because I wanted to avoid big drops or hungry bears, but at the time it seemed like a good move. A quick post in the “BC Bikepacking” Facebook group led to some likes, a few inquiries on my plan, and a message request from a stranger. Shortly thereafter, I had a plan to drive to Squamish to meet up with Henry, a newcomer to the Facebook group. As far as I knew, he was as keen on bikepacking as I was. He had a full suspension mountain bike, an alcohol stove, and pot set. Really, what else could you ask for?

Henry was definitely a local shredder. He had worked as a video intern at the popular Retallack Lodge in the Selkirk Mountains, a place offering world-renowned cat skiing and mountain biking, and crushed the aspects of mountain biking that I could use some practice on: mainly the steep, loose, high-speed descents and drops that are littered across the Whistler / Squamish area.

Bikepacking Whistler

  • Bikepacking Whistler
  • Bikepacking Whistler

Although we left a good portion of the trip up to our imaginations, I did plan out a rough route with RWGPS and tossed it onto my Garmin just in case. Surprisingly enough, I ended out mapping a pretty sweet route that took us up the recently constructed Into the Mystic trail that eventually led to some superb sub-alpine trails on Sproatt Mountain. A bit more last-minute research confirmed that wild camping was available in the sub-alpine region of the trail network, as long as it wasn’t within the municipality’s watershed zone. The climb was difficult, but incredibly well made. The trail up top, aptly named On The Rocks, was technically satisfying and still doable on my rigid mountain bike, and offered the kind of riding I hadn’t experienced before but often dreamed about.

Everything went pretty much as planned. No big surprises. Well, right up until after we set up camp and Henry realized he had forgotten some necessary nightly medication. In a few minutes we were taking advantage of what little sunlight we had left and I was left struggling to keep up with Henry as he gracefully descended Lord of the Squirrels back into Whistler. Henry’s positivity and carefree attitude were infectious during our time riding together. I loved all of the strange looks we got; me riding a fully rigid Krampus and Henry on his full-suspension Giant Reign, an unusually satisfying combination.

Henry’s Take:

Step 1: Join BC Bikepacking facebook group.
Step 2: Reply to random guy’s post.
Step 3: Buy a poorly made bike bag because it was a “good deal.”
Step 4: Break said bike bag on the ride up.
Step 5: Ignore annoying broken bag and finish the climb.
Step 6: Realize you forgot your nightly medication.
Step 7: Confess to your newfound bikepacking partner that you have to go back down.
Step 8: Sigh deeply.
Step 9: Enjoy the descent as much as you can, considering your frame bag is now blocking you from pedaling.
Step 10: Still had a blast! When’s the next trip?

  • Bikepacking Whistler
  • Bikepacking Whistler

Bikepacking Whistler

I had a backup plan. The next day I drove to the Elfin Lakes parking lot in Squamish, a popular hiking destination due to the tolerable 10km climb in and well maintained trail. It’s not as rowdy as the Sproatt trails, but just as scenic. I ended up snagging an awesome tent platform amongst a busy bunch of high school students on a field trip of some kind. Soon after scoring my camping spot, the couple next to me introduced themselves and quickly revealed their understanding of bikepacking bikes and gear. Ed and Marti, avid cyclists themselves, were in the middle of a bike trip that started in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and ended down in La Paz, Baja, a few months after we met. We swapped stories of memorable bike rides, the gear we’ve used, and Ed even gave me some tips on night time photography. The next morning they had plans to hike deeper into Garibaldi Provincial Park, so after a short goodbye and exchange of nothing more than Instagram accounts, I shot back down the chunky doubletrack descent towards my car.

Overnight in the Okanagan

Myra Canyon / British Columbia

I’m not exactly sure what came first, Pat and I following each other on Instagram, or meeting him in a product knowledge course at Mountain Equipment COOP in Kelowna, where I was working. Either way, it was the Patagonia course that Pat was leading at my work that gave us both a glimpse of potential bikepacking companionship, but it wasn’t until a few weeks later that I received an Instagram message from @bikestachevalade suggesting an overnighter in Kelowna on his evening off from work. If you’re not familiar with the Okanagan Valley, where Kelowna is located, the best bikepacking almost always starts with a sizable climb out of the valley and out towards either forest service roads or rail trails like the popular KVR, part of the BC Trail route we published last fall. Although proof of the original Instagram conversion is no longer around, I believe the discussion went something like this…

Pat: Hey man, I’m in Kelowna on April 23rd – 24th, want to adventure on bikes?
Miles: Yes. An overnighter?
Pat: That could work.

  • Bikepacking Myra Canyon
  • Bikepacking Myra Canyon

And that was it. We left town in the afternoon around 2:00 pm and took the well maintained Greenway Trail away from the bustle of the city and into the more scenic areas that skirt alongside Mission Creek. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve left Kelowna this way by now. It’s a quick and enjoyable trail that avoids huge sections of busy roads and can lead to all sorts of different adventures, from day rides to overnighters or weeklong expeditions. Since Pat and I only had the night at our disposal, we opted to ride the Greenway to its terminus and climb the seemingly never-ending gravel road up to the Kettle Valley Rail Trail (KVR) and Myra Canyon.

Bikepacking Myra Canyon

Photo by Pat Valade

Riding giant wooden trestles on loaded bikes at a leisurely pace with strangers – it doesn’t get much better than that. Although it may have been slightly colder than expected, we rode efficiently and at a similar pace. We ended up taking refuge inside the first storm shelter along the Myra Canyon portion of the KVR, as the winter snowpack was still decidedly present further along into the most southern section of the canyon. We could have pushed on, but neither of us cared to. There was an unspoken agreement that both Pat and I seemed to acknowledge: ride steadily, stop often, and take photos. It couldn’t have worked out any better.

In the morning, after a cold descent back into the city, we stopped at a cafe by my apartment for some breakfast burritos and coffee. I’m not totally sure, but I’m assuming we talked about bikes, shared photos, and tossed a few Instagrams at our followers – that’s what one does in a cafe, I suppose.

  • Bikepacking Myra Canyon
    Photo by Pat Valade
  • Bikepacking Myra Canyon

Bikepacking Myra Canyon

Photo by Pat Valade

Pat’s Take:

“Bikepacking with strangers isn’t as scary as it sounds. After all, if you like to ride a heavy bike and you meet someone else who likes to ride heavy bikes, you already have something slightly ridiculous in common. It’s quite clear that social media is a great tool for meeting strange bikepackers and organizing rides, but it also allows you to do a little research beforehand. It’s always good to check out whether your riding styles align, and if any red flags come up. I initially contacted Miles through his website, asking a few questions about a ride that he’d done, one that I was planning on doing as well. Naturally, he wanted to join. Which, looking back, I agreed to without hesitation! It was a pretty simple process for my first time bikepacking with a stranger: we briefly chatted about a few details beforehand, and when we met at the agreed upon spot there was nothing left to do but ride. We rode for a few hours outside of town, did some exploring in the snow, and camped in an emergency shelter. The conversation often revolved around bikes and bike trips, easy subjects to tackle for first-time trip partners. To avoid potentially awkward conversations, I recommend searching through your potential trip partners Instagram and/or Twitter accounts to see if you are going to run into any opposing views on politics, religion, global warming, or any other similar subjects.”

Impassable When Wet

Cypress Hills / Alberta

My most recent bikepacking hookup is one I am quite proud of, and one I would definitely prefer to not be a one-time thing. I had been chatting with Skyler des Roches (@skylerdesroches) on Instagram about meeting up for a bike adventure of some kind for a while, but it wasn’t until a weekend and some days off aligned with everyone’s schedules that we decided to follow through. About a month or so in advance we decided to tackle the Cypress Hills route, a runner up in the ROUT3 contest, from June 1st – 3rd. It wasn’t long before we had a little group forming, all strangers to me but all good friends of the Bow River Coffee Outside clan and the Porcelain Rocket team. In the end, we had a group of eight folks. Some dedicated bikepackers, some strong riders, and a few just jumping in head first.

On May 31st, after my girlfriend Emily was finished with work, we loaded up my bikepacking gear and her yoga stuff for a weekend away. There was a yoga festival going on in Banff at the same time, so the seven-hour drive to Porcelain Rocket headquarters in Calgary made a little more sense for both of us.

  • Bikepacking Cypress Hills
  • Bikepacking Cypress Hills

Bikepacking Cypress Hills

We pulled up to Porcelain Rocket HQ at around 11:00 pm that evening, got into bed, and just as Emily and I were about to drift off we heard a whisper, “Miles! Miles! You didn’t even take the beer!” Startled, and a little confused, I peered out the rear window to a see Scott holding two IPAs from Blindman Brewing. I never would have guessed my first time meeting Scott Felter, the wizard behind Porcelain Rocket, would involve me accepting beers half dressed in the back of a white Ford cargo van parked in a back alley. It’s funny how things work out sometimes. After a brief and slightly dazed interaction, we all returned to our respective beds, agreeing to depart at 7:15 the next morning. I had been looking to forward to meeting Scott for quite a while, and although a cargo van meetup at 11:00 pm wasn’t how I imagined it going down, I was getting pretty stoked on the whole weekend.

After loading up our gear into Scott’s truck and a quick breakfast, I bid farewell to Emily, and Scott and I drove down to the Bow River Coffee Outside meetup spot on St. Patrick’s Island. Slowly, and with no lack of setbacks, the gang started to roll in. Skyler, Panthea, Tony, Hank, and Laura showed up, all in good spirits, especially considering the amount of rain that was falling from the sky at that time. The eighth member of our crew, Jeremy, would be meeting up with us later that day, somewhere along the route towards our first campsite.

Bikepacking Cypress Hills

  • Bikepacking Cypress Hills
  • Bikepacking Cypress Hills

After a wet drive to Elkwater, the western staging point for the Cypress Hills route we’d be following, we started loading up the bikes and Skyler, Panthea, and I went in to the visitors centre to chat with an employee who had the low down on the trails and condition of what we wanted to ride. It turns out the “impassable when wet” warning in the route description was also a highlight of our conversion, and the gentleman who we spoke with didn’t instill much confidence in our original plan. The roads East of Battle Creek heading into Saskatchewan become mucky, clay death traps in the rain, and it didn’t sound like we had much chance of powering through – but we knew we had to try, and Skyler was particularly excited to cross the provincial border.

  • Bikepacking Cypress Hills
  • Bikepacking Cypress Hills
  • Bikepacking Cypress Hills

With thoughts of warm and dry gravel roads in our heads, we took off along a mix of single and double track along the Spruce Coulee Trail. The rain transformed the rooty, rocky trail into a slick playground that required constant attention to avoid bailing. At the Spruce Coulee Reservoir, we quickly approached the rentable hut on the north end of the lake and were saddened to find the door locked. I think we would all agree that if we’d been able to get in, we may have had a difficult time leaving. This also happens to be where Jeremy, our eighth rider, stumbled upon us and joined on the cabin’s tiny covered deck. It turns out that the warm, summery conditions of the week before had been replaced by colder temperatures and rain on this day, although the group was confident in the forecast for the next day, so we pushed on along the Trans Canada Trail towards Battle Creek Campground. Though our original plan was to camp at the Westblock Campsite, another seven miles down the road, our late start, slow conditions, and expectations of impassable clay roads landed us at Battle Creek shortly after.

The next day brought sunshine, impassable Saskatchewan roads, a fraction of the distance we originally planned to ride, and one broken derailleur hanger. We followed an extension the park employee recommended, winding along crisp gravel roads on the edge of the park’s southern plateau, before heading back in towards what was supposed to be the final leg of a three-day ride. After meeting back up with the route on Murray Hill Road, we excitedly descended back into Elkwater along Horseshoe Canyon Trail – a day early, but still in incredibly good spirits. With every intention to take advantage of the local trail system, we unloaded our gear and jumped on the closest black diamond we could find, aptly named Rodeo. Our group got split up on our way to the next interesting looking trail, but we eventually all ended up relaxing at the public beach at the beginning of the route.

Nothing went as planned. Were we disappointed? I know I wasn’t.

Bikepacking Cypress Hills

Tips for Bikepacking with Strangers

  • Be clear on your expectations or goals for the trip. Are you a shutterbug who stops often to enjoy the scenery and take photos, or do you want to hammer out 16-hour days and jump straight into your bivvy? Be straight up from the get-go to avoid disappointment.
  • Share route information as early as possible to reduce confusion between potential bikepacking companions. This will also give everyone an opportunity for some personal research on the terrain, and perhaps a chance to adapt the route to fit everyone’s riding style.
  • Share some stuff. Maybe. There are a few reasons why I wouldn’t share gear in a bikepacking meetup with complete strangers, but in certain situations it might be a good idea. Give this some thought, depending on who you’re meeting and where you’re riding.
  • Once the relationship progresses, exchange digits. Messaging each other on Instagram or Facebook works for short conversations, but when things get serious, convert over to either email or text messaging. Show some class.
  • Be flexible! You’ll be hard pressed to find bikepacking companionship if you don’t exercise flexibility now and again. Maybe an overnighter that is shorter than you’re used to is a good chance to try out some new gear or play with tarp shelters. If you’re not used to stopping for photos, why not whip out that smartphone and snap a few along the way. I’ve learned some of the best lessons while bikepacking with strangers.

Bikepacking with strangers can be a real treat. Whether you were set up by a mutual friend or stumbled across each other via some sort of social media platform, there are plenty of lessons to be learned and interesting times to be had. It forces you to be versatile, think ahead, plan a little, or maybe not plan at all. The key to finding an overnight companion for bikepacking is approaching things with an open mind and open heart. After all, you deserve someone special.

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