A Multiday Bikepacking Adventure in Idaho (Video)
Fourteen bikepackers head into the mountains near Stanley, Idaho, in search of rolling dirt roads, hot springs, and trout streams. Things fall apart almost immediately upon hitting the trail, and they find themselves pushing up snowy slopes, taking shelter from a hail storm, and getting split up. Still, they manage to make the best of it, forging new friendships and creating this beautifully shot film…
The Swift Campout: A Multiday Bikepacking Adventure in Idaho is a new short film that tells the story of a group of 14 riders who converged in the small town of Stanley, Idaho, for a bikepacking trip in celebration of the 2018 Swift Solstice Campout. We caught up with Todd Gillman, the organizer of the trip, at the film’s launch party in Denver last week to ask him some questions about how the ride came to be and what they experienced while they were out there. Watch the full film below, and continue on to see still images from the trip and to read Todd’s perspective.
What’s the backstory behind your Swift Campout? How’d the group come together?
From a community building perspective, I’ve been a huge fan of the Swift Campout concept for years. As the marketing guy for Coal Headwear, I’m always looking for cool ways to engage new communities and create new fans of the brand. Swift is a Seattle brand, we’re a Seattle brand, we have a bunch of common interests and mutual friends, so it seemed like a good fit and a fun experiment to get Coal involved.
Since Coal isn’t endemic to the cycling or bikepacking scenes, it wouldn’t work to just throw sponsorship dollars at the Campout and slap a logo on it. We needed to actually be a part of it in a real way. I’ve been a cyclist my whole life, a trail rider for half of it, and more recently have gotten super into bikepacking as a way to scratch the itch for exploration and discovery, self-reliance, and camaraderie with friends. So, the Campout project became a super convenient way to go big on a dream route and call it “work!”
Building the team was surprisingly easy. I just put the invite out to a bunch of my adventure buddies. Usually it’s a text, “Hey, I’ve got an idea!” And from there, Aimee from LA and Bo from Portland were on board. I reached out to Mark, who’s also in LA, and mid-email I realized he and his brand, Latigo Coffee, might also be a perfect fit to be a Campout sponsor. So that fell into place perfectly. The Swift crew had recently put us in contact with Drew and Lars from Tenkara Rod Co, so I threw an invite out to them and they jumped on it. I sent out an invite to all of the Coal ambassadors, mostly snow riders who’d never dreamt of doing anything like this before, and to my surprise, Amanda Hankison was like, “I’ll do it!” Beyond that, the team just sort of snowballed with friends and friends-of-friends jumping aboard.
I knew with this project I wanted to create a strong video for Coal, but I’m not really connected with the MTB media community, so I reached out to my friend, up-and-coming content creator Adam Concannon, who I knew was intrigued by bikepacking, but who had never really done a big dirt tour. He eventually agreed to ride the route with his camera gear, which he may or may not regret now. Additionally, I’d just gotten back from a trip to New Mexico with Kyle McCarty, who doesn’t really ride bikes, but was keen to haul his RED gear into predetermined checkpoints via 4WD roads. So, with that, we had the media side of things covered, and a total group of 14 people all committed to a route that had never really been ridden before.
And what about the route? Where’d that come from?
The route was intended to be a moderately challenging, 130-mile loop starting and ending in Stanley, Idaho, over four days. The surfaces would run the gamut from some pavement on the first day, to miles of perfect gravel, to singletrack and moto two-track – literally, a little bit of everything – and was built around daily activities objectives like hot spring dips, a fire lookout tower, fly fishing on trout streams, exploring old mining ghost towns, and swimming in alpine lakes. It included an optional spur loop for riders who wanted to drop bags at camp and rip some buffed singletrack, as well as a full day on low-elevation, undulating gravel, with the Sawtooth range in your face all day long. Each day would be around 30 miles, so very doable, at least in theory. The foundation of the route included two legs of the Idaho Centennial Trail that I stumbled upon online, and around which I just used topos and other online resources to jigsaw together what seemed to be a reasonable loop.
Can you tell us about something that went completely wrong while you were out there?
Oh man, the whole thing went completely wrong. The first day was planned to be the biggest day, both in terms of mileage and in terms of elevation gain and hike-a-bike. Our initial big climb was up a logging road that hadn’t seen any traffic since the previous summer or fall. We ended up spending a bunch of time cutting out downed trees so that Kyle could follow us in the truck. The maps indicated that after eight miles on that road, we’d hang a right up a steep moto trail that I knew would include some hike-a-bike, but for maybe a mile or two at the most. I really underestimated that one. We were off our bikes immediately, and were pushing up a super steep, often muddy or technical trail that went on for hours. We were trying to make it up to the Custer fire lookout, which would be our high-mark for the day, but every time it seemed like the GPS indicated we were close or “right on top of it” we couldn’t even catch a view of the tower.
We had to negotiate some incredibly difficult sections, including lingering snowfields, thick mud, a super exposed cliff band that was holding a bunch of rotten snow that we had to go up and over, passing our fully loaded bikes from person to person. Ultimately we reached treeline and the trail sort of disappeared into a mile-long pile of boulders with periodic rock cairns marking the way. People were starting to bonk or get anxious about losing daylight. We were still eight miles out from our camp, so we sent one group out ahead without bikes to scout the trail, and one group back to scout for a potential camp, while the majority hung in the sun and made dinner and recovered. We ended up bivvying there at over 9,000 feet for the night and enjoyed an amazing alpine sunset, but we were never able to get a message out to Kyle about what was happening. He’d be expecting us in the Yankee Fork Valley, which wasn’t going to happen.
The next morning was surprisingly warm and sunny at that elevation, but while we were slowly getting moving and licking our wounds from the day before, a nasty squall was approaching from the valley to the north. It was on us before we knew it, so we had to scramble to break down camp and get to lower elevation and out of harm’s way with all the lightning. It passed, leaving an inch of hail behind. Day two ended up being a long descent back down to the valley floor by way of a different trail, and by nightfall we ended up back in town, thinking Kyle would be waiting for us there. He wasn’t. Turns out, he decided to try his luck getting out to the night two checkpoint, even though throughout the day the locals he consulted with told him we weren’t going to make it there and neither would he. He ended up getting the truck stuck in a snowfield and spending a lonely night alongside a remote 4WD road.
I was up early on the third morning and decided to look for him, driving out to where I thought he might have gone. After an hour of driving we found him looking like The Revenant, staggering up the road carrying bags full of gear. For part of the team, the rest of that day was spent trying to recover his truck, while the rest of the team had a mellow ride out to Stanley Lake to swim and fish.
On the flip side, what were the unexpected rewards?
I’m a big believer in the YC Axiom, which states that it’s not an adventure until something goes wrong. I also believe that true adventure unites strangers in a common purpose, and therefore has the ability to really bring people together and create lasting friendship bonds. That’s the best thing that came from this trip, I think. Now that remnant bruises and scabs from the trip have faded, it’s almost like there’s this new tight-knit family that’s formed from going through the emotional ups and downs of such a wild adventure. It’s fun to see the connections live on in social media and to have been a part of introducing all these great people to each other and to that part of the country.
Idaho seems to be getting pretty popular as a bikepacking destination these days. How’s the riding there?
I haven’t actually lived in Idaho since the 90s, but I’ve had an ongoing love affair with it ever since, and have been fortunate to get back for work projects or for fun at least once or twice a year. My favorite zone is the Stanley Basin, and I’ve long dreamt of just disappearing for a couple weeks back on the trails and Forest Service roads that crisscross the area. This past winter, I was on a backcountry hut trip in the Sawtooths when the idea to turn our Campout sponsorship into a big ride there came to me. Central Idaho is already on the map and is a well-known MTB destination, especially around the Wood River Valley and the Boise foothills. The farther you get from those zones, the less manicured the trail riding will be. Idaho is one of the last truly wild places in the US and has the most designated wilderness in the Lower 48, so there are huge swaths of land that you can’t ride bikes in, and most of the state is home to apex predators and is prone to massive wildfires. But for the adventurous dirt tourer, there’s tons of Forest Service land with many miles of dirt and gravel to explore in some incredibly remote and beautiful zones. It just takes some research and planning to figure it out.
What’s one piece of gear you wish you’d had with you, and one you regret hauling out there?
There are three things that really would’ve come in handy on this trip: a pocket chainsaw (we were for sure the first party to try to travel these roads and trails this year, so there was a lot of deadfall in our path); a satellite phone (for when the shit was hitting the fan and we couldn’t reach Kyle on cell); and lastly, Bo’s Patagonia puffy camp pants, I wish I had those.
I used every piece of gear I brought and didn’t regret anything. The oddest and best gear decision I made was to bring only one camera, my Contax IIa, a heavy, finicky, all-mechanical, all-manual rangefinder from 1950, which I kept in my cockpit in a stem bag and shot four rolls of amazing images on.
Lastly, now that this one’s all wrapped up, are you dreaming up any other big rides in the near future?
As much as I’d love to disappear for a couple weeks to do a huge South America or British Columbia route, I’m so busy at the moment that I usually have keep my activities to long-weekend length. Close to home, I’ve been working out the details on a four-day mixed Forest Service road / singletrack route over in the Wenatchee National Forest. I’m also talking with some Colorado buds about a fall leaf-peeper tour in the San Juan Mountains. And I just started talking to Martina and Jason and the Swift crew about a late winter or spring desert adventure in the Southwest. Maybe we can go back with the Dusty Caps crew and try to finish our Death Valley Slow Ride route?
Around 200 people crowded onto the patio of a neighborhood burrito bar in Denver to sip cold beverages and watch the live premier of Bikepacking Might Kill You during Outdoor Retailer last week. Attendees received a limited edition booklet featuring 36 photos from the trip and heard an introduction to the film by Todd Gillman from Coal Headwear and Jason Goodman from Swift Industries.
You can find the whole crew from the film on Instagram: Amanda Hankison (@staywild), Kevin McClelland (@kevinmcclelland), Aimee Gilchrist (@clint_yeastwood), Mark Finster (@latigocoffee), Alicia Rhoades (@droseraaliciae), Todd Gillman (@toddgillman), Lars Reber (@larsreber), Drew Hollenback (@tenkararodco), Steve Bretson (@stevebretson), Katie Bretson (@katiecookbretson), Kyle McCarty (@tk_mccarty), Adam Concannon (@adamjcon), Sean Hamilton (@seanwiththewind_), and Bo Thunnell (@bojordan).