Here’s a haphazard collections of my thoughts from some of my recent adventures in long distance riding and bikepacking. Hopefully this can help head off some suffering.
Long rides, sleep deprivation, backing days together and isolation can all take their toll on your mind. You need to not only make it through but make it through with an intact psyche. To that end, you should develop self contained means of motivation and coping mechanisms. It’s hard to break these down as they can fit somewhere between innate and intangible, thus defying explanation but I’ll try and detail a few thoughts:
- Incrementalism. I think this is one of the most helpful things you can do to get through an extreme ride. It can be absolutely daunting thinking about the ground you have to cover, only do it in retrospect to remind yourself of what you’ve already accomplished. Break a journey into increments and focus on one or a couple goals at a time. Think of landmarks you need to get to, start with one nearer and focus your energy on that rather than the one three times further away. Reset the mental clock and go for the next and then the next.
- Reward mechanisms. Allow yourself some sort of luxury after goals you feel were a struggle. Let yourself listen to some music past a certain point in the day. Have a special snack stashed that you can have after ticking certain boxes. Perhaps something to eat/see/do at a town or landmark
- “Eyes on the prize”. If you’ve set out to do something like this, there’s a goal at the end you’ve targeted. When your mind gets dark, think hard about why you’re doing it and what the sensations of achieving it might be like. Explore the “glory”. It’s not too far away, you can get there. It can be yours soon enough. Just go through the increments, it’s in reach
- Attain Flow. Lose yourself in the task. Meditate on the mechanics of the ride. The tick-tock-tick-tock-tick of your pedalling, whirr of the chain on jockey wheels and hum of tyres. Attune to the repetition until you’re lost in it. You can shift from focused to unfocused and become one of the components in the drive, kind of like looking at one of those old Magic Eye 3D pictures.
- Safety is at hand. If you’ve planned well, you’ve got systems to deal with problems that might start to seem all consuming. If that’s a little less than true then it’s OK to lie to yourself a little bit if the situation isn’t dire, only insofar as is required to keep your calm and confidence. Be realistic though and make relatively conservative decisions to resolve issues that have you in a tailspin
- “You’ve done this before, right?”. Something of a hybrid between the previous point and the first on incrementalism. Analogise your difficulties with those you’ve already overcome in the past, remind yourself you’ve proven you can surpass an obstacle like this
Look for lightweight, compact and multipurpose gear
What you can carry in terms of gear on an “expedition” has obvious limitations based on weight and volume. Aside from the ultimate limits, anything you bring has to be lugged up every hill and potentially brute forced through bogs and carried over obstacles. To that effect, you should try and limit the number of things you carry by thinking of versatile items that can serve secondary needs.
- Tail lights make great camp torches with long battery and without waking up others or impacting your night sight
- A single good multi tools can get you through the majority of mechanical issues you might encounter. I’m a fan of t he Topeak Hexus
- Mechanical essentials for solo trail bikepacking: chain tool, hex keys for all bolts on your bike, quicklink, phillips and flathead screwdriver, tyre levers, tyre boot, patches, two tubes. Consider a rear mech hanger, especially if you’re not comfortable with making an improv single speed (you should learn how to)
- A compact micro fibre towel can be used for padding, drying, changing and a make shift blanket. Clothes that don’t dry can be rolled in it for storage
- Cordage and a good pocket knife are MacGyver’s favourites for a reason. Cutting and lashing are cornerstones of improvisation. Cord can be used to open a quicklink
Think of novel ways to store things
- Sleeping mats can be rolled around objects before being lashed to a bag/rack. For instance I’ve thrown a couple of water bottles in the centre.
- Sandwich bags are a great way to pre-apportion meals. I put single serves of oats/muesli and pasta in sandwich bags, adding the correct proportion of skim milk powder.
- Emptied sandwich bags can be useful for separating things and waste management. Pack it out
- When carrying a stove I’ve nested instant coffees and soups inside, my collapsible cup can fit within a Trangia and it can fit things within it
- If using a spirit burner, liquid fuel can be stored in a collapsible drink bottle. It will then conform to your packing and reduce in size as used.
Compression is your friend
Many items you’ll pack can be compressed, most especially clothes. Roll or vacuum bag whatever you can to reduce it’s volume. Squeeze air out of sandwich bags. Roll sleeping bags tightly and mats tightly. I generally lay my clothes out on pants and roll as tightly as possible.
Food should be calorie dense and varied
If you’re travelling light and for long hours, you should carry some very calorie dense options. You might need to top up what you’re carrying or stop for food along the way. It’s possible to find yourself multiple hours from food before you find yourself waylaid by a mechanical or other issue. It’s unlikely you’re going to die from lack of food but you’ll be worse off if you haven’t thought of this. Your ability to think and move to get yourself out of trouble will diminish if you can’t get yourself some energy and stave off the worst of hunger pains. On the Munda Biddi, I planned that I might have to stop in place at least a night at any time. You should spread your nutrition around between a variety of carbohydrates, fat and protein options and lean into what feels appropriate.
- Snakes (not the kind you might find on the trail)! Great for a pick me up if you’ve had some hard efforts or you feel a bonk coming on. Almost pure glucose and nearly 2000 calories for a 500g bag. 3-5 snakes at the pre-bonk and some mixed carbs like an oat bar should steady you out.
- Oat bars. A nice spread of carbs, in particular my favoured Aldi choc chip brand
- Nut bars. Again available with chocolate options, those will give you a little nip of quick carbs with some lower GI energy alongside, heavier on protein
- Peanuts. A cheap bag will be quite calorie dense, source of fats and protein.
- My go to non-cook meal option is muesli with skim milk powder. Can be consumed direct from the sandwich bag, just add a cup of water and stir
- Instant pasta or cous cous if you have a stove
- For meal size serves, I aim for ~3000Kj +/-
You might want to consider the following:
- Ibuprofen to deal with possible inflammation. In the heat or over long and repeated days you may well find yourself with any of a number of swellings
- Paracetamol to use with the above if pain becomes an issue, both may also be helpful if headaches become a problem. Both may ease moving to safety if you have an accident of some sort
- Aquatabs/any sort of water purification tablet. Certainly on the Munda Biddi and many places in Australia you may find yourself reliant upon rainwater if not stream water in a pinch
- Anti histamines to deal with allergies, bites and stings. Choose a non-drowsy one. Though I’ve carried anti-histamine sleep aids to manage insomnia too
- Antibacterial cream such as Savlon. This could be helpful to manage chafing, rashes or possible wounds
- Sunscreen. A no brainer in Australia. Find a compact bottle, tube, spray or roll on
- Chamois cream tubes are the way to go if you use cream, they pack easier than tubs and can compress as used
Plan as much as you can and have contingencies. The further into an extreme journey you get the harder it can be to make or vary a plan. Your resilience will be helped by having a framework of action to deal with deviation from Plan A. Study your routes, know where they can be altered if they’re needed and your approximate distances from towns and major roads. Know where you’re going to get water and food. Ideally, carry more water than you’ll expect you’ll need between any two points. Even in borderline metro areas you might find it surprisingly hard to get water on a hot day. Know that you’ve solutions for common mechanical issues, think of and research improvisational methods.
If you’re journeying overnight, make sure you’ve got an idea what you would do if stranded. It may be that your best option is continuing by any means necessary to the nearest point you can get help. You might need to hike and even abandon your bike. Be prepared to do that if the situation has become survival. Be aware of overnight conditions where you travel, there can be wide temperature swings. Consider carrying an emergency blanket and enough light gear to shelter in place, even uncomfortably.
Have a post-bike routine planned in advance. Not only can it be physically difficult to tend to self care it may need to be done rapidly for preservation. You should take care of hygiene in some way if you’d prefer to avoid rashes and saddle sores, baby wipes are a good option if you don’t have an option of a shower. You need food and sleep. Optimise these tasks so you can be fed and comfortable as quickly as possible, you’ll struggle to string them together improvisationally. If you’re going on further the next day, try to leave your gear arranged for a quick getaway because you’ll probably be useless until you’ve been on the bike for an hour.