The sign read "Winding Gravel Road Next 9 Miles." I could see that my route beyond had a smooth dirt surface and sloped perceptively downward into a forest. I had been climbing a series of hills all morning and the heft of the camping gear stowed in the various bags attached to my mountain bike was starting to feel burdensome. I felt myself grin; this sort of gently sloping primitive road was exactly what I had envisioned when I planned this trip. I settled into my saddle and turned the pedals. The fine gravel crunched under my tires as the trees rushed by on either side and the morning air buffeted my sweat-soaked clothes. At least for the moment (maybe the next 9 miles?!), gravity was on my side.
What is bikepacking?
Nothing compares to traveling by bike. Like a long distance backpacker, the bicycle traveler experiences feelings of self-sufficiency and freedom. But the mechanical miracle of the bicycle adds speed and range that wouldn't be possible on foot. My mother (herself a veteran of several long bike trips) once remarked that bicycle travel achieves the perfect pace: fast enough to cover significant ground and afford scenic variety, while also allowing the rider to get a real feel for a place that would be impossible in a car.
I've done lots of "bike touring," which is simply when you load up your bike and use it to travel from one place to another, often spending several nights on the road. I've used a road bike for these trips and carried everything I needed using frame bags (often called panniers). I have usually stayed in motels along my route (this is sometimes called "credit card touring"), although I have also camped.
Bikepacking differs from traditional bike touring in that it usually involves more varied terrain and camping instead of motel stays. My interest in bikepacking grew when I realized it would combine my love exploring the woods with bicycle travel. The website bikepacking.com helped me to learn about the gear I would need as well as relatively local routes that I could take on. My annual winter stir-crazies led to a series of purchases and route researching. I finally decided I was ready to take on a 137 mile route in Vermont that starts and ends in Brattleboro with a foray in the the Green Mountain National Forest.
Gear I used
If bike gear isn't something you care about, feel free to skip to the next section!
For this trip, I rode a Specialized Rockhopper Comp 29, a hardtail aluminum mountain bike. I've completed some upgrades and replacements on this bike since purchasing it second-hand several years ago, adding new handlebars (to give me more handgrip options on longer rides) as well as a set of tubeless-ready wheels. The tires I chose have a medium tread and roll well on a variety of surfaces.
My experiences with bike touring in the past have been mostly on the road where I've used traditional panniers to carry my gear. Panniers would be difficult to attach to my mountain bike due to a lack of rack attachment points. They would also make the bike challenging to maneuver over variable terrain. Because of this, I had to buy several bags designed for bikepacking. I chose Revelate Designs bags for most of my needs. This U.S. company has a solid record for quality and they offer a variety of products. I settled on these bags for my bike:
Spinelock 10L saddlebag (attaches behind the saddle)
Gas Tank (attaches to the top tube)
Hopper frame bag (attaches inside the frame triangle)
Sweetroll handlebar bag
Joey downtube bag (attaches under the downtube just above the bottom bracket)
Salsa EXP Series Anything Cage Bag 2.0 (attaches to one of my forks)
Deciding where to stow everything was a process and adjustments were made throughout my ride. Generally, my tent (minus poles and stakes) and ground cloth was packed into the saddlebag. I also kept my rain jacket and rain pants in that bag close to the opening where I could get at them if needed. The frame bag was where I stowed my pump, repair and first aid items, Steripen (for water purification), and my small camp ditty bag (tooth brush, headlamp, etc.). The Gas Tank sat on my top tube close to my saddle and was where I kept my lip balm, snacks, a small cloth, and other minor items. The handlebar bag held my sleeping bag, air mattress, sleeping clothes, and tent poles/stakes. The "Anything Cage" bag sat on a fork cage and held the bulk of my food (in this case, meals for three days). A second cage on my other fork held a liter bottle of water. The downtube bag held more food and my bear bag hanging kit.
All these bags weren't cheap and I purchased them over the course of two years. However, several of them are so useful that I keep them on my mountain bike for regular use (especially the Gas Tank and frame bag). They have proved durable and highly functional; a good investment so far.
Day 1: Brattleboro to Green Mountain National Forest
A Bikepacking.com article provided an excellent write-up on the route that I ultimately used. If you'd like more details on the route, I would highly recommend it. I found the information there to be accurate and useful as I embarked on my own ride.
My trip started from a park-and-ride in Brattleboro. I made the two hour drive from Glens Falls and arrived around 12:30. After considerable time spent reattaching bags and orienting myself, I set out on my adventure.
After only a few miles navigating through Brattleboro, I left the pavement for a series of well-maintained dirt roads weaving through beautiful farmland west of Brattleboro. There I found relentless climbs, made more challenging by loose gravel and my heavy bike (about 50 pounds, including 2 liters of liquid). The views at the tops of these climbs were always lovely and I was lucky to have cool temperatures and a light breeze. I enjoyed watching the scenery pass by as I pedaled: a mix of quaint cottages and working farms.
I eventually arrived at Harriman Reservoir, an 8-mile long body of water near Wilmington. My route took me past a massive dam and along a stretch of the Catamount Trail (a long distance cross-country skiing trail). The dirt roads gave way to a narrow, forested trail that was very muddy and rough at points.
At the end of this trail, it was late afternoon and I still had about 10 miles to travel for the day. My short time on the route so far had taught me that my normal guesses of travel time were often wrong. Just a few miles of rough, hilly terrain could take me an hour to ride through whereas a coasty, well-used dirt road could see me averaging closer to 15 miles per hour. Facing the prospect of riding into a primitive camp around sunset, I decided to take advantage of a pleasant picnic area near the north end of the reservoir to enjoy my dinner. I knew that my eventual campsite wouldn't have such nice views (or a convenient picnic table!). I loaded up on fresh water too since I also didn't know if my camp would have a good water source.
The final hour or so of riding was mellow enough and covered well-maintained dirt forest access roads as I entered the Green Mountain National Forest. Dispersed camping is allowed here and I found an established site to set up my tent. There were a few other people in the vicinity and I chatted with them about their travels. I had time for some sunset stretching before turning in for the night.
Day 2: Green Mountain National Forest to Winhall Brook Campground
It was a tempestuous night with thunderstorms and heavy rain throughout. Although I stayed dry, I knew it would be a challenge to keep my sodden tent from soaking my other gear (like my sleeping bag) as I had to stuff everything into small bags. The possibility of drying anything vanished as the rain began again and didn't show signs of stopping. I resigned myself to being wet as I rolled back onto the trail around 8.
When planning this trip, I considered how to break up the circuit into days with relatively similar mileages. I noticed that the recommended camping locations made for a comparatively short second day. Although I toyed with trying to do the route in two long days, the terrain I encountered on this part of the route made me glad I decided against this. The trail started off easy enough- a narrow trail with a stream on one side and a forest on the other. Although mostly flat, it eventually grew much more rugged with long sections of mud and encroaching grass that made it difficult to read the terrain. Occasionally, I would come to a trail junction with a sign. The rain fell hard for the first hour and half of my ride but I was somewhat sheltered from it by the trees. I passed many ponds and a strange cabin of some kind near a wreck of an old bus riddled with bullet holes.
I finally encountered a gate and emerged onto a maintained forest access road. Almost at the same moment, the sun came out and I seized the opportunity to air out my gear and enjoy a snack. I was completely soaked and a bit on edge after miles of navigating mud and slippery rocks. I felt much better after a break.
I wasn't entirely unfamiliar with the next section because I had passed through it while hiking the Long Trail in 2016. That trail actually crossed my route in several places and I chatted with an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker who was closing in on the three quarter mark of his journey. I was now deep in the Green Mountain National Forest near Stratton Mountain. I left the well-maintained forest road and entered the woods again. A young doe was not impressed by my appearance and lingered for a few minutes to examine the outlandish beast I was riding before bounding into the trees.
This stretch of trail skirted a shoulder of Stratton Mountain and appeared to be seldom used. The summer grasses were spreading over the trail making it difficult to spot large rocks and other obstacles. I proceeded cautiously as the path tilted upwards for several miles. After almost an hour of sweaty climbing, I started a long descent. I picked up some real speed here and the terrain tested my bike-handling abilities. My bike's bags rattled and bumped throughout and I was sure that I would have to stop to re-secure something or retrieve a piece of gear that had bounced off my bike into the woods. Surprisingly, everything held together and I eventually arrived at another forest gate followed by a bridge. I purified water, snacked, and examined my gear. It was no worse for wear, although most of it had acquired a substantial layer of mud and dirt.
The most challenging part of the day was behind me and I proceeded on a mix of dirt and paved roads towards the Winhall Brook Campground, my home for the night. Eventually, a trail I was riding on abruptly dumped me onto a campground road. I located the registration office and then found my campsite. Administrated by the Army Corps of Engineers, this campground was one of the best maintained that I have ever stayed at. There were over 100 sites spread out generously on both banks of a rocky brook. A mix of RVs and tents populated the sites and many families were swimming in the brook. My site had an enormous lean-to and a picnic table. I excitedly began unloading my sopping wet tent so I could air it out in the sunshine. I then enjoyed a dip in the brook, washing the grime off of my legs and trying in vain to scrub my biking shirt clean. It was early but I was exhausted. I hadn't slept much the previous night due to the storms. The day's route had been short but technically demanding. I snacked, read by the water, and strolled around the campground. I went to sleep as soon as the sun dipped below the trees.
Day 3: Winhall Brook Campground to Brattleboro
The night was cold and I woke up early because I couldn't get warm. The weather forecast had called for hot weather but it was actually quite cool for most of my trip. After a quick breakfast, I was packed up and ready to ride by 6:30. The first hours of my ride took me up multiple steep climbs that were almost stepped (there were no major descents between them). I eventually encountered the sign I wrote about earlier promising a long, winding descent. The stretch of road that followed was a highlight of my trip. The surface was a delightful sandy gravel that gave great traction as well as a pleasant cushioning effect. The scenery included forests and remote homesteads. I encountered almost no vehicles (a happy theme for most of this trip). I would love to revisit this spot someday.
But sometimes bliss must be paid for with mud and sweat. After this lovely interlude, my route took me up a steep dirt climb that took me almost a half hour to complete. The road then ended in a trail that pushed into an area maintained by the Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association. This network of trails and woods roads straddles Grafton and Athens. Naturally, my route stuck to the unmaintained woods roads which were invariably steep, muddy, and rocky. I hiked my bike here more than any other section of my trip. Puddles and running water made pedaling challenging even as I yearned to gain enough speed to elude the deer flies who swarmed me. When I finally exited this section after nearly an hour, I saw that I had traveled a bit more than 2 miles. While this part of the route offers some technical challenge for mountain bikers looking to test their skills, it was a bit much for me especially with my bike loaded with camping gear. This section would be easy to bypass and I would recommend that other riders of this route consider that option depending on the conditions and their appetite for challenge.
After my mud bath, I rolled back onto maintained dirt roads. On one road, I came upon a regrading crew that was scraping the road surface and redistributing gravel and dirt. This process created a large ridge in the center of the road that I had to navigate. In sections where sandy road surface had been laid down but not yet compressed, it felt like I was riding on a beach or cyclocross sand feature. I was lucky that these sections were relatively short. After outriding the road crews, I stopped for an early lunch near a large pond covered in lily pads.
With the major hills and technical sections behind me, I made better than usual time as I approached Brattleboro from the northwest. At one point, a road crew doing extensive tree work told me that the road was impassible and I had to take detour into a field. Time will tell how well I did avoiding the poison ivy that infests the roadsides of that region.
Eventually, my route paralleled the West River as I approached the outskirts of Brattleboro. The lovely West River Trail carried me almost back the park-and-ride.
Post ride thoughts
This route provided me with my first true bikepacking adventure. I am grateful to Joe Cruz from Bikepacking.com for providing all the details necessary to help me plan the trip. Although I have lots of experience with cyclocross racing and gravel riding, I am a novice mountain biker and was happy to find a route that wasn't too technical. Although a gravel or cyclocross bike would have been fun on the maintained dirt road sections, it would have made the more technical bits much more difficult. In these areas, I was constantly grateful for my large, voluminous tires and front shocks which proved excellent insurance for the many times when I failed to see a sharp rock or divot in the trail. My cheap suspension seat post was surprisingly useful during the many stretches where I was pedaling seated over bumpy terrain. I was skeptical of the universal support bolts that I used to attach racks to my suspension fork, but these proved themselves over the many miles of jarring trail surfaces. My Garmin Edge Explore bike computer (in my opinion, one of most underrated and highest value bike computers on the market) provided me with reliable navigation. I haven't done a long bike tour since I've had this device and it's hard to overstate its advantages. Although I love paper maps and sometimes enjoy navigating the old-fashioned way, this route was somewhat complicated and I appreciated the ability to focus on my surroundings and the terrain instead of constantly questioning if I was on the correct trail.
This trip left me excited for my next two-wheeled journey and thankful to have such wonderful cycling opportunities practically in my backyard.