I could say I’ve ‘failed’ more routes, trips, and races than I can count, but that’s not the honest ending to any of those stories. I’ve always walked, pedaled, or gotten a car ride away from those experiences with so much more self-understanding, knowledge, skill, experience, and new or stronger friendships than any quit/fail/turn-around story has room for. I’ve also completed, extended, and won a fair amount of adventures and challenges, too, but those experiences have never been nearly as fulfilling or contributing to personal growth and advancement as a person and biker, as those times I’ve tucked my tail in various ways. I found myself, not long ago, seemingly intentionally planning for this to happen and I had to take a step back and think about it. This sounds bad, but I’ll explain – In seemingly planning to fail, I had gotten to the point to where I was intentionally planning to push myself beyond what I thought I was capable of, with known/planned bail-outs and fall-back plans that were more reasonable/enjoyable in different ways. Throughout the mere 5 years I’ve been a biker, I’ve come to mostly give up on participating in ‘events,’ as they are typically too rushed and structured for my liking, and almost always are void of ample time spent sleeping outside, my true love. There aren’t many ‘bikepacking’ races where people actually camp. My first ever bike trip was a month after getting my first bike, a 29er with SnowCats (44mm wide rims), on a self-supported 29 hour ride on the remote White Mountains 100 loop in late winter. I got an overuse injury in my right thumb from shifting so much, so I switched to single speed on the 29er and the Pugsley I purchased, for the next almost three years. I’ve only been on gears for two-and-a-half years now, but switch back to single speed for summer time off-trail fatbike trips. I live in the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’ & extremely cold and dark winters – Fairbanks, Alaska – and like most 6ft tall, bearded, single, Toyota-driving, husky-owning, white males from the Midwest in Alaska, I live in a dry cabin – because just like my bikes and adventures, I like to keep things interesting, challenging, and simple in function. I rode 38c tires once, co-owned northern Alaska’s first fatbike rental business, and am cursed in overthinking and perfection in everything I do. I love the resistance of gravel and snow under my tires and look at maps for blank spaces to experience and camp in. If I start sweating, I stop to take more photos. I don’t own a jersey kit because they don’t work when it really matters (in poor weather on my style of bikepacking trips in remote areas). Needless to say, like everyone else, I have my biases.  Adventure Advice: Josh Spice Advice on what to carry? To talk about what to carry, I’d like to focus on what not to carry – I would cut food weight before using a backpack. Think about the seriousness of that statement for a second. There are ways around them, less often involving bringing less shit and more often about being smarter in what you DO bring. The only time I use a [2 oz silnylon] backpack is if I am leaving a known water source to dry camp. Which really is a terrible idea, but sometimes when you’re in the desert and the only water available is a spigot in town, you kind of have to. I hear people using backpacks say they mostly use them for carrying their camera gear. If you’re a biking photographer, you don’t have to accept this as the only way – I’ve biked thousands of miles with a full DSLR and lens slung over my shoulder and neck, hanging high & tight like a new recruit’s haircut, and it’s never been an issue, from multi-hundred mile rides and singletrack to desert sands and snow (cover it or put it away somewhere in hard rain, obviously). Adding weight on your back adds weight on your sit bones and raises your center of mass, reducing riding comfort and technical riding ability. I honestly see no benefits to backpacks unless you are bikerafting, where you’ll need a backpack to carry some of your gear while you are throwing your bike through thick vegetation. Niche situation. Some people like how nimble their bike is unweighted, while I prefer my bike to feel more planted. To each his/her own. I think one of the most important ‘items’ you should carry, even if truly competitively multiday racing, is some sort of sleeping kit that is, most importantly, going to allow you to truly rest and recover. Secondly, be appropriate for the conditions or climate (hence why I don’t recommend anything specific). If you expect your body to perform, you have to treat it well and while this goes beyond just real recovery/rest time, I personally find that part to be one of the most crucial elements, trumping high quality, real food. On another note, I ran into a really excited guy in REI the other day. He asked me, out of the blue, if I knew where to find some of Conrad Anker’s ‘Ten Fingers, Ten Toes Kit’ or something like that. I looked at him and quickly saw his insecure, incredibly uneasy status, as if he had just really stuck his neck out there. He had ‘I’ve done my internet research, having no personal experience’ written all over him and was totally sold on what Anker said he just had to have to do whatever it was that he wanted to do… I think he mentioned mountaineering (it was currently -45F outside) and then dog mushing a few minutes later… and something else, too. I said some terse message like, ‘There are a whole lot more important things to have than items checked off a gear list.’ I briefly delved into a couple topics of what to be squared away on, especially in the cold, as it seemed he was heading out that next day to do something, in which he replied with a ‘Yeah, I’m good, I got this,’ in the most machismo way he could muster. The point is, get out there and try things for yourself. We all have our opinions on the endless amount of gear that’s available to us. There are a lot of things said online and some are solid bits or asteroids of advice, while others are as unbacked as Kanye’s opinions. Some stuff really works for X conditions or use and sometimes it only really works because people haven’t tried anything else before. Watch out for the latter. Nothing beats your own hard-earned experience. No fault to newbies; we were all there once and, hopefully, we all continue to learn, through doing. Tangible things to carry – honestly sit back and assess what you truly must have to do whatever trip or ride you want. Avoid the word need; we misuse it. Think about what would literally stop you from being able to ride or camp somewhere. Example: you need a functioning bike and sleeping bag/pad/shelter to ride and sleep, but you don’t need that fancy drivetrain or new clothes to do it. Then, and only then, think about what (gear or decisions on the trip) would make it much more enjoyable or a better overall experience for everyone. Example here: Yeah you need a shelter but a $250 cottage made silnylon (I prefer cuben) shelter is gonna be a whole lot better than that sporting goods store brand ‘backpacking tent’ you got for $50 on Craigslist in college. Point is, the sil shelter will be stronger, more durable (don’t need to run to the forest for cover), more weatherproof (leave the bivy or extra tarp at home), half the weight (pedal faster/longer & more nimble bike), half the size (ditch the backpack!!!) and easier to set up (less time standing in the rain/wind). It is way more important to GO & DO than what to get & have.
(Photo/Glenn Charles)
(Photo/Glenn Charles)
Advice on what to eat? Anything free is worth saving up for,’ ie, your buddies’ food they can’t stand anymore, like fried chicken, but not his one pound bag of almonds. You’ll carry that one right back to the car for him. Three mouthfuls of almond butter every night, agutak, avocados, salmon strips, bacon jerky, muktuk, dark chocolate, Jilberto’s burritos in Borrego Springs, California and original Skittles every 3rd day and/or when the weather is at its absolute worst. Swedish Fish make a nice sunny weather snack. Larabars if it’s 20 below or colder (ambient temp, not wind chill) because they won’t break your teeth. I always crave burritos. Whatever food feels as good as a pillow. Don’t eat cream cheese after it’s been unrefrigerated for 12 hrs in the desert. Nothing is better than a Nutty Bar covered in honey peanut butter and Nutella… except maybe always having a burrito in your frame bag.   Size, specs and species of your ride? Large frame but I can fit a whole chicken, a small watermelon, and a six pack of beer in my gargantuan Revelate Designs frame bag. I typically prefer double the width of tires to whatever anyone else is riding. I do a lot of remote and self-supported riding, including in temps well below zero, so I use only mechanical brakes. I can understand and fix simple principles like leverage, but pressure is something you can’t fix in the middle of the Alaskan canvas. No front derailleurs – I’d rather go slower and take more pictures. Just like burritos, I like all my bikes with a lot of Salsa (sponsored by them: http://salsacycles.com/culture/topic/josh_spice). I don’t wear a tampon in my shorts because I don’t like diaper butt. I prefer wool boxer briefs & banana hammock Brooks saddles.  Adventure Advice: Josh Spice Thought on essential bike equipment? Let’s focus, again, on what you shouldn’t have in your kit: tubes in your tires, backpacks (already mentioned), a ‘never quit’ attitude, front panniers, somewhere you gotta be, hard & fast rules and lists (like this one), & your fears and insecurities filling every pocket or bag. I’ve worked in the Alaskan wilderness for 10 years and if I’ve learned anything it’s that ‘the only thing you can plan for is for the plan to change.’ It’s a good understanding and flexibility to keep in your hip pocket. Things you should have – a camera, a propensity for deviating, realistic toughness, self appreciation and respect, humility, and the understanding of how much you can push yourself way beyond what you think, almost to the point of what will actually break or stop you. And the ability to truly know when you should stop or turn around because continuing on is truly just stupid. Actual gear is relevant to where you live, how you ride, where you ride, if you camp, and if you don’t like to get wet or cold (No disrepect! I hate getting muddy, especially on my face. Seriously, a personal PITA.) I always bike with something over my eyes, whether it be sunglasses or lightweight clear safety glasses. I’ve had far too many rocks, branches, flying insects, hail, mud, etc. hit me straight in the open eyeball to bike without them. Last spring while commuting after work to teach a bike maintenance class and three weeks before riding 400 miles on the Oregon Outback, I got my bike horizontal, three feet off the ground, thanks to a big patch of loose gravel on pavement, right where I leaned my bike over in a turn. I didn’t hit my helmet, but I did take the entire brunt of the sliding crash straight to my palms. After leaving skin and blood on the handicap parking space (how ironic, eh?) and an emergency room surgery to remove the rocks from my hands, I will never bike without gloves again. Such a simple thing, but I had to go through all that to realize why people wear gloves. I did ride the 10 miles home from the ER with a milkshake and all hopped up on painkillers, but needless to say, I didn’t teach the maintenance class. I did, however, teach myself some self-maintenance and shared it with many friends the next day, at the cost of an ER bill. Adventure Advice: Josh Spice  Water purification method? Let’s set this straight – waterborne bug scientists will tell you crypto, giardia, etc are all species specific, ie, we can’t get sick from animals, so therefore, ‘beaver fever’ is hearsay. Beavers get a bad rap. Wanna know what gets us sick? Human poop. Do your Leave No Trace homework (https://lnt.org/blog/top-10-ways-reduce-your-impact-outdoors) and bury your poop at least 200 feet from any water source. Period. My water purification method? Simply put, wilderness. I’m lucky because I live in Alaska and I’m (probably) not going to get sick where there aren’t (many) people (& where people haven’t poo’d). Take that idea and apply it to your locale – go as far upstream as you can if you have the ability or think about what is upstream of where you are dipping. So far I have had good success with MSR’s Sweetwater drops that only take 5 minutes to work, regardless of water temperature. Let’s be honest – in Alaska, it’s hard enough to find water that isn’t ice or ice cold. I can’t wait over an hour to drink my water and mixing fluids seems ludicrous to a simple guy like me. I take the MSR drops on trips where I know I won’t have to use them every time or even half the time. I’ll opt for a Katadyn Hiker paper cartridge pump filter if I know almost none of the water can be drank straight from the source. It’s the lightest weight, simplest, most reliable, easiest to use water pump filter I know of. I’ve tried all the MSR models and they are either too heavy, bulky, hard to pump, or they’ve straight up broken in an unfixable way. I am intrigued by the new gravity style or squeeze through filters, though.
Adventure Advice: Josh Spice
Trying to use isopro at 30 below on the Denali Hwy, Alaska. I got it to work but would never do it again.
 Stove/fuel strategy? Skurka’s cat food stove is the best stove ever, unless it’s near or below freezing, windy, or you’re at elevation. For the latter two, nothing beats an MSR Reactor with the small or big pots. For anything below 20 degrees F, MSR Dragonfly if you want to melt snow AND cook fancy things, or an MSR XGK if you want to melt snow and eat astronaut food. I’ve tended a Reactor canister stove at -10F on Alaska’s North Slope in frigid winds and melted snow and boiled water for three people and it ain’t pretty. Suck up the weight and size and go with what’s appropriate. And safe. Campfire cooking is simple, fun, and enjoyable, but it has a lot of impact on the landscape, especially in high use area, and, mostly for bikepackers, it takes a lot of time to do. Unless you’re on a social tour with beer, it doesn’t seem to fit most bikepackers very well, as they always seem to have somewhere else they have to be. (Sad) Adventure Advice: Josh Spice Thoughts on essential gear for staying alive? This is where I always get all cliche. I teach ‘Operational Leadership’ at work – how to do what you want to or have to do and not get hurt or die… basically, situational awareness and risk assessment & management. So, what’s essential for staying alive? Read all the survival books and stories you can find and they all have one thing in common – a positive attitude. Be a total jerk about it. When someone starts getting grumpy or negative, call them out on it right away. Don’t let it exist, ever. It will catch up to you. As far as actual tangible gear for staying alive goes, I think if you can stay warm and hydrated, you can pretty much get yourself out of anything, provided you’re able to move. I think I tend to focus my gear and techniques toward that. But seriously, being warm and hydrated only help you stay positive. Once you get negative, you won’t have the wherewithal to do much benefit for yourself in any regard. Any safe decision is the right decision. Almost with no exceptions. I’m not talking about never pushing yourself or stepping outside of your box; I mean real safety, health, self-preservation & respect, and not being scarred by your selfish decisions. I’ve only been told once that I should ‘suck it up and keep going’ and that blatantly told me I was making the exact right decision to throw in the towel for my own health and well-being.   Favorite trail/bikepacking recommendations? DeLorme Alaska Atlas & Gazetteer, your own backyard (seriously, GO!), every weekend. Oregonbikepacking.com, Gypsy By Trade, The Hub Cyclery in Idyllwild, CA & if you’re really itching for South American dirt, of course, While Out Riding. I think we really messed up in not making the entire state of California one giant National Park and generically anywhere in the greater region of Yellowstone National Park should definitely be on any mountain or road biker’s radar. Vague, but that region of the US should see more bikepacker attention, in my opinion. I strongly urge everyone to come ride in Alaska, but don’t come unless you’re ok with every other place you go in your life and on the planet not quite living up to your new standard of wildness and enormity. If that’s not cool with you, keep it contiguous. It really is that different up here. It will change you. In regards to Alaska, don’t hesitate to come because it seems overwhelming – just think of riding our paved and/or dirt & gravel highways as really remote, unsupported bikepacking routes where each ‘town’ on the map might only give you a gas station with a modest gas station food selection. But there are water and camping spots everywhere. Read up on bear safety and you should be good. There is a lot of information available and trip planning may seem logistically challenging, but it really isn’t if you don’t expect many services, anywhere… but that’s the best part.
Advemtire Advice: Josh Spice
Cresting Atigun Pass on Dalton Hwy in late August. Highest pass on Alaska road system. 
Final Thoughts Something I often think of in regards to quitting, going home, fast-paced trips, or rushing to get to the next spot or destination (dare I talk bad about racing)… once you get home, you’re only going to wish you were still out there. Don’t quit until you’ve stopped, rested, refueled and given it time to settle into your mind and think about what you should really do. Give it 8 hrs, seriously. What does EVERYONE do when they come back home and jump online or talk to friends? Talk about how awesome it was and how they wished they were still out there… Well, why aren’t you?!?! We work so hard and spend so much time, energy, and money to get out to these spots we love to only rush through them. Slow down and take the place in. Immerse yourself. Be silent, smell the air, and listen to what is and isn’t there. And by all means, something I coined ten years ago for my own personal health and mental well-being: Stay sane. Sleep outside.

11 Comments

  1. Michael Ackerman
    Michael Ackerman

    This is amazing! Thanks for the wisdom, Josh. Focusing on work will be difficult today….

  2. Bill Scott

    Very good article. Bikepacking should be about patiently exploring the great outdoors. It should also be done carefully, with equipment that can keep you alive if you’re injured and miles from a trailhead. It never ceases to amaze me the number of Bikepackers I see with no fist aid training, and little or no first aid supplies. That beautiful landscape we like to explore can kill you very quickly if you aren’t careful. And yep, ditto on go out there and do it—try it—find out what works for you.

    • Should be about patiently exploring the outdoors? No way, there’s no right way to do it. Go fast, go slow, do whatever feels right at the time

  3. I’ve tried going packless, and I haven’t come to the same conclusion backpacks. On dirt roads or snow, a heavy, planted feeling bike is fine. But with a full load of food and water (my hog is about 39 pounds dry, so close to 60 wet), there’s no way I can ride rocky singletrack without some of that weight on my back. The bike gets away from me, and it’s impossible to do basic stuff like hop up on a ledge.

    Any citations for that waterborne bug scientist’s assertion? My guts (and man did they get messed up) tell me that cow shit water can make a person pretty sick. More fecal reading here: http://babcock.wisc.edu/sites/default/files/documents/en_fecal.pdf

  4. Such a great piece! I love the idea that your attitude is the most important piece of equipment! Tons of tips to mine, too..

  5. Josh forgot to mention ski straps! He tipped me to them on his indispensable Instagram feed. They’re amazing and essential! http://www.voile.com/voile-straps.html

  6. Thanks Nicholas and Chris!

  7. Having just spent three awesome weeks traveling AK with Josh, I can vouch for how much he dislikes mud…

    Great article Josh with some very sage advice.

    • Thanks Glenn! It’s traveling & talking with people like you that form these thoughts. Thanks for coming up!

  8. Great advice!

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