Bikepacking often elicits an image of long-distance rides that take many days, weeks, or months of pedaling bikes heavily loaded with gear and food for the duration of a long trip. But taking the time off work, traveling to far-away places, and acquiring the gear, confidence, and fitness for a long-distance, multi-week trip can be a heavy lift and simply not easily attainable or desirable for many. While I absolutely recommend someday seeking a longer bikepacking trip as a way to travel, explore a landscape, and experience the joy that comes with bike travel (on a lightly packed bike), I also am equally an advocate for the 36-hour or less overnight bikepacking trip.

Photo by Kurt Refsnider

The rewards of pedaling my bike to camp for one night include low time investment for trip preparation, breaking a big day ride into two shorter, more attainable days, watching one day end and another begin through sunset and sunrise with dinner and coffee, and sleeping under the stars. The single-night bikepacking trip is both a way to dip your toes into bikepacking, and a way to have a quick getaway from home adventure.

Photo by Kurt Refsnider

For me, trails are ribbons of dirt that take me through a place I don’t yet know or know and love deeply. Choosing to spend a night bikepack on a route for a night is one way I chose to spend more time in a place, enjoying everything the landscape has to offer as day turns to night and night transitions back to day again. Because of this relationship, my favorite single night bikepacking route is on Passage 16 – the Gila River Canyons – of the Arizona Trail, or better known as Picketpost.

Photo by Kurt Refsnider

It’s on this section of the Arizona Trail that I first went bikepacking on singletrack, experiencing the delight of camping among the blooming poppies, mariposa lilies, globe mallow, desert marigold, brittlebush, prickly pears, and ocotillo. Picketpost is also where I’ve aimed to finish the Arizona Trail Race, starting 300 miles to the south at Parker Canyon Lake near the Mexico/Arizona border on four different occasions. During that race, I eagerly look forward to the final stretch of riding along the Gila River and climbing up through the southern Superstition Mountains among magnificent volcanic pinnacles, cliffs, and towers. It’s in these final 30 miles of the race that I’ve dug the deepest in my body and mind, been most in awe of the desert light at sunrise, and experienced an ultimate flow state of moving my body and bike over rocks, around tight switchbacks, and in and out of steep drainages. Although the trail here isn’t far from Phoenix as the crow flies, the rugged canyons, wild views, and arid climate make this slice of the Sonoran Desert particularly remote feeling. That said, from the tiny mining town of Kelvin, bikepackers and thru-hikers have been known to call in pizza for trail-side delivery from the nearby, and also small town of Winkleman.

Photo by Kurt Refsnider

The magnificence of riding in the Gila River Canyons surpasses the experience of an ultra-racer; this section of Arizona Trail is widely revered among mountain bikers as world-class desert singletrack. But because of the rugged and remote nature of the riding, it can be challenging to fully experience the full character of the landscape without tackling a massive day-ride or embarking on an overnight bikepack. A grassroots collection of group rides and challenges, the Arizona Endurance Series, shares three different routes that venture into the Gila River Canyons and southern Superstition Mountains. Any of these routes would make for a fantastic bikepack, though if the return climb feels attainable, taking a trip down to the Gila River on the AZT is well worth the effort. Riders of all experience and fitness levels should be warned that the AZT is notoriously slow going and to expect much slower moving-time pace than average mountain trail riding. But it’s at this pace that you can see the desert wildflowers, feel the ways water has roughly eroded the rocky terrain, and soak in your time on the Arizona Trail.


Photo by Will Stubblefield

A final word to anyone who doesn’t have quick access to an overnight on the Arizona Trail, as I no longer do: picking out my favorite area to ride close to home, or a long ride that could be broken into two days is truly my favorite way to approach the overnight bikepacking trip. As the snow is melting from high mountain trails here in Idaho, my partner and I have been making a habit of taking our 7-month puppy for ultra-short bikepack rides on our local trails. We’ve been leaving our house after work at 5:00 pm, riding for an hour to a camp spot, waking up at sunrise and returning home in time to start the workday. It has been a fun way for us to get out of the house without the logistics or time investment of traveling and while enjoying family time without the distractions of home. I couldn’t think of a better or more simple way for the whole family to enjoy bikes and camping together.

 

Words written by 24-hour World Champion and ultra-endurance record holder, Kait Boyle

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