Editor’s Note: We had the pleasure of spending two days with Jill Hamilton, Entrepreneur & Founder of Petal Power mountain biking & camping on the Coast To Crest Trail. She recapped the experience on her Petal Power Blog. Petal Power specializes in cleansers & creams specifically for female cyclists. Check them out!
Words & Images by Jill Hamilton.
I have always been fascinated with “less is more” travel. Bicycle touring, backpacking, teardrop and tiny trailers, VW Westfalias, Sprinter van conversions, and car camping are, in my opinion, the best way to see the world. It’s amazing how little you need when you travel…and how liberating it can be to shed all the comforts of home in favor of traveling simple and light. All those ginormous “McMansions on Wheels” RV’s do absolutely nothing for me. So when bikepacking became a “thing” a few years back, it instantly went on my “bucket list”.
What’s bikepacking? It’s pretty simple…it’s like backpacking on a bike, usually a mountain bike. However, when you bikepack, you don’t wear a big huge backpacking rig on your back. Instead you carry all your gear in purpose-built bags that mount to your bicycle. With all the cool bikepacking-specific bags starting to emerge on the market and camping gear getting lighter and more compact, ultralight off-road self-contained travel by bike is becoming more popular.
When my longtime friend, Susie Murphy (Executive Director for the San Diego Mountain Bike Association and Petal Power Ambassador) invited me to do an overnight bikepacking trip along the 70+ mile Coast to Crest Trail here in San Diego County as part of a filming project, I jumped at the chance. The trip was supported and hosted by One Wild Life and their OWL Adventure Lab bus, a new mobile co-working and creative space vehicle that has the ability for people to stay connected and work from the beach, the mountains, the trailhead, or virtually anywhere. One Wild Life is creating a video for the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy to promote the trail, so they needed some volunteers to ride the route so they could film it.
Perfect! This was just the push I needed to finally get some gear and give this bikepacking thing a try! I decided to get a set of the new Ortlieb bikepacking bags. You can never go wrong with Ortlieb…their bags are made in Germany, waterproof, and pretty much bombproof. The afternoon before the trip, I eagerly started packing up all my stuff in the bags so I could get them mounted on my bike. I got my clothes and toiletries in my handlebar bag with no problem, but my sleeping gear in the seat bag was a different story. My sleeping bag and sleeping pad were light and compact 10 years ago when I bought them for a bike tour. But now…not so much. My how things change. There was no way in hell they were going to fit in my seatbag…so off to REI I go to invest in some new stuff. I walked out with an REI “Flash” women’s sleeping bag, a new sleeping pad, sleeping bag liner, and splurged on a uber-light inflatable pillow…all of which fit neatly in my seat bag with plenty of room to spare. The Ortlieb bags mounted up to my bike without a hitch, so now all that was left to do was get a good night’s sleep to get rested up before my adventure.
We started the ride at the “crest” part of the trailhead at Volcan Mountain way up in the mountains of Julian. We had a little bit of a ride on the pavement before hitting the trail which was good since it gave me the opportunity to see how differently my bike would handle with the added weight and bulk of the bags. I fully expected to feel very top heavy and squirrely, but I didn’t at all. Even when we peeled off onto the singletrack, I was amazed at how balanced the bike felt. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t even know the bags were there…yes, the bike did feel a little heavier. The climbs were just a little tougher and it took a little more braking effort on descents, but other than that, the bike handled like a champ. However, I did make a point to ride cautiously until I got used to the feeling of being loaded (and I don’t mean drunk!).
For the rest of the afternoon, we meandered our way through meadows, sliced through fun singletrack, and cruised down fire roads in some of the most spectacular backcountry San Diego County has to offer. The views were just amazing, especially along the Upper Santa Ysabel Truck Trail. San Diego County is really unique because there aren’t too many places in the world where you can take in sweeping vistas of the desert floor below your mountain viewpoint, then hike, ride, or drive a few miles to the west, and see all the way to the ocean. It makes for some extremely varied terrain and ecosystems that was evident all along this first half of the trail. We rolled through pine and oak tree forests, beautiful grassy meadows, and scrub-like chaparral on our way to our half-way point where we’d be camping for the night.
One of the many great things about doing this as a first bikepacking trip was we didn’t have to worry about carrying dinner/breakfast food and cooking gear with us. The Adventure Lab bus met us at our half-way point and had cold beer, drinks, and snacks waiting for us as we rolled into camp at about 4pm. Since the Adventure Lab bus IS a mobile workstation, we were able to use its awesome Goal Zero Yeti portable solar generator so we could charge up our cameras and phones, which were going dead from taking so many pictures and video. While we got changed and got our sleeping gear all situated before dark, Ryan and Tim from One Wild Life cooked us a delicious pasta dinner complete with garlic bread and salad. After dinner, we enjoyed a little more beer and wine over the exchange of trail stories from the day’s ride down from the mountains.
Rise and shine! We were up at about 7am to break camp, eat breakfast, and head down the trail. Tim and Ryan served us a delicious breakfast of old-fashioned oatmeal with all the fixings, eggs, fruit, and most importantly…GREAT coffee. Once we were all fueled up and fully caffeinated, we loaded all our stuff back onto our bikes and hit the trail. Next stop: Dog Beach in Del Mar! On this second half of the Coast to Crest Trail, you get into a little more “civilization” as you go through the San Dieguito River Park towards Lake Hodges. There were lots of other people on the trail: MTBers, runners, hikers, and bird watchers (Lake Hodges and the surrounding river park has world class bird watching, from what I’m told). A couple of the cyclists gave us the thumbs up when they saw we were sporting bikepacking gear on our bikes. I had ridden these trails many, many times and I fully expected that I would feel much slower with a loaded bike. But much like the day before, I was pleasantly surprised how well my bike handled with the added weight. Other than feeling a little slower on the climbs than I normally would and botching a couple super tight switchbacks I usually don’t have problems with, there were times I just forgot I had the bags on my bike.
As we got closer to the beach, the warm, dry air of the inland valleys started to give way to cooler temperatures and that unmistakable “onshore flow” breeze coming from the ocean. As we rolled into Del Mar and the ocean came into view, it was truly a melancholy feeling. On one hand, I felt a great sense of accomplishment to have ridden the 70-odd miles through the backcountry of San Diego all the way down to the sea. But on the other hand, I was really sad to see it come to an end. We pedaled down to Dog Beach and took our bikes down to the water’s edge to celebrate and take some pictures. As we made our way back where the Adventure Lab bus was parked, I said to my group, “Wanna ride back up to Julian?” Everyone chuckled a bit, but I was only half joking. The experience of traveling light without an agenda, exploring places you’ve never been, and meeting awesome people along the way can be highly addictive. I could have easily kept going for another couple days.
Going into this trip, I was truly hoping that bikepacking would be the awesome experience I imagined it would be. It was. It’s always a great feeling to scratch something off your bucket list. But as a friend of mine pointed out (who is also a highly experienced bikepacker), there’s “No checking it off the list! It’ll just get its own list now.” I’m already planning future bikepacking adventures…and that list is getting pretty long!
Of course, I am no expert with one whopping overnight trip under my belt, but here are a few tips that might be helpful:
- You CAN do it. Yes, you really can. With a little bit of fitness, good equipment, and an adventurous spirit, you can pull off a bikepacking trip. Start small like I did…a local overnight is a great way to get your feet wet and shake down your gear. Grab a couple friends and go!
- Go light and compact. If you’re like me and haven’t bought new sleeping equipment in a long time, it’s a good idea to upgrade so it fits in your bags. Sleeping bags, pads, and tents are SO much lighter and more compact than they used to be! Down is a great option for sleeping bags and jackets since they’re warm and pack super small. The lighter your bags are, the more balanced your bike will handle.
- Run what you brung. I really couldn’t decide what bike to ride. Hardtail or full suspension? In the end, I chose my full-suspension Turner Czar because it’s the bike I’m most comfortable on. It proved to be the perfect choice! With bikepacking becoming more and more popular, there’s a lot of debate over what type of bike, what wheel size, what tire size, and what drivetrain is best for the job. For your first adventure, the bike you have NOW is the best bike for the job! Just make sure it’s in tip-top shape mechanically and go for it.
- Eat..eat…eat. If you are going to be riding all day, you are going to burn up a lot of calories. Make sure you pack enough food with you. Eat even if you aren’t hungry…200 calories per hour is a good rule of thumb. Bonking really sucks…bonking in the middle of nowhere sucks even worse!
- Use chamois cream! Of course I always use chamois cream, but I know there are a few holdouts who think they don’t need it. You especially need it on a bikepacking trip! Take sample sizes or fill up a small jar or bottle with what you need for the duration of your trip (prescription medicine bottles work well). Re-apply as needed during the day. And it’s not just for your girly bits…chamois cream can also be used on your skin anywhere you get chafing (shoes, sport bra, hydration pack straps, etc). Don’t know what the heck I’m talking about? Click here.
- Be prepared. On this trip, we were super lucky that we didn’t have any mechanicals or crashes. Nobody even got a flat. If you are going to be riding in remote areas, make sure you have what you need with you to make needed repairs and fix flats (and make sure you know how to use them!). Knowing some basic first aid skills and carrying a small first aid kit is helpful. I also carried a Spot Device satellite rescue beacon, just in case.
- Take time to smell the flowers. Last but not least, have fun! Take your time. Enjoy the scenery and nature. Laugh with your fellow riders. Turn off your smartphone. Take lots of pictures.