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April 10th, 2013 REBECCA JACOBSON | Culture Features
 

Your First Overnighter

Everything you need to know before your first bikepacking trip.

lede_bikepacking_3923MANY RIVERS TO CROSS: Rochelle Comeaux in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. - Image courtesy of Rochelle Comeaux and Don Eaton
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Rochelle Comeaux and Don Eaton remember their first overnighter as cyclists. It was the first day of their 70-day cross-country trip along the TransAmerica Trail, which winds 4,233 miles from Astoria to Yorktown, Va.

We do not recommend you follow Comeaux and Eaton’s lead. Eventually, maybe. But there are easier ways to take your first bike tour—you don’t need to buy any padded Lycra. Ellee Thalheimer, 34, has logged thousands of miles on two wheels (her book Cycling Sojourner is a great resource for short trips around Oregon), and she’s nearly evangelistic about the accessibility of bike touring. “Lots of people have this conception that you need a $3,000 touring bike,” she says. “The fact is, the majority of people can use the bike in their garage.”

And in Portland, heading off on a quick overnighter could hardly be easier. You can saddle up downtown, or you can take TriMet over the mountains west of town or past the grind of Gresham, which eliminates unpleasant stretches of busy city roads. “Incorporating public transit makes it easier to get through the not-as-savory areas,” says Shawn Granton of Cycle Wild, a nonprofit that leads bike camping trips.

Here’s what else you need to know.


What to Ride

“I really believe that if you can ride a bike, you can go on a tour,” says Thalheimer, the author. Eaton, a trained bike mechanic, notes that bikes with a wide range of gears and smooth, road-friendly tires will do best over longer distances. Forget your need for speed: What’s most important is riding a bike on which you feel comfortable, whether it’s a featherweight road bike, an upright commuter or a hand-me-down hybrid.

On their trip, Comeaux, 27, and Eaton, 29,   encountered cross-country cyclists on tandems and velocipedes. A unicyclist completed the TransAmerica Trail in 2010. Make sure you have powerful lights—LEDs are reliable, durable and energy-efficient. At a minimum, get a front safety light for your handlebars and a rear flashing red light. A good set costs about $50. Fenders will keep you clean in nasty weather, preventing that nasty skunk stripe down your back. Looking to upgrade a single component? Consider a high-quality saddle, which will run $50 to $70—there are cushy gel saddles, sleek leather ones, women’s-specific designs and even ones padded with soft sheepskin. Your buns will thank you at the end of a 40-mile day.


What to Bring

Have you ever taken a long ride with a messenger bag slung across your body? It’s lousy. Get that gear off your body and onto your bike. A rear rack is essential, because it will allow you to attach panniers—or milk crates or buckets—to your bike. Ortlieb’s waterproof panniers are tops, but a pair will cost you about $150. Citybikes sells buckets for $28—Comeaux decries them as “hipster” but acknowledges their multifunctionality—and milk crates are even cheaper. What goes into that luggage depends on your destination.

If you’re camping, you’ll need some sort of tent, a sleeping bag and kitchen gear. Sleep inside, and you’ll have a lighter, more comfortable load. You’ll need food and water, of course, and basic hygiene items, sunscreen and bug repellent. Basic bike tools, plus a patch kit, spare tube and hand pump, are also important. These might seem unnecessary in the velotopia of Portland, where you’re never more than a few blocks from a bike shop, but don’t expect to find a mechanic around the corner once you’ve hit the country. And learn how to use those tools! You could follow the lead of a certain WW editor (not this one) and shamefacedly pedal your bike to the shop each time you get a flat, or you could attend one of the many free workshops offered around town: Check out REI, the Bike Gallery and River City Bicycles.


BLUEGRASS, BOURBON, BIKES: The couple’s campsite in Western Kentucky.
Image courtesy of Rochelle Comeaux and Don Eaton

 

What to Wear

As with the bike, anything goes, but a few key items will increase your comfort. You might think those city commuters look silly in their padded shorts, but after a few dozen miles in the saddle, you’ll understand. That chamois pad reduces friction and provides a bit of cushion over bumps. Find a basic pair for $30, or for much less on sale. Avoid cotton. Pack rain gear—the waterproof stuff, not rubberized and none of that water-resistant rubbish. Go for highlighter-bright clothing—Eaton received a neon-yellow vest from a Colorado driver who nearly hit him, which he wore most days of the trip.


When to Go

You know Oregon weather: Summer has warm and long days; winter has wet and short ones. Trails and parks are crowded in the summer, especially on weekends and holidays, and much less so in the off-season. September, Thalheimer says, is the best: Temperatures are comfortable and people have returned to work and school. Those with flexible schedules, she adds, should take advantage of chance sunny days during the winter. 


Where to Stay

Campsites are cheap and plentiful, but if budget is less of a concern, don’t rule out other options. Comeaux and Eaton spent several nights in hotels during their trip, which they often recommend for first-time bike tourists. Cabins and yurts are also good options. Comeaux and Eaton advise against stealth camping, but sometimes it turns out fine: They accidentally camped in a couple’s front yard in Virginia, and were invited inside for coffee the next morning.


Where to Go

The Banks-Vernonia State Trail—21 miles of former railroad—is smoothly paved and gorgeous, with several trestle bridges and views of the Coast Range foothills. Either drive to Banks, or take the MAX to Hillsboro and follow rural back roads for 12 miles to the trailhead. Halfway through the route is Stub Stewart State Park, which offers tent sites ($6-$10) and cabins ($43), or you can push on to a quaint B&B in Vernonia.

South of Hillsboro is wine country, which offers prime opportunities for a midride tipple. Take the No. 12 bus to Sherwood and then pedal to Newberg (mileage will vary, but Thalheimer’s book recommends a 23.4-mile route from Sherwood to Newberg). There, you can sip sustainable wine, stay at a spa or pedal farther southeast for cheap tent camping ($5), a yurt ($36) or cabin ($39) at Champoeg State Park, where there are restrooms and showers.

To the east, the Columbia River Gorge beckons. Take the MAX to the Gresham Transit Center, where you’ll soon connect with the Historic Columbia River Highway. Then there’s some hilly pedaling, but Cycle Wild’s Granton says it’s the most scenic ride close to Portland, with sweet views of waterfalls (Multnomah, Bridal Veil, Wahkeena, Latourell, Horsetail). After 22 miles, you’ll hit Ainsworth State Park, which has tent sites ($13-$17), restrooms and showers. Feeling strong? Roll another 30 miles to Hood River, where amenities abound.


Resources

Visit cyclewild.org for routes, gear lists and trip reports. The Adventure Cycling Association’s website has detailed maps of cycling routes across the country. In addition to her book Cycling Sojourner, Thalheimer’s website (cycletouringoregon.com) offers a free chapter on biking around Vernonia. 

 
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