How To Bikepack In Bad Weather

Winter bikepacking can mean glorious snowy vistas and crisp, cold mornings. It can also mean relentless rain, temperatures just above freezing and a serious risk of everything unravelling quickly if you’re not prepared. We’ve already explored the intricacies of bikepacking in the snow, so this time sent Marcus Leach out to find out whether bikepacking in bad weather can really be fun.

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Photography Jayne Leach

A rider in heavy mist

 

I wake to the rhythmic drumming of rain against my tent, the sound of the babbling river that runs beside my makeshift campsite is melodic and soothing. Day is yet to break, a veil of darkness swaddles the valley and I’m in no rush to free myself from the warm embrace of my sleeping bag just yet. Content to lie and listen to the sounds of nature I roll over and slowly drift back to sleep.

When I finally rise from my slumber I do so with a growing sense of optimism and happiness that belies the inclement weather waiting for me away from the sanctuary of my tent. Far from being anxious at the prospect of another day riding in the rain, I’m strangely excited by it, knowing that I need to not only overcome the challenges of my route, but also prevail over the elements. I am, however, in no rush to get started, not until I’ve had coffee and porridge that is.

Over breakfast, I double-check my route. I had intended to ride a little further the previous day, stopping earlier than planned to set up camp and take advantage of a break in the incessant drizzle that had been the defining feature as I ventured further into a remote valley in the Black Mountains. It’s one thing riding in the rain, another altogether setting up camp in the wet. That I was even out on my bike in the first place defied convention, after all bikepacking trips are best enjoyed during summer months under warm balmy skies, right?

Well, it all depends on your outlook and appetite for adventure. Personally, I have always believed that our enjoyment of bikepacking should never end, no matter what time of year, or whatever the weather. If anything, there’s a far greater sense of pleasure and satisfaction to be taken from a winter bikepacking trip, so long as you are prepared and ready. It’s only when we are ill-equipped that things turn sour.

Marcus setting up camp

A tent alongside a river in the Welsh mountains

Marcus’ Top Tips for Surviving Winter Bikepacking Trips

Adopt the Right Mindset: Above all else you need to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy riding when the rest of the world is hunkered down next to roaring log fires drinking steaming cups of coffee, at least that’s how I imagine them to be whilst out riding. Anybody who sets out in the middle of winter expecting sunshine and cloudless skies is either mildly deluded, or fortunate enough to be riding in Morocco, so accept the fact that you might (will) get rained on. Once you embrace this eventuality you can prepare accordingly and start to appreciate being submerged in an environment that offers something totally different in winter months. My golden rule is to remember that whilst we can’t control the elements, we can control our attitude towards what they throw at us, and this goes a long way in deterring our enjoyment levels.

Have the Right Kit: With the right set-up and kit there’s no reason why you can’t stay dry and warm, even in the most hostile conditions. You might need to spend a little extra to get the best possible kit, but it will be money well spent in the long run – the last thing you want is to be shivering in your sleeping bag, or getting damp under a leaky tent deep in the mountains all because you scrimped and saved a few pounds. I still pack fairly light in the winter, but every item I take is suitable for that time of year. As the old saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong kit. See below for my top kit recommendations.

Layer Up: Setting out in the winter when it’s cold and wet requires a tactical approach when it comes to clothing, with multiple layers being the best strategy. You need to strike a balance between staying warm, but equally not wanting to end up sweating so much that your layers get soaked through. My preferred method is starting with a PrimaLoft base layer, followed by a lightweight jersey under a thin insulated jacket, with the option of a waterproof should I need it. The waterproof is key, and for me this means looking outside of the traditional cycling brands and turning to a reputable mountaineering company. Why? Because you get something designed for the mountains and to withstand the worst of conditions, ensuring you stay truly dry and warm. There’s nothing worse than getting wet to ruin an otherwise great trip, and once you’re wet it’s hard to get dry again.

Marcus crosses a river, carrying his bike

Be Conservative: As I was once told, every mile is worth two in winter, and most, if not all of us, have bitten off more than we can chew when it comes to planning routes for our rides before. It’s not so bad in summer when the nights are invariably warm and we can ride late into the evening to reach our destination, but in winter it’s a different story. Remember that trails are tracks are likely to be slower going when wet and muddy, which is why it’s better to plan shorter days and have a little extra time to set up camp and get settled in daylight, rather than still be looking for somewhere to stop for the night when it’s dark and temperatures are dropping faster than your moral.

Be Methodical: There’s nothing like bad weather to sharpen our focus and highlight the need to be ultra organised. When it’s raining and cold you want to be able to lay your hands on certain items straight away, and this means packing in a logical and methodical manner before setting off. Items such as tents, stoves and sleeping bags should be at the bottom of your bike bags, allowing easy access to what you need most whilst on the move, such as snacks, extra layers, waterproofs, tools and spares.

The same logical approach is required when you’re in your tent, especially given that bikepacking tents aren’t known for being spacious. My rule is ‘use it and put it back where it belongs straight away’, that way nothing gets lost and you’re not scrambling around looking for things. Again, when breaking camp, be systematic, a little extra time spent organising in the morning can save a whole lot of hassle, and potential discomfort, later in the day.

When it’s wet I don’t leave my tent until everything that can be done inside is done, ensuring that once I am outside I can focus on packing my tent away and being on the bike as quickly as possible. That means everything is packed away and in its relevant bike bag while I’m still in the dry.

Bike packing in winter is, in many ways, an adventure into the unknown, but this is where we experience who we are and what we’re made of, it’s where our character is tested and forged and where the rewards for our endeavours are that much greater. There’s a world of opportunity awaiting us, so long as we remember there are no bad days and remain respectful of the elements.

Marcus stands with his bike by a bothy next to the river he camped by

The Gear Marcus Used for his Winter Bikepacking Adventure

Tent: MSR Hubba NX1

Winter is no time to be messing about with tarps and bivy bags, you want a nice dry space at the end of the day to shield from the elements.

Sleeping Mat: Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm Vapor

A decent sleeping mat which reflects heat (cold from the ground back down, and hot from your body back up) means you can go for a slightly lighter sleeping bag.

Sleeping Bag: Mountain Equipment Firefly XL

A lighter sleeping bag will pack down far smaller, yet still provide enough warmth as long as you’re not wild camping in polar conditions.

Camping Stove: MSR Pocket Rocket 2

There’s no substitute for a hot brew on cold, wet days, and with this, you’ll have one in next to no time.

Down Jacket: Montane Anti-Freeze

Ideal for putting on at the end of the day to keep warm as your body temperature drops once off the bike, as well as being a handy extra layer if it gets really cold in the night.

Waterproof: Rab Ladakh GTX

I have yet to find a cycling-specific waterproof that will keep you as dry and protected from the elements as one designed for mountaineering.

Water Purification: MSR TrailShot

This little pocket-sized gem takes away all of the stress of needing to worry about carrying extra bottles.

Camp Food: Firepot Food

Quite possibly the best dehydrated meals going, enabling you to have a seriously hearty meal at the end of the day – and they double up as hot water bottles whilst cooking.

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