A couple weeks ago I conducted my first off-road mountain bike tour.
I’ve toured for months on a mountain bike in the past, but this was my first time traveling entirely on dirt fire roads and rocky single-track trails.
This first off-road mountain bike touring adventure may have just been a short 2-day, 1-night adventure, but I learned a lot from the experience… and I’d like to take a moment to share with you the three biggest things I learned from this short mountain biking expedition.
1. When Mountain Bike Touring – Pack As Little As Possible
For this first mountain biking tour of mine, I had two main goals. 1) Get away from home for a little while (and away from the computer)… and 2) test out the Freeload touring racks that were sent to me from New Zealand.
Because I wanted to test out the Freeload racks mounted on both the front and rear ends of my bicycle, I decided to pack four full panniers and stuffed them with more things than I would normally take on a regular bicycle touring expedition. In addition to the four panniers I was carrying, I also had a full set of camping gear, a change of clothes, a book to read, a tripod, and three different cameras mounted on my bike.
Going across town and riding on paved roads was no problem whatsoever. Even with all that weight mounted on my bicycle, the vehicle handled well. In fact, it felt as though I were traveling on my regular loaded touring bike (with a few small differences due to the fact that the weight on my fully-loaded mountain bike was positioned slightly differently than the way I have it positioned on my regular touring bike).
But once I hit the mountains and began traveling off-road, my fully-loaded mountain bike became nothing but a burdon. The bike was heavy, slow and loud. Uphill, the bike seemed to weigh a ton. On rocky trails I had to travel so slow I was barely moving. And on steep uphills I had to actually get off the bike and push. In fact, on one super-steep trail, I had to actually unload the panniers and carry them up the mountainside on their own, then hike back down, get my bike, and carry it up the trail as well.
I quickly realized that if I’m ever to do an off-road mountain bike tour again, I need to pack a whole lot less. I think I could get by with a single set of panniers on the back of my bicycle, but I’d want to leave the front panniers at home. An even better option would be to figure out a way to carry everything I need using Freeload sport racks. This way of transporting my things would mean a lot less jiggling on the bike, which I’ll speak about in just a moment.
2. Don’t Forget The Keys To Your Bike Lock
After a full day of cycling, I made camp at the top of a colorful mountain pass with near 360 degree views. I set up my tent, prepared my sleeping area, and threw my gear inside my portable home. Then (because I wanted to write this article for you about how to lock up your bicycle when there is nothing around to actually lock it to) I locked my bicycle to my tent.
But as soon as the lock clicked shut, I realized I had made a terrible, terrible mistake. I had forgotten to pack the key to my bike lock. I had left the key at home!
As soon as I realized my mistake, I grabbed my cell phone and called my neighbor Mark. I explained to Mark what I had done and asked him if he would do me a huge favor by fetching the keys from my house and driving them to me at a point high in the mountains. Because I was about 4 miles away from the closest road, I explained to Mark that I would start walking down to the road right away… and that I’d meet him there later in the evening. About 40 minutes later, I met Mark on a desolate dirt road high in the mountains and he handed me my keys (my savior!). I then spent the next hour-and-a-half walking uphill and four miles back in the direction of my tent while the sun set far off in the distance.
I had wanted this short 2-day bike tour to be a relaxing night in the mountains, but because I forgot to pack my keys it quickly turned into a nerve-wracking and physically demanding experience. And it all happened due to one simply mistake – I forgot the key to my bike lock.
Lucky for me, this accident occured within a short radius of my home and I had people to call who were willing to help me out. If I had made this same mistake on a longer bicycle touring expediton where I might be a super long distance from home or anyone I know, this could have turned out to be a much bigger ordeal.
Whoops! I won’t make that mistake again.
3. Some Panniers Are Better For Off-Road Touring Than Others
Finally, the most interesting thing I learned from this short mountain bike tour, is that some bicycle panniers simply arn’t made for mountain bike touring, while others are certainly more equipped for the demands of off-road travel.
On my short 2-day tour, I was using a set of Ortlieb panniers to carry all my gear. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that this was a mistake, and that I would have been better off had I used a set of Lone Peak, Arkel, or similar style panniers instead.
You see, on the back of all bicycle panniers is some kind of attachment system, which works to hold the panniers to the racks of your bicycle. Most (but not all) panniers have two hooks at the top of the pannier (which allow the pannier to hang off the top of the rack) and a hook of some kind at the bottom of the pannier, which wraps around a small part of the rack to keep the pannier bottom from flopping around on the bike. This bottom portion of the pannier attachment system, I learned, is the most important part of the pannier when it comes to off-road mountain bike touring.
This bottom hook on the backside of the pannier is usually designed in one of two ways.
The first and most basic bottom hook is exactly that. It is a hook that simply slides behind a portion of your bicycle’s rack… and for road touring, this is usually enough to keep the pannier from bouncing around on the rack while the bicycle is in motion. (The photo below is a good example of this type of bottom hook – shown here on a Pacific Outdoor Equipment waterproof pannier.)
As you can see in the following photo, my Ortlieb pannier’s bottom hook does a good job of sliding into one of the grooves on the Freeload rack’s pannier sides.
The problem, however, is that on bumpy, rocky roads and trails, the bottom hooks on these types of panniers jump out of place, causing the pannier as a whole to bounce and jiggle around as you travel about on your bicycle. The hooks at the top of the pannier hold the pannier to the rack, but the hook at the bottom of the pannier becomes useless after a few good shakes.
The second type of bottom pannier hook, however, is the type shown below (shown here on a set of Arkel XM-45 bicycle panniers). This type of bottom hook is not just a regular free-standing hook, but a hook tied to a bungee cord. The bungee acts as a pulling mechanism, which when in place on the rack of your bicycle, not only hooks around a portion of the bike rack, but keeps the hook (and pannier as a whole) locked in place.
On a regular road tour, it usually doesn’t matter what type of bottom hook you have on your panniers, because on a road tour there are less bumps in the road that might cause your pannier hooks to bounce out of place. But on an off-road bicycle touring expedition, the road is sure to be bumpy and your panniers need this extra bungee feature in order to keep the panniers from bouncing around on the racks.
At the moment, the only panniers I’ve ever used in the past that have this bungee locking system on the back and are actually designed for mountain bike touring are Lone Peak and Arkel panniers.
As you can see, I learned some valuable lessons from this short 2-day mountain bike tour.
- Pack as little as possible.
- Don’t forget your keys!
- And make sure you use the right panniers.
If you’ve ever been on a mountain bike tour in the past, what are the lessons you learned from your time on the road? What things should the first-time mountain bike tourist know before he or she hits the trail? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think!