Eszter Horanyi was sitting in a coffee shop with her boyfriend when she noticed an article about the Colorado Trail. It would turn out to be one of those rare road signs from the universe, setting the trajectory of her life for the next decade. But Horanyi didn’t know that yet. She just knew that she liked to bike, and the trail sounded like fun.
“So, we bought some pannier bags and racks and cobbled together a trip. At the time, there was very little information available on touring on trails, and we had a lot to learn.”
Bikepacking is akin to backpacking on wheels. Riders carry all the equipment needed to travel along unpaved roads and camp independently.
For Horanyi, an experienced cyclist with an adventurous spirit, the first trip was a shock. “I hadn’t done any hiking or backpacking before the trip, and it showed. We sent back nine pounds of stuff after a day and a half, including two pairs of clean underwear for me and our coffeemaker.”
The Colorado Trail stretches over 500 miles from Denver to Durango. “We ended up completing the entire trail that year, and it took 12 days. It was, and maybe still is, the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Horanyi is no stranger to difficult tasks. Since that first trip in 2004, she has participated in and excelled at endurance cycling events. She has set records in many races, including Alaska’s Iditabike, the Arizona Trail Race 300, and the Tour Divide, in which she covered the 2,745 miles between Canada and the Mexican boarder in only 19 days, three hours, and 35 minutes.
Competing at this level requires extreme dedication, with riders averaging well over 100 miles a day on very little sleep, for days or weeks at a time.
While the elite competitors of endurance cycling will continue to push the limits, slower paced, recreational bikepacking also offers a sense of adventure.
Josh Kepler of Marina del Rey started bikepacking long before it was recognized as a sport. While in college in the mid 1990s, he led youth backpacking trips with friends in West Virginia. Kepler began contemplating using a bike as a tool to cover more ground.
“We realized that we could cover a four-day backpacking trip as an overnight if we rode our bikes. It really started just as a way to enjoy more of an area that we already loved.”
Over the past 20 years, Kepler has been amazed at the evolution of lightweight gear designed specifically for bikepacking. “We would have killed for this stuff back in college.”
While the efficiency of biking can promote greater discovery, it can also lead to difficulty. Kepler says, “The speed magnifies your mistakes.”
A few minutes of downhill on the wrong trail may not amount to much on foot, but by bike, it can mean backtracking for an hour.
On a recent trip in our local Los Padres National Forest, Kepler underestimated the difficulty of a trail and found himself in trouble.
“I made it to the ridge as the sun was setting, and it got really cold. I was out of water and feeling very tired, so I made the decision to change my plan and look for the closest water.
“In addition to my GPS, I was carrying a paper map, which showed some ponds high on the mountain. I found them and luckily they were wet. The water was very silty but plentiful.”
Carpinteria resident, Nick Bobroff, says water is a major consideration for bikepackers in our area right now. “Water is by far the heaviest item I carry on the bike, so I prefer to not carry more than I need and refill on the way, but that’s become a lot more tricky to pull off during these drought years.”
The challenges of bikepacking will continue to inspire new adventures. In 2012 Horanyi revisited the route that started it all. This time, she cut her time by more than half, setting a women’s record by covering the Colorado Trail in a grueling five days, five hours.
While Horanyi’s rides have established her status as a world-class athlete, the grit and determination at the heart of the sport can be experienced by any cyclist. Says Horanyi, “You don’t need the latest and greatest to get started and have a huge, memorable adventure.”
Just remember to leave your coffeemaker at home.