Lessons from a winter cycle tour in California

Posted on January 29, 2016 in Biking, North America

We had big plans this winter.

A cycle tour across one of the driest places on earth navigating a combination of dirt paths, 4×4 roads and scenic highways to take us across the lunar landscapes.

Using my typical trip planning method of simply doing google image searches and being sold on the idea on appearances alone, I didn’t take our decision super seriously during the planning stages. 

In fact, the original plan of our trip ended up being so terrible in reality that we had to call it quits half way through and finish the trip with car assistance. Now I’m making this post and promising to myself in the future that I will never make these mistakes again.

Red Rock Cycle Rachel Kristensen

NUMBER ONE – NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE TRAIL

Our conversation went something like this:

Kieran: Where should we go this winter? You decide.

Me: (google image search: Death Valley) Death Valley looks pretty. (google map search) Oh, Joshua Tree is nearby too.

Kieran: I found this sweet backpacking trail called the Stage Coach 400.

Me: (google image search “Stagecoach 400 bike) Oh, that looks pretty too. Let’s do all three, and throw in Mojave too. We can go from San Diego to Las Vegas.

Kieran: That’s 1100km.

Me: Perfect!

Did I look at how hard the trail was?

No.

Did we look at the weather conditions?

Ish.

We looked in late November, and checked the annual averages. Those averages meant nothing in a year that was a super El Nino (see lesson number 3).

Our trail was 1100km, which included a difficult start of going over the Anza Borrego Mountains outside of San Diego. On bikepacking.com, the Stagecoach is a 7/10 in terms of difficulty.

Clear to me now afterwards, the people who rated that were absolute beasts. They completed it in 2-5 days. If we attempted to do the whole thing, it would have taken me a full 14 days.

After the Stagecoach portion, we planned to cycle through the dirt roads Joshua Tree, cross the paved expanses of the Mojave, somehow manage the sandy sections of the extreme 4×4 trails of Death Valley before getting to the plateau that would take us through Red Rocks Canyon to Las Vegas.

Not. An. Easy. Task.

What’s worse? We had a time limit of 15 days. For us, that was not possible.

Lesson learned: Talk to someone, anyone, who has done the trail you are planning to go.

Ask for advice before you commit to buying the bike, the plane ticket and showing up unprepared.

And for goodness sake, check the weather. (Again, see point three for more details on that ‘oops’)

Stagecoach Trail Rachel Kristensen

NUMBER TWO: DON’T OVERESTIMATE YOUR ABILITIES

I think the worst part of our planning was the fact that we had already done a cycle trip just a few months before. We had documented our journey well. We had written and photographic evidence of what we could and could not do.

For instance, our 2500km cycle trip from the summer took us six weeks.

We averaged about 60km a day.

Granted, Kieran was towing 100lbs + of gear, but it was summertime. We had five hours of extra sunlight to work with and we were on roads. PAVED ROADS.

The winter trip had us planning to do many 100km days ON DIRT with brutally cold mornings and early sunsets. We wanted to complete 1100km in 13 days, an average of 85km/ day.

That is a serious stretch that would require a huge push.

In the summer, I was the fittest I’ve ever been.

This winter, I had completed one and only one cycle ride of 40km in the three months leading up to our trip. My diet had consisted of essentially sustaining myself on blue cheese and chocolate while doing an exercise routine of nothing.

I was completely out of shape for our goal, but even if I had been – there was no physical way I could have managed that many 100km+ days on those trails given my previous example of 60km a day average.

Lesson learned: Treat your body like a temple. Get in shape well before the trip. Know how far it can be pushed. And own up to your capabilities and/or limitations.

There is no need to torture yourself so set a reasonable goal factoring in  daylight hours, type of terrain, wind and weather.

Joshua Tree Cycle Rachel Kristensen

NUMBER THREE: PLAN FOR THE WORST WEATHER, EVER

Our first obstacle came on the second day.

While we went to bed to a clear sky in a nature reserve on the outskirts of San Diego, we woke to some serious rainfall.

Sideways rain that wouldn’t quit.

Since when did it rain in the desert?

Other than the waterproof bike bags, we packed minimal rainwear as it had been a drought in California for basically the last two years.

It probably didn’t help that we planned our trip in an El Nino year:  when the Pacific Coast is supposed to get pounded by storms and wet weather.

Our first week was nothing but snow advisories for Southern California and our dirt trails instantly turned into mud pits wreaking havoc on our pace and our planned path.

After the first week, we didn’t get killed by rain, but by freezing temperatures instead.

We regularly woke up to frost on the tent and temps well below freezing. Most days the temps just barely got above zero for a few hours of the day and the lows were hitting near the all-time record lows.

It was one of the coldest trips I’ve ever taken, and I’m from Canada.

Lesson: Have an alternative route as a backup plan, bring a few extra waterproof bags for your stuff and bring quality warm wear!

Death Valley Cycle - Rachel Kristensen

NUMBER FOUR: WATCH OUT FOR WIND

Even though we battled headwinds in the summer on our 2500km cycle trip across BC, winds weren’t even a factor when we started planning this cycle tour.

When we arrived our Joshua Tree campsite just after sunset, it was cold. Brutally and piercingly cold.

The wind was steadily blowing above 50km, but with gusts of 100km/hr.

We tried to set up our tent, but the ground was far too hard to get the pegs in and with the brutal wind we just didn’t want to spend too long out looking for rocks to help us pound in the pegs. 

So with our full body weight anchoring down our tent from the inside, we watched as the wind flung our tent left and right slamming it into the ground as the loosely attached tarp acted like a sail.

It looked bad. Our decision of what to do next was born out of laziness and fear of the cold (aka not wanting to spend long outside of the sleeping bag). We removed the tarp and slept with the full mesh tent exposed to the winds.

That my friends, was a seriously cold night with temps well below zero.

Never mind just the one cold windy night, in the winter there is an almost constant wind that goes North to South.

This meant that nearly the entire journey was going directly into the headwind.

A soul destroying and impossibly lethal blow to moral that neither of us took into consideration.

Coupled with the next item on the list, it made the planned trip a nightmare.

Lesson learned: Again, talk to someone who has done it before to get real advice. Would advise talking to a ranger or professional. Found a blog who completed a similar trip and his schedule had 27 days but references the wind challenges clearly – so research BEFORE!

Get gear that is for all weather, and really figure out if this trip should be done in this season.

Death Valley Cycle Rachel Kristensen

NUMBER FIVE: FIND OUT WHERE THE FOOD STOPS ARE

Now we actually did plan this one in advance which is why we calculated some huge distances to cover. We could do that 100km cycle tour day because there was a Denny’s to refuel our bodies in and fill up our water bottle in the town outside that wilderness reserve we’d sleep in.

Well, yah, there was a Denny’s. Which provided wifi use to look at the weather reports and confirm we were nothing short of insane for wanting to continue and providing great reasons to quit, go rent a car and pretend that we didn’t fly all the way down for a crazy cycle trip we couldn’t complete on time.

Because of the timings, which essentially doubled or quadrupled when the other factors such as difficult terrain, weather, headwind, etc were realized – our food stops were few and far between.

Kelso in the middle of the Mojave, which was our food stop between Amboy and Baker (an 75mile or 120km distance), and we found it boarded up for winter. No food. No water. Nadda. The gas station at Amboy, had nothing but bags of chips and garbage food to refuel on.

Baker, our salvation after the Mojave crossing, had only a selection of fast food chains. Not one of which had any fresh fruit or vegetables.

The Mojave, all 120km we’d have to cross had no water and the strongest headwinds to battle.

And this is just one example on the 1100km trip of how crap the food situation was.

Was it manageable?

Yes, we could survive. 

But is it ideal?

No.

Lesson learned: Find out if your route is going to have a vegetable or not so your not let down by another greasy burger.

Bike Death Valley - Rachel Kristensen

NUMBER SIX: DON’T ASSUME WINTER MEANS NO ONE WILL BE AROUND

If someone would have told me that all the designated campgrounds would be full during a period of time where the North Pole was actually warmer than southern California, there is no way I would have believed them.

But it was true.

In many places, you can wild camp as long as you are a certain distance from the road and not visible.  But if you get to a populated area like Furnace Creek or Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley, or Red Rocks Canyon National Park, places near food or scenic stops worth seeing, almost all the campgrounds were full! 

We had to go from campground to campground to find one with space and even slept in the overflow at Red Rocks after all 100+ spots were taken.

It was winter, with temps dipping below 0C – who would have known they’d be that busy?!

Lesson learned: Find out where all the allowed wild camping spots are or arrive at the designated spots early.

red rocks cycle - rachel kristensen

NUMBER SEVEN: GET THE RIGHT GEAR

You know when you see a price difference between $500 and you are trying to figure out which item is best?

Research it.

I didn’t.

Kieran got bike packing bags that were nearly as expensive as his bike and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why those bags were better than the tried and true cycle tour pannier bags I had.

So, with no research, I just assumed.

It turns out, his bags were better on many levels. But most importantly, they suited our trip.

His bags made the bike have a low center of gravity, remain totally balanced in weight and feel streamlined.

Mine was ass heavy meaning my front tire jumped up on any incline. The oversized rear end also made maneuvering difficult. And because they were so heavy, it made hills my worst nightmare.

Lesson learned: Get the right gear after you’ve researched what you need and don’t cheap out.

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If you want to see more, check out a quick video I made from this cycle trip.