Saddle Up Posse! Bikepacking As a Group
Have you bikepacked as a posse? The experience is very distinct from both meditative solo rides and the close camaraderie of a shared experience with a single friend. Factor in half a dozen riders and the dynamic completely transforms, with the journey taking on a different life. Cass heads out for a few days in the sun patinaed New Mexican desert… and returns with the feel good vibes from the very best of group rides.
When it comes to bikepacking, much of my time is spent alone; I value the solitude and the catalyst it provides to stir reflection and thought. But more recently, I’ve come to appreciate how riding with a group can also offer an incredibly rewarding experience, albeit one with a completely different feel. Compared to the solo endeavour, the group dynamic takes on a life of its own; the events around you become intertwined around the way they’re experienced with others.
This particular ride was organised by Paul, who works at our local shop, the Broken Spoke. A few of his friends from home – Kurt, Nate, and Colin – had made the cross-country drive from Virginia in search of winter sun, with the intention of riding south across the state to Las Cruces, on the border with Texas. Given that their February trip coincided with my birthday – a day I always set aside for camping out – I hopped on a train with fellow Santa Fean John. Our plan was to intersect his posse at Bernado, so the six of us could ride together to Truth or Consequences, a quirky desert settlement noted for its hot springs and thrift stores.
As one of the creators of the New Mexico Off Road Runner, the route we were following in part, I’m always interested in the different paces at which people choose to ride it. Solo bikepackers tend to pedal through fairly quickly: out in the desert there’s no one to with whom to chew the cud, so the temptation to just ride is strong. Given that bikepacking isn’t about pacelines, groups tend to dawdle more, with the experience becoming more social.
This trip was no different. Where my mornings alone might have a business-like air in their efficiency, ours were distinctly leisurely, lending them a refreshing, holiday-like vibe. If one rider’s bags were packed and someone else was still pulling down their tent, then time was taken to jot down notes from the day prior, or have a stretch, or just enjoy being fortified by the strengthening sun.
By now, I’ve ridden with enough people to know that whatever the experience and with the right mindset, I’ll always learn something. Their bike setup. The way someone packs. The food he or she eats. Tips in reading the land. And above all, group riding always creates a series of connections that I value for their simple ability to transform ordinary events into something bigger. The coffee you drink is better because it was offered to you by a friend, elevating the enjoyment from mere taste to a far richer experience. Throw in a lovely camp spot, and you have all the makings of a great day.
This act of sharing is an important part of group rides. In the case of the Off-Road Runner, sharing my love of New Mexico is something I always like doing; observing how others react to the sense of mind-expanding space that pervades this land. Its distinctive Its enormous skies. Its incredible light.
For the most part, as mountain bikers we’re proud of our local trails and hangouts, wanting visitors to see the best of them too, like a tour guide enamoured by their job (you need to ride this trail, and eat here, and visit here). In some ways, I see New Mexico as the underdog to Colorado, which draws the lions share of riders. The mountains are less boastful than its picture-perfect neighbour. Its towns don’t teem with outdoors people, their Subarus and a paraphernalia of outdoor toys. While there are miles of blissful high desert singletrack, they’re no a match for those that course around high peaks and 14ers. Yet somehow, the Land of Enchantment never fails to get under the skin. Watching this process happen to those around me is always makes me smile.
Of course, it helps if you jive with those around you. An key ingredient to a successful group bikepacking experience is making sure you’re on one another’s page. For us, this meant we shared a willingness to stop and explore, to detour, to read and nod thoughtfully at historical markers, and to put down some miles where needed. Almost a critical mass, at times we ride six strong as we blazed down rarely trafficked dirt roads. We enjoyed lunches that were protracted; why rush off again when someone else is still enjoying the view? And dinners were a social occasion too; a chance to chat, assimilate our experiences, and stargaze as the veil of a New Mexican night concluded the day. The topics of our conversation oscillated between gear nerdery and storytelling, with a shared appreciation of where we were, remembered through the challenges or personal highlights of the day’s ride.
For the most part, I’ve learnt to know and enjoy almost every aspect of this route – even the ‘junkmiles’ as we called them, the pavement miles that can’t always be avoided. But riding it with others always reveals something new, even it’s later, through shared photos and words. I was glad everyone appreciated the slow, partial circumnavigation of Pico Ladrón, a personal favourite. This gnarled mountain is named after the cattle rustlers who once hid within its folds; I enjoy observing it from differing angles, running the gauntlet between corridors of chola cacti, feeling the change of terrain as it morphs to rolling, piñon scattered hills, and reading faint words etched into the simple rock tombstones at the ghost town of Riley. And I was glad everyone seemed to dig New Mexico’s diversity, typified by the ride’s long climbs back amongst more succulent oaks, aspens and ponderosas. We even spied portly javelina snorting and cavorting noisily around, as well raptors, deer, and coyote. The discovery of a beautifully clear spring to drink from was also welcome find.
Open to the idea of riding unchartered terrain, we also scoped out possible alternatives and improvements to the route. Given the mild winter, this included a detour up to Withington Lookout, built in 1952, and perched at over 10,000ft in elevation. Last year the area was snowbound in February; this time around, it was a straightforward climb on snowpack and dirt, with top of the world views across the khaki-like hues of distant desert mountains, rising up above the iconic plains of San Agustin, an expansive plateau we’d crossed the day before. Graced with a clear winter day, we could out the distinctive white radio telescopes of the Very Large Array, laid out in a 22-mile wide Y-formation, in their quest to tirelessly probe the furthest reaches of space.
Desert rides are almost always the stuff of great adventures; underpinning this is the simple act of ‘being out there’, which is never less than deeply satisfying. In fact, it’s more than just satisfying. It’s a means to completely reset my brain and readjust its course, should it have inadvertently wandered astray during day to day, 21st century living, like a good chiropractic adjustment. Being humbled, whether it be by high mountains, open desert, or a blanket of stars, should perhaps now be considered a necessity for our collective sanity in today’s mechanised society.
Factor in the state’s infused sun-faded patina, a generous smattering of photogenically abandoned cars, a cast of eclectic New Mexican characters, a hearty green chile burger in Magdalena, and you have all the ingredients for a classic Land of Enchantment experience. We ended our ride with a blissful soak in the thermal springs at Truth or Consequences, as frequented by the great Mescalero-Chiricahua Apache leader himself, Geronimo. John and I had arranged transportation home while the others pushed on to Las Cruces, via the connecting Monumental Loop. As for me, I couldn’t have hoped for a better way to spend a birthday weekend.
Tips for getting your own posse together
- Nail down a date and book it. Don’t keep talking about it, waiting, and scheming… or it will never happen.
- As with anything shorter rides are easier to plan given busy schedules; consider easy transportation logistics to get out there quickly and make the most of your time. If you can pull them off, bigger projects are even more memorable… see the Backcountry Posse box out below.
- Make it a birthday ride or an occasion. You’re less likely to bail. Events like the Swift Campout are the perfect excuse too.
- Make sure you’re on the same page in terms of the pace you want to ride, the distances you hope to cover, and the places you want to explore. It’s probably a good idea if the group has shared a few days rides with each other beforehand.
- Round down your distances. It’s nice not to feel rushed. You’re only as fast as the slowest rider and this could be someone different each day.
- Share navigation duties so the onus doesn’t fall on one person. If relying on a gps for navigation, everyone should have a gpx file of the route, even if it’s just on their phone. This helps keeps options open if anything unexpected happens. A paper map is always good to have as a backup, and nice to study together in the evening.
- Running relatively similar setups will help keep the group together and on the same page in terms of discovering unchartered terrain.
- Mechanicals x 6! Make sure everyone’s bike is mechanically sound, sealant is topped up, you’ve figured out your packing, and loaded rigs have been tested, so you’re not slowing down the group unnecessarily.
- Look at alternate bailouts for the ride, should anyone fall ill, your pace is slower than expected, or there’s an accident.
- Bring an aerobee, good food, booze, whatever helps make it a great experience without loading yourself down unecessarily. Group bikepacks are less about crunching miles and more about shared experiences.
- Smuggle an obscure bottle of liquor and/or bar of chocolate and surprise your friends with it at camp.
- Cooking together is a great communal experience but have your own snacks so you can regulate your food intake during the ride and avoid hangriness. Pairing up works well in the interests of cooking times and pot sizes. If you’re the kind of rider who might begrudge others if you don’t get your fare share of a meal, or if you have eating particularities, you’re probably better off fending for yourself.
- Depending on the ride, split core spares between you but make sure everyone carries what they need to keep rolling, in case you flat at the top of a long descent… Bear in mind that cleaning water takes a lot longer if sharing a water filter, so combine it with a snack break.
- Thinking of sharing a tent? There’s pros and cons. It certainly saves weight and bulk but many prefer to have your own space at the end of the day too.
- Factor in group sizes to your impact, particularly if asking locals for water or visiting small stores. Likewise, be a good advocate for bikepacking, find appropriate camping spots that work for groups, and LeaveNoTrace.
- Factor in your group size to any public transportation requirements. Sometimes it’s cheaper to rent a vehicle if buses are limited to 2-3 bikes each or space is at a premium.
- Lastly, bring ear plugs in case there are snorers in your posse!
Heading off into the backcountry tackling a bigger and more remote ride? Expedionist Joe Cruz offers some sage advice:
Have a discussion about daily navigation. Everyone should have the tools and basic skill, namely a gps and/or paper map and/or compass. But sometimes there is the expectation that one or two people will be mainly responsible for navigation (especially if they are the route creator). In that case, set expectations about how that will go, as it can be stressful to be the person always looking at the gps and making sure everyone makes the right turns. It’s often nice if responsibility for a day’s navigation is rotated around the group. Tip for good harmony: be nice to your navigator by recognizing it’s a hard responsibility and also by not always asking “how much further?” “is this a long climb?” “When is the next town” and the like.
Have an open talk about trip costs. Some people love bikepacking because it is such an economical way of seeing the world, others love it but don’t necessarily have a budget that they are restricted to. This can be awkward when the group rolls into a town and some people want to splash out with a big burrito and tequila dinner and stay at a nice hostel, while others may want to just buy some groceries and head out of town.
Don’t get stressed over the fact of minor disagreements. Moods will change and people in the group might get mad at one another. That’s no big deal and 99% of the time blows over.
Have a plan in advance about what to do if you haven’t seen someone or a subset of the group for awhile. Something like, if someone is off the back and hasn’t been seen for 45 minutes, wait to regroup. Or if someone hasn’t been seen for awhile, everyone turns on their mobile phone if there is coverage, and if not, an arrangement to meet the last seen spot. Corollary: everyone has everyone else’s contact info as well as emergency contacts.
Nuts & Bolts for the Off Road Runner
We were all running the biggest tires our frames could handle. Our bikes included a Surly Troll, a Surly Krampus, a Surly Karate Monkey, a Trek Sawyer converted with 27.5+ tires, a custom 29er, and my Tumbleweed Prospector. Although there are sizeable sections of the route that are paved and well-graded gravel, there’s enough sand, corrugation and babyheads (particularly if working in the descent from Withington Lookout) that big tires offer more advantages than disadvantages. The route doesn’t require complicated navigation, for the most part. We ran dynamos and used Magdalena’s public library to keep our phones topped up for navigation, though a solar panel would work too given New Mexico’s predominantly sunny skies.