Rad Women of Bikepacking: Part 4 – Builders

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At its core, bikepacking isn’t about bikes or gear. It’s about people. And in Part IV of our Rad Women of Bikepacking series, we’re paying tribute to community builders, the women who connect and challenge us, be it through routes, events, or social networking platforms…

March is Women’s History Month, and to celebrate, we’re honoring the women who have shaped the bikepacking community and the cycling industry at large. Each week we’ll feature some of the movers, shakers, and makers who inspire us, both on and off the bike. This week, we’re profiling builders—women who are creating and sharing experiences by developing routes, organizing events, and cultivating community.

Jan Bennett

They/Them / Age 39 / @wunderlustbybike / @biketheponyexpress

Traditional, ancestral, and contemporary lands of the Jicarilla Apache Nation (Cerrillos, New Mexico)

Go-to ride snack: Peanut butter and an apple.

Jan loves to connect dots. Specifically, they like to connect dots on a map by bike. That curiosity is what led Jan to creating and scouting the Pony Express Route, a 2,200-mile mostly off-road route from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. The east-west route traces much of the original Pony Express National Historic Trail, an eight-state route developed in the late 19th century and used primarily by men on horseback to deliver mail.

Jan Bennett

After years of planning, Jan set out to bikepack the Pony Express in the spring of 2018. A week before they left, Jan’s father died of an overdose. Still reeling from the loss of their father—who, Jan says, battled addiction his entire life—Jan almost bailed on their scouting mission, but ultimately decided to move forward with the ride. 

The first week of the Pony Express was far from perfect. Food poisoning plagued Jan from the onset. For five days, they struggled to recover. Jan ended up getting a motel room for a few days so they could seek medical treatment and give their body time to fully recover. Eventually, they hit the road and after weeks of pedaling alone, in their head, Jan felt something shift. 

“I was climbing a pass in Wyoming, after being on the road a couple of weeks, and having had some time to process the passing of my father. I was feeling much better and had some fitness back in my legs by that point,” says Jan. “As I crested the top, the view spoke to me. It was like I was on top of the world. Low mountain tops seemed to just continue rolling off the edge of the earth. A sudden wave of intense emotion overcame me like I had never experienced before. My knees went weak… I had an urge to laugh, uncontrollably. I started dancing, jumping up and down, and flailing my arms around. It was like 5 tons of a lifetime of trauma just continued on climbing, leaving me behind, as I wondered if this is what freedom felt like.”

Learn more about Jan’s experience scouting the Pony Express and their breakdown of the individual route sections here.

Kaitlyn Boyle (Kait)

She/Her / Age: 33 / @kait.boyle

Traditional, ancestral, and contemporary lands of the Eastern Shoshone and Shoshone-Bannock Tribes (Teton Valley, Idaho)

Go-to ride snack: Homemade gluten-free chocolate chip cookies.

Kait’s first bikepacking trip was on the Kokopelli Trail in 2011. At the time, Kait says she didn’t have access to the soft bikepacking bags we have today. So she carried all of her gear in a 45L backpack which, she says, “was pretty uncomfortable, and I remember bonking more than I ever had,” but the former 24-hour mountain bike World Champion didn’t mind a little discomfort. The very next year, she rode the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route on a singlespeed. That experience marked a new chapter in her riding career, one dedicated to bikepacking long distances at fast paces.

Kait Boyle

She has since set the women’s record on the AZT300 at 2 days, 2 hours, and 57 minutes, a time that earned her second place overall that year (2018) and continues to rank as the fourth fastest overall time on the route. Last November, Kait shaved 25 minutes off of Rebecca Rusch’s FKT on the Kokopelli Trail, setting a new women’s record at 13 hours and 7 minutes.

“This was the first ultra I attempted in two years since winning any 24-hour World Championships and it was nearly two years following a car accident that left me wondering if I’d ever walk or bike again, let alone race,” says Kait. “The effort it took me to recover [during] those 23 months back to elite ultra-racing was the hardest ‘ultra’ I’ve ever tackled and was filled with uncertainty.”

In 2016, Kait and Kurt Refsnider co-founded Bikepacking Roots, a non-profit that Kate says “advocates for bikepackers and helps grow bikepacking in an informed and connected sort of way.” When asked what advice she has for women interested in bikepacking and ultra-endurance racing, Kait says, “Don’t let the limitations of others limit you. You can go as far, remote, fast, or unknown as you can dream. And challenges or failures along the way are part of the journey. Not meeting your goal or objective doesn’t mean you can’t. It’s just a part of the learning process to give you the tools and experience necessary to reach your goal.”

Karla Robles

She/Her / Age 33 / @karlatrobles

Traditional, ancestral, and contemporary lands of the Tohono O’odham (Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico)

Go-to ride snack: Celery with lime.

Though she grew up riding bikes and using the bike for commuting as an adult, it wasn’t until 2018 that Karla set off on her first bikepacking adventure. The trip covered 190 kilometers through eight different towns in Sonora. The goal? To learn about and witness each town’s Yaqui rituals and traditions of the Holy Week festival. She says that first bikepacking trip, and her subsequent adventures on routes like the Baja Divide, have challenged her at times, both physically and mentally, but they’ve also taught her a lot about life.

Karla Robles

“Personally, I have learned to be more patient with myself, to speak to myself more accurately and to recognize myself as a woman with many abilities and skills,” she says. “Collectively, I have learned to be part of a very diverse natural and cultural environment, to respect and enjoy the time and space in which I live and share with others.”

Karla and her partner Daniel have developed routes like the Santa Cruz Overnighter. Most recently, the duo scouted a route through Pima territory, which you can read about on their site, Bikepacking México. When she’s not bikepacking or developing routes, Karla is a sociologist, bandana/mask maker, and photographer.

Katharina Merchant (Kathi)

She/Her / Age 44 / Utah Mountain Bike Tours // Facebook

Traditional, ancestral, and contemporary lands of the Dene Nation, the Ahtna Athabascan People, and the Dena’ina People (Chickaloon, Alaska)

Go-to ride snack: Dark chocolate and smoked salmon.

Kathi likens herself to a diesel engine: “constant and steady with the occasional quick burst,” she says. Maybe it was her hardy upbringing on a dairy farm at the foothills of the Bavarian Alps that made her such a natural in the mountains. Or maybe it’s her 30+ years of experience embarking on backcountry wilderness trips throughout Alaska. Whatever the case, Kathi seems most at home in the harshest of elements.

Kathi moved to Alaska in 2002, having fallen in love with the state over her many years spent backpacking in the remote wilderness. But it was not backpacking that drew Kathi to Alaska: it was fatbiking.

  • Kathi Merchant
  • Kathi Merchant

From 2003 until 2008, Kathi served as the race coordinator for the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI). In 2005, she completed her first ITI experience, the 350-mile route from Knick to McGrath. That same year, she rode the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from Montana to the Mexican border. She had finally found her calling. Three years later, she became the first woman to complete the full ITI to Nome, an arduous 1,000-mile-journey made all the more challenging by the unpredictable weather. That year, Kathi pushed her bike close to 300 miles due to heavy snow. 

“Finishing something that is painful and really hard makes you a stronger person,” she says. “If you just keep moving constantly then you will eventually get to the finish line. It will break you down at first and make you vulnerable, but once you recover, you have this amazing sense of accomplishment and you know that you have it in you to do better and be a strong person.”

After her experience in 2008, Kathi took over as race director for the ITI, a position she held until she retired in 2020. She grew the women’s field significantly, and says it was amazing to witness the accomplishments of athletes like Jill Homer. She now guides adventure excursions in Alaska and mountain biking trips in Utah. When she’s not on a bike, she can be found playing Bolivian music on the harp.

Kim Murrell

She/Her / @kimmurrell / Tennessee Gravel // Fireside Outpost

 

Traditional, ancestral, and contemporary lands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Savannah River Band of Uchee Indians (Polk County, Tennessee)

Kim Murrell

Kim may keep a low profile, but she’s beloved in the Southeastern bikepacking and ultra racing community. Since becoming the first woman to complete the Florida Divide back in 2015, Kim has kept busy crushing her own independent time trials and crafting grueling gravel routes in the Southeast like the Death March Revival. Her most classic route is likely The Dirty 130, which climbs over 18,000 feet through southeast Tennessee and southwestern North Carolina. But her pièce de résistance, the Vista 300/Mountain 420 (recently rebranded as the Three Rivers Way), crams in over 34,000 feet on the 300-miler and 48,000 feet on the 420-miler.

Kim owns a handful of properties along her routes, including the Needle Eye Outpost and the Fireside Outpost. “The rider’s favorite by far is my very tiny house in a Mennonite community, [the Needle Eye Outpost],” she says. “It’s in the farmlands section of my Three Rivers Way Vista and Mountain bikepacking routes. It’s 70 miles from the end and tends to suck riders in. They don’t want to leave. It’s pretty funny watching their trackers go in hibernation mode. They sit on the porch for hours, sometimes days (I am not kidding on that one) watching the horses and buggies go by. There is something really special about that little place.” 

Lindsay Beltchenko

She/Her / Age: 32 / @linds_beltchenko 

Traditional, ancestral, and contemporary lands of the Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute) (Golden, Colorado)

Go-to ride snack: Dried mango and meat sticks.

Lindsay has been riding a bike since her father first taught her to spin down the gravel neighborhood drive on her Barbie bike. Since then, Lindsay and her partner Neil have been entrenched in the cycling industry and, specifically, in the bikepacking community. In 2014, the couple founded Bikepacker.com—which eventually merged with our site here—and in 2018, launched the Bikepacking Summit, an annual gathering of bikepackers from around the world. 

Lindsay Beltchenko

The summit has taken place in biking hotbeds like Gunnison, Colorado, and Mulberry Gap Adventure Basecamp in Ellijay, Georgia. Though the summit will likely not take place again until 2022 due to COVID precautions, Lindsay says she looks forward to the time when we can all gather safely to connect, challenge, and inspire each other and the future of bikepacking.

“My most favorite quality of the bikepacking community is that you can gather together with people you’ve never met, and yet there’s instant connection,” she says. “It’s like seeing one of ‘those friends’ you haven’t seen in a while and everything just falls into place like you haven’t skipped a beat, although with this community, it seems you never even had to know each other previously to get to that point. We created the Bikepacking Summit as a small contribution to an otherwise mostly self-supported segment for people to connect with one another. Tell stories. Make friends. Share insights. Advocate. Challenge thinking and ways of doing things.”

Marley Blonsky

She/Her / Age 34 / @marleyblonsky  

Traditional, ancestral, and contemporary lands of the Duwamish, Suquamish, Nisqually, Snoqualmie, and Muckleshoot Tribes (Seattle, Washington)

Go-to ride snack: A honeycrisp apple and peanut butter.

Marley’s come a long way since her first bikepacking trip, a 60-mile adventure she made on a rigid mountain bike that not only didn’t fit properly, but that she’d loaded with entirely too much stuff. She’s toured everywhere from Canada to Glacier National Park, and explored Paris and Cheng Chau Island in Hong Kong by bike. But the trip that changed her life, she says, was one she organized for her 30th birthday. To celebrate, she invited women, trans, and femme cyclists in the Seattle and Portland areas to join her on an overnighter of the Dalles 60. To her surprise, 18 folks showed up.

  • Marley Blonsky
  • Marley Blonsky

“On this trip I learned that one of my strongest skills is bringing people together in community, creating inclusive and fun spaces, and it really woke something up in me,” she says. “This trip sparked my desire to truly build inclusive bike communities and to this day, many of the people on the ride continue to ride together.”

Earlier this month, Marley led a virtual two-part Bike Camping for Beginners series, aimed at helping new bikepackers with tips on packing, navigation, and food planning. Next week, Shimano is releasing a film featuring Marley and fellow bikepacker Kailey Kornhauser. The film “All Bodies on Bikes” follows Marley and Kailey on a summer bikepacking trip in Oregon and their shared dreams of making bicycling more inclusive for bodies of all sizes. Look for it on the site next Monday. When Marley is not having fun on bikes, she’s working hard for our planet’s future as the sustainability manager at a logistics company.

Nadine Johnson

Diné (Navajo), Ma’ii Deeshgiizh (Coyote Pass Clan)

She/Her / Age 39 / @njnbikes 

Traditional, ancestral, and contemporary lands of the Hopi Tribe and the Diné (Tó Dínéeshzheeʼ or Kayenta, Arizona)

Go-to ride snack: Fig bars.

Nadine’s earliest memory of riding a bike can be traced back to when she was eight years old learning to ride with her cousins in the reservation town of Salina Springs, Arizona. Those early experiences laid the foundation for her love of bikepacking today, and her commitment to introducing other Navajo youth to the joys of bikepacking. 

In the summer of 2020, Nadine and her partner Jon Yazzie (who both own and operate their guiding service, Dzil Ta’ah Adventures) took their six-year-old granddaughter on her first bikepacking trip. Nadine says it was an adventure she’ll never forget. While they were hunkered in their tent after a long day of riding, a stiff storm blew in around 2 a.m. Since it was July, Nadine says they hadn’t packed a rain fly.

Nadine Johnson

“It made for an intense 30 minutes,” Nadine says. “We overcame our fear of being vulnerable and to plan for the unexpected on our next trips.”

The experience with their granddaughter inspired them to create a Navajo Youth Bike Packing Adventure Series. With extra gear and loaner bikes from their personal collection, Nadine and Jon have already led a handful of overnight trips with local youth and hope to do more this year.

“First and foremost, [we want] to retell the history and creation stories of our ancestors using a hands-on approach,” says Nadine. “Riding to geographical landscapes that are significant features in our myths will hopefully help our youth become stewards of the land and be cognizant of ecological impacts of climate change. There is still interest in natural resource extraction [here], and we hope to empower youth by seeing the value of homelands,” through bikepacking. Visit their website to learn more about the series and ways you can help them get more youth outfitted.  

Neza Peterca

She/Her / Age 32 / @t.w.w.c // @sitwbikepacking

Slovenia

Go-to ride snack: Dried mango.

Doing something for the first time? Neža tends to go big or go home. Her first bikepacking trip ever, and also her first solo trip, was the Altravesur, a challenging 820-mile route that traverses southern Spain.

“I decided to go on this trip, to clear my head, which was completely confused [as to] what I am doing in my life and where I want to be,” she says. “The trip completely dismantled me where I was forced to face my fears and pull out the confidence (which was buried somewhere deep) to keep on motivating myself to finish the trip. When I got back everything seemed easy and I knew that whatever I set myself to do in life I can do it, but only if I don’t stop believing in myself.”

Neža filmed her experience on the Altravesur, and although she learned a lot from that adventure, she ultimately decided bikepacking was better in the company of others. Last year, she hosted Sisters in the Wild, a bikepacking experience designed by women, for women. Expansion of the series has been put on hold due to COVID precautions, but she looks forward to seeing similar events pop up in other countries.

Neza Peterca

“There is a way different dynamic when travelling with women instead of men,” she says. “There is this sense of comradeship. I want to create a safe space for women, where they don’t need to impress anyone and there is no competition. I want these events to build up confidence in women to be able to go on these trips alone or with other women. I want them to understand that they are strong and capable.”

For a decade, Neža ran and co-owned a backpack company in Budapest. Today, she has her own shop, What Happened Outdoors, and specializes in repairing outdoor gear and producing custom gear pieces. She works closely with a number of industry brands on upcycling and converting to a circular economy.

Pepper Cook

She/Her / Age 31 / @bookbikebrew // @spoonoutside

Traditional, ancestral, and contemporary lands of the Dena’ina Athabascans (Anchorage, Alaska)

Go-to ride snack: I bring gummy bears and beef jerky on every ride!

Always down for a good pun and a big adventure, Pepper has been bikepacking and touring all over the world, from Iceland to Mexico, and mostly solo. Her energy is contagious and her mullet (circa 2017) was the stuff legends are made of.

But if there’s one thing Pepper loves as much as having good times on bikes, it’s carving spoons. In 2019, she put a call out to her Instagram followers to see if anyone would be interested in a spoon exchange. The next morning, she had 220 messages in her inbox from spoon-carving-lovers from all over the world.

Pepper Cook

“Since most of the new friends who find Spoon Outside do so either through a cycling article online about it or though my bikepacking Instagram, the thought was that everyone who gets matched with someone across the world will automatically gain a new bikepacking friend to visit or stay with when they one day do a bikepacking mission through that country,” she says. “That was the initial [vision], but since then it’s been pretty incredible to see so many new members join who have absolutely zero wood carving or tool experience suddenly find themselves able to carve a spoon! Often the newcomers make the most unique spoons because they don’t have any set traditional carving methods/ideals.”

To join Pepper’s Worldwide Spoon Exchange, visit the Spoon Outside Instagram page and follow for updates.

Sarah Swallow

She/Her / Age 33 / @sarahjswallow

Traditional, ancestral, and contemporary lands of the Ute and Pueblos (Durango, Colorado) and the traditional, ancestral, and contemporary lands of the Tohono O’odham, Yoemi and Chiricahua Apache (Elgin, Arizona)

Go-to ride snack: Currently, gummy worms. 

Sarah Swallow has always had a knack for maps and navigation. She’s been developing bikepacking routes since the day she started bikepacking. In 2014, she put together her first major gravel route, a ~200-miler in West Virginia’s stunning Monongahela National Forest. Since then, she has developed numerous routes including the Sky Islands Odyssey (Full, East, and West Loops), Central Oregon Backcountry Explorer, Elkhorn Crest Trail, Buckeye Trail Bicycle Route, and Dirt Road Trans America Trail (TAT)

Sarah Swallow

She aims to include variety in her routes, terrain that changes from smooth gravel to singletrack and takes riders through ever-changing landscapes. She also says that a good route is one that’s accessible to any kind of rider.

“I’m not into the masochism of hiking or carrying my bike for miles on end,” she says. “I like an enjoyable, rideable ride that challenges me for brief periods at a time and gives me plenty of enjoyable smooth rolling breaks to recover on.”

Inspired by her experiences researching, developing, and riding the Sky Islands Odyssey—named for the incredibly biodiverse Sky Islands in southern Arizona—Sarah felt compelled to educate others about the history of the region, the threats to the land, and how bikepackers can make a difference. In 2019, she hosted the first Ruta del Jefe at the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch. The event is less of a race and more of an informal self-supported group adventure that brings bikepackers and gravel riders together to learn about both “the environmental threats and humanitarian crises” surrounding the U.S./Mexico borderlands, says Sarah.

“Our privilege to travel to ride bikes in beautiful places necessitates our responsibility to understand the history of the regions we ride, what is special and unique about them, what the threats are, and how we can make a difference,” she says.

The Ruta del Jefe is cancelled this year due to COVID, but will return in 2022. To hear Sarah’s tips for route planning, check out her guide here.

In case you missed it, be sure to check out part one, two, and three of this series, Shakers, Makers, and Creatives. Who inspires you? Give a shout-out to the women who are movers, shakers, and makers in your cycling community this month. Tag @bikepackingcom and #RadWomenBikepacking and we’ll keep an eye out and share a few through our stories.

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