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Mar 13, 2017

Winter Bikepacking Newbie Report

My kit for a night in the woods in the winter.

I went winter camping for the first time.

It was cold - - -16c overnight to be exact.

And it was...pretty ok, actually.

Local winter bikepacking legend and customer - Doug Dunlop, aka, has been chatting to me since the day we met about his love of winter camping. He's offered on countless occasions to "show me the ropes" and this winter our schedules finally aligned and we were able to find a weekend that worked.

The plan was to ride into the SP6 campground on the Spray River trail in Banff National Park. To access it you can choose either the west entrance in Banff which is only 6km to the site or the through the east entrance at the Goat Creek trailhead near Canmore. From the Canmore side the ride into the site is 13kms of generally downhill riding on groomed-for-skiing trail.

Doug's 9 year old daughter, nicknamed "Tonie", joined us and a buddy of Doug's was to catch up to us later. We set off from the Goat Creek trailhead around 12:30pm on an generally overcast day with light snow forecast to start later in the day and persist overnight. Trail conditions were pretty soft due to new snow: rideable for me but forced Tonie to walk on almost every rise, so progress was slow but very enjoyable.

My winter camping instructor, Tonie, showing me what winter bikepacking is all about.

Riding with her was amazing. She never complained about anything, plugged along quietly, and on the downhills she totally ripped! In typical 9 year old fashion she'd sometimes stop for what seemed like no reason - I suspected she was just off in her own world - and then we'd be off again at her pace. I'd also guess her bike weighed more then she did :)

3 Amigos on the trail.
To be honest, the slower pace, and the need to push the bike was very instructive in a very important sense: sweating is the #1 enemy of winter camping. Staying dry is so important because if you get wet there is ZERO chance of drying out and being wet becomes a slippery slope towards hypothermia in very cold temperatures.

After about 5hrs we reached our destination and setup camp while we still had some light left. Doug and Tonie's sleep plan was to setup a tarp and sleep in the outside. (Click through to Doug's link above if you're curious about his winter camping choices and experiences). I brought along my trusted 1-man tent and fly since that is all I really have (besides a bivvy, which holds in too much moisture = danger! in winter).  As we were setting up, Doug's buddy arrived too.

Home for the night.

Once camp was set it was time to make some supper. I have no idea what I was thinking when I thought I'd bring along one of those dinner-in-a-bag backpacker meals - teriyaki chicken/rice/veggies - what a waste of money, completely unsatisfying, tasted like turpentine, yuk yuk yuk! I choked it back knowing that I needed the calories but I'll never do that again. Note to self: always bring your own food (which I usually do).

It wasn't long after supper that I started to feel the dropping temperatures setting in so I decided to bed down for the night. I'd been dealing with a nasty cold bug for most of the week and getting as much rest as possible seemed like a good idea.

With this being my first time overnighting in the winter, I did not own a specific winter sleeping system, so I used a +5c down bag inside my -7c synthetic bag on top of a ThermaRest NeoAir pad and a reflective tarp on the bottom. It worked perfectly! No sweating, no shivering, no cold digits - all in all a complete success in my mind.

First breakfast.

Second breakfast.

Morning broke with beautiful sunshine kissing the snow covered mountains - although sad that I could not get a good photo of the beauty of it all due to the tight forest around us. In the morning I decided to stay "warm up the engine" by staying in my tent and preparing my first coffee in the vestibule of my tent and slowly putting on all the warm stuff I had with me. One thing I was really glad I brought along were a couple packs of the chemical hand warmers. A pair of them went into my boots the night before (I also stuffed my water bottles in them to keep them from freezing) and the other pair were used in my ski gloves in the morning to keep my hands warm while getting ready.

After first breakfast I trundled over to the cooking area for some second breakfast with the gang. More coffee for everyone and oatmeal too. Tonie's breakfast of oatmeal and Smarties looked awesome :)

Overnight snow on my rig.

Packing up camp went well and all the shuffling/stuffing of bags kept the internal temperatures up and everything comfortable. Since I had to be back in the early afternoon I decided to start heading back ahead of the others. I said my goodbye's, and set off under bright sunshine and about 5cms of fresh snow on the already soft trail.

Within just a couple of kilometres I had to stop and strip off a layer on my legs, head, upper body, and switch to lighter gloves. The temperatures were rising quickly and with a consistent uphill, I was working a lot harder then the day before. The trail was pretty much all rideable for me with about a dozens segments that were too loose/steep to ride with all the gear onboard.

Morning in the Spray Valley
My winter bikepacking experience was pretty great. Tonie and Doug were great guides and the area we camped in was beautiful. Here is my gear list:

Salsa Beargrease Fatbike
Jones Bars
Dillinger 5 Tires
Ortlieb Bikepacking handlebar, seat, and accessory bags
Porcelain Rocket Frame Bag
Apidura feed bag
Spare Tube
Brooks Pump, multi-tool
Latex Gloves
Ortlieb Lightpack Backpack

Sleep System
+5c Down Sleeping Bag
-7c Synthetic Sleeping Bag
ThermaRest NeoAir Sleeping Pad
Poler Tarpit
MEC Inflatable/Foam Pillow
My Trusty 1-Man Tent with Fly

Marks Work Wearhouse Insulated Doeskin Coat
Marks' Thinsulate Toque
Coal Fleece Balaclava
Levi's Packable Insulated Vest
Buff Polar and Regular Buff
Craft Winter Gloves and Dakine Ski Gloves
Ibex Woolair Hoodie
Ibex Mid Wool LS
Ibex Woolies 150 Base layer (tights too)
Thin wool sock, mid wool sock, thick wool sock (for sleeping)
Thin fleece tights (for sleeping)
Swrve Microfibre Fleece Lined Pants
Wind River Bivy Extreme Boots

Cooking Gear
Whisperlite International Stove and Small Fuel Bottle
Salsa Titanium Spork
Elite Vacuum Insulated Bottle x2

SOL Safety Blanket
Firestarting Kit - fire starters, 2 kinds of matches, 2 lighters
Light My Fire Knife with built in Flint
Travel Toothbrush
First Aid Kit

2 Clif Bars
4 Instant Mocha Packets
4 Oatmeal Packets

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