"What would kill the devil?"
— Finnish proverb
It wasn't the altitude sickness in the Peruvian Andes or the grizzly bear encounter in Alaska. It wasn't the gruelling 100-kilometre stretches to find water in the scorching Argentinian desert or the debilitating mud patches in the Pacific Northwest. It wasn't even the exhaustion from two weeks of the same flat scenery, 20 months of continuous riding or being sick of each other's company.
In the end, what nearly halted a two-year, 30,000-km bikepacking journey wasn't one of tragedy or grit.
It was a mosquito.
Biting off more than you can chew
Asked if there was a moment on their 20-month cycle from the tip of Alaska to the bottom of Argentina when they thought they'd call it quits, Kristen and Ville Jokinen, both 37, pause for a moment, each searching the other's face for clues to a seemingly implausible question. Kristen drums her fingers on the table while Ville raps the outside of his coffee cup. Finally, Ville breaks the silence, answering in a slight Finnish accent.
"When Kristen came down with Dengue fever halfway through our ride in Costa Rica," says Ville, "that was the only time I thought we physically might not be able to finish.
We're the type of people who really like adventure but like to take it to the extreme. So we knew that if we didn't make it, it'd only be because of something physical, more likely an accident."
The couple aren't new to adventure—they met scuba diving in Vietnam and spent several months hiking the 4,263-km Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 2011. Five years later, they rented out their home and, with no previous long-distance bike training, found themselves in the small rural area of Prudhoe Bay, at the very tip of Alaska. They pedalled south, crisscrossing through the Americas, eventually finishing in Ushuaia, Argentina in February of this year. "That first day, we asked a fisherman to take our photo," says Ville. "He asked where we were going and we said, 'Argentina!" And he shrugged his shoulders, said 'Cool,' and walked away."
Though the fisherman wasn't exactly impressed, the trip was fraught with unknowns, and accidents were a very real possibility. No one thought a tiny mosquito laced with Dengue—a disease closely linked to the West Nile Virus and Yellow Fever—would be the ultimate reason they almost cancelled their journey.
"It took me out for nearly five weeks," Kristen recalls. "It was the most debilitating and painful thing I've experienced... I felt dead to the world."
After a hospital visit and a prolonged stint in bed, she eventually got back on her steel-framed Surly bike, slowly building strength while heading to South America, where they would eventually finish a year later. "Those first few weeks back were incredibly hard. Nothing Ville said could make me feel better. So we just took it one day, one week at a time," she says. "With bikepacking, you need to set small goals to get past those humps. If you look at the big picture, it's enough to kill even the craziest adventurer's dream."
Bikepacking basics 101
Originally coined by former National Geographic editor Noel Grove, the term "bikepacking" first appeared in a 1973 article entitled, "Bikepacking Across Alaska and Canada," in which Grove described his long-distance bicycle tour featuring a fix of pavement and gravel routes.
Now there's more than 200 established bikepacking trails across nearly all continents, with the movement gaining steady momentum. In the past three years, websites such as bikepacking.com have become awash with free, open-source information created by bikebackers themselves. Users can quickly scan established routes for length, geographic location, difficulty, percentage of unpaved versus paved roads, and they can even sign up to scout new trails.
If you have a mountain bike, some lightweight camping equipment and a keen sense of adventure, you can bikepack.
Traditionally, when thinking of multi-day biking trips, touring is the go-to concept, with cyclists strapping panniers to their ultra-light road bikes, peddling predominantly on pavement. Bikepacking fuses the long-distance style of touring with the ruggedness of off-trail mountain biking, while cutting down on gear. "We try to be minimalists," says Ville, "living simply and without much." Anything from full-suspension mountain bikes to fat bikes are now commonly used, though many long-distance riders opt for heavier steel-framed hardtails since these bikes are relatively inexpensive, sturdy and have a larger frame space to strap goods onto.
Ville and Kristen say their matching Surly steel hardtails cost them US$1,500 each and that the most important part was building out their tires, though they found that Kristen's industry standard 26-inch (66-centimetre) tires were easier to repair south of Mexico. For Ville, who had the rarer-to-find 700 tires, they often had to have their family ship them parts.
GPS maps were also extremely important and though the pair didn't invest in a dedicated GPS unit, they used popular smartphone apps like maps.me, which allowed them to download detailed maps of the area they were in and use them offline. Other essentials included first-aid and repair kits, water filters and a good way to make coffee.
You can spend a weekend bikepacking, exploring routes close to your home or test the waters with a 12-day stint on the BC Trail starting out of the Fraser Valley and into Fernie. For those wanting to dive in, a classic route is the Great Divide Mountain Biking Route (GDMBR), a 4,339-km haul from Banff, Alta. to Antelope Wells, N.M. on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Dubbed the "birthplace of bikepacking," the route took four painstaking years to develop and was finished in 1998 by the Adventure Cycling Association. Its legendary status among bikers rivals that of the PCT, and there's even a gruelling race spanning the route called the Tour Divide. Mike Dion, one of the race's original organizers, says in his film, Ride the Divide, that the "Thru-rider would gain over 200,000 feet of elevation ... That's the equivalent of summiting Mount Everest seven times."
Ultra-cyclist Mike Hall, who passed away in a biking race in Australia last year, holds the Tour Divide race record, having completed the bikepacking route in just 13 days, 22 hours and 51 minutes. Yet, bikepacking isn't typically about beating time trials and there's isn't usually any prize money at the end. It's mostly about taking it slow and taking in your surroundings.
The beauty of bikepacking is that the experience is curated by the rider, so you can be as fancy or low-tech with your gear, and go for as long or as short of a ride as you wish. If you're a thrill-seeker with a mountain bike of any kind, and a modicum of endurance, you're already well on your way.
Life is about the journey, not the destination
Pat Valade is one such B.C. native who recently forayed into the world of bikepacking, and is a shining example of how anyone with enough perseverance and persistence can complete a multi-day biking and camping trip.
The Squamish-based photographer completed his first bikepack on a Kona bike he built up from a single speed. Last year, he rode a 10-day portion of the GDMBR, joining an experienced friend who went on to complete the entire route and who he credits for showing him the ropes.
"I basically just did weekend trips to start," says Valade, who chose to do the Banff to Missoula section of the GDMBR. "It was such a surreal learning experience biking away from Banff and going completely into nature. It was like the art of letting everything go. It was just me and the bike. You put away the cellphone, forget about your emails and basically melt into your surroundings. It took about one to two days of peddling, but eventually you naturally shut off."
Bikepacking's simplicity is a common theme that emerges when speaking with fellow bikepackers. After two years, Kristen and Ville are finding it tough readjusting back into normal life in Oregon. "It's been hard," says Ville. "It's a very simple life to be on a bike. You have some difficult moments sure, but when you go to bed at the end of the day, your head is empty. You don't have thoughts running around in your mind."
He sighs. "Here, we've noticed our minds are preoccupied with unnecessary stress."
Kristen continues, "When you're bikepacking, your stresses are very real stresses. You're maybe running out of water and trying to beat the heat in the desert while thirsty or you're fearing for your life getting chased by bears or rabid dogs Those are very real problems. It's hard to look at the problems we have now and think they truly matter."
Still, the couple have a penchant for positivity and say it's what got them through the darker moments of their trip. "We were stuck in a downpour, our tent had eight inches worth of rain, we're freezing cold and we just looked at each other and instead of crying, we both started hysterically laughing. You have to look at it all in a positive light otherwise you'll never get past those obstacles. Life isn't serious unless you make it out to be."
Valade agrees and says that he's learned having a good riding partner, one who is a motivator, especially during tough times, is what kept him going. "You're going to be going up a lot of hills, it'll be hot, dusty or you might run out of water," he says, "and trust me, you want someone to laugh with when you've run out of water." Changing his tone, he adds, "But you also need someone who can seriously help you and not complain about it. Basically someone you can have a comfortable silence with."
Still, bikepacking doesn't have to be done as a duo; Valade completed a portion of the Baja Divide earlier this year as a solo journey. The relatively new route is 95-per-cent unpaved and begins from San Diego, Calif. before crisscrossing down Mexico's Baja California Peninsula, spanning nearly 2,700 km and taking an average of 42 days to complete.
"That was a pretty unique experience because I don't speak Spanish," he says, laughing, "but it was a good learning experience and I was grateful to be forced to spend a lot of time on my own thinking. It was a different rhythm for sure."
Though Ville and Kristen jumped into their experience without any lengthy rides or knowledge of Spanish under their belts, they too learned the ropes pretty quickly. "When in doubt, sign language works pretty well," says Kristen, who added that they are now both fluent in Spanish.
Valade, who eased into bikepacking by taking weekend trips, says one- to two-day weekend excursions are a great way to test the waters. Experts recommend taking an inaugural overnight trip of about 30 to 80 km. Valade himself recommends the trails in and around the Kettle Valley and Sunshine Coast as great two- to three-day trips, averaging about 120 km.
A weekend trip or three years, it's really up to you
Someone who knows the solo journey better than most is Ben Page, a 26-year-old British cyclist who completed an impressive three-year biking journey in 2017. He documented his solo journey across the Canadian arctic in his short film, The Frozen Road.
Page has cycled across five continents and logged an estimated (and staggering) 64,000 kms. He came up with the idea to ride across the Yukon while journeying through Chile. "I was feeling a bit bored, to be honest," he says, laughing. "I guess I wanted something extreme ... I just didn't know how extreme I would get."
Page spent four months in Whistler preparing for his 2016 journey, which saw him taking his fatbike across the length off the Yukon following short dog-sledding trails along the Yukon River, from Whitehorse to Dawson City and up to the Arctic Circle.
"I think being in such cold, harsh conditions made the difference between the highs and the lows that much more extreme," he says. "But the biggest take-home for me was those extremes made me realize just how transient everything is. You know the low moments will eventually pass and reveal the good times. And you'll appreciate them so much more."
One such scary moment was when he decided to take an alternative route to a frozen river. An unexpected storm buried the trail he was following, making him disorientated. "Being stuck in a place in -40 degrees where I had no true experience was really scary. You face your own mortality. I had to push my bike for three days, knowing that any small mistake I made could easily snowball into something rapidly going wrong. But there's no other option is there? What was I going to do? Lay there and expect it to go away?"
Page eventually made it out and was located by a group of friends that were worried when they hadn't heard from him for a few days. It's these kind of life-changing experiences that can either alienate or drive those closer to the sport.
"It's cliche, but it definitely keeps you on your toes and makes you feel alive," Page says, "especially in the Arctic, where you feel like it's a place a bike shouldn't be. It feels really special to be out there."
And what gear does Page think you need in order to follow in his bike tracks? Apart from a warm sleeping bag and the willingness to strap camera equipment to your body to keep the batteries from dying, nothing too unusual.
"There's no special attributes, anyone can do it," he says. "All sorts of people are out there, from the crazies to the sanes and everyone in between—there is no common thread." Page admits, however, that his round-the-world journey made him mentally stronger and gave him more confidence to go after his dreams, one of which includes turning his footage into a feature film.
Ville and Kristen agree that though no special gear is necessarily required, determination certainly is. Two qualities saved them a number of times, they believe: compromise and positivity. "You have to roll with the punches," says Ville. "We had no idea what our trip would really look like when we set out," adds Kristen, "which I think helped with that."
Other key safety measures are mostly rooted in common sense. "We would always ask the locals which route was safest or where to camp and make sure no one really saw where we were stealth-camping if we felt we were in a more dangerous area ... but honestly there is danger in every country, in every place in the world," says Kristen, "And before we started, we understood that if something physically happened to one or to both of us during our journey, it was a choice we were willing to make. We are doing what we wanted to be doing."
The duo reflects on their vast experiences as they rode through North America all the way down to South America. "When we started in Alaska, we ran into a slew of 'no-trespassing, I'll-shoot-you-kind of signs,'" says Kristen. "People were kind of friendly, but on their own terms. Once we crossed into Canada, no more signs and everyone was super friendly ... I think we met some of the kindest people there, asking if we needed anything and if we were all sorted. Then we crossed back into the U.S. and bam, no trespassing signs and it was back to the, 'This is my side and this is your side' (mentality). It was interesting, to say the least."
Another thought-provoking experience led to the question of why they were doing it.
"From Mexico onwards, no one really asked us why we were taking years our of our life to bike every day," Kristen continues. "We would get a lot of puzzled looks from people we ran into in the USA and Canada, but south of Mexico, no one really asked. If anything, they would marvel and say, 'how amazing your lives must be and how much beauty you will see.''
The couple admit they felt awkward knowing that their monthly US$800 budget rivaled what some Latin American families make in an entire year—if that. In total, they estimate they spent $20,000 over two years, visiting 15 countries along the way. Ben Page says he lived on an average of $4 a day during his three years.
"We met a guy who rode from Vancouver, B.C. all the way to San Diego off-route on a $40 Walmart special," says Kristen.
"You are in charge of your own destiny and at the end of your life, you don't want to be there saying, 'I wish I could have done that.'" She also stresses that, "in a world where the 24-hour news media vilifies your neighbour and makes you fearful of people ... everyone we met was so very kind to us. Ninety-nine per cent of people are good and will help you when you need it."
Ville agrees and adds, "You don't need good gear. You need heart. Yes, it will help avoid certain challenges, but the people who we met in the end of a ride, are the people who are driven."
But realistically, they say, bikepacking is not as romantic as some make it out to be. There would be weeks when, as a couple, physical intimacy was completely ruled out until a shower was in order. "In our wedding vows, Ville said that he knew he loved me when we were high in the Sierras and we had one last Snickers bar between us. He knew that he wanted me to have it. It's that kind of selflessness you need to get through."
Ville adds, "If you do a long route, there will be many moments where you will be bored for weeks on end. Not every day is beautiful and magical, especially when you're dealing with rain or mosquitos."
Kristen agrees. "But when the sun does come out after two weeks of solid rain and shines on you, that's what makes the beautiful moments that much more magical. We're used to instant gratification, but sometimes waiting for that gratification makes it all that more special because you've worked so hard to get it."