Smoke ‘n Fire 2023 Bikepacking Race: Special Anniversary Edition

Smoke ‘n Fire is, and for the last ten years has been, a 420-ish mile bikepacking loop starting and ending in Boise, Idaho. I fell in love with this event, the route, and the community early in my bikepacking journey. Every year I say “last time” and yet every year I come back!

There’s always a reason for “one last time,” and this year there were several. I still hadn’t ridden my new bike Stella on the full route since 2022 was an out-and-back reroute, and was itching to see how she’d do. The organizers were planning some “special” additions to the route for the tenth anniversary. Every year I meet more and more amazing Boise bikepackers who I look forward to seeing again.

Last but not least, my husband finally had time to travel with me to Boise and was interested in racing too. We’ve done tours together but “racing” had always been my thing, and he’d never bikepacked on his own. I was so excited for him to experience this wacky activity that’s been so meaningful to me. Also, the chance to race him to the finish would provide extra motivation!

It ended up being a very interesting year at SnF, and not in the ways I expected. We barely made it to Boise in time for the grand depart and arrived already two nights deep into sleep deprivation. Poor E started out with a nasty head cold. The special additions to the course were totally brutal — at one point I spent 5 hours going 6 miles! But the weather was perfect, the vibe was cheerful, and the community was as lovely as ever. Though I would have loved to ride it faster, I’m proud to have gotten it done, and also proud of E.

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Results

The finish rate was 55% with 50 finishers and 41 scratches. My near-back-of-pack time of 4d 14h 41m was a “personal worst” for me at SnF, but pretty much everyone agreed it was the slowest course yet. Despite feeling pretty good I could tell my riding pace was a bit slower than my personal best year in 2021, but the bigger issue was that I slept a lot more! Coming into the race badly sleep deprived from our pre-race ordeal (more on that below), this was what I needed in order to finish.

E hung in there for a finish time of 5d 18h 30m despite having every reason to quit: a head cold, sleep deprivation before even starting, power and lighting issues, and somehow managing to not pack a sleeping pad (oops!). He’s tough and stubborn, maybe even more stubborn than I am, if that’s possible. I never saw him out there after the first morning and was anxiously watching his dot every chance I got, both loving the fact that he was out there experiencing everything too and also worrying about how he was doing. It was a different experience having us both out there, and I hope someday we’ll get the chance to legitimately race each other while both feeling healthy and strong.

The Route

Here’s the route for 2023, including the two new “special” sections.

  1. Between miles 272 and 287 we followed a last-minute reroute to avoid a road closure. This change ended up being a doozy! It replaced gravel road with miles of singletrack, including some mandatory hike-a-bike that was as steep as anything I have ever dragged my bike up.
  2. Between mile 339 and 362 (Garden Valley), a lovely but challenging new route the organizers have been eyeing for years. It replaced a steep gravel descent and miles of highway riding with downhill hike-a-bike and a lovely gravel road directly into Garden Valley for resupply.

Ride Notes

Training and Prep

As usual, I relied heavily on endurance built from long tours and prior races. One of these years I’ll commit to training in a more structured way and maybe get faster, but this wasn’t the year. My biggest miles were in spring and early summer during a tour in Morocco and Portugal. Then I tried to race Bones to Blue in August but scratched on day 3 after spraining my ankle, which was almost healed by Smoke ‘n Fire. Other than that I was riding about 15 miles a week on hilly roads and trails near my home.

Pre-Race

If you can’t be well-trained, at least be well-rested, right? Well that certainly didn’t happen. We usually go to Burning Man the week before Smoke ‘n Fire. It’s not the most restful week, but I’ve successfully gone straight from there to SnF by being calculated with my travel plans and getting tons of sleep the couple nights in between.

This year Burning Man experienced a “Mudpocalypse” that made it impossible for anyone to leave until Sunday. Think of Death Mud on your bike tires — vehicles literally couldn’t move. When the gates finally did open, the mass rush resulted in two very long days of driving for us. We spent 20 hours in the car over two days and arrived in Boise at 9pm the night before the 4am start.

When we toed the start line early Wednesday morning, E was coming down with a cold and neither of us had slept more than 6 hours total in the last two nights. Laying awake at 1am with my alarm set for 3am, I almost backed out! But we’re both stubborn, we’d already come so far, and we were determined to give it a go. By 4am we were at the start line and ready to roll.

Day 1: To top of Dollarhide Climb

128 miles, 11570 feet of climb

I felt fairly strong at the start considering how little I’d slept the past two nights. We cruised along the greenway in the dark and Stella felt confident on the early rocky bits. It was a long day of riding gravel roads by myself, but I enjoyed leapfrogging with a number of awesome people as we all made our way toward the start of the Dollarhide climb. The weather was perfect: sunny, warm but not too hot, zero smoke.

One of my favorite views of Smoke ‘n Fire. I take my first picture here every year.
Nice to finally see so much water in Anderson Ranch Reservoir!
The restaurant in Pine was full of hungry riders

As darkness fell I was approaching the start of the major climb. This section was longer than I’d remembered! Doing the math as I climbed, I was an hour behind my pace from 2021. I had planned to push all the way to Ketchum on night 1, but the sleep deprivation was catching up to me. I decided to bivvy at the top of the climb, hoping it would be a bit warmer up there and I could ride down more efficiently in the morning.

There were several other riders up there, which was nice. In hindsight this would be the only time I would camp near others this year. Sometimes I have trouble falling asleep on the first night of a race — too much cortisol? — but I was out like a light immediately.

Day 2: To top of Fisher Creek Loop

89 miles, 6960 feet of climb

It was a straightforward ride down to Ketchum in the pre-dawn hours, though I’d forgotten how much pedaling is needed in the lower half and was glad to be on fresh legs. After a much-needed stop at the Warm Springs Base Camp for hot coffee and resupply it was off to the singletrack. These short sections used to be my nemesis on my touring bike and even my Fargo, but they were a bit easier on Stella and before I knew it the Harriman Trail was ahead.

The twenty mile stretch to Galena is always harder than it should be for some reason. There wasn’t even a headwind this year, but my saddle area was sore and the gradual uphill seemed to take forever. At Galena Lodge I ordered soup, a successful change from the usual burger that I have trouble stuffing down, and a whole pile of snacks for the road. Pro tip: you can order things that aren’t on their regular menu. I ordered a pile of cheese cubes, and a PB&J sandwich off the kinds menu.

After so much time in the saddle I was actually looking forward to the infamous Titus Lake hike-a-bike. This might be TMI but in case someone out there needs to hear it: I took off my chamois at Galena, washed it, and left it off until I reached Titus Lake. This made a huge difference in my saddle situation and I’m convinced it’s the reason I fared relatively well in that regard this year.

Scattered showers made the climb to Titus a bit more interesting, but it was over soon enough. This would turn out to NOT be the most difficult section of hike-a-bike this year, not even close.

Rain and mud on the way up to Titus Lake
Looking back to see a rainbow on the Titus Lake climb
Stella taking a quick rest at Titus Lake

The following descent and flatter riding through open landscapes mercifully brought a semi-tailwind, and the usual aggressive sheep dogs were thankfully nowhere to be seen. I was off the highway and starting Fisher Creek Loop as darkness fell. An old man out walking his dog near the start of the trail wished me luck. “You’re gettin a late start!” he yelled after me. I felt like replying “You have no idea…” but just told him I’d be fine.

This section used to creep me out in the dark, but I didn’t mind it much this time. I did feel tired though, still deep in sleep debt from the nights before the race. As I got slower and loopier I decided to camp just before the final descent. I’d never slept up there before, but it was warm and I knew the low area that follows, Decker Flat, would be freezing. At my pace it would be hours before reaching the next warmer spot on Redfish Ridge. So I turned in early, around 11pm, and enjoyed a cozy warm-ish campsite. Lightning flashed against the hills nearby but I got only a few drops of rain.

Day 3: To Cape Horn Creek near high point of Lola Creek Trail (new section)

68 miles, 6297 feet of climb

The descent down Fisher Creek Loop was easy enough in the morning, though the trail didn’t feel as smooth as I remembered it. The sun rose while I was pedaling the frigid flats, freezing cold and so very glad I hadn’t slept down there.

Redfish Ridge is a tricky little section of rough singletrack, and though I certainly walked plenty I also rode more than I ever have before. At one point I was startled by a hunter sitting right beside the trail in sneaky camo, bow and arrows at his feet, but he was a nice guy and we chatted a bit. At Redfish Lodge I blew straight through, fixated on getting to Stanley as early as possible.

Early morning on Redfish Ridge

I was in Stanley by late morning, and took some time to eat a good meal and think carefully about my resupply. There would be no more resupply until Garden Valley 115 miles later, and this next stretch included both of the difficult new sections. I knew I might need at least 1.5 days of food, maybe more if I reached Garden Valley after the Chevron closed. I stocked up at both the gas station and the mercantile, then struggled to fit everything on my bike. I would have to carry as much as I could fit and hope for the best.

Leaving Stanley I was glad to enjoy Nip n Tuck Road and Stanley Lake during a beautiful, clear, and warm afternoon. Much better than freezing cold darkness! I was pleased by how fast and easy the Elk Mountain singletrack was for me this time around, mainly thanks to Stella’s capable trail skills. The highway was a bit tedious, and then it was left at Trap Creek for the first new section.

The first few miles were nice gentle singletrack climbing through a pretty forest. But at Marten Lake the “trail” headed straight up to a ridge via steep, rough, and rutted switchbacks. I’ve only seen a few hike-a-bikes like this in all my miles of riding! I’d say it was a bit worse than the GDMBR’s Fleecer Ridge going northbound, and not quite as bad (definitely not as long) as Djuku Pass in Kyrgyzstan.

The new section near Trap Creek started out easily enough.
The “trail” above Marten Lake was a truly heinous hike-a-bike.

I happened to be leapfrogging with a couple of awesome riders at the time, which was very lucky. Their company made the climb feel like a humorous disaster instead of a lonely slog. We struggled to lift our bikes step by step, but finally, at last, we all reached the top. The views were great, but darkness was falling and so was the temperature. We scarfed some food, put on layers and lights, and hustled down. 

The descent was slow, at least for me, with lots of rocks and boggy puddle crossings. After crossing the road and starting the next climb I was hoping for faster miles, but this section was also rocky singletrack and mainly hike-a-bike. After a very slow push to the top I finally found a creek, which was nice since I regretted not filling up before starting this slow section. With water I now had the option to camp, which I did immediately, taking advantage of the warmer temps up high before descending to Bear Valley. Once again I chose to camp an hour or two earlier than usual, but I could tell my body needed the sleep.

Day 4: To 7 miles past Garden Valley

83 miles, 6393 feet of climb

I was descending singletrack as the sun rose, finally revealing welcome scenic views after so much slogging in the dark. Bear Valley was cold and quiet in the early morning, and it was nice to be back on familiar roads. Before I knew it I was already on the rolling descent to Deadwood Reservoir, happy to be here in the daylight this year after riding it several times in the dark. This section is straightforward gravel road, sometimes tedious, but I chugged along with audio books to distract me. 

Sunrise on the singletrack above Bear Valley after a long hike-a-bike section

Soon it was time to start the climb up Scott Mountain. I usually walk most of this climb and this year was no exception, though I was still happy with how efficiently it went. When I reached the old “top” I realized I could probably make Garden Valley before the Chevron closed, as long as the next new section wasn’t too heinous. Hah! It started out nicely with scenic panoramic views along a narrow dirt road. Some sections were steep, but nothing crazy. Near the summit the road passed an old lookout tower, apparently still used, but I was in too much of a hurry to investigate.

Stopping for a weird but delicious snack on the Scott Mountain climb
Final push to the top of Scott Mountain on the new section

From the lookout tower, rugged backcountry singletrack plunged downward. It was off-camber and rutted, sometimes overgrown, too steep and rocky for me to ride. After a couple miles it eased up along the remains of an old dirt road, which gradually turned into a nicer dirt road, which eventually turned to a lovely roll on gravel Granite Basin road.

Starting the plunge from Scott Mountain to Garden Valley (this was the easy part)

I reached Garden Valley around 8pm, plenty of time before the 9:30pm closing, and spent at least an hour eating and restocking. I was the only racer there and grew a bit tired of all the well-meaning men asking me “Where ya goin? All by yourself? At night? Be safe out there!” I wasn’t in the mood to talk and just wanted to enjoy my Subway sandwich and check the tracker to see how E and others were doing. 

It was fully dark by the time I pedaled out of Garden Valley. My body felt ok, but mentally I was having trouble psyching up for a late-night push. Any dreams of beating 4 days were dashed long ago on this tough new route, and I felt content with finishing partway through day 5. There aren’t many hidden campsites on this section of dirt forest road, so when I found an excellent one about 7 miles up the climb, I took it and set my alarm for 4am. Maybe I could wake up early and get a jump on the final day’s miles. 

Day 5: To finish,

61 miles, 7585 feet of climb

Oops, I slept through my alarm! I wasn’t on the road until 5:45am, though I did feel refreshed by the extra bit of sleep. I know from experience that this upcoming section, affectionately called Mordor, can feel like it drags on forever. Relative to my expectations it wasn’t that bad, and I was in Placerville around 9:30am. I expected them to open at 10am and was surprised to hear they’d been open since 8am, so I indulged in a breakfast burrito and homemade cinnamon bun before hitting the road.

Up next is a big climb to Harris Creek summit, then many steeply rolling miles along Boise Ridge Road. I reached the singletrack while the mountain bike park was still open (usually I’m there later, often after dark) and it was a bit tough having so many other bikers on the trails. Still, the miles passed faster than expected and I felt like I was riding this section better than before. Compared to Bones to Blue, these trails felt easy!

The rest of the ride was fairly uneventful. I hit the big descent and enjoyed most of the downhill trails. The last ten miles always take FOREVER — space and time seem to warp as you circle around the foothills above Boise. This time they still took longer than expected but I had enough energy to get it done. At long last I rolled into Hyde Park to a good-size crowd who had already welcomed in a few finishers a bit earlier. It was great to see so many familiar faces, and thanks to my relatively generous night’s sleep I was mostly sane enough to enjoy it.

Finish line picture, looking a little traumatized but actually feeling pretty good

Post-Race

I enjoyed my post-race meal, shower, and sleep just as much as always. The next day I had the pleasure of watching E’s dot as he neared the finish. He rolled in late and tired, but rightfully proud of his effort on a hard route under tough circumstances. As we debriefed over the next couple days it was a joy to compare notes, hear all about his experience out there, and share mine with him.

Over the next few days we rested and recovered, hung out with Boise friends, and made plans for the rest of our road trip. Up next we would head to Oregon for some backpacking: see trip reports from Eagle Cap Wilderness, the Loowit Trail, and the Timberline Trail to learn how that went!

Bike and Gear

My bike and gear setup for Smoke ‘n Fire 2023 was the lightest and most dialed yet. I rode Stella for the second time (first time on the full loop) and felt her setup was perfect for this route: rigid carbon fork, dropper seat post (new since last year), flat bars with bar ends, 29×2.4″ Maxxis Rekon tires. Wouldn’t change a thing!

My gear was also a bit lighter and tighter this year. The forecast wasn’t quite as cold as some years, so I brought my lighter sleeping quilt. I also switched to a new torso-length Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Uberlite sleeping pad. It’s not as warm as the Xlite, but it’s tiny. To counter this I made an effort to sleep in warmer places, which is an advantage of knowing the route so well. I also really enjoyed my new-ish Smartwool Fleece Wind Tights, which make riding and sleeping in cold weather so much nicer.

For carrying I ran my usual Rogue Panda frame bag, Revelate handlebar harness, and Revelate Vole dropper-compatible seat bag. A new addition since last year: a small ultralight handlebar bag from Mountain Laurel Designs. I’m loving the webbing loops that hold it in place and the roll openings on both ends for easy access.

For races and technical rides I like to carry water in a backpack to keep my bike lighter. This year I upgraded from my old running vest to an Osprey Salida 12 backpack. It fits 2.5 liters of water, my sleeping pad and bivy, and a bunch of food. It makes my shoulders a bit tired when full, but totally worth it when my bike is several pounds lighter on rough hike-a-bike.

Other Observations

Singletrack: I’ve progressed in my singletrack riding over the last few years, both in terms of my bike setup and my skills. I still have a long way to go, but I actually enjoyed much of the singletrack on Smoke ‘n Fire this year and walked less of it than in years past. I hesitate to say it, but I’m almost finding that I enjoy singletrack more than gravel these days.

Night riding: I always feel a bit nervous riding alone at night, but this year was pretty chill. Maybe I’m finally getting used to it? The kLite dynamo light helps a lot too.

Sleep: I started the race already sleep deprived and ended up sleeping more each night than I’d planned. This made me slower overall, but I think it also helped me feel better and have more fun during the race.

So, was this really my last Smoke ‘n Fire for awhile? There are other races and other things to do that time of year, and I’ve promised myself and E we will look into alternatives for next year. But even if I don’t come back next year I hope to stay involved somehow with the wonderful Boise bike community, my bikepacking home away from home.

Thanks Norb and Bart for putting together this beautiful, sadistic, and incredible event. After riding a number of other routes I still think SnF flows better than most and has the perfect blend of terrain and riding styles. Thanks to all the other crazy riders I crossed paths with out there for making it a party, and to E for giving it your all to experience this stupid sport that I love so much.

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About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve traveled over 19,000 miles by bike and still can’t stop planning my next ride (and helping you plan yours). Pavement and panniers or singletrack and seat bag, I love it all. On my bike I feel free. Learn more about me here.

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