Sometimes bikepacking – or bicycle touring, whatever term and style you prefer – can feel like a problem solving exercise with a little pedaling thrown in.
I was recently reminded of this while staring down 2700 miles of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. In the first two days as I pedaled north from the Mexican border, I experienced: a lost handlebar plug, squeaky pedal, chain lube bottle that wouldn’t open, sleeping pad with a slow leak, broken seat bag buckle, feed bag full of ants, leaky hydration bladder hose, and seemingly unsolvable brake rub.
What a mess! The ride seemed doomed.
And yet, I was still moving forward. Not even limping forward, but pedaling forward at a good clip, seemingly without consequences.
What gives? Was my ride “going badly?” Or was this uneasy feeling of impending doom just the getting-started jitters, the inevitable mental cost of starting something long and difficult?
Over the next two months as I wild camped in the woods and pedaled along lonely gravel roads, I had plenty of time (too much time?) to think about all this. I decided that most bikepacking problems fall into four categories, and knowing which is which can help new or hesitant riders feel more confident about striking out on their own.
While this post won’t actually solve any of your problems on your next bikepacking trip (sorry not sorry), perhaps it’ll help you face them with a bit more grace and less panicked profanity.
“Fix Now” Problems
In a sense, this is the only “real” type of problem in bikepacking or any kind of outdoor adventure.
Are there significant consequences for life or limb if you don’t take action immediately? Then it’s a Fix Now problem.
Lightning storms on exposed ridges. Whiteout blizzard conditions. Heat exhaustion. A grizzly bear entering your camp. All of these qualify!
For this type of problem, you don’t need me to tell you to take survival-focused action immediately. Move to lower ground. Setup your shelter and stay warm. Stop riding and drink water. Ready your bear spray.
My goal here isn’t to tell you how all Fix Now problems should be solved (sorry, that would be more useful).
Instead, this is a reminder to not treat every problem like a Fix Now problem.
That mysterious creaking sound might instill a sense of dread if you’re new to bikepacking, but it probably doesn’t need to be fixed right this minute. Can you still ride safely and relatively comfortably?
Then ride on, for now, and don’t panic.
“Fix Soon” Problems
Flat tire, bent derailleur hanger, broken chain, failing brakes…
An unrideably busy highway, blocked or closed road, minor injury from a crash, a physical bonk…
All of these require attention or a decision soon, often before you can start moving again. But here’s the thing: if there’s no immediate danger to life or limb, there’s no reason to panic or rush.
If there is a Fix Now problem lurking nearby, of course that takes priority. It would be silly to try and fix a flat when you’re borderline hypothermic in a snowstorm. Get warm and safe first!
I have a personal rule for Fix Soon problems: before attempting a fix I sit down, eat a snack, and drink some water. If possible I do this in a place that’s as physically and mentally comfy as possible, like in the shade on a hot day or pulled off out of sight on a busy road.
This little ritual sometimes confuses riding partners who are itching to get to work on a fix, but it’s effective for me. It interrupts the tendency to panic, lowers the frustration factor, and ensures my body and brain are fueled for high quality problem solving or repair work. If I have to make a tough decision like modifying the route or calling for help, at least I can give it some focused rational thought.
Fix Soon problems can be some of the most frustrating problems you’ll encounter while bikepacking. They have the potential to be trip-ending depending on what went wrong, but you’d be surprised how often a solution presents itself with a bit of thought and patience.
“Fix When Convenient” Problems
Finicky shifting, brake rub, saggy seat bag, leaky sleeping pad… Annoying problems like this can wear us down emotionally during a long ride, but technically they don’t stop us from making forward progress.
Problems in this category should be fixed on your terms. Pick a nice flat spot in the shade to make adjustments to your bike, or wait until camp. Choose a time and place that are convenient for you, and until then, keep riding and try not to dwell on the issue.
Before you dive in, think about what happens if you accidentally make the problem worse. It’s surprisingly easy to promote a problem from “fix when convenient” to a “fix before moving.” I’ve been there! If you try an unfamiliar bike adjustment to quiet an annoying noise and, in the process, break or misadjust something you don’t know how to fix, you won’t be a happy camper.
If you sense a task could go in this direction, save it for a place with water, food, shelter, and perhaps some friendly locals who can offer tools or a ride. At the very least, a road with occasional vehicle traffic offers more of a safety net than a remote trail.
One caveat: there’s an art to knowing when a problem is about to promote itself from “fix when convenient” to “fix soon” or “fix now.” An uncomfortable rubbing feeling in your shoe could progress to a painful blister if you don’t tend to it soon. A saggy strap could catch in your spokes and cause a crash. These are definitely worth fixing sooner rather than later, but it often takes some experience to know the difference.
These problems may or may not be actual problems, and only time will tell.
On a long bikepacking trip like the Great Divide you’ll likely have a lot of these. When my handlebar plug fell out on day one, I wrapped some electrical tape around the bar and figured I would need to stop at a bike shop to buy more tape. The electrical tape held and I rode like this for two more months – not actually a problem at all.
On a long bike ride we’re vulnerable and very dependent on a small set of gear and techniques, so it’s easy to get worried if one small thing isn’t quite right. But sometimes problems solve themselves, or turn out to not be problems in the first place.
That weird noise goes away, or the duct tape holds, or it turns out that broken strap wasn’t actually necessary in the first place. Let these kinds of things promote themselves to “fix when convenient” problems before you offer them your mental energy.
You might just wake up one morning and find that all the “problems” you thought you had yesterday have disappeared. To be replaced by new and different ones, of course. Welcome to bikepacking!
Actual Problem Solving Tips
There’s no way I can list every problem that might come up and how to solve each one. After riding many thousands of miles on several different continents, I’m still surprised by the variety and novelty of the problems I encounter. Every trip offers a brand new “learning opportunity.”
However, I can tell you that a few simple bits of gear and preparation have helped me solve 90% of the problems that do come up. Here they are:
- Carry a tools and spares kit and know how to use it.
- Download several types of maps (Google Maps, Maps.me, RideWithGPS, etc) before you lose data reception, include nearby areas in case of reroutes, and always have a backup navigation device in case one fails.
- In remote places carry a 2-way satellite messenger like the Garmin InReach Mini, so you can get that one critical piece of information you need (about a route detour, bike repair task, etc.) from a friend or family member even without network coverage.
- Pack sufficient clothing and shelter for the weather conditions, and use it before you get too wet or cold.
- Practice self-reliance, but when all else fails, embrace the kindness of strangers. It has a way of popping up when you need it most.
- Don’t panic.
Problem solving is inevitable on multiday bike trips. It’s part of the package we sign up for, and for some of us it’s an interesting part of the puzzle. When a problem arrives, better to say “Interesting, so this is the new skill I’m going to learn on this trip.” instead of “Oh crap, the trip is ruined.”
I don’t want to sound trite here, but if you go in with open mind you might be surprised by your own resourcefulness, creativity, and patience. After all, isn’t that part of what many of us are looking to find out there anyway?
Plus, we all know the biggest mishaps make the best stories to share later over burgers and beers. Start building your collection! 🙂
More Bikepacking Resources
If you’re into bikepacking, you might also find these helpful:
- Creative Ideas for Bikepacking on a Budget
- 9 Ways to Carry Water on A Bike
- Great Divide Mountain Bike Route: Q&A and Planning Guide
Or for even more pedal-powered goodness, visit the bikepacking resource center.
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