Trails for miles and miles: Bikepacking offers multi-day experiences on Olympic Peninsula

The more, the merrier — or, perhaps, more aptly: the more, the safer.

With more than 3,600 square miles of roaming space, much of it traverse-able on wheels, the Olympic Peninsula is a wonderland for those wanting to hit the trails, paths and roadways on mountain, gravel and road bikes.

And while he’s admittedly no expert in the field of bikepacking — multi-day bike trips with overnight camping stops — Sequim’s Nate van Laningham has some key pieces of advice for fellow trail-goers. Over sips of coffee at Rainshadow Cafe one late winter morning, he points to one of his key tips to bikepacking: ride with a partner or a group.

It’s a lesson he found on an expedition last year, one that saw him traverse around the Hood Canal and cover about 250 miles. Using maps provided by participants of the Olympic 420 Adventure — a late-summer bikepacking route comprised of old logging roads and trails that circumnavigates the Olympic Mountains — van Laningham, riding solo, found himself in a spot where he needed to scale up a cliff wall using a rope. He managed to clamber up the wall with the bike on his back. Having a biking buddy would have been a big help in that situation, he says.

Which naturally leads to another tip: “Do your homework,” van Laningham says. “It’s fun to be spontaneous (but) not in this venue.”

Van Laningham, a landscaper by trade who does most of his longer rides in the winter months, started on bikes in the cyclocross arena, moved on to endurance road bikes, then on to gravel bikes. These bikes are often referred to as adventure or hybrid bikes and are essentially road bikes designed to tackle various surfaces, carry additional gear and are built for all-day riding, typically on trails.

“(In a car) you’re detached from your environment,” van Laningham says. “On a bike, you’re in your environment.”

In recent years he found bikepacking.

“It’s just another way to ride,” van Laningham said. “You can go anywhere. (I thought), ‘Why didn’t I do this sooner? I can go and I don’t have to worry about getting back.’”

Owner-operator of Sequim Bike Works, a 501(c)3 nonprofit community bike shop, van Laningham has some pointers for those interested in trying out a bikepacking experience, from equipment to planning:

The bike

“You need to know your bike before you go on a tour.”

Perhaps easier said than done. What if you don’t have a bike yet? Not a problem, van Laningham says.

“Let the bike shop (staffer) be your guide.”

A gravel bike offers great versatility for bikepacking, but a lot of mountain bikes will do the job too, he says; a lot of 1980s-era mountain bikes with rigid frames are good candidates.

“Old touring bikes are good too,” he says. “(But) any bike is a compromise.”

Some bikes, such as some of the donated ones he refurbishes through Sequim Bike Works, are ready for a bikepacking trip with something as simple as a good set of tires.

“Take it to a bike shop and tell them where you want to go,” van Laningham says. “Bike shops are huge resources.”

Bikepacking — and riding on the Olympic Peninsula in general — often means lots of climbing, so lighter but sturdy frames are best, he says. It’s a good idea to base one’s selection on where they want to ride.

And more thing, he adds: “Gears are your friend.”

Get in gear

Bikepacking isn’t unlike backcountry hiking in terms of what one packs for a trip.

“A lot of the gear is the same … (a key is to) keep as light as you can,” van Laningham says. “Keeping it light is key.”

Along with the 10 hiking essentials — navigation (compass), headlamp, sun protection, first aid, knife, fire starter, shelter material, extra food, extra water and extra clothes — bikepackers will want to carry a sleep system (tent), a water filtration device and spare tools and tubes for the bike.

Van Laningham does get water at campgrounds or stores he visits along the way, but still brings a water filter just in case.

Similarly, he’ll stop in at stores and restaurants during a bikepacking trip but averages one dehydrated meal per day for quick bites on the trail

Fortunately, bikes can do much of the heavy lifting, though frame bags don’t work from bike to bike, so getting the correct bags for one’s bike is essential.

“Weight is a really huge concern,” van Laningham says. “Adding 50 pounds to the bike gets pretty heavy.”

Having some cash on hand is a good idea too, he says, as some campgrounds don’t take credit cards. Many of those sites have hike-and-bike spots, cheaper than standard campground spots where travelers can meet up with other bikepackers.

Do your homework

Because much of van Laningham’s bikepacking excursions are on trails or forest roads, having up-to-date maps is essential.

Bikepackers can use such phone apps as Strava, a popular social media cycling community that offers routes and GPS tracking. Many apps can import maps and be saved, but van Laningham says traveling with printed maps is a good contingency for remote areas.

“Sometimes you’re not going to have a network, (so) stick to your route as much as you can,” he says.

On a recent bikepacking trip, van Laningham came to an unexpected fork in the trail late one day. Instead of making a decision one way or another, he set up camp, and the following day contacted a friend who, using a computer, was able to pinpoint van Laningham’s location and give him the next part of the route.

His trek last year took van Laningham on U.S. Forest Service roads to Quilcene, then on mostly utility line roads just west of U.S. Highway 101 south toward Potlatch, and then north up the Kitsap Peninsula toward Port Townsend and then home. In the process he used some of the routes used by participants of the Olympic 420 Adventure.

“I want to ride where someone else had ridden,” he says.

“If it’s a big tour, I try to find a route (and) augment that with other sources.”

Other of his bikepacking treks are campground to campground.

As with gear, he says, it’s good to build into your plan redundancy after redundancy.

Build up to longer trips

“You don’t have a huge ride the first time,” van Laningham says — joking that his second bikepacking trip was a five-plus day, 250-mile sojourn.

Make a progression, he urges: start with a road trip, then a camping trip, and then a trail-based bikepacking trip.

And, if you enjoy it and don’t mind some company, take a friend along and share the fun.

Tools of the bikepacking trade

Nate van Laningham’s gear for his 2021 bikepacking trek was extensive, but thanks to numerous packs and bags, it fit all on one bike (and rider):

Handlebar roll stuff bag — tent, sleeping bag (stuff bag doubles as bear bag), air mattress

Lashed to handlebar roll — tent ground cloth, tent stake bag, warm hat, cycling jacket, padded cycling gloves

Handlebar roll add-on bag —Platypus water filter, power core, USB charging cables, headlamp, headphones, spare lash down straps, rain poncho

Frame bag — French press coffee maker, stove, coffee grinder, coffee beans, dehydrated meals, trail mix, 16oz. Canteen, grocery store backpack, tire plug and tube repair kit w/CO2 cartridges, tools (multi-tool, tire levers, CO2 inflater, chain tool, chain lube, inner tube), tent pole, hand towel, camp slippers

Saddle pack — Spare chamois shorts, spare pair of socks, camp shirt and pants, cook pot and pan, fuel canister

Fanny pack (lashed on top of saddle pack) — Multi-plier tool, spork, hygene bag (toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, chamois creme), electrolyte powder, lighter, zip ties, rubber bands, paracord, electrical tape, wallet, ink pen, contact lens case, supplements

Handlebar/stem bottle bag — 32-ounce Nalgene Bottle, folding knife, chapstick

Top tube bag — Energy bars, snacks

Jersey pockets — Smartphone

Under down tube bottle cage — 24-ounce canteen

Frame and handlebar mounted — frame pump, bike computer(Wahoo Elemnt Roam)

Dangle — coffee cup.

Being prepared with plenty of gear is key for successful bikepacking trips. Nate Van Laningham has numerous bags and packs that attach to the handlebar and frame, carrying food, water, tent, electronics, bike repair gear, extra clothes and other camping accessories. Photo by Nate Van Laningham
Nate Van Laningham’s 2021 bikepacking trek offered sterling views, including this of the Hiid Canal up above Lilliwaup. Photo by Nate Van Laningham

Nate Van Laningham’s 2021 bikepacking trek offered sterling views, including this of the Hiid Canal up above Lilliwaup. Photo by Nate Van Laningham