Bikepacking is part backpacking, and part bike touring. You can do this fairly civilized on paved roads, or the other extreme of all off-road riding. It’s about stripping all the non-essentials of life, and carry only what you need to survive. I used every piece of gear I brought, except the spare tubes and sealant that are back-up plans. I could have carried less food supplies, but given what happened during the trip, I was happy to have extra.
My favorite part of the trip: sleeping under the stars!
For an abbreviated version of the trip report, please see my Instagram feed. What you get here is the very long version, with more pictures. This version is so long that I don’t know if I want to read it.
You’ve been warned.
The route is loosely based on this website.
Day 1: Phoenix to Anthem, 38km
Once upon a time, someone told me you can fly into a city with a bike, build the bike at the airport, break down the cardboard box, and ride away. I was amazed by the idea, and that’s exactly what I did for this trip. I spread out pieces of the bike, my bags, and tools in a corner of the airport. Nobody even batted an eyelash. Once I was done putting my bike together and add all the bags, I cut up the cardboard box and put everything in the recycling bin.
The Phoenix airport has a free train that connects to the city’s light rail metro system. I took the free train to the metro station, and paid $2 to get on the metro. The metro went all the way to the north end of the city. I got off at Dunlap, bypassing most of the traffic in the city, and started pedaling towards Anthem for a civilized night sleep in a bnb.
Day 3: Anthem to just after Horseshoe Dam, 82 km
From Anthem, I had planned on riding on the Maricopa Trail across to Carefree before entering the Tonto National Forest. After a couple of “trail closed” detours that seems to go nowhere, I was getting a little annoyed, so I took the pavement instead.
The ride was a steady uphill climb the whole way from Anthem to Carefree. But the sun was shining, and I was not missing the rain in Vancouver at all.
Just before leaving Carefree, I stopped at Starbucks for a coffee. I sat in the sun and inhaled the dry desert air with greed. This is where the adventure would start! I’m about to leave civilization and enter a very remote region. I can’t wait!!
I had a goal to get to Horseshoe Lake this evening. Seeing that I have gotten there around 3 pm, I felt pretty good about myself. There is a bit more daylight left to keep pushing forward. So far most of the dirt road was rideable. There was some car traffic.
I had about 1L of water left. The next source of water is at Sheep Bridge, which is only 18 km away. I figured I can just push towards Sheep Bridge and get water there. I didn’t want to waste precious daylight trying to climb down to Horseshoe Lake to get water if the next source is so close.
I continued on.
I was already getting fairly tired after a full day’s riding, and thirsty, and hungry.
To get across the dam, the only passage is a very narrow pedestrian walkway. There is no way for cars to get to the other side of the dam. The dirt road on the other side of the dam mostly complete crap with big fist size rocks and deep grooves.
Before I knew it, I was hiking with my bike rather than riding it. I tried my best to ride, but it was beyond my limits. The “only 18 km” to Sheep Bridge started to seem unattainable as I hiked on, with the daylight starting to fade.
I tried riding down a rocky stretch, and fell over. I laid there on the dirt road, with the wind knocked out of me, feeling the sting of the cuts and scrapes I just acquired. I was starting to make mistakes, and it’s too remote here for anyone to help me if I got really hurt. I decided it’s time to call it a day.
It’s 4:30 pm. I’m somewhere between two water sources. Too far to go back to Horseshoe Lake, and too tired to push towards Sheep Bridge.
I pushed my bike off the dirt road, up a hill, carefully between cacti, and found a small tree to be home for the night. Camping under a tree, apparently, is wise. I read that on the internet, so it must be true. This is my first time using a bivy set up, so I will take all the protection I can get!
I laid out my sleeping and cooking gear. I was being very quiet, taking care not to make any noise. I would rather not be discovered in my little spot behind some vegetation. I have camped by myself many times in my life, but never in such a remote place. After Horseshoe dam, I have not seen a single car in 2 hours. Nothing good ever happens in CSI Las Vegas when a woman is out in a remote area by herself. I can hear rifle shots in a distance, which reminded me of a CSI episode where a guy was shot hundreds of times by accident at a rifle range at night. All of a sudden I was imaging myself being shot hundreds of times because someone is going to think I’m a deer and kill me by accident. 30 seconds later, I was imagining the guys driving by in a big jeep and loud music are going to assault me.
I ate my freeze dried food. Now I have less than 500ml of water left. If I drink it now, I will have nothing to make breakfast with. So I decided to go thirsty.
I made a small fire with the dead wood I gathered. The fire was not for warmth, but more for fun. I didn’t need it. I put on my headlamp and write a few words in my notepad. The sun set quickly, and the sky became pitch dark. But before long, all the bright stars appeared, and it took my breath away that I was right under the milky way!
I laid in my bivy, looking up at the dark sky and bright stars. For some reason, it calmed my over-active imagination. I drifted off to sleep.
Day 3: Just after Horseshoe Dam to bottom of Bloody Basin, 33 km
I woke up without bullet holes or assault wounds on me. Wow, I made my first night of wild camping in one piece. I was so pleased with myself.
I boiled my remaining water to make breakfast. Then as soon as the sun is up high enough for some warmth, I packed up camp and started towards Sheep Bridge. My lips were stuck together because they were so dry.
There were a couple of signs to the effect of “this road is meant for 4×4 high clearance vehicles, not your little cross bike and skinny 40mm tires, dumbass!” And those signs were right. My hopes of getting to Sheep Bridge quickly to get water fizzled as I hiked.
I would ride 20 metres, and have to get off to hike 30 metres, get back on to ride 25 metres, and get off to hike 20 metres. I was getting on and off my bike so much, that my right inner thigh was getting chafed from brushing over my sleeping bag.
It took me 2 hours to finally get to Sheep Bridge. When I saw the bridge, I exclaimed out loud: Water!!!!
I have not had a drink of water for 18 hours, aside from the 1 L I used to cook my dinner and breakfast.
I ran towards Verde River, took out my water filter, and started filtering water into all my carrying vessels. And just to double the assurance, I also added Aquatabs to the filtered water. When I finally got to drink the water 30 minutes later, it was the most delicious chlorine I have ever tasted!!
I did not stop for lunch, as I was trying to rush through as much of the mileage as possible. The plan was to get to Cordes Junction tonight. Technically it was only about 65-70km from where I started in the morning. Normally that kind of distance on the road would have never even fazed me. But the fact that it took me 4 hours to cover 20 km, I was starting to worry. Also, all the water I got from Verde River this morning was starting to run low.
It was Thanksgiving long weekend, so there were a number of families driving their dune buggies into the forest. They all had loud music playing, faces masked by bandanas, and large coolers strapped to the back of their off-road buggies. Every single driver would slow down and give me space on the road, and waved hello.
One particular driver came to a dead stop next to me, and asked if I wanted water. My eyes lit up. YES! Please!! He jumped out of his driver seat, went to the back, opened up his cooler, and handed me an icy cold bottle of water. I probably said thank-you 30 times. I was so grateful.
The day was hot, dry and windy. I felt like water was just evaporating out of my every pore. I took small sips of the water I was given, but even then, I finished it in half an hour.
An hour later, a BMW coming towards me was slowing down to give me space. I gathered up the guts and asked if he had any water to spare. He was a middle aged man, with his dad in the passenger seat. He did not hesitate handing me his water bottle, and asked if I wanted more. This was not the time to be shy, so I said yes. He got out of his car, opened his trunk, and brought out a big jug to fill my own bottles. He told me the road doesn’t get any better for quite a while. It took him 3 hours of driving from Cordes to where we were standing, which means I have no chance in hell to make it to Cordes tonight. His dad shook his head at me, totally not impressed that I was obviously unprepared for my journey. I was shaking my head at myself by this time. How the hell did I get to this point? What made me think I can do this on my own?
I thanked them for the water, and continued on. The landscape was so beautiful, but the hill was relentless.
The people of Arizona are some of the friendliest people I have ever encountered. I would stop on the side of the road to catch my breath, and at least two drivers stopped to ask if my needed help. It occurred to me that it could very well be the same people who were shooting rifles the night before who are now offering me water or assistance or a friendly wave. I may not agree with the gun laws in the US, but people are still people–I believe goodness is in everyone’s core.
Around 3 pm, I came across a small stream. I was so happy to be able to load up on water again. This time, there were cows grazing nearby. I filtered the water, added the treatment tabs, but decided I will also boil the water later before I consume it. I am not taking the chance with getting sick when this trip has been the most physically demanding things I have ever done.
By 4 pm, I have only made it to the bottom of Bloody Basin, just 33 km after my departure point this morning. That’s less than half the mileage I planned on, and there is no way for me to get out of the forest that night.
I decided to set up camp and get some rest, and maybe start early tomorrow. I found a spot at the top of a ravine. Even though it was 4:30 pm and there was still daylight, the temperature dropped very quickly. I shivered involuntarily. By 5 pm, I already knew my sleeping bag was not going to keep me warm through the night.
To save weight, I took Savanna’s hybrid sleeping bag on this trip. The bag was rated to 7c, but the temperature eventually dropped to -3c that night. If I can’t get out of the forest, the only chance of making it through the night is keeping a fire going so I can stay warm.
I got to work gathering dead branches. I boiled water on the little stove, poured it into my stainless steel bottle, and held the bottle in my jacket for warmth. By 8 pm, my eyelids were getting heavy. I dozed off while sitting cross legged. 20 minutes later, I woke up freezing because the fire has gone out. I brought the fire back, and basically sat waiting for the wood to burn, just so I can add more to keep it going.
There wasn’t much else to think about at that moment. I missed my kids. And if I don’t make it out alive? I truly hope that they know I was having the most badass adventure of my life when shit hit the fan. I didn’t cry. I wasn’t emotional. I calmly kept the fire going, and thought about the kids.
The stars were bright. The moon was so bright it looked like someone turned the light on in a room.
Day 4: Bottom of Bloody Basin to Cordes Junction, 43 km
When the sun started to rise, I have also just burned the last branch I gathered. I really wanted to sleep for a few hours.
I ate breakfast, and decided not to sleep. I have finite amount of daylight to get to Cordes Junction tonight, as I mentally cannot take another night in the forest, and who knows how long it will take me to get out! I packed up and started the climb out of Bloody Basin.
There was very little riding all morning. I hiked. And hiked. It was very warm, windy, and the climb out of the basin was steep. Every once in a while, I would stop and take some photos, or catch my breath. Since I left the campsite at 8 am, I have not seen a single vehicle. How long would it take me to get to Cordes Junction? What if I am stuck in the forest another night? What if I don’t come across any water source all day? Is this how people die of exposure? Why are there ravens circling above my head?
I started rehearsing a speech in my head, asking for help if I saw a vehicle. I no longer cared if I rode the entire route on my own. I wanted to get out of the forest, I wanted to get to town, and have some water. I hiked for the next 3 hours, pushing the loaded bike up steep and rocky hills.
Finally, I heard a vehicle in a distance. I couldn’t see it, but it was coming from somewhere behind me, headed in the same direction I was going. It rattled and there was a lot of metal-against-metal banging noises. There were just too many twists and turns in the road to see what the vehicle was. I continued hiking, and finally after 20 minutes, I can see the vehicle. It was a extended cab pick-up truck towing a trailer holding 6 cows. It was the pieces of the trailer that were making the banging noises. I waved the truck down as it came up next to me.
Me: “Hi there. Any chance I could catch a ride? I have bitten off more than I can chew on this road.”
Rancher: “I ‘er only going up to the top ‘er to drop off ’em cows, eh.”
He rolled away. Not another word was said.
I took a deep breath. There’s no one to blame but myself for being in this predicament. I thought I could ride this road. No one forced me to do this. I wanted it. There was nothing else to do except continue to hike up the hill. This was where the topo map showed the most dense lines out of the basin, and it took me another hour to crest the lip. I had been hiking for over 4 hours, sweating and swearing, and finished all but about a cup of water.
All of a sudden, the road condition improved. I got on my bike and actually rode it! It felt very foreign for a few minutes, since I have done nothing but hike for the last 4 hours. There were still no vehicles in sight, but I didn’t care. I was actually moving, and the kilometres finally started to tick at a speed I was accustomed to. I rode with renewed sense of energy on the type of dirt road I assumed would be typical of this trip, and I actually smiled because I was finally moving forward. 3 hours later, I finally finished the dirt road and reached where it connected to tarmac. The uphill on tarmac into Cordes Junction did not bother me at all–anything at this point is easier than the rocky hikes I have been doing.
Rather than finding a place to camp, I took a motel room in Cordes for a night. I needed to drink copious amounts of water, eat a mountain of food, take a shower, and get some sleep. I went to bed at 6 pm, and slept for 12 hours straight that night.
Day 5: Cordes Junction to Phoenix, 88 km
The interstate ride out of Cordes Junction was fast, smooth, and all downhill, and I barely pedaled for 17km. The shoulder of an interstate is paved with broken glass and shredded tire, but I was smiling. I really needed to feel like I can get some speed on a bike.
I stopped in Black Canyon City for a coffee, and spent an hour chatting with everyone who walked by, wanting to know where I came from and where I was going with that very dusty bike. It reminded me of my solo motorcycle trip across the country back in 2006. I had no shortage of curious people who just couldn’t understand why I would be doing such a thing by myself.
Leaving Black Canyon City, for some reason Google map told me to take this obscure road with no name. I just assumed Google knows that the next section of I-17 is a no-bike zone, and I blindly followed. I had to get through a barbwire gate, according to Google. I can see a gravel path up ahead. But who am I to dispute with Google? I took a deep breath and started down the gravel path.
The condition of the path deteriorated very quickly. Within 15 minutes, I was back in the familiar position of pushing my bike over rocks, hiking rather than riding. Annoying.
I stopped and actually Googled whether I was allowed to ride on I-17 through that portion. It turns out that I was. And here I was, sweating and hiking on a rocky service road, while I can see I-17 a few hundred feet away with buttery smooth tarmac. I could spend an hour hiking back to that barbwire gate and start over on pavement, or I can continue hiking this crap road. I chose to continue, as I hoped it wouldn’t be much longer.
I was wrong. The crap road continued. Not a single vehicle went by.
After 3 hours of hiking on some of the worst surface of the entire trip, going through long dark tunnels under the highway, I finally found tarmac again. This time, I stayed on it. I rode a long stretch on I-17, until I got close to Anthem. There was just a bit too much traffic when it came to the off- and on-ramps, I decided it was safer for me to get off the interstate. I rode on city streets, spinning my sore legs as fast as I can, with the hope of getting back to Phoenix that night.
Even though I don’t fly out until 2 pm the next day, I wanted to get into the city. I wanted to be done with riding. It was like I gorged on a huge meal, and I felt sick from eating too much. I wanted to get off the bike, feel like a normal human again, and not rush to try to catch my flight.
The city riding back into Phoenix was nothing to write home about. I rode to Dunlap street and got on the train, and took the train into the city. I found a hotel close to the airport for the night. Even though I have already seen the movie Wolverine a few times, I watched it on TV until the wee hours of the night. Honestly, I just wanted something predictable.
Day 6: Short Spin, 13km
On the last day of the trip, I pedaled to a nearby park to ride the trails. It was nice to know I can actually handle the blue mountain bike trails, so it’s not like I am a totally sucky rider. I was scraping together the last little bit of my self confidence.
The morning air was very cool, and I sat in the park to soak up the sunshine. I had zero ambitious riding goals for the day. I wanted to spin out my sore legs, store the bike, and get on a flight home. I ate a huge breakfast, and gathered up my dusty bags to get on the plane. I couldn’t wait to get home and throw my arms around the kids!
Needless to say, not a whole lot went according to plan on this trip. I had a route in mind, but missed half of it, and took twice as long to cover some of the distance planned. I did’t have “the right bike” for a trip like this. I was scared shitless on multiple occasions. More scared than I have ever felt in any other circumstances in my life.
…I loved it.
I loved it that was the complete opposite of my normal life.
I loved sleeping under the stars, and feeling so small. I loved the physical challenge of pushing hard. I loved it that my legs were so sore. I loved it I had to be humble and ask for help. I loved it that I had to become flexible and change course when required. I loved it that I had to be ok with myself for not hitting the target.
A trip like this has a magical way of filtering out what is truly important in life.
I can’t wait to do it again!
Great read, exciting adventure! Loved the story.