How to Survive a Bikepacking Trip in the Desert
Bikepacking in the desert can be an intimidating idea for most riders. In this article, veteran bikepacker, Tara Weir shares some tips that helped her through the deserts of Mongolia, the American West, Australia, and Western China. These tips are intended to help desert noobs and expert bikepackers alike. Buckle up and hit the sand.
In 10 years of bikepacking, I have traveled through a variety of landscapes. I have pedaled through dense boreal forests, sweaty jungles, great plains, and high-altitude mountain passes, to name a few. Out of all these environments, nothing has excited and enthralled me as much as the desert. There is a strange thrill in feeling vulnerable in such a harsh environment, where basic resources needed to survive are scarce. In the desert, strange flora and fauna are abundant, like the Australian Thorny Devil that I once saw on the side of a dirt road while riding across the continent. This strange little reptile, like most hearty plants in the desert, is covered in little spikes, used to absorb moisture through its skin. The desert is a fascinating place but can be daunting and potentially dangerous for those who are unprepared and traveling on two wheels.
Crossing the desert environments of Mongolia, the American West, Australia, and Western China, I have gained some knowledge that I would like to share with others for a successful and enjoyable ride. After many thousands of miles in these desert climates around the world, I have learned from my mistakes experiencing everything from horribly sunburnt lips to gear worn down by sand and high levels of dehydration. I also experienced great successes, such as making it through 100% puncture-free in areas strewn with thorns. Out of all the lessons I have learned over the years, I would like to share four of what I believe are the most important to survive a desert bikepacking trip.
Use Sealant (Lots Of It And Not Only In Tubeless Tires)
Spiky plants abound in the desert, releasing razor-sharp thorns that will pierce even the toughest of tires. I always tour with various types of Schwalbe Marathon tires, which are usually very puncture-resistant. These guys, however, don't stand a chance against the infamous Goathead Thorns of Arizona and New Mexico. For that, you need sealant. Tubeless tires have become a very popular option for bikepacking over the past years however, not all rims, come tubeless-ready. If your current bike doesn't have tubeless-ready rims, this may require the purchase of a new wheelset. If you are keen enough, there are also “ghetto tubeless” options out there, such as using Gorilla Tape to seal the rims. But for those of us who still use tubular tires and wish to continue with a setup we are happy and familiar with, there is another, not very well-known option. You can simply add sealant to your tubes.
Both the Arizona section of the Western Wildlands route and New Mexico Off-road Runner bikepacking route are full of areas laden with Goathead Thorns. Adding sealant to my tubes worked perfectly and I didn't get a single flat on either of these routes over a few thousand kilometers. I know sealant in tubes may sound odd as not too many have heard of this method or openly advocate for it. Unfortunately, not just any tube will do the trick, you will need tubes that have removable valve cores. I mainly use Schwalbe tubes, all of which have removable cores. I have used tubeless sealants in the past such as Stan's and Orange Seal, but Muc-Off now makes a sealant specifically for tubes. There are limits to this method, a hole larger than 3 or 4mm likely won't seal in a tube. When I returned from my Western Wildlands ride, I pulled out five Goathead Thorns total between the two tires that had gone straight through. The sealant clearly did its job and I would have had a pretty miserable time without it.
I once met Geert, a Dutchman in his sixties and the first person to ride the entirety of the Western Wildlands route Northbound. He told me that he had a total of 17 (yes, 17!) punctures in Arizona. This put him in a potentially dangerous situation, running out of patches and thus delaying his transport to the next water source. He got a lift to the closest bike shop and immediately converted to a tubeless setup. I decided to take my chances and had sealant added to my tubes for the first time in Moab, Utah. Without sealant, I could have been in trouble like Geert. I was able to prepare for Arizona ahead of time by taking the step to further puncture-proof my tires. It is important to study the characteristics of the land you plan to traverse in order to have a safe and successful trip.
Know Your Route
Deserts, in their stark beauty, can be harsh places to travel. Cycling all day under the sun in a completely exposed landscape can be exhausting and potentially dangerous for the unprepared. When choosing a desert route, traveling in the right season is important. Bikepacking across Australia or riding California's Socal Desert Ramble in summer is never a good idea as the temperatures become dangerously high and one simply can't carry enough water. But, contrary to popular belief, deserts aren't always hot. While very high temps can occur during the day, they can also be bitterly cold places at night.
It is a good idea to study the seasonal forecasts for your planned route and bring clothing to account for large temperature swings. In hot weather, it is tempting to wear less clothing, but it is almost always better to cover up. Yes, there is sunscreen, but you have to be very diligent about reapplying. Even the stuff marked as “sports” sunscreen won't stay on for more than a few hours, from my experience. Protect your lips as well with a zinc lip balm or one with at least SPF 30. For the time on the bike, It is best to opt for a long, loose shirt that covers the arms completely or at least the majority. My personal favorite is the Kitsbow's Women's A/M jersey, a merino/synthetic blend ¾ length jersey. I love merino wool for its antimicrobial properties and its resistance to stench after long-term use. Cotton, another natural fiber is a much more budget-friendly option that performs well in hot and dry weather. A loose-fitting and lightweight flannel should do the trick. Steer clear of cotton in the cold and wet because of its lengthy drying time. I use 7mesh Glidepath shorts because of their longer length and comfort, leaving the tops of my legs less exposed to the sun. As goofy as it looks, I also use a Dabrim Rezzo Visor, which attaches to my helmet to further protect my face from the sun. Luckily, I often choose remote routes, so there aren't many people around to judge my questionable cycling fashion. At night in the colder temps, I use merino base layers when the temperatures hover around freezing. An understanding of the highly variable weather along a desert route and packing accordingly is hugely important. Many of the routes I have chosen have also included some remote sections—areas where food and water can't be accessed each and every day.
Before setting on a long journey through the desert, I take the time to get to know my resupply points. I will figure out a realistic, minimum distance that I am able to pedal each day. It is important to account for potential delays such as mechanical mishaps. For that reason, I will sometimes carry an extra half to a full day's worth of food. In hot climates, but sure to stock up on salty snacks to replace the body's salt lost through a day of heavy sweating. I sometimes carry an oral rehydration solution such as Pedialyte sachets in the event of severe dehydration. An almost universal characteristic of a desert is its lack of surface water. This slightly unnerving fact will alone put many off of ever attempting a multi-day ride in such a place. I can assure you that with proper planning, the chances of running dry are highly unlikely. You just have to be OK with a bit of extra weight.
Carry Hydration (you need more than you think)
This may be an obvious point, but it needs to be said. Always study your route and make a plan for how much water you need to carry to get to the next source. Figure out a system to evenly distribute a heavy water load across a bike. I have successfully carried up to 25L on a three-day stretch of Australia's outback dirt Great Central Road with temperatures up to 35C. For that, I used 10L and 6L MSR Dromedary bags, along with regular cycling water bottles and various other plastic bottles strapped to panniers. It is surprising how much weight can be moved while pedaling a bicycle. It is important to get a realistic idea of how much distance you can cover each day with the added water weight. One liter weighs approximately 1kg or 2.2 pounds. The good news is that your load will only get lighter as you approach the next water source.
On the southern section of the Western Wildlands Route in Utah and Arizona, I rarely went more than one and a half days between water refills, and the most I carried was 12L on a remote section of the Plateau Passage route in Utah. However, to stay properly hydrated, I typically plan on carrying no less than 4-5L for each day out riding and camping (cooking) in desert terrain. It is always wise to account for possible mechanical trouble and delays when out in the desert where surface water can be non-existent. In other words, it's almost always good to have a bit of a buffer.
For storage, I now use a Hydrapak Expedition 8L bladder after losing an MSR bladder that was improperly strapped to my rear rack on a section in Idaho. Along with the bladder, I always carry my UV water filter, the now-discontinued Camelback AllClear, and purification tablets for backup. Even in the winter months, you will experience prolonged exposure to the sun and will need to take in electrolytes. I always try to add a little something extra to my water. I have come to love Nuun tablets and will carry them with me on trips to countries where they may not be available. I prefer these tablets over options like Gatorade because I don't experience sugar crashes. However, I do find that I tend to crave a little sugary boost at the end of the day while recovering in my tent. This brings me to the topic of wild camping in the desert—a desolate yet deeply rewarding experience. However, such a harsh environment can wreak havoc on gear if it is not maintained properly.
Take Care Of Your Gear (especially in the sand)
If you are camping in the desert, there is a good chance you will encounter a bit of sand. It won't be long before it sticks to you and everything you own. In fact, you may start to notice a slight grittiness to your food. Just kidding, it's not usually that bad. Sand, however, is hard on gear. Fact. After crossing the deserts of Mongolia and Western China in 2015, I completely wore through a high-quality rim after only about 5000km of use. I was using V-brakes at the time (still do!) and am certain that a buildup of sand and grit on my rims greatly contributed to their rapid deterioration. Now, I wipe down my rims nightly with a cloth and brush off the brake pads (with a piece of sandpaper, funny enough).
In general, I avoid zippers when I can. All of my main bikepacking bags have roll-top closures, with the exception of a few small top tube bags. They have the tendency to wear out and fail over time. All tents have zippers, however, so they need to be well taken care of, especially over long-haul trips in the desert. It is a good idea to inspect them regularly, wiping off the sandy build-up with a cloth. You can also lubricate a stubborn one periodically. Zipper-specific lubricants are available, but in a pinch, Vaseline, lip balm or even olive oil can do the job. For a short trip, this shouldn't be much of a concern. No matter how much time you spend out there, you will likely gather up a lot of sand. I usually end up dumping the stuff out of my shoes for days after a trip has ended. A bazillion little granular gifts that kept on giving. Speaking of shoes, always be sure to leave those in the tent, so that creepy crawlers can't settle in for the night!
I hope that the above advice can make you ready for your first voyage out there in sandy isolation on whatever continent that may be. Heading out in such a dry and harsh environment can be an intimidating prospect, but all it takes is a bit of planning. Know your route, know the number of days between resupply, and carry even a little bit extra. As always, make sure you carry enough spares and have the bike in good working order. Protect yourself from the sun with long clothing or carry lots of sunscreen. You will experience wonderfully desolate, silent nights with brilliant stars. It is safe to say that I am addicted to desert riding. I will continue to chase down sandy, windswept horizons on two wheels for years to come.