Dispersed Bikepacking: Sun Powered Bike Bags
Andrew and Katie Strempke are ultra-bikepack racers who apply their experience to making some kick-butt bike bags. Their company Dispersed Bikepacking is the first (that we know of) to be creating bikepacking bags 100% from the road and with solar power. An inspiring tale. Read on.
I have a massive crush on Dispersed Bikepacking. The company of two consists of Andrew and Katie Strempke.A couple who live an inspirational life of van living, ultra-bikepack racing, and awesome bike bag making.
My crush is not only due to the fact that I love their bags, but also because both Katie and Andrew are accomplished bikepacking racers who race for Chumba Bikes (who we also crush on). In this year's Tour Divide, both Katie and Andrew ran single speeds for the entire 2745 miles (4420 km) from Canada to New Mexico. Andrew took first place in the singlespeed category and 9th overall, while Katie was the first woman to do the event on a single speed and the second woman to cross the line. Bananas.
Aside from their racing exploits, I am always blown away by people who decide to uproot their lives and live in a van in the pursuit of adventure. It's a move that I definitely romanticize, and I always wonder how people make it work for extended periods of time. In my daydreams, when I think about joining the van life circuit, my first question always revolves around the realities of it—like how to make a living. What do van-dwellers actually do to feed themselves? This is why the story of Andrew and Katie inspires me: they have found a way to make it all work. They earn a living making bike bags, while seeing the world, entering race after race, and sleeping under the stars.
But how do you start any sort of manufacturing company from a van? The answer is in the first line on the Dispersed Bikepacking website: “Made on planet earth with the power of the sun”. One hundred percent of Dispersed bike bags are created with solar energy. You know, that infinite source of energy that manages to feed us and keep us all warm on this little ball hurtling through space. For me, this incredible fact only brought up more questions around powering industrial machines and, of course, how do they fit it all into a van? I had to learn more and was excited when Andrew and Katie agreed to chat. Let's go.
How did Dispersed start?
For my birthday one year Katie gave me her sister's old sewing machine and the necessary material to make two frame bags. I followed a tutorial online and made some simple bags that we ended up using when we toured the Great Divide Route in 2018. Fast forward a few years and I had made frame bags for all of our bikes and a few friends' bikes, along with prototype top tube bags, handlebar harnesses, seat bags, and downtube bags. In late 2021, we had been living in our van for over a year and I needed to figure out some remote work. I already had a sewing machine in the van to make bags for fun, so I decided to start a business and try to sell some bags to pay for food and bike parts. I recruited my sister to design a logo, ordered some patches and stickers, and officially launched Dispersed in March 2022.
What does 'Dispersed' mean for you exactly?
Most of the time we are dispersed—camping in our van which is parked on public land, rather than in a campground. All the bags are made in the van, which means they're made while being “dispersed.” I like to think that our bags are used on bikepacking trips involving dispersed camping.
How long have you been living the van life for?
A little over two years at this point. We sold our house on July 1, 2020, and we drove west to Colorado the same day to start living out of our van. The van life has been great for us; we've enjoyed following the weather and riding new trails. Our living space is small, but we try to spend as much time as we can outside the van. When we made the move, our goal was to ride bikes in beautiful places, not just to live in a van.
We get along with each other well and we're both pretty easy going, which helps when you're in close proximity all day long. Working in the van isn't easy—bag material is slowly encroaching on our sleeping space and sometimes we've been forced to leave perfect campsites in search of better cell service. For us, the benefits of being mobile outweigh the challenges of living and working in a van.
Where did the idea for solar power as a means of production come from?
Solar power is all we have in the van! We have a couple “house” batteries that are solely powered by 200W of solar panels on our roof. Solar panels are a no-brainer when converting a van: they charge your batteries whether you're driving or not. Plus they're pretty inexpensive.
How efficient is solar in powering an industrial sewing machine?
The solar panels keep us pretty well powered up, although we do tend to spend most of our time in sunny places. The sewing machine uses 150W, and is plugged into a small inverter. It's only used in short bursts when I'm pressing the foot pedal. It's not a full industrial machine, but it does have a walking foot and is more powerful than your typical household sewing machine.
How does racing and bag making fit together in your opinion?
We've been racing bikes since 2012, although we only started competing in bikepacking races in 2019. Races since then include: Colorado Trail Race, Tour Divide, Arizona Trail 300, Smoke n' Fire, Pinyons and Pines, and Utah Mixed Epic.
From a bag making perspective, racing provides invaluable testing grounds. I don't normally ride through rain and mud all day for a week, but during a race the bags are subjected to those harsh conditions. Seeing what does and doesn't survive a long race determines how future bags are designed. I've had coil zippers jam with mud and seen many jammed waterproof zippers, so all Dispersed bags use large molded-tooth zippers. The large teeth withstand sand and mud much better. I've also had zipper seams start to separate when bags are overstuffed, so I've since upgraded to a heavier duty thread and every seam on the bag now gets at least 2 passes.
What's your favorite place to park the van and just ride?
We both agree that Moab, UT is our favorite. So much great riding in the surrounding area along with stunning views; there are so many trail networks to ride and jeep roads to explore. The White Rim Trail is one of our favorites, a classic 100 mile ride with non-stop views.
What can we expect from Dispersed in the future?
I always have a design in my head for a new bag or piece of gear. It's just a matter of carving out time to work on new prototypes when there is a queue of customer bags to be made. Handlebar and seat bags will be available some day. The van is mobile, so I've dreamed of setting up shop at a race or event and making bags on the spot. Hopefully lots more custom bags for big bikepacking adventures!
Living the van life can't always be easy. For me, the dream of doing it one day is definitely a symptom of the “grass is greener” type thinking. However, seeing Katie and Andrew living their best lives—riding, racing and bag making—makes me itch to get out more.
I absolutely love companies that are approaching manufacturing in new and environmentally friendly ways. Many companies out there look at offsetting their carbon footprints through credits, which is definitely still a great option. However, on the surface, credits can potentially appear to be paying your way out of harmful behaviors and practices. The idea of using 100% renewable energy to manufacture physical goods puts the emphasis on power consumption before the product is made. This excites me beyond belief.
A core value of bikepacking is the idea of “leave no trace”, but this idea is usually applied to the individual rider. What if more companies in our industry applied that ethos to manufacturing and operations? As with all small endeavors, the Strempkes will face some challenging decisions as their bags grow in popularity and operations begin to scale. Until then, I feel that Dispersed Bikepacking is a model for other companies out there on how to operate sustainably.
PS - Andrew and Katie, if you are ever on Vancouver Island, you have a place to park your van. ✊