Global Bikepacking: A Life Altered
Tara Weir is a seasonal forestry worker and bikepacker from British Columbia, Canada. Tara has clocked 42,000 KMs through 21 countries on her Thorn Nomad Mk2. In this story, Tara recounts her transition from an 'unadventurous teen' to one of the most awe-inspiring bikepackers we have had the pleasure to meet. Enjoy the ride.
The sight of Yamdrok Lake, its piercing blue waters surrounded by snowy peaks, took my breath away—or what little of it I had left at close to 5000m above sea level. Alongside three others I had been pedaling up the Kambala Pass in Tibet for about 5 hours. As we ascended, all around us the slopes were a golden brown, a stark desert plain launching itself skyward. When I eventually reached that spectacular lake, ringed by snowcap peaks, I began to cry. I cried out of exhaustion, and out of elation. At that moment, through laboured breaths, I fell torturously in love: in love with our beautiful planet, and also in love with the human-powered machine that got me there. This moment marked the beginning of a wonderful and often tumultuous relationship with that thing we call bikepacking.
As a child, and into my teen years, I wasn't very adventurous. Growing up in Toronto (Canada), I was painfully shy and lacked confidence in many aspects of my life. I was bullied throughout grade school and carried this insecurity into my teen years. When I was 15, I enrolled in an outdoor leadership program through my high school called Outward Bound. We backpacked in the Northern Ontario wilderness for a week, the program culminating in a two-day solo campout. Some city kids may have felt lost and desperate in this scenario, but I surprised myself in that I sort of thrived in it. This was the first time I felt real, true confidence in my own abilities—physical and mental—to survive in an uncertain environment. The thrill of adventure had found me, and I had found a new high.
Years later, when I was a keen road cyclist who was barely capable of changing a flat tire, my dad gifted meThe Masked Rider—Cycling in West Africa, written by Neil Peart (the late legendary drummer from Canadian rock band Rush). In the book, Peart shares his story of touring through Cameroon on his bicycle. He described bicycle touring as traveling at “people speed”, and what really stuck with me were his encounters with the locals in places where no tour bus would stop. On a bicycle he could travel slowly enough to take in the sounds and smells of the world around him.
I was immediately inspired and started searching online for people who had cycled around the world. As I discovered websites like crazyguyonabike.com and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Travellers Forum, I was completely blown away by the stories I had found. Here were people cycling across continents for months—even years—completely self-supported, sometimes carrying up to 80lbs on their bicycles. I felt a pang in my stomach: this was something I needed to do.
I first saw a photo of Tibet's Yamdrok lake in the 2nd edition of the Adventure Cycle Touring Handbook by Stephen Lord. The book was full of wildly intrepid adventurers, riding dirt around remote parts of Kenya, Bolivia, across Mongolia, Russia, Chile and the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan (a place I hadn't even heard of!). Some expeditions required carrying up to seven days of food and three days of water. In the picture was a lone heavily loaded bicycle and rider, with the most spectacular landscape I had ever seen in the background. If a picture is worth a thousand words, it was the same four letter word screaming at me from the glossy page: “Come! COME!”
In 2011, I finally put the wheels in motion and completed my first supported ride in Tibet. After Tibet, I went on to cycle solo through Southeast Asia for three months, carrying only two rear panniers. With the constant availability of cheap, delicious food and bargain accommodation, I deemed camping unnecessary. My trip in Southeast Asia was an incredible introduction to solo touring; and afterwards, I started to crave a bigger challenge. I was ready to leave the pavement and delve into a rougher, more expeditionary style of bicycle travel.
During this sort of transformation period, I continued road cycling when I could find the time. Fast forward about four years and I began to crave more; the desire to travel the world was upon me, and I couldn't deny it. Bicycle touring is the perfect marriage of my three passions: outdoor adventure, travel and cycling. I also came to understand that I enjoyed touring for the same reasons I thrived in Outward Bound as a teen: it gave me a confidence boost, and the opportunity to prove to the world that I am strong and can thrive where most can't. In the years after my Tibet trip, another life-altering experience that would ultimately impact my bikepacking future took place. During the summer months, in between semesters studying journalism at Toronto's Ryerson University, I began working as a treeplanter in the clearcuts of Northern British Columbia. The physically (and mentally) demanding nature of piecework in the harshest conditions, as well as the camaraderie that arose in this environment, had a profound impact on my life. It gave me more confidence than ever and exposed me to an entirely new way of life. Some tree planters would only work for the 3-4 month season and travel the rest of the year. Suddenly, the 9-5 work week with two weeks' vacation no longer appealed. I decided then that I would prioritize adventure and experience over climbing any chosen career ladder. I wanted to travel the world on my bike, and seasonal forestry work would allow me to do just that.
In 2014, with my bible (Adventure Cycle Touring Handbook) in hand, and about $17,000 CAD, I started planning my next expedition. I would start in Mongolia, riding roads and dirt tracks all the way to China, Pakistan, the Indian Himalaya, Central Asia, and maybe even onto Africa. I had planned for about 1.5 years.
Until I cycled across Mongolia, I had never camped alone. The trails were rough and the steppe spectacular. I had a new bike—a British made Thorn Nomad Mk2, with 2.15” Marathon Mondial tires, and about 60 lbs of total weight on my front and rear panniers. I was invited to sleep in gers (yurts), and to share meals and tea with locals. I carried a special letter with me, an idea I took from British around-the-world bike adventurer Alastair Humphreys; it explained who I was and what my journey was all about. I had the letter translated into three languages: Mongolian, Mandarin, and Russian. The kindness from locals never stopped as I made my way across unfamiliar landscapes. After finishing in Central Asia, I cycled across Australia, South Korea, Myanmar, Taiwan and parts of New Zealand. I didn't make it to Africa that trip, but I do hope that adventure is in my future. To this day, I have cycled approximately 42,000km in 21 countries.
I returned home to Canada in 2017, after 23 months of cycling (with one month at home in between due to sickness), and a little bit of working abroad. At that point, life on a bike had become routine for me, with the initial excitement wearing off. At one point I did think that I could bikepack forever. Today, I have found more of a balance.
I'd never heard of the term “bikepacking” before my return in 2017; we were always “bike touring”, no matter the surface or form of luggage chosen. Soon, I found myself sucked into the bikepacking boom, opting for a lighter setup to make riding on rough tracks more enjoyable. I ditched my rear Ortlieb panniers and put my smaller front panniers in their place. I also added a frame bag, top tube bags, and front roll. In 2019, I tested my new hybrid setup on a three month ride on the Canadian section of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, connecting to the then brand new Western Wildlands Route (Wild West Route at the time). I was sold on the setup, and that trip ended up being one of the best I have ever taken.
At 36 years old, I still work seasonally—about 4-6 months per year in forestry in Dawson Creek, BC. These days, I tend to take shorter trips of about 2-3 months. I still use the same bike, my Rohloff hub driven Thorn Nomad, which I purchased in 2013. I now pursue dirt roads and tracks as much as possible, in true bikepacking form. One could argue, though, that bikepacking isn't really about the gear or route chosen. For me, there is just nothing like reaching a spectacular mountain pass on a dirt road under your own power, whether using wheels that are tubeless, tubed, 1.5”, 2”, 3” on a tandem, recumbent or unicycle (I have seen it all).
When I travel, I want to feel the world around me; I don't want to watch it through the window of a moving vehicle. Sometimes, when I picture myself climbing that mountain pass in Tibet to that stunning Himalayan Lake, I feel strength. And in my strength, I find bikepacking.