Frigid cold, frozen water bottles, numb fingers, and endless torrents of snot — what’s not to love?
Before I get into the nitty-gritty, here’s my full winter gear list.
Oh, Winter Bikepacking! Bikepacking is a pretty unique discipline, especially in the winter. For this excursion, keeping the weight minimal and close to the bike allowed for luxurious handling, considering I was carrying everything I needed for a much longer journey.
I learned a few lessons about what my setup needs, too. Overall, things are working pretty closely to how they’re intended, and I was still able to navigate 3-4 inches of snow. Sorry — I was still able to absolutely shred a few inches of snow.
First, let’s take a look at the bike:
The Surly Karate Monkey is Surly’s first 29er, released long before that wheel size came to represent the bulk of the MTB market. A very burly 4130 steel frame and a bulletproof paint job pair up with 36-spoke wheels, making for a solid adventure bike. I used Maxxis tires for this trip, a High Roller II in the front and a Minion DHR in the rear, both 2.3-inch.
My drivetrain is full Sram X9, and my seatpost and handlebars are aluminum. The bike is pretty light, for what it is. The Surly rigid fork weighs 1-2 pounds less than a suspension fork, and has mounts for Salsa Anything cages or traditional cages, like my Lezyne Power Cages.
I swapped over to Avid BB7 Mechanical disc brakes from the hydraulic ones it came with for more field-serviceable parts. Since this is an earlier Karate Monkey, I also have the mounts and rims for cantilever brakes if I get stranded somewhere with a busted brake without a stocked bike shop nearby.
For full specs, check out the My Bicycles tab at the top.
Here’s what I carried:
The Winter System
My bikepacking setup has five major categories:
There are also a few goals.
First and foremost, I want things to pack and unpack quickly. Breaking camp is a time-consuming process, which sucks on cold winter mornings and dark evenings. I used to use a single drybag for everything and use a hammock, but the tedious packing process turned into 20 minutes of hell by the end of a 30-day tour. For this setup, small items are stored in zippered pockets for quick access and organization. Larger pieces of equipment stuff into large sections, and aren’t compressed too much so I can put everything away quickly without taking off my gloves.
Second, obviously, is to keep the weight down.
Finally, I want self-sufficiency. Right now, this setup goes for about two days at a time without resupply other than water. When I upgrade to a slightly larger hydration pack, I’ll extend this to seven days, my goal for the build. Seven days worth of food weighs a lot, but having that kind of range gets you just about anywhere there’s a trail in the United States.
Oveja Negra Half Pack, Front End Loader, and Snack Pack — Oveja Negra is a sponsor for this blog, and with good reason; I sought out their help setting up a bikepacking rig earlier this year, and their attention to detail and US-made philosophies suit my style perfectly. Their Half-Pack is a new addition for the Karate Monkey, and fits my 20″ frame like a glove.
Unlike the Revelate Designs Tangle frame bag, there’s a single section without a partition, giving more space for odd-shaped items. In practice, it was perfect for my camera, mittens, tool roll, headlamp, and a few other smaller items in the half-sized tool pocket.
Revelate Designs Viscacha — The Viscacha is a great seat bag, and I’ve been very happy with it. It makes the jump to the Surly as well. I’ve got a reflective vest for unexpectedly busy roads stowed in the secret inside pocket.
Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy — The Alpine Bivy is the perfect minimalist shelter. I chose this over my previous bivy bag, the Borah gear Snowyside Bivy, because the clamshell shape of the reinforced hood section keeps out rain in brutal downpours. For a bivy to be truly standalone, relying on waterproof zippers for protection isn’t practical; even waterproof zippers eventually wear a bit, which leaves a gap big enough for water to penetrate.
Mountain Hardwear Ultralamina 15º — Zero to 20 degrees is about ideal for most northeast winter pursuits. It does get colder than that, but I can offset the difference using clothing, my coat, and the bivy bag. I keep this bag minimally compressed in a Sea to Summit compression sack to maintain loft.
Thermarest Ridgerest Classic — You can’t see this in the pictures; it’s strapped to a little Osprey 7L hydration pack. I think this is close to warm enough for me, but not quite. I’ll be swapping it out for a Thermarest Prolite.
Arcteryx Atom SV — The Atom SV is a great winter riding jacket. It’s very breathable, warm, and unzips quickly with one gloved hand for ventilation on climbs. It also makes a great pillow, since I can just slip it on and lay on my back if the temperature plummets in the middle of the night (like it did last night).
Ibex Wool — My Ibex wool… everything (See the full Gear List for details) keeps me warm and dry. The antibacterial properties are also great in the winter, since I often don’t change clothes before going to bed due to the cold. I use Fox River insulated socks, but just about everything else is being phased out for Ibex as I wear things out (which takes a while with wool). After something like 10,000 miles, my Icebreaker bike shorts have a few holes, and have been discontinued, so I’ll be picking up a pair of Ibex shorts this spring. I’ll keep the Icebreaker ones for commuting.
Inside Line Equipment Tool Roll: I wish I could show you this one. I’m testing it for ILE, and it should be released soon. It’s an absolute gem; lightweight, durable, practical, and sleek. It fits perfectly inside the Half Pack.
Leatherman Crunch: The locking function of these pliers is irreplaceable. Now that I’ve used these on a couple of tours, I don’t even blink at the weight penalty. It’s worth every ounce. Having the ability to pull a stripped bolt, get a better grip to bend a rack mount, or bent drop-out, or just tightening hard-to-reach bolts makes this tool really something.
Specialized Purist Bottles: These neat bottles use a 5 micron thick layer of Silicon on the inside to give this plastic bottle all of the attributes of a glass one. Silicon = Sand = Glass. They’re also not prone to breaking if they freeze, which is good in the winter. Sadly, these bottles are pretty useless in the wintertime, since I can’t drink frozen water. I’ll have to get some Salsa Anything cages so I can load up some Outdoor Research water bottle parkas. For now, I’m using a hydration pack kept close to my body, but for that, I need an insulated tube. Damn you, ice!
A few things became clear pretty quickly. Firstly, I was going to need a slightly larger backpack for winter riding. Bulky clothing and a winter sleeping bag are kind of a challenge for a bikepacking rig, but it’s a challenge I welcome. I had room for about 6 clif bars in my frame bags, a peanut butter jar in my bottle cage, and about two days’ worth of food in the Osprey Viper 7 I was using. If I had a 15-20L backpack, I’d have all the space I need for extra food for longer stretches without much extra weight.
Believe it or not, the single 3/4 foam pad was close to enough. I am going to upgrade to a slightly thicker air pad, still 3/4 length, for my next trip out. It’s a comfort thing; I still slept a full 7 hours with the setup as-is. It’s not entirely irrelevant that the tightly-packed air pad will also make my system look a bit more sleek… aesthetics are a cruel mistress.
I also need a better water system. Some Salsa Anything cages on the front rack ought to do for carrying some insulated bottles. Other than that, everything worked great.
I took the rig out for an impromptu shake-out trip on Mt. Greylock. At the base of my favorite mountain, there’s a massive freshwater reservoir. Camping is definitely not allowed, but with no fires, no food, and nothing left behind but some tire tracks, I don’t think the town will put me on a watch list just yet.
I set up camp at the end of a long promontory, near a dam pretty far from the road. I was floating across 4 inches of snow, and judging by the complete lack of footprints of any kind that night, I was the first person to visit in a few days.
First person. Not the first animal. I woke up to wolf tracks.
[Editor’s Note: Wolves are not confirmed in Massachusetts, although there have been one or two. Since these tracks lead away from dense protected forest, it’s likely a Coyote!]
Wicked! Looks like I had a visitor! These tracks ran right past my campsite, within a few feet of my bivy bag and bike. I must have been in a travel corridor, since the promontory was the only pass through that particular stretch due to the reservoir. I didn’t have any food on me at all, so I don’t think I was in danger. I love these close brushes with wildlife, but I am glad it wasn’t a more curious black bear that stumbled through my neck of the woods.
The reservoir was gorgeous in the morning. Blue skies crept in on the horizon, but the foothills of Mt. Greylock were still shrouded in fog. White-capped trees on the tops of the slopes made it feel distinctly icelandic. I felt lucky to have the space to myself; it was very meditative.
The riding was also a blast. A nice, big climb on Notch Road and a bit of off-roading to boot. I loved my tires; I had great grip on the iciest, snowiest sections. Who needs a fatbike?
And you can’t beat the view.