Bikepacking and self supported ultra’s have become all the rage since the early days of the Pandemic. They’ve always existed, but seemed to be the domain of long international affairs, with a handful of hard core riders – think Tour Divide. There were always road ultra’s such as RAAM, Tour de France or Paris-Brest-Paris. But off road ultras that are accessible to more riders appear to be a fairly recent phenomenon.
In 2020, when we were confined to riding alone, no hotels were open, and the only way of getting out was to pack up a tent & a stove, and head for the hills, suddenly everyone became interested in bikepacking. Smaller, more accessible ultra events and races started to pop up. There are now hundreds of self sufficient ultra events to chose from, with widely varying features. If you are new to this world, there is bound to be an event that ticks all of your boxes, whether you like the discipline of racing, or just want a challenging event against the clock. Just take a look at the huge range of events listed on Bikepacking.com or Dotwatcher.com
So what are my options?
The first thing you need to decide is whether you want a road based event, or an off road based event. Road based is self explanatory, however an off road ultra is unlikely to avoid all tarmac, it’s just the degree of road v off-road that determines whether it’s classed as off-road, or mixed terrain.
The next thing to decide is the kind of rules that you want to abide by.
Common rules across most events include
- No outside assistance that isn’t available to all other riders. What this means is that whilst it will be ok to visit a bike shop for a repair, or maybe book a hotel along the way, you can’t have a vehicle following you, or sleep at your friends house on route. This will be the basic ethos of almost all self sufficient bikepacking events and races.
- If you leave the route for any reason, you must rejoin at the same place you left it. So, if you do book a hotel that is in a town a couple of miles off route, you must backtrack to the same point you left the route in order to continue.
- Leave no trace. This is just basic good manners. Don’t drop litter, clean up after yourself if you wild camp, close gates after you, and don’t disturb farm animals or damage crops. It boils down to ‘Don’t be a dick’
After this, each event will have it’s own criteria. Pure races can be very strict, but can include (for some races, not all)
- No riding with others unless entered as a pair
- No pre-booking of accommodation
- Time penalties for breaking the rules
- No helping of other riders
- No drafting
- Camping only, no hotels
How should I approach my first event?
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on smaller more relaxed bikepacking ultras of between 3-5 days. This is a good starting point for a first event, and a great way to break you into this amazing way of riding.
Once you’ve chosen your event, the first thing you’ll need to do is understand the route. How much off road is there? How remote is it? Will you need to wild camp, are there campsites, or can you travel light and stay in hotels?
Once you have an idea of the route, you will then need to decide on what bike you want to ride it on. This might seem like an odd question, after all many people only have a choice of one. But if you are wanting to chose a rocky ride through the Pennines, or the mountains of Wales, then you are likely to struggle on a standard gravel bike with narrow tyres. On the other hand, a route that has a lot of tarmac, and fine gravel trails, is going to feel sluggish on a full sus MTB. So, chose your event wisely if you are limited to one bike choice. Sometimes it can be the weather that dictates bike choice. Lovely forest trails can become a mud-bath in winter or when there’s been lots of heavy rain.
Kit carrying Options
Whatever sleep options you decide on, you’ll need lightweight but robust bags to hold your kit. There is a huge choice of bags available that don’t require heavy old school racks and panniers. Older style luggage options are generally not practical when riding against the clock, and can make the inevitable hike-a-bike sections very uncomfortable. Instead there is a myriad of saddle bags, frame and handlebar bags you can use, that distribute weight well across the bike, and discourage over packing. A fairly recent addition to the bikepacking bag inventory are Tailfin, who I’ve written about before. The rear packs do include a very lightweight rack, but the stability and easy access makes this kit extremely versatile, and great particularly if your bike is on the small side as there is zero chance of the bag sagging onto the back wheel. They also have a great system of cargo bags for use all over the bike.
Quite possibly the most important consideration is sleep. At some point, even if racing, you are likely to need some sleep. Personally I believe that bikepacking means sleeping outside at least once – although that not everyone shares that opinion. So what sleep kit should you chose? A lot will depend on how easily sleep comes to you. Some people only need to lie down, to fall into a deep slumber. Sadly for me, I’m not one of those lucky people, and find myself tossing and turning, until I give up and just get back on the bike. However, whichever category you are in, sleep will always be a little easier if you feel comfortable.
Personally I have a choice of a hooped bivvy, or a small lightweight tent, and I will use each in different circumstances. I will chose the bivvy if I only plan on sleeping out one night and the weather is good. I don’t sleep well in the bivvy, and I can’t explain why. If I use the exact same sleep mat/bag combination in my small tent I can sleep really well, so for multi-night events I will prioritise sleep and take my tent. But I know that other people love sleeping in a bivvy, and feel at one with nature. The reality is that what works for one person, will be a nightmare for another.
An advantage with a bivvy is that it’s set up in minutes – which is perfect if you are only planning a short stealth sleep. They are usually freestanding, so you can set up in a concrete barn if you want. A tent takes a little longer to set up, and most need pegging down at some point. This means finding a spot of ground that will hold a peg – so a sandy beach is out of the question. But, you will most likely have a bit of space to stow your bags, and get changed.
Finally your sleep mat/bag combo is the key to a good nights sleep.
Things to thing about are
- Do you feel the cold?
- How much cushioning do you need below you? Side sleepers tend to need more than back sleepers
- How much space do you have in your bags?
How cold you feel will determine the comfort rating of your sleeping bag. If you always have cold feet and hands, then you might consider a 3 season bag over a 2 season, even if the weather is likely to be mild. Alternatively taking a pair of wool socks, a down jacket/gilet and a silk liner could boost a 2 season bag. If you choose a down sleeping back it packs down much smaller than a synthetic one – which means that either you can save space, or go for that extra season rating without a big hit on packing space.
The sleep mat you choose will be a big factor for comfort. I have never been able to sleep on a roll mat, needing at least 3 inches of padding as a side sleeper. But, today’s ultra light sleep mats can provide insulation, and comfort and take up a fraction of the packing space of a traditional and uncomfortable roll mat. Most can pack into the space of a drinks bottle. However, there is a huge price differential between the old style roll mat which can be picked up very cheaply, and an insulated inflatable mat, which can set you back between £50 – £150. But…comfort is king. Buy what you can afford, but make sure you are comfortable.
What do I need to know about the ride?
Once the route is released, it’s important to take time and look for all the places it passes through. When you’re riding off road, the terrain will be less predictable than a road ride. A section that appears to be a short distance might take you hours, so knowing where your resupply points are is really important. You don’t want to miss a shop that is just slightly off route, just because you didn’t know it was there. You’ll most likely need to carry more food and water than on a road ride as your timings cannot be guaranteed. And it’s easy to lose all sense of direction when there are limited roads and no signposts.
Most events do expect the entrants to do their own research, but there are some, such as the Dales Divide, and my own Southern Divide events, that provide a lot of the information you will need ahead of the ride. This is perfect for first time riders as it can take away some of the initial stress of taking on such a challenge.
When it comes to sleeping out, even when you have the kit choices right, it can still be a little unnerving that first time you look for a quiet spot to pitch up. Whilst wild camping isn’t strictly legal in England, the reality is, if you can find a quiet out of the way spot, set up late, leave early and leave no trace, then there aren’t usually any problems. Finding such a spot is much easier on an off road event too. Without any cars passing you by, you could choose a corner of some woods, or behind a hedge in a grassy field – just check it’s not a cow field first!!! Avoid being too close to farms, unless you have the farmers permission. Don’t however, choose the event itself as the first time you set up a wild camp. Practice a few times locally ahead of the event, and it will seem much easier then when you need to do it for real somewhere new.
Some people – especially women, worry about the dangers that they associate with solo self sufficient riding. This is a very valid concern, but the reality is that these kinds of events are very safe. When you’re riding, you can be safe in the knowledge that the event team know where all the riders are thanks to their trackers (if using). But when it comes to sleeping, it’s understood that turning the tracker off can be sensible too, especially if you are trying to stay hidden away. Turn tracker back on once you wake, and all is good.
There is so much I could write about the nuances of ultra mixed terrain bike packing rides, but sometimes it helps to listen to how other people just like you have found riding similar events. I was privileged to be invited by the Big Ride Gang to share my views on riding the Dales Divide, along with some other amazing women earlier this year. It’s a long watch but if there’s anything you want to know, it’s worth settling down for. What we talk about applies equally to many other similar events, including the Southern Divide, which I’ll write about in the next paragraph.
Grab a coffee, or something stronger, and hear what we had to say
Is the Southern Divide good as a first Ultra?
I must admit that as the creator and event director I’m very biased, but with good reason. I created the event based on one factor alone – it must be the kind of ride that I would be excited to take part in as a rider. My criteria of what counts as a great ride includes a few elements.
Route – Spring Edition – Lands End to London
The most important element for me is that it must have a stunning and varied route. I find that when the going gets tough, if the scenery is very similar for days on end, it can feel much easier to scratch. They say variety is the spice of life, but I think it’s true when riding a bike too. It helps to provide a surprise around every corner, something to look forward to as you continue along the route. And views – I’m all about the views. Any climb is worth climbing (or pushing up) if you are rewarded with a spectacular view. When designing my routes, I will plan, test ride, adjust and test ride again until I’ve eliminated all ‘pointless’ climbs or bridleways. What’s a pointless route though? It’s where you have a really tough section for it’s own sake, and no other benefit. Sometimes a really hard section is unavoidable, but if it leads to a spectacular view, beautiful woodland, or some epic gravel sections, then is ceases to be pointless.
The route itself, as it crosses the South of England provides so much variety. You will start by following an offroad section of the Cornish coast, through old copper & tin mines, before climbing up to heather strewn moorland. You will get clear glimpses of not one, but two coastlines, and ride along more old mining trails and quarries. After checkpoint 1, you have a long road section as you cross into Devon before joining the Granite way, a long well surfaced trail that takes the sting out of the hills around Okehampton. But it’s not long before you are off road again, crossing Dartmoor. The landscape changes again as you ride the lumps and bumps of Devon, although there’s a brief respite at Exmouth (check point 2), where you will have either taken the Starcross ferry, or ridden around the flat Exe estuary depending on your timings. You really want to catch that ferry if you can.
After passing through a few Devon seaside towns, you head inland and towards Dorset in what is possibly the most challenging section of the ride. You will be tired by this point, but after Axminster, there really isn’t anything other than views until you reach Cerne Abbas. The Dorset Downs are beautiful, but it’s is mostly an off road section. There will be farms (which means gates), old drovers trails, paths through the middle of fields, as well as a few lovely gravel trails. But, once you reach Checkpoint 3 at Cerne Abbas, you do so in the knowledge that within about 15 km, the route starts to get easier.
There is still plenty of offroad to come, but you will spend much of your time riding on lovely drovers roads up on a high ridge until you reach Salisbury, where things change again. The ride heads past Stonehenge and into the amazing gravel roads of the military training grounds of Wiltshire, before you eventually reach the Kennet and Avon Canal. It’s all change change again as you spend time alongside the canal where you can breath a sigh of relief knowing that all the really hard work of the ride has been done. Hungerford is Checkpoint 4, but in 2022, all remaining riders pushed on (along the canal) to Newbury and took advantage of the numerous hotel options before the final push onto London.
It may surprise you just how little tarmac you will actually ride on from here. The gravel sections are fast and epic as you ride past the old Nuclear bunkers of Greenham Common, through stunning forests, past the Roman town walls at Silchester, and through old quarries and heathland. Even as you approach London, I’ve carefully plotted the route to remain off road as much as possible. Finally you know that the end is in site as you join the Thames path at Walton on Thames and follow it all the way past Hampton Court Palace to your final destination at Hampton Wick.
There really is no chance to get bored of the view.
Route – Autumn Edition – Coast to Coast
For Autumn I decided to create a new route, much of which I already know, with the remainder to still be test ridden. But, rest assured it will have all the same attention to detail that the Lands End to London route has. The route takes a slightly different route towards Devon, and a whole new route through Southern Dartmoor. There is still the challenge of the Ferry v Estuary route to get to Exmouth, and you’ll still follow the East Devon coastal towns. From here though everything changes. Instead of heading inland to the Dorset Downs, you will stay close to the coast. The Jurassic coast is spectacular and you’ll be spoilt for views, with a checkpoint in Lulworth before you head for the New Forest. There is little doubt that the New Forest provides some of the best gravel trails in the whole of the south, but could you also spot the ponies, donkey, cattle, and pigs that roam free. Next on the route you head north towards the Surrey Hills, but there is more heathland in this area (and a fair bit of sand!), so mostly traffic free. Your final section takes in much of the North Downs & Pilgrims Way as you ride towards your final destination at Rochester castle.
Both routes provide easy train access to Central London where you should be able to get home no matter where you live.
Why is it beginner friendly?
Two ride options
Whilst a number of ultra’s provide more that one ride option, most chose a long or short route. This makes sense for the really long rides, but wasn’t something I felt would work for the Southern Divide. Whether riding the Lands End to London route, or the Coast to Coast route, it’s linear. The route features have been carefully selected to provide the most enjoyable adventure, so how could I decide to cut some of it out? I would undoubtably remove some of the best bits. So instead I decided to create 2 different ‘pace’ options. For riders who want a hard challenge, and only have limited time for the ride, there is the Challenge Pace. This gives riders around 3 1/2 days to complete the distance, which means riding around 100 miles a day just to finish within the time cut. Unless you are are a really quick rider, this could be harder than you think. But, it’s a challenge that appeals to many. However, there are others who prefer to take a bit more time and enjoy the scenery, get more sleep, and generally enjoy a party pace. So for those riders I created a ‘Tourist’ route. It’s exactly the same route, but you have an extra 2 days to complete it. So, that means roughly 100km per day – which is manageable for most, whilst still allowing plenty of time to just enjoy the views.
For anyone not sure about the distance or stealth camping, the Tourist ride could be the perfect solution.
Resupply info provided
Although there are some fairly remote sections, I’ve been careful to plot the routes to pass through areas where there are shops/cafes/pubs, so resupply will not normally be an issue. In addition, as part of my test riding, I’ve noted where on route resupply places are, along with opening hours and any oddities (like cash only) where possible. I’ve also made sure to highlight slightly off route options especially if they are 24 hour facilities, or hotels like Travel lodge or Premier inn, which allow 24 hour check in and are very bike friendly. All of this information is provided a few weeks before the ride. This means that you can spend your pre ride research checking out the route, your kit and the weather.
Some races have really strict rules about riding with others, but I say that’s part of the fun. I come from an Audax background, and riding with someone and having a chat for a while before separating as you find your own pace again, is part of the joy of ‘solo’ riding. When it comes to long distance it’s rare to find someone who can ride at exactly the same pace as you all the time. But you are likely to find a small group who average a similar pace to you. You might be strong on flat sections, whilst someone else is a mountain goat when it comes to hills. That could mean that you will come across each other from time to time along the ride. I encourage riders to help each other out, chat to each other, ride with each other. You’ll be surprised at the friendships that develop during a ride.
The event also has a couple of WhatsApp Groups. One is an emergency group, so if someone needs help, or if a rider ahead discovers an obstacle, or if the organiser need to get an urgent message out to all riders, this is the group for that. But there is also a riders group. In 2022 this helped ease the feeling of being alone on the route. Riders talked about things they had seen along the way, compared different ways to get back at me for some of the bridlepath choices, and also encouraged each other. Our only woman rider made it to the end after she had considered scratching, thanks to encouragement and help from other riders when she hit a dark moment mid way. At the end she admitted that she was so glad she continued as she loved the ride. When you’re in touch with other riders you don’t feel so alone, and technology can still have it’s place in ultra cycling.
Every rider enters as a solo entry. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t plan on riding it as a pair or small group. The main reason that everyone is a solo entry is that things can happen, and sometimes one half of a pair can’t continue. This then sometimes means the end of the event for the other rider too. I’ve seen however, in many events that the remaining rider will often be able to continue and even complete the event if it’s allowed. So, for this reason, I don’t see the point of a pairs category. Ride with whoever you like (as long as they are on the event), for as long as you like. Simple.
How to enter
At the time of writing, the Spring edition is almost full. However, I will be holding a waiting list. Women and non binary people will get the first of the waiting list places as I’m keep in have more join us.
The Autumn edition however, still has plenty of places available.
You can find the links to both events below
If you have any questions about either event, please contact me and I’ll try my best to answer them
You can also follow my Instagram account where updates will be posted, or join the event Facebook group where you can get to chat to riders who have already signed up – some of whom rode the 2022 edition.