How do you start bikepacking? That was the question we put to Shimano Gravel Alliance rider Henna Palosaari. She took her best friend to Norway to try and find the answer.
First time bikepacking
How do you start bikepacking? That’s a question that might be in the minds of many. I think the best way to learn is by doing. I learned bikepacking by going on a 5000km solo bikepacking trip around Finland in the summer of 2020. This summer, it was my best friend Coco’s turn to learn, so I took her on a three-day and 225km (+4000m) bikepacking trip around the Rondane National Park in Norway.
Bikepacking may sound like a bit of a hassle at first, especially if you have never even touched a gravel bike before. This was exactly how Coco felt before the trip. She had no previous knowledge of either bikes or bikepacking. One great way to overcome these problems is to find a friend who is into bikepacking and to join them for a trip, so that’s exactly what we did. I took care of the planning and FARA cycling helped us out by providing gravel bikes and all the necessary bikepacking equipment. After a 6km test loop with the fully loaded bikes, we headed out for our bikepacking mission.
Our original plan was to ride the 230 kilometres and 4000 elevation meters over the course of four days, but because it took us longer than expected to get everything sorted and organised at the start of the trip, we ended up sleeping one more night in the van and starting the journey early next day. We decided to split the days into 66km, 56km and 106km, knowing that the first two days included basically all of the climbing and that the last day was a mix of descending and flat roads.
When planning the route, I tried to avoid the more challenging gravel roads. I figured that riding a fully-loaded bike on good gravel (or paved) roads was already a big enough challenge for a first-timer! Our first day proved to be a steep learning curve for Coco. The route included climbing 1500 elevation meters close to one of the highest peaks in the area. The climb was paved, but since Coco had never ridden a gravel bike even on a flat road before, starting the learning process with a fully loaded bike and 1500 elevation meters made the start of the trip tough for her. However, she kept her spirits high and I kept the snacks coming, so we made it to the top still being best friends.
After a tough start, as we climbed higher up in Rondane, the climbs became more mellow and the views ever more stunning with the different peaks of Rondane and other mountains visible on the horizon. Finally, Coco got to also enjoy the fun bits of cycling. Many first-timers could have been scared of the downhills, but snowboarder Coco was just yelling “loving the downhills” when speeding down the hills, looking confident on her bike. The last twenty kilometres flew by, bathed in beautiful soft evening light with stunning views over Lake Atnsjoen. We camped on a riverbed overlooking the mountains and when the sun set, a beautiful full moon rewarded us from our first day’s hard work on a bike.
Coco woke up before me, after a cold, sleepless and painful night. She had been holding back tears the whole night because her legs had been hurting so much. In the morning, she crawled out of the tent to go and pee, just to discover that she could barely walk. She was really worried about how she could ever tell me that she might not be able to keep riding.
I woke up and greeted Coco with a cheerful “good morning”, but from her face I could tell right away that something was wrong. She told me about the sleepless night, the pain in her legs and I was cursing myself and my planning. I should have realised that starting out with such a tough climb was too much if you have never ridden a bike before. I tried to stay calm and told her we would have a slow morning, do some stretching, have a good breakfast and then we would see how we felt. During our breakfast, the clouds started fading away and at same time Coco’s mood started picking up. By the time we had packed all our gear, the sun was shining and Coco was dancing. My hope was back, but I knew I had to set a gentle pace today and put in plenty of rest stops.
For the first 30 kilometres of riding, before we turned off onto a smaller gravel road, Coco was quieter than usual and I knew it meant she was in pain. We stopped twice to adjust her saddle to ease up the pain. After the second stop, we finally got the set-up better, which took a lot of pressure off her shoulders and made it easier for her to relax on the bike. Then we had a longer lunch break before starting the ride towards the Grimsdalen valley.
Once again, as the views got better, the riding got easier. The beautiful mountain views and the fun gravel roads were the best way to help Coco forget the pain. The ride in the Grimsdalen valley was truly the highlight of the trip. It was a beautiful ride all the way through on this quiet and smooth gravel road. The sun made sure that we got to enjoy the best of the Grimsdalen that day.
The riding in the valley was mainly gentle when coming from the direction of Frekmyr, but at the end of the valley there were two bigger and steeper climbs. By this time Coco was getting tired from today’s efforts and the pain from the previous day’s climbing became present again. According to her, it was then that “nacho power” kicked in then and made her tackle the last climbs. This “nacho power” truly helps a person to cope with anything, since we made it to our camp spot overlooking the mountains on the other side of Rondane just before the sun set behind the mountains. A perfect place to enjoy our final night on the road.
We woke up at sunrise to a crispy but stunning day. A frosty ground and frozen bikes proved that our decision to sleep in all of our clothes was the right one! We enjoyed our morning oatmeal and coffee slowly, while letting the soft sun rays warm us up after the freezing night. Coco had slept better and was also hurting little bit less than the previous morning, so things were looking good. The evening before, she had been more than doubtful about our plan to ride over 100 kilometres, but now she was up for it “this might be the last thing I do, but I’ll finish this”, were her words when we got back on the road.
That positive attitude and her stubbornness was probably the reason why we were best friends. The day started out with an extremely fun and long descent, which was exactly what we needed to get our legs spinning again. We kept the speed from that day going for the entire day and the kilometres flew by. I don’t understand exactly what Coco’s “nacho power” was, but it was certainly impressive. Without problems she finished our 100 kilometre day. This was a huge achievement as it was her first ever 100 kilometre day on a bike. What made it even more impressive was that she did it after two longs days on a bike and after having such sore legs that at one point, she could barely walk.
Our minds really are our strongest muscle. Fortunately, when we finished our ride, Coco still didn’t hate me and she even wanted to get herself a gravel bike, which meant that our bikepacking mission had been more than a success.
If you asked Coco to sum up our trip and bikepacking, what would she say? I did ask her and the first thing that came to her mind was the suffering, but she said it was “weirdly satisfying suffering”. She also said that the simplicity of reaching new places with our bikes and carrying all that we needed with us was rewarding and special. “It transfers you into a completely different headspace”.
Her overall feeling was that overall, it wasn’t too difficult - it was just cycling and tolerating being uncomfortable on occasions, but with plenty of enjoyment afterwards. She had obviously learned a lot from being on the road!
We encourage you all to pack your bike and head out for your first bikepacking adventure, you won’t regret it.
Henna’s packing list for bikepacking trip:
- Bike: FARA F/GRAVEL-R equipped with Shimano GRX Di2 groupset
- Bikepacking bags
- Tent: MSR Access 2
- Cooker: Optimus Crux lite + gas
- Sleeping bag, Haglöfs L.I.M Down +1
- Sleeping pad (+repair kit)
- Powerbank + Charger cables
- Gore-tex jacket
- Hiking pants
- Merino wool base layer pants
- Long-sleeve merino baselayer
- Cycling shorts x2
- Down jacket
- Merino t-shirt x2
- Sports bra x2
- Undies x3
- Socks x3
- Travel towel
- Buff + Hat
- Goretex gloves
- Cycling shoes + Sandals
- Biodegradable soap + Toiletries
- Tube repair kit + Levers
- Spare tube x2 + Minipump
- Rear derailleur hanger x1
- Chain link + tool
- Chain lube
- Zip ties + Tape
- First aid stuff
- Water purification tablets