Susitna Winter Bike Camping

It was time to try something new, Winter Bike Camping.  I had done some winter camping in the past and of course lots of biking.  The issue was not wanting to carry a 50 lbs. pack that would put unforeseen pressure on my butt.  Another plan was hatched to make a frame pack and bar roll.  They worked great, though many lessons were learned in the construction and use (how make your own bike packs: to come). Fat bikes let you enter into new and deeper territory that you simply can’t access in the summer.

I put out the call to see who was up for some winter camping via bike.  Josh and Chris were willing and able and so it was a choice of where to go.  After scouring the internet and a talking to some friends I came up with a few options.  It was decided that Willow would be our jumping off point as it allowed for us to change our trip longer or shorter because of the many looped trails in the area.  None of us had been there and didn’t know how well the trails were marked and if they would be well packed.

We left Anchorage early on Saturday and thanks to Chris’s wife Meghan we were well fueled with pancakes and butter.  We crammed Josh’s truck full of gear and piled into the cab.  We arrived at the snowmobile trailhead on Crystal Lake Road, thank goodness it was only a 1 1/2 hour drive my butt was cramped.    We were quick to get our bikes set up and our gear together so we could get moving to circulate some blood as it was a brisk -9F that morning. Our route for the day would be Boot Lake Trail to Coral Hill Trail to Susitna River to Rolly Creek Trail.

We were on the trail by 11 am and headed West on the Boot Lake Trail. With all the snow machines in the area the trail was firm and fast. We slowed ourselves down as we were heavily packed and in for an all day trek. The intersections were well marked with even a few maps on the trails.  We came up on a guy in a chair with his camera and we chatted with him for a few minutes.  He was out taking pictures of the Knik 200 dog sled race, which we would later be passed by a few of the teams.

We came to the corner of the Deshka/Susitna river trails. We headed South on the Susitna River and it was a snowmobile highway.  Lots of people stocking their cabins up with supplies, always interesting to get passed with a guy towing a couch at 80 mph. We were clipping along fairly well and must have missed our turn for Rolly Creek.  We passed our turn by a good 2 miles and had to back track.  While the Susitna trail was well marked with steaks, our turn off was not.  We stopped many times looking at our map and checked our position with a GPS.  Rolly Creek was one of the less used trails and somewhat hidden behind an island and in the river bank.  As Chris put it “you’re not fat biking unless you have to get off and push a bit.”  Yep that would be the case in the for the next 1/2 mile from the Susitna to Rolly Creek.  Once we hit the creek we were able to ride once again after letting out lots of air in the tires so we could float on the loose snow.

By 4:30 pm the sun was going down quick, meaning it was time to make camp.  We pushed on until we hit a clearing in a swamp area.  We all had a different a shelter for the night.  Josh and his dog Moo were in a tent, Chis in a bivy sack, and I was going to cuddle up in a snow trench.  First thing when you get to camp is get your stove out and start boiling water.  Of course after my first pot, something happened to my stove and thank goodness we each had our own stove and could still melt water.  Just goes to show always have a backup.

I started to make my shelter, though the snow was less than ideal.  It wasn’t deep or hard enough.  I had to pile up the snow and let it sit for about a half hour before I could shovel out a trench.  I took some dead trees to make a support for the tarp to lay on which I would cover with snow.  The trench was warmer than the outside, but I should have made it longer and deeper and wider.  I was also trying out a new type of winter mat made of foil insulation.  It worked ok, but snow got under my sleeping bag and melted breaking Les Stroud’s one rule of survival, “stay dry.”  This is where my backup therm-a-rest came into play and I slid it in my bag and blew it up.  It kept me warmer, but the -5F night was much colder than we had planned and my bag kept me just warm enough to sleep in short intervals before needing to exercise to stay warm.  A nalgeen bottle filled with hot water kept my toes warm.  I had left behind my beanie and down jacket on accident which could have made a huge difference in keeping warm. It was a long 12 hr night, 8 pm-8 am.

Woke up to a crystal clear sky, just breathtaking.  Time to boil some more water.  Did my morning sprints and squats to get warm.  We packed up trying to only keep our hands exposed for a few moments at a time.  Organization is key and easy to use straps and bags make it easy to pack quickly.  The trail started off a bit soft and I took it slow until my joints were able to warm up.  I was biking on fumes and others were just plain cold and ready to be done.  We took the B line to the car, cutting out Old Hunters trail loop.  This was the nice part about going to this area is that the trails allow you to extend or shorten your ride.  Most trails are packed and well marked and you aren’t the only one out there should you need a hand.  It was a great area to try out a few new things and figure out how to pack the bike.  There are many changes that will be made next time…

Pack list:

Bike

  • pump
  • multi tool
  • spare tube
  • insulated water bottle (Used a Stanley 16 oz-amazing)
  • lights (front and rear)
  • gloves and mittens
  • dry bags (one for sleeping bag, other tied to seat for food)
  • jacket (Hooded Jacket, Thermal t-shirt and long sleeve shirt)
  • pants (shamie, thermal, Craft xc ski pants, rain pants)
  • gaiters
  • glasses (interchangeable)
  • GPS
  • map
  • balaclava
  • face mask
  • wool socks (x3)
  • winter boots (added a second insole made from foil insulation)

Camping

  • beanie
  • sunscreen
  • chap stick (a must. Can even place on nose a cheeks)
  • down Jacket
  • chemical hand and feet warmers (1 each per day)
  • stove and pots
  • fuel (10 oz per day + extra)
  • lighter and matches (lighter wont work well below 32F)
  • sleeping bag (raited 5-10 below outside temp.)
  • sleeping mat (I always take 2.  one high density foam, one ultralight blowup)
  • shelter (Tent for me)
  • first aid (I also have chlorine tabs, zip ties, duct tape, tent patch, matches)
  • knife
  • spork
  • head lamp
  • food (pack an extra half days worth)

Wish I had brought.

  • Sleeping bag insert (will add about 10-15 deg. of warmth.  Also acts as a vapor barrier to keep bag dryer, or get an actual vapor barrier)
  • nose protector (face mask to constrictive. Will make one out of neoprene

Things I’ve learned (and re-learned) winter camping in a sub-zero environment (By Josh)

-Don’t sweat, ever. layer correctly all the time
-bring a nalgene and a thermos, use nalgene for holding hot water to warm body and sleeping bag, thermos for holding warm water for morning
-bring extra toe warmers, stove fuel, and snack food
-always wear gloves
-something about vapor barriers and sleeping naked in a plastic bag inside various layers of other bags…
-try to minimize the amount of metal cookware you have (utensils, pot holder, cup) or insulate it, because when its -10, every thing is -10 and if your fingers are wet they will stick to any metal thing
-made a wool bowl to insulate my bowl and keep my food from freezing (remember hot water freezes faster than warm water)
-dogs sleep hot and will melt a hole in the snow, collapsing your tent.
-pogies are excellent
-probably best to be clean shaven, i had enough moustache ice to boil and make a cuppa hot chocolate
-wear liners under gloves for performing tactile duties, the thin rubber coated garden gloves work well
-camel backs are ok if kept under some layers on you back and if you blow the water back in the bladder after every use, gonna try inulating the tube
-more bags, less things precariously strapped to bike
-design a sleeping pad with a ‘foot box’ out of the bubble wrap mylar material, also soles for shoes

on my list of things to try
-overboots
-winter hammocks
-bivysacks with vapor barrier

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