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A Steep Learning Curve

Our first ‘bikepacking’ ride was planned for the end of February which, in Yorkshire, is a questionable time to go out into the hills and try out all of your new camping gear. We had three days, so the plan was to leave at mid-morning on Sunday and head down to the Peak District. We would have a day or two around there and head back home.

Being our first trip, it didn’t happen anything like this!

Location: Pennine Bridleway (West Yorkshire, England)

Time: 27-28th February 2017. 2 days, 1 night.

Distance: 60km

Weather: Cloudy and wintery conditions (-1 to 4 degrees C)

Money spent: £0 (Supplies taken from home)

When Ben arrived home from work on Saturday we started to get ourselves ready for the upcoming trip, but it was soon clear that we weren’t going to be leaving on Sunday. It was midnight and we still had mudguards, bottle cages, luggage and racks to fit to the bike, as well as connect the dynamo front hub to the usb charger. As always, things take much longer than expected!

Sunday was spent attaching all of the above parts to our bikes and putting all of our kit in piles on the lounge carpet. There was more to it than that but I’ll spare you the boring details such as trying different combinations of bottles in bottle holders and trying (unsuccessfully) to feed the dynamo cable through a tiny, clear plastic tube before cutting it in half to get it in.

One of the coolest things we did today though was make our very own mudguard. We realised at about 3pm that the one rear mudguard we had got was actually quite cleverly designed and more importantly, fitted nicely under both of our racks attaching to the seatpost. Fast-forward two hours and we had an ingenious mudguard solution using the plastic packaging from our tyres, gorilla tape, a pen lid sawn in half, a nut, bolt and some washers and a velcro strap.

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After a long day we eventually felt like we were ready to pack our panniers with all of the stuff we had laid out and could leave in the morning.

When we awoke on Monday morning and started to load the bikes up, the weather was looking bright enough, if a little cloudy and windy. We were on the road later than we had thought at 11:30am but we should have expected it really. Packing the panniers was like a giant game of Tetris and the pieces were an inconveniently shaped stove or awkward sized shoes.

Our route took us to Mytholmroyd where we started our ascent to join the Pennine Bridleway (PBW). The first part of the climb is one we have done countless times on our mountain bikes but as this was the first time doing so on these bikes, let alone on a loaded touring bike, we were a little apprehensive about how they would cope with one particular section: the Old Chamber cobbles. We needn’t have worried really. The bikes didn’t skip a beat up the cobbles and we didn’t feel it was any worse than normal as we both made it to the top.

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Continuing along we made it to the PBW which goes below Stoodley Pike and we were on familiar territory for a while. It was like no other time we had ridden along here though as usually the mountain bike loves the rough terrain but with panniers, it was a totally different story. The faster you went, the more the panniers would bounce around and I just hoped that the clips were attached properly! When we got to the bottom and had a food stop in Mankinholes, the panniers had held up without any issue so we continued on our way in a light rain shower.

After a short road section the bridleway continues to climb the moorland past Todmorden towards Walsden. This armoured trail is more suited to the mountain bikes than our current set up – something we hadn’t known until now. We bounced our way down the trail until we finally made it to the valley floor and it was here that we began to think about our route and how feasible it was that we were going to be able to continue on the PBW to the Peaks. The bikes handled amazingly and with a true bikepacking set-up, they would fly up and down these trails with no bother, but currently set up with rack and panniers, it wasn’t the ideal terrain.

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We decided to consult the mapping software on Ben’s phone and see if there was an alternative route. The map showed that as expected, the PBW would be more challenging so if we changed our route slightly we could continue along the canal and meet the PBW further along, therefore increasing our chances of making it further south this evening.

Rejoining the Pennine Bridleway, it goes under the M62 to venture into more wild territory. It started off really nice with a cloudy sky overhead and on more suitable terrain. The double track took us away from the motorway and all signs of civilisation and we started to feel like we had finally found the trail we were looking for.

Unfortunately this was not to last. What began as a light sleet shower quickly turned into a full-on snow blizzard. It is worth noting that by this point it was gone 4pm and on a snowy February evening, there isn’t very much daylight left. We needed to find somewhere to camp. Frantically, we started looking for somewhere we could pitch up. Behind that wall? No, too much tufty grass. How about in that field? Nope, too boggy. And so it continued! Everywhere we looked was just unsuitable for person to stand on without sinking, let alone pitch a tent. So with another look at Ben’s phone we saw that half a mile up ahead was a reservoir and they tend to be quite flat.

Luckily the reservoir didn’t take very long to reach and it had a conveniently placed woods next to it which would provide us with shelter from the elements and the perfect place to wild camp undisturbed. The place we decided to pitch up was next to the path, nestled between two trees and was mostly flat so we went about clearing the ground with our saturated gloves.

Ben had placed the footprint and I was erecting the first pole when we realised we had made stealth camping error 101. Next to a path = visible to all that walk by and just as chance would have it, there was a couple walking a dog. Typical! Annoyed, we picked everything up and ventured down into the woods proper and towards the reservoir. After considering another three potential pitches, we decided upon one that looked flat and was out of sight.  

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First time pitching the tent; it was super easy and awesome to be inside when it was wet all around us. After unpacking our sleeping gear we started setting up for tea and we were really excited to cook on our new stove. It was here when we learned our most important lesson: know where all your gear is and pack it all together. We weren’t able to find the lighter. Ben didn’t remember packing it, only putting it on the worktop back at home so shivering and lighter-less, we resigned ourselves to eating our snacky food in the tent for tea. Half way through a pork pie Ben said, “Did you check the stove bag?” Nooooooo! That should have been the first place to check and I don’t know why we didn’t, but luckily for us, it was there! Rice and beans never tasted as good as they did fifteen minutes later sat in the tent.

It was only when we crawled into our sleeping bags at 8pm that we realised our flat-enough site was actually not very flat at all. After a few unsuccessful attempts to “hoosh” my mat towards the top of the tent only for it to slowly slide back down along the slippery tent floor I conceded defeat and settled in for the night.

Waking upon Tuesday morning and the first night in the wild was a success. We survived!

The overnight temperature was -1C, it had continued snowing and this was a good first test for our thoroughly researched sleeping equipment. We wanted to try our kit in sub-optimal conditions and this trip was allowing us do just that. Happily we can report that our sleeping kit was awesome! We had both been warm and dry all night, with the exception of our faces, which were exposed to the cold tent air. With a bit of rearranging the sleeping bag hood, pillow and liner configuration we are confident that even this shouldn’t be an issue. 

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Waking up in the morning and getting out of the tent we were greeted with an unexpected white carpet strewn with leaves and sticks. We decided that we would keep ourselves from getting too cold by cooking some porridge, packing up the campsite and then we’d get on the road so that our damp gear wouldn’t feel so cold. Well…that was until the lighter that we struggled to find yesterday had gotten damp in the porch overnight and now refused to work. (Lesson learned: keep things that need to stay dry in a waterproof container.) All that was left to do was throw the lighter against the nearest tree and move on to the next task! It was a quiet ten minutes as we dismantled the tent with sodden gloves and icy hands, then angrily packed our respective panniers in no particular order whatsoever. On the menu for breakfast was a fruity energy gel, something I would not recommend on an empty stomach, especially if the only water you have is so cold that it hurts your teeth.

We left the relative shelter of the woods, got back on the Pennine Bridleway and the blizzard onslaught continued.

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^This was the only picture we took this day because the weather was so miserable and our hands were freezing because all of our gloves were soaking wet. We decided to return home and dry out all of our gear rather than continue further and risk getting even colder. Although we didn’t make the planned destination, we still managed to achieve everything that we wanted from our first mission: We followed a rough plan, tested our new bikes and gear, wild camped and cooked, albeit only once. We also learned a great deal more than we could have ever expected and upon our return we jotted all of our thoughts and musings down to consider for next time.

The first trip: What did we learn?

  • Packing is really important: You need to know where everything is (and store it appropriately) because when its wet, windy and your hands are like ice, the few minutes it takes to search every inch of your pannier can feel like hours.
  • Trail choice: Whilst our bikes are more than capable of handling singletrack bridleways, our rack and panniers weren’t having such a great time. It was more difficult than expected, so we will be researching trails and terrain before heading out next time.

Steph

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