This story beings simply enough, with three friends who despite decades of mountain biking experience had never been bikepacking before. The idea to try “the rugged cousin of bike touring” was sparked at the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) 2016 World Summit in Bentonville, Ark., where a presentation I attended encouraged us to foster the emerging activity in our own neck of the woods. Expert bikepackers Jocelyn Gaudi and Gabriel Amadeus stressed that routes need not be grueling or iconic in order to be rewarding.
Or, to put it another way, just like adding a backpack to a hike boosts the possibilities for adventure, so too does adding a bike pack to your ride.
Working from this premise we — Jay Thomas of Quality Bike Products and Roots Mountain Biking, Cody Jones of Ballwin Cycles and myself — pitched the idea to Jim Davis, another biking buddy and former honcho at the Ozark Trail Association who has encyclopedic knowledge of the Missouri outdoors. As we chatted over a few pints after a Gateway Off-Road Cyclists (GORC) meeting at Schlafly Bottleworks, a plan started to form. It involved a fall weekend, a dash to someplace close to home and, last but not least, the prospect of overnight camping, beautiful scenery and great riding.
The next afternoon we all received an email from Davis with an itinerary for a two-day getaway to Council Bluff Lake in Belleview, Mo., just a couple hours from St. Louis. The route had single track, disused back roads, creek crossings, a waterfall, primitive camping and flexibility. We would cover 27 miles on the first day, and either 12 or 17 on the second. The email included a suggested packing list, meal plan and water caches.
Davis had thought of everything, even tips for hauling beer.
The day came and I headed off to Council Bluff Lake for our big little adventure. I had packed my bags and strapped them onto my bike the night before to test the capacity and load, taking a spin around the neighborhood. (You don’t want to wait until your trip starts to discover your stuff doesn’t fit right.) Now, as I hopped in my car and pulled out of the driveway, I grew more and more excited at the thought of the 48 hours ahead.
Davis, Thomas and I would camp at the Council Bluff Recreation Area that night and do any last-minute prep work. Jones would meet us early the next morning. Hammocks hung and dinner around the campfire completed, the three of us hiked down to a rocky shelf fronting the lake and gazed up at the cloudless starry sky. A bit of chat and the inevitable beer salute gave way to quiet contemplation as the pressures of everyday life slipped away.
The morning came. We woke eagerly to tear down camp and rig our bikes. Lightweight items on top; heavier items lower for a better center of gravity. Compressing the bags as much as possible and really baring down on the straps attaching them to the bikes helped make sure everything was compact and tight — less shifting would mean more control while under way.
We sped down the spur trail connecting to the Council Bluff Lake Loop, trying to get a feel for riding the rolling, twisting terrain on our weighted down bikes. Their handing wasn’t improved by the gallon milk jugs each of us carried on our handlebars. These were filled with water, which we planned to drop at a crossroads we would pass again later in the afternoon as we headed to that night’s campsite. We were happy to be rid of the jugs after a mile of off-balance maneuvering — but we would be thankful the next day not to have to filter water.
From there, the trail saw us across several brooks and streams as we followed the Trace Creek Section to the Middle Fork Section of the Ozark Trail, about 11 miles of prime cross-country single track. While this area sees pretty good use from hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians, we had it all to ourselves as we passed near fens, seeps and small springs, and through oak and hickory hardwoods, short-leaf pine stands and small savannahs.
We were in the groove, flowing along contently, bantering about nothing and everything. We stopped once to read the memorial placard erected in honor of Jim Roth, founder of the Ozark Trail Association, and again as we pulled up to Wolf Pen Hollow Waterfall for lunch. The trail-side oasis was a magical place on this pleasantly warm fall day, and we lingered a while to take photos and stretch out in the tree-filtered sun.
A short ride later we intersected with a gravel road, which we took. We passed the couple of hours grinding out the 11 miles back to Trace Creek and then reconnecting to the Council Bluff Lake Loop. Here we picked up our stashed water and wound our way to a secluded campsite on a timbered point jutting out into the lake. As the sun began to set over the water, our only company was a lone fishing boat and some ducks hunting for dinner.
The next few hours were spent setting up camp, cooking over the open fire, swinging in our hammocks and joking with each other as we rehashed the day’s events. The beers we had packed helped take the edge off any soreness and sent us off to bed.
A stunning yellow-orange sunrise greeted us from behind Johnson Mountain the next morning. We cooked up a casual breakfast and then (bikes unloaded) swooped up, down and around the little coves off the lake, right next to the water. Our destination was the acclaimed bluff of Council Bluff Lake, but before we could get there we came upon a cluster of elephant rocks (mounds, really) that demanded we ride them.
We dropped our seats and dropped in from the top — twice. The downhill run was fast and uneven, with small clefts and gaps in the rock, and just what we needed to break up the rhythm of pedaling the old Jeep road we had been on. Definitely one of the highlights of the trip.
Another came just a few minutes later, as we crested the rise we had been climbing and a panoramic view of Council Bluff Lake revealed itself to us. We sat on the stony bluff high above the water and the hills we had crossed to get there. Lunch happened, and maybe a commemorative beer or two, before we pedaled back to our campsite, loaded up our bikes and sped back to Council Bluff Recreation Area for our return home.
Overall we covered about 45 miles over the two days. Not the most arduous of journeys I have had on a mountain bike, but one of most fun — and definitely a rad trip I would do again in a heartbeat.
A few weeks later, Ballwin Cycles hosted Salsa brand ambassador Justin Michels for a beginners’ bikepacking seminar. About 40 people showed up to hear him talk about his experiences and give tips on getting started.
“Jump in and take an overnight trip. You don’t need much,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be about camping. You can stay in a hotel or B&B. You don’t even have to cook necessarily.”
Whatever your bikepacking ambition, planning is key. “Set your route. Check the weather. Think about fueling and water,” Michels said. “You can go further on the road. Off-road, you can do it, just make sure you set the bike up right.”
And rather than be in some exotic locale, bikepacking can be done right outside your front door. Michels fondly recounted his first trip, on which he rode 100 miles out and back from his house. “When I got back, I realized it was the most fun I’d ever had on a bike,” he said. “Just do it.”
Gear We Took
Revelate Sweetroll Handlebar Bag
- North Face Campforter Sleeping Bag
- Eagles Nest Outfitters Sub7 Hammock and Helios Suspension System
- Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest Pad (lashed to front)
Revelate Viscacha Seat Bag
- Jetboil Zip Cooking System
- Coast FL75 Headlamp
- Neff Stocking Cap
- 686 x Specialized Tech Insulator Jacket
- Long-Sleeve and Short-Sleeve T-Shirt
- American Eagle Outfitters Performance Camp Pants
- Wool Socks
- Travel Towel
- Birkenstocks (lashed to top)
CamelBak Charge 10 LR
- 2-Liter Water Bladder
- Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy and Breakfast Skillet Pouches
- Frozen Pre-Cooked Bratwurst and Buns (4)
- Pre-Made PB&J Sandwiches (2)
- Leatherman Multitool
- Sea to Summit Titanium Long-Handle Spoon
- Toothbrush and Toothpaste
- Baby Wipes
- Zip Ties and Duct Tape
- Tire Pump
- Tire Repair Kit
- Tire Tube
- Bike Tool
Rocky Mountain Thunderbolt
- Bottle Cage
- CamelBak Podium Big Chill 25-Ounce Water Bottle with Nuun Active Electrolyte Supplement
- Specialized Tactic II Helmet
- Oakley Radar EV Path PRIZM Sunglasses
- Columbia Titan Ultra Half Zip Shirt
- Bontrager Rhythm Shorts
- Endura MT500 Gloves
- Injinji Outdoor Midweight Crew NuWool Socks
- Mavic Tempo MTB Shoes
- Gerber Folding Knife