What is bikepacking? Are there any established routes in Ontario? What sort of bike, gear and fitness is required to embark on such a journey? I had these and many other questions before rolling out on my first-ever Ontario bikepacking trip this weekend. After completing the trip, I can tell you that all that is required is a reliable bike, sense of adventure and some good company to share the ride with.
I love Ontario and have had some incredible adventures here. Lots of marathon paddling and backpacking voyages that have allowed me to unplug and see the true beauty this province has to offer. As epic as some of those expeditions were, most of which I still feel at my core, this bikepacking journey may very well be the most fun I have had travelling and exploring this remarkable landscape. Mostly because I did it by bike, my first love, which is a great way to cover ground and enjoy the scenery along the way.
The term bikepacking has been around for a few years now and while it can be dismissed as something the marketing heads conjured up as a new buzz-word to replace a not so sexy label like Touring, it really does accurately define the essence of it all. But for the purpose of this story, let’s forget about labels and what the purist may call you out on and instead focus on what is possible with a bike, map and desire to explore beyond your daily surroundings.
I have had this ride in the back of my mind for some time now. I suppose getting a fat bike last fall was the catalyst for it all as I wanted to make use of it as a real adventure bike, not just a winter bike. I even got some summer rubber on it in the form of 29+ wheels. It’s an all season bike that begs to be ridden off the beaten path, all day long. What I also wanted to accomplish was to leave my front door, in the city, as the starting point. No cars, open the garage door and go. Myself and other members of the site even did an initial recon ride and I plotted a route that took us out of the city almost completely by off-road trails. I did that ride on my fat bike and was joined by others on cross bikes and touring bikes alike. We had no overnight gear as this was really about riding dirt all the way out of town, which we discovered is possible. The goal was always to avoid roads and to find a route that anyone with a dependable bike could join us on.
Since that initial ride, I have started to explore a bunch more gravel and even have a gravel grinder now. Loosely defined, this can be any road or cross bike with 35c’ish and up tires. A fat bike, 29er or 29er with drop bars are also well suited to these sorts of rides. After doing some research I opted for the Open Cycles U.P. (Unbeaten Path) I’d say this thing is pretty much special ops for gravel. It can accommodate up to 700x40c tires as well as 650bx2.2 tires. More on that later.
Since getting the Open, I’ve spent time researching and riding the vast network of rail trails in Ontario and it has truly opened my eyes as to what is actually possible. While rail trails may be greatly used by randonneurs and day-trippers, the potential to link extensive loops and reach out-of-the-way destinations is quite astonishing.
Romantically, bikepacking would be chiefly on singletrack but in Ontario it would be difficult, almost forced, to try and accomplish that and cover any sort of meaningful distance. Trying to connect singletrack would have you doing more road and quad-track than quality singletrack. I’m not saying it isn’t possible, and that is still my ultimate goal. For this first trip however, my objective was simply to avoid roads, stay in cool camps, cover some decent ground and enjoy the ride. The rail trails were hands down the best way to accomplish this and aren’t anything a person should look down their nose at.
This preliminary trip would take us from Uxbridge to Belleville on a 225km, two-night, three-day tour with 772m of climbing. I originally wanted to ride 300km, ending in Sharbot Lake, but seeing that this was a one way outing and car rentals were not on lock there, I decided to route us back to Belleville. With this being a shakedown ride and us needing to get back home that night and to work the following day, this seemed like the best option. I’ve also never done anything like this and the route was only speculative at this point. Already on my pre-excursion rides, I’ve encountered closed trails and all kinds of re-routing. Things can go sideways in a hurry during your first time out. It’s summer in Ontario, which means construction season, for rail trails too apparently. We had one re-route on this trip after arriving at a swing-bridge which was open and impassable. They were also calling for all day rain our first day, and while we were ready to take it in stride, it weighed on our minds for sure. The ride would break down into 95km from Uxbridge to Peterborough, 65km to Cambellford and 63km to Belleville. While some roadies can crank that combined stretch out on a Sunday morning ride, fully loaded with gear, on gravel made this an ambitious but realistic first attempt.
My good friend Dean Campbell joined me on this excursion. Dean has ridden sections of the Tour d’Afrique as staff as well as working on the Orient Express, from Paris to Istanbul and has far greater touring experience than I. He’s an awesome guy and was completely onboard with our mission for this trip, to have some fun and explore the countryside.
“I was a little concerned about the initial plan to ride to Perth, but Marc was able to come up with a route that was a bit shorter in distance. While I’ve done a bunch of mountain bike rides this year, I haven’t done much in the way of long distance riding, and knew I had no time to cram in even one long ride before the trip.” – Dean Campbell
Dean was on a 2008 aluminum with cromoly fork Devinci Caribou that had modified racks while I was on a 2016 carbon Open Cycles U.P. which has no rack mounts whatsoever.
“Out of the bikes I had available, I opted for my touring bike, a 2008 Devinci Caribou frame and fork, with an otherwise custom build that involved everything from old 3×9 spares to ebay cable discs and handbuilt Mavic wheels. “ – Dean Campbell
I chose the U.P. for its ability to stuff in 650b wheels hooved with up to 2.2” tires. I’ve been running 2.1 Scwhalbe Thunderburts and they have been killer. I was running pressures as low as 23psi in loose gravel and up to 30psi for hardpack and tarmac. Dean was on 32c Contis, running at 70psi and that is really the only area where he felt his bike could have been markedly improved. At the controls, I was on carbon 44cm drop bars whereas Dean had butterfly shaped trekking handlebars. These allowed him more hand positions than me but in the rowdy trails restricted him to only the one spot to reach the brake levers. My handlebar bag made it awkward to use the drops so I spent most of my ride on the hoods with the tops as a second option. Like Dean, this meant I was too far from the blades to feel comfortable on anything but the smoothest sections of trail.
“The trail changed for the final day, in large part because this section is also open to ATV and Side by Side traffic. The results were that the surface often had dips and holes in it, which sapped our energy. Also, the fine crushed gravel we had grown used to was largely gone, and the trail was made up of more sand, more loose gravel, or a combination of the both. My front tire, with an extra 15lbs out ahead of the handlebars, and the skinny tires, was knifing around the loose gravel and tram lining in the sand. Riding demanded my full attention, so the only times my hands came off the bars were at stops. I also often dropped back from Marc – in part because I was struggling more with conditions – but also because I didn’t want to fall, and take him down with me. As a result, there was less conversation for longer stretches on the final day just because of both the bigger gap between us, but also the attention required to keep things moving” – Dean Campbell
Dean had his gear packed in dry bags tethered to his racks, while I had dedicated Apidura frame, saddle and handlebar packs. We both made small refinements each day but they were minor and there was no clear advantage or disadvantage to either system. In fact, I would say that on the singletrack and rough quad-track, my setup required more trailside tweaking than his. The handlebar bag would slacken and buzz the front wheel while the seat bag would start to sway side to side during hard pedaling efforts and on twisty trails. I found solutions for these issues and discovering these shortcomings was part of what the trip was about. We both lost items stuffed in webbing or bungee-tied, lost but found. Panniers could have worked but not passed everywhere so I would caution one going that route, as practical as they are.
“With no time to order custom bikepacking bags, I put both the front and rear racks on the bike, and then lashed down dry bags containing my gear. I do have panniers as well, but the goal was to keep weight down by sticking with the basics.” – Dean Campbell
We each carried 4-liters of water with us every day and both opted for two water bottles mounted in the frame. Both our frames could accommodate a third but I find that downtube location just gets covered in dirt or worse. My frame bag may have allowed me to distribute a tad more weight lower in the bike but not much and not low enough to impact anything. I looked at full frame bags with hydration packs but am still happy with the setup I had. It also took noticeably longer to pack my multi-pack setup than Dean’s every morning; the up-side was that it was quicker to access items when needed compared to an all-stuffed-in-a-few-bags approach. We both packed light, not overlapping common items and decided to leave our cameras at home, documenting it simply with our iPhones. Both our setups carried the bulk of the weight high on the bikes. By day three, picking up a loaded bike laid on its side felt like picking up a dropped 250cc on the track. We also each had a 3-liter hydration pack. The one bag we agreed would have been nice not to have but was vital.
“By the end of the first day, we’d had a good sense of how well our bags were rigged on our bikes, and how we might change that for day two. By the end of the trip, I’d packed my bike three different ways, and I’m still not sure I have it exactly right. More on that later.” – Dean Campbell
In course-plotting potential routes for this trip, I could picture limitless possibilities. There is no shortage of places to go and ways to get there in Ontario. The real challenge is matching distances that correspond to your fitness with places to stay. Many of the routes are only about 120-140km in length with nothing special in between. More to the point, there are no authorized places to pitch a tent. These are more out and back rides, which would be a blast in their own right but not what I had envisioned for this one. I was looking for a multi-night trip and wanted to cover some meaningful ground.
Uxbridge really is the eastern gateway to get out of the city comfortably for a trip like this. From there, you can go to Halliburton, Bancroft to the north and even further to the east. Going east broke up the days best and gave us some nice camping options at intervals that met our needs.
“Marc and I met at the trailhead and got our bikes and bags in order. I didn’t really know where we were going, but Marc had been thorough in his preparation, making it very easy for me to just hop in the saddle and pedal.” – Dean Campbell
Another aspect of the rail trail that makes it enjoyable are the long sections that you can ride side by each on. This adds a nice social element to the ride and is much more enjoyable than two guys taking turns staring at the other’s backside, trying to shout ahead and behind to make conversation. No thanks!
With Dean’s background in rally racing we found ourselves discussing the trail surface at length over our days out on the trail. We rode over a vast assortment of gravel and each had is own pluses and minus’ that posed unique challenges. We encountered everything from smooth crushed stone you could hammer on to whooped out loose 2” stones over hard pack. Hands at ten and two for that stuff let me tell ya. Ricocheting rocks 6 feet off the side of the trail and down tubes getting pinged like sections at Sainte-Anne. Hopping from one side of the trail to the other felt analogous to crossing a nasty snowdrift on the highway with your summer tires still on.
Towards the end of each day, after realizing we weren’t lost and approaching our kilometer target for the day, we felt like we had finished a stage in a multi day race. It was extremely rewarding. With the only mandate of the ride being to have fun, the journey was as great as the destination. We found our way to the campsites each day with no major hiccups. The best part was that there was really no riding through town to get there. In fact, the Trans Canada Trail runs through both of the sites we stayed at. We were able to grab a few tallboys, food and any other items we needed on the way in. Could not have been more painless.
“We knew we were getting closer to Peterborough once we saw more people out on the trail, but really had no sense of where we were in the town until all of a sudden, the trail ended and spat us onto streets just a couple of kilometers from the campground. After a day of riding side by side and talking, we had to ride single file into the campground, but spotted a patio that looked like a good spot to get dinner after setting up camp. “ – Dean Campbell
I chose fully serviced sites, which allowed us to charge phones, refill water and have a hot shower at the end of each day. This saved us carrying a stove, fuel, dishes and a water pump. I’d like to have that experience on another trip but was fine to not have to deal with that on this one. Doesn’t mean it was glamping.
“Because we’d left ourselves lots of time, we never felt rushed, and were free to stop along the way at sights that piqued our curiosity. A huge trestle bridge at the 70km mark offered a spectacular view into the valley below.” – Dean Campbell
Our first night we stayed at Beavermead Campground in Peterborough. This is a municipal campsite, which is very much in town, though it didn’t feel that way with our site right along the creek.
“The staff at Beavermead campground were great, especially Alex, who brought by a regional cycling map, and – a rider himself – shared all kinds of insights into places to ride, and places to eat. Local knowledge is great to have, and he shared a lot with us.” – Dean Campbell
Once settled in I posted to my Facebook page letting my Peterborough friends know I was in town and that we were at the Ashburnham Ale House on the patio having dinner. Shimano Canada happens to be located there and my friend Ben Pye rode down to join us for a cold beer. It was a perfect end to perfect day.
“There also seemed to be roofed accommodations at both our overnight stops, so someone could travel with less stuff (no tent, sleeping pad, or sleeping bag) provided they wanted to shell out for a room.” – Dean Campbell
For the second night we stayed at Ferris Provincial Park in Cambellford. This is a great spot that even has a bit of singletrack in it. We explored the trails the end of the second day just as we were entering the park. We were both glad we did and got to try our rigs on some proper trails. The Open worked flawlessly even on some pretty techy stuff. I ran out of gears and gas on one climb but Dean motored up in his granny. My double was adequate for everything else but I was under-geared on that one. Going down the other side it was game on.
“This was where my 70 PSI, narrow touring tires were the less than perfect choice. Still, nothing develops skills like a heavy bike on the wrong tires, over roots and rocks.” – Dean Campbell
Food and Fitness
I’ve done a few rides around the 60km mark this year. I wasn’t preparing for this or anything in particular and feel like that was more than enough to feel really good on this ride. I wasn’t so much worried about any single day but the three consecutive days. I definitely felt tired at the end of each day but could have pushed on further. Even at the end of the trip, I wished we had a few more days ahead of us. Was too good. The weight of the bikes, mine went from 17lbs to 50lbs, wasn’t really as much of a burden as I thought it would be. Our average speed was only moderately slower than with no packs. Dean hadn’t done any big rides this year and rode like a champ. All that to say there is no reason why you shouldn’t do this.
With a good breakfast in us each day, we were well fueled. We did stop for grub in Lindsay on the first day but just rode through for the other two days. I brought a bunch of Cliff Bars and Shot Blocs but came home with half of them, even after giving a bunch to Dean. We didn’t know what to expect, what would be available to eat, so I was overly cautious here. We did both drink most, if not all, of our water each day. We had unseasonably cool days so on a hot day this would be the minimum I would consider bringing.
“I snacked a lot on the ride, mostly Snickers bars bought at a gas station en route – again, minimal prep time – and tried to drink lots of water. Once the sun came out, it started to get warm, and I found myself a bit behind my thirst. Lesson learned, drink early, drink often.” – Dean Campbell
Along our trek we saw: three turtles, sixteen cyclist and three ATVs. Considering this was on a weekend, we were both shocked by the lack of traffic. We pretty much had 225km to ourselves. I’ve done the Caledon to Palgrave rail trail a bunch this summer and it’s quite busy in comparison. I feel like this is a very underutilized gem of a trail network and encourage anyone who wants to try his or her hand a bikepacking to give this a go. I will definitely repeat this exact route but likely push on to Perth. Once you have your fitness and gear dialed you can ride further off the beaten path and start to link together some bigger loops, of which there are plenty.
“I’d do the trip again, and with minimal changes. Straps instead of rope (though the rope could double as a clothesline, if we’d bothered to hang one) and I’d fit the widest tires I could, and test them under a load to see how low a pressure I could safely run.
The thing that struck me was how accessible the trip was. Yes, we were often a long way from towns or help, so we needed to be prepared. We also had to be fit enough to cover the distance. Though I came into the ride with virtually no training, I was able to lean on 15 years of riding to provide a base fitness and a willingness to keep going. But really, the trip was accessible. Marc found and laid out the route using a combination of Google Maps and Map My Ride, making navigation pretty easy. The trails weren’t so demanding as to require any special bike or equipment, though for the sake of the last day, I’d not take a road bike. And my bag system wasn’t particularly fancy (a 10L, 20L and 30L dry bag, plus my 25L backpack), so this could be done with minimal costs.
We had so much fun on the trip that by the third day, we were talking about other trips for the future. At the end of the route, it really was clear it’s accessible, doesn’t demand a lot of special preparation or gear, but offered up a real sense of adventure and escape.” – Dean Campbell