I started seriously considering long-distance bike-packing in September 2018. My husband, Mike, had just completed a 400-mile bike race, totally self-supported.
I watched him, filled with pride, cross the finish line surrounded by a crowd of about 30 people screaming and cheering. I was astounded by what he had pushed his body to do.
The race, called the Smoke ‘n Fire 400, is not widely known but it has a committed group of followers in Boise, Idaho and beyond. The ride is no joke and in any given year, only 80-100 people start the race and around 30-50 finish. On top of the 400 miles, the race covers about 40,000 feet of elevation gain.
Mike was exhausted and relieved after 4 ½ days of climbing forest service roads and pushing his loaded bike across rivers and up single-track trail. On our way home that evening, I rode his dirty pack bike and he rode my yellow city bike with sunflowers on the basket.
During his race days I was at school, where I teach senior English, raving about his progress and showing my students how to track his GPS location on the course. He rode about 100 miles a day to stay on track and the course covers popular terrain in central Idaho that students often drive to for camping in the summer so they thought it was pretty cool.
We followed along as he rode from Prairie to Featherville and then up over into Ketchum, Sun Valley, and Stanley. He rode from about 8am to 10 or 11pm each day. It was addicting to track his progress and filled me with awe at what the human body is capable of in a single day.
When we got back that evening, we ate lots of pizza, he showered, and I began to ask him questions. How do you feel? Was it amazing? What was the hardest part?
There was a bit of a disconnect. I’m not sure he knew how to articulate the experience beyond that it was awesome. He’d spent so much time in his head just relying on his body to keep him going.
How can anyone relay such an experience to someone who has not shared that experience? Especially when he rode most of the 400 miles alone. That is a lot of time with just your own thoughts for company. I figured that he would just need time to mull it over.
The next morning when we were getting ready for work, I noticed his pants hanging off him and I made a jape at how much weight he’d lost during the 4 ½ days of riding.
That is what made me seriously consider long-distance bike-packing.
If I can get my body to ride 400 miles, maybe I will lose 15 pounds too.
Reflections On Body Image
I am a 33-year-old cisgender, straight, white female of average body size. I am physically fit and have not suffered any major injuries or illnesses in my lifetime that have inhibited me from working out. I live a privileged life and I have been confident about my body more often than not.
Yet body image is still a pervasive issue that frequently occupies my brain and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot as a cyclist. I am disappointed with the realization that my motivation for attempting an incredible bike-packing trip was weight loss.
I have enjoyed riding bikes all my life. I got my first bike when I was 4, it had streamers on the handlebars and a white seat with cupcakes printed on it. I remember riding it in circles around our apartment complex sidewalks.
Owning bikes has always given me a sense of freedom at different stages in my life. In elementary school it allowed me to explore the neighborhoods I grew up in and beyond. In junior high and high school, I could easily get to friend’s houses or babysitting jobs without the assistance of a car or my parents. And in college, I still didn’t have a car.
My bike brought me everywhere. Biking became a way of life for me simply because I lived in a place where I didn’t need a car and frankly never considered buying one.
In that time of my life, I wasn’t thinking about biking as fitness or as something that I was even passionate about, it was just transportation. It wasn’t until Mike bought my neighbors dusty old full-suspension mountain bike at a yard sale for me that I began to think about biking as exercise. I was 26 years old and struggling with uncertainty in my career choices and feeling general insecurity about where my life was going.
My first impression of mountain biking was that it is extremely difficult. Before we went on our first ride, I asked Mike, who had been mountain biking for several years in Boise’s 200+ miles of single-track, if he was really taking me on one of the easiest trails.
It wasn’t that I didn’t trust him, but I knew that he liked to challenge me. He insisted that I was going to be fine and that, yes, it was an easy trail. I wasn’t unfit but, even biking on a slight grade felt difficult at the time.
The first hill he took me up was Kestral, a popular trail in the Boise foothills. It’s barely over a mile and is around 400 feet of elevation gain and rated “Easy” according to the trail map.
I had to stop several times and catch my breath. It took my breath away more than any other physical activity I had done previously. I felt like throwing up and crying all at once. It was a summer morning but not excruciatingly hot. It was just really physically taxing.
But I loved it. The climbing was slow and challenging but I could smell the sagebrush and feel my body getting pushed to its limit. The downhill was exhilarating and scary in a good way. It was everything I enjoyed about riding on the road plus being out in the wild spaces that I loved.
I wanted to go again as soon as my legs felt like they’d recovered. We went on a ride or two a week that summer and I gained some confidence and I built up my lung capacity, although I still think nothing gets me breathing harder than climbing on a mountain bike.
I do not have what I would consider a biker’s body. It’s an absurd label because I know in my brain that all bodies can be active, but I didn’t feel like I saw other women who looked like me riding in the foothills.
I’m short, have wide-hips and thighs and a bigger chest. I turn beet-red while exercising whether it is 65 degrees or 95. I’ve had total strangers ask me if I was okay or if I needed water. More than once someone has asked me if I forgot sunscreen. So, I’ve embedded this information in my brain; it looks like I’m seriously struggling anytime I mountain bike, whether or not that reflects my skill or how I feel in the moment.
How I look when I am riding is something other people notice. This idea of what a biker’s body looks like has been formulated by other women I saw on the trails and how cycling clothing fit, or didn’t, fit me.
In the years following that first summer mountain biking, I began to go on longer rides with bigger climbs and more elevation gain. Instead of riding an 8-12-mile loop with 1,000 ft of elevation, I’d moved on to doing 20-30-mile rides with 2,500-4,000 feet of elevation.
I mostly rode alone or with my husband or family. I never rode with other women. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be as strong or couldn’t keep up although I disregarded this idea when riding with men. I repeatedly made excuses to not ride with other groups of women; today is too hot, I only ride in the morning, I just rode yesterday, etc.
It has been difficult to grapple with exactly why I’ve been so afraid to look inferior. I am out there doing the same thing as countless other women of all abilities and sizes.
As a woman, it is deeply ingrained in my soul to compare myself to others and place value upon the size of my body. I am hugely in support of all people feeling positive about their bodies, but it is so hard to apply it to myself consistently.
I believe that any person should be able to participate in all types of activities and sports regardless of physical appearance. A woman should be able to feel good about how her body looks regardless of societal expectations and norms.
When I reached 30 years old, I slowly put on a few extra pounds, as many women do. My metabolism likely slowed, I started a full-time job that I truly enjoyed, and I was trying out different types of birth control. My hormones were all over the place and it showed in my skin and my thighs. I still biked and worked out consistently and I didn’t notice anything in my performance, but I did notice that my clothing fit me differently.
My bike shorts squeezed my thighs and I felt my belly hang over my chamois more than before. I struggled to find bike clothing that fit my body properly. I complained in online clothing reviews and took pictures in dressing rooms to show how ill-fitting some brands were. Some cycling shorts that I tried on at a REI once were so low cut and tight in a size M that it was laughable. Did the brand think that women who cycled had skinny quads? When I tried on the size L afterwards, they were gaping at the waist.
This affirmed my unfortunate labeling that a biker’s body typically doesn’t have hips like mine – or at least, the people making clothes to fit bikers’ bodies don’t believe they have hips like mine. I sought out brands that had vanity sizing so that I wouldn’t have to actually buy a L instead of a M ⎯ all the while knowing that none of this really matters. Changing sizes is an incredibly frustrating experience but also having inconsistent sizing amongst different brands makes it worse, and it is certainly not unique to cycling clothing.
Likely this information isn’t anything surprising or new. From the time that we can walk and talk people praise young girls for how they look rather than for their thoughts and actions. The media represents women who look a certain way: thin, white, attractive. My body has reflected those traits for most of my life and I still feel inadequate about it. I’ve struggled with how to approach this topic at all since I don’t think I actually need to lose weight for my health. I just occupy a body that is slightly larger than I think is acceptable to society.
This is why the idea that biking 400 miles might help me lose 15 pounds is such a problematic motivation. I wanted to ride 400 miles to prove that I could do it and didn’t want to turn something I loved, biking, into a weird weight-loss challenge.
How COVID Propelled Me Forward
In the spring of 2020, the school where I teach closed and classes went online as a result of Covid-19. My life changed drastically in a short period of time, along with the rest of the world.
Idaho remained largely unaffected by Covid-19 for most of the spring, although that would change come summer. I was at home, by myself, for 8 hours a day.
I’ll admit that while I was teaching online, responding to student and staff emails, I also spent a lot of this time riding my bike. I logged more hours in March, April, and May of 2020 than I ever had before.
In March I’m usually still skiing on weeknights and doing maybe one mountain bike ride a week if the trails are dry. But this year I was riding about four times a week and rode around 200 miles in March.
Mike and I began to plan longer bike-packing trips and I finally felt like I had the time to put in the proper training. I tried not to focus on how this training might affect the way I looked, but rather the way I felt.
Before 2020, I completed several overnight trips of around 100 miles. None of these felt like trips specifically designed to train for the longer 400-mile trip that Mike had finished. Now that I had proper time to train, the rides were focused on completing the goal by the end of summer.
In early June 2020, I completed the longest ride I’d ever done. I rode 178 miles with 12,000 feet – over two vertical miles – of elevation gain in under 48 hours. I’d come a long way since 2012.
The majority of that ride was cold and rainy and I spent a good portion of it crying and pushing my bike up hills because I was so exhausted. Mike and I invited another couple along who were much faster than us.
This was my first experience on a long ride with another woman. While she was a faster rider, she assured me that it was far more fun for her to ride with me and chat than it was to worry about times or speed. I accepted this as fact and really enjoyed the experience.
The first day we left Boise at 6am and rode into the sunrise on the Boise Greenbelt to Lucky Peak. We climbed up rocky Lydle Gulch to Bonneville Point, an Oregon Trail point of interest, and about 40 miles into the ride, we followed the South Fork of the Boise River through Prairie, Idaho, up over several mountain passes.
This dirt road is heavily traveled by 4×4’s and fly-fishers. It is a quintessential western prairie. Sagebrush, tall grasses, and bitterbrush create the majority of the landscape while blooming lupine and arrowleaf balsamroot fill in the gaps with brilliant color. The last big climb was into Anderson Ranch Reservoir and then again along the South Fork of the Boise River into Featherville, Idaho. We went from a dry sagebrush prairie into the thick timber by 5pm.
I didn’t spend a lot of time comparing myself to the better riders on that trip. I was so tired, and the views were so incredible that I tried to focus on the fact that my body was allowing me to complete the ride. When my knee hurt or my quads burned, I kept moving.
On the second day we got home at 11pm after riding for 13 hours and over 100 miles. I inhaled a bagel before I even took my chamois off. I ate with reckless abandon for three days after the ride. I ate so much that I felt bloated and disgusting. I grapeled with whether I was doing this for enjoyment or weight loss.
About a week after we got back, we put the 400-mile Idaho Hot Springs Loop trip on the calendar for mid-July. Mike had been anxious to do it again since his initial solo ride two years ago.
I should point out that we were planning to complete the same route, without the single-track and hike-a-bike sections of the official Smoke n’ Fire 400 race. He still hadn’t fully been able to explain what it felt like.
I was anxious because I had quite a bit of knee pain after that weekend trip, but I kept training and gave my knee rest when I needed it. The 400-mile ride wouldn’t have as many miles per day as that previous trip. It would be easier on my body physically.
So the 400-mile ride was on the calendar about five weeks after the longest ride of my life. My anxiety amped up a little as the kickoff day approached.
I was all packed and prepared physically and we had backup plans in place if I couldn’t make it on the 8-day trek. We planned to take eight days to finish the 400 mile ride in order to have more fun and relaxation than Mike’s 4 ½ day completion. The plan was to ride about 50-60 miles per day in order to push ourselves, but not be so exhausted that we wouldn’t enjoy it. We planned the route and distances around desirable places to to stop and resupply and to be able to camp in places with access to rivers or lakes for water.
Packing And Prep
My pack bike is a 2017 sage-green Salsa Fargo with Jones H-bars, the most comfortable bike-touring handlebar on the market. I replaced the steel fork with a carbon fork and it still goes from 27 pounds unpacked to about 55 pounds when fully loaded.
I packed pretty light, bringing one riding outfit and one camping outfit for the trip. For riding I wear a relatively thin chamois and a long-sleeve shirt with UPF protection. I also packed rain pants and a rain jacket, a bathing suit, a puffy coat, and an extra pair of socks and underwear.
In my handlebar bag I pack my sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, and the tent’s rainfly and poles. Mike and I split a backpacking tent between our two bikes, which is a luxury as often bikepackers sleep in bivvys or just on a tarp. I also bring a lightweight camp chair because after biking all day no one wants to sit on the ground or a rock. All my clothing goes on my back rack in a stuff sack because I’m too short for a traditional seatpack with my seat height. All my food goes in my frame bag.
For food, I typically eat two protein bars in the morning plus peanut butter and crackers and 1-2 of the same in the afternoon. For lunch we eat tuna or smoked salmon on a tortilla with salsa or plan to stop somewhere to eat. Luckily, the majority of the ride has several places to stop for resupply.
Dinner was usually packets of Tasty Bites Indian food over rice. The hardest part about food is that I should be eating a little bit all day to stay properly fueled, but it’s pretty difficult to do so. It’s not part of my normal routine outside of bikepacking. My bike also has four 24oz water bottles that I usually empty completely between resupply points.
All packed up with loaded bikes, about a week before we left, we completed our final big training ride. We rode up to Bogus Basin Ski Resort on single track.
It’s a 43-mile ride round-trip with 5,300 feet of elevation gain. The day was hot and the climb was relentless. I struggled with the steep grade and doubted that I could finish the 400-mile ride. Again, there were tears and some bike-pushing, but I made it up.
The Big Ride
Two days before our departure we decided to leave a day early because our original departure day was supposed to be 100 degrees. We left Boise at dusk and rode about 40 miles to the South Fork of the Boise River, giving us a chance to get across the shade-less prairie before the 100 degrees hit.
I was tired that first day. I am not a night rider and felt discouraged. We camped by a small stream and I barely slept.
For me, biking is the best way to take in the scenery. In a car the view is always partially blocked and the pavement takes away some of the beauty. Hiking is great but so much more ground can be covered on a bike.
The most incredible thing about the trip is that every day was stunningly beautiful and so varied. We passed by four vast reservoirs and tall timber forests that were deeply green. But also recent burn areas where blackened ponderosas stood sentinel along the trail, peppered with brilliant alpine wildflowers and new life pushing through the burned soil. We pedaled through rolling hills of happy cows, yellow and purple lupine, sage, and frothy coral-colored native grasses. The air was clear and we traced the milky way through the sky each night.
I had lead legs some mornings and it felt like I just had to zone out and rotate for a while to wake them up. The odd thing about long distance biking is that I didn’t exactly feel really sore, but I did have a heaviness in my legs or a consistent fatigue. I didn’t sleep well every night; some were better than others.
COVID certainly added some stress to the trip and took me out of my comfort zone more than biking, although we were as safe and masked-up in public as we could be. Thinking about resupplying in small town grocery stores caused a bit of late night anxiety.
Although I’d spent plenty of nights under the stars in the past, this trip was the most consecutive days I’d spent in a tent. There were times where I told myself I couldn’t continue the next day. I’d just have to wait until cell-phone service because I was too tired. But each day I kept on moving because there weren’t any legitimate excuses as to why I should quit.
We soaked in four natural hot springs along the way and on the fifth night we got a hotel in Stanley, Idaho as a treat. We showered and went to bed at 8pm. We were 250 miles and 19,000 feet of elevation gain into the trip.
I think because we were in a hotel, this night really made me aware of how my body felt. My quads had a constant dull ache, my shoulders were sore, and my feet started to get some blisters from the tongue of my shoes. I was creating constellations out of mosquito bites across my skin. I had been stretching gently each day, careful not to cause an injury by overstretching sore muscles. I was also mentally exhausted.
We had one beer when we arrived in Stanley at 5pm and I felt like I’d been hit by a train. I needed sleep. On a positive note, I wasn’t experiencing any acute pain. The knee pain I experienced on our high-mileage training ride was thankfully nonexistent.
The final 150 miles of the trip had the fewest resupply options. Our bikes had to be loaded with more food than anywhere else on the ride. We would have two full days without any grocery stores or even gas stations.
We left Stanley around 8am with a 65-mile day ahead of us into Deadwood Reservoir. This day had very little climbing, only about 3,000 feet, and it was mostly flat forest service roads along shallow meadow streams with the backdrop of the viciously steep Sawtooth mountain range.
We saw a bald eagle dive bomb an osprey and steal its catch mid-flight and camped in the most beautiful bend on the Deadwood River. We watched fish jumping in the water as the sun set on our sixth day of biking.
The second to last day was the most challenging of the entire trip. We rode 54 miles and had 5,750 feet of climbing. The climb out of Deadwood Reservoir was the longest sustained climb up Scott Mountain Road. It had about 10 false summits, but the reward was a panoramic view of all the mountain ranges we had ridden for the duration of the trip.
After summiting, we had a frenzied 10-mile, 4,000-foot descent to the highway, 12 miles on pavement, and an arrival in Garden Valley, Idaho along the South Fork of the Payette River. It was a bit of a culture shock after two idyllic remote riding days. It was 95 degrees and there were campers all along the river trying to keep cool.
We still had 10 miles to go that day and at 4:30pm after a huge climb and hot temperatures, I was completely exhausted. The 10-mile climb was my breaking point in the trip. Mike went on ahead to get to the resupply that closed at 6pm while I alternated pushing my bike and crying with a slow, granny gear rotation. This was the only day where I felt like I couldn’t form complete sentences for a while after we got to our destination. My brain was fried, my body was shaky, and I reached a new level of stinky-ness, but it was our final night camping under the stars and it really started to hit me that I was actually going to finish.
The morning of the last day I was elated. Everything looked beautiful to me, the colossal ponderosa pines and the vast sky. I couldn’t believe that I was climbing up the backside of Bogus Basin Ski Resort, almost home. The ascent up the Boise Ridge Road is not easy and I struggled to stay on my bike on some of the steep, punchy climbs.
I thought I would cry with joy when I made it to the ski resort lodge. Mike and I laughed and cheered, and I sat down bewildered. Red-face and sweaty as hell, we ordered steak sandwiches and beers to celebrate. Only 20 miles downhill to home.
Reflecting On The Trip
We got back with enough time to shower and relax, then join my parents for pizza in their backyard. I thought back to when Mike completed this ride solo and how he hadn’t been able to articulate the experience beyond “it was awesome”.
I felt so proud of myself but aside from sharing cool details of the trip I also summed it up as “awesome” and an “incredible experience.” This was the first time in my adult life that I’d accomplished a major physical challenge that I had to spend a significant amount of time training for, mentally and physically.
I did not spend much time on this trip focusing on what my body looked like and it was incredibly freeing. I’m not saying this cured me of all body hang-ups, and even though my initial motivation for training was Mike’s weight loss, I did not allow that to have space in my brain during the ride.
I felt grateful that my body was able to propel my 55 pound bike 400 miles and 31,000 feet of elevation gain. It took two days of recovery for me to genuinely feel like I would do it all over again the following week. But for now, I plan to go on a couple smaller bike packing trips this summer and fall, and hopefully with some other women in the future.
I am still riding my mountain bike a few times a week for exercise, but more importantly because I enjoy the hell out of it. Anything that is fun enough to make me focus on what my body feels like rather than what it looks like, is time well spent and I can’t think of a better way than riding my bike.
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About The Author
Ashley Quinn lives in Boise, Idaho with her husband and two cats. She started mountain biking in 2012 and is lucky enough to have summers off for riding while teaching high school English. Her favorite book to teach is Lord of the Flies because it’s part adventure and part super dark analysis of human psyche! She loves to try out new recipes from her collection of Middle Eastern cookbooks and loves spicy food. When she’s not biking you can find her hanging out in her garden, perusing antique stores for copper or fish-themed trinkets, and following her cats around telling them how cute they are.