Friday, January 23, 2015

My Big Fat Bike Adventure

A few of us in the Peninsula store like to take short one-night bike tours, or Sub 24-Hour Overnights, throughout the year. With snow bike season in full swing, we figured why not take a snow bike tour?

Chris got the bright idea to drive out to Oil Creek State Park, near Oil City, Pennsylvania. The park has a bike path that runs along the creek, which we could ride on fat bikes until we got to a hiking trail that leads to the top of the ridge overlooking the creek. Up the ridge is a set of lean-to shelters for overnight camping. Then, we'd ride back to the car the next morning.

So what does one pack for a bike-camping trip in the winter time? It's pretty much the same as bike-camping any other time, except you take some warmer clothes. We could save a little packing space by not taking tents, since we'd be sleeping in a shelter.

As usual, to get ready, I laid out all of the gear I planned to take a couple of days before, along with my bike ('14 Salsa Mukluk 2) and bags in my basement:
My usual spring/summer/fall sleeping bag is very lightweight and small, and can fit in a small stuff sack on one of the Salsa Anything Cages. My main concern this time around was finding a place to carry my larger winter sleeping bag (seen in the large blue stuff sack on the right). My stroke of genius came when I realized I could take the sleeping bag out of the stuff sack, and just stuff it into the main storage compartment of my hydration backpack. Here's everything packed and ready to go:
The stuff in the pile on the left didn't need to be packed, since it's what I would be wearing while on the bike:

The other items I was able to fit in the hydration pack were a first aid kit and my headlamp (plus the 100-ounce water bladder filled). On the bike:
  • Revelate Designs Viscacha Seat Bag
    • Camp stove
    • Fuel can for camp stove
    • Camp cooking pot with lid
    • Camp plate
    • Down jacket in 2-liter stuff sack
  • Revelate Designs Jerry Can top-tube bag (near seat post)
    • Spare fat bike inner tube
  • Revelate Designs Fuel Tank top-tube bag
    • Smartphone in BiKASE waterproof holder
    • Clif bar
    • Gel snack packet
    • Wallet
  • Revelate Designs Mountain Feed Bag
  • Revelate Designs/Salsa Cycles frame bag
  • Salsa Anything Cage with 5-liter stuff sack (left):
    • Sleeping pad
    • Camp pillow
    • Waterproof matches and fire-starter sticks
  • Salsa Anything Cage with 5-liter stuff sack (right):
    • Down booties
    • Spare wool socks (SmartWool ski socks)
    • Eyeglasses case
So, armed with two days off, I (Kevin) met Chris and our friend Brent in Peninsula on Wednesday morning. We packed up Chris's mom's family comfort cruiser van and headed out a little after 10:00am.

The weather proved appropriate for our winter bike-camping endeavor, and the Ohio turnpike traffic was treacherous.
We made a lunch pit stop at a Promised Land outside Youngstown.
We continued across state lines, and arrived at Oil Creek State park without incident.
We stopped in the park office to make sure our shelter reservation was in order, let them know we'd be leaving the van at the office overnight, and say Hi to the local rangers. They said, "So you're going to hike to the Wolfkiel shelters?" We said, "No, we're going to bike." "You're going to WHAT?" Once we explained the fat bike concept to them, they told us that last weekend, there was a big fat bike race in the area, which drew a lot of attention from around the state.

We made our final gear preparations and got ready to hit the trail.
Kevin's Salsa Mukluk ready to ride
Chris's Salsa Mukluk (borrowed from the Peninsula rental fleet) ready to ride
Brent rode his brand new Surly Ice Cream Truck.

Before we set out, a couple of the park rangers came out to check out our gear, and asked if they could take our picture and post it on their Facebook page:
We finally headed out around 1:30pm. There was a short stretch (about 1/2 mile) of road before the bike trail began. The road had a layer of fresh slushy snow on it--short order for our fat bike tires to handle.

Once we got to the bike trail, we found it to be covered in at least six inches of fresh snow. There were some recent hiking tracks, but it looked like they had been covered over by a day or two's worth of new snow, so we were pretty much breaking fresh trail with our bikes. Even with the fat snow bike tires, this proved rather difficult, and it was slow going.
The scenery around the state park along the Oil Creek provided a welcome distraction, though. The Oil City area is the site of the first discovery of oil in the US, and much of the historical exhibits focus on the old original oil derricks and related items.
We continued to trudge along through the wet, sticky snow. Brent and I took turns every quarter-mile or so, with one of us leading the way, while the other followed along in the tire track. Chris lagged a bit behind.
At not quite 2 miles along, we crossed a bridge over Oil Creek, with its surface almost completely frozen over.
A bit further out, we came to the first of two warming huts along the trail.
At the 3-mile mark, we came to the second warming hut. The temperatures were in about the mid-20's range, perfect snow-biking conditions, and as we pedaled along, we actually got pretty warm. I took off my outer ski gloves and opened up my jacket to ventilate as we waited a while for Chris to catch up again.
Between the 3rd and 4th miles, there were some hiker tracks that were a little fresher, still covered with snow, but they made the trail a little more packed down and easier to navigate. Brent and I still took our turns. The 5th mile was the worst of all, with the deepest un-tracked snow we came across all day. A consistent problem was the snow packing up on our pedals, making it hard for our boots to grip to control the bikes.

Finally, just before dark, we arrived at the trailhead leading up to the shelters.
For the first part of this trail, the snow wasn't too deep, was somewhat packed, and very bike-able. It wasn't long, however, before it turned steeply uphill. It would have been quite a challenge just walking up this trail in the snow, even not considering pushing 60 pounds of bike and gear.
When we finally made it to the shelter, before we let ourselves get too comfortable, Brent got busy starting the fire, while I robbed all of the neighboring shelters of their stock of firewood. About 15 minutes later, Chris arrived, and we unpacked our gear and got busy making our dinners.
The shelter gave of plenty of room to sleep three-across with plenty of elbow room; it could sleep 4 or 5 who are willing to get cozy pretty easily, and at 15 bucks a night, it's a bargain accommodation.
We enjoyed our dinners, then sat and did the usual campfire shooting-the-breeze before we settled into our sleeping bags. The temperatures stayed about the same, and it wasn't too windy, so despite the open side of the shelter, the fire kept us pretty comfortable.

I didn't sleep so well most of the night, though, possibly from all the caffeine I drank at lunch, or maybe due to dehydration, or maybe a little of both. I took more than my fair share of turns adding wood to keep the campfire going. At one point, I think I spent about an hour just sitting up and staring at the fire, one of the simple pleasures of camping. Not long before sunrise, I think I got about an hour of good sleep, then around 8:00am, all three of us woke up, with the fire nearly out, and all three of us freezing. Chris made short work of getting the fire going again, so we were comfortable preparing our breakfasts and coffee and re-packing our gear. I ate my Dark Chocolate Cheesecake dessert for breakfast, and decided to save my Egg-n-Baco Omelette for a future trip.

The morning light provided a better view of the outside of the shelter:
We headed out around 9:40am. The downhill trail off the ridge made it a much easier trip compared to the uphill slog the night before. My mountain biking skills came in handy, although I did have to dab a foot here and there, and walk over a small rocky stream crossing. Back on the flat section, there's a bridge that would only be ride-able for the most expert snow biker.
Still, what was a 30-minute hike uphill the previous night was a 10-minute downhill ride. Brent and I waited at the bike path for another 10 minutes until Chris caught up. We made sure we had his car keys before heading back for the 5-mile ride on the bike path back to the park office.

Despite more fresh snow overnight, out tire tracks from the day before were still visible and packed, so that made the trip back a little easier. Still, steering along an existing tire track is much harder than it sounds, and takes all of your concentration, making it tough to enjoy the scenery around us. Occasionally, we'd still lose control and have to stop, dismount, knock the snow off our pedals, and get going again every quarter-mile or half-mile.

Partway back, we passed a group of three hunters (and their two dogs). We were minor celebrities already, because they said they had seen our picture on the park's Facebook page the day before!

Brent and I made it back to the van about 90 minutes after we left the shelter. We changed into dry clothes, and waited in the warm running van for Chris to arrive a while later.
Another bike-camping overnight trip in the books, our first on snow bikes, with tales of adventure to tell!

If you're thinking about a bike touring overnight trip, whether it's a one-night S24O or a months-long cross-country trek, come to Century Cycles for your gear and expert advice! And, come to our FREE Bike Touring Class on Saturday, February 7, 2015 at 1:30pm in our Peninsula and Rocky River stores, part of our School Of Bike series!


  1. You guys Rock!! I enjoyed reading about your adventure, thanks for sharing.

  2. Great insight for those of us who want to try this someday. Thanks for posting.