March 09, 2023
Over the years, I have chosen to ditch the truck and use my 15-year-old mountain bike to increase my success and create a "backcountry camp" experience during Western hunting seasons. Using a converted kid-carrying trailer as a gear and meat hauler, I start each morning from a well-stocked, comfortable camp far away from the dusty roar of hunters traveling from their vehicle-based camps before daylight.
My camp is about a 1 1/2-mile ride that includes an honest climb preceded by a cross-country stretch to a non-descript shady spot in the lodgepole pines. It’s a two-track road where the grazing permittee comes through once a week to fill stock tanks for his cattle and mend the electric fence protecting the main meadow complex. This camp in the lodgepole was chosen many years back due to a fallen tree that grew in a forked pattern leaving a perfect space to nestle in a large locking plastic tote.
Covered with forest litter and logs, this weather- and rodent-proof capsule remained hidden for a decade and provided a solid place to cache water and other supplies, such as canned goods, before the season. Fresh TP, stove fuel, rope and a quality camo tarp gave it a bug-out stash feel when supplies remained there for long periods. The bike and trailer unloaded were my backcountry pickup truck.
Motorized closures for roads are one tool used on public lands to protect wildlife and their habitat. In some cases, closures have been used to create a buffer between public and private lands to reduce crop damage and slow the retreat of game animals to the safety of private lands before opening day. Whether it’s a permanent or seasonal closure, the road remains open for administrative uses, but is closed to general motorized traffic. Many e-bikes are considered motorized and are currently not allowed in non-motorized closure areas on U.S Forest Service lands. Although they might be allowed on some trail systems alongside pedal bikes, motorized ORVs and even hikers, there is little room for debate about their use in non-motorized wildlife protection areas.
Elk movements in relation to open roads show a buffer preference or all-out departure to adjacent private lands as hunter traffic increases in late summer. Many private timberlands have gates and walk-in areas where pedal bikes might be allowed. Camping might be restricted in these areas, so know the rules. State wildlife managers have developed various ways to manage hunters and wildlife through programs where open road use during the deer and/or elk seasons might be limited. Maps and signage designate those main roads that are open while many other interior roads are closed, creating larger non-motorized areas during the high-pressure hunting seasons. I’ve always seen these various closures as an advantage given my hunting style, but understand some hunters don’t like gates and closures on perfectly good taxpayer-built roads.
Any off-road bike will work. Older styles will have 26-inch wheels. I like the newer 27 1/2- and 29-inch models because the larger wheels make rolling over uneven ground and obstacles easier. The older 21-speed bikes with three chainring drivetrains are a thing of the past. I upgraded to the newer drivetrains that use one ring at the pedals and up to 12 customizable gears on the rear wheel. This drops weight and improves efficiency with a wider range of gears operated on one shifter. Disc brakes are preferred over caliper styles when hauling heavy loads and trailers. Front shocks seem to be on most bikes these days. They’re not required, but they do offer a smoother ride.
For $25 at a yard sale, my wife purchased an old yellow and blue Schwinn kid trailer with a sling seating system that we used a few times. Removing the seats and securing a few boards with zip ties made a sturdy floor that supports a sizable plastic tote. The aluminum trailer frame extends above the tote like a roof rack, allowing oversized items to be secured with straps. Burley currently makes a flatbed model that should hold a tote just fine. Stay away from the one-wheel trailers. As you stack gear higher on their limited beds, they tend to get tippy. The most important part of the trailer besides the two wheels is the hitch. The one on my Schwinn uses a locking pin to secure the trailer arm into a solid mount on the lower rear frame of the bike. A large spring built into the connection absorbs shock during travel.
Must-haves include a set of U-shaped, rubber-coated gun or bow mounts used on ATVs for your handlebars. Pack a socket wrench for the bolts, along with a general all-purpose tool/repair kit. You will appreciate a quality bike headlight for riding dirt roads in the dark. Using a headlamp in conjunction with a bike headlight lets you scan your surroundings without taking light off the trail. Self-sealing bike tubes are essential. Carry one spare and a patch kit that gets replaced each season. Matched with a good pump, you will be well-prepared. Fill the trailer tire tubes with green Slime, a product that will instantly seal most punctures. Trust me on this one. It’s also worth having a trained bike technician tune the trailer wheels and fix any loose spokes. Your use will exceed any product-testing standards noted during development.
When I started bringing my son along to operate decoys and help call, the rigid tote made packing efficient. Two tents could be laid flat on the bottom and compressed almost paper-thin. Strapping sleeping bags, pads and chairs to the top left room for meals and gear inside. At camp, the tote is used as a table. Topped with camo plywood it’s a safe place to operate the stove and serve meals. On my son’s first bike-in hunt, we stopped to warm our hands and listened to the elk on the hillside above, not knowing he would call one of them in later that morning. That’s the kind of memory a bike rig can create.