In Wisconsin, there are four seasons — winter, a little bit of spring, some road construction with mosquitos thrown in, and then usually a gorgeous fall. Getting outside can be hard in the winter, but offers an amazing experience if you’re willing to put in the effort.
I wanted to plan a bikepacking trip in the winter for a couple of different reasons. The first being winter shouldn’t stop me from getting outside and having fun. Completely staying inside for three months doesn’t sit well with me. John Steinbeck once said in Travels with Charley “what good is the warmth of summer without the cold of winter to give its sweetness”.
Second, I was starting to empty my “cup”. In nursing, there is a saying that you can’t fill from an empty cup, meaning that you need to take care of your mental health so that you can care for patients. Between work and school, I knew I needed to fill my cup again. This doesn’t just apply to health care workers, this applies to everyone! Taking time for yourself can be really hard especially if you are a parent (I’m out of my depth on this one but I know it can take its toll), but can allow you to be more successful in work and life, and happier too!
A night in the backcountry away from everyone with some exploring on a bike is just what I need. When I told friends and family about my winter overnight bikepacking expedition, responses varied from ‘you’re going to freeze’ to ‘you are crazy’ (which I know). I couldn’t find anyone to join so the bad idea club had one member.
Admittedly, this trip scared me. I started checking the forecast maybe two weeks before this trip and I was seeing lows of -10°F at night. My sleeping quilt is rated to 0° and while Hammock Gear comfort rates their stuff, I still wasn’t thrilled about that. I would have had to pretty much jump off the bike and into my sleeping bag.
Negative temperatures also provide additional challenges with cooking as you then have to use a white gas stove. I have a white gas stove. However, I’d never used it. The idea of having my first backcountry use of a white gas stove in -10°F weather didn’t really sound ideal to me.
I watched the predicted lows steadily climb to a more manageable 18°F and I thought I could use the MSR Whisperlite Universal with a fuel canister. Spoiler alert here, I was mistaken. Finally, I was worried about a fire, so I brought a cooking blow torch.
I decided to choose a route that I had ridden in the summer. This route contains a shelter on the Ice Age Trail so I knew that if the weather took a nasty turn that I would be OK. And the singletrack in this place, holy buckets. It is world class! Groomed trails allowed my 50+ pound loaded-up bike to roll. My goal was to get to the shelter by about 5 pm knowing that the sun sets around 6 pm, which would give me an hour to set up camp.
Riding in the snow is quite different than riding on dirt. I’ve found I can't lean into a corner quite as much as I can on dirt as there is not as much traction.
I was up till midnight the night of the trip getting Bear (Bear is my bike) packed up. The next morning, I got a later start than what I hoped but that’s the story of my life.
It was time to set off!! They had groomed about 4 miles of singletrack to the south of the trailhead. The shelter was maybe 8 miles to the north, so I thought ‘meh, let’s tool around.’ I rode all four miles and ended up riding along a semi frozen river for a little bit! The views and the trails … I can’t describe how amazing they were!
Going north from the trailhead had tough climbs, tight switchbacks and tricky descents. Because my bike was so loaded with gear, this part was not fun. I definitely stopped and cursed out the trailmakers a few different times. I definitely also performed some random gravity checks to see how soft the snow really was. It was really soft but cold.
Once I got past some of these climbs, I had the opportunity to ride on a frozen hard packed lake. I can’t recommend this experience enough. Being able to explore a place in a different manner than what you can experience in the summer is priceless.
I made a rookie mistake of not packing snacks for myself to eat while I was riding, so I gunned it to the shelter. I started to set up camp around five thirty. I got my hammock set up and I was thrilled to see that there was firewood! Perfect!
I immediately got to work on starting a fire especially considering that I didn’t bring any fire starters like lint. I did have some paper that I grabbed. I chopped up a fair amount of kindling and thought I’d be able to start a fire. I was mistaken. After about twenty minutes of valiantly trying, I ended up deciding to blowtorch the kindling, hoping that that would start a fire. It worked!
I started gathering snow to melt as I didn’t pack a ton of water. I got the MSR Whisperlite Universal lit pretty easily and got some snow going in my pot. But, it was 22°F outside and I was struggling to get a strong enough flame. After about 30 minutes, I had melted a fair amount of snow but the water wasn’t boiling, which is what is needed to make my dinner. I ended up running my stove for 3+ hours to get boiling water and enough snowmelt to drink. Next time I’ll be using the white gas attachment for the Whisperlite.
When I finally had enough water, I shut off the stove, and jumped in my hammock with my zero degree quilt, and started reading Travels with Charley! I felt that this book was appropriate with my tendencies to roam.
As I started to nod off, I heard a howling. I have heard coyotes howling before and this was not coyotes. On a full moon, I can only assume this was wolves. If you have experience with the Wisconsin Wausau area and know of what I heard, leave it in the comments! I had bear spray in my hammock but I was hoping not to have to use it.
I slept for around 10 hours and woke up to about 30°F in my hammock and about 12°F outside. That’s chilly! I started up the stove to make some instant coffee (my only essential) and oatmeal. I started packing up and, low and behold, Shane Hitz rode up, started asking me some questions about winter bikepacking! He’s been on the cover of the BikeFed, a magazine and organization dedicated to moving bicycling forward in Wisconsin. He’s doing a lot of cool things in bikepacking!
I packed up and left around 9 am knowing I had two quizzes to study for and also had to clean the house up.
I started riding. Somewhere along the line, I ended up in a loop and after two miles I was back at my shelter! This was disheartening to say the least as I had so much homework. This adulting thing sucks. I got oriented and started making my way back toward where I had parked. I was riding along, and after about an hour decided to do another map check. I find I’m closer to the shelter than my car after. That couldn’t be right. I started backtracking.
Eventually, I ran into Shane Hitz again! And who should he have with him but the creator of the Underdown mountain bike trails, Chris Schotz. I avoid mentioning that I cussed him out at least five times the previous night while riding to camp right. They got me sorted out and sent me on my way suffering back to my car!
What I Would Tell Myself Next Time
- Learn to use a white gas stove you fool
- Pack more food, especially within easy reach while I’m biking
- Live in the moment and appreciate the silence
- Have fun! This is supposed to be fun!
- The people you meet on this trip are amazing!
- Figure out a solution to the condensation
At no time was I truly cold during this trip, but I was uncomfortable. And I was OK with that because being uncomfortable is where growth occurs. If you live an easy life, you get complacent. I want to grow, I want to stretch my capabilities, and this was exactly what was needed. This has been a much needed retreat. When’s the next bikepacking trip?
For more info on winter bikepacking gear, check out this doc:
Wonderful reading. I admire your spirit & tenacity. After hiking sections during the summer on foot, you inspire me with reports of the beautiful experience & natural delight. Looking forward to getting out, myself. Thanx
Thanks for this interesting article
I’ve always liked to winter camp and I still like to winter camp, even at my advanced (geezer) age. Just did it Feb. 24 at 8,000 ft.
Now I’m taking delivery on a “JEEP” of an e-,mountain bike, the E-CELLS Super Monarch Crown with 2 wheel drive, 2 batteries and dual suspension. I got it for bike camping to explore Nevada’s mining ghost towns and roads and to hunt with. I think it would be good for winter camping as well. And since I have all the gear, why not? (WAIT! does this mean I have to sleep with two batteries??)
Nicole Treehugger Peters
Hi Ryan, Congratulations on getting out there and experiencing a part of the IAT in winter! I’m so happy to hear you intend to do more bike-packing in the future. I thru hiked the IAT this past year and yes, there are several wolf packs residing in that and other areas of the trail. Isn’t it magical hearing their calls?! Thanks for sharing some of your experience here. All the best to you.
Hi Ryan. Love the trip report on your Underdown experience. We certainly have wolves in the area among other wildlife. Dog Lake and the Schotz shelter is a special place for many bikers and hikers. Glad you had a memorable trip.