Route Planning in the Modern Age
–photos and words by Donnie
Route planning is part art, part hard work. Like most things, one gets better at it with experience. In the meantime expect to ride a lot of bad roads, get lost frequently, and spend a considerable part of every trip re-routing to get where you want to go. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will your route planning skills. Hopefully by giving you a window into how we do things at Oregon Bikepacking you can find ways to improve upon or simply get started in the process. Admittedly, it can be daunting at first, but in the long run it can be much more rewarding than blindly following some schmuck’s route you found on the internet…
Before you get to route planning, you first need to figure out a couple things:
1) how many days do I have
2) how many miles do I want to cover in a day
As many of you already know, riding dirt and gravel is harder than riding pavement. Riding dirt and gravel loaded down is one step harder than that. Be realistic about your daily mileage. I’m slow, so I find that riding 60+ miles a day on unknown ground typically means I’m riding all day. I don’t like riding all day. I like taking pictures, drinking cold beers by the creek, and finishing my day with enough time to make camp and get a fire going before dark. Depending on the experience you want to have, expect to ride somewhere in the range of 30-70 miles a day. Don’t feel any obligation to push your mileage to impress others – the only contest you want to win is who had the most fun.
For bikepacking routes, I prefer a minimum of three days out. It’s hard to cover enough ground in two days to make an interesting route, and frankly, carrying all that gear for one night seems like a waste.
Now that you’ve got that figured out, determine roughly where you want to go. Realistically, it doesn’t make sense to drive 400 miles for an overnight route. The longer the trip, the more logical it will be to get further from home.
Within your region of choice determine a few possible start/end points depending on your mode of transportation. If you’re taking public transportation your options will be few, if any. If you’re driving, narrow it down to places you can safely ditch a car for the length of your trip. Your region of choice will often naturally limit the number of good start/end locations. The more remote you go, the fewer realistic options you’ll find. Take heart if this is the case, it’s often easier to plan a route when you have fewer options.
I tend to look for small towns, ranger stations, hotels, trailheads (e.g. PCT), and other places where a strange vehicle left for a couple nights won’t be a nuisance or raise suspicion but still be relatively safe.
Once I have a general area figured out and know roughly how many miles I have to work with, it’s time for the fun part – maps. I own a lot of them; I’ve loved maps all my life and I geek out on them. While helpful, this is not a necessary condition to planning a good route. What is necessary is spending some time with them. Typically, I start with the Benchmark Oregon Road & Recreation Atlas. Because it covers the whole state and includes a variety of features it’s a great way to get a rough idea of what’s out there. In no particular order, here are examples of some features I look for:
- Hot Springs
- Historic cemeteries
- Ghost towns
- Geologic oddities (e.g. Hole in the Ground)
- Historic sites
If it’s helpful, make a list of the things you find interesting – the more the better. And prioritize them – realistically you can’t see them all in one trip so you’re going to have to makes some choices once you start putting your physical route together. Keep in mind where you expect to start from and how many miles you plan to ride overall. Keep it realistic.
Now it’s time to add some complexity to the process – more maps. While many people default to Google maps, I save this for last, if I even use it at all. Typically I start with any recreation maps that overlay my region of interest – specifically those sold/endorsed by the National Forest, National Parks, BLM, etc. They tend to show different features than the Benchmark Atlas and can be a good way to add flavor to your route.
This is a good time when more is better – the more maps you look at, the more different random stuff you’ll find. One uniquely valuable resource is USGS.gov, which has current and historic maps available for free download. Here’s a cool example of a historic map showing interesting details you won’t find on current maps.
At this point you should have an idea of the region you want to visit, a rough idea of how many total miles you want to ride, one or more potential starting locations, and a list of cool stuff you want to check out. Now it’s time to tie it all together.
This is where things get murky and reasonable minds can differ wildly – how does one determine by looking at a map the “best” way to link up a bunch of features? It’s hard to say. This is where experience and personal preference come strongly into play.
Because we’re bikepacking, I start with dirt and gravel roads and trails. Sometimes there’s only one way to connect two points and stay on dirt. If I have options, I tend to focus on river and ridges. Rivers are nice because they’re scenic, offer opportunities to cool off, and the grades are usually tame. Ridges, while difficult to gain, are generally the most scenic.
Use all the maps available to you to find interesting terrain and different route alternatives. In addition to historic maps, you can download current 7.5’ x 7.5’ topo maps for free from USGS.gov. These will give you a sense of the topography and potentially provide more road options. I keep an eye out for interesting things like canyons, gaps, steep cliffs, craters, springs, etc.
This is also the best time to incorporate satellite imagery. While you could turn to Google maps here, I suggest two better alternatives. The first is RideWithGPS.com (“RWGPS”). I prefer to map routes online with RWGPS – it’s easy to use, offers a variety of useful mapping tools, and also allows you to switch back and forth between various map types, including Google maps, satellite imagery, OSM maps, etc. The other online mapping tool I recommend is Hillmap.com. I love the split screen and I will often upload the gpx tracks from a potential route into Hillmap so I don’t have to switch back and forth between formats in RWGPS.
The more remote the route, the more likely I am to incorporate satellite imagery into route planning, primarily to confirm that a road exists. With modern bikepacking rigs, especially with “plus” size tires, if I can see a road exists on the satellite view, that’s enough for me. It might be rough, but at least there’s a way through.
One thing you should constantly keep in mind both when planning routes and when riding them is that not every road on every map actually exists. The more you ride, the more inconsistencies you’ll find. This is where experience most strongly comes into play – you’ll eventually get a feel for which maps are the most accurate for a given area. As a general rule, I rely most heavily on the maps put out by the land managers with jurisdiction over that particular area – e.g. if I’m on BLM land, I rely most heavily on BLM maps. This means I’m often using different maps for different portions of any given route.
Pro tip: The Benchmark Atlas is my preferred option for standard public roads.
The dirty little secret of bikepacking is how much pavement most routes actually have. You won’t see it in our glossy photos, but trust me, it’s there. Accept it.
Sometimes pavement is absolutely necessary in order to put a route together and link it up with a reasonable start/end location and services. Other times it’s optional, but desired because it allows you link up features that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. For particularly long routes, like the Oregon Outback, it’s a given. The best you can do is minimize it as much as possible and inflate your tires when you get there… Typically I aim for less than 25% pavement, but I don’t have any hard and fast rules and I will absolutely ride more pavement if it makes for a better overall route.
Being familiar with land ownership is a big help both in planning and on your ride. First, it’ll give you a good idea of where you can bush camp. I rarely camp in established campgrounds anymore. Why pay money to camp 20 feet from an RV when you can often find choice campsites in remote locations far from anyone, for free. You’ll want to know when you pass that ideal camp spot whether you’re on public or private land.
Another reason comes mostly into play when riding through more remote areas. It’s quite common to hit a “dead end”, where a road enters private property and the landowner restricts access. If you can definitively point out on a map that the land or the road is owned by the BLM, for example, you have every right to hop the fence and keep going. If it’s private, at least you’ll know you why they’re shooting at you…
The West has a multitude of federal wilderness areas. Those familiar with them know there are particular restrictions put on bicycle travel, in that generally it’s not allowed. Knowing where the borders are and whether there are easements allowing auto & bike traffic on particular segments is very handy.
Many of the government endorsed maps will show rough outlines of land ownership, for example if it’s BLM, National Forest, State Forest, private, etc. These are helpful, but not always totally accurate. I prefer to rely on the BLM Surface Maps when I think it might be an issue.
Balancing the Flavors
One thing I struggle with in route planning is doing enough research to make sure I’m not getting myself into something stupid, but not so much as to take the discovery out of riding the route. It’s a fine line that the internet makes easy to cross, especially once you get into using the “explore” option on Google maps (it links online images with location data). Although I really enjoy the route planning process and love quality time with my maps, once I hit the point where I feel like I know “enough”, I stop, call the route good, and move on to my bike, kit, researching weather patterns, etc.
Hopefully by now you’ve identified enough information to start mapping out a route. This can be a time consuming process and it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
Depending on the region you’re heading to, keep access to water, services, and good camp spots in mind when planning the overall route. Sometimes long stretches without them are unavoidable or even desired, so there’s not much we can offer in the way of help in planning out these sections. But obviously it’s preferable to camp at a water source and have decent camping options available at roughly a day’s ride. I often break my route down into days with a good campsite as the focus, so that’s one way to go about doing it. Just keep an eye on your daily mileage and elevation gain, especially when routing through the Coast and Cascade ranges. Adjust accordingly.
During this process I try not to force anything. I spend quality time going over all the available maps and at some point certain roads start to stand out – typically ones that fit the above categories by including rivers, ridges, and other unique geologic features. Don’t get discouraged – sometimes there really isn’t a good option for a particular segment, or you just have to pick one alternative among many and hope you’re making the best choice. There is no science to it, it really comes down to feel and you’ll get better at it over time. And if you choose wrong, so be it. Just so you know, most of the Oregon Bikepacking routes are not one-off rides – they took multiple trips to find the best alternatives for a given area. I’ve never viewed any of those trips as “failures” just because I didn’t nail the route the first time out.
As noted above, I prefer to do my online mapping with RWGPS. I like futzing with route alternatives and the format makes it easy to adjust, fine tune, and narrow down your final route. It’s also easy to save multiple versions of a route so you can compare various alternatives and to share them with your riding buddies.
Here are a few other tips that didn’t fit into the above discussion:
- The more remote the route, the more sources of information and maps I consult.
- Always be prepared to re-route. If you only research and bring maps covering your exact route, you may not be able to find reasonable alternatives if (when!) things don’t go as planned. I tend to keep track of areas I think might be problematic and have a general idea of one or more alternatives if needed.
- In many ways, gravel and dirt routes are easier to plan than paved routes. No map can tell you whether a paved road is good for riding – how’s the shoulder, traffic speed, driver friendliness? Dirt is easy – if I can look at a satellite image and see that tracks exist, I can ride it.
- Rather than plan a route around a number of days or miles, one alternative I use more frequently now is to plan the “ultimate” route for a particular area, then figure out how to make the time to ride it. For example, I have several trans-Oregon routes mapped out, similar to the Outback, just waiting until I have enough time to ride them. It’s not the most efficient planning process for most folks dealing with vacation time, families, etc., but it’s another way to go about the process.
Taking it to the Next Level
Once you’ve got the above nailed, here’s how to take things even further:
- Singletrack: If you’ve got the technical abilities, incorporate sections of singletrack into your route. Examples in two of our routes include the Pioneer Bridle Trail (Barlow Trail), and Gunsight and Surveryor’s Ridges (Gunsight Ridge).
- History: I particularly enjoy working historic trails and places into routes. For example, I recently incorporated a historical military wagon road into a 4 day trip just because it seemed like an awesome thing to do… (it was). Both the Barlow Trail and Gunsight Ridge routes include portions of the original Oregon Trail. The Toll Road route includes portions of a historic wagon route over the Coast Range. And the Cascade Skyline route includes sections of the Skyline Trail, the precursor to the PCT. It’s a somewhat pointless, geeky thing to do, but I think it adds substance to something that can otherwise be quite arbitrary.
- Literature: I find that reading books specific to a place before I visit tends to make for a more enriching experience and can provide additional places to incorporate into your route.
Final note: Obviously this is not an exhaustive list and not the exclusive method for route planning. Ask a dozen bikers this question, get a dozen answers. But hopefully this provides those of you interested with an idea of how we do things around Oregon Bikepacking and a starting place to begin planning your own trips. And once you get started, don’t let anyone tell you you’re doing it wrong – there is no wrong way to plan or ride a route. If you’re doing it the way you want to do it and having fun then it’s the right way. Cheers!