Public land hunting offers many opportunities to get deep into the woods to pursue your quarry. Bicycles can be a great way to get access through designated forest trails and fire roads (which may have seasonal motor vehicle closures) and get you deep into the field more quickly and efficiently for your hunt.
We should probably start out by mentioning that bikes are not meant for every trail and situation. Check trail restrictions, respect other trail users, know the terrain, know the limitations of you and your equipment. Think ahead: This trail might be rideable in the summer when you’ve only got a small scouting pack, but how will it go when you are loaded up with all your hunting gear? Plus, if you are fortunate enough to harvest an animal, how will the meat ride? How many trips are you going to need to make to get it all home?
Remember, the best bike is going to be the one you ride. Get one that’s comfortable and gets you excited to ride it. Below is a list of things to consider, but really all of these are secondary to you finding the bike that fits you, your price point, and your riding ability.
Before you head out bike hunting (Hunting to buy a bike, not hunting with the bike, that is for later), here are a couple questions to ask yourself:
Do you plan to pull a trailer?
If you think you’ll be traveling on relatively smooth trails without too much grade or technical riding, you may be able to pull a trailer behind your bike. I prefer to have as little weight on my back as possible (none if I can make it happen), so I prefer to pull a trailer whenever possible. Keep in mind that a trailer is more moving parts and therefore more things to go wrong on the trail, but moving weight off your back and your bike will be a huge advantage.
If you will use a trailer, consider where the hitch will connect, which is usually the seat post or rear axle. A trailer will put more stress on the rear triangle of the bike, so you’ll need to do a little more thorough inspection to make sure this area has been built well and hasn’t been sacrificed to reduce frame weight. Are the welds good? Does it look to be built to withstand serious riding? Do there appear to be any weak points that may succumb to fatigue or failure? Although the trailer will carry a lot of the load of your gear and meat through its own wheels, a good amount will be transferred to your bike as well. If connecting at your seatpost, you won’t be able to utilize a dropper-style post. A standard post will be your best bet. It is preferable to have a 10mm or 12mm thru axle in the rear of your bike as well. Not only are they a sturdier trailer connection point than your standard quick-release type, they will make your bike ride more solidly as well. The less flex and movement in your bike and gear, the more comfortable and efficient your ride will be.
Will hunting be the primary reason for riding?
A great bike will make you want to ride it all the time. If you’re only going to have one bike, make it one that you’ll want to ride all summer long. The more you ride, the more comfortable you’ll be, and better shape you’ll be in come fall.
Suspension and Bike “Type”
Look at this section. It is the largest of the whole post because it will be the decision that has the largest effect on the actual type of bike you buy. And this section could be much, much longer. The moral of the story for this section is to prepare yourself to make trade-offs in the bike you want, or prepare to own several bikes. An optimal bike for hunting is going to be very efficient and rugged, so likely rigid (no suspension) and built sturdy to carry all your gear. But the optimal bike for hunting may not be the best choice if you want to do a lot of rides that are not camping/hunting oriented. You could have two front forks (one rigid and one suspension) and swap them out relatively easily if you know your way around a bicycle, and that will add a lot of versatility to your riding. But, for my situation, I’ve got two very different bikes…and I used to have more. One is a high-end full suspension frame (currently an Intense Uzzi), and the other is a rigid fat bike (currently a Norco Bigfoot). I don’t want to have more than two bikes, and I honestly don’t want to have more than one bike, but my riding style is varied enough to require very different bikes in order for the riding to be enjoyable. And to be absolutely honest, neither of them is the perfect bike for hunting or camping. I take the fat bike hunting with a trailer because it is a very sturdy and utilitarian frame, has a lot of points to connect racks and my bow scabbard, has a comfortable cockpit, and seems to look cool rolling down the trail while laden with gear and oversize 4” tires. The downside? The rolling resistance of the fat tires makes the bike less efficient than even my 7” travel full suspension bike, the extremely wide tires affect the straight-line tracking, and it’s fully rigid, so a much rougher ride than my other setup. But I like it because I can ride snow trails in the winter (super fun), and ride on the beach when I clamming or fishing in the summer (also super fun), and I don’t want a third bike hanging around in the garage ten months of the year for my wife to bring up when we are fighting about unrelated topics and she needs an example to help emphasize her point about my lack of reasonableness. I don’t use my full suspension bike for hunting because it can’t accommodate a front rack due to the front suspension, has limited area to attach gear due to the rear suspension, and doesn’t quite have the right geometry for comfortable all-day pedaling. Plus, for the suspension to really work correctly, I would have to make adjustments to the fork and shock based on how much weight I had on the bike. My full-suspension bike is really designed towards descending rocky, technical trails at high speeds. Conversely, my fat bike is designed a bit more for plodding along and enjoying the countryside, which makes the riding position quite a bit more comfortable when pedaling. So that what I go with, because it works pretty well and I have uses for it beyond just hunting season.
Salsa and Surly are a couple great manufacturers that have bikes geared towards bikepacking, long distance touring, and even hauling groceries. Specialized and Trek are great if you’re newer to biking and want to check out to see the full spectrum of bikes out there.
So here are the parts of the bike I consider when picking a ride for hunting:
As mentioned above, sturdy axles will be better when pulling a trailer. But, they will actually make a noticeably better all-around ride as well. They will also make the bike more responsive and solid-feeling when loaded. Go for the “thru-axle” or “bolt-on” style instead of the quick release or “QR” (you can see the difference in diameter in the left photo above). The QR was the industry standard for decades, but they have recently given up the throne. To complicate the terminology, thru-axles can have quick release mechanisms as well. What you want to try and avoid is the skewer-type quick release. The thru-axles will generally have a 15mm diameter for the front axle, and 10mm or 12mm for the rear axle.
Your option for frame material is generally going to be steel, aluminum, or carbon fiber. Titanium has lost its place in the bike market now that carbon construction has come down in price. As for carbon fiber, I would not use a carbon bike for hunting. It could be used for “bikepacking”, where you’re traveling around living off the gear you can pack on your bike. But, hunting is going to involve pretty heavy loads, which are usually at or above the weight limits the manufacturer was expecting when designing the bike. Although carbon has had huge recent improvements in its strength and reliability, using a bike for hunting with 100+ pounds of additional gear load is still really not something the bike was designed to endure. That doesn’t mean it can’t handle it, but it’s an unknown variable that I wouldn’t recommend testing in the backcountry. Steel and aluminum are really equal in my eye, but it just depends on your personal preference. Steel will have a little more of a forgiving ride if you’re on a rigid bike, but aluminum will generally be lighter and feel more responsive. There are some folks that are steel hardtail die-hards because they prefer the ride-feel of the steel frame.
Although steel is stronger than aluminum when tested in a laboratory, they are nearly equal when crafted into a bike frame. Just because raw steel is stronger than raw aluminum doesn’t mean manufacturers are overbuilding steel frames for unnecessary strength gains without giving consideration to the weight penalty. The weight is really the manufacturer’s main objective, so they are reducing the frame tubing size to accomplish weight reduction. The only advantage I would really consider giving steel would be the fact that a steel frame may fail less catastrophically than an aluminum frame if overloaded or damaged. Aluminum is strong but brittle, so it has a tendency to crack and abruptly fail. A steel frame, on the other hand, has greater “toughness” (per the materials engineering definition of the word) and may go through more bending and deformation before leaving you stranded.
My recommendation: Don’t get too concerned with the frame material, as long as it’s steel or aluminum. Test ride both, you may or may not notice a difference in the feel of the ride.
Check out the welds of any bike you plan to buy. Actually, give the whole bike a once-over to make sure there is no damage from shipping or assembly. This goes for any bike you are considering, but is especially important for a bike you plan to load up for camping or hunting in the woods. Generally, the quality of craftsmanship is way up from what it was 10 or 15 years ago. Nearly every high-end U.S. based bike manufacturer has switched to having their bikes produced oversees, mainly in Taiwan. Bikes coming out of Taiwan are very high quality, but you should still be on the lookout for poor quality control. Be warier of bikes out of China. Their quality has improved over recent years, but still lower quality than bikes assembled in Taiwan or domestically.
Attachment points for gear
If you’re always going to be pulling an axle-hitch trailer, you may not really need many braze-ons for attaching racks and gear mounts. But, it’s great to have the option not to pull a trailer on some trails. Some guys will put a lot of weight on their back while riding, but I loathe carrying a heavy pack while biking. Versatility is best, and you’re going to have more versatility if you can attach more equipment to your bike. There are some good frame bags, seat bags, and handlebar bags that will help you carry smaller items, but you’ll want to consider front and rear racks for heavier loads. These racks are usually rated for 30-50 lbs each. Check for braze-ons on the rear triangle of the bike, the downtube, and front fork. I mount a rack on my front fork with bow and scabbard on one side, and usually a pannier of light gear on the other for weight balance.
Tires and Wheels
Here’s the quick response: 2.3”-2.75” tire width, and whatever wheel diameter you want. The long answer is discussed in agonizing detail on any of the mountain biking forums on the internet. As I’ve mentioned above, I’m rolling with 4” wide fat bike tires. The tire width and tread pattern can be optimized to the terrain you’ll be riding, but you should really just pick a good all-around tire that will have a good balance between traction and rolling resistance. No real need to worry about corning ability unless you’re being chased down by a mountain lion (Which could be possible if you’re towing a load of meat, now that I think about it).
Most higher-end mountain bikes don’t come with pedals. If they do have pedals, it’s probably a cheap nylon $5 set that the bike shop threw on. These are fine for a test-ride around the parking lot, but that’s about it. Pick up a pair of wide, sturdy platform-style pedals that you can comfortably ride while in your boots. You can find a set online staring at about $25.
When you are loaded up and hauling gear and meat, you really shouldn’t be going more than a few miles per hour. Going much faster is going to cause a lot of vibration and stress to your bike and compromise your ability to make it out of the woods while riding the bike rather than pushing or dragging it. That being said, there are inevitably going to be times when you’re dragging both brakes down a steep pitch, making the rotors glow bright red like a Formula 1 car trying to slow down from 220mph at Le Mans. Well, probably not that red. Probably not even close to that at all, but it was a cool metaphor.
You really shouldn’t have anything other than hydraulic disk brakes if you can help it. They are reliable, self-adjusting, and currently the state of the industry. A solid mountain bike should have hydraulic disk brakes, and I really only bring it up because some fat bikes manufacturers equip their bikes with cable disk. Cable brakes are theoretically better if there were a brake failure, as you could fashion up a MacGyver trick using frontier know-how (or carry an extra cable with you if one fails). A blown or pinched hydraulic hose is unrepairable on the trail. But I’ll stick to my hydraulic brakes. In the extremely rare situation that both of them were destroyed, I’ll tie a log to the back of my bike with some paracord and drag it behind me to slow me down.
One quick techy point to make is that different brake fluids behave differently in cold temperatures. Both DOT brake fluid and mineral oil are used in mountain bike brakes, but you must use the type of fluid the brake was designed for. I highly recommend finding brakes that use DOT fluid, since mineral oil brakes will start to significantly lose stopping power if below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
This one is actually a little tricky. Intuitively, you may say “I’m going to have a heavier load on my pack or trailer, so I should make sure a have a super low granny gear chainring to make sure I can take on those steep climbs.” Realistically, you’re going to be packing all your gear and find yourself staring at a modestly uphill grade and say “F this hill, I’m just going to walk”. Bikes help you get further on the flatter sections quicker and with less effort. There is no reason to burn yourself out on the hills when you’re not even hunting yet. The dual and triple chainring setups on bikes are going the way of the dodo, but still have some limited use. The single chainrings with larger rear cassette gears can get you geared down as low as you really need. I recommend going with the simpler setup, the single chainring.
No matter what bike you go with, make sure you trust it. Ride it, train on it, and try to simulate what you’re going to be experiencing in the fall. Get it professionally tuned up if you’re not real handy around bikes, and learn enough about the bike to do any “frontier-fixes” if needed.