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Do you remember that feeling as a kid when you got your first bike? How about when you got your first deer? For many, these are two of the most exciting memories from our youth. The bike meant exhilaration and freedom. Killing a deer called upon more complicated emotions. Both left lasting impressions in our minds, and that associated memory is probably why I have found my favorite hunting access to be from the saddle of two-wheeled, human-powered machine.
Hunting by bicycle access can be an efficient way to a little deeper into the woods in less time than hiking, while expending less energy. But, it isn’t meant to go everywhere. A trail actually has to meet some pretty select criteria for me if I’m going to head out on a bike hunt. The criteria are based on goals of efficiency, safety, respect, and the law.
The first thing to know about a trail is what users are allowed on it, and how heavy the use is. For starters, bikes are not allowed in designated wilderness areas on Forest Service land, so be prepared to unmount and stash you bike when you get to the boundary of any wilderness area, as it will be hike-in access from there onward. Electric bikes, also known as E-bikes, have further restricted use on public trails, as they are technically considered motor vehicles on most Forest Service and BLM land. E-bikes have several advantages over motorcycles in that they are lightweight, efficient, quiet, don’t emit exhaust, and tread more gently on the trails. But, they are motor vehicle travel, and let’s not kid ourselves by thinking they are the same as conventional bicycles.
You should always check the local land management agency’s website to find what users are allowed on specific trails, as well as recent trail reports. If the spring blowdowns have not been cleared, or if the trail is muddy or otherwise vulnerable to erosion, it’s probably best to pick another route. Trails that receive heavy horse traffic should be given consideration as well. The last thing you want to do is come around a corner and spook a pack line. Plus, one main advantage of hunting off a bike is the added mobility and trail range over other hunting pressure. If your frequenting trails with a lot of horse traffic, your not going to be capitalizing on that advantage.
The biggest factor that goes into my trail selection is the technical rating (rocky, rooted, or otherwise steep or uneven condition) of the trail. If I’m heading out with gear for a multi-day hunt, I’m probably going to pick a pretty mellow trail. This is especially true if you are going to be hauling a trailer, since a double wheel trailer will usually require a wider and more developed trail for efficient travel. A single wheel trailer can be pulled on narrower single track, but just be prepared to spend some time and frustration getting bucked around or having to dismount and push. Ideally, I would want to find a trail that is a steady, smooth, uphill grade while heading out to he hunting spot, allowing for a mellow downhill back home if I’m coming out loaded with meat. Fire roads with storm damage that have made them otherwise impassible to motor vehicles (but open to other non-motorized traffic) are great opportunities to extend beyond hiker range into unpressured country. If riding without a trailer, a pack on your back or bike rack (sweet rhyme section right there) can make for an odd center of mass and throw off your balance, limiting your ability to travel some trails. That being said, I will usually take on more technical trail for a day trip where I have a relatively light gear load.
Think through your plan before you load up with a weapon and expensive hunting gear strapped to your bike. A trail that is within your ability level while on a summer recreational ride may turn into a real bear once you head out with your hunting gear. Consider safety before all else.
Bike and Gear Setup
If your in the market for a new bike to take hunting and you need some tips on what to look for, check out my previous article here.
Even though he turned out to be a colossal liar and world-class cheater, Lance Armstrong was still accurate when he said “It’s not about the bike”. If you have a bike with air in the tires and lube on the chain, you can take it hunting. If your current bike has neither of those things and has been sitting in your garage for twelve years, then you may need to reevaluate how ready you are to hunt from it. In reality, if it has been sitting for a year or more, then it should be taken in to a local bike shop for a tune up before riding. Keep in mind that not many bikes are designed with the forethought of carrying a significant load beyond the weight of the rider, so you want to make sure everything is in order and working properly. Don’t get me wrong, bikes are built to take a pretty substantial pounding on the trail, and you can safely load it with an impressive amount of gear provided you’ve properly maintained the bike, balanced your load, and most importantly, realize that you won’t be able to bomb down the trails like a maniac.
My gear loading order of preference is as follows:
- Trailer. If the trail is wide and mellow enough for a two-wheel trailer, then that is where my gear goes. Trailers, even when loaded heavy, are surprisingly efficient and comfortable to pull. As mentioned above, the ability to pull a trailer is controlled by trail conditions and terrain, so give yourself a reality check to see how much time you would be willing to be off the bike pushing it versus the convenience of the time riding with the trailer. With a trailer, the weight of all your gear is primarily going to be transferred straight down into the ground through the trailer wheels, with a small amount of weight transferred through the hitch to the bike itself. This allows for the most comfortable and stable ride. Also, you can usually load up a trailer with a lot more weight than you can comfortably put on a bike. I have hauled out a 150 lb load over 15 miles of bumpy trail without a problem. Lateral load balancing is less of a concern with a two-wheel trailer, but you need to pay more attention to fore-aft balance, since you don’t want the trailer hitch putting excessive downforce into the rear of your bike (or conversely lifting your rear wheel off the ground).
- Rear rack. If I can’t bring a trailer, then I’m going to utilize a rear frame rack as much as possible. With a trailer, you will probably have to use a front rack, since the trailer hitch will use up most of the real estate in the back frame of the bike. Also, I personally get a little nervous about the combined forces of a trailer and rack on the rear triangle of my bike frame. On a rough trail, the rack and trailer are going to be exerting vertical, horizontal, as well as twisting forces over various frame elements, so I usually avoid this situation just for peace of mind. The rear rack requires less effort to balance than one mounted over the front wheel, so that is mainly why it is preferred. Be careful of your loading though, since anything that gets jostled loose could be miles behind you on the trail before you notice. Also, you can easily forget it’s back there, which can result in an unintended roundhouse kick to your bow or rifle as you’re swinging your leg back during a dismount.
- Front rack. The front rack works fine, but it requires quite a bit more energy while riding. Adding just a few pounds on either side of the wheel will slow down your steering considerably, requiring more effort to keep the bike tracking on the trail at slower speeds. I do like mounting my hunting weapon to the front rack, though. It allows me to keep an eye on one of the more expensive pieces of hunting equipment, and make quick adjustments if anything might be coming loose. Since bows and rifles are relatively heavy, I will usually strap a water bottle or small gear sack to the opposite side of the front fork for balance. Even though I have a front rack listed lower in preference than rear rack, it is probably where I load most of my gear in the hunting season. Since a trailer is my preferred setup, I’ll usually hunt with that as much as possible, and match a front rack for hauling me weapon. When a trailer is not feasible, I will usually leave the rack on the front rather than switching it back to the rear. This ends up being a really convenient set up if I’m going to go on a quick forest grouse hunt, or any other day hunt where I want to get back in a few quick miles before taking off on foot.
- Backpack. I’ve always found it more efficient to keep gear loaded on the bike, where it lowers my center of mass and saves me from the fatigue of fighting an upper force (backpack). That isn’t to say that I don’t do it quite frequently, since it is the quickest and simplest way to get out hunting on a bike. But, but I prefer to reserve it for shorter rides with lighter gear loads. I usually head out with the assumption that if I kill any big game, it will be hauled out with a combination of loading to the bike racks and backpack.
Fitness and Ability
Every spring I am surprised how easy it is to fall out of “bike shape”. I usually do a fair amount of mountain biking throughout the summer, and I even get in a fair bit of snow biking in the winter, but my biking fitness still drops off steeply once I am away from the bike for a while. Doing other exercises like running, hiking, and working out at the gym can help, but they just don’t seem to give the same conditioning as spending time out on the trail. We all know that lower body strength is important for riding, but the core strength needed for balancing a bike on rough terrain while loaded up with gear and meat is substantial. Coasting down a relatively gently grade with a load of gear will still tax you with quick, subtle, and constant movements for balance correction. Having a good baseline of core stability will make that ride out much more comfortable. Hopping on a stationary bike at the gym may seem like a good workout to prep for biking, but it is not going to get your the core strength needed, and is a poor analog for the real-life posture of mountain biking. But, if that is all you’ve got, it is still going to be better than nothing. I would recommend adding in some resistance training and combining squat variations as well. If you own a stationary bike (versus using one at the gym), try swapping out the saddle with the one from your mountain bike to help your hip posture. This will also help mitigate any initial saddle soreness you might feel when jumping on your bike after being away from it for a while. Speaking from personal experience, if your backside is sore from riding, it won’t be pleasant sitting on rocks and logs for long glassing sessions.
The key really is to get out and do some riding before you head out hunting in the fall. Get out on some local dirt singletrack as much as possible. Riding down the paved bike path simply isn’t going to get your legs, core, and mind ready to load up with hunting gear and crank up the trail into the backcountry.