Preparing for the Sierra Cascades

Sierra Cascades

After our tour through parts of Europe last summer we were exhausted. We rode too much and relaxed too little. It felt so good to come home, to eat familiar foods, to see friends, to be stationary again.

But the travel bug within us was only temporarily sated. We quickly found ourselves discussing plans for the next trip. We wanted to ride somewhere close to home this time. Even better would be a trip that started and ended from our doorstep in San Jose, CA. Since we’d already ridden large chunks of the Pacific Coast route, and since large chunks of the Pacific coast were tumbling into the Pacific thanks to a winter of record rainfall, our gaze turned inland. That’s when we landed on Adventure Cycling’s Sierra Cascades route.

What’s the Sierra Cascades route?

The Sierra Cascades route is the road cycling equivalent of the Pacific Crest Trail. It goes from Canada to Mexico, often paralleling the famed long distance hiking route. And like the hiking route, the Sierra Cascades is known to be tough. In forums and blogs, those who’ve ridden the Sierra Cascades claim it was the most challenging route they’d ever ridden.

The numbers back up that claim. The route is officially about 2,400 miles long with a total elevation gain of about 133,000 feet, or about 61 feet of elevation gain for every mile. By comparison, Adventure Cycling’s Northern Tier route is about 4,100 miles long with about 63,000 feet of elevation gain, or about 15 feet of elevation gain for every mile. The Sierra Cascades averages about four times more climbing than the Northern Tier! In fact, the Sierra Cascades averages more climbing per mile than the legendarily difficult Great Divide Mountain Bike route, which averages about 55 feet of elevation gain for every mile.

A portion of the route

Although we were initially tempted to ride the whole route or to combine the Sierra Cascades and the Pacific Coast route for a giant loop from our doorstep, we scaled back our ambitions to a more realistic timeframe during which we’d be gone from home. We weren’t eager to do another six-month trip after Europe. A six-week trip however sounded perfect.

So we decided to ride a portion of the Sierra Cascades. We’d start outside of Reno, where Carrie’s parents live, and hop onto the Sierra Cascades up to its terminus in Anacortes, WA, where we’d possibly have time to visit the San Juan Islands before catching a flight home from Seattle. That would give us about 40 days to ride about 1,400 miles, for an average of 35 miles per day. That seemed manageable, despite the intimidating amount of average elevation gain.

Logistics and our pack list

Once we decided on our route, the real planning began. We ordered maps one, two, and three from Adventure Cycling, checked average weather history in different locations along the route for June and July, and then started making the all important pack list.

This is one of my favorite things to do. It’s strange, I know. But I enjoy creating new packing strategies optimized for the specific conditions of each trip. It’s a science experiment in a way. I create some pack list hypotheses, test them in the field, record my findings, and use the results to make future optimizations.

For instance, I once didn’t pack a rain jacket for an overnighter. Rain came unexpectedly and hard as we made our way to the campground. I was so soaked that as soon as we stopped riding I couldn’t stop shivering. We had to pitch our tent quickly and I had to spend a good hour in my sleeping bag to warm up again. Conclusion: Always bring a rain jacket.

However, most of my experiments have taught me that I don’t need a lot of stuff to stay comfortable and content. In Europe I was perfectly happy riding in a drizzle in 50-degree weather with just my rain jacket. No need for gloves, rain pants, and booties. If it was raining hard, we preferred instead to take shelter or to take the day off. Riding in steady rain all day isn’t fun. If we don’t plan to ride in steady rain it makes sense not to bring all the extra rain gear.

With that being said, over the past 11 years of bicycle touring, we’ve migrated to leaner and lighter pack lists. In New Zealand in 2007 we each rode with four panniers, plus extra stuff on our handlebars and rear racks. In Europe we only rode with two panniers each plus smaller handlebar bags. For the challenging Sierra Cascades route I wanted to go even lighter, but I also didn’t want to spend money on new gear. So the trick was to determine how lean we could get while living in temperatures between freezing and really hot and without giving up the ability to cook meals.

The smallest panniers we own are the Ortlieb front rollers, which allow about 25 liters of storage for each pair. I challenged us to pack with a pair of front rollers and a handlebar bag. We could then use stuff sacks strapped to the rear rack as expandable storage for extra food during the few long stretches with no resupply options. Here’s the breakdown of what we plan to pack:

Nick’s pack list

Carrie’s pack list

We’ve packed lighter before. My base weight was about 13 lb during my ride with my friend Peter down the Pacific Coast. But overtime we’ve seemed to settle on what we feel to be a good blend of comfort, convenience, and weight.