Feb 03, 2021

10 Questions with Logan Watts

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In our latest installment of "10 Questions With" we go deep with our good friend Logan Watts. Logan is the founder and operator of BIkepacking.com and a big advocate for the cycling community at large. He is one of the best riding mates you could ever ask for and a great guy all around. Below he offers some seriously stellar answers about what goes on in his world.

1) From our perspective Bikepacking has grown in popularity quite a bit over the past few years. What do you think it is about Bikepacking that has drawn so many people into it?

I think there are three reasons, really. First, the evolution of the internet was the match that lit the fuse. The boom of bikepacking kind of started with personal travel blogs. That’s certainly how I became aware of the bicycle as a means of off-the-beaten path travel—by following the non-traditional bike tours of folks like Joe Cruz and Cass Gilbert. Blogs helped bring a lot of people together and ultimately created a community. I started one back in 2012 (which is now bikepacking.com) and met all kinds of folks through that medium. When Joe and I first rode together on the Kokopelli Trail, we joked that we met through a bikepacking dating website. That was pre-Instagram. When the Gram was set in motion, bikepacking went nuclear.

Second, I think the maturity of GPS/GPX route planning, sharing, and navigation applications played a major role. It wasn’t that long ago when you couldn’t just download a track, pop it on your phone, and ride away. The various planning tools and resources are insanely good now. There are tons of great base maps to help find interesting dirt roads and tracks, and satellite imagery is better than ever, too.

Third, I think that gravel cycling and bikepacking niches exploded in tandem and gained momentum for the same reasons. 1. They’re both much more approachable forms of cycling than mountain biking, which is generally technical in nature and can be rather intimidating. Bikepacking and gravel biking have more of a soft side that’s a little more welcoming to newcomers. 2. They’re both a means to get people off pavement, and as we all know, road riding has become more and more dangerous since the advent of the iPhone. I always tell the story of me trying to hitchhike back to my car after a bikepacking trip in 2014. I was sitting on a highway entry ramp somewhere in Virginia with my thumb out. There were dozens of cars going by and nobody even saw me because they were all looking at their cell phones as they were getting on the highway! That’s pretty telling of why I try to stay off the roads.

2) You publish an enormous body of content ranging from gear reviews, to travel, to interviews and on and on. Which piece of it is your favorite to cover and why? Least favorite?

My favorite aspect of it is essentially why the site came to be—creating and sharing bikepacking routes. It was formerly more of a personal bike travel blog, but once I started the bikepacking routes project, I rebranded to bikepacking.com. We were the first site out there to publish bikepacking route guides—aside from a now defunct Oregon-specific website that came along at the same time. Creating routes is a passion of mine. It’s not only a way to create an interesting riding experience for myself, but it’s also a means of telling stories, everything from historical narratives, to geologic stories, to conservation initiatives.

3) Can we get some down and dirty insight into your gear review process? For example: what if a company sends you straight shit? What's the protocol there?

Generally speaking, our M.O. is to only review gear that we like; we think of our site as a place that cyclists can go and gain insight; one way to do that is to find reviews of gear that we recommend. Obviously, every piece of gear has cons. Nothing is perfect. But it’s really not worth the dozens of hours it takes to test, photograph, and write about gear that’s total crap; and it would be kind of a waste of space on the site, IMO. The gear and bikes we review are usually those that we find interesting, so we often reach out to companies about reviewing them. Occasionally we’re sent things that don’t see the light of day on the website.

4) Can you tell us what your first official Bikepacking trip was for you personally and how did it go?

Ha, I suppose there are two answers to that question. The first overnight trip I did was a shakedown ride for my big “freakout.” I quit my job and sold my design business back in 2011. The 2008 recession had made business challenging over the few years that led up to it. I was insanely burnt out. I was an avid mountain biker and commuter at the time, and my rides kept getting longer and more out there. Even so, I had never been touring or bikepacking (actually bikepacking wasn’t really a mainstream term at that point). However, I was living vicariously through Cass Gilbert’s blog as he was dirt touring through the America’s. So I decided to go for it and do the same. Somehow I talked my wife Virginia into it and we committed to touring from Mexico to Panama. Leading up to that trip, we loaded up our bikes, each with four panniers and way too much stuff and took off on an overnight route on gravel roads and pavement up to Mount Pisgah off the Blue Ridge Parkway in the late fall. We camped at the campground there. It was super cold and rainy, and we ate canned soup. I thought it was fantastic, but my wife Virginia didn’t feel the same way (our bikes were insanely heavy—I think we brought camp chairs, a bottle of wine, and a 12-pack of beer, even). After that one practice trip, we rode from Mexico to Panama on heavy touring bikes with way too much stuff. It was a great trip, but also a learning experience. Once I got back from that trip, I strapped a few things on my full-suspension mountain bike in a more authentic “bikepacking” style and went on an overnighter with a friend of mine. We rode some super-rowdy singletrack and it was liberating only carrying a minimal amount of gear. I would consider that my first bikepacking trip, even though we spent some time on neat off-road routes in Central America, too.

5) You now publish the awesome Journal for members. How much work goes into putting out a print mag like that? Fun? Painful? Or somewhere in the middle?

I’d say somewhere in the middle. Lucas is responsible for all the words that go into it, as well as a lot of the layout, but I do all the design work and we both manage the member database. Each issue is a lot of fun to see once it’s finished, and there are moments in the process that are rewarding, but there’s a lot of work that goes into creating them. And, managing the membership side of things is a lot of work, too. We are pretty proud of the four issues that we have finished now. It’s great to see them as a library. It truly is a one of a kind publication...

6) What kind of music is playing in your headphones when you are way the fuck out there pedaling far from home?

I honestly don’t listen to music much when I’m pedaling. I kind of like tuning into birds, crickets, and rivers when I’m riding. However, on the occasion when I do listen to music, it’s usually heavy metal. I’m trying to remember the last few records I put on while on some long ridiculous climb… probably the Melvins, Gojira, High on FIre, The Jesus Lizard, or something like that.

7) Can you shed some light on how you create your routes and what features you like to see? And how do you decide how hard to make each one in terms of terrain and distance, etc?

Often the idea comes from the want to connect places based on a theme or story. One of the first routes I purposefully created was based on stringing together some of the best singletrack trails in Western North Carolina and connecting them with all the really good breweries—combining two passions, right. That was when craft breweries were the next best thing, so it was pretty exciting. Other routes, such as those in another country or state, are often conceived by trying to piece together the best riding with the places I most want to visit. For example, our Caucasus Crossing Armenia: designing that route involved stitching together dirt tracks in all the sub-ranges in the Lesser Caucasus mountains and the landscapes that I really wanted to see, as well as joining towns and sights that were interesting within that country. The Trans-Uganda is another example where we created a massive loop around the country to connect its national parks and places of interest.

Then there are other routes that have slightly different agendas, such Prairie Breaks in Montana, which ties in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument with various parcels of the American Prairie Reserve, a non-profit initiative dedicated to restoring the American prairie landscape and reintroducing Bison, swift fox, and other native species. This type of conservation-focused route is most interesting and important to me at this point.

As far as difficulty, I really like building routes that have a rhythm. A route that’s 100% graded gravel is pretty damned boring. Conversely, a route that’s non-stop tech singletrack is going to be exhausting and monotonous. There has to be a mix of terrain. A few miles of gravel, followed by a stretch of chunky forest road, then a couple miles of smooth pavement into a town with an ice cream stand, then a helping of singletrack to a peak with a view. That’s interesting. That same rhythm can also be applied to places of interest. Making a route have a nice punctual place to rest, learn something, see a view, or get a snack. Those are all keys to crafting an interesting experience. However, the difficulty comes naturally to the place. Our forthcoming Ruta Chingaza isn’t technically difficult, but the steepness of the Colombian dirt roads makes it challenging, as does the weather in some of the high Paramos, which was a must-see area that I know the route had to go through.

8) I am guessing you get feedback from people when they go out and try your routes. They are kind of putting faith into you regarding their accuracy, their descriptions, the experience, safety, etc. Do you feel any pressure when you create the routes to give the rider a great experience? Are you making those considerations thinking about the people who will ride them after you?

Well, yes and no. There are times when the difficulty rating system has been challenged—when people expected things to be easier than they were for them. However, we’ve improved those and made it a priority to give better descriptions about difficulty over the years. The biggest hurdles come in the form of private land changes, or road/trail closures. That can be quite frustrating. And unfortunately, it’s the nature of the beast.

We’ve thought alot about the scope of content and level of detail we provide in our route guides. We think they offer more than enough information for riders to safely follow the route (although we can’t claim that we ensure safety; anything can happen), while still allowing a sense of adventure. Other route creators provide an insane amount of detail, with cue sheets, books, digital map resources, etc, etc. However, I think that’s a bit much. I mean, we’re all in it for the adventure and the escape. There have to be some surprises.

9) With the world in the middle of a pandemic how will Bikepacking be impacted in the near term? And how do you envision Bikepacking 5-10 years from now? Any changes on the horizon?

We’ve always promoted finding adventure in your own backyard, but that’s obviously more important now than ever. Folks can’t travel overseas, and probably shouldn’t even travel outside of their own state or province right now. Interestingly enough, we launched our Local Overnighter Project and route map last year, well before the pandemic. I honestly think that it perfectly fits how bikepacking has evolved as a result of the Covid lockdown. The goal of that project was to inspire people to share their local knowledge in the form of small, one night adventures from their town or area. It’s amazing what a short bikepacking overnighter can do for your well-being. In some ways, it can be just as rewarding and restorative as a bigger trip.

It’s hard to say where bikepacking will be in five or ten years. Technically, things haven’t changed that much since 1976 when the “Bikecentennial” was held as a celebration of bike touring with over 4,000 riders ranging from pro roadies to ragtag bike-hippies, all touring parts of the Trans America Trail. Obviously some things are different now. Bike tech has advanced, routes are more abundant and easier to follow, and the styles of bags have changed, but the spirit is the same. I expect that to live on for a long time to come.

10) Is the coolest guy on any Bikepacking trip the one who packs the lightest and brings the least stuff?

Nope. The coolest guy is the one who manages to stash an item or two that you’re jealous of. The person who breaks out a bottle of whiskey, a bar of chocolate, or some other expected treasure in the middle of absolute nowhere.

11) Bonus: We rode together in Cuba a few years ago and spent a night sleeping locked in a chicken wire cage type thing with a raging block party going off, fist fighting, wild horses being broken at 3:00am, drag racing, a screaming match, and the world's largest flock of violent roosters ever assembled surrounding us. On a scale of 1-11 how would you rate that experience?

11, without a doubt!! Legendary. Don’t forget the live comedian. I still kind of regret not leaving our cage at 2AM to go hang out in that insanity. I’ll never forget that evening and would totally do it again, despite not sleeping. The Night of a Million Roosters™.