A Death Valley Prospector’s Pack Mule: Erik’s Desert Sand Fatboy

On this expedition, we – Erik, Dylan and myself – were prospectors… For over a hundred years, Death Valley has had its minerals extracted by machine and mule. Not just for gold and silver, either. Prospectors scoured the mountains for antimony, copper, lead, zinc, and tungsten, packing out their load by mule. We are modern day Prospectors, however, we are not seeking riches, yet experiences, of which will be beaten into our soul by miles of washboarded and rocky roads. Our mules are our bicycles and we’ll take only photos, leaving no trace, taking nothing from this land. It’s given enough over the decades and its scars are still visible on the surface.

Last Friday we embarked on a 100 mile journey through Death Valley National Park. The route was familiar to Erik, who attempted it years ago, but in reverse, with a band of other explorers, who fell victim to this great desert. Returning this round, Erik had a new found respect for this land, as well as much-needed reconnaissance by yours truly. My report: we should ride the biggest tires we have access to. This would soften the blow from the rugged roads and allow us to move with elegance through deep sand.

On top of that, literally, would be our provisions for four day’s worth of riding in the High Desert. This meant we’d need lots of water, lots of food, and warm apparel, on top of the standard backcountry emergency items. Packing all this in on a bike that’s destined to climb well over 10,000′ in its journey is no easy matter, yet the three of us took our own unique approach to outfitting our Pack Mules.

Erik worked from a baseline Fatboy. An aluminum frame with a carbon fork, of which he affixed a Surly front rack to by using resin-impregnated carbon fiber, wrapped in overlapping patterns to make the attachment itself even stronger than the fork. To this rack, he ran two waterproof panniers, a small cutting board – more on that later… On the rear, he used a similar rack, with more panniers. That left the frame pack and top tube bag for snacks and other necessities.

By far the most innovative thing about this bike is its ability to solve the problem that arises in backcountry dry camps: the lack of horizontal surfaces. Sure, the ground is there, but when it’s this cold out, sitting on the ground has its disadvantages. Erik attached a cutting board and gas canister holster to his front rack, which housed his MSR stove, allowing him to boil water on the bike, which he would stake to the ground, making a solid platform.

Of course, because he’s Erik, he couldn’t leave it at that. Up next was a Desert Sand wet coat, over a Hammerite base. This makes the bike look tattered and worn, only after a few miles of dirt roads. You can see the whole process on Erik’s Instagram.

The journey this bike undertook will be told at a later date, for now, enjoy!

  • So stoked on this paint – or should I call it frame coating?

    Like Erik, I’m a big fan of the liquid fuel stove. Kind of too bad the platform isn’t completely level.

    • We talked about that, and it doesn’t really matter because he never had to boil anything near the “fill to here” line.

    • Billy Arlew

      Could you put a rock under the back tire to level it out?

    • Also, some shims would ensure a level platform… First round prototypes always have quirks.

  • This is easily one of the most impressive bikes I’ve ever seen. Not from an artistic or aesthetic point of view, but from a get out there and ride point of view. Just incredible and practical to a capital P. Perfect for its environment and fantastically well thought out. You can’t help but be impressed.

  • Max G.

    Very cool. I have a question about those black Specialized bags with QL3 mounting system (they were introduced with AWOL line). I know only of 2-3 Ortlieb racks that allow mounting bags with QL3 mounting points. What kind of racks are these? Do they have QL3 mounting points or is Erik using QL3 adapters? Thanks.

    • He’s using adaptors on this rack.

      • adventureroadbiker

        I know those guys had some issues with panniers on their first trip (still one of my all time favorite pieces from the site) . Did he rate the QL3 system as stronger or was it the only option on the Specialized bags? I’m a rep for Ortlieb in the UK so really interested to know how the mounting hardware held up in those conditions.

        • We went on that trip to evaluate all the competitors hardware in harsh condutions before we designed our own. We broke all QL1 and 2’s on the washboard the first day but the QL3 held up fine and they’ve been my gotos ever since. Adaptors can def be reinforced and made stronger but they work as-is

          • adventureroadbiker

            Ah cool. That’s interesting to know. I’m also looking to get some new panniers for my shopping bike so might give the QL3 option a go. I mean, it’s not going to be taking on miles of Death Valley washboard but it will have to carry a lot of canned goods down a rutted out farm track. Think I’ve got an Ortlieb sample rack that’s been discontinued too. Thanks Erik

    • They’re Surly Nice Racks with the QL3 adaptors – works stellar offroad

  • Kevin Mulcahy

    No pics of the fork?!

    Also, what front light is that?

  • Medium Rick

    Snow seems to get more of the attention, but fatties work soooo well in the desert or anywhere else with softer soil. Love my fatbike.

    • This trip made me want to get one for outings like this. A carbon one though… Save the weight for camera gear.

      • Medium Rick

        It’s hard not to have a big ass grin on your face when your riding one.

  • Matthhew Wordell

    Just curious, who makes the panniers?

  • Jacques Chamonix

    Did Erik make any modifications to the rear Nice Rack to fit on the fatty?

    • To my knowledge it was stock, other than the fork.

      • Jacques Chamonix

        Roger that.

        Looks like an incredible ride through DV!


    • I had to stretch it slightly to fit the rack bosses but since they’re steel, I’m not worried – lots of clearance

  • carchiba

    Oh hell yeah.

  • Jesse

    What do you think retail price would be for that bike, modifications, and accessories?

    • Complete Fatboy $1800. Drivetrain mods $300. Custom paint $400-800. Custom fork mod (Rukkus could do it in Portland or MMFG in LA) mayyybe $400? Racks + Bags + etc. Probably under $4500.

  • is his hair just like that when he wakes up? whats he smell like?

    • HA! Yeah, totally. It’s like a helmet. He smelled like vegan farts on this trip. Our stomachs were all torn up and sleeping in a closed up bivvy for warmth is… interesting.

  • Jesse Merz

    This bike would take riding through the desert in southwestern Bolivia from borderline impossible to awesome pretty quick. The only thing I don’t see in these photos is a clever way to carry sufficient water for extended desert riding. Maybe a stillsuit like in Dune?

    • Ha! Yeah, Eric used MSR bladders in his panniers.

    • Yeah, had the same setup last time in DV, one gallon in the bottom of each front pannier and smaller bottles to refill on the bike

  • Big Jänet Romance


  • Harry

    I love the bikes Erik designs and builds; to such end its reasonable to say that i Iŏve Ërik himself

  • Bluejaystr

    SO JEALOUS! The only thing missing in this trip and photo set is Poppi being a badass with the cutoff jeans and that black metal AWOL!

  • Jake Kruse

    Do you really have that hard of a time finding horizontal ground on which to place a stove? I cannot think of a time that has ever been an issue.. Not trying to hate, it’s a neat exercise, but a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. The bike and paint and rack are cool. Long live the front derailleur!

    • A swift and just death to the front derailleur.

      • redhead322

        A small number of front derailleur devotees still like to ride their bikes up steep trails rather than push. They also like smaller gaps between gears. They also like rear cassettes that don’t cost $450 (eagle) or weigh 450 grams (gx).

        • Peter Gilmour

          They also like dropping the chain to a smaller chainring when confronted with ‘oh crap, I need to be on the other side of the cassette, and it’s too late now’. A long and happy life to front derailleurs!

          • skunk ape

            If you don’t like them you don’t like them. I’ll be keeping mine. Giving up that much gear range for a little bit less fuss isn’t worth it. My next bike purchase will have a triple.

          • I have an Eagle equiped bike but I’m not into swoping shit for one ride. The bike came with the 2x and it’s a pretty good gearing – this whole bike is mid-range and I didn’t have to invest in stuff to get a tiny gain (a huge fan of 1x otherwise)

          • macatarere


        • Take it easy mate, it was just a joke. No need to get sensitive about why you love your little ring. my daily ride is a 1x with a 55t. Everyone rides what they like.

          • macatarere

            Is the 55t up front or in the rear?

          • Up front mate. I run an 11-28 x 55. I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing as a 55t rear cog. I don’t live on the west coast of the US. I live on the southeast coast, in the low country. Where I am there is no desert or mountains. There aren’t even any serious hills.

        • Meh. I like Boost and 27.5+ tires with snappy rear ends. 28t x 50t and you don’t have to walk anything. Ok, sometimes you have to walk, regardless of gearing. If I’m gonna ride a triple, it’ll be 9spd.

      • AaronBenjamin

        Doubles and triples are no longer about gear range. They’re about gear spacing, which makes a lot of sense when you’re riding for more than 2 hours. I like close ratios and don’t care about an extra 4 oz. on my bike. Also, multiple rings offer redundancy in case you manage to destroy (bend) a chainring.

        For the record though, I have a 1x on my mountain bike, but I don’t do loaded touring on that bike, nor would I want to.

    • Public_Parent

      The bike is cool, but the mounted stove seems silly. Like someone said, it’s not even level, you have to stake your bike out, and then hope you don’t bump it and spill whatever you’re cooking?

      • Stove is not mounted, it just sits on the cutting board…see my reply above. Been doing it for years and like it, never spilled or had issues with angles – makes a ton of sense to me – all I really care about.

      • macatarere

        The stake out looks like a great idea! If the cutting board folded left and right there would be room for a small kitchen sink, an extra set of guys would make it stable enough for the saddle to be a nice bar stool, and if the bike is kept upright over night it could still be found in the morning after heavy snowfall.

    • I just don’t like sitting on the ground (same reason I have a kitchen at home and don’t eat on the floor) and usually cook real food that takes longer. It’s way more comfy and convinient for outback camping (without tables) with all the kitchen and food stuff in the front panniers. Also, the loction of the fuel flask is neat, I just have to plug in the stove and not keep the flask in my panniers. Been doing this for years and like it alot.

      • I love the kitchen floor analogy.

        • Jared Jerome

          If you all aren’t cooking/eating meals on the kitchen floor, you’re really missing out on one of the finer things in life. We installed our stove so that the burners are just about 6″ off the ground. I will concede that it’s hard to put something in the oven that way though.

  • Erik – When you’re done with this, you know where to send it. Fantastic concept top to toe. x

  • dan scheie

    Any word on how that Flux light is mounted to the front rack? I have one and the mounting bracket is a little bouncy.

    • It’s a shorter custom cnc’d clamp made for the PizzaRacks. The original mounting rod was improved with an o-ring on gen 2 to reduce the rattle. Try some heavy grease – it’ll help / E

      • dan scheie

        Thanks! Can’t tell from the photos if you’re running a dynamo hub.If not, how would you keep it charged?

        • No dynamo, I don’t use it enough to justify it. We got to camp before sunset all nights so I never used it but battery life is a couple of hrs + I had a battery pack If need.

          • Rider_X

            I sold my trusty Schmidt dyno and light a few years back now and haven’t really missed it since. Battery lights have just gotten that good.

      • Rider_X

        Is there a picture of the CNC clamp? I have access to milling machine and an urge to create. I have been thinking of mount my Flux the same way now ever since I added pizza bag to the pizza rack. I do lots of night riding and I am tired of casting a shadow.

  • alexroseinnes

    Amazing photos John, shooting with your Leica?

    • Nah, I ended up bringing the 1DX, 24-70 and 100-400 because it’s more resilient to dust and cold temps.

  • shankshiv

    Erik, What boots are you wearing? Looks like comfortable leather with cleats?

    • The best boots in the world ever not to be available to the public. Check #yonderboot on Instagram.