Continental Divide Trail Q&A Part One: What Did I Pack For My Toughest Bike Trip Yet?

 Last summer, Kurt Refsnider rode the length of the Continental Divide Trail (the bike-legal sections, that is) over the course of three months and documented the journey in a series of articles here on The Radavist. You can find those here. This article is the first of a two-part Q&A series about Kurt’s gear choices and bike setup. The subsequent second part will be all about food planning and eating on a 3,000-mile singletrack adventure. 

Riding the Continental Divide Trail

The prospect of three months of solo bikepacking on some of the most rugged singletrack in the West had me very intimidated – that’s one reason why it took so long for me to finally commit to riding the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). Once I mentally committed to that challenge, my mind started running around in circles thinking about the ideal bike setup and combination of gear and grappling with the question of how I’d be able to comfortably carry that gear and 5+ days of food on a full-suspension rig. A lot of thought went into everything I packed, wore, and ate, with the biggest emphasis being put on durability and packability (as in taking up less space). Weight wasn’t really much of a consideration – I just made sure I had what I thought I’d need for both comfort and safety in remote mountains and what I was confident would hold up to the rigors of such a tough trail. Whatever that ended up weighing was, well, what it would weigh. Being a weight weenie in endeavors of this magnitude is likely to just get one into trouble of one sort or another. 

After wrapping up an amazing and remarkably demanding adventure riding the CDT from Canada to Mexico, I felt a huge sense of relief. All my careful planning and prep work had paid huge dividends – I never ran out of food, I had no mechanicals, I managed fine in the foulest of weather I encountered, and most importantly, I had a ton of fun. In short order, I received a plethora of questions about my bike, gear, how things held up, what I ate, what I’d do differently “next time,” and so on. So in this article, I’ve compiled all the gear-related questions and offer some detailed answers. I’ve sorted the questions into a few categories – bike setup and maintenance, sleeping/eating/drinking, clothing/footwear, electronics, and miscellaneous. All the food-related questions will come in the second half of this two-part series. 

What I carried worked incredibly well for me based on my own experience, relative tolerance for discomfort, and preferred style of travel. This combination of gear might not work well for everyone, but I hope it’ll offer some ideas for how others can work through the planning process, refine their setups, and break down the seemingly pervasive mental barrier that keeps most of us thinking it’s not reasonably possible to carry food for more than a few days at a time on a svelte bikepacking setup. 


Bike Setup and Maintenance

Did you run a larger wheel in the front than on the back? Did that work well? Was the bike balanced, and did it handle well?

I ran a mullet setup on my Pivot Shadowcat. The bike is designed as a 160/140 mm travel rig on 27.5” wheels, and I built it with a 29″ front wheel and a 140 mm travel fork. I really prefer a 29″ wheel in the front for chunky, slow, and raw trails, but the smaller rear wheel and slightly shorter rear end makes the bike incredibly nimble at slow speeds, while the relatively low and slack geometry keep the bike stable and firmly planted on fast descents. This all made for a bike that felt tailor-made for a trail like the CDT! A couple added benefits to this setup were that the lowest gear is a little lower on a 27.5 rear wheel compared to a 29″ (i.e., my 28-tooth chainring felt like a 26!), and the smaller rear wheel also provides a tiny bit more clearance for a seat bag.  

How did you manage the handlebar cradle, lights, cables and overall cockpit setup?

My approach is keep things simple – the less clutter on the bars, the better. My cables nestle in behind the Revelate Pronghorn harness just fine (I use 3 foam spacers in there). The GPS lives in a mount above my stem, and if I’m riding at night, I add the light/mount to my bar (the rest of the time it lived in my frame bag). The cleaner it is, the simpler it is, and the less likely you are to break things in the case of a crash.

I’m curious about chain maintenance on the go. How often did you wipe it down or lube it?

In general, I lubed my chain once a day with the Wolf Tooth WT-1 lubricant, and that was it. I never once wiped it down (that’s not a boast; it was just me being lazy). 

What were the most memorable mechanicals you had on the trail? 

I didn’t have any! I had to pull off the cover of the clutch mechanism on the rear derailleur and lubricate it in New Mexico, and I had a stick go straight through my front fender, but that was it! 

How many new chains did you use? And how many new brake pads?

I replaced the chain 3 times along the way, the Shimano XT cassette once, and the brake pads twice. 

How did you remove/service the cranks and bottom bracket on this ride?

I’ve never had to service a Shimano bottom bracket on a trip – they seem to last for years; when they do eventually start to wear out, it’s gradual and not catastrophic. 

How did you approach suspension service along the way? Did your hub bearings and suspension linkage bearings last the whole trip?

The first 1,000 miles of the trip were quite hard on components with seemingly endless steep, rocky trails. I had both shocks serviced after that, and they were back to silky smooth. I had hoped to have them serviced again in Colorado, but the opportunity didn’t arise. I did carry a seal kit for the rear shock for that second half of the trip just in case the shock did suddenly need service. No special tools are needed on the Fox Float rear shocks, so that could even be done at camp in a pinch. But the shock held up fine aside from getting a little sticky again by southern New Mexico. I replaced the rear hub bearings after the first 1,000 miles since I didn’t think they’d last the full 3 months, and the lower linkage bearings on the frame held up just fine. 

Have you ever tried a rear rack on a bike with that much travel? Would it be too much unsprung weight? I have a similar bike but have no clearance for a seatpost bag.

I personally haven’t. The Old Man Mountain racks are the only ones I’m aware of designed to work on a full-sus rig and are built to handle abusive trails. I’ve used those on hardtails and really like the design. I can’t speak to the unsprung weight consideration – I think folks too commonly get caught up in concerns about that. I’ve been criticized for running a water bottle or two on the lower legs of a suspension fork because it’ll add “too much unsprung weight” to the front end of the bike. It feels just fine, in my opinion. I’d say give the rack a try and see how it feels for yourself!

I’m keen to hear about tire philosophy! How do you weigh rolling resistance/grip/comfort (width)/durability based on the trip.

Tires! I think way too hard about tires and all those considerations. I went through I think 7 tires on the trip, and ran different combinations depending on the trail/terrain and simply what I had available. I started with a Maxxis 2.5″ Aggressor on the rear and 2.6″ Forekaster on the front (with EXO casings), and those were fantastic tires for the really rocky, steep CDT of Montana and Idaho, and both wear quite well. They also both roll reasonably well considering their knobs, and the wider casings were quite nice to have on all the loose and seldom-traveled sections of trail. Farther south, I switched to a 2.35″ Rekon in the rear – faster rolling, but I would have preferred something slightly wider and with a little more bite. The Rekon also doesn’t have nearly the longevity of an Aggressor in terms of tread wear. But it all worked out just fine, I didn’t have a single flat the entire trip. 

What’s in your tool kit for this type of adventure, and what spare do you carry?

The packing list included with this article shares all that! I also always make sure whatever multi-tool I’m carrying can reach and turn every bolt – many times there are one or two nestled somewhere that isn’t easily accessible. 

Why’d you pick the Shadowcat over the Trail 429 or Mach 4SL? Were there any sections/phases you wished you had a different bike/suspension setup?

I agonized over this decision for months! Any of these bikes would have obviously worked just fine, but I shied away from the Mach 4SL because I really wanted a little bit more travel (more forgiving on the hands and upper body for weeks and weeks on rough trail). The Trail 429 would have been a fine choice, as well, but again, I opted for slightly more travel for the CDT. For the Montana, Idaho, and Colorado sections of the trail, the Shadowcat mullet was exactly what I wanted. For the more pedaly and less technical miles in much of Wyoming and than half of New Mexico, I could have gotten away with a shorter-travel bike, but I made my decision based on the harder miles and was very happy with it.  

Sleeping, Drinking, and Eating on the Continental Divide Trail

Why did you choose a tarp over a tent? How much weight did it save compared to a Dynema tent? Did you have a footprint?

I’ve almost never carried a full tent while bikepacking – they’re just a bit too bulky, and in most places where I travel, bugs aren’t that big of an issue. I have used mids [minimalist pyramid tents] for a lot of trips and love them. Dyneema tents are lighter than most other tents, but they’re notably bulkier, so they’re not ideal for bikepacking where storage is so limited (they’re also quite pricey!). I went with the Dyneema Hyperlite Mountain Gear Flat Tarp because it folds up fairly compactly and could be sandwiched between my handlebar harness and dry bag. Storing it there meant that it didn’t take up any space in a bag, freeing up more storage space for food. I also carried a Tyvek footprint for under my sleeping pad – that’s the best material I’ve found for adding some puncture protection, and it also just helps keep things a bit cleaner.

Every single hiker I met along the trail seemed to be carrying a full tent, and they were usually shocked when they saw my tarp. I had a headnet for bugs, and that was just fine most nights in the first third of the trip. There were a few, though, when huge clouds of aggressive mosquitoes kept me awake. However, once I crested Pickle Pass in northwestern Wyoming, bugs were a non-issue for the entire rest of the trip.

Was the 30-degree sleeping bag sufficiently warm? Were you nervous carrying a down sleeping bag?

I carried the Western Mountaineering SummerLite 30-degree bag – it was a brand new one I bought to replace my decade-old SummerLite that had reached the end of its useful life after a lot of use. That was plenty warm enough on all but ~4 nights. I’ve really only ever used down bags. As long as I pack it in a legitimately waterproof handlebar bag and have a shelter that keeps me dry in a storm, I don’t worry. 

Was your only water filter on your bladder? You didn’t carry a Sawyer Micro?

No, and no. I carried a HydraPak Flux 1L soft bottle with a filter cap and replaced the filter twice during the trip. I also had a 3L reservoir in my backpack (with no hose or filter), so between those and my water bottle, I had just under 5L water capacity. That was the most I ever needed.

What kind of water bottle is that? Does the lid have a filter?

That’s a 30-oz Polar Bottle Breakaway bottle with no filter in the cap – but the new Breakaway+ version from HydraPak does have a filter in it!

Does that cook pot have a screwable lid?

It does! It’s the 0.7-L BOT 700 (“bottle pot”) from Vargo. I’ve been using it for nearly a decade and absolutely love it. I store my stove and 100-g fuel canister inside, but you can also use it to carry extra water, food, leftovers, etc.

Where do you get gas canisters? Are you allowed to ship them by USPS with your food? I switched to a fuel-based stove for longer trips because finding butane canisters was often more difficult than finding appropriate food.

Fuel canisters can definitely be a challenge to find in many places. There are enough hikers on the CDT these days that many smaller markets and even some gas stations near the trail stock fuel canisters. They also can be included in boxes shipped USPS ground. The box must be labeled with the “DOT limited quantity hazardous material square-on-point” symbol (see this hazmat reference). When you drop the box off at the post office, let them know about the hazmat contents, and they’ll likely require a signature and add a hazmat sticker to the box.

What did you do with your food at night in grizzly bear country? Who made the bear spray holster you had on your top tube? Did you carry a gun?

I used an Ursack Major XL “certified bear resistant” bag – all my food, cook kit, and smelly items went in there every night, and I’d tie it to a tree ~100 yards from where I slept. I’d also leave my bike there as the bags smelled like food. I’d cook a good distance away from both that tree and where I slept (the ol’ Bear-muda triangle). The bear spray holster is from Bearclaw Holster, and I can’t recommend it enough. And no, I didn’t carry a gun (I reserve that for adventures in polar bear territory).

Clothing and Footwear

How in the world do wool boxers suffice? Doesn’t the material riding up drive you crazy?

They worked just fine for me – it’s so much more comfortable (and better for hygiene) to not have a damp chamois against your skin all day every day. I wore the Smartwool Intraknit boxer briefs some days and the thinner AsWeMove Aspire Long boxer briefs other days. I didn’t have issues with either of them riding up.

Considering the amount of hiking/pushing/bike carrying you seemed to do, were you happy with your shoe choice? Would you ever consider switching to flat pedals?

My feet were so content in the Shimano GR901 shoes and with clipless pedals (the new GE9 has replaced the GR901 and is just as comfortable). I never thought that a downhill-specific shoe would be good for this sort of trip, but these are remarkably stiff underfoot when pedaling and feel like a heavier duty trail runner off the bike. They also held up remarkably well – I went through two pairs with all that hiking, whereas most other shoes I’ve used over the years would have been thrashed every 500 miles! And with my feet as content as they were both on and off the bike (and beneath the bike when hiking with it slung across my back), I can’t see any reason to switch to flats since I really like clipless.  

What are you using for rain gear, and how did it hold up? I saw you had rain knickers. Why? Where did you get them?

For most of the trip, I carried the Patagonia Dirt Roamer Storm jacket and pants since they’re legitimately waterproof and far better than the common ultralight water-resistant layers that often claim to be “rain gear.” I want something I can truly rely on when spending so much time up high in the mountains. The knickers were just those pants cut off below the knee – it removes a bit of bulk, makes them really quick and easy to pull on over shoes, and I don’t really care if my calves get wet. For the New Mexico leg of the journey, I swapped that rain gear out for some of the aforementioned ultralight stuff in an effort to free up some space for carrying more food and water. Only then did it really start raining, and I very much missed my rain gear.

Did the Patagonia Houdini wind jacket prove to be breathable, or does it trap perspiration during exertion?

I actually carried the Houdini Air wind jacket. It’s more breathable (and slightly less wind resistant) than the stalwart Houdini. If I was spending more time moving faster on gravel roads, I think I might have liked the Houdini better, but the Air was great for this trip.


I’m guessing that you used the Garmin Edge 1040 Solar GPS mainly because of its solar charging capability, correct?

The long battery life and big screen were the two reasons I gravitated toward the 1040 Solar. I spent a lot of time staring at the detailed base maps making decisions about trail options, where to potentially camp, what the terrain coming up was like, and even where the trail might be when it vanished into flower-filled meadows. In terms of battery longevity, I was usually able to get 4 to 5 full days of pedaling plus an additional full day from solar charging!

How many lumens of light did you run? How do you keep lights going all night long?

I used the Fenix HM65R-T headlamp on my helmet and BC26R on the handlebars, but admittedly, I did very little night riding in the northern half of the route since the days were so dang long! I most certainly didn’t need to keep the lights going all night since I was sleeping 8+ hours most nights – this wasn’t any sort of race. I usually ran the headlamp on medium (400 lumens; 12 hour run time) and the handebar light on high (600 lumens; 9 hour run time). I also had a little BC05R blinky tail light for the rare occasions I was on roads in the dark.

There were a lot of questions related to how the dynamo front hub performed at singletrack speeds, how I kept things charged, etc. Here’s a quick rundown on all that:

I rarely use a dynamo hub, but I decided to give one a try on this trip hoping that there might be enough “higher speed” sections of trail and dirt roads along the way that it’d be helpful. The SON front hub was wired to a Sinewave Reactor USB top cap, a slick, clean, and simple setup. But it really wasn’t very productive in terms of generating electrons on all the slow trail (which wasn’t really a surprise), and in retrospect, carrying a second 10,000 mAh rechargeable battery would have been more reliable (in terms of charging) and less weight – a better option for this sort of adventure. 

I always try to keep my electronics and battery usage to a minimum, though – my GPS could go 5+ days on a charge, my camera and GoPro with a spare battery each were good for a week or more, my Garmin InReach will run in tracking mode for several weeks (and can even recharge other devices), and I tried to use my phone as little as possible. So a week out with just a 10,000 mAh battery for recharging things was generally fine, and I could usually find a place to charge that and another device or two at least once a week.

What was your camera setup? It seems like you must been carrying a real camera.

Every time I asked a hiker if I could take their photo and they agreed, pulling the camera out of my backpack elicited the same reply: “Whoa, you’re carrying a real camera!” That was a Sony Alpha 6300 with a somewhat hefty Tamron 28-200 lens. That body has been on virtually every trip I’ve taken for the past 4 years, and the lens survived a month on the Iditarod and 3 on the CDT with no issues. For me, this combination hits the sweet spot for packability, photo quality, creative opportunities, and weight. The downside? I finally weighed it after returning home from the CDT, and it tips the scale at exactly two full pounds!

What subscription plan did you use for your Garmin inReach Messenger?

I have the Consumer Expedition plan since I use my Messenger a lot, but I’d recommend one of the monthly plans without an annual contract – those can just be paid for when you’ll actually be needing the device and are more economical.

Continental Divide Trail Miscellaneous

I still can’t quite comprehend how you fit everything in those bags, especially 5 days of food. I’d love to know what was packed in each bag and how you made it all fit!

Choosing gear with packability in mind is crucial (like choosing the tarp rather than another sort of shelter so I could sandwich it behind my handlebar bag rather than in the bag, leaving more space in the bag for other gear). Similarly, for the long hauls when I needed 5+ days of food, choosing calorie-dense meals and snacks that take up less space and repackaging freeze-dried meals into zip lock bags allows me to fit an entire extra day of food into the same space as less carefully chosen and packed foods. The 20L Patagonia Dirt Roamer backpack also offered a lot of extra space – all that would be filled up at the beginning of those longer carries.

As far as what was in each bag, it usually looked like this:

  • Handlebar bag: sleep kit and a few pieces of clothing (and sometimes a little bit of food)
  • Egress pocket on front of handlebar bag: lightweight food or camera
  • Frame bag: tools/repair items, rechargeable battery, food in the frame bag, and the 1L Flux soft bottle when it would fit
  • Seat bag: rain gear, cook kit, and more food
  • Gas tank: snacks and phone
  • Backpack: 3L bladder, camera, miscellaneous doodads, long-sleeve shirt and wind jacket, journal, and more food. 

No orange plastic shovel? No long handled titanium spoon? No knife? No coffee cup? Hard core!

No, no, just a small multi-tool with a knife, and no. Sticks and rocks work well enough for digging a cathole that I don’t bother with a trowel. I ate my meals out of my little pot, so there was no need for a long-handled spoon, and that pot works just fine as a coffee mug, too.

Did you deal with many saddle sores? What’s your protocol to avoiding and/or treating? 

I had a few appear along the way, but none were particularly problematic, and I didn’t deal with any chafing. I think a few things contributed to not dealing with many saddle sores – not wearing a chamois really helps, I tried to wipe my skin down with a wet wipe most evenings, and if I felt any sign of a saddle sore, I’d put some double antibiotic ointment on it a couple times daily. 

What percentage of this ride was actually fun as opposed to being a challenge?

Nearly all of it was quite fun! There were, of course, short periods that were overly taxing, bug-infested, frigidly cold, or uncomfortably hot, and in those moments, it was undeniably challenging to find much enjoyment. But I knew what I was getting into and how ridiculously demanding parts of the trail would be, so I went into it with those expectations in mind and as much fitness as I could accumulate, and that really paid off. I also worked hard to never feel like I needed to be in a rush, and that helped quite a bit, too.

Riding the Continental Divide Trail is on the bucket list for many of us. We hope that this info download from an ultra-endurance legend will inspire you to get out there and give it a try! Stay tuned for Part Two, in which Kurt describes how to plan meals and stay fed on a 3,000-mile mountain biking adventure.