Bikepacking the South Downs in winter
On the face of it, this seems to be just a new buzzword for cycle touring. There is a difference though. Bikepacking is about heading off road with your bike and lightweight gear, probably wild camping, and enjoying getting to the quieter parts of the country. The latest equipment means you can carry a surprising amount on a bike, whilst still retaining the control needed for off road riding.
I'm a regular mountain biker, but I normally just go for a few hours blast. A friend, Ade, and I decided it was about time we tried a longer trip. Being a bit daft, and we have a history of doing stuff like this, we decided to do it in December, when there would be the minimum of daylight, and the maximum mud. And we decided just to sleep under tarps.
We met at Petersfield Railway station car park, where we'd worked out we could leave the cars for two days, paying by phone. We'd cycle to roughly Brighton, and then return on the train. First, though, we loaded up. As this is the first time I'd used this set up, I'd packed the night before, so all I had to do was strap it to the bike. This was fine for the bespoke bar bag and large seat bag, but the judicious use of gaffa tape was required for my frame pack - a re-deployed small dry bag. No trip should be without the use of gaffa tape. Soon enough we were ready for the off.
Of course, as we set off, it started raining immediately. 3 miles of road took us to the climb up to the Downs, which was thankfully a road climb to get us properly warmed up. By the time we'd done this, the rain had stopped. It was replaced by mud, at first just a thin coating on the good trails as we headed eastwards over rolling hills towards Beacon Hill, with some good puddles to cool our feet down.
Did I mention that it was also pretty cold. There was a strong northwesterly blowing, and it was December, so the temperatures was only 5 or 6 degrees. Luckily, waterproof boots kept my feet just about warm enough, though being clipped to cold metal pedals never helps.
Beacon Hill was our first longer climb, and the first time we really needed to balance traction on the slippery chalk tracks. Fortunately, the SDW takes a detour here, as the climb straight up would be grim! Instead a zig-zag southwards avoids the worst angles, and with a bit of effort we were soon heading back north to the spine of the ridge below Pen Hill. Here we had our first push of the trip, for the short climb is steep. Of course, the reward was a fast downhill section.
Next was a climb up towards Didling Hill, which dragged on a bit but wasn't too bad. The mud was OK at this point. On the ridge again, we stopped for a bite to eat. I was really enjoying myself, and as the sun came out, the beautiful Downs were revealed ahead of us.
Good, fast riding took us over Linch Ball, before we dropped to the A286 and a water tap at Hill Barn. Here Ade attempted to clean his gears, as he was having problems with his rear mech jamming a bit. I kept quiet, until very recently this had been my bike and I didn't want to be accused of giving him shoddy goods...
We plugged on. Some of the trail passed through fields, and these were proving to be the hardest bits. Where the trail was flat, we'd hoped to gain speed, but the reality was that often these were the muddy bits and slowed us down considerably. Graffham down was despatched, followed by a long fast descent on muddy grass where we both just about kept control of the bikes. By now I'd realised that using a full suspension bike was totally unnecessary in winter, as I was keeping it in the low travel setting all the time.
The climb up to Sutton Down was the toughest of the day, a long drag which both of us had to stop on briefly for a breather. Once over the top, another snack stop got us ready for the final few miles of the day.
The drop from Bignor Hill was steep and required lots of concentration as the ruts were both rough and slippery. Contouring up and over Westburton Hill was frustrating, sticky mud was now becoming a bit of a challenge.
At last we reached the main Arundel road, and the drop down towards Amberley. This was great, the first technical run of the day, and as it had been in the sun, the chalk was drier. I never trust the stuff though, thanks to a particularly nasty over-the-bars incident on an easy chalk track that once destroyed a helmet of mine. Better than the head though!
We headed over to Houghton Bridge, and the welcoming Riverside Tearooms. Here, after being handed bin-bags to sit on, we stuffed our faces with burgers and chips and got warm. We had one last big effort to go, the climb on to Rackham Hill, where I'd identified a likely spot to bivi.
After a quick water top up at the tap alongside the pub, somehow managing not to go in for a pint, we started the road climb up out of the village. After High Titten, the SDW leaves the tarmac, with a short brutal push, followed by a long drag, part ride, part push up onto Amberley Mount. Dusk had fallen, and the lights came on for the last push up to Rackham Banks. Here, using a combination of maps and Google images, I'd spotted a level looking spot behind the ancient earthwork. Fortunately for me, the plan had worked and there was just enough space to pitch a couple of tarps on relatively flat grass.
Now, this is the first time either of us had ever pitched a tarp using the bike as a frame. Fortunately I've pitched lots of tarps using other things, especially canoe paddles, so worked something out that seemed OK to me, a sort of transverse design using bike on one side and wheel on the other. Ade went for more of a ridge tent thing with the bike down the middle.
As I mentioned, it was December. Perfect time of year to lie under a tarp for 16 hours of darkness! It was also chilly, and the tarps were going stiff with accumulated frost. At least we both have decent gear, from many canoeing and walking adventures, and I was toasty in my sleeping bag. We'd brought a small plastic bottle of decent malt, which we passed between the tarps. Having eaten late in the afternoon, neither of us could be bothered to cook properly, so a few snacks fuelled us against the cold. As the lights of the coastal towns shone below us, we dropped comfortably to sleep.
We awoke to a beautiful morning. I'd slept pretty well, and the sun was rising already. Breakfast consisted of part of last night's planned dinner - chilli con carne! And decent coffee, of course. Then, the faffing commenced. This is something Ade and I have something of a reputation for when canoeing, leading to very late starts, sometimes around lunchtime. Surely, with so little gear, this wouldn't be the case? Oh no, of course it was, and it was a good 2 hours from awaking to being ready for the off.
As soon as I hopped on the bike, I was off again. Punctured rear wheel. Another 15 minutes and a new inner tube was in place, and we could start the short final climb onto Rackham Hill with cold legs.
Once on the top, the going was initially good, and the day was glorious. Travelling through the landscape, with endless views of downs, the Weald and the sea, was wonderful. Somehow, though, I hardly took any photos on this part. It was also relatively flat, the only tough part being a very muddy field after Chantry Post, thanks to a large herd of cows who didn't even have the decency to acknowledge our presence, let alone get out of the way of the driest line.
We dropped down to the A24, looking for water. Only at the bottom, having taken our lives in our hands and crossed the dual carriageway, did I remember that the tap was back up at the last farm. Ade volunteered to fill up the hydration packs, whilst I did a quick service on both our drivetrains, cleaning out the worst of the mud.
Now came one of our biggest challenges, the climb to Chanctonbury Hill. We knew this would be the hardest climb of the trip, and so it proved, though we both managed to ride most of it. On the top, the riding was over grasslands, as we passed the ancient Ring itself before heading onwards towards Steyning. The grass was theoretically easy, but seemed to be as much claggy mud as grass, and grip was hard to maintain as our tyre treads were well clogged now.
Skirting around Steyning Bowl, we descended past hundreds of muddy piglets, thinking of bacon butties. The Adur valley was in front of us, the lowest point of the day.
I was now on familiar ground. For the last year or so, when working in Lancing and living at my uncle's in Hove, I'd been commuting by bike at least a couple of times a week. Sometimes, I'd gone the long way around on my way home, over the downs. I therefore knew that the next climb over Beeding Hill to Truleigh Hill was quite tough. Without bags, I knew I could manage it in summer, but with bags and mud not a chance, and the steep bit was a hard push with clogged cleats. Eventually we hit the tarmac road. In my head, this was home territory, and the track basically good as we rode the switchback hills towards the Devil's Dyke, with some fast sections to enjoy and only a very small amount of pushing.
The track dies away a bit before the Devil's Dyke, and then traverses a particularly muddy field. The bikes were now coated. We'd pondered heading on to Dunkery, but as my uncle, Alan, lives just 15 downhill minutes to the right, the lure was too much.
There's a cycle track down much of this, a fast gravel one, and we flew downhill, hopping to shake off some of the mud. A quick bit of traffic dodging round the A27 roundabout and we soon at Alan's. Time for a brew and a mince pie, whilst attempting to clean off some of the mud. Unfortunately Alan doesn't have a hosepipe, so bucket and watering cans were applied. For, as it stood, there was so much mud we didn't think Southern Railways were going to be impressed! After a bit of a battle, the worst was gone.
Saying goodbye to Al, we dropped down to Hove Station, bought tickets for Petersfield, and got lucky with the timing. Changing at Havant, the last leg on South West Trains was short, though the bikes did look as if they'd been quarantined as a biohazard.
This had been great fun. Despite the mud, the cold and the wind, we'd loved pretty much every minute. The average speed had been really low, under 6 mph I think, but that was always going to be the case in winter conditions. The bivi had been comfortable and the weather had played ball.
So, it turns out Bikepacking is a great way to have a little adventure, even down here in the crowded south east. If you already own some camping gear, you don't need very much, especially if you wait until summer!
A bit about the kit
Just a note on the main bits of equipment we used.
Giant Anthem SX
Alpkit Duolock drybag on bars
Alpkit Big Papa Seatpack
Decathlon drybag in frame
Vango 20 litre bag with 2L Platypus Big Hoser bladder
Alpkit Rig 7 tarp
Polycro homemade groundsheet (thanks Ade!)
PHD Minim 500 sleeping bag
Alpkit Hunka bivi
Equip 25mm Self Inflating Mat
Scott Comp Racing (my old bike)
Alpkit Joey harness on bars, with drybag
Alpkit Big Papa Seatpack
Lomo frame pack
Alpkit Gourdon pack
DD Ultralight Tarp
Polycro homemade groundsheet
Cumulus 400 down sleeping bag
Thermarest ultralite inflatable mat (can't remember what model, the little ones with tubes!)
Food was mostly snack based, knowing we'd eat out if possible. We had enough for evening meals, I took a "Look What We Found" chilli, and some spare quick noodles.
There are enough taps to get water, IF its not frozen.
I bought the Harvey's South Downs Way map which is excellent, backed up with OS Maps on my phone, and Ade had mapping on his phone too.