I have always wanted to bikepack through the badlands of North Dakota, with its snaking rivers and rolling prairie punctuated by multi-colored buttes and canyons. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the Midwest and the lure of those wide open spaces keeps calling me back. I assumed I would ride the Maah Daah Hey Trail on a mountain bike one day, but when I read about the Badlands Gravel Battle and saw photos of those deep red scoria roads rolling through the exact same countryside, I knew I found my adventure.
The Badlands Gravel Battle follows a 120 mile route along the gravel roads that parallel most of the Maah Daah Hey Trail outside of Medora, North Dakota. The route starts in Theodore Roosevelt National Park and upon exiting through the north entrance, rolls along the Little Missouri River for much of the time. That is until you have to cross said river and head back towards Medora.
Depending on which direction you go and how many miles you want to ride each day, the loop makes a great 2-3 day bikepacking trip, with three campsites on the route (dispersed camping is allowed in Little Missouri National Grassland but the campsites are so convenient). There is also a shorter 80-mile loop that has you crossing the river a bit earlier. And of course you have the option to map out your own ride of whatever distance you want.
While I had originally planned this bikepacking trip for the end of September, various issues put me in North Dakota a few weeks later instead. My 70-degree, sunny days suddenly turned into winter with snow flurries, 30 mph wind gusts, and freeze warnings. Nevertheless, an adventure was to be had.
Given the heavy winds and my resulting slow pace, I abandoned my original plan to ride the whole 120 miles in 2 days and opted to follow the 80-mile Badlands Gravel Battle Short Loop instead. This route crosses the Little Missouri River near Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch — another protected section of the national park. Elkhorn Camp, my campsite for the night, is not far from our former president’s onetime wilderness escape.
While I couldn’t stop smiling when riding those fast, packed-down scoria roads, and the scenery captivated my imagination, I was a little surprised at the number of oil fields. I somehow forgot that the Little Missouri National Grasslands are at the heart of the Bakken oil field boom. And the oil tankers that come with the territory.
Regardless, while I wasn’t lucky enough to see bison (sad face), I saw tons of white tail deer, wild turkeys, cute little prairie dogs, feral horses who were extremely curious and liked to run alongside me, tons and tons of cattle who were less excited about my presence, and coyotes howling outside my tent at night. I would love to go back and explore more “in season.”
As I was exploring gravel roads and not technical singletrack, I decided to go the trailer route instead of bike bags as it makes packing a little easier and enables, in my opinion at least, better maneuverability of the bike.
Burley Nomad with the 16+ Wheel Kit: This flatbed style bike trailer offers huge cargo capacity (you can carry up to 100 pounds) and comes with a durable weatherproof cover. The trailer’s balance point minimizes torque on the bike while the two wheel design provides superior tracking and stability. The trailer itself weighs roughly 15 pounds and I would estimate with all my gear and water, it was around 35+ pounds. Let’s just put it this way — I was able to pick it up and carry it across a river.
The 16+ Wheel Kit (out soon) enables your Burley bike trailer to travel with you over pretty much any terrain. The Kit includes two 16″ x 3” push button wheels with a knobby tread on the wider, more rugged tire. The wheels are dead easy to take on and off. Simply push the button in the middle of the wheel and either pull out or push the wheel in. That’s it. No tools required.
I was super impressed with the performance of the trailer/wheel kit combo. When riding, I barely noticed it was there except for some steep uphills where the obvious extra weight made pedaling a little harder. The trailer rolls smoothly behind you so you don’t get that tugging feeling as you accelerate or pedal hard. Never once did I get speed wobbles when bombing down hills and the 16+ wheels went over everything. I even took the trailer on a little technical singletrack exploration in Wisconsin and even though the going was a bit slow, the trailer did just fine.
As my Diamondback Haanjo Trail Carbon comes with a 12mm quick release thru-axle in the rear, I had to purchase an alternative axle from The Robert Axle Project. This replacement axle has external threading to accommodate the installation of the hitch mount for connecting your trailer. Luckily, the gang over at The Robert Axle Project make it dead easy to get the right thru-axle — simply punch in the type of bike and brand and it spits out the product you need. For $58, I ordered the 12×142 1.5mm Thread for Hitch Mount Trailer and I was ready to go.
NEMO Apollo 3P: Weighing just over a pound, you don’t need much more than this floorless, single wall shelter when bikepacking. Even with heavy winds and below-freezing temps, the tarp provided more than enough protection. With 57-square-feet of floorspace, it’s big enough to fit your bike inside — I did this in Wisconsin but in North Dakota, I elected to bring my gear in to keep it from freezing and also have room to cook inside out of the wind. As it is floorless, I lined the windward side of the tarp with logs to keep wind from whipping underneath during the night.
NEMO Escape Pod 1P Bivy: While I didn’t need this in North Dakota as the cold temps ensured no bugs, I was attacked by mosquitos in Wisconsin. If you plan to bikepack anywhere buggy, this Bivy is a must. Weighing only 7 ounces – the mesh bivy creates a bug-free cocoon around your upper body and is super easy to set up using a combination of the air support frame and stakes.
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm: This 2.5-inch inflatable sleeping pad delivers four-season warmth (5.7 R-Value) for just 15 ounces of weight.
Therm-a-Rest Adara HD: Filled with hydrophobic down and a reflective liner, this winter sleeping bag keeps you comfortable down to 20 degrees F. The Toe-asis Foot Warmer at the bottom of the bag is my favorite — slide your cold feet inside and they warm up quickly.
NEMO Puffin Blanket: Because I had room in the trailer and I knew the temps were going to drop into the teens at night, I grabbed the down blanket for extra warmth just in case. I am so happy I did as I was snug as a bug all night long.
Big Agnes Round Mountain Pillow: Weighs only 2.5 ounces and fits in the hood of your sleeping bag.
MSR Reactor Stove: To keep things simple, North Dakota was a dehydrated meal only trip so I brought the Reactor for its lightning quick boil times and windproof design.
GSI Fairshare Mug II ($15.95): This is a 2017 product you will want to have on your radar. I like bringing one heatproof eating/drinking vessel that has a lid so the leftover gunk doesn’t get all over your pack. Ingeniously, this mug includes measuring lines in cups, milliliters, and ounces so you can actually add the right amount of boiling water to your dehydrated meals, ensuring they don’t end up a soupy mess. Brilliant. It also comes in handy for measuring out ingredients when you are ready to do some proper backcountry cooking. A foam sleeve insulates your food while protecting your hands from the heat.
MSR Alpine Long Tool Spoon: Dehydrated meals = long spoon.
MSR TrailShot: While I didn’t filter water in North Dakota (I brought all water with me), I used it regularly in Wisconsin where lakes are in abundance. The tiny TrailShot lets you filter water directly from the source via a simple squeezing motion. Weighing only 5.4 ounces, it delivers 1 liter of filtered water per minute.
1. Maloja Rosana Shirt and Tammy Shorts: Treated with Polygiene, these bike clothes are not only super stylish, but also enable you to ride stink free for multiple days in a row. 2. Patagonia Nano-Air Light Hoody: A key layer for warmth in stop and go, high-intensity activities. 3. POC Tectal Helmet. 4. Wigwam wool socks. 5. Pearl Izumi Escape Thermal Gloves and Divide Gloves. 6. Pearl Izumi Elite Escape Thermal Hoody: Wind-resistant, fleeced lined warmth with a ponytail compatible hood and zippered rear pockets. 7. Duckworth Maverick Snorkel Hood lightweight wool baselayer. 8. Craft Move Thermal Tights: Warm (even when wet), wind-resistant, and super comfortable chamois. 9. Scott Elite Boa Mountain Bike Shoes. 10. Helly Hansen Icefall Jacket. 11. 7Mesh Revelation Jacket: Lifesaver for protection against that sub-freezing windchill.
The one item I really wish I had with me in in North Dakota? Booties. Those Pearl Izumi mountain bike shoe covers sitting at home in my closet. Two pairs of socks just doesn’t cut it in sub-freezing temps.
Osprey Verve: I wore a hydration pack so I would be more apt to drink water on the go and to keep my camera and bike tools/repair kit handy.
Garmin Edge 1000: I downloaded the GPX files from the web and followed the route on my Garmin with turn-by-turn directions. It worked great in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota.
ViewRanger: An app for your phone, ViewRanger lets you download maps and upload GPX files so that you have access offline. This served as my backup in case anything went wrong with the Garmin. I also like the Skyline feature that gives you the name of all the peaks surrounding you.
If You Go
Where: The ride starts in Medora, North Dakota. There is a campground in town or a few hotels to chose from for the night before your ride.
Maps: I followed the Badlands Gravel Battle route as it closely mirrors the Maah Daah Hey Trail and shares the same campsites. You could easily create your own gravel course by ordering a detailed topo map of the Little Missouri National Grasslands or the Theodore Roosevelt National Park map.
Water: I brought all my water with me as there are no water sources on the route — apart from the river but that is some pretty mucky water that would be tough on any filter. During the season, there are water pumps at each campsite but as I was there out of season, they didn’t appear to be working. The extra water added quite a bit of weight to the trailer but better safe than sorry.
Weather: I highly suggest you pick a really nice weather window for this ride. Wind is a huge factor. On the way out I had a 30 mph gusty headwind which slowed my pace to only 6 mph. I also ran into a lot of mud around the river crossing as it had rained steadily the weeks before my trip. This is not your average mud either — it’s clay, so it builds up fast and won’t let go. I had a bit of an issue at one point with so much clay on my bike and trailer tires that they wouldn’t spin. I had to find a puddle to try and dissolve off some of the clay before i could get rolling again. And even then I was worried about flats.
River Level: Whether you are riding the Maah Daah Hey or the Badlands Gravel Battle, at some point you are going to have to cross the Little Missouri River. Check the river height before you go. When I crossed, the water hit just above my knees. And it was COLD. Officials warn that anything over 3 feet is uncrossable.