“Bikes and rafts are a really cool combination, one that will make you feel clever, especially when you ride up to the river with your boat on your bike, then paddle down it with your bike on board your boat. Yes, one of the all-time coolest feelings in my estimation.”

Roman Dial

Bikerafting: A Brief History & Overview

Bikerafting is a newer form of mulit-sport adventure travel, with roots in the ’80s. It combines bicycles and packrafts, such that you put your boat on your bike when you are riding trails and then your bike on your boat when you are paddling a body of water that you need to cross to access another trail to pedal. Bikerafters use bikes and boats to cross contiguous landscapes they would otherwise not be able to access without those tools.

Doom and Jon Bailey on their first bikerafting mission to the Southern Utah desert in 2010.

People have been packing their gear on two-wheeled, human-powered contraptions for centuries, traveling for hundreds of miles to buy and sell goods, to get from one place to another more quickly than they would be foot, or just for the fun of it. Mountain bikes made it easier to do in the backcountry. But lashing bikes onto boats? Unsurprisingly, it was adventurer and naturalist Roman Dial who first envisioned this combination and then actualized it in 1987.

“I had never heard of anybody else doing it before me,” Dial explains. “It was my own idea with my first mountain bike. I wanted to explore an area for moose hunting on the far side of the Delta River, a big glacier river in the Alaska Range. I used a Sherpa Packraft to get across, rode buffalo trails, and ended up shooting a moose and using the bike to wheel meat to the river and then ferry it all over in my raft.”

For Steve “Doom” Fassbinder, Dial’s trips were “proof of concept”—they showed people could do these huge traverses once done only on foot or by ski, now with bikes and boats.

“Advancements in lightweight boats and highly functional bikes and other technical gear has allowed those activities to be combined more safely and easily,” Fassbinder said. “The first time someone threw a bike on a boat, it probably didn’t go that well. Safe and functional packrafts didn’t exist back then; the boats they were using were horrible and just barely got by. They’d have to be repaired every day of use. They’d put 5 pounds of tape on the rafts each time they used them. When real boats existed 15, 20 years later, that was proof of concept that the materials worked. It was so much more realistic and less dicey; you could still make a trip risky, but it wouldn’t be dangerous because your equipment fails on you.”

Roman Dial bikerafting in Alaska.
Roman Dial on the Lost Coast Tour. “Back in 2011 three of our group tutored under expeditionary beach-boating bike pioneers Dylan Kentch and Eric Parsons,” wrote Roman Dial in a Revelate Designs blog post. “Through salt, sand, and surf we bike’n’boated the wild end of the Lost Coast. That 200 or so miles of coastline south from Yakutat to Glacier Bay included ten days of June sunshine, big beaches, big boulders, bad brush, tidal rides, and a nasty cop at the end (Pedal, Paddle, Push). Our Lost Coast South trip was 60% pedaling, 30% paddling, and a full 10% nasty pushing, carrying, and sometimes throwing bikes.” Photo: Steve Fassbinder.

Likewise, advances in mountain biking technology enabled more all-terrain uses.

“Fat bikes, specifically, changed the nature of backcountry mountain bike expeditions,” Fassbinder explained. “They made what was previously impossible, possible.”

Though people had experimented with fat-tired bikes as early as the 1900s, the first modern versions didn’t arrive until the 1980s, with the entry of Ray Molina’s Remolina 3.1 rims, 3.5 tires, and frames. Then, from the 1990s, Mark Gronewald of Alaska’s Wildfire Designs Bicycles partnered with Alaskan frame builder, John Evingson, to design and build bikes using Molina’s rims and tires. By the 2000s, they started producing their own “Fat Bikes,” with Gronewald coining the term. Around the same time, Surly Bikes released the Pugsley frame, the Large Marge 65 mm (2.6 in) rims, and Endomorph 3.8-inch (97 mm) tires.”

Dylan Kentch paddling across Icy Bay with Mt. Saint Elias in the background. Photo by Eric Parsons, Revelate Designs.
Dylan Kentch paddling across Icy Bay with Mt. Saint Elias in the background. Photo by Eric Parsons, Revelate Designs.

“The Pugsley was the answer to snow bike travel, but then it became apparent it would be ideal for off-piste riding and sand and desert trips,” Fassbinder added. “They are stupid fun bikes; you feel like an agile bulldozer. It brought the kid back out in a lot of people. But it was also a serious, indispensable adventure tool. I got one as soon as I could afford it. It just opened up more rideable terrain. I first took it on snow machine trails locally, and then out in the desert.”

Surly didn’t know what it was unleashing with this bicycle, Fassbinder added. It allowed fat biking to become a sport. “Like road biking, mountain biking, cyclocross racing, fat biking became a thing because the equipment now existed.”

Text from the historical bikerafting article, “A Bike and a Boat,” Mountain Flyer, by Lizzy Scully. There’s a lot of great information, videos and stories about bikerafting at Bikepacking.com, and another article by Lizzy on the Alpacka Raft blog.

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