Early Bird Van Island Bikepacking

James and I kicked April off with an early season bikepacking trip: seven days, no set route, more dirt than pavement. We picked Southern Vancouver Island mostly out of convenience. I had a cat sitting gig in Courtenay lined up for the end of March, plus spring arrived a little earlier on the Island than in the the Okanagan, where many of my routes at higher elevation were still covered in snow.

With a summer of European adventures lined up and James on the roster for the Tour Divide, this trip would be our last chance to be together for some time—our aims were to have fun and scout some new routes, on the hunt for the tastiest bakeries and most stunning camp spots along the way. Vancouver Island was also the destination of my early bicycle tours, and I looked forward to showcasing some of the regional highlights—like Sooke Potholes and the Galloping Goose Trail—to James while also getting a bit farther off the pavement with our more rugged adventure rigs. Our start and end point was Ladysmith: a small community south of Nanaimo where we could easily hop on the Cowichan Valley Trail. With a seven day window and no fixed agenda, we parked James’ Subaru at our new friend Lara’s place amid a torrential downpour and headed out the following noon after packing up our bikes. I didn’t even bother to bring a head unit (though we did download offline maps on our phones). By the time we crossed the Trans-Canada Highway it was raining again, but we were off: following signs for the Cowichan Valley Trail toward Duncan.

Have a minute? Check out this short video of our journey!

Gear Check

Meaghan: Rocking a 2018 Salsa Cutthroat Force with handbuilt Light Bicycle wheels (WR35 flyweight rims with 28 holes in the front/rear, Sapin D-Light spokes and DT350 hubs) and 40 mm WTB Raddler tires. A 11-42 cassette paired with a Wolftooth CAMO 34 front ring and Apidura Backcountry Series bags.

James: Rolling the Soma Riff dropbar mountain bike with front suspension and Surly corner bars. SRAM NX 30t 11-42 drivetrain and 27.5×2.1 Teravail Rutland tires. Assorted bags and voile straps.

We were both using the week-long adventure to test run new kit: in my case, this was the first time I’d been out on my new Light Bicycle wheels or used the Backcountry bags. I was also experimenting with a new sleep setup after mine was stolen from the vehicle during our 24 hour ITT last fall, including a down sleeping wrap and puffy jacket from Mont Bell. James had also replaced some of his stolen kit with Mont Bell apparel; in addition, he was trying out the corner bar and a solid foam mattress.

Day One: Ladysmith to Lake Cowichan

Route on Strava: 61 km / 507 m

Salt of the sea and the wrath of the rain: James and I chart a course south in intermittent downpour, between the crash of surf and rolling farmlands, navigating well-marked bike path, debris-strewn road, and deep puddles. Tim Hortons double doubles and donuts in Duncan fuel our ride along the fast gravel of the Cowichan Valley Trail, clambering over washouts and downed branches as the rain seeps through our layers. When temperatures drop toward freezing and our fingers lose functionality we acknowledge that we’re in over our heads, and do what any self respecting bikepacker with a wallet would do: check into an AirBnB for the night.

Day Two: Lake Cowichan to Cowichan River 

Route on Strava: 110 km / 780 m

We arise to clear skies and snow-dusted slopes. A chill bites our ankles, but in today’s dry weather we manage fine in merino. Just for kicks, we set out on an exploratory loop around Cowichan Lake: the pavement runs out after Gordon Bay and doesn’t return until the former mill town of Youbou on the opposite shore. We encounter logging trucks and deer, and more waterfalls than we can count. By early afternoon the road turns sloppy with mud while everything else screams in green: leafless maples draped thick with moss and lofty cedars; near the Nitinat River bracken ferns carpet the forest floor like sea anemones. We loop back through the town of Lake Cowichan then follow the rail trail until we find a spot to pitch camp along the Cowichan River just ten kilometres from where we started that morning. It’s a good thing we’re not trying to get anywhere fast.

Day Three: Cowichan River to Sooke

Route on Strava: 116 km / 1,360 m

Morning frost knits a glittering tapestry on our bike frames; we warm our hands on coffee mugs, torsos and lower bodies still tucked inside sleeping bags, inside our tent. I shiver all the way to second breakfast at a greasy spoon in Duncan. Beneath the watchful eyes of totem poles we scurry around collecting resupply (including fresh croissants) then trade the hurried roadways once again for gravel as we continue south on the Cowichan Valley Trail, past salmonberry shrubs bearing bubblegum pink buds and yellow blooms of skunk cabbage. Kinsol Trestle marks our departure from the trail and a foray into the unknown, westbound along Koksilah River. We aim to arrive in Jordan River via logging roads but instead drop down into Sooke, our planned route marred by snow, knee-deep mud, decommissioned roads, and an impassable creek. Still, we are amazed by what our bicycles can accomplish; relieved to find ourselves at lower elevation and beyond the active logging area by nightfall.

Day Four: Sooke to Victoria 

Route on Strava: 110 km / 1,120 m

At Stick-in-the-Mud Coffee House we devour our Egg-a-majigs (I can’t explain it—you must try one yourself) but then linger over our coffee refills as we warm up. Caffeinated and restored, we race out of town on the Galloping Goose as though our legs were ablaze, blasting toward Sooke Potholes on a tree-lined trail that remains ours alone at this early hour. At historic Leechtown we haul a u-turn to make tracks for East Sooke, then Metchosin. Playing I-Spy for bald eagles and relishing our speed on the pavement, and the friendly commuter vibe as we roll through Greater Victoria. In Beacon Hill Park we settle into a shoreline bench to drink tallboys of beer while we wait for my sister—our host for the next two nights—to get off work. Two cold water swimmers send ripples through the glassy ocean surface while we bask like contented seals, our faces tilting toward the late afternoon sun. 

Day Five: Rest Day in Victoria

Route on Strava: 48 km / 466 m 

My sister has two cats. Echo faces nightly imprisonment in the laundry room while Lemon ascends to chief commander of the nocturne, roaming the suite with zero regard for the two visiting cyclists asleep—or trying to sleep—on the living room floor. When the rest of the household awakes, Lemon is nowhere to be seen. We humans busy ourselves in the kitchen making French presses of coffee, hashbrowns and eggs. Conversation slinging every direction as three types of hot sauce are fished from the fridge. Then James and I head out into the windy day, first to the self-service car wash to spray the caked mud from our bicycles and then for a jaunt around the city. Under a cold, hard sun we sweep past residential homes with million-dollar ocean views and delightful little coves. Into the teeth of a mighty headwind toward Ten Mile Point and Oak Bay, and eventually the downtown harbour, where Friday afternoon commuter traffic meets horse-drawn carriage tours.

Day Six: Victoria to Shawnigan Lake

Route on Strava: 81 km / 1,635 m

Rail trail with a side of singletrack: we take the E & N Line into Thetis Lake Regional Park, then loop north into Mount Work Regional Park, a woodland paradise on the edge of the city. Sun filters through the medley of evergreens; occasionally, we encounter pockets of arbutus. We make slow progress on the rougher, steeper terrain—two days of road cycling and rail trail have spoiled us—and by the time we reach Sooke Hills the late afternoon sky has clouded over. We ignore warning signs about washouts and trail closures as we push on over the Malahat Connector, layering up for the fast evening descent toward Shawnigan Lake.

Day Seven: Shawnigan Lake to Ladysmith 

Route on Strava: 71 km / 657 m

In the morning we discover a fresh April snow blanketing the field around our tent. We drink the remainder of our instant coffee from the comfort of our sleeping bags in procrastination: I do not like the cold, I’ve decided. Eventually we gear up and roll out, laughing about my previous ignorance and oh-so-naive beliefs regarding Vancouver Island’s mild spring. From Kinsol Trestle we retrace our route into Duncan, and then back towards our endpoint in Ladysmith. That morning someone handed us two beers and after carting them around in our frame bags all day, we finally crack our cans open on the driftwood-strewn beach in Chemainus. Soon, we will be strapping our bikes to the Subaru in Ladysmith, sailing across the Salish Sea, then driving through the night to reach Kelowna by daybreak. Soon, I will be training in Mallorca, and James will be on his own adventures. But at this moment we are on the road together, and surely that is something to celebrate.

Wheel Performance & Other Insights

My Light Bicycle wheels proved fast, fun, and sturdy enough to tackle everything the mixed terrain route threw at us: they flew over crushed gravel trails and pavement, and stood up to the rougher roads and rocky single track I encountered as well. 

The Apidura kit also fared well: waterproof, durable, and spacious enough to store my cook set and food. I had zero mechanicals; James’ drivetrain suffered in the mud and he didn’t fall in love with the Surly corner bar.

Our one glaring oversight was not adequately preparing for the colder temperatures: all those daffodils and blooming tulips in Courtenay had tricked me. Though we did enjoy some sunshiny ice cream days, we regularly encountered nighttime lows near freezing, which definitely tested the outer limits of our ultra-light sleep setups. While my Mont Bell sleep wrap and 1000-fill down jacket were certainly warm (I completed my sleep kit with an air mat), I had to double up on socks and don my hat, gloves, and even rain pants to stay cozy. James didn’t fare much better. Though we managed some rest, we definitely weren’t comfortable. In future, I’d bring a more robust sleeping bag on early season bikepacking excursions.

Thank You’s

  • To BikeMisty for your generous hospitality in Ladysmith
  • To Sir Bikes Alot for sharing the route “Gravel Dad Fondo” 
  • To Alisha & Aaron for letting us pet your cats (and also providing food/shelter/board game ridiculousness in Victoria)
  • To Marie for the tires
  • To James for letting me plan the route and never complaining about tire-swallowing mud