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Bikepacking the Marshfield Mondeaux Loop | A Wisconsin Gravel Bike Camping Route

Updated: May 14

In late April, I completed a 156-mile bikepacking loop in northcentral Wisconsin. This is the first part of my Ride Report.

I had been planning my first bikepacking trip of the Spring. The original plan was to ride in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, enjoying the great temperatures and blooming forest. But the forecast for a week-long series of thunderstorms (including an historic outbreak of tornados) cancelled these plans.

Next, I planned a four-day route around northern Wisconsin. This was optimistic in late-April, but I watched the weather and waited. Wave after wave of rain rolled through. Finally, I had only a three-day window between rainstorms and other commitments. I abbreviated my planned route to include a section of the Pine Line bike trail in northcentral Wisconsin.

We had a long, heavy rain on Sunday. The rain was predicted to end Monday morning and I had my gravel bike packed for the ride. As the rain continued overnight, I thought ahead to the soggy gravel roads – then decided this bikepacking trip would be better suited to my mountain bike, the Priority 600X with the Pinion internal gearbox and belt drive – impervious to wet, sloppy conditions – along with the better flotation of the 29 x 2.4-inch tires.

As the rain continued Monday morning, I transferred all my gear to the MTB. The weather radar showed the rain ending about 10:00 AM – and with a few sprinkles lingering, I set off at 10:01. Temperatures were in the high 40’s with steady winds predicted for most of the day.

Bikepacking in soggy central Wisconsin!

I live in Central Wisconsin, surrounded by dairy farms. Within a few miles, I was on gravel town roads. Just west of Marshfield, modern dairy farms are mixed with smaller Amish farms easily identified by plow horses, buggies, and clothes drying on the line (no electricity in the houses.) After about 12 miles I turned due north and would only jog east or west a mile here and there for the next few hours. My planned bikepacking route was nearly 100% rural Wisconsin gravel.

It was immediately evident that I had made the right decision to choose the Priority 600X MTB with wider tires. Not only was the gravel soggy from all the rain, but many miles had been graded by township road crews to eliminate the muddy puddles and washboard surfaces. Where there were tire tracks the going was better. Otherwise, the loose, soft, wet gravel was slow going.

45-miles later I arrived in Medford, the only town along my route. It was time to enjoy a Gatorade and snack at a convenience store, then top off my water bottles for the remainder of the ride, plus supper and breakfast.

Like many Wisconsin towns, Medford is built along a river which originally provided power for sawmills and grain mills. The river bottom also provided the flat grade for a railroad to deliver freight and haul away sawmill lumber and fresh produce from area farms. One section of this railroad has since been abandoned and has now been converted into the Pine Line bike trail (and snowmobile trail, in the winter.) If the weather had been more favorable, I had hoped to ride to the end of the Pine Line, then continue on to Park Falls where I would link to the Tuscobia Trail, another rail trail heading west. Instead, I rode only about 15 miles north of Medford before turning west into the Chequamegon National Forest. This turn also coincided with the route of the Ice Age trail, a hiking trail that crosses most of the state.

My plan was to cross into the National Forest where unlimited, free dispersed camping is permitted. Anyone riding this section of the Pine Line should note that there is a free campground along the west side of the trail, opposite the Lions Park ball diamond at the small town of Whittlesey. Just south of my turn onto Fawn Avenue there is also a sign for Chelsea Lake Park. I rode over to check out the park which has a picnic shelter and boat landing. There are no campsites, but I was tempted to hang my hammock in the shelter for the night since there was a well hand pump and outhouses provided. But the cold wind off the lake promised an unpleasant night and miserable morning – so I continued on with my original plan to camp in the protective forest.

Within five miles I found an acceptable campsite in the hardwood forest. The rolling terrain in the Northwoods reminded me of why I prefer hammock camping. There are very few flat spots to pitch a tent! Those that are relatively flat are also waterlogged. Within 15 minutes I had a tarp strung and the hammock deployed. I changed into a spare pair of light shoes, then I lit my tiny alcohol stove to boil a few cups of water for my supper.

Dinner was a “walking taco”, that is, rehydrated freeze-dried hamburger, black beans with red and green peppers.

All the ingredients were packed in a vacuum-sealed freezer bag at home. I simply cut open the top of the bag, added 2 cups of boiling water, then placed the bag inside a “cozy” – which is an envelope of insulated Reflectix. While the contents of my meal were “cooking”, I added another cup of water to the pot and readied my utensils and the final part of the meal – a crushed bag of Fritos. I thoroughly stirred the hot, rehydrated meat mixture, then added a layer of crushed Fritos to the mix. With my long-handled titanium spork, I dug into the hot and spicy meal.

If you go to a fair, you may also see “walking tacos” served by vendors who add the meat mixture to an open bag of Fritos or Doritos. Add a scoop of fixings, shredded lettuce and cheese and you can walk around enjoying a tasty meal. I prepare my walking tacos using freeze-dried ingredients with powdered taco seasoning. Sometimes I add onions and freeze-dried shredded cheese on top, or pack fresh cheese - depending on how far in advance I am packing the meals. Doritos come in many flavors, so you have many options. For camping, walking tacos are perfect since all you do is boil water. I eat out of the vacuum bag and there is nothing to clean except the spork – which requires a quick swish in a cup of hot water. Dessert was a chocolate chip granola bar! Then all the garbage is carefully sealed in a ziplock bag to discourage any nighttime visitors – we have raccoons and black bears in the area.

For solo travel and rehydrating my freeze-dried meals, you can’t beat an alcohol stove! This is my choice for #bikepacking, #backpacking, and #canoecamping!

I add about 1.5 ounces of denatured alcohol to the tiny cup, then a pot stand and windbreak. The stove starts immediately – every time. No pumping or priming. It burns without smoke or gas fumes. When the alcohol is consumed, it simply goes out. About two minutes later, the titanium stove is cold enough to pack away until morning – and it packs inside my coffee cup along with my soap, microfiber cloth, and lighter. You can carry denatured alcohol in a fuel bottle - or a plastic soda bottle!

I had also prepared my breakfasts in advance. I enjoy cold-soaked oatmeal (except on trips in freezing temperatures), and this is my recipe: 1/2 cup rolled oats, 1 tablespoon of chia seeds, and 2 tablespoons of dried craisins (sweetened cranberries). I multiply this mix times the number of days I will be out and seal in a heavy, reusable vinyl bag. After supper, I add a scoop of this mixture to my larger pot, and then add a one-ounce packet of Maple Dude pure syrup. (Maple Dude Syrup Shots are also my favorite 100% pure energy booster on the trail!) I cover this mixture with water, add the pot lid, and tuck the pot inside the water bottle carrier on my handlebars. (I have never had any problems with animals messing with my bike during the night – and I don’t think the wet oatmeal mix has any significant odor.

Now I had time to get my bedding ready for the night. Even before I had my cook kit packed and stowed in my panniers, a light sprinkle started. One of the advantages of tarp camping with a hammock is that you can arrange your bed standing up! I use a continuous ridgeline for my tarp that is strung head high. Despite the saturated ground, my hammock was bone dry. I added my air mattress and then my sleeping bag. I laid out my set of long underwear that I sleep in, plus a watch cap to keep my head warm.

It was only a light drizzle, so I tended to the rest of my gear, draping my raincoat over the bike, the saddle, and my Hammerhead computer. After brushing my teeth, I retreated to the dry tarp. It was too early to sleep so I just lounged and planned the route for the next day. My biking shoes, helmet, and the stuff sacks for my gear were all stored under the hammock.

It was a gray, dreary day. I had logged 62.2 miles, with 1627 feet of climbing along the relatively flat stretch across northcentral Wisconsin. As darkness fell about 8:00 PM, I surrendered to the warmth of my sleeping bag with the overnight low forecasted to be in the 40’s. I have a small pack “pillow” that has a pocket for added stuffing. To the pillow I add my wind vest for a little extra padding. Then this pillow goes into a larger pillowcase with room for my shirt and pants. These clothes add more bulk to the pillow and eliminate the problem of where do you stuff your clothes overnight?

I woke at 6:00 AM to another light drizzle. One advantage of solo bikepacking is that it only takes one vote to set the schedule for the day – so I closed my eyes for another hour. After 7:00 AM it was still dripping from the trees, but I was ready to get going. In the cold morning air, I added my riding clothes over my long underwear for warmth.

Breakfast is fast and easy. With NO cooking, enjoy a hearty, energy-packed meal!

I start the alcohol stove and use my small pot to boil 2 cups of water. While this is heating, I take my soaked oatmeal and add more water to cover. Then I spoon in 2 tablespoons of freeze-dried milk (NOT disgusting “instant skim milk” but real, whole FD milk!) By now the water is hot for a cup of instant coffee – prepared with a single-serving packet. Thoroughly stir the oatmeal and enjoy the smooth, hearty mix with the added fruit and delicious maple flavor (which I prefer to brown sugar.)

The extra cup of hot water is sufficient to wash out the pot, cup, and spoon. By the time I am done drying the cook kit, the stove is cold, and everything is repacked. Then it is time to repack the bike. My sleeping bag is stuffed into a dry bag and attached to the Lone Peak harness on the handlebars. My clothes are stuffed in a sack, then in the panniers. My cook kit is in one small stuff sack with the utensils, alcohol bottle, and lighter in another small pack. My mattress is deflated, rolled, and stuffed. Then I add the hammock in its own stuff sack. I use a bridge hammock and I pack the spreader poles separately so that I can cram the soft hammock around the rigid cook kit.

This is also a good time to note that - with practice – you can both deploy and take down your tarp and hammock without either touching the ground! I prefer a separate continuous ridgeline for my tarp. Instead of tying ropes to the tarp, I run the ridgeline rope from tree to tree, about 15 feet apart and head high. Then I drape the tarp over the ridgeline. The ridgeline has several Prusik loops already in place. The tarp has a small carabiner at each end of the ridge. After I have the tarp centered on the ridgeline, I snap the carabiners to the Prusik loops and add tension. The tarp is suspended along the full length of the ridgeline. The only tension on the tarp fabric is from the Prusik loops. If a strong wind blows against the tarp or rocks the trees, the tension is borne by the ridgeline rope and not the tarp fabric or waterproof coating.

Erecting the tarp is the first job when I arrive in camp. If it is a rainy day, I have shelter in minutes. If it is early in the afternoon, I can relax or prepare supper under the shelter. I can even bring the bike under the tarp if I need repairs. I can bring my clothes bag or other gear in out of the rain.

When I’m ready to rig the hammock, I am only arm’s length from the support trees. I add the hammock suspension at each tree – making sure that the tree straps are ABOVE the tarp ridgeline. This way I can hang the hammock high enough to be able to sit at the center. Next, I take the stuff sack with the hammock and pull out the lines that connect to the tree suspension. (I have stuffed the hammock in the reverse order: the lines from one end in first, the body of the hammock, with the lines at the opposite end at the opening of the stuff sack.) Now it is easy to attach one end of the hammock to the suspension, walk across to the other tree and attach the opposite end. The clean and dry hammock feeds smoothly out of the sack.

The packing process in the morning is simply reversed. Under the protection of the tarp, I pack up my clothes in one stuff sack. I deflate and pack my mattress. Then I detach one end of the hammock and stuff the lines into the sack, continuing to stuff the remaining fabric until I reach the opposite tree, where I detach the lines. Now I remove the tree straps and add these to the top of the storage sack. One after another, all these bags stuff into the soft panniers.

Now I have three things left to pack: the camp shoes that I am wearing, my raincoat and pants, and the tarp. If it is not raining, I can pack the raincoat and pants on the top of one pannier – if not I will be wearing them. Either way, now I can take down the tarp since everything else is packed away in the waterproof panniers. Most of the time, my tarp is wet – or at least damp from dew. I detach from the ridgeline and carefully fold it into a small square, then I roll it to squeeze out the trapped air. The damp/wet tarp goes in its own stuff sack, away from the rest of my gear. The tarp is packed last, on top of the load in the pannier because it is the first thing out and the last thing repacked. Also, in the worst conditions, there may be a time when I need to set up the tarp in the middle of the day to wait out a line of thunderstorms. Finally, the spreader poles for my bridge hammock, the ridgeline, and a small bag with the dirty stakes are added.

I am almost ready to ride, except I am still wearing the light running shoes I wear around camp. This morning, these shoes are wet and muddy. I have plenty of room inside the panniers, but the soft shoes will be attached to the outside of each pannier where they will either dry or get a good washing in the next rain. (Luckily, the rain holds off and by the time I stop for lunch the shoes are dry and I can pound off the dried mud.)

It's time to hit the trail – or in this case, follow my route through the Chequamegon National Forest! See Part Two of this series for the next installment of tis Ride Report.

Wisconsin bikepacking


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