The East Coaster’s Guide to Mountain Biking in the Desert

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting up in Fruita with the amazing Mtbikerchick and Delphinide for a great weekend of camaraderie and sweet singletrack. After hitting the trails, we gathered the spouses and chitlins to share mountain biking stories over local Colorado beer and pizza. Many of my stories were comprised from my husband and I’s first trip west of the Mississippi River. Our destination? A little town that every legitimate mountain biker (i.e. those not sporting Walmart bikes and toe cages) seemed to be talking about: Moab.

After training for months at San Felasco State Park in Florida, we hit the road for a vacation. Note: San Felasco is more of a cross country beginner to intermediate trail system, though they have since upgraded a fair number of trails. We were poor college students then, so the trip was on a very tight budget and wedged between the summer and fall semester. We spent most of our loose change buying new full suspension bikes, that we were certain instantly made us legitimate, hardcore mountain bikers. Looking back, there were many things we should have known, or at the least realized, prior to venturing west in August.

McDonald's! Checking out the arches during one of our afternoon excursions in Moab in an attempt to beat the summer heat.
McDonald’s! Checking out the arches during one of our afternoon excursions in Moab in an attempt to beat the summer heat.

#1: The desert is hot.

And August is unbelievably hot in the desert! I had never felt the sensation of the moisture evaporating from my eyeballs prior to arriving in Moab. While Florida is miserable during the summer, the brunt of the heat is from 11am to 2pm, after which you get a little bit of relief. That is not the case in the desert: it just keeps getting worse throughout the day until the sun sets. We had naïvely planned on riding two trails a day, one in the morning, and one in the afternoon to work off lunch. That quickly went out the window the first day after we scraped ourselves off of Slickrock, out of water, dehydrated, and sunburnt. All this before McDonald’s even stopped serving breakfast.

Tip: If you want to prepare for the desert heat in the summer, set your oven to 450, open the door, and hold your face in front of it.

My husband riding Slick Rock into the abyss.
My husband riding Slick Rock into the abyss.

#2: Hydrate

The amount of water you will need is unfathomable. If you’re in the desert in the summer, especially at elevation, a 100oz pack may only last you a couple of hours if you’re lucky. On our trip to Moab, my husband and I each had an 80oz hydration pack and two large water bottles. By mile 5 on Slickrock, I had to begin rationing my water. We both ran out of water with over a mile to go to the trailhead (though at the time we didn’t know if we had a mile or 10 miles to go). You’re not likely to come across any standing water or streams either if you run out. And if you do find water, you will likely wish you had chosen to eat a dozen tacos or one of those new breakfast waffle tacos from Taco Bell than sip stagnant water.

Tip: Though water is hard to come by in the desert, I try to always carry a water purification pen or system when trying out new trails. Also, if you do find yourself dehydrated when you return to the trailhead, don’t chug a 60oz bottle of sports drink. Trust me when I say that your body will likely reject it…

The most fabulous campsite ever. Just minutes outside of Moab town limits, right along the Colorado River, and it even had shade!

#3: The West is rough.

In the east, every campsite has running water. The facilities consist of toilets that flush, as well as showers. Sometimes there’s even hot water for the showers (who pays for hotels with that kind of luxury?!). You can forget all that when you cross the mighty Mississippi. The facilities will consist of a fancy port-o-potty. That it’s. The summer heat makes these “facilities” ripe for the picking, too. Service at local establishments is inversely proportional to your stench zone. The larger your stench zone, the less service you receive.

Tip: Make sure to bring wet wipes and hand sanitizer if you decide to rough it. Those fancy camp shower bags are handy as well.

Holy cliffs batman! One of the many spots along Amassa Back trial that unnecessarilly hugged shear cliffs.
Holy cliffs batman! One of the many spots along Amasa Back trail that unnecessarily hugged shear cliffs.

#4: The terrain is unforgiving.

It’s typical in the east to have branches and other overgrowth encroaching into the trail. You typically don’t think twice about it (unless it resembles poison ivy or oak). Branches will bend and give if you hit them. The biggest concern is the rubber band effect you get from branches if you’re following someone too closely. The first time I attempted to ride through a branch overhanging the trail, I was practically clothes-lined.

And then there’s the cliffs, large boulders, cacti, and large predatory animals that could make an afternoon snack out of you out West. The desert is a rough place with just about everything out to get you.

Tip: After I tangled with my first prickly pear patch, I now ride with a pair of tweezers in my pack. I don’t know anyone else that does, to be honest. But I promise you, if you do end up tangled in cacti, those tweezers will become your savior.

#5: Altitude

Almost every place out west is at a relatively high altitude. During our stay in Moab, we decided to splurge and get a shuttle ride to do the Porcupine Rim trail. As we were sitting in the van on our way up, we realized everyone one else was decked out in winter biking gear. Having experienced the oven-like effect in town, we were a bit confused as to their choice of clothing. Sure, we figured it would be colder at the top of the mountain. But if it was 115 in town, how cold could it be an hour up the mountain? Turns out, just above freezing. Needless to say, our spandex and thin summer jerseys (typical roadie attire, mind you) made us look hardcore. And stupid. In Florida, the highest point in the state is if you stand on the roof of your car. I quickly found out that there’s much less oxygen when you’re more than a mile high in elevation.

Tip: Your body will need more water at higher elevation as well.

Gorgeous views towards the top of Amasa Back. Both the views and the elevation gain will leave you breathless. Photo: mtbgreg1.
Gorgeous views towards the top of Amasa Back. Both the views and the elevation gain will leave you breathless. Photo: mtbgreg1.

These are just a few of the lessons I learned (the hard way) while traveling and living in the west. Though the desert was daunting for me at first, I highly recommend a destination trip to one of the many acclaimed trails out west. It’s not as green or as humid, but the beauty never ceases amaze me!

Your turn: Do you have any hard lessons you learned while biking in the desert? Do you prefer the green canopy of the east coast or the cactus-lined rocky trails of the desert?