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Last summer, Josh Meissner and friends traveled to the Italian Dolomites for a weeklong bikepacking trip without a fixed route or much of a plan, letting their curiosity and the region’s geography guide them. Find an alluring gallery of photos and his story of discovering endless possibilities by looking beyond the predefined GPX track here…
“What’s the route?” The call for a concrete course guides so many of the conversations before, during, and after our bikepacking trips. Routes have their place in bikepacking, but despite the freedom of movement granted by the bike, setting off without a fixed plan is a path rarely taken. And that, I believe, merits a closer look. If bikepacking is about expansive exploration, there’s got to be more to it than converging as quickly as possible on a single line.
Flash back to our trip to the Dolomites to ride the Veneto Trail in 2021, where our original intent to go slow was left behind in the dust as soon as we started tracking the route. Its regimenting pace had us returning home with a regrettable debt of missed café stops and mid-day siestas, which we aimed to settle on our return last summer. Yet repeating the same pattern and expecting a different outcome would have been tantamount to insanity.
If planning is about taking steps to ensure a desired outcome, success for us meant staying with the sweeping vistas of the Dolomites, soaking in the golden light of the sleepy Veneto villages, and sipping cappuccinos at the bar without stressing about getting back to pedaling. We wanted to drift freely and take it day by day, moment by moment—a gentle tour of the Dolomites with bikes, not blasting through on a cycling holiday. The plan was not to have a plan.
We could imagine planning as usual and then breaking away as we see fit, but—speaking from experience—straying from the established track is tricky in practice. No matter the words lost in advance, we’re all too likely to fall back into the well-trodden course of habit. On top of that, a host of modern factors conspire against us. Our current crop of digital route planners and navigation interfaces—they navigate us—slot in perfectly with our society’s business ontology of executing precise plans to control the outcomes, even when on vacation. The younger generation that came up with search engines and smartphones, to which I count myself, seems particularly vulnerable to this default mode.
And so, more often than not, we find ourselves speeding along with tunnel vision, efficiently checking off waypoints with all eyes on the prize. In doing so, we only solidify the mental pathway that puts the plan (whose plan is it really?) above what the places we travel through and what we ourselves might have to say about the course of our journey. Escaping from the hamster wheel requires stepping outside of the domain of the route. While letting go of the handrail sounds scary at first, we’d do well to consider how much planning is truly necessary for where we’re going and what we want to experience.
Riding in the Alps, we could count on a superb network of groomed gravel roads and marked hiking trails, pizzerias, supermarkets in every valley, and stunning views all around. It’s hard to go wrong there on bikes. As long as Joachim, Britt, Kyle, and I were somewhat on the same page about our mode and general direction, we’d be perfectly fine wherever we ended up. Though that’s easier said than done: while drifting solo is comparatively simple, traveling in a group means managing diverging expectations and preferences. Without a route to glue us together, we had to get creative.
Humans are born to collaborate, yet digital route planners are woefully inadequate for this. As solo tools, they don’t allow multiple ideas to meet and mingle in a single view. Relying on them for planning a group trip borders on the absurd: we send each other stacks of maps, each with a single line representing a route, that we then have to mentally reassemble into one instead of drawing and thinking together on one communal canvas. With such an exponential overhead, it’s no wonder we often abdicate the responsibility to a single route designer. And why does planning begin and end with routes, anyway? Routes are already highly condensed spatial ideas; a more generative approach would be first compiling all relevant information on the map and then connecting the dots to see which paths emerge.
So, for sketching the contours of this trip, we brought back a time-tested model that was nearly lost in the digital revolution. Convening around a single digital map, we went to town with pens, pins, and sticky notes, and before we knew it, we were looking at a colorful mosaic of inspirational imagery, links to stories and events, hand-drawn lines, highlighted areas, notable points, question marks, emojis, text notes, and yes, some GPX traces too. We’d collected a trove of ideas that would support us in making decisions on the fly instead of constraining us to a single design. Marking up our map together meant everyone got to contribute in some form, and it brought us in touch with the truth that there are always countless more paths available to us, not just the ones we’ve mapped out beforehand.
Crucially, we stopped short of fixing our final route. Whether we’d take the paved road over the pass, the hike-a-bike trail, or even some other way we hadn’t foreseen would be decided when and if we got there. This was new territory for all of us, yet we went into the trip with confidence. Kyle, who’d be riding in the Dolomites for the first time, summed it up: “It seems like we have a good picture of what we’re doing.”
Indeed, had we committed to a fixed plan, it would have been derailed almost immediately. Our train from Germany got halted at Brenner Pass on the border of Austria and Italy, so we simply disembarked and rode the remainder of the way into South Tyrol, quite happy to breathe the clean mountain air. With no route or fixed plan to adhere to, there is no such thing as being behind schedule.
Joachim had a good lay of the land in South Tyrol, and in the first two days, he shepherded us across the paved passes toward the white gravel roads of the Dolomites. A conversation arose between us: he gave the general direction, and I’d support with changes, like taking the shaded farming path along the treeline or a road through a mountain village that wasn’t as steep. I’d spot these on sight or via the map on my phone, and my GPS unit was relegated to being a passive tracker. The mountainous terrain made it easy to point out landmarks in the distance, to which the way was usually evident. And, when in doubt: continue riding up or down.
Soon we were among the bare, jagged peaks of the Dolomites, where the three of us would rendezvous with Britt, who was riding in from Slovenia. With spotty cell reception and our whimsical pace, intersecting with precision down to the meter and minute simply wouldn’t be possible. It was kind of like in the pre-cell phone days when, as kids, we’d head out on our bikes and ride around until we found our buddies somewhere. What are a few hours between friends on tour, anyway? Around sunset, we ran into Brittany having dinner in front of a rifugio, and she had lots to report from her day among the mountains and marmots.
From there on out, we took it day by day and sometimes hour by hour. Like a rushing river slowing down when the channel expands, having a wide corridor of available options seemed to naturally reduce our speed. We settled in for long naps to escape the scorching afternoon heat, brewed coffee in between espresso stops at the bar, and stared in awe at the surreal mountains surrounding us. Feeling little pressure, we started to relax into the meandering nature of our path.
The original catalyst for our return to the Dolomites was some simply delicious donuts from the general store in the village of Auronzo di Cadore. The most efficient route would have had us sailing past its closed doors on a Sunday, so, consulting Britt’s topo map, we changed our direct traverse of the Sexten Dolomites into a big orbit, riding and then hiking up above the tree line to the iconic Tre Cime.
Coming around the base of the three monoliths at sunset, we joined a large audience enraptured by their radiance. Necks craned, we basked in their golden glow. We couldn’t have timed our arrival better if we’d tried. The scene has been photographed to death, yet the formations emanate a bodily presence that can’t be conveyed in pictures. Throughout our encounter, the three rock gods monopolized my attention. Whenever I glanced out to the horizon, they pulled my eyes right back to them. Maybe it’s more accurate to say the Tre Cime made us come to them while we labor under the illusion of free independent choices.
What goes up must go down. That’s the inescapable logic of the mountains. There was a lot of scrambling up and down steep hiking trails and across scree fields, yet there were no complaints. This was our collective plan, after all. And since we were touring, not purely cycling, such episodes blended in as another part of the experience and not as a failure of planning or bike selection.
The image of reaching a junction in the road and then flipping a figurative coin might be a romantic one, but it wouldn’t reflect our experience at all. After getting our fill of donuts and spritz bianca in Auronzo, we found our appetite for hiking also satiated, so we switched into randonneuring mode and took the swooping valley roads toward the lowlands in the south instead of doing extra loops through the Dolomites.
Navigating without a firm route was a delicate balance between keeping the group together—often by marking the next town, peak, or pass as a goal—and keeping options and minds open. Occasionally, we got lost in senseless discussions trying to nail down our future course long before it was necessary. The human desire for certainty is always lurking. We learned the best thing to do when we got sidetracked like this was to just get rolling. Turning over the pedals has a way of bringing the mind back to center.
I fell into the trap of thinking that a more collaborative approach would somehow ensure a conflict-free ride, and it felt like failure when minor strife arose. But it’s just natural that some want to ride faster or slower, take a break or push on, sleep outside or in a bed. We all have different capacities for uncertainty, and that needs to be acknowledged. An open-ended tour like this is then full of golden opportunities where we must look each other in the eye, speak up candidly yet caringly, and resolve our different views. Not the easiest thing for me. I get uncomfortable when things don’t go my way. I clam up and sometimes turn sour. I’m grateful for for the patience of my friends and these situations that show me where I need to grow.
From the outside, and especially on post-ride analysis, our mindful drifting would be nearly indistinguishable from homing in on an explicit route. Indeed, riding is an act of measurement that inevitably collapses the beautiful superposition of probabilities, that wide corridor of possible paths, into a singular trace. That’s just the inherent limitation of us humans as unitary physical beings. We can hardly split our bodies to reflect the many paths and paces we could take. But we can learn to pause, let our eyes wander to the horizon along the trail not pedaled, and allow that version to accompany us in our mind, at least for a little while. It might help with dissolving the misunderstanding that we always had—and therefore always need—complete certainty before taking one turn or another.
As we got into the second half of our journey, the town of Bassano emerged as the likely endpoint of our journey. In the last two days, we broadly retraced our tire tracks from the Veneto Trail event the year before. We’d had our free-form adventure and were now content to coast to the finish. Over seafood pasta and Campari Spritz, we reflected on successfully pulling it off, transient tensions notwithstanding. I’d call our first steps towards more collaborative navigation a great success. And making up our path together felt more meaningful than following some route in parallel. We’d kept our minds open.
Setting off without a route won’t work for every trip, but anyone can start small, wherever they are. Every journey benefits from the increased trust in yourself, each other, and the world that comes with taking a more active role in navigating. Looking beyond the route opens up new pathways—both in the mind and the physical world. It leaves space for a broader awareness of the many paths that spring from every place and moment. Roads and trails exist regardless of the useful fiction we lay on top of them.
While routes are eminently convenient, they are just one small piece of a much larger puzzle. By forgoing the route together, we open up a vast creative space where we can come together and collaborate on our mode and movement, thereby choosing how we want to move. In an increasingly isolating digital world, we must explore human approaches that get us back to engaging directly with each other and the many clues that are out there for finding our way around this one planet we all share.
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