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Brett Simpson Takes Vargo on the Tour Divide

Brett Simpson Takes Vargo on the Tour Divide

Brett Simpson joins the team as Vargo’s newest ambassador…and for good reason.  His resumé and job description read like an outdoor enthusiast’s dream.  Hailing from the outdoor mecca of Portland, Oregon, he keeps busy as the Executive Director of Bloomsburg University’s Quest program–a leadership development program that focus on personal, team, and corporate development through outdoor activities.  On top of all of that he’s also a stunning photographer.

Speaking of dreams, Brett is about to embark tomorrow on one of his: mountain biking 2745 miles unsupported along most of the country’s Continental Divide.  The race is the Tour Divide, an epic mountain bike race that follows the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route–one of the longest off-pavement cycling routes in the world.  By the of end of the race, besides covering over 2,500 miles by bike, thru-riders will climb over 200,000 vertical feet (that’s similar to climbing Mount Everest 7 times!).  The clock starts as soon as a riders hits the pedals and ends when they cross the finish line…if they cross the finish line.

As daunting as the trail is, riders are expected to endure weeks of consecutive 16+ hours days on long stretches of trail where resupply is as spotty as the cellular service.  Each rider is to complete the race entirely unsupported with no help from friends or loved ones.  So take a normal bike packing routine, stretch it out over several weeks away from everything you hold dear, throw in some hellacious weather only the mountains can deliver, and refuse support from anyone else and you get the gist of this race.  Oh, and less than half of entrants are expected to finish.

Peering into the hows, whys, whats, and wheres, we’ve asked Brett a few questions pre-race about his upcoming adventure.

Vargo:  Tell us a little bit about yourself and why ultralight travel is important to you.

Brett:  I grew up in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon and spent a lot of time playing in the woods near my house.  Little did I know that this would blossom into a career in the outdoor industry.  I’ve now been involved in some type of experiential education, leadership development and guiding for the last 20 years.  In 2000, seeking out new adventures, I moved to a small town in PA (Bloomsburg) sight unseen to take a cool job for three months.  All these years later I still find myself here and as the Executive Director of a program at Bloomsburg University known as Quest.  We provide outdoor trips around the region and internationally and also run a wide range of training programs for non-profits and businesses in the area.

 I’ve been fortunate to run a wide array of trips around the world and ultralight travel has become important to me as a way for people to simplify.  I’ve seen so many people encumbered by all the extras they can carry and most importantly by the weight.  It’s really hard to enjoy the experience when you’re struggling under a 75-pound pack.  By choosing lightweight and well thought out equipment with multiple uses, people can better enjoy their time away.

My upcoming race starts with a weight disadvantage right from the start; a 25 pound bicycle.  Since I already have a weight penalty I have to really consider the rest of my gear carefully.

 Vargo:  You’re about to spend close to a month riding 2,745 miles (mostly on trail) from Canada to New Mexico–unsupported.  Currently a hundred and one riders are set to compete with an expected 47% attrition rate.  What drew you to ride the Tour Divide and what do you hope to get out of it?

Brett:  I first heard about the route many years ago when my former boss at Quest toured the route. I’d wanted to try the route since then but finding a way to take off several months to tour it seemed impossible.  I’d been contemplating some type of big adventure to push my own physical and mental limits.  Last year I decided to run a 50k and went through the training to build myself up to complete it.  I’ve always loved challenge.  The last few years whenever I was out on big trips I was mostly guiding so I was looking for something to do for myself.  I debated several adventures around the world and then stumbled onto the idea of racing in the Tour Divide.  It fit my time frame well and offered a lot of challenges in the form of unknown factors and new things to learn.

For me the Tour Divide race will be the perfect challenge – pushing my limits beyond anything I’ve tried so far. I was looking for something out of my normal comfort zone of outdoor adventure.  Until I started training for this, I’d always been more of a mountaineer who enjoyed biking.  Luckily, central PA is home to some of the best road and mountain biking in the world; surprising I know. I want to know where my limits are and look forward to seeing a pretty amazing section of the country as I traverse the Continental Divide.

 Vargo:  How are you getting from Point A (Banff, AB) to Point B (Antelope Wells, NM)?

Brett:  The adventure really begins when I load my bike onto the plane in Harrisburg, PA.  I hope my bike lands with me in Calgary.  I allotted some extra time at the beginning just in case and it means I get to explore Banff, a place I’ve always wanted to see.  The route starts north of the Canada/US border by about 250 miles and I’ll enter the US again in Roosville, Montana.  From there we will travel through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, all along the Continental Divide.  The finish line is the Mexico border at an obscure border crossing in Antelope Wells, New Mexico.  Along the way I’ll cross the Continental Divide 30 times and climb over 200,000’.

Vargo:  What terrain, climate, and difficulties will you face?

Brett:  This race offers the full gamut of fun and a lot of adventure.  Basically, name a challenging environment in the outdoors and we’ll have it.  From snow covered passes and torrential rain in the north as part of Banff’s June Monsoon, high elevation in Colorado (11,910’ Indiana Pass is the highest point) to forest fires and heat in New Mexico.  Add to that up to three weeks alone, incredibly remote sections with no resources or communication, weather, wild animals (grizzly bears and mountain lions), and potential for body failures and you have an idea as to what I might run into.

All of this will be encountered with no outside support or assistance allowed and trying to pedal as many miles per day as my body allows.  I will be carrying everything on my bike including camping gear, tools, and spare parts.  The nature of the terrain is incredibly rough on the bike. I’m replacing many moving parts before I leave and have a chance to wear out parts that need replacement during the race.

I think the biggest challenge in the race will be the mental aspects.  I’ve been creating a lot of benchmarks and mini goals in my head to keep myself in line.  With endeavors this big it’s easy to be daunted if you only look at the finish line. Instead I’ll be focusing on mini successes each day.

My rough plan, and subject to change daily, will be to bike approximately 15 hours each day.  This leaves me about 3 hours for resupply, eating, maintenance, stretching and other tasks and 6 hours for sleeping.  I hope to cover approximately 130 miles per day and 10,000’ of climbing to meet my goal of 21 days. The route is mostly gravel roads, about 80%, with the other 20% split between singletrack trails and paved roads.

Vargo:  What ultralight techniques and skills are you planning to use and/or hone on this trip?

Brett:  Many of the ultralight techniques are involved in the planning for me. I’ve spent nearly the last year preparing for this race, longer than I’ve spent on any adventure.   I’ve been continually looking for places to minimize gear and cut weight.  One of the earliest decisions was to remove cooking equipment from my kit.  This saves me a lot of weight and allows me to use a town with a restaurant as a big motivator to keep pedaling.  With that said I enjoyed having my cooking gear on training rides and will miss hot food.  I’ve also been working to have items with multiple uses and to be as modular as possible.

Vargo:  What is some of the gear you’ll be using on the trip?  How much gear are you expecting to carry?

Brett:   I’m using a bike designed for this race by a company called Salsa Cycles – the model is the Fargo.  It’s a steel frame mountain bike with a carbon front fork and drop handlebars similar to a road bike.  I run a range of bikepacking bags from a company out of Alaska called Revelate Designs.  Bikepacking is different than normal bike touring in that we know we’ll be off-road and many racks and panniers couldn’t stand up to the abuse.  Bikepacking bags are meant to fit within the frame and near it trying to keep weight low and centered.  I’ll be starting with a few extra layers to deal with the cold then will ship some items home as the weather warms, somewhere around Wyoming.  I’m hoping to keep weight down to 10-15 pounds (in addition to the bike) but I haven’t done a final weighing yet.  The rest of the weight will be dedicated to food and water.  In the north it’s more abundant but as I travel south the resources get scarcer.  There’s long, hot sections in New Mexico with no supplies. I think that will be the most challenging section for me; I’m more of a cold weather person than hot weather.

Vargo:  How will Vargo products be helping you on your journey?  How much of an advantage will they give you in completing this trip?

Brett:  Vargo products are great and have held up really well to the abuse of training.  I’ve been using my BOT for training rides, I think it’s the perfect bikepacking pot since it fits my stove and some food in it and tucks nicely into an oversized water bottle cage.   I’ll only be using a few items on the race but they will be key to my safety.  In all my searching and testing of gear it’s been great to end up using products designed and made right in my backyard.   I’ll be carrying a Vargo Titanium whistle to warn bears of my presence as I’m quickly descending fire roads.  I will also be carrying Vargo Titanium Tent Stakes.  Good sleep each night is critical to my recovery and I’ll have many stormy nights in my tent.  Ensuing that it stays upright is very important to me.  I have some future bikepacking adventures planned and looking forward to carrying a Vargo stove on them.

Vargo:   Any advice to those who are new to or experienced with ultralight traveling, bikepacking, and adventure-type racing?

Brett:  Bikepacking is growing and more people are doing it.  There’s a new event this Fall in Central PA called the Great Gravel Gathering from October 11-13 near State College.  This is meant to introduce people to all the fun touring options available off-road.  I’ll be leading some rides and maybe even a bikepacking overnight trip.  There are also numerous events across the country, a great place to read more about this is at  This is the central forum for people into this type of riding.  Look up routes, read reviews, learn about events, discuss or trade gear, all these forums can be found here.

Vargo:  How can people follow you on your adventure?

Brett:  Well the race is pretty remote so there won’t be a lot of communication but I do have a plan in place.  There’s only reception about 15% of the route.

I have a Facebook page at that my wonderful girlfriend Morgan will be updating. When I do have time to call and reception I’ll be most likely talking to her and she’ll post updates for me.  This is also where I’ve been posting race prep and planning notes for the last few months.

All of the racers carry a SPOT device which is a small GPS locater beacon and we’ve all registered our devices with This is a cool site used to track races and events and their mapping utilizes Google Maps with a lot of information layers that can be added such as weather, fires, and snow depth. The Tour Divide 2013 page is at

Finally I’ll be making occasional call-in’s to  This is a site that records and posts racer comments along the way and is a great way to see what is in racer’s minds.

Be sure to follow his progress on our Facebook page as well.

Good luck, Brett!  We’ll see you back home after you cross that line!