Bikepacking epic, easy with e-bike

Hey here's an idea for some fun. Let's strap some camping gear to an off-road bicycle and go pedal around dirt roads and trails in some of the steepest parts of Arkansas for a weekend.

Whether you think this sounds like a great time or insanely intimidating -- you're not alone.

The name for this (perhaps daunting) activity is "bikepacking," and it's officially a thing. Its devotees snatch up special equipment for their excursions and chronicle them on blogs and YouTube channels specific to the hobby.

Bikepacking differs from traditional bicycle touring in that it requires less gear, no trailer and no saddle bag. Bikepackers travel light, with gear configured to fit on the bike's frame, to fit tight trails when they leave the pavement.

I've always wanted to try bikepacking, but I never felt I had the bike, the gear or the fitness level to tackle it properly.

That was, until I bought an electric assist cargo bicycle. It has been my go-to short-trip city bike for a while now, but, over Labor Day weekend, I wanted to see how far I could take it.

An overnight backpacking trip to Devils Den State Park starting in Fayetteville would normally be reserved for the advanced cyclist, but any e-cyclist can do it.

It's 27 miles from my door to the Devil's Den visitor center -- right at the range for my bike, so I took a spare battery to be safe. I loaded a backpack with a hammock, a rain fly, a sleeping bag and a few other essentials and strapped it to my cargo rack. And I put a Bluetooth speaker in my front basket. Gotta have my tunes.

The two-hour ride was a joy. I chose a route down old U.S. 71 and through West Fork that included about five miles of gravel roads and grand scenery along the White River.

The advantage of the e-bike is also the challenge: that battery. Climbing hills is a cinch. Riding on flat ground is a breeze. But I know the fun stops if the battery dies, and I'm stuck pedaling uphill on a 70-pound bicycle with cargo. E-bikes allow you to do as much or as little work as you want, so managing your battery makes for an interesting strategy game. The object, as I see it, is to use as much battery as possible without ever running out completely.

I felt great arriving in the park with about 20% left of my original charge. The park campsites with power outlets were booked, but the park's staff was extremely welcoming and let me charge my battery overnight at the visitor center. So I swapped in my spare battery and rode out to camp for the night in the national forest. As the dirt road devolved into wilderness, I found that I was able to gently navigate a bit further than a car or truck would be able to. After a little exploring on foot, I walked my bike into a picturesque campsite overlooking a deep pool in Lee Creek.

The next morning, I took a dip in the creek before stopping by the visitor's center to pick up my fully charged battery to get back on the road north.

I got back home 24 hours after I left. It felt like I had just gotten away with a nature heist. I had done this intrepid epic trip hardly having barely broken a sweat.

Purists might say the trip wouldn't count as "real" bikepacking since I was on an e-bike. But definitions are meant to bend. And as long as we're not encroaching on traditional hiking or mountain bike trails, I say let's pedal to points yet unexplored and make e-bikepacking a thing too.

Dane Eifling is mobility coordinator for the City of Fayetteville.