Heath Sandall is a professional photographer living in Fairbanks, Alaska. He is an experienced winter fatbiker and backcountry traveler, and recently spent three weeks riding alone on sections of the Baja Divide. Lael and I first met Heath last winter while riding in the White Mountains north of Fairbanks. For a wintry contrast to Baja, check out Heath’s incredible photo essay from the White Mountains 100 race.
Name: Heath Sandall
Bikes: Fatback, aluminum frame w/ 170 rear
Which sections did you ride? San Diego to Cataviña, bus to Mulegé then Mulegé to Loreto via the Bahía Concepción boat ride.
Favorite ride or section? San Francisco (near Tecate) to Ojos Negros, and the 1st time you get into the cirios trees after Nueva Odisea .
Hardest ride on the Baja Divide? Nueva Odisea to San Augustin
Please describe your wheel and tire system (tire size and model, tubeless features, etc.). Did it work well for you? Bontrager Jackalope 26” rims, Fatback rear hub, Shutter Precision dynamo front hub, Bontrager Hodag 3.8 tires. This rim/tire combo performed excellently both in handling the terrain and in its tubeless performance and I didn’t have any problems. In testing, I found that if one bead was seated, I was able to seat the other one using only my Lezyne HV pump. At first I felt that fat was perhaps overkill, but it was the only bike I had that was suitable for this trip. In the end, it was great to have this size tire and I’m not sure I’d ride anything narrower if doing it again. I personally wouldn’t enjoy running anything smaller than 3”. For pressure, I ran between ~8-15 psi.
What did you use for navigation? GAIA on an Iphone. This worked great and I downloaded several different base maps beforehand. The only problem was that I didn’t have a mount for it. This made it fairly awkward to use when navigating around towns or other locations where there were frequent navigational needs. I’ll definitely be rigging some simplistic solution to temporarily hold it on the handlebar bag, before stowing it away on long straightforward sections.
Shelter? Tarptent Stratospire. This is an excellent shelter, but I did debate bringing it or finding something even smaller and lighter. I do enjoy tenting though, especially on solo trips when coyotes are walking around your camp giving you the big eye. I slept in it most nights, although I also spent a handful sleeping without.
Anything else you would like to share? The sections I rode were beautiful, engaging, and very well thought out. If this route aligns with your skill set and abilities, it should be an incredible experience.
A few tips:
1. Test your packed bike extensively. I can’t recommend strongly enough that you load your bike with all your gear and then pack 12L of water (if you plan to ride all the sections) and 2-3 days of food from a convenience store. Go ride it for a full, hard day without burying yourself too far that you can’t get up and do it again the next day. If you can’t do this, you won’t be able to do all the sections on the route.
2. Pull tide tables or download tidal estimate software (e.g.hightide) and try to hit the beaches at low tide. The sand is firmer for riding, and the intertidal zone is more exposed so you can see more sea critters. There’s some great camping on hidden beaches behind bluffs and cliffs, but you’ll potentially get cut off with the high tide. Enjoy the beach riding, and then you can hit a “car wash” in the next town to hose the salt of the bike. Note, Heath customized his ride with some additional beach rides and coastal sections between Colonet and Vicente Guerrero. The Baja Divide route is only mapped on the beach in one place, south of San Quintin. Extreme high tides there may limit access to some tracks on the east side of Bahia San Quintin.
3. Keep small bills and change on you all the time. It’s proper to tip small coins in a lot of instances, and many small stores won’t have change for big bills.
4. If you love coffee, bring a bunch with you. It’s very hard to find anything good up north.
5. Try to learn as much Spanish as possible. In lieu of that, make sure you get translation software for your smartphone if you’re taking one. Google Translate and Itranslate Pro worked well and both work offline if you download the language file beforehand.
6. A SIM card was very inexpensive and easy to acquire. Telcel has the largest network and a 30 day card with unlimited MEX/USA calling and 400mb data cost $10. Tecate is the best place to pick one up, but beware the big Telcel store as it has long lines. Little side stores have these easily accessible. However, I was never able to SMS message out from my Iphone, although iMessage worked fine when on data.
7. A lot of little town stores will have wifi access that’s not advertised, but you just ask and then pay 20 pesos for a password.
8. Aside from looking at photos of the route, I’d recommend watching the documentary “Dust to Glory”. It will give you a nice look at some of the terrain and roads you’ll be riding, and is also a great introduction to a major cultural event in the area.
What would you do differently next time?
1. Dedicated and focused training.
I strength train year-round, but didn’t ride nearly enough over late summer and fall. Strength training was great for keeping me free of injury, especially when pushing, carrying, and throwing around the heavy bike, or the time I took a big digger. I thought I’d be able to “ride into” biking fitness, but this proved problematic as it’s a hard route to ride to do this. You’re always battling dehydration and there’s not great access to healthy and nutritious food. Lots of “great” food, but it’s not often healthy. To get stronger, you also need rest and easy days. It’s very hard to have an easy day out there due to the difficulty of riding, and to rest you need to commit to stopping and resting. That takes discipline when there’s so much to do and see.
2. Cut significant gear and weight.
I was thinking of a more leisurely tour on easier dirt roads, so I brought a book, a lot of camera equipment, and some other camping comforts. Most of that would go away on the next round and I’d strip to essentials. You NEED to be as light as possible. Go ultra-minimal on the comforts, but conservative on emergency, backup, maintenance, and safety stuff. You are on “roads” for the whole route, but there is typically no traffic. If something goes wrong, you’ll likely need to self evacuate to a town, ranch or highway and this could be a 20-30 mile walk.
3. Adjust my expectations and realize that 35-45 miles/day was not sustainable or enjoyable for me. Personally, I’d look at scheduling something closer to 25-30 miles/day average over the route, NOT including days off to rest and play. If I had less experience or fitness, I’d plan even fewer miles/day.
4. Research route highlights for where I would want to spend a rest day whether that’s a winery, surf break, beach, town, etc. I ended up getting fried a few times and needing rest, but it didn’t necessarily happen somewhere I wanted to stop.
What surprised you most? I significantly underestimated the difficulty of the riding. I had done a 10 day shakedown trip in the desert southwest in October to refine my gear and techniques for desert riding and I felt prepared equipment-wise. That experience was invaluable in letting me devote all my energy to the actual riding and logistics because I needed it. When looking at the course profile and statistics, it doesn’t look like *that* much climbing. But there was a ton of climbing and a lot of it came as steep kicker hills at 12-18%. Combine that with silt, whoopdeedoos, cobbles, bedrock, washboards, sand, etc…. it can be tough.
The other surprise was how easy but also how difficult it was to get off the route. The Aguila bus system was super easy to use and took my bike without any issues. It fit right into the luggage bay. I also heard from backpackers and other tourists that hitchhiking was very easy (although it may be harder with a bike). But this applies to the highway corridor. On some of the loops away from the road, it would be very difficult to get out due to a lack of traffic.