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OBDR

Lessons learned on the Oregon Backcountry Discovery Route

Is your next big trip going to be a ride through Madagascar, across the Kalahari Desert or along the Great Wall of China? Having trouble trying to swing the $20k for the trip? Then perhaps none of the above will satisfy your adventure zest for now.

How about a series of five-day trips in your own backyard filled with every kind of terrain possible, a wide array of climatic changes and enough technical riding to satisfy any dual sport enthusiast?

They call it the Oregon Backcountry Discovery Route. In case you’re not hip to what this ride is, it’s a 750 mile route through Oregon from the border of California to Walla Walla and it’s about 95% off-road. The route, which is entirely two track or better, was created in the late 1990s by members of the Oregon Off Highway Vehicle Association and can be enjoyed by motorcyclists as well as four wheel enthusiasts.

In July of 2005, I set out to ride the route and completed 500 miles of it. Along the way there was much to be learned so here’s a recap of some of the important things to know before taking this ride. I look forward to the day I go back and finish the other 250 miles – more on that in a moment.

  • Bike Selection – Because of the off-road nature of the ride a legal dual sport is just what the doctor ordered. You can’t do the route on a Goldwing or R6. The other extreme being a full-on dirt bike which wouldn’t pass DOT muster on the paved and forest road sections. Weight is surely a consideration. Any bike over 400 pounds is going to seem a bit unwieldy through the more technical sections that can include steep grades, gravelly ruts and the ever-hiding pucker rocks in the desert sections.
  • Tire Selection – The OBDR s no place for a performance street tire. At best you’ll want to be running a 90/10 or 80/20 dual sport tire - the preferred tread if you don’t plan on trailering your bike in for the ride. If you do, you might consider a knobby that will provide far better traction in the tough spots. Another option is to ship a set of knobbies to yourself at your point of entry to the route – usually Walla Walla or Lakeview depending on your direction of travel.
  • Consider a Caravan – Many four wheelers do the OBDR each year. See if you can’t find two or more going on the route and pair up with them. Having four wheels along adds a lot of benefit to doing the route. For starters the weight you’re traveling with can be lightened extensively by tossing gear such as sleeping bags, tents and clothing into a jeep. Secondly, should you experience a breakdown, it won’t take much to get a bike into the back of four wheeler and bring it out of the boonies. There are plenty of downed trees along the OBDR so four wheelers are advised to carry a chain saw.
  • Photo:  In June 2005, five of us hit the OBDR - three on bikes and two in 4x4's.

  • Group Size – It would be highly dangerous to attempt the OBDR solo. A lot can happen on 750 miles of back roads and often no one comes down many of the roads for days on end. That being said, it’s also important to know that the more people you make the run with, the longer it will take to complete the route. Our experience tells us a group of four is about the best size. Plenty of support when someone needs it, but not so much that it takes ninety minutes to get the group rolling after each stop. Combining this thinking with number three, a pair of bikes and a pair of four wheelers in caravan makes for an optimal number of participants in a group.
  • A GPS is Critical – If you don’t have a GPS with the route in it you’re meat. At 750 miles, the OBDR includes hundreds of intersections. Often you’re moving between roads at a rate of about ½ dozen an hour. If you had to pull out a map each time to confirm your turn you’d be forever stopping. The GPS also comes in handy to confirm your position, keeping you on track. Even if you’re running in a group, it’s imperative that each rider has a GPS on their bike. Lead positions can change and you never know when you’ll be the next guy out front. Groups have a way of splitting up as well. He needs a rest stop, she needs to take off a layer of clothing and I need to stop and drink some water. With a GPS you can get back on track with the rest of the group. You can purchase the GPS route and paper maps from the Oregon Off Highway Vehicle Association at www.oohva.org.
  • Keeping Cool, Keeping Warm – A typical day on the OBDR can include 12 hours of riding. Cold in the morning, hot in the mid day and cooling down again at night. A good pair of PVC composite rain gear such as the type made by Nelson-Rigg can be your best friend. It's light weight, packs up small and holds your body heat when you put it on. And then there are those times when the temperature goes over 85 degrees. This is most likely to occur in the desert section, but during summer it can happen anywhere along the route. When it does, an evaporative cooling vest becomes a life saver.
  • When to Ride – Because of the various climatic conditions, the OBDR is not always a welcoming route. Snow in the passes can last into July. Desert temperatures can exceed 100 degrees from June to September. The best times to take a crack are late June if the snow pack was light that year, late summer if it wasn’t. When the day comes to hit the desert section, look ahead at the high temps for that day. If it’s going over 95 you may want to forgo the stretch. Changing a flat tire in the desert under that kind of heat can take all the fun out of your trip. Has it rained in the last five days? If it has, you can expect slick and muddy conditions.
  • Can't get from Here to There? - More often than not the official route may not be passable due to snow, closed gates, washouts or river crossings being too deep, so flexibility with the route and the ability to read maps and re-route around obstacles on the fly is key.
  • Deserts and Rock Gardens – The stretch along The Great Desert between Summer Lake and the Ochoco Mountains takes nine hours to complete - if you run the entire stretch. This would include the infamous Rock Garden which is a two to three hour stretch of riding across rocks of all shapes and sizes. Those who have comment that there is no smooth line one can follow, you just have to plow through it to the other end. As mentioned before, the pucker rocks are everywhere along the desert section. Anyone willing to enter this area with aluminum boxes on their bike should be aware they risk having them torn off in no time when running these two areas.
  • Become Your Own Camel – Proper hydration is a must on the OBDR. You’re running in the high desert and your elevation ranges between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. If it’s clear, it will be dry. If it’s hot and dry then you’ve got the perfect conditions for heat stroke. Begin your hydration process at least three days before the ride taking in no less than a gallon of clean water each day (sorry – soda pop and beer don’t count when it comes to hydrating your system). Then while you’re on the ride, continually take in water at the rate of eight to sixteen ounces an hour.
  • Riding Sane – The psychology of the OBDR is such that it tends to attract the more aggressive-style rider and the fearless, who can run all day and still have the stamina to break a nice camp at day's end. The trouble is that an aggressive riding style on the OBDR can lead to a broken bike sooner rather than later. Flat tires, tacoed front rims and broken bikes in general are no fun when you’re out in the middle of nowhere. Common sense would be the preferred protocol here, rather than ‘I can ride as hard as I want to.’
  • How Many Miles A Day? - At 750 miles, 95% off-road and many technical sections along the way, riders move along the OBDR at about 150 miles a day. Most sections can’t be done faster than about 25 mph and then of course you’ve got to stop and pee, eat, change your GPS route, get gas and so on. Consider doing the OBDR over two trips. 150 miles a day off-road gets a little long in the tooth after about the third day. I ran 500 miles of it in July of 2005 and pulled out at that point with every intention to return to my stopping point and picking it up again next time around. When I hit the fourth day it was obvious we’d need two more days to complete the ride and I didn’t have the time available to do so.
  • When to Say ‘When’ – Along the route you may also hit a point when you’re not having fun anymore. This adventure is all about fun and if that’s not what’s happening for you it’s time to bag it and start planning your return trip. The OBDR can tear a bike up, tear a body up and tear a mind up for a lesser experienced rider. No one was ever less of a person for getting off the ride early. Don’t let foolish pride force you into torturing yourself on this route. It should be fun. If your bike is running poorly, you’re experiencing bodily discomfort (your knees will likely show the first signs) or you’re just feeling burned out, then it’s time to bail. You wouldn’t be the first and you won’t be the last.
  • You Will Get Dirty – Everything you own will get dirty. No matter how deep you stuff something into your luggage, how much plastic you wrap around it or how close you keep it to your body, everything you take on the trip is going to share a common component by the end – DUST! This goes for cameras, your GPS, change of clothes, sleeping bag and everything else on your packing list. When you shop for supplies before the ride, be sure to pick up at least two cans of compressed air to have when you get home.
  • Eyewear Considerations – Let’s take the dust component one step further – your eyewear. Leave the $300 Oakleys at home, you’ll probably destroy at least one pair of sunglasses on the trip. Take at least two pair of inexpensive sunglasses with you so you have an extra if one fails. You could clean the dust from your lenses hourly and it you’d still not be ahead of the game. Kind of like digging a hole in the sand at the beach – you’ll never win. As soon as another rider passes you, your lenses are covered in dust again. A microfiber cleaning cloth and some quality plastic lens cleaner will extend the life of your eyewear and your face shield.
  • You Will Get Wet – You’re going to get wet on the OBDR. There are dozens of waterholes, stream crossings and large mud puddles you’ll get the chance to ride through. The question is how do you plan to deal with getting wet and then drying out? It’s advisable to leave all your cotton clothing at home. Cotton takes a bit too long to dry when you’re on the move. Consider bringing along some of the lighter weight synthetics sold at better outdoor stores which usually can dry out overnight.
  • Got Fuel? – If your bike’s range is less than 150 miles, you’re likely to need a surrogate fuel source along the route. The stretch between Riley and Seneca through the Ochoco mountains clocks in at 148 miles. This is where the caravan aspect comes in handy. It’s fairly simple to carry a five gallon can of gas in a 4x4. Carrying an extra gallon of fuel on a bike loaded down with other gear isn’t so simple. And if you hit Seneca in the late afternoon on a Sunday you can forget about getting gas at all. The station was only open from 9am to 1pm on Sunday during our last visit there. Hours and octanes will vary along the route with many of the smaller towns only having 87 octane fuel. If you need more bring some booster along.
  • Staying In Touch - It's not a bad idea to have all riders in the party outfitted with five watt CB radios or walkie-talkies.  Family band radios clocking in at just one watt have little place on the OBDR as riders can get spread out several miles apart from one another.  The additional four watts a CB provides can mean the difference of whether or not your distress call is picked up by others in your party.
  • All this being said, if you like a good dual sport adventure the OBDR is one of the best you can do in the Northwest. But just to sweeten the deal, OOHVA is working on five more similar style routes through Oregon. Oh boy!

    TM/Summer 05


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