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baja divide tips

The following Baja Divide Tips post was written shortly after we left La Paz while we were en route from Mazatlan to Durango. I never got around to publishing it though. Now that it’s online, hopefully it will be of some use to those considering riding the route for the first time. Keep in mind that we are very much bikepacking newbies. The info included in this post may be worth approximately what you’ve paid to read it. 🙂

Sitting in a hotel room in the mountains of Mexico where central heating would be more desirable than air conditioning, it’s somehow difficult to imagine that less than two weeks ago we were sweating on the dirt trails of Baja California. Before those memories recede completely, I wanted to put pen to paper, or more accurately, keystrokes to computer screen, to record some of my thoughts on how newbie riders might best prepare for a Baja Divide adventure similar to the one that we enjoyed.

Step One

First and foremost, read the Baja Divide website in its entirety. Most everything you need to know can be found on that site. That said, the following details some of the things that worked for us, some problems that we had and their solutions, and what we wish we had known or considered before setting out.

Money

The currency of Mexico is the Peso and you’ll want to carry a decent supply with you as you travel. Do not plan on using credit or debit cards for day-to-day purchases as the mom and pop tienda (store) will not accept them. You’ll find multiple currency exchange offices in Tecate where you can get your initial supply of pesos (it’s currently trading at approximately 17 pesos for one US dollar). To acquire more money down the road, the Baja Divide resupply guide lists the towns that have ATMs. It’s worth noting that we, and a good number of other people, had issues getting certain ATMs to work with our cards. We had two different credit cards and two different debit cards, and at certain places, none of them would work. As you might imagine, this left us in a bit of a bind. Our solution was to download the Western Union app to our iPhone and use it to send money to ourselves via one of the local Western Union offices. That worked like a charm but it would have been better, I believe, to simply carry a larger amount of cash with us so that we didn’t run out in the first place.

Water

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that running out of water in the desert would be a bad thing. The truth is though that acquiring water can sometimes be tough. The Baja Divide resupply guide gives accurate distances between resupply options, but in certain spots, the distance between places to resupply is large. So, unless you’re routinely putting in high-mileage days, you’ll need to carry plenty of water with you.

On an average day, we would each carry 5-8 liters of water. On trips where we knew that we’d be camping without being able to top up our supply, we carried up to 13 liters each.

We carried our water as follows:

  • 700ml bottle in the cockpit (we would top this up from our reserves when it was depleted)
  • Two 1 or 1.5L bottles on our forks
  • 64 oz (approx. 2L) bottle on our down tube
  • 6L MSR water bladder strapped to our rear rack (for long trips without water)

A couple other points on this subject. On a couple of occasions, we would arrive at stores listed only to find them closed. Fortunately, this never happened at a time when we really needed water. It’s also worth noting that we rode the Baja Divide in the summertime so, with the increased heat, we probably consumed more water than those traveling at a slightly cooler time of year. We also found very little surface water. That may also change with the season.

Navigation

Rather than purchasing a new dedicated GPS, we decided to use our iPhones for navigation on the trip. We installed the GAIA app on our phones and updated it with the GPS track for the route, and the related topo maps for Baja. We carried the phones on Rokform mounts in our cockpit, and even though they seem extremely solid, as a backup we always attached the phones to our handlebars via a lanyard and velcro strap too.

In order to maximize battery life, we kept the phones in airplane mode with Wi-Fi turned off. We also turned off auto-brightness and lowered the screen brightness down to the minimum acceptable level. In spite of this, the phones would barely last an entire day if we kept them turned on so that we could follow our progress on the track. When in spots where there was little chance of getting lost, we learned to turn the screen off and allow the GPS to continue to work in the background.

One other important consideration for the iPhones is that on several occasions, on particularly hot days, we had the iPhones power off, giving us a too-hot warning. This could be rectified by simply hiding the phone away in one of our bags for 20 minutes, but it was a pain, and it necessitated resuming our track on GAIA once we got the phone back up and running. We learned to avoid leaving the phones exposed during the hottest part of the day if we felt that there was a risk of this happening.

Additionally, we found that the phones would not charge during the hottest part of the day, even when connected to an external power source (battery or solar panel). The power level would typically not decrease any further once an external source was connected, but it would not increase either. For this reason, if we were going to charge our phones, we would do so before noon so that they were fully topped up before mid-day rolled around and the temperatures were at their max.

In spite of the above anomalies, we found that the iPhones worked well for navigation. As a backup though, we, of course, had each other’s phones, and we carried the National Geographic paper maps for Baja. While we didn’t use them for day-to-day navigation all that often, we did appreciate having them for long-term planning purposes.

Tires

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that every plant in Baja is out to get you. And by out to get you, I mean puncture your tires. The Baja Divide website strongly suggests running tubeless and we want to strongly advise you to follow their suggestion! We had only one foray into running a traditional setup with tubes, caused by an operator-induced tire problem. Let’s just say that it did not go well. Avoiding the countless thorny objects that litter the trails in some places is near impossible so make your life easy by getting set up tubeless before you begin the route.

As for the size of tires, there are some sandy sections on the Baja Divide where I understand that 3″ tires offer some advantage. That’s what we ran so I can’t comment on how difficult it would be to run somewhat skinnier tires. One thing I would recommend is that regardless of their width, you choose a tire with robust sidewalls. There are many sections of the trail that are comprised of nothing but baseball to coconut sized rocks, and they are hard on the tires!

Weight

Bikepackers often say that the lighter you travel, the more fun you have. That couldn’t be truer than on the Baja Divide. My guess is that we carried a bit more weight than many others have, and we paid the price because of it. Of course, you need to carry whatever it takes to be self-sufficient but I’d leave the party clothes behind. They just won’t get worn, and you won’t appreciate having to push the bike up the hills – and push you will – when you’re carrying unessential kit.

Clothing

When it came to clothing, we had two sets: one for riding and one for changing into when the day’s riding was done. After reading a suggestion on the internet to wear an old dress shirt for sun protection, we picked up a couple of used ones at a Baja market. That was the best 20 pesos we ever spent! We wore them every day, leaving our nice merino shirts in our seatbags.

As our bikes were outfitted with platform pedals, we simply wore hiking shoes for riding, and we carried a pair of flip flops for changing into when not on the bikes.

I’d definitely recommend having a decent rain jacket, and something warm to change into when the weather deteriorates. Even though we were traveling in the summertime, we still had some very cold nights in northern Baja, and also when we were riding close to the Pacific coast.

Electricity

When we ordered our bikes, we asked to have the front wheels built with SON dynamo hubs. My thinking initially was that we could use these for recharging our electronics. As time when on, and I did more reading, I started to have my doubts. What I read was that the riding on the Baja Divide is often so slow that the dynamo hubs are unable to do their job. Fortunately for us, we made a last minute purchase at REI in San Diego, just before setting off on the trail. We picked up a BioLite solar panel and it turned out to be a godsend for us. We used it almost exclusively.

Rather than set off with one large cache battery, we each traveled with two smaller 6000 mAh batteries (four total). Our thinking was that having multiple smaller ones would give us redundancy in the case of a problem, and also provide us with a bit more freedom when charging devices. I am happy with that decision.

During the day while traveling, we would often use the solar panel to charge our iPhones directly or charge the cache batteries. We simply tied it onto our handlebar roll and traded it back and forth between the two of us. When we stayed in a hotel, we would make it a point of ensuring that all of our electronics were fully charged before leaving. As the number of electrical outlets in some of the Baja hotel rooms can be limited, having a small splitter, one that you could use to charge a few devices at the same time, would be helpful. I’d recommend getting one without a ground prong as many of the outlets we have seen do not have a ground.

Shade

One thing we made no provision for when outfitting ourselves, and it caused us some degree of difficulty, was shade. Although it was often our plan to take a break from riding during the hottest part of the day – to take a siesta like every other creature in Baja does during the afternoon hours – we often had difficulty finding a place out of the sun to do so. If you can imagine the shape of the average cactus, and then visualize the sun directly overtop of it, you can see that there wouldn’t be a lot of shade created by that combination. A small and lightweight tarp, one that could be easily rigged between some bikes or scrubby trees, might be good for comfort and morale. 

People

If you’ve shared with your friends and family that you plan to go bike touring in Mexico, you no doubt have had some well-meaning friend or aunt who just had to warn you of the dangers that await you. To put your mind at ease, virtually 100% of the people that we came in contact with showed us nothing but courtesy. In addition to that, there were countless times when complete strangers would go out of their way to make our day brighter. Whether that was by offering us an unsolicited gift of water or food, or by providing us with shelter for the night or from the midday sun, our trip, special in its own right, was made even more epic because of these acts of kindness.

If you aren’t fluent in Spanish, and we aren’t, learning at least a few basics will go a long way in helping you to communicate (we recommend Pimsleur language courses). Not only that, it’s fun to try something new, and can elicit some smiles from the people you come in contact with. Smiles are always good!

3 Comments

  1. Very good advice.

  2. I’ve been meaning to ask you to write this for me, thank you. Tomorrow I will cross the half way mark from Canada to Mexico.

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