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Bikepacking to Every National Park in a Single 18K Mile Push: Lessons Learned

By offering an online database, the 28-year-old cyclist hopes to expand access and demystify bikepacking.
national park bikepacking spencer mccullough 5(Photo/Spencer McCullough)
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When Spencer McCullough decided to spend over a year cycling to every national park in the contiguous U.S., he didn’t have much experience. The 28-year-old had only gone bikepacking once before — a 3-day trip planned entirely by a friend.

But after 411 days and 18,247 miles, McCullough has finally met his goal of biking to 51 national parks, and he’s likely the first person to pull off the feat. He hasn’t tried to register his accomplishments with Guinness World Records, even though McCullough actually set a waffle tower record in 2018 (no joke). For this more serious endeavor, he “just wanted to try it,” he said.

So, in March 2023, he set out from Florida’s Biscayne Bay National Park. Over a year later, he arrived in Acadia National Park on May 22, having visited every national park in the lower 48 purely through the power of his legs.

“You don’t have to identify as a cyclist to do something like this,” he told GearJunkie this week. “You just have to start small.”

national park bikepacking spencer mccullough
(Photo/Spencer McCullough)

McCullough has already begun leveraging his epic trip into a new project: An interactive map devoted to collecting hiker/biker campsites across the country. For McCullough, who has worked for outdoor advocacy groups, making space for other cyclists is equally important as fulfilling his own dirtbag dreams.

“So many people are trying to get into these sports for the first time,” he said. “We can help people learn these things without a steep learning curve.”

‘It Takes a Village’

It’s not uncommon for athletes like McCullough to have their privileges checked as soon as their accomplishments are posted on social media.

“Must be wonderful to be independently wealthy and never need to do a days’ work,” one commenter wrote on the Instagram post below celebrating McCullough’s journey.

“Yup, it’s always the story,” another user responded.

Except, of course, when it’s not. McCullough lived in a van for years while working various jobs in Colorado. He saved every dollar possible, eventually reaching the roughly $20,000 he’d need for the 14-month journey. With the exception of a small fundraising club to help with unforeseen expenses, McCullough funded the vast majority of it himself, he said.

However, McCullough is also the first to point out that he couldn’t have pulled this off without help.

His neighbor kept his van in her Denver driveway for 14 months of his journey. He stayed with friends who offered him an actual bed on several occasions. Then there was the time in rural Texas when the bike’s front axle snapped in half while McCullough tried to change a tire in the middle of nowhere. A bike mechanic drove several hours just to deliver help.

“This wasn’t a project that I did in a vacuum by myself,” he said. “It takes a village to do something this big.”

national park bikepacking spencer mccullough
(Photo/Spencer McCullough)

Learning While Cycling

As for gear, McCullough didn’t have a boatload of sponsors to help him. He bought a used Surly Straggler off Craigslist for $800. Instead of trying to invest in an expensive ultralight setup, McCullough mostly used camping gear he already owned — the rest he bought on Craigslist. By mostly “stealth camping” in a tent, McCullough could often avoid campground fees, which can be especially pricey in national parks.

“I’m very against gear for the sake of gear,” he said.

national park bikepacking spencer mccullough 6
This Surly Straggler has seen many miles; (photo/Spencer McCullough)

That being said, he learned the hard way what gear matters. He got gloves a week into the trip after developing cycling palsy in one hand. (He realized this when he couldn’t close his hand enough to cut his fingernails.) After initially dismissing the idea of cycling shoes, which “felt excessive,” he soon realized “they’re actually super comfortable and practical.”

As for cycling knowledge, he has developed strong opinions on what matters (changing a tire) and what doesn’t (your gear ratio).

“People ask me what gears I’m running and what my ratio is. I don’t know. I often forget how many speeds my bike has,” he said. “That stuff is not important to me.”

national park bikepacking spencer mccullough 2
(Photo/Spencer McCullough)

Camping Logistics

McCullough’s trip was filled with the kind of experiences many of us dream about. Cycling through Colorado in January was both challenging and fun, resulting in many social media posts about how he managed the snow and cold. He loved the majestic views of Northern California’s Sierra Nevada and the “low-stress rides” through Sequoia National Park.

He was also lucky to finish. McCullough consulted with other cyclists who have tried and failed to connect all the parks, including one who made it to over 30 parks before the West Coast wildfires threw a figurative wrench into the spokes.

But simply finding a safe place to sleep — not climate change — posed the greatest difficulty. He discovered that finding a campsite for long-distance cyclists remains logistically difficult. Many state park sites don’t make it easy to determine what sites are available.

Other parts of the country lack any official sites at all, requiring more creativity to find a safe spot to sleep. “These campsites are so buried and hard to find,” he said.

Mapping It Out for Posterity

Now McCullough has a new mission: Making bikepacking more accessible by offering a map of available campsites.

So far, he has developed it with two criteria: cyclist-specific pricing, meaning places with cheaper prices for cyclists than motorists, and no requirement for reservations, which are hard to schedule when you’re dealing with the weather.

At the moment, it only has campsites on the West Coast and East Coast, but McCullough plans to spend the rest of the year adding more. He wants to include not only paid locations but casual agreements as well, like small business owners who offered him a place to sleep along the way.

bikepacking map onelongtrip
The OneLongTrip bikepacking map; (image/Spencer McCullough)

Eventually, he wants other cyclists to add their own sites, hoping to build a community that makes it easier to plan a tour. He’d also love to offer scholarships for aspiring cyclists and include information about community events.

“There’s so many angles for this as an advocacy program that I’m so excited about,” he said.

Interested in helping out? Visit the website and fill out a form to add a campsite, or sign up for updates on the map’s progress.

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