Red trails in Poland (to Ukraine)

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My primary purpose, our purpose, when traveling by bike is to make a life on the road– to spend time, discover, and to enjoy ourselves in each place that we visit.  The main function of choosing to ride in Europe was to discover the network of walking trails found across the continent.  We arrived, asking, “Do the trails really exist?  Are they legal, and rideable?  Are there sufficient places to camp?  Are they fun?”.  The answers to all of these questions have been overwhelmingly positive.  Finally, we arrived in Amsterdam with the intention to eventually visit Ukraine.  Growing up in a thriving east coast Ukrainian community has left me wanting to see this place for myself.  At the time of writing, I am already in Ukraine.  This is how we got there.

Przemek plans to return by train.  We have spent several days riding together recently, before parting ways.  I had some business to tend to.  Przemek continued riding and pushing over southern Poland’s higher mountains. After the first week of his tour, he made a quick trip home to re-evaluate his bicycle and luggage.  He left on a Surly Pugsley with 26×4.0″ Knard tires.  He returns with something different.

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Przemek and I first met through the internet, as we discovered that we were building the exact same 29″ wheels for a Surly Pugsley within weeks of each other.  We swapped ideas from across the globe.  Now, for a few days, we ride and camp together, and marvel at how amazing the internet can be.  His route is composed of other riders’ trials and errors in these same mountains, shared via blogs and forums.  I hope that these words and images will inspire others to ride in these mountains.  The internet is an amazing place.

We meet in Chabowka at 6AM.  By 8, we are riding uphill on a red walking trail.  I am beginning to love these red trails in Poland, which signify scenic, long-distance walking routes.  They can be heartbreakingly difficult, but they can be supremely rideable for great distances as well.  Interspersed with mountain huts (like hostels), the experience is as cultural as it is bike-centric.

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Hiking signs indicate the time (usually not the distance) to the nearest resource or junction.  Above, we rest about 45min from the hut at the top.  Below, singletrack 5 minutes from the top.

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This is one of the larger mountain huts we have seen, originally constructed in 1924.  All trails lead to cold beer and hot food around here.  Homestyle dishes are served inside, and basic rooms are available.  The Polish hiking organization PTTK is responsible for all the trails, signage, and huts.  Members receive additional benefits, although all the facilities are inclusive of non-members and visitors.

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Inside, the building is a treasure of old maps and photographs.  Pope John Paul II was an avid hiker in his youth, and once walked many of these trails.  Newer papal routes are now marked in his honor.  Our red route is shown below on the ridge.

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Below, our route is not shown, but it traverses the area between Rabka on the left, and Rytro on the right.  In two days, riding at a mellow pace, we encounter only one paved road crossing.  We top out near 1300m, or about 4000ft.

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At the top of the mountain, this is a great place to wait out some weather.  Looking out the front door, Lael keeps an eye on the High Tatra.

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Inside, a plate of potatoes and cold beer is only a few dollars.  Kefir, soup, warm beer cocktails, and other Polish comfort foods are available.

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As the skies clear, we embark into the cool evening air– a spectacular time to ride.

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We descend, and briefly ascend back to the next minor peak.  From there, it is a long way down.

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Most of the descent is rideable.  As Lael and I incorporate more trail riding into our touring repertoire, I keep my eyes on more capable bikes.  I am considering something with a more descent-specific geometry, such as a Surly Krampus or a Kona Honzo, without giving up the positive climbing features of a hardtail.  I’m also thinking a full-suspension 29er may be in my future, something like the Salsa Horsethief.  Incidentally, I’m thinking of a full-suspension bike more for its ability to climb chunky stuff– and to maintain traction– than for the high-speed descents.  After a few over-the-handlebar experiences on the Pugsley, I’m a bit chicken when riding downhill.  I value my health greatly.  Sometimes walking wins.

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Lael, however, rides with her eyes wide open.  She descends with abandon.  Here, she lands in a muddy hillside while trying to ride some off-camber trail composed of clay, post-rainstorm.

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The following morning, we cross the paved road and ride back up, following the red trail and an assortment of bicycle routes.  Przemek’s Pugsley now features a Manitou Tower suspension fork and 29×2.4″ Maxxis Ardent tires.  The rear wheel is built with a Velocity Synergy O/C rim, while the symmetrical front wheel uses a Stan’s Flow EX rim.  He is using a SP dynamo hub and Supernova E3 Pro light.

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Berries by the trail give us reason to stop.  We compose a handful of berries and a small bouquet to celebrate Przemek’s birthday.  This is the first of many gifts, one for each year.

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Passing a small community in the mountains, a group of women congregate the roadside.  A white van appears.  Groceries can be purchased from the van; prices are competitive with the small stores in the valley.  What a convenience and a luxury for us to buy fruit, milk, and fresh baked goods at 1000m at 9AM.

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We continue along the ridge to the next peak, above 1200ft.  Here we find a small shelter offering food, as well as tents for the evening.

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The red trail traverses the green forested section, having crossed the road just off the left side of the map.

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Where are we?  Usually, everyone else has made it obvious on the map.  Thousands of fingers have grazed this signboard.

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While Luban is only a single shack with a wood-fired stove to prepare simple meals, wifi is advertised.  Tents are offered for the night, and a spring provides fresh water nearby.  Polish hiking culture is really fun, and inexpensive.

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Naleśniki with mak.

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We push and sweat to make it up here, yet we meet another rider on a 25 year old ATB that arrives without a drop of sweat.  On top of that, he is collecting rocks, and is slowly filling his pack– an example of Polish grit and enthusiasm.  For all the time we spend optimizing our bikes and our gear, other riders remind us of the simplicity that we pursue.

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His favorite rock was shaped like the #1.

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From the top, it is all downhill.  I like how succinct each riding section is around here, requiring relatively little planning, and less than a day of food or water.  One could traverse many of these beskid, the Polish word for a lesser mountain range, with no more than a framebag or small backpack, especially as food and lodging are frequently available in the mountain huts.  As we aren’t rushing to the next supply point, there is plenty of time to explore.

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Dropping into town at dusk, we explore the Dunajec Gorge which forms the border between Poland and Slovakia,  a popular spot where tourists pile into rectangular wooden boats, piloted by traditionally costumed men.  The boats navigate through the shallow water with long poles, and two operators.

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Thirty-one years old on this day, Przemek is still a kid at heart.

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Nearly dark, we roll up a dirt road out of the gorge to find camping.  We prepare a feast in honor of Przemek’s birthday.  We all wake up with food poisoning.

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Sixteen hours later, we summon enough energy to roll up our tents and roll back into town.  We are without any surplus energy.  I may never eat buckwheat again.

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Tomato juice, Coca-Cola, and water is on the limited menu today.

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We push towards the east to find a campsite for the night.  Laughing at ourselves, and our misfortune– there is something hilarious about being violently ill and drained of energy.

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Przemek’s home and his horse– a disguised 29″-wheeled Surly Pugsley and a Tarptent Double Rainbow.

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Feeling better the next morning, we find just enough energy to ride uphill.  This is our last day together.

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We discuss bikes and gear, and decide on an approximate bikepacking standard for loading one’s bike.  Throw grams and kgs out the window– the bike must be light enough for the rider to lift it cleanly over the shoulders.  There are many instances where the bike must be carried.  There are many steep uphill grades in the world.  There are many fun descents.

Przemek’s Surly Pugsley with 29″ wheels and suspension fork.  Welsh-made Wildcat framebag and Revelate packs elsewhere– more organized than it looks.

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Lael’s Raleigh XXIX, originally a single speed model, customized with gears and suspension fork.  Revelate framebag and Viscacha seatpack, Oveja Negra Lunchbox up front.  Low gears, big tires, and her favorite gold-anodized On-One Mary handlebar.

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My Raleigh XXIX+G with suspension fork, custom wheels and frame attachments for mini-rack and extra bottles.  Porcelain Rocket framebag and handlebar bag, Carradice Camper saddlebag, and Revelate Gas Tank.  29x 2.35″ and 2.4″ tires, tubeless.  Between the three of us and six wheels, there are four Maxxis Ardent tires.  For all around dirt touring, I love the large volume of the 2.4″ Ardent and the durable rubber compound.  For dedicated trail touring, I’m coming to appreciate the 2.35″  Schwalbe Hans Dampf.

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Przemek and his Pugsley pass the test.

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A typical Polish descent ends our ride, landing in a small town, and a rustic restaurant serving pyrohy and piwo.

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Once in the valley, there are myriad discoveries to be made, including the FART store.

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A local art exhibition, adjacent to the tourist office where I purchase hiking maps for the Ukrainian Karpaty.

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With phallic paintings of bread sculptures.

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And familiar scenery.

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A handsome public square.

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And jovial Belgians on Dahon folding bikes.

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Parting ways with Przemek for the last time, we shoot for the train station.  There, we encounter two riders on older mountain bikes with backpacks and camping gear.  They help us navigate the train schedule.

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On board the train, two, three other riders join us.  The bicycle car is typically the last car in sequence, with only a few folding seats along the wall with plenty of open space.  In total, there are six bikes and riders on board this train, all returning from multi-day trips in the mountains.  All but one are on a mountain bike.

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We ride to the bigger city to connect with another train towards the Ukrainian border.  Much like the German train that deposited us near the Czech border, we will deboard at midnight in search of a campsite.  I load local maps of our destination onto the Nexus 7, with a few good ideas for a campsite about 5km out of town.

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A seatful of stories: Lael is reading in French, riding in Poland, beginning to study some Ukrainian, and interested in everything.  Her change purse is from Mexico, a gift received in Temoris en route to the Copper Canyon.  Her favorite thin wool Surly socks are almost entirely worn through.  We are thinking about riding fatbikes again this winter.

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11:36 PM.

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5km to a great campsite up a dirt road out of town.  Only 15km to the Ukrainian border in the morning, and our official exit of the EU.  In two days, we leave our bikes for a period to meet my parents and travel around Ukraine by more conventional means.

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E-mail me for more details about routes in Poland.  I may compile them here in the future, but I do have a series of GPS files to share.  As well, a series of Compass brand laminated maps is available for each mountain section in southern Poland.  These maps along with on-trail signage would be sufficient to navigate the region.  I can also help put you in contact with more experienced Polish cyclists.

Updates and broken things:

Aside from being very busy in Ukraine, I have also experienced some major hard drive issues with the MacBook Air.  In Kyiv, I purchased an additional external drive to back-up files. and successfully reinstalled OS X onto the MBA.  A day later, the internal HD no longer appeared, and I assume fatal damage to the physical drive.  I am limping along by operating OS X from an external drive, a valuable workaround that I hope will get me through the next month when I return to the US for proper diagnosis and repairs.  Yesterday, Lael and I purchased two cheap plane tickets from Simferapol, Ukraine to NYC, flying through Moscow on the Russian airline Aeroflot.  There is no charge to transport our bicycles if they are packed in a box.  Post NYC plans are in flux, but may include some riding in the west in October/November.  Our leading idea for the winter?  Return to Alaska to ride fatbikes.  I have a lot of unfinished business up there, and the bikes are only getting better.

Next…a tour of Ukraine by more conventional means– overnight Russian sleeper trains, crowded buses, overcrowded hired cars, and some walking.  Ukraine is a rich and colorful place, here is a preview.

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15 thoughts on “Red trails in Poland (to Ukraine)

  1. The biking in Poland looks great, as did the rest of your European bike-packing adventures! We can’t wait to read (and see) more about your experiences in Ukraine. 🙂

    Safe travels and hope to see you back in NY. Colin still wants help learning to ride a bike from the “expert”, Nicholas.

    XO- Maria, Andrew & Colin

  2. Beautiful post and love all the photos! We are so very excited to think you may be in Alaska this winter. It’s the one thing that makes me want winter now. We love you and miss you!

  3. Great stuff, Nick. On the subject of new bikes, The Krampus is sweet, but don’t you think the ECR would be a better fit? (I’m sure you’ve seen it, but… )

    Also, You know I’m a fan of the Horsethief / Spearfish. If you’re thinking about going in that direction, Salsa is doing some awesome stuff with a split-pivot dropout for next year’s models.

    Too many cool bikes out there!

    Brad from Boulder

    • Brad,

      I’ve got my eye on the Horsethief for sure. My main consideration re:Krampus v. ECR is that the Krampus features a higher BB and a more aggressive geometry, which is the direction I am headed. Otherwise, I like the idea of the ECR very much.


  4. Great blog post. Thanks so much. I am American but have done some hiking in Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine. Bike packing is next.

  5. Hello
    Funny things about this thing called internet 😉 Looking for some info about trails near my hometown in south Poland and finding it on some US couple traveling to Ukraine 🙂
    Good story and great pictures.
    And I love to meet on a trail people like your Rocky Guy or Dahon Couple. They remind me that 120mm FOX shox’s with kashima coating, XTR drive trains and carbon are not always necessary 😀
    p.s. “FART” in polish means “run of luck ” or “lucky strike” 🙂

    • Wow, that’s great. Some of our best memories of bikepacking in Europe come from Poland. The network of trails is rugged, but often rideable, and the PTTK huts make for an awesome reward at the top of many mountains. That “rock guy” was pretty amazing.

  6. Hi Nicholas,

    I am looking for bikepacking routes in eastern Europe andere ran into this blog post. Such a nice story and the trail seems great! Would you care sharing the gpx tracks?
    I was wondering did you experience any trouble cycling the hiking trails? I could imagine some hikers may not like bikers around especially when its ‘crowded’, or was that fine? Is it legal to bike there?

    Keep up with riding and blogging!

    Bart (the Netherlands)

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