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Proofing Your Route Using Gaia GPS

Welcome to the Oregon backcountry


So you’ve decided your next big moto trip is going to be in the Oregon backcountry. You’ve picked out your route, you’ve checked off all your maintenance tasks, marked your gas stops, and packed light. Just one more step to go- the final, detailed route check known as “proofing”.


Do I really need to?


Yes. Oregon has some of the best riding in the world, subject to extremely variable conditions. Weather, snowpack, forest fires, maintenance, logging, and conservation issues all affect the rideability of the backcountry trails and roads. It's crucial that you take advantage of available resources to thoroughly check your route before you hit the road.



Ready to ride... almost.


Proofing Your Route


For this guide, I will be using Gaia GPS, and periodically referring to the original Cascade Discovery Route . This route stretches from the Oregon / Washington border all the way down to Southern Oregon, and includes some of the most scenic adventure riding in the PNW. It also includes extremely variable terrain subject to many of the issues that we will be discussing.


The first step of making sure your route will be open, accessible, and rideable is building a set of map layers in Gaia GPS that will get you the information you need to make informed decisions. I recommend starting with the following layers active in the “Visible Layers” window:

  • Gaia Topo (feet)

  • USFS Recreation Sites

  • Public Land (US)




Later on, we will be using several other layers that can remain in the “Hidden Layers” window for now. These layers are:

  • MVUM (USFS)

  • USFS Roads and Trails

  • Snow Depth

  • Wildfires (Current)

  • Wildfires (US, Historical)

  • Cell Coverage (In this case Verizon, but select your carrier)




To find these additional layers, take the following steps:

  • Open the “Layers and Overlays” window:




Then, select “Add Map Layers”:





Next, select “Feature/Weather Overlays”:





Scroll through the Feature / Weather Overlays and add the layers we will be using to your Map Layers window by clicking the circular green “plus” symbol next to each layer. Again, the layers we will be using in addition to the base Gaia Topo (feet) layers are:


  • USFS Recreation Sites

  • Public Land (US)

  • MVUM (USFS)

  • USFS Roads and Trails

  • Snow Depth

  • Wildfires (Current)

  • Wildfires (US, Historical)

  • Cell Coverage (In this case Verizon, but select your carrier)



Now that your map layers are set up, let’s move on to how to use them to proof your route.



Route Restrictions and the MVUM


The MVUM, or Motor Vehicle Use Map, is a map resource published by the Forest Service that will give you information on the status and limitations of roads and trails within the National Forest.


This layer is especially important because a lot of your Oregon riding will be through our National Forests. However, not all NF roads that appear on maps are open for motorized travel. The MVUM is a map layer sourced from the US Forest Service sources that can tell you which NF roads are open, and what kind of motor vehicles are allowed on them.


An excellent supplement to the MVUM is the map layer “USFS Roads and Trails”. This map layer adds additional color-coded information on specific use restrictions for roads and trails with our National Forest areas.


For example, let’s look at the following section of Deschutes National Forest:





The NF road circled in red looks just like the surrounding roads in the Gaia GPS base layer. You can even create a route on this section of road:





However, when we add the “MVUM (USFS)” and the “USFS Roads and Trails” layers to the visible layers window, we can see that this section of road is actually closed to motorized use:




So, as you can see, it is important to go through your route and make sure that your plans don’t involve or rely on sections of road that may appear to be open, but are in fact closed.


To start proofing your route, add the “MVUM (USFS)” and the “USFS Roads and Trails” layers to the “Visible Layers” window by clicking on them in the “Hidden Layers” window:





Then, go through your route and double check that the roads and trails you have selected are open to motorized use for the dates that you plan on riding. Information can be found on each individual road or trail by clicking or tapping on them, or by referring to the layer’s legend, which can be brought up by clicking on the tile next to the layer label:




Take some time to carefully review your route for closures or restrictions. This is also a good time to add the “USFS Recreation Sites” layer to your “Visible Layers” window, so that you can start scoping out campsites or points of interest.



For example, Little Crater Lake.


Once you’re finished, and you’ve made any necessary adjustments, it’s time to move on and proof your route for environmental factors.


Environmental Considerations


While beautiful, the Oregon back country is extremely rugged and unpredictable. It is not unusual to experience sudden and extreme shifts in weather, or wildly variable trail conditions. Therefore, environmental factors should be proofed as well before setting out on any ride in the Oregon backcountry.


Snow Depth


If you plan on riding during the shoulder seasons (April-June, Sept - Nov), then you need to be prepared for snow at higher elevations. There are two map layers in Gaia GPS that can help you with this.


The first is the “Snow Depth” layer. This will show you the approximate areas of existing snow coverage, and how deep the current coverage is. While it may be warm and sunny down at the lower elevations, it is entirely possible that storms at higher elevations have left behind enough snowpack to derail your ride.


To view this information, add the “Snow Depth” layer from your “Hidden Layers” window to the “Visible Layers” window in the same way that you added the “MVUM (USFS)" layer previously. With this layer, you will need to adjust the opacity using the blue slider underneath the layer label, so that you can see both the “Snow Depth” information and your route:




Then, begin reviewing your route. Do you see anything like this? (Depth labels have been added, refer to the layer legend by clicking on the tile to the left of the layer label):



In the above image, you can see that the lower portion of the route (the orange line) appears to have no snow, but as the route climbs up the switchbacks and gains elevation, there could be anywhere from 3.9 to 9.8 inches of snowpack. That might not seem too bad, but its enough snow to derail a ride and force you to turn back, so carefully go through your route with the “Snow Depth” layer and check that you won’t be facing a similar or worse situation as you gain elevation and head into the mountains.



Turned around by snow... in July.



Wildfires: Current and Historical


Oregon regularly experiences devastating wildfires, typically in the drier months, that can have a serious impact on the accessibility of backcountry roads and trails. Gaia GPS has two layers that we will use to proof our route for any possible problems from current and historical fires.


For current Wildfire information, add the “Wildfires Current” layer from the “Hidden Layers” window to the “Visible Layers” window and adjust the opacity the same way you adjusted the opacity on the “Snow Depth” layer. Open the legend and you will see how active and extinguished fires are displayed:



If a section of your route goes through either an “Active” or “Extinguished” fire, it's time to work on a re-route. It is not safe to ride through ongoing or recently extinguished wildfires for a number of reasons- poor visibility, hazardous smoke, damaged roads, heavy machinery- so plan a way around.


Wildfires leave lasting damage that can seriously affect an area for years to come. So, even if your route is clear of active fires, it is important to check for recent fires with the Wildfires (US, Historical) layer. Recent fires can mean a lot of hazards that might make your route difficult or even impassable- downed trees, mudslides, washed out routes, administrative closures, inactive water sources, etc. So, it is important to get an idea of where recent wildfires have burned, and the problems they might pose.


For historical Wildfire information, add the “Wildfires (U.S. Historical)” layer from the “Hidden Layers” window to the “Visible Layers” window and adjust the opacity the same way you adjusted the opacity previously. Open the legend and you will see how historical fires are represented using a gradient scale, similar to the “Snow Depth” scale.


Let’s look at a section of one of my favorite routes:



Here, we can see that a recent wildfire has burned in the area of the green trail, which is part of both the Central Cascades Adventure Route and the Cascade Discovery Route. By clicking or tapping on the burn area (the red area) we get the following information:



This information tells us this fire burned last year, in 2020. If this route is attempted in 2021, or even for a few years after, there might be significant treefall or mudslides blocking the route. And, if you look back up at the image of the route you can see that once you start riding south of Olallie Lake, there are no alternate roads or bypasses- if you run into a blocked road or trail, you will either have to find a way around:


In this case, we were able to get around (under) this fallen tree.


Or, turn back entirely:


Here, we weren't so lucky, and had to backtrack several miles.


If you plan on riding through areas with recent wildfire burns, at a minimum you should carry enough fuel, food, and water to be able to safely backtrack and re-route around damaged roads and other hazards. It is important to keep in mind that the terrain in Oregon tends to be steep, and the vegetation thick, and oftentimes finding a route around a fallen tree or mudslide is simply not possible. Finally, campsites, campgrounds, and facilities such as clean water will most likely not be available for use in recent burn areas.


Contingency Planning


While we always hope for the best when out on long rides, we also need to plan for the worst case scenarios.


Cell Phone Coverage


While being out of service and unreachable can provide a welcome break from our busy lives, it also means that you will be unable to call for help if you need it. As a guide, I am responsible for the safety of the group, and I always like to know where the No Service areas are so that I can have an idea of how long it would take for help to arrive in the event that I need it.


Gaia GPS has a great layer for this. The specific layer you choose depends on your cell service provider. I have Verizon, so I will be using the Verizon layer for this example.


For cell coverage information, add the “Cell Coverage- Your carrier” layer from the “Hidden Layers” window to the “Visible Layers” window and adjust the opacity the same way you adjusted the opacity previously. Open the legend and you will see how coverage levels are represented using a gradient scale:


Here is another section of the Cascade Discovery Route:


If something goes wrong here, be aware that getting help will be difficult.


As you can see, coverage in this area is extremely weak along the route (blue line). It should also be noted that this section is extremely steep and rugged (look at those topo lines!). So on this section of the route, not only do you have limited or non-existent cell coverage, but you also have rugged and steep terrain. If most of your route looks like this, I would highly encourage you to consider carrying a satellite communicator such as a SPOT device. You never know what might happen, and if you'll need to call for help.


Turns out this flat was a broken valve stem- no way to fix that on the side of the road. Luckily we had service and could call for a lift home.


Alternate Routes


At this stage in your route proofing, you will have identified sections or areas that might pose a heightened level or risk, obstacles, or environmental issues. A lot of these problems can be conquered and overcome by persistence, teamwork, and ability. However, I always try and plan alternate routes ahead of time for particularly troublesome sections, so that if something does go wrong, you can quickly backtrack or switch over to a safer and more navigable route to bypass any problems.


Let’s return to the section of the Central Cascade Adventure Route / Cascade Discovery Route that we discussed earlier, around Olallie Lake, that experienced a massive wildfire in 2020:



This section has some real potential to be problematic in 2021 and beyond, as mentioned earlier. So, what I have done is pre-mapped a route around the burn area, and added it to my Gaia GPS routes:




The green route is the main route, through the burn area, while the pink route is a bypass route. By using all the map layers we previously discussed, I know that this pink bypass route is open, accessible, outside the major burn area, and will allow me to continue on with my trip even if the main route becomes impassable and we have to turn back.


To wrap it up...


The Oregon backcountry is beautiful, wild, and remote, making it one of the best places for backcountry motorcycle adventures in the world. There are tons of pre-existing GPX tracks available, and tools like Gaia GPS for you to make your own custom routes. Whichever you choose, it's important to understand that the Oregon backcountry is extremely variable, and full of hazards. Proofing your route ahead of time, using the techniques mentioned above, is one way to minimize risk and maximize fun as you explore Oregon on two wheels.





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