HOW TO START BIKEPACKING
What is bikepacking?
The confluence of bicycling and backpacking. A self-supported multi-day trip free of fossil fuels. An experiment in adventure. A challenge to the vacation status quo. Mountains of fun and valleys of physical desperation strapped to a bicycle.
Where do I find a bikepacking route:
Places to camp when Bikepacking:
- Dispersed camping on National Forest, BLM, WM land.
(per US Forest Service you must camp 1 mile from established campsites and picnic area, 100 ft from waterways, 150 ft from roadways, and use Leave No Trace Principles). https://freecampsites.net/
- In small towns: church, public park, school, or post office.
- Police or Fire stations, with permission of course.
- Public or Private campground and some RV Parks.
- Private land, only with permission.
- Stealth camping in the woods near the trail or route.
What kind of bike is best for gravel bikepacking?
If you are just getting started then it’s probably one you already own. If you are looking to purchase a bike specifically for bikepacking then it’s best to determine which niche you’d like to explore. In the most general sense, there are three main categories of bikepacking adventure.
- TOURING is a form of bikepacking on paved roads. This category typically makes use of bicycle-mounted front and/or rear racks onto which gear bags (panniers) can be secured.
- GRAVEL GRINDING is a more adventurous style of touring that ventures on to dirt roads. These unpaved country and forest service roads usually offer a more remote setting, low vehicle traffic, and improved scenery. They also tend to be steeper, varied terrain, and poor weather conditions can accelerate the challenge of the riding experience. The rough roads can wreak havoc on components and shake lazily-packed gear loose.
- MOUNTAIN BIKEpacking is decidedly the hardest. Single-track trails tend to be the steepest and most technical routes compared to riding any road surface. Even with front and/or rear suspension on your mountain bike the challenge of keeping your gear attached and the bag contents from being pulverized takes practice and patience. Due to suspensions components, dropper seatposts, and frame metrics there is considerably less space to easily mount your gear bags. One must be a fanatic for economy with gear choice and ingenious about strapping items to the bike.
Choosing your bike:
- Touring bikes are built for durability and the availability of replacement parts. They also have lots of room to bolt gear onto the bike. Bolts on the fork, under the downtube, top of the toptube, front and rear rack and fender mounts. Drop bars are commonplace for the multiple hand positions which alleviate sore hands for long days in the saddle. The widest of gear ranges are also standard equipment, allowing you to ride up any mountain, with any amount of gear.
- Gravel bikes tend to be fitted with drop bars for the range of comfort afforded by multiple hand positions. Like touring bikes their geometry is designed for comfort and handling, not to maximize efficiency. More modern 1x or 2x chainsets with 10, 11, or even 12 speed rear cassettes still offer an appropriate range for the ride, but their simplicity is more resilient to the rough grind of gravel roads. Like touring bikes, they also have many bolted mounting locations and ample frame room for strapping bags down. Additionally, their frames offer room for bigger tires and extra mud clearance.
- Mountain bikes are a must for serious singletrack bikepackers. The hardtail MTB is likely the simplest solution. The frames have more room, they tend to climb steep hills more efficiently, and the added weight of camping gear will slow you down to the point where a full-suspension bike is likely not as beneficial as in normal trail riding.
What backpacking gear do I need?
Lightweight and packable gear made for backpacking tends to work the best when outfitting your bike for overnight adventures. There are a growing number of cottage brands now making bikepacking specific camping gear if you want truly purpose-built goods. If you want to work with what you may already have, items readily available, and gear that can serve many disciplines of outdoor adventure then we’ll suggest you stick with traditional backpacking equipment.
Here are a few general rules when comparing gear:
- Lighter weight = more $$$. The cheapest item in a given category is almost always the heaviest. Double the price and you may get as much as half the weight savings. Want to save another magnitude of weight? Double the price you already doubled!
- Lighter weight = less durability. The least expensive items are many times also the most durable. Heavier fabrics and materials are not only cheaper to produce and may even require less-skilled labor to work with but they often boast the best abrasion-resistance. There are exceptions to this rule, in many cases the items in the middle of the weight pack will have varying degrees of durability and will be priced according to those attributes. On the flip side, the extremely lightweight materials or construction can many times sacrifice on long-term durability (they are often marketed as “most-durable for their weight class”, but that is a relative rating). Consider the purpose of the item and what kind of wear it can expect to receive.
- Recommendation: value should be based on the four main quadrants: WEIGHT, SIZE, PRICE, DURABILITY. What is the item’s purpose, how often is it used, how will it be carried? Answer these questions to determine how important these competing factors are to yourself. Something you use all day, every day is valuable when it works well, so choose wisely, i.e. a water filter.
CAMPING GEAR LIST:
- Shelter: be it a tent, tarp, or bivy sack.
- Sleeping mat: insulates you from the ground, provides cushion. R-value above 3 for cold temps.
- Sea to Summit UltraLight Insulated Air Sleeping Mat is max comfort packed very small, light, and offers best-in-class durability. The stuff sack doubles as a pump for inflation.
- Sleeping bag/quilt: insulates you from the air. Temp rating and packability are most important.
- Generally the lowest density item you will carry, it has the most potential for space and weight savings if you splurge here. Example for a 30 deg bag: $100 synthetic, 3 lbs, 12 L pack size. $200 synthetic, 2 lbs, 6 L. $220 down, 2 lbs, 4.7 L. $350 down, 1.5 lbs, 4.6 L
- Stove: isobutane canister stoves pack small and cook quickly. Alcohol stoves are lightweight too.
- Fuel: ideally an isobutane canister will fit inside your cookpot.
- Cookware: titanium = ultralight $$$, aluminum = most popular $$, stainless steel = heaviest $ Toaks 550ml Pot
- Water filter/purifier: pump, squeeze, or gravity flow. Filament, hollow membrane, or ceramic filter. Life span 20 gallons -> 1 million. Sawyer Squeeze Filter is a cheap, reliable, light, & small.
- Spoon or spork. My all-time favorite is the Sea to Summit Alpha Light Long Spoon.
- First aid kit: tweezers, bandages, aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, antiseptic, gauze, tape, curved needle, dental floss, nail clippers, rubber gloves, spare ziplock, and personal medication. All carried in a robust quart-size freezer ziplock bag.
- Pocket knife: make it sharp!
- Toilet paper and/or trowel. Keep the moisture sensitive TP in a quart-size ziplock bag. Extra ziploc to safely transport waste TP to a proper disposal bin.
- Sun protection: sunscreen, hat, clothing, sunglasses, chapstick.
- Toothbrush & toothpaste
- Soap: once again Sea to Summit has ingenious solutions for sanitization.
- Navigation tool(s): computer, phone, guidebook, or map. Keep reading for more details.
What should I wear on this bikepacking trip?
WHAT TO WEAR WHILE RIDING
For starters, the most comfortable pair of chamois shorts you own. I’d recommend a spare pair if the trip will extend beyond a few days. That may be a standalone short for you, and while mine can be, I still prefer to wear a pair of light-weight baggies over the top. I like the pockets and when I set up camp (and maybe have a chance to wash the salt/dirt from both pairs) I can wear the baggies sans chamois as comfy evening wear. Generous application of chamois cream is pretty great at preventing saddle sores, especially on 10+ hour days of riding. If you plan to be out for more than two days I would say this is critical.
For a comfortable riding top, my go-to is a loose-fitting fishing button-down shirt. It’s made from quick-drying and durable nylon, has back vents, and the collar covers more of my neck.
Depending on the terrain and season my gloves are either fingerless (humid summer heat) or full-fingered (rough surfaces, cool weather).
I’m completely spoiled by merino wool socks. All day, every day, any activity. I always pack a spare pair of clean socks to wear solely for sleeping.
Last but not least, a sturdy pair of shoes that clip or grip your pedals well, and offer enough traction on whatever surface you are riding. Remember, you will mostly be pedaling in them, but if you are walking it’s because the riding is either too steep or too rough to ride your bike. Can your shoes handle THAT terrain?
FOR COLD TEMPS, BAD WEATHER, AND AT CAMP:
- Below 45 degrees I bust out the ultra-versatile Outdoor Research Gripper Convertible Gloves which are windproof, offer a little insulation, and are actually fingerless with mitten flaps.
- Windproof, breathable, ultra-packable lightweight cycling shell.
- Waterproof rain jacket, ideally with generous pit-zips. I don’t embark on any outdoor adventure without my Greatest of All-Time piece of gear. Meet the Beta AR Jacket by Arcteryx.
- Night temps below 45 degrees I pack baselayer bottoms. No cotton!
- Any overnighter with temps under 70 deg I bring a baselayer top. I prefer heavy weight, ½ zip, waffle-structured tops. Maximum breathability, minimal space, super warm w/ a shell or in a sleeping bag. Patagonia's Capilene Thermal Zip-neck is a solid choice. This doubles as a great riding layer in cold to very cold temps. No cotton!
- Stocking cap, beanie, toque, skullcap, or whatever you call it. Ear coverage is key for sleepwear.
- Neck gaiter or Buff. Great for cold starts on the bike and maximum warmth while sleeping.
WHAT SHOULD I EAT?
- Consume 250-300 calories each hour of riding, this is in addition to your regular meals:
- Normal day = 2,000 calories.
- Bikepacking for 10 hours: 10 hr ride x 300 calories = 3,000 calories.
- 3k + 2k = 5,000 calories total.
- Get food along the route as often as you can. Less food to carry means less weight in food, water, and stove fuel.
- Eat whatever settles well in your stomach. Don’t rely completely on gel packets, clif bloks, and nutrition waffles for riding calories.
- Mixed nuts and dried fruit are good replacement options for traditional energy stuffs.
- Consider the caloric density of food for multi-day trips. Pro tip: a normal 16oz jar of peanut butter contains roughly 2,700 calories AND fits snugly into a regular size water bottle cage.
- Don’t worry too much about carb vs fat vs protein ratios. Shopping at small town cafes, gas stations, grocery stores, and carrying backpacking food usually limits how well you can control those factors.
- Dehydrated backpacking meals work great, just boil water and add it to the pouch. But these are not always readily accessible at your re-supply locations.
- Pre-packaged/portioned pasta and rice sides (Knorrs is one example) offer flavor variety, easy cooking, and are widely available. Look for brands that have a slightly more robust, reflective inner lining so you can cook right in the pouch: tuck into a quart-ziploc bag, add hot water & olive oil, seal it up and keep warm in your stocking cap or buff in your lap, and wait about 15 minutes to eat. I add a pouch of seasoned tuna as well. 8oz leak-proof bottle for the olive oil.
- Instant oatmeal packets are an easy breakfast choice. I have a separate ziploc just for making my oatmeal. Add hot water and keep warm in your stocking cap. Throw in mixed nuts and dried fruit for added calories and flavor.
- Cured meats travel well, don’t need refrigeration, and boast high fat and protein calories.
See the blog post “How to Plan a Bike Route” for more information about route planning and resources for finding routes.
This can be a serious challenge. Planning to navigate by paper map or atlas? Be prepared for alternate road names and missing signage. Using your phone? Better download those maps for offline use and conserve your battery. Got a bike navigation computer? Either download an existing route or delve into the process of creating your own.
Speaking from the personal experience of having tried all three methods I strongly suggest the bike computer. Without a constant power source, your phone simply cannot track your position and provide turn by turn directions long enough to be useful on any multiple-day adventure. Paper navigation is timeless and battery-free but identifying roads can be a major hurdle.
The latest bike computers can last up to 20 hours, which can be 2-3 days charge-free for many riders. Many are touchscreen and full-color so the user experience is akin to smartphone turn-by-turn directions. There are thousands of route options available for download across several platforms, or you can create your own custom routes. You can travel nearly worry-free with full US road maps already installed, in case a road is closed or there’s an impassable river crossing and you need to plan a detour.
- Shorter 2-3 day trips you may not need any additional juice. Airplane/energy saver mode on your phone will still let you take photos and see your location on a downloaded-for-offline-use map.
- Battery back ups/caches $: if you have resupply points every few days with enough downtime to recharge all your electronics then this is likely the simplest and cheapest solution. And you will probably want a cache battery regardless of how it gets recharged. Look for pass-through technology so you can charge devices while the cache itself is charging.
- Solar panel $$: when sunshine is abundant these compact, lightweight power sources are easy to use. Hook it up to your cache battery. Best carried atop a saddle bag or rear rack, or on the handlebar bag. If you wear a hydration pack then consider strapping a panel on your back.
- Dynamo front hub $$$: charges a cache battery through a power adapter (to convert to usb output, Sinewave Cycles). Most reliable option. Charge while you ride!
BIKE REPAIR TOOLS:
See the blog post “Breakdown of Bike Guide’s Repair Kit” for a video and detailed list w/ weblinks
- Crank Bros Gem Hand/frame pump
- Lezyne Tubeless Plug Kit or Lezyne CO2 Inflator/Tubeless plug kit
- Muc-Off Tubeless Valve Stems (cap is a valve core removal tool)
- Assorted bolts (ask your LOCAL BIKE SHOP)
- Spare brake pads (depends on make/model of brakes on your bike)
- Curved Needle
- Dental Floss (go see your dentist!)
- 20g CO2 cartridge (x2) from LOCAL BIKE SHOP
- Park Tool CT-5 Mini Chain Tool
- CHAIN LINK (master-link, quick-connect, etc) for your bike’s chain from LOCAL BIKE SHOP
- Section of spare chain (saved excess removed during a new chain install)
- Bike Chain Lube from LOCAL BIKE SHOP
- Park Tool Tube Patch Kit or Park Tool Pre-glued Super Patch Kit
- Assorted zip ties
- Small BIC Lighter
- Wolf-Tooth Pack Pliers - Master Link Combo Pliers: tire level, master-link storage x2, valve nut tool, master link plier, presta valve core remover
- Leatherman Squirt PS4 multi-tool: needlenose & regular pliers, wire cutters, knife, scissors, Flat/Phillips screwdriver, bottle opener, wood/metal file, medium screwdriver
- Kona Compact Multi-tool: 2.5,3,4,5,6,8 mm hex heads/T25/Phillips Head/Flat Head