A Bikepacking primer

Written for my friends at Seven Cycles and originally published by them in 2016. Thanks for the support and encouragement. Lightly revised for this edition.

Bikepacking is loading up a bicycle with gear for multi-day travel, typically over a combination of asphalt, dirt roads, and trails, usually with camping overnight. It is cycle touring with a bias toward remote quiet, a way to capture what is wonderful about a backcountry hike or an off the beaten track trek. Under this description, bikepacking isn’t the slightest bit a novel idea. Late nineteenth century black and white photographs of cyclists with bedrolls and framebags heading out into the countryside or on months long trips over international borders show that the bicycle has always been for freedom and exploration.

If anything is new in the current enthusiasm for bikepacking, it’s firstly that specific and optimized gear is now widely available for it, and secondly and more importantly, there is a critical mass of the aesthetic sensibility to make it within the imaginative grasp of all of us.

The leap from that favorite long ride to taking a bikepacking trip isn’t enormous. The overnighting dimension adds some equipment, and being away from the comfort of home means embracing a different psychology about the ride. It’s completely worth it. Something positive happens during sustained meditation in the continuity and duration of days on the bike in a landscape.

WHERE TO GO

There can be serious summertime fun in leaving after work on a Tuesday, buying a burrito on the way out of town, riding for three hours until sunset to a local park, eating, and camping. Wake up early the next morning, go back to town by a different route, stop in at a coffee shop and go straight to work again. That’s a great bikepacking trip. Or for years go on an open-ended multi-country dirt road bike tour. That’s a different enterprise, but falls under the bikepacking umbrella just as much. 

For the first few trips, make them two nighters. Perhaps leave work early on Friday, ride all day Saturday, and then return home by Sunday evening. Start from home or work or somewhere accessible in under a couple of hours by car or public transportation. Maybe camping is appealing, and for some that’s integral to bikepacking. But there are no rules and there’s nothing wrong with sleeping overnight at warmshowers.org hosts or at nice B&B’s. Sleeping outside offers a chance to practice campcraft. Sleeping indoors means you can carry less gear and it often implies meeting new people. 

Get out a map of the region around your starting point—a paper one is ideal if it has sufficient detail and shows quieter roads and dirt tracks, like a DeLorme Atlas. Consult the scale and spread your fingers or get a ruler to mark around 30 miles if you only have a half first day, and more like 50 miles if you have a full first day. Using your starting point as the origin, look at the map in that radius for a destination. The destination can be anything: a quaint town, a state park or a patch of woods, open space on BLM land, a lonely beach, whatever. The only things that matter are that it inspires your imagination and that it seems like a decent option for spending the night there.

If you’re a strong and experienced day rider, you might extend your range another ten miles. I’ve found that 40-60 miles per day is a manageable distance if the trip is mostly dirt. Sure, you can probably ride longer but part of bikepacking is that you might stop to skip rocks on a pond or to sample a beer at a brewery. Find a few destinations like that in your riding radius.

Now take a more careful look at the span between the start and the destination to maximize those scenic and dirt sections, even if it makes the route a bit circuitous. This is a time to cross reference on the web whether there are tracks or trails that don’t show up on the paper map. An ideal scenario is where there’s a trail system on the way to your destination so that you can incorporate it into the ride. The trails don’t have to be extensive or fancy, since it’s not the goal unto itself and since you may well be on a loaded bike that isn’t suited to full on mountain biking. 

Resources like ridewithgps.com, Strava, or Komoot are very helpful here, as they allow you to switch between different map overlays. (For actually plotting the route to load into a GPS or phone, I stick with Ridewithgps. I then use a dedicated computer or the ridewithgps app on my phone for navigation.)

The winning destination will be the one that has the best roads, tracks and trails leading to it.

To plan your second day, follow the same procedure but instead of searching in the entire circle from the first night destination, look for a second night destination that’s more or less perpendicular to the line of travel followed on the first day, with a preferred bias of angling back toward the starting point. That’s because the third day will be back to your start point, so you’ll want to have created a rough triangle. The second day will likely be the longest riding day, so this one can be the full 50+ miles.

Structurally, planning for longer trips is much the same. You will work with a more expansive map and there will probably be specific roads or places that you want to visit, like especially beautiful trails, historical landmarks, or distinctive towns. These will constrain the search for a route, but you are always iterating the same process: you’re stringing together daily destinations in the direction of your endpoint and trying to maximize scenic and challenging routes.

Visiting another country can add a tremendous cultural element, but information for planning may be scarce. That is a good thing, as it increases the sense of heading into the unknown. The tools you will use to uncover on-the ground details are diverse. Search for cycle tourist blogs of the region, check out of the library an old edition of Lonely Planet, look for what adventure motorcyclists ride in the area on advrider.com, and write to mountain bike clubs in the regions that you will be passing through to get info on their local trails. Google Earth is invaluable, not least of all because there are location specific photographs uploaded by users and these can give a sense of what the terrain and landscape will be like if Google Street View is not available where you are going. The recent introduction of “heat maps” for paid subscribers to Strava and Ridewithgps will tell you where other cyclists have ridden, and this can be invaluable. But don’t dismiss a road just because no one has ridden on it, since cyclists local to an area have their habits and blind spots.

Sometimes it is best to do research when you arrive at your far away starting point by seeking out local cyclists or adventure guides for advice. Often there are maps and atlases available when you arrive overseas that were not easily acquired back home. And don’t underestimate just asking people. You’ll have to persuade them that you’re serious about riding a bicycle up that dirt mountain pass, and you might have to take their estimation of whether that’s feasible with a grain of salt. But at least you can confirm whether there is a way. Planning a big trip can take time, but it’s also its own kind of satisfaction. On the other hand, there are enough people bikepacking that there’s a wealth of information on where to go. The compendium of scouted routes on bikepacking.com is the best in the world, and it should be your first stop in researching possibilities.

WHAT TO RIDE

You probably have a bike. That one is going to be great for bikepacking. Seriously. Your bike will help determine what kind of trip you go on, but don’t come to bikepacking thinking that you need to buy a new bicycle for it. If you have a road racing bike, you can explore dirt roads and some smooth doubletrack, and maybe even some very light singletrack where you can happily underbike. (Underbiking is when you intentionally ride a bike that is less capable than what is optimal on that terrain). If your bike is a full suspension mountain bike, that’s great, too, and maybe you’ll look for chances to bikepack on fairly demanding singletrack linking up various riding areas with a minimal amount of road riding in between.

Think of bikepacking trips under two broad categories that each suggest a different equipment sweet spot. One category—call it all road mixed touring—is predominantly dirt roads with a sprinkling of somewhat rough ones and maybe a bit of singletrack. This kind of ride might well have significant asphalt sections, even over half in terms of distance but probably less than half in terms of time. A gravel bike—i.e., a drop bar bike with disc brakes and clearance for wide, say, 35-50mm tires—is the sweet spot for this kind of trip. 

The second kind of trip—call it an off-road dirt expedition—is predominantly over rough dirt tracks with a good dose of singletrack plus some dirt road sections to link it all up with minimal asphalt. The ideal bicycle here is a so called “plus” bike, namely one that has either mountain bike bars or, less commonly, drop bars but has massive tires of around 3”. This graph will gives a sense of the range of bikes for mixed terrain versus expedition style rides.

Don’t interpret the sweet spot too narrowly. The bikes just above and below the sweet spot will work excellently, of course. If your trip is an all roads mixed tour on mostly well graded dirt roads, then the sweet spot might move in the direction of a ‘cross bike or even a road bike with 28mm tires. If it’s an off-road dirt expedition across snowfields or marshland where there’s no track at all, the sweet spot might move toward a full on fat bike (my preferred expedition wheel). The most versatile bike for doing any kind of bikepacking probably remains a simple 29er hardtail. No matter what kind of trip your friends are going on, you can likely join them on a 29er hardtail by either running light narrow (for a 29er) tires or—on the expedition side—the fattest mountain bike knobbies you can fit.

WHAT TO WEAR

Wear what will be comfortable to ride in all day. Dress in shorts, a t-shirt and a flannel overshirt as if you’re going out on a hike. Or wear race kit, maybe with the concession of mountain bike shoes and mountain clipless so you can climb up to the top of the fire tower or walk around the grocery store for lunch fixings. Then there are all the possibilities in between, like dressing as you would to go on a mountain bike day ride even if you’re on your all road bike. 

This is going to be your base outfit and everything else is an addition to it to accommodate changing conditions during the trip.

On my trips both short and long I like to wear hiking shorts over padded underwear, merino socks, light hiking shoes or mountain bike shoes, and a merino t-shirt. I top it off with sunglasses and a baseball cap or a cycling cap under a helmet. 

WHAT ELSE TO BRING

Packing light is both a pleasure and a necessity with bikepacking. It’s a pleasure because a small load will keep the bike maneuverable and quick, and you’ll have the sense of letting go of your commitment to more stuff. It’s a necessity because bikepacking bags don’t have much space. Everything brought will need to have a specific and strongly expected purpose. Below is my core packing list in addition to the base outfit. Obviously, conditions where you are headed will determine what you add or delete from this list. Packing for Baja, Mexico is different from packing for shoulder season in Scandinavia. The items in bold go on every trip I take while the unbolded entries may well be deleted if the trip is short and/or the weather is warm.

Spare Clothing*

Rain jacket with hood
2nd pair of socks
Long sleeved top, stays clean to sleep in or when walking around town
—2nd riding top
—Insulating layer, e.g., nano puff, fleece, sweater
—2nd pair of riding underwear (if you’re wearing chamois, clean them every night with a wet wipes)
—Pair of underwear
—Camp flip flops
—Tights
—Rain pants
—Gore-Tex Shell mittens
—Gore-tex socks
—Full fingered gloves
—Warm hat or merino buff

*When I arrive in camp, I change into my clean shirt and my non-riding underwear and I put my baggy riding shorts back on. If they’re wet from the ride I put on my rain pants instead. If I have planned several off-the-bike days to walk around towns and visit museums and such, I’ll also bring a pair of ultralight trousers. But rain pants will often suffice for this if, er, you don’t care how you look.

Gear

Headlamp
Rear blinker
Tiny pocket knife
Camera 
—Water purifier
—Earbuds

Tools

Multi tool
Tubeless Tire plug
Patches+glue
Pump wrapped with a meter of duct tape (in case you need duct tape)
—Spare tube
—Tire irons
—Small bottle of lube+1/4 shop rag

For Camping

Small tent or bivy sack
Sleeping bag rated to 25-30 degrees F (lighter bag in warm weather)
Camp mat
—Bug head net

For Cooking *

Small stove + fuel 
Small pot
Spork
Lighter

*It’s certainly possible and enjoyable to do a “no cooking” tour where you get all your meals at food stalls/restaurants/convenience stores. In that case, you’ll still want to be able to carry snacks and ride food and maybe one small meal in case you get caught out without resupply.

Toiletries

Toothbrush + toothpaste + floss
Travel pack of wet wipes
Tiny first aid kit+Ibuprofen
Sunscreen 
Toilet paper

Essentials

ID, cash, credit cards
Smartphone
Spare memory card+batteries for camera

For some further thoughts on putting together a gear list for tricky weather, see a piece I co-authored with Logan Watts and Cass Gilbert, “Bikepacker’s Guide to Mountain Weather Preparation

HOW TO CARRY EVERYTHING

Nowhere has optimized, sport specific bikepacking gear been more transformative than with ways to carry things on the bike. The current refinement of soft bags attached with velcro and buckle compression straps has been a game changer as seen against the backdrop of traditional touring bikes. The reason these bags have made such a difference is in the way that they accommodate and move with impacts of rough terrain. By getting rid of rigid attachment structures, the energy of hitting bumps is absorbed in the elasticity of the soft bags and straps. This has made it so that rugged terrain high speed biking is well within bounds. 

The core of a soft bag carrying method consists in an oversized saddle bag, a handlebar roll with a pocket, and a full or partial frame bag. All of these get cinched down so as not to sway much, and they present a tight in-line profile that makes navigating narrow trails easier. To these three kinds of bag can be added smaller bags that attach above the top tube against the stem, another in front of the seatpost, and small vertical cylindrical bags to attach to the handlebars or forks.

This full compliment of soft bags is typical for off-road dirt expedition bikepacking. It is also very effective for all roads mixed touring rides, but more latitude is possible when the route isn’t dominated by rugged tracks and technical sections. Racks and panniers—and even wire baskets—still figure prominently in bikepacking. These carrying styles came later in the history of cycle touring and they work just fine. Some riders find that mounting two front panniers to a front rack adds effective and welcome space. Two rear panniers can also work if they are very small and complimented by a front roll, but large ones will throw off the handling making it hard to ride technical terrain. Some people prefer to mount a rear rack so that they can use a larger more traditional saddlebag, or to strap a dry bag directly to the rack instead of a saddle bag. These possibilities and more can be seen in my “Carrying Gear While Touring on a Road Bike.”

Returning to the core expedition style bikepacking format, below is one general carry strategy. It presumes that all of your gear is extremely compact, especially your sleeping bag, tent, and sleeping pad. If these are bulky it will be very difficult to get by with the soft bag method alone. By bulky I mean that the sleeping bag and tent each shouldn’t be much larger than a cantaloupe.

Front Roll

Sleeping bag
Spare clothing
Sleeping pad
Rain jacket secured to the outside of roll or in a front pocket with essentials and camera

Frame Bag

Food
Tools
Spares
Tent poles (inside the frame bag or secured along the top tube with the frame bag straps)

Saddle Bag

Tent
Spare tube
Everything for cooking

Top tube bag & handlebar feed bags

Snacks 

It is not unusual to supplement soft bike mounted bags with a backpack. I personally strongly prefer never to wear a backpack but this, of course, requires an even greater commitment to ultralight packing.

Using a full frame bag means not being able to carry water bottles in the typical inside the frame bottle cages. This can be a reason to prefer a partial frame bag, especially on an all roads mixed tour where less gear may be required. If a full frame bag is necessary or preferred, bottle cages can be mounted below the downtube, on the fork blades, attached to the stem cap, or even on the seatstays. Bicycles that are optimized for bikepacking will have bottle cage bosses in some of these areas, but it is usually possible to attach cages even when such bosses don’t exist. They can be attached using lots of electrical tape, hose clamps, or specially designed attachment widgets.

If you’re just starting out bikepacking, it can seem impossible or at least unlikely that everything you need can fit in the soft bag format. It can, but it does require a fierce insistence on traveling light, plus research on the most compact versions of the things you will bring. (Alas, it is also expensive to buy the most compact gear. Invest in a top quality sleeping bag, tent, and puff insulating layer. For the rest you can get by with less expensive versions that still do not take up much space.) I’ve done multi-week trips with the gear list, above, and have been able to carry 5-6 days of food in the soft bags. 

Revelate Designs was one of the first innovators for bikepacking bags. They make most of their gear in the USA and it is widely available. Smaller companies like Bedrock Bags, J.Paks, and Apidura also make terrific products. Lately even large companies like Ortlieb and Blackburn have produced bikepacking bags.

* * *

Maybe your trip will be alone to cultivate independence and a reflective vulnerability that leads to talking to strangers more and where the chatter of thoughts disappears by the end of a long pedal. Or maybe it will be with a partner or a group of friends to laugh and encourage each other and tell a shared story. For many of us, bikepacking is being out in open spaces, it is traveling self sufficiently, and it is adventure and movement on an intimate human scale. Have a great time.