SO YOU WANT TO GO BIKEPACKING?
5 tips and tricks for taking a camping trip by bike
Few activities are as liberating as packing your gear onto a bike and setting off into the woods for a few nights. There’s something elemental about riding into the backcountry, pedaling just as far as you want, and then, because you have everything you need, simply pulling over and camping under the stars. But getting started can feel daunting as it’s tough to know what to bring and how to squeeze it gracefully onto your bike. Knowing where to go and how much terrain you’ll be able to cover is also a challenge if you’ve never done it. Here’s a quick-start guide to hitting the open road on your bike.
1. SKIP RACKS AND GO WITH PACKS
While a rack and pannier system works well on the road, they tend to slip and break on rough surfaces (and the additional cargo they allow makes a bike hard to handle on dirt and trails). Instead, opt for soft-sided packs, which are available from dozens of manufacturers, including boutique operations such as Crater, Bedrock, and Rogue Panda as well as large manufacturers such as Ortlieb and Blackburn Design. One of the original bikepacking companies, Revelate Designs, still makes some of the most durable and best-designed packs on the market.
No matter what brand you choose, you’ll want three primary bags: a frame pack that fits in the main triangle of your bike, a telescoping seat pack, and a roll-style handlebar bag. (Many handlebar bags don’t play nicely with externally routed brake and shift cables, in which case an extender setup such as the Salsa Anything Cradle can tidy up the front end and prevent wear and crimping issues.) Between these three packs, you should be able to fit everything you need for an overnight to a week of bikepacking. You can also add cockpit style bags that attach to different points above the top tube that keep quick-access items like snacks, maps, sunblock, and tools close at hand. Avoid the urge to put lots of gear in a backpack, as the weight will cause shoulder, neck, and saddle sore issues. It’s best if you can avoid a backpack completely, but if you must carry one, limit it to a standard small day pack with a water bladder and little else.
2. GO LIGHT
The less you can bring and the lighter your setup, the more enjoyable your riding time will be. Lay out everything you think you’ll need, and, if there’s any question of an item’s necessity, leave it at home. Think about the lightest solutions for a job: a plug kit and patch kit, for instance, is far lighter than multiple tubes; water purification tablets are always easier than a water pump. And you’ll be surprised how little apparel you actually need—with good hygiene practices (Wet Wipes!), you can go a week or more a single pair of bibs.
While the cheapest, easiest option is to make due with whatever gear you have, especially as you experiment and decide whether you actually like bikepacking, there’s also an incredible range of lightweight, low-bulk equipment that makes things a lot easier. Depending on weather and conditions, you can often forgo a tent completely, but if you need one, Big Agnes’ Copper Spur, Fly Creek, Onyx, and Tiger Wall tents provide two-man protection under two pounds and in a short-pole format built to mate well with handlebars. Montbell’s Downhugger 900 sleeping bags provide incredible warmth in a package that can compress down to the size of a large grapefruit, and its Dry-Tech bivy sack adds warmth and weather protection for little more space than a couple of energy bars. And Snow Peak’s LiteMax Titanium Stove and Trek Titanium 900 pot set make hot food and drink in the field a snap.
3. GET A PACKING SYSTEM
Everyone has their own ways and systems for packing, but how you put your gear on the bike makes a big difference in how the bike handles and how smoothly your trip will go. The heaviest items, such as a tent and water, should be stowed in the frame pack, as keeping the weight low and supported by the bike frame will improve traction and handling. Conversely, the lightest items should go in the bar bag to ensure quick steering and smooth handling. One typical setup is to put sleeping bag, pad, bivy sack, and spare clothes for camp (usually a set of Merino long underwear) up front. That leaves food goods to stow in the seat bag, where you should pack items you won’t need for the day on the bike deepest, such as a stove and pots, then rounding out with things that could require quicker access, like jerky, sandwiches, and dried fruit. Strap extra clothes, such as a rain jacket and warmers, on the outside in a dry bag so you can layer quickly as conditions change. No matter what you put where, be extremely systematic about putting everything in the same place every time as you’ll otherwise spend lots of time digging and searching.
4. GPS AND ROUTEFINDING
Unless you just plan to go out and follow the wind, mapping out a route and uploading it to a device so you can follow it is one of the best ways to ensure a successful trip. And with all the resources out there dedicated to bikepacking and routefinding, planning a trip has become a snap these days. One of the finest sources for info and routes is Bikepacking.com, which has a constantly expanding catalog of mapped routes that are detailed with course descriptions, water and food resupply points, and downloadable GPX files you can follow in the field. Trailforks and MTB Project aren’t as oriented toward long distances but are also solid sources of route data.
Once you hit the road, you’ll want either a GPS device, a smart phone, or both, for navigation and reference. Though you can make cycling-specific Garmin Edge models work, their limited battery life is a drawback. The Garmin eTrex line (starting with the base model eTrex 10) line is a better option as the AA-battery power means you can bring extras so you’re never stuck without a map. Powerful new mapping apps such as Gaia GPS and Ride With GPS, combined with protective bar-mount cases like the F3 Cycling Phone Mount, have made smart phones almost more useful than a GPS, though again, the battery life is the limitation. Many people run with both phone and GPS, especially on longer and more remote trips, just in case one dies or fails. All backcountry adventurers should also consider onX, a mapping app that lets you easily find public and private boundaries in the field so you’re always camped in a safe, legal spot.
5. START SHORT AND CLOSE
It might be tempting to set out on a major expedition to begin with, but if you’re new to bikepacking, starting with a single overnight trip or two will help you shake out the gear systems, get accustomed to packing and hauling, and make sure you have everything you need without the commitment of long distances and deep backcountry. A Saturday night trip that you can ride straight from your house makes for a great intro (and gives you Friday night and Saturday morning for packing, which always takes longer than you think, especially the first few times). When considering distances, shoot for less than more. Factoring for stops and group dynamics, you can probably plan for 8 to 10 miles per hour on dirt roads and more like 5 to 6 mph on trails. Remember, it’s always easier and more fun to tack on extra mileage than it is to be riding late into the day or night because you overestimated how much ground you could cover.
That might sound like a lot of logistics, and it’s true that getting organized and packed for your first trip can be daunting. But, once you’ve done it the first time, it gets progressively easiser and easier as your hone your kit and systems fall into pace. And planning aside, once you load that last gear, clip in, and roll out, all the work gives way to the sheer freedom of pedaling onto the open road.