How do you start bikepacking? If you dream of leaving the busy city, and going on a self-supported, multi-day journey, then you’ve come to the right place.
Bikepacking can be done, using whatever bicycle you have available or prefer. You can use a touring bike, mountain bike, and even a folding bike. On such a journey, you will combine all terrain cycling with self-supported bikepacking. You will be traveling for many days, and even weeks, off the beaten path, through small towns, hills, paved and unpaved trails, and possibly backcountry hiking.
You will stop at small towns along the way to pick up food and supplies. And camp out in the woods while carrying all your food and supplies, away from all civilization.
But what exactly is bikepacking?
Bikepacking is about riding in the great outdoors, away from the hustle and stresses associated with city living, and discovering new places. It involves multi-day cycling adventure, usually off road, but can involve singletrack, gravel, and forgotten dirt roads, that involves camping. You will need to carry essential gear, but this doesn’t mean you will spend a small fortune to get started.
How much will it cost to get started?
Many people assume that it will cost a ton of money in order to get started. They assume you need an expensive bicycle with custom bags, and the latest and lightest camping gear available.
While it’s true that you want to invest in good quality gear that will be able to survive harsh weather conditions, it’s not necessary to get the best. Just make sure that it’s large enough to fit everything that you’ll need and water-proof, if possible. Otherwise, you can use whatever gear you currently own and always upgrade when it’s time to replace it.
What to do before your first trip
Before you go on longer trips, it’s wise to do at least a few shorter ones (20-50 miles). Start by riding a few routes close to home, and staying for a night or weekend away.
You’ll learn how far you’re able to cycle in a day. How your bicycle responds to different riding conditions. And what you’ll need to pack.
This will provide you with valuable experience, while still being able to get back home safely, just in case the conditions get too bad or an emergency arises.
Your first bikepacking bike
There’s no need to buy a new bicycle when you first get started. Use the bike that you currently own. It can be a touring bike, mountain bike, gravel bike, and even a folding bike.
Bikes such as mountain bikes, and gravel bikes will be excellent for riding trails, with a few modifications of course. The good thing about bikepacking is that you don’t need a bike that has eyelets for rack and panniers, unlike other styles of bike touring.
Just make sure you have tires that are capable of handling all types of terrain and weather conditions, and is puncture resistance.
If you can’t afford a new bike, you can always browse the classified ads, or get a used one from your local bike shop. Try to get a bike that’s durable, and has plenty of frame space for carrying gear, such as a cross country hardtail.
Comfort and gearing for bikepacking
Keep in mind that you’ll be spending a lot of long hours in the saddle while bikepacking. Make sure you have a comfortable bike and saddle. And if you’re buying a new bike, try it out before purchasing and get a proper bike fit.
Other helpful gear to have are ergonomic grips that can help relieve stress on the wrists and hands. Swept back handlebars also provide more comfort, along with a good saddle.
Also, more gears will allow you to tackle steeper hills while loaded with gear.
Types of bikes
Even though you can use any type of bike for bikepacking, it’s important to know what type of terrain you plan on tackling. Bikepacking usually involves riding gravel, dirt roads, and/or singletrack trails, etc. Make sure you use a bike that can handle whatever terrain you set out to explore.
Mountain bikes are harder to pedal and slower on pavement. But they have a cushy ride, and upright riding position, and can travel easily on a wide variety of surfaces.
With a gravel bike, riders have the ability to take in all roads. You can ride tarmac – sacrificing some rolling efficiency – and then transition onto gravel roads or even flowing singletrack forest trails. The broad theme with gravel bikes is that of adventure riding, unconstrained by terrain.
A touring bike is built for strength, comfort and stability. These bikes are meant to carry much heavier loads than just the rider. For many days, months or even years on end.
Folding bikes are the perfect bike for commuters. Their functionality makes them easy to transport on public transportation or flying around the world. They allow you to cycle in areas you find interesting and skipping the ones you find boring.
Make sure everything is in good working order
Check your bike, helmet and gear over carefully to make sure they are in good working order. Take your bike to a shop to get service, and make sure you have spare tires and tubes, along with tools in case of any mechanical issues.
Pick a route that matches your bike and abilities
Make sure you pick a route that both you and your bike can handle. If you ride a mountain bike, you will be able to handle rougher and steeper terrain than a gravel bike. On the other hand, a gravel bike can handle more types of terrain and is much faster on smoother roads.
If you choose a folding bike, you will mostly need to stick to smoother riding surfaces. But you will be able to combine this bike with other forms of transportation, allowing you to skip rough or dangerous terrain all together.
Also keep in mind that you will be riding in areas you’re unfamiliar with. It’s easy for you to get lost, and possibly not being able to get help in an emergency. It will also be harder to find places to purchase food, gear, and get repairs done on your bike.
You also have to make sure that you’re capable of riding the daily distances required to find places to camp, or stay if choosing hotels.
Repair kit and safety
A few essentials that should be brought on a multi-day trip is a good tool and repair kit to fix mechanical issues. And a first aid kit.
You’re going to be riding through remote and rugged terrain that can be hard to get help in emergency situations. Always be prepared for the worst by carrying a cell phone, a spare battery, and Spot Tracker if you’re traveling alone.
Bikepacking bags and packs
The commercial availability of bike-specific bags is the gear innovation that has made bikepacking popular. These bags have replaced traditional racks and panniers.
Available bag options are framebags, handlebar bags, harnesses, seat packs, and peripheral bags. They are light, rattle free and tailored to fit on modern mounting bikes. They’ll increase your bike’s carrying capacity without significantly adding weight or effecting the way it handles.
Most bags are made by small companies. Are custom made on a piece by piece basis, or available by pre-design to fit certain frame brands and sizes.
At first, invest in a seat pack and roll bag. Then, once you find a bike that you’re completely happy with, get yourself a framebag.
Other options to buying bags
You don’t have to buy bags if you choose not to. For overnight trips, you can use a few pieces of gear that you already own.
Start with a comfortable daypack, along with dry bags attached to your handlebars and seatpost. Small panniers can also work very well if you’re riding on forest service roads and plan to be out for several days.
But if you’re exploring technical singletrack on a one – or two night trip, it will be best to leave the panniers at home. Biekpacking is all about having fun on the trail, so make sure not to get overloaded with gear.
Seat pack dry bag
Use a 5-7 liter dry seat pack bag clipped around the seatpost and cinched to the saddle rails with a webbing strap. Stuff it with a change of clothes and a few other important items. To help stabilize the load, add something stiff within the bag, such as tightly rolled clothes.
On the handlebars
Use a larger 14-20 liter dry bag cinched to the handlebars with two webbing or Voile stamps. Include a small tent (the poles will help keep a straight shape to the bag) and a lightweight down sleeping bag. Long and slender bags work better than short fat ones.
It’s generally recommended that you ride without a backpack, but they can be useful for more technical rides -especially those that require a good amount of hike-a-bike. Or carrying a camera, or if you don’t yet have bikepacking bags.
For such purpose, a 14+ liter hydration pack works great. If you don’t have one of these, a day pack will work just fine. A day pack can carry extras like sleeping gear, rain gear, or food and cooking supplies.
A seat pack is essential. Seat packs strap onto your seat rails and around your seatpost. There’s many styles available at different prices, with several for under $100.
On the frame
There’s also frame packs designed to work within the bike’s frame triangle, available in variations for both full-suspension and hardtail frames. The most common and universal type is the half frame pack. These are especially useful on a hardtail or rigid bike.
It’s very easy to strap a dry bag to your handlebars. But you can also get a purpose-built bag or harness. There’s also various accessory bags that can add peripheral packing space to your kit.
Just like any other outdoor sport, the more you pay the less it weighs. A lightweight setup is always the goal when bikepacking.
When the load is lighter, the bike will be easier to handle on technical singletrack and to carry across sections of trail that are unrideable. When your mountain bike feels lighter, it will be more enjoyable, instead of feeling like a tank.
This doesn’t mean that you should go out and buy everything at once, or pay a fortune. Start by using what you already own, and prioritizing what you really need.
We recommend that you first invest in a lightweight, modern shelter. Stay away from the older ones, as they are often bulkier and heavy.
Companies such as Big Agnes and Tarptent offers a range of featherweight options, with minimal, single-wall designs. You will also save even more weight and cash by buying a simple tarp, or a bivy bag or hammock when conditions allow.
Get yourself a quality down sleeping bag or quilt. This will also make a significant difference to both the weight and packability of your setup. Don’t get the fancy, lightweight mattress until later on.
Foam sleeping pads are bulky but light, cheap and hard wearing. They’re particularly well suited to desert touring.
Kitchen and food
There’s various compact stoves on the market to suit all price points. We’re huge fans of the ones that burn denatured alcohol, or even a homemade Coke Can Cooker.
Simple aluminum pots are cheap and light. We prefer designs that are wide enough that allow “proper” cooking, like frying vegetables.
Another important thing that you’ll need is water. Longer desert routes will require extra capacity for carrying water. To save your back from doing all the heavy lifting, fit water bottle cages to the fork and down tube using electrical tape or hose clamps. Or, swap your fork out for one fitted with cage mounts.
Bikepacking can be a great way to get outdoors and go on an adventure. You’ll get to visit remote places while going on self-supported, multi-day journeys.
On such a journey, you will possibly combine all terrain cycling with self-supported bikepacking. Maybe traveling for many days, and even weeks, off the beaten path, through small towns, hills, paved and unpaved trails, and possibly backcountry hiking.
But above all, you will get to experience many different places and grow as a person. You can also bring a friend or two with you. Or if you prefer to go alone, have many interesting stories to tell when you return from such epic journeys.
Happy riding! Stay safe! And have fun!