Everything You Should Know Before Your First Bikepacking Trip
Hey, adventure lovers: If you've never tried bikepacking, you'll want to clear a space on your calendar. Bikepacking, also called adventure biking, is the perfect combo of backpacking and cycling. Intrigued? Read on for beginner tips from expert bikepackers, plus the skills and gear you need to get started.
What is Bikepacking, Exactly?
Simply put, "bikepacking is loading up your bicycle with bags and heading out for an adventure," says Lucas Winzenburg, editor of Bikepacking.com and founder of Bunyan Velo, a bikepacking magazine. Instead of riding on, say, city sidewalks or suburban paths — you head to more remote areas, which can include anything from dirt roads to mountain biking trails, depending on your style. Think of it as rolling along paths you'd typically hike, says Winzenburg.
Bikepacking is *slightly* different from bike touring — though they're rooted in the same concepts. Both activities involve traveling by bike and carrying your gear, says bikepacking expert and blogger Josh Ibbett. People also use the terms interchangeably, though there are subtle differences that generally distinguish between the two. "Many differentiate bikepacking from traditional bicycle touring based on how you haul your stuff and the places you ride," explains Winzenburg. Bike tourers typically carry lots of equipment in bulky bags attached to racks, he says, while backpackers go with lighter loads. Bikepackers also seek more isolated trails, while bike tourers mostly stick to paved roads. Some bikepackers choose to camp out while others rely on lodging during trips.
You don't need to get too caught up with the semantics, since there isn't one "right" way to bikepack, says Winzenburg. You can meander backroads between vineyards in Italy (swoon) or take on the steep mountain tracks in the Rockies. Or you can do a quick overnight trip to a local campground. And guess what? It all counts. (Related: Why Group Backpacking Trips Are the Best Experience for First-Timers)
Bikepacking has become insanely popular in recent years. According to Exploding Topics, a tool that tracks trending keywords across the web, searches for "bikepacking" have increased by 300 percent in the past 5 years. Winzenburg chalks this up to more folks itching to enjoy nature and disconnect from screens. "Riding allows you to travel a lot further in a day than you'd be able to go on foot, while still traveling at the perfect speed to soak in the sights, sounds, and history," he adds. Sold.
The Bikepacking Gear You'll Need
Before you start bikepacking, you'll want to make sure you're prepared. This is not a phone-keys-wallet scenario.
Think about your objectives first, says Jeremy Kershaw, creator and director of Heck of the North Productions, a company that organizes adventure cycling events. Ask yourself: How long will be my trip be? Will I cook out or eat in? What's the expected weather or roughness of terrain? From there, you can get an idea of what you need (and don't need).
When it's time to pack, consider these tips for choosing the best bikepacking gear:
Surprise! You'll need a bike. For your first trip, the best bikepacking bike is one that you already have or can borrow from a friend, says Winzenburg. But "generally, most people [use] mountain or gravel bikes," he notes. And while "most mountain bikes can handle bikepacking, the fit of the bike and how comfortable you feel while riding it are the most important parts of bikepacking (and cycling in general)," says Kershaw.
If you want to invest in a new bike, he suggests visiting a local bike shop that will let you test ride bikes. "A good cycling shop representative will be able to determine the appropriate size, price point, features, and gear that will make your first trip a success," says Kershaw. (Related: The Beginner's Guide to Mountain Biking)
Bike Frame Bags
Don't take the "backpacking" aspect too literally. Thanks to handy storage packs, you don't have to carry anything on your back. Whereas bike touring often uses bulky panniers (aka bags that are fastened to the sides of your bike using metal racks) bikepacking typically involves sleek bags called bike frame bags. These packs — which are often attached with velcro straps — utilize the space in the triangle of your bike frame, or the area around your top tube (the tube that spans between the seat tube and handlebar tube), downtube (the diagonal tube below the top tube), and seat tube. (BTW: The bag that's strapped to the triangular space is called a framepack, but some people use the term "framepacks" as an umbrella term for all bikepacking bags.)
Compared to panniers, bike frame bags are more compact, so you won't have to worry about your load being too heavy or wide on narrow trails. However, bikepacking bags hold significantly less than panniers, so you'll have to be tap into your inner Marie Kondo and take a minimalist approach to packing. (The gear capacity of frame bags depends on the type and size, but to put things into perspective, most triangular framepacks on REI carry 4 to 5 liters, while seat packs can carry anywhere from 0.5 to 11 liters or more.)
Bikepacking bags also need to be fitted for your bike, so they can be expensive for first-time riders, says Avesa Rockwell, creator and director at Heck of the North Productions. If you're on a budget, opt for old-fashioned panniers, Rockwell's method of choice. You can also strap gear directly onto a rack (if you have one) or elsewhere on the bike frame, like the handlebars or seat tube. To attach items, Kershaw recommends using webbing straps, which are flat, sturdy strips of nylon fabric with buckles. Try: Redpoint Webbing Straps with Side-Release Buckles (Buy It, $7, rei.com). Word of caution: You may want to stay away from using bungee cords, "as they rarely stay secure and have a nasty habit of springing back in your face," warns Kershaw.
If you still want to buy bike frame bags, Kershaw recommends supporting small U.S.-based bikepack companies, like Cedaero. You can also find packs in various sizes at retailers like REI, such as the Ortlieb 4-Liter Frame Pack (Buy It, $140, rei.com). Whatever your bag setup, let the bike carry all the weight, says Rockwell. "Few people can handle carrying a backpack while riding a bike," she notes, as the weight of the bag will dig into your shoulders over time. Wearing a backpack while biking can also make it awkward to twist and turn on trails — and where's the fun in that?
"A basic repair kit for your bike is essential [for repairing] any punctures or mechanical issues," says Ibbett. Some of the basics include a multi-tool with a chain breaker, wrench, pump, spare tubes, sealant, tire plugs, chain lube and links, super glue, and zip ties, according to Bikepacking.com. If you're planning a longer trip, bring spare bike parts too. Check out REI for bike tools or try the Hommie Bike Repair Tool Kit (Buy It, $20, amazon.com).
While you're at it, brush up on your basic bike repair skills like replacing flat tires, brake pads, and spokes. You'll also want to know how to repair broken chains, patch up tubes, and adjust brakes and derailleurs (the gears that move the chains). Check out Bikeride.com and REI's YouTube Channel for how-to videos.
"As with bikes, you can probably make your existing camping gear work while testing the waters of bikepacking," says Winzenburg. However, your sleeping bag and pad are often the bulkiest items — so if you buy new gear, look for downsized sleep systems first. Try: Patagonia Hybrid Sleeping Bag (Buy It, $180, patagonia.com) and Big Agnes AXL Air Mummy Sleeping Pad (Buy It, $69, rei.com).
For your shelter, go with a lightweight bikepacking tent. "Modern tents weigh less than a kilogram [about 2.2 lbs] and are easily stowed on a bike," says Ibbett, who recommends tents by Big Agnes, like the Big Agnes Blacktail & Blacktail Hotel Tent (Buy It, $230, amazon.com). Not a fan of sleeping on the ground? "A hammock and small tarp are lightweight substitutes for a tent and sleeping pad," says Rockwell. Simply tie a rope above your hammock to the same two trees that are suspending it. Hang the tarp on the rope, then secure the four corners of the tarp to the ground with stakes, and you've got yourself a makeshift tent. Lightweight options include ENO Lightweight Camping Hammock (Buy It, $70, amazon.com) or The Outdoors Way Hammock Tarp (Buy It, $35, amazon.com)
Pack as if you were going on a hike, advises Winzenburg. The main goal is to prepare for anything — e.g. rain and overnight temps — without overloading your stash. Winzenburg suggests "bringing a little more than you think you might need, then paring it back" as you gain experience. He prefers more casual clothes (think: shorts, wool socks, flannel shirt) rather than bike-specific gear, as it's more comfortable and helps him feel less out of place when passing through towns.
Water Bottle and Filter
When you're biking for miles (and miles), staying hydrated is key. Bikepackers typically opt for lightweight reusable plastic bottles, like Elite SRL Water Bottle (Buy It, $9, Perennial Cycle). You can strap the bottles onto your bike with a bottle cage or basket like Rogue Panda Bismark Bottle Bucket (Buy It, $60, Rogue Panda) and fill 'em up at the end of the day.
For even more flexibility, grab a portable water filter like the Katadyn Hiker Microfilter (Buy It, $65, amazon.com). They remove disease-causing microbes in water that comes from outdoor sources (like lakes and rivers), making it safe to drink.
If you want to cook your own food, you'll want to factor that in when packing. According to Ibbett, lightweight backpacking stoves are easy to find, but "the tricky part is carrying the cooking pot." He recommends products by Sea to Summit, which creates collapsible cooking pots that are easy to store on the bike. Try the Sea to Summit 2.8-Liter X-Pot (Buy It, $55, rei.com). (Related: The Best Hiking Snacks to Pack No Matter What Distance You're Trekking)
First Aid Kit
Safety first, kids. Ibbett suggests taking "a range of basic bandages and dressings, painkillers, and anti-septic cream and wipes." This should allow you to treat the most common bangs and scrapes on a trip, he says. Choose a lightweight kit, like Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight/Watertight Medical Kit (Buy It, $19, amazon.com) or build your own using this guide to the first aid kit supplies you should always have on-hand.
Cycling GPS Unit or App
If you're venturing into unfamiliar terrain, you'll need a bike-friendly GPS. A cycling GPS provides route directions, along with data like elevation and speed. Ibbett uses Wahoo GPS units, which he says are reliable and user-friendly. Try: Wahoo ELEMNT Bolt GPS Bike Computer (Buy It, $230, amazon.com). You can also technically use your smartphone, but you'll have to closely monitor your battery life. (To do this, turn on "airplane mode" and limit overall phone use.) Even without service, your phone's GPS should still work as long as you pre-download the maps for the route. Many bikepackers on the web love Gaia GPS, an app that lets you navigate the backcountry sans service.
If you're concerned about your smartphone surviving the trip, a cycling GPS may be the way to go. In either case, bring a backup battery and familiarize yourself with your navigation system before heading out.
How to Start Bikepacking
So, you've got the bike, gear, and lust for adventure. Great! Not so fast, though — you'll want to make a plan before setting out.
Start by picking a route. You can find routes created by adventurers across the globe on bikepacking websites. For example, Bikepacking.com has routes covering about 50 countries and totaling 85,000 miles complete with photos and tips, says Winzenburg. The routes include everything from short overnighters to multi-month tracks across countries, so there's something for everyone. Rockwell also recommends Adventure Cycling Association for first-time bikepackers. Here, you'll find resources like routes, maps, and organized guided trips.
You can even DIY a route with online tools like Ride with GPS and Komoot. Both options "allow you to draw your own routes or see what others are doing around you," says Winzenburg. Either way, "plan a route where [you'll find] a water source at the end of the day, and a convenience store or restaurant after more than two days of travel," says Rockwell.
Once you've chosen a route, test ride your bike before your actual trip, says Kershaw. Load it up with the gear you plan to bring and ride on a trail that's similar to your planned adventure. This is key for figuring out if your setup needs to be adjusted. You'll thank yourself later.
During a bikepacking trip, most folks can expect to ride 10 to 30 miles a day to start — but the total distance depends on many factors, says Kershaw. (For example, the terrain, weather, and your fitness level all play a role.) Start with shorter rides and let yourself acclimate to the bike and gear; you can plan longer trips from there. (Related: The Best Bike Tours Around the World)
When it's time to turn in for the night, most bikepackers camp out. However, deciding where to sleep is super subjective, notes Kershaw. He's all about sleeping outside whenever he can, but "there's no shame in finding a great motel, hostel, or inn — particularly after a long stretch of camping or surviving terrible weather," he says. Ultimately, it's best to do what makes you feel most comfortable and safe, especially if you're riding alone.
If you're new to bikepacking, planning a trip can be pretty intimidating. Try bikepacking with someone who's done it before (or joining a guided trip), which will make the experience less stressful — and more fun. Who knows, you might just discover a new favorite way to explore the great outdoors.
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