Everything You Need to Know Before Bikepacking

When I first started mountain biking, bikepacking felt like something completely unattainable. Like it was only for the most extreme riders, and that it was something that I just wasn’t cut out for.

Every bikepacker I knew had been riding for at least a decade, was in killer shape, and had so much experience they were a walking encyclopedia.

What is Bikepacking?

Bikepacking, or cycle touring, is a combination of backpacking and hiking. It involves loading your bike with the gear necessary to be self-sustaining over the duration of several days outdoors. The increased mobility afforded by a bicycle allows you to explore much more terrain in a much shorter duration than is possible by foot.

(And, of course, riding your bike is awesome, so there’s that too.)

Routes can be thousands of miles long and can take riders through some of the most inaccessible and exciting terrains on the planet, like the U.S. Continental Divide or Soviet era roads in Kyrgyzstan.

The possibility of routes is only limited by the imagination and determination of the person attempting it.

In my head, only the most dedicated, fearless riders bikepacked. For the newbies like myself? I figured I should stick to glamping.

Then...I tried it.

A mountain bike outfitted for bikepacking with gps, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, and seat bags. My first bikepacking setup, somewhere around the ghost town of Mystic, SD.

Admittedly, I wasn’t very prepared for my first trip. I didn’t know how to use my GPS and was unfamiliar with the route. I wasn’t physically ready to ride 130 miles. I didn’t take a sleeping bag (opting for a small blanket instead), and used an old tarp rather than a decent tent.

After a soggy night in the rain, I bailed.

When someone asked about my choice of gear, I shrugged. “The forecast said it wasn’t supposed to rain!”  

If you’re thinking, “Yep! That’s why I don’t bikepack!” then I’d like to try and change your mind. What isn’t obvious is that I unintentionally made that trip difficult for myself. With different gear and a more realistic expectation of what I could achieve, I would have realized something that I now understand:

With a little forethought and planning, bikepacking is really, really chill.  

a mountain bike on a mountain overlooking the sunset and the clouds.Bikepacking is my favorite way to enjoy a sunrise.

How Far Should Your First Bikepacking Trip Be?

My second trip was a quick overnighter off to the side of one of my favorite trails. I didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t want to find myself in a tough situation, so I only rode 4 miles.

Yep, my second ride was 8 miles round-trip.

While that route didn’t get me very many kudos on Strava, it did help me figure out my system (and whether I even liked the sport) in a low consequence, familiar environment.

By choosing a short route close to home, I took so many unknowns off my plate.

For starters, I didn’t have to carefully plan my route. I wasn’t worried about finding or treating water. I wasn’t concerned that my bike would breakdown in the middle of nowhere.

I didn’t have to calculate calories or conserve water. What’s more, it was a distance that I could ride after work and be ready for work again the next day. I didn’t have to figure the trip into my schedule or take valuable time away from my job.

All I had to do was figure out how to get all my crap onto the frame of my bike and take a little trip into the woods. Honestly, that kept me plenty busy.

If you’d like to take a longer trip but are unfamiliar with what it feels like to ride a loaded bike, think about how far you can ride under normal circumstances. Can you comfortably ride 50 miles? 30? 10?

Once you figure out a comfortable distance without bags, consider riding ⅔ of that distance fully loaded (or give yourself considerably more time to ride that distance).

Eventually, you might decide that you can actually go further when you’re bikepacking (compared with a regular ride) because although the distance and duration increases, the intensity significantly decreases (even with the extra weight). 

For most of us, bikepacking is a slow going sport. As such, you might decide that a 50-mile bike ride in 5 hours is very taxing, but 70 miles in 12 hours is easier.

Two mountain bikes on a gravel trail in South Dakota.

What bike should you use?

Whatever bike is in your garage! With the huge availability of soft bags on the market, you can find a bag to fit every nook and cranny of just about any bike imaginable. Just make sure it’s well maintained.

That being said, I do recommend choosing the right bike for the terrain. For example, I think it’s more enjoyable to ride a gravel bike on gravel (rather than a mountain bike on gravel) simply because it’s faster.

While you certainly can ride your full suspension on gravel roads, it can feel very slow. (Of course, if that’s all you have, go for it!)

In the same thought, I don’t recommend riding a rigid bike on singletrack. You’ll likely be putting in long hours on your trip, and it’s best to be as comfortable as possible.

A dry bag attached to the front of a mountain bike for a bikepacking trip. I like to use dry bags as much as possible to store gear that can’t get wet, like my sleep system.

How much food should you bring?

The answer depends on how long you’ll be on your bike. If you’re planning a short out and back (3-5 hours round trip) your normal diet plus a few hundred calories should be plenty.

All the snacks you'll need for one day of bikepacking. No, I didn’t eat the batteries. But I did eat everything else in just five hours.

If you plan on riding for days on end, you’ll need a lot more calories. One estimate suggests bringing an extra 1,500 calories for a 2,000 calorie diet.

Ask yourself how hard you’ll be riding and for how long, and add 1,000-2,000 calories (or more!). I also always carry an extra meal or two, just in case a friend (or I!) needs a snack.

Have you ever tried instant potatoes after riding your bike for a few days? Trust me, it’s heaven.

Like backpacking, you’ll have limited space available on your bike. Bring food that is dense in calories, lightweight, and easy to carry.

Personally, while riding I prefer high carb meals, like bars and dried fruit...and candy!

I carry half of my calories in sports drink powder. Powders like SustainElite are compact, easy to prepare, and dense in calories. What’s more, by adding them to my water I ensure that I am getting enough nutrition--even when I don’t feel like eating.

Make sure to test supplements out in various amounts before relying on them as a considerable part of your diet in the backcountry.

Something else to consider is whether you want to pick a route that is close to a gas station or restaurant. This will save you from the hassle of bringing a stove or counting calories.

What about drinking water?

For your first trip, I recommend staying close to plenty of potable water sources. If you’re getting water from a campground, call ahead to make sure the spigot will be running while you’re there.

It’s good practice to always have multiple backup plans to treat water in case of emergency. SteriPens and filters are usually my first choice if potable water isn’t an option.

As a backup, I also carry iodine (available at Wal-Mart). If you are in a pinch and don’t have a filter, you can pour the water through your shirt and into your bottle to remove any particles. Just make sure to keep the mouthpiece clean.

I also like to carry an extra Camelbak bladder in case I find that for whatever reason, I need to carry more water than I originally planned on.

Carry enough bottles (or have a large enough Camelbak) to drink at least 12 oz per hour. If it’s hot, consider doubling or tripling that amount.

Water purification tools used during bikepacking trips where potable water isn't found.

Where should you go?

Not only is it a good idea to pick a short route for your first trip, but you also might decide to pick a familiar one. Why? Less planning!

If you’re very familiar with the area, you might pick a place that has cell reception and water options.

Don’t forget a GPS! I usually carry one that relies on batteries (rather than a rechargeable unit). The same goes for any electronics, such as bike lights--make sure they are battery powered you don’t get left in the dark.

Three women bikepacking on mountain bikes riding a gravel trail in South Dakota.

How do you transport all your gear?

There aren’t any rules to carrying your gear, but there are a few basics.

Most bikepackers prefer to carry as much weight as possible on their bike, rather than in a backpack on their shoulders. After a few days in the saddle, you’ll know why!

To do this, companies make a ton of different bike bags that fit just about any and every frame. I prefer DirtBags, although you can go for short trips with a few straps and dry bags.  

Generally, bikepackers carry light, bulky items (think tents, sleeping bags, and puffy jackets) on their handlebars. Heavy stuff, like food and water, fits nicely into a frame bag. Electronics and snacks are perfect for a top tube bag, while just about everything else can be stuffed into a seat bag.

A fatbike in winter snow outfitted for a bikepacking trip.

What bike tools should you bring?

Below is a list of every tool I bring for a multi-day trip. Keep in mind, this list isn’t necessarily exhaustive.

  • TIRES
    • Pump
    • Two tubes
    • Tire patch kit
    • Bacon strips (tire plugs)
    • Valve stems
    • Two tire levers (for removing and installing the tire)
  • GENERAL
    • Leatherman mini
    • Duct tape
    • Twist ties
    • Multi-tool (with chain break tool)
  • DRIVE TRAIN
    • Chain lube and a rag
    • Master chain links
    • Derailleur hanger
  • Spare brake pads

(This list is great for shorter rides, too)

Bike pump, rear light, rear seat bag, front rail bag, spare innertube, chain links, and other miscellaneous essentials for bikepacking.

Don’t forget basic first aid!

If you are unfamiliar with any of these tools, ask your local shop for some help. Practice fixing a chain, replacing your hanger, and fixing a flat before you take off.

Go For It!

Bikepacking doesn’t have to be for the select few! With a realistic route in mind, some borrowed gear, and a comprehensive on trail tool kit, you can start exploring your backyard from the seat of your bike.

 

 

 

 

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