Bikepacking has been around since the early 1970s, but it has really taken the cycling world by storm in the past few years. This is thanks to an explosion in long-distance off-road trails around the globe coupled with innovations in bike design. What makes it different from touring and mountain biking, and what do you need to know to take your own bike packing trip?
How Does Bikepacking Differ from Touring?
Bikepacking merges mountain biking and thru-hiking with bike touring. The increase in riding difficulty combined with the need to be self-supporting for days at a time fundamentally changes how bikepackers approach touring.
Touring cyclists usually camp to save money or stay in nature, but camping is a necessity on bikepacking trips, because riders need to stop between towns. Cell reception can be spotty, so riders also need alternative methods to navigate and stay in contact.
Weight is important on a bikepacking trip, because climbs are steeper and more frequent. Backcountry cyclists also need to carry more food and water than tour riders. As a result, bikepacking gear borrows more from ultralight hiking than tour cycling.
Bags are mounted in line with the bike frame to maximize clearance on rough trails. Instead of panniers, cyclists use frame and seat bags to store most of their gear.
What’s the Difference Between a Gravel Bike and a Mountain Bike?
Early bikepackers rode on modified mountain bikes. However, as mountain bikes have gotten more specialized, they’ve become worse for touring. Suspensions make it almost impossible to mount bags, and radical frame geometries are uncomfortable on long rides. This has led to a new class of bikes focused on gravel biking, blending the features of road and mountain bikes to create something ready for off-road touring. They have rigid chainstays for mounting bags, and relaxed frame geometry for comfort. Some bikes have rigid forks, while others use suspension forks with lockouts for pedal efficiency on smooth surfaces. These bikes may use drop bars, upright bars, or hybrid bars that combine road and mountain biking hand positions.
Critics accuse gravel bikes of just being 90s mountain bikes. While modern technology gives gravel bikes major advantages on tours, in many ways, this is true. If you want to try bikepacking without investing in a new bike, an old hardtail mountain bike is a good starting point for a build. These bikes often have the eyelets and braze-ons needed to attach bags, racks, and bottles, as well as the space to fit large tires.
What Bike Packing Items Do I Absolutely Need to Pack for My Trip?
You could write a book on what to pack for a long off-road adventure, and many people have done just that. When you do your research, keep in mind there’s no perfect equipment list, because everyone has different needs and preferences. Even expert advice may not be useful to you, since their choices are based on their own experiences and abilities. Before you go out on a big adventure, you need to test these items to see what works best for you.
Must-have items can be divided into 9 main categories:
1 - Cycling Gear
This includes everything you add to your bike for touring, including lights, bags, fenders, racks, and other accessories.
Most bikepackers divide items into three bags:
- A top tube bag for holding things you need on the go, like snacks.
- A seat bag to hold clothing for wet and cold weather, along with other light, bulky items.\
- A frame bag for everything else
There’s also the gear you wear, like your helmet and cycling shoes. You want to be able to switch up your clothing to avoid discomfort. For example, liner shorts can be used with regular shorts and pants to add padding, making them a good town-ready alternative to cycling shorts. Rain and sun protection is also important for long days spent outside.
2 - Shelter
When you stop for the day or get caught in a storm, you need a place out of the weather. Tents are the most popular option, while some people prefer hammocks or a simple tarp. Your choice of shelter needs to be easy to set up and easy to repair. While it’s tempting to get a single-person bivy tent for weight savings, it’s better if you have space to sit up and relax while waiting out storms.
3 - Sleep system
Like shelters, there are several ways you can set up your sleeping system. Do you want to crawl into a sleeping bag, or lay a quilt on top of you? Do you prefer to lie on a stiff foam pad or an air mattress? If it's sufficiantly mild and there is no chance of rain you could consider the ultimate in weight saving - a hammoc. Do you need a pillow? Does it help to have booties or socks on your feet to stay warm, or do you need to leave your feet bare so they can dry out? You’ll have to experiment to find out what works best for you.
4 - Food and Cooking Supplies
Again, there are many ways to approach storing and preparing food. Some people are happy cold-soaking couscous, while others want to grind whole beans to make their coffee each morning.
In general, food should focus on high-calorie, high-density items that are easy to pack. This includes things like nut butters, jerky, hazelnut spread, tortillas, MREs, and snack bars. Your body needs more calories when you’re cycling than it does on a typical day. It’s not uncommon for people to double their calorie intake on riding days. Once your metabolism ramps up, you’ll be just as hungry on “zero” days resting in towns. This is a great excuse to indulge in local cuisine.
5 - Water
Water access can make or break your trip. A good rule of thumb is to carry 500 mL for every hour of regular cycling, or 750-1,000 mL for every hour of cycling in hot weather or at high elevations. You’ll also want another liter or two for cooking and drinking once you stop for the night.
Water is heavy, so you want to mount it as low on your bike as possible. Most bikepackers bring a couple of large water containers, which they use to refill their water bottles throughout the day. Many gravel bikes have braze-ons on the forks and the underside of the downtube for added water storage.
While there are people who use UV lights and iodine tablets to purify water, portable filters are the choice for most cyclists and backpackers. These filters last a long time and don’t leave an off-taste. Remember that these filters hold water after use, so they can freeze and split if they get too cold. Make a habit of sleeping with your filters, so your body heat keeps them warm.
6 - Clothing
Along with your cycling gear, you probably want some regular clothes to wear in town or at camp. Having a pair of sandals lets you walk around your campsite while airing out your feet, while loose clothing helps your skin heal from chafing when you’re taking a break.
7 - Navigation and Communication
This includes smartphones, satellite communications systems, and navigation systems. If you want to go fully unsupported, you can install a dynamo hub and a USB adapter to charge your devices as you ride. However, most riders find it’s easier to bring a large battery pack they can charge when they’re in town.
8 - Toiletries and First Aid
There’s no way around it: if you’re away from civilization for days on end, you’re going to stink. Instead, your focus should be on preventing injuries and infections, while keeping the outdoors pristine.
9 - Bike Repair Supplies
This includes everything you need to fix your bike when you’re on your own. How much you need to take depends on your bike and your repair skills. These fixes don’t need to be perfect: sometimes, a few zip ties and some tape can be enough for you to get your bike into town.
What Other Items Should I Pack?
Once you cover the basics, you should consider which luxury items will make your time in the great outdoors more enjoyable. Most days, you’ll only be riding for 6 to 8 hours, which leaves you with plenty of free time. Do you want to carry a camera to take better photos and videos? Maybe you’d like to carry an ebook reader, so you can catch up on reading when you’re stopped, or bring some earbuds to listen to music and podcasts along the way.
What Items Should I Leave at Home?
Go through each item and ask yourself these questions:
- Can this item save my trip, or is it just a convenience?
- Can I buy it along the way when I need it?
- Is there a lighter or simpler alternative?
- Do I have something else that already fits this use?
If you’re going on a long trip, consider using drop boxes to resupply. In most countries, you can send packages as “general delivery” to post offices, which you can pick up along the way. This is handy for sending yourself hard-to-find items on your route, like energy gels and drink powders, as well as clothing and specialty equipment that you’ll need for the short legs of your journey.
How Do I Take Care of Personal Hygiene and Health?
Inevitably, you’re going to look and smell terrible. Instead of trying to keep up the same level of hygiene you have at home, you need to focus on keeping yourself healthy. Before you go on a long trip, you may want to take a course on wilderness first aid. These items are a good starting point for your packing list.
Nothing takes a bigger toll during bikepacking than your butt. Chaffing and saddle sores are almost inevitable, but you can control skin issues with these items:
- Chamois cream or diaper cream for chafing
- Wet wipes to remove anti-chafing creams each night
- Acne medication to dry out saddle sores when they start to form
- Anti-fungal cream for sweat-related issues
While you can’t shower every day, these items will keep your skin and teeth healthy:
- Biodegradable soap
- Toothbrush, toothpaste, and dental floss
- Sunscreen and SPF Lip balm
- A trowel to dig cat holes. This protects the environment when you use the bathroom, and gives you a place to dump water far from waterways.
You should always carry these two medicines, along with any prescription medication:
- Anti-inflammatory medicine helps with muscle soreness caused by prolonged physical activity. There’s a reason hikers call Ibuprofen “Vitamin I.”
- Diarrhea medicine is important because this illness can quickly lead to dehydration
These items will help you with wound care:
- Self-adhesive bandages
- Sterile gauze
- Alcohol wipes and antibiotic ointment
- Moleskin for covering blisters
- Tweezers for splinters and ticks
- Exam gloves can keep your dirty hands from infecting the wounds you’re treating
Is it Safe to Bikepack Alone?
Anyone who has thru-hiked or bikepacked before will tell you it’s not a solitary experience. You’ll meet other travelers on your route, and end up spending some time together as you travel. However, you still need a way to keep in contact with the outside world and get help in an emergency when you are alone. That’s why most bikepackers carry a satellite communications device. Unlike a smartphone, these devices work anywhere. They have three or four main functions:
- They can send an SOS signal to the closest emergency services
- They log your location, so people with access to your account can see where you are.
- They let you send and sometimes receive text messages. Cheaper units can only send preset messages, while some models let you type out messages and receive them.
Being able to text back and forth is great for problems that don’t require medical care or evacuation. For example, if your bike breaks, you can text someone to come pick you up. Most devices can connect to your smartphone, making it easy to type text messages and check your location history.
These devices are expensive, with most ranging from $100-$400 U.S, plus a subscription fee or fee per transmission. However, if you’re only touring for a week or two, you can rent one from an outfitter.
Can You Credit Card Tour, or Do You Have to Camp?
All this talk about health issues, water supplies, and SOS signals sounds intimidating, and it gets worse if you read up on bikepacking trips. It creates an image of being far from civilization, tackling steep climbs, and facing horrible weather as you push yourself to your physical limits each day. For some people, this sounds like fun. For others, it sounds like the opposite of what you want to do on vacation.
The reality is that bikepacking is about riding long distances off-road, not about taking the most difficult routes. In fact, it can be easier than road touring, because you’re on trails that don’t have vehicle traffic. If you want an easy trip, look for trails built on established roads and railways. This cuts down on the steep climbs and rough terrain while keeping you close to civilization. Some people call this “frontcountry” touring, as opposed to the backcountry touring bikepacking is known for. Of course, you always have the option to explore harder trails along the way, letting you balance challenge against fatigue and safety.
For example, there’s the Katy Trail in Missouri. This is the longest trail constructed by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in America at 238 miles (383 km.) Since this used to be a railroad track, elevation changes are minimal and gradual. There are only 400 feet (130 meters) of elevation difference between the highest and lowest points. Start on the West side of the trail, and most of these elevation changes will be downhill. Early railroads needed to make frequent stops for supplies, so there are small towns all along the route. The longest distance between towns is about 16 miles (26 km,) while most towns are 10 miles or less from each other. There are also trailside stands all along the route, so you’re never too far from a drink or a snack. If you wanted, you could eat every meal in a restaurant and spend every night in a hotel or bed and breakfast. Similar experiences are possible around the world, including trails like the Camino De Santiago pilgrimage route through northern Spain, the Via Degli Dei, which runs along an old Roman road through Tuscany, and pretty much anywhere in rural Japan.
How Do I Navigate?
There are two choices for navigation devices: a smartphone or a bike GPS. The main advantage of a bicycle GPS is battery life, which is usually three to four times longer than a smartphone. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have both a phone and GPS device set up for navigation, so you have a backup in case one device breaks. Both GPS devices and smartphone apps can use GPX files, which can be generated using a wide range of software packages and apps. This gives you access to your full route without needing cell service.
Smartphone apps can help you get up-to-date information on your route. There are bikepacking and thru-hiking-specific apps that include maps and information on stops. Many of these apps let users leave comments, so you know if a water source is dried up, or there’s something blocking the trail ahead. If you’re riding on a trail handled by the local park service, they’ll often have an app or website where you can check trail conditions, fire restrictions, and other useful information. Need to plan for water stops? Most countries have government organizations that encourage people to drink tap water instead of bottled water, which has led them to create apps that let you find places to refill reusable bottles. This makes it easy to load up on water when you pass through towns.
How Do I Keep My Bike and Gear Safe on Long Rides?
While you may not want to carry a heavy U lock on top of everything else on your bike, there are ways you can make your bike and gear harder to steal.
Make it easy to separate your gear from your bike when you go into town. Waterproof bags and stuff sacks aren’t just handy for organizing, they also make it easy to unload your bags and panniers when you stop for the night. Always remove your lights, phone, and navigation device when you leave your bike since these parts are expensive and easy to grab. You can take this a step further, and remove something needed to ride the bike, like a saddle, thru-axle, or wheel. Of course, installing our inserts makes it harder to swipe wheels and saddles, and the weight they add is negligible. Tracking devices and alarms make your bike easier to find if someone steals it.
There are several things you can do to make your bike harder to steal when you make short stops. If you’re traveling with other people, have one person stay outside with your bikes while everyone else goes inside. When you can, park your bike where you can see it when you shop. Shift your bike into its highest gear, and it will be harder for the thief to ride away. You can also tie something between your wheels and the frame to keep the bike from rolling. This could be a strap or a few zip ties. Keep in mind if someone does try to steal your bike, this will probably break a spoke. You can also tie down the crank, the brakes or a brake lever. If you’re traveling with other people, tie two bikes together. Having these bikes face opposite directions makes them harder to move.
When you camp, tie one of your tent’s guidelines to the bike or run a guideline through the wheel. If someone moves your bike, it will pull on your tent, waking you up.