Bikepacking Starter Guide
If you love riding bikes and hate sleeping inside, bikepacking was made for you. Blow past all those slow, meandering hikers on your machine that is far superior to regular old human legs. Biking allows you to see more sights, feel more thrills and, if we're being honest, look way cooler. Whether you're in it for the adrenaline or just don't feel like walking, bikepacking is an awesome way to explore the outdoors.
What to Ride
The bike you choose to ride largely depends on what type of terrain you're gonna be on, your budget, and most importantly, your personal preference.
Rigid Bike: A rigid bike is generally less expensive and has no suspension, which means that there are less moving parts for you to worry about. Moving parts are breakable parts, and limiting them as much as you can gives you better odds of making an entire trip without needing repairs. Ideal for dirt roads or hard-packed trails, rigid bikes rail corners like no other and allow you to have more control while you do it.
Full-suspension: When riding rugged, technical trails, you're going to want a forgiving and comfortable ride. This is where the full-suspension bike comes in. Be it a rock, divot or stick that you thought was a snake, the suspension smooths things out and makes for a much less jolting ride. Some riders will say that a full suspension bike won't give you the same control or feel that a rigid bike would give you, but if the trail is rough enough, your body will thank you.
Hard-tail: A third option to consider is a hard-tail bike, which only has suspension in the front. This allows you to keep some of the control afforded by rigid bikes, especially on corners, while still enjoying the terrain-smoothing front suspension.
How to Plan
While planning your trip, you'll have to decide how long you want to be out there and what the logistics will be like. If this is your first trip, a shorter loop is easier to plan as you'll be finishing where you started (you know, 'cause it's a loop). Bikepacking a through trail gives you more options as far as connecting to other trails, but you'll need to get transported (or ride) back to the start and that will eat up more time. If you have a lot of time and are confident in your endurance training, just do whatever the hell you want. It'll probably be fine. If you have no time and no endurance, maybe just read a nice book.
Where to Go
Bikepacking can be done wherever you find long stretches of bikeable trail or road. Your best bet will be checking out State and National parks, as they typically have plenty of resources and info to help you set up the perfect trip. Another option is to check out some of the rails to trails programs across the country. A lot of these will connect to existing trail networks, and since they were initially made for trains, you're pretty much guaranteed an easy, steady ride. You can also find a ton of backcountry roads just begging to be bikepacked.
What to Wear
You need to protect your body from head to toe, so make sure that you're wearing the right things on the trails.
Helmet: A helmet should be the number one thing on your list. Specifically, look for a helmet in your size with MIPS technology (Multi-directional Impact Protection System), which is designed to reduce rotational forces put on the brain during an impact. Next, you'll want to make sure your helmet of choice has plenty of vents to keep you cool. Overheating saps your energy and can be dangerous if allowed to go on for too long.
Clothing: Since you'll be working and sweating for hours on end, you'll want something lightweight, breathable and quick-drying.
• Base Layer: If it's really warm outside, feel free to skip a base layer altogether. But, if it's colder, Merino wool is always a great option. It's naturally antimicrobial, which will keep away smell. Depending on how sweaty you get, synthetic might be the better option as it's quicker drying than Merino wool.
• Mid-layer: If there's any chance of cold weather, make sure to bring along a lightweight down jacket. You may not need it riding, but you'll be glad you have it once you get to camp.
• Rainshell: A packable rain shell should be with you on every trip, even if you're going to the desert. Look for something breathable, preferably with pit zips so that you can dump excess heat quickly and easily.
• Pants or Shorts: A good pair of durable shorts are the preferred option for most riders. Look for a pair with a built in chamois to help minimize friction and wick away moisture. Even though shorts are preferred, it's a good idea to bring along a pair of waterproof pants for when the weather inevitably turns ugly.
Footwear: Finding the perfect footwear for bikepacking can be tricky. You'll want moderate stiffness to make pedaling easier but you also need some flexibility for those times when you're forced to walk or carry your bike. Look towards breathable shoes with buckles, dials and Velcro over a lace closure system. These are easier to adjust and will make riding more comfortable.
• Clipless: Many bikepackers prefer the efficiency of clipless pedals/shoes. These lock your feet in place while you ride, allowing you to expend more energy on moving forward and less on keeping your feet from slipping off the pedals. They're easily undone when a crash is imminent so you can brace yourself for impact. The major downside is that you'll need specialty shoes and pedals, which aren't always interchangeable and can therefore make things pricey.
• Clips: Pedals with toe clips are slightly less efficient than clipless, but more efficient than platform pedals. These can fit over any shoe you find comfortable and are easier to set up than clipless. That being said, they're more difficult to free your foot from if you're about to crash.
• Platform: These pedals are the standard pedal we all know and some of us love. They're the least efficient choice, but they cost no extra money, can be used with any shoe and make getting off your bike easy when things get dicey.
What to Pack
Whether you're out on the trails overnight or for a few days, you'll need to bring the right gear along so that you eat, drink and navigate efficiently.
GPS: A map is a super useful tool to have, but a handlebar mounted GPS unit will help you keep track of your route in real time. Another option is to use your trusty ol' cell phone. Check for apps that allow you to monitor progress while out of service but keep in mind that cell phones won't have the battery life or durability of a standalone GPS unit.
Cookware: As with everything in bikepacking, you're gonna want your food and the things you use to cook your food to be as lightweight as possible. Pay attention to what you buy, because titanium is much stronger and lighter than aluminum. If you go with prepared, bagged meals like Mountain House or Backpackers Pantry, you'll only need a small pot to boil water in and a utensil. This helps keep weight and pack size down to a minimum. You'll have to find your own balance between convenience and pack weight.
Stove: To boil your cooking water, a simple canister or alcohol stove is your best bet. A canister stove is slightly heavier and you'll need to pack out the empties, but it's easier to use in adverse conditions and a better option if you're doing any real cooking or boiling a lot of water. Alcohol stoves are extremely lightweight and small but are actually less fuel efficient in the long run.
• Shelter: You have a few packable options, and what you choose depends on where you're going, how many are in your group and the expected weather. Tents give you more room to stretch out and are pretty well protected against the elements. Hammocks are a lightweight option if you'll be in a wooded area and aren't confident that you'll be able to find a spot on the ground free of rocks or debris. You can also opt for the ultra-light route and use your bike to prop up a tarp, which you can then sleep under.
• Warmth: Regardless of where you sleep, you should pack a sleeping bag and sleeping pad. Down sleeping bags are lightweight and compress easily for packing but aren't great for wet weather. Synthetic sleeping bags are more water resistant, though they don't compress as much and can be on the heavy side. Sleeping pads are also essential because they help your body recover for the next day of riding. Foam pads are more durable and less expensive, but they're not as comfortable as inflatable pads. Whatever route you go, there's a lightweight and packable option that works best for you. Take a look at our sleeping pad guide for a breakdown of each type and their benefits.
Water Treatment: Without a doubt, tablets/drops are the lightest and most packable option. Simply add the treatment to your water, wait for it to do it's magic, and drink. The drawback is that these don't filter particulates in the water and can slightly alter the taste. Another option is to bring along a small water filter, which will filter out sediment and particulates without altering the taste. Attach bottle cages to your bike or store large amounts of water in a hydration bladder in your frame bag.
Repair / First Aid: Repairs are a fact of life on the trail. Whether you're talking about bike repairs or repairs to your soft, precious body, it's important to be prepared for the worst. At the bare minimum, you should bring: a pump, a small wrench, a multi-tool with chain breaker, spare tubes, a patch kit, tire levers, tire boot, sealant and zip-ties. Long list, I know, but you'll thank me when you get into a tight spot. That said, you should bring what you feel comfortable carrying and what you deem necessary. For self-repair, look for pre-made first-aid kits and again, adjust to your needs.
Bikepacking is a great way to explore the land. The ability to cover so much ground in a day can make for exhilarating changes of scenery in a relatively short amount of time when compared to hiking. My advice? If you've read this entire thing you have to at least be mildly interested in bikepacking, so you might as well get out there and give it a shot. If you’re not sure how to pack your bike for the trails, let alone where to put all this stuff, check out some of our tips.