How to get started with bikepacking

Whether you’re trying to escape the everyday stresses of life, setting out for an adrenaline packed adventure, want to become one with nature, or simply feel the need to go off the grid for a while, bikepacking has become the go-to for thousands of cyclists across the US, Canada, and Britain. Bikepacking is one of the most recent cycling trends to show its face, and it’s easy to see why.

Simply said, bikepacking is a fusion of mountain biking and camping. The main difference between simply camping and going bikepacking is that you rely on yourself and your trusty bike to haul all of your gear and equipment. You can head out for a family-friendly day-long adventure, plan a solo cross-country trip of a lifetime or opt for anything in between! And because it requires little add-on bike gear, it’s an affordable way to disconnect or get back to nature. All you have to do is pack up and roll out!

Best bikes for backpacking

Unlike their touring brethren, bikepacking bikes don't need special eyelets or other frame modifications for panniers or racks, which means you can use whichever mountain bike already works for you. In fact, it’s best to use a bike you’re already familiar with, as you will be loading it and yourself up with gear. Knowing your bike well means you’ll have better control. If you feel like you’d benefit from a larger frame, you can always search the classifieds for a cross-country hardtail, as they tend to have a bit more frame space for cargo. Remember, as beautiful and thrilling as a bikepacking adventure can be, preparedness is key in making it an enjoyable, safe experience. If you’re not sure that your bicycle is bikepacking worthy, then consider its comfort, gears, and ability to carry water.

It’s important that your bike is comfortable enough for you to ride for many consecutive hours. If you’ve never ridden your bike for more than 2 or 3 hours at a time, then it might be in your best interest to start with a longer local ride instead. Ensure your bike is properly fitted to you and your needs. Because you’re going to be carrying additional weight on your bike, it is also imperative that your gear ratios will work well with the added load. A wide-range cassette with shorter gears will allow you to tackle more diverse terrain without overtaxing your body. You might also consider downsizing your front chain ring to give yourself that extra climbing power.The last thing you want to do is destroy your knees!

Hydration is key with any ride, but when you’re going to be taking an especially long one, you need to make sure you load yourself up with fluids. While you can use a hydration backpack, shifting that weight off your back by strapping bottles to the frame of your bike will alleviate your back of unnecessary weight.

Once you’re sure that you have an appropriate bike for your bikepacking trip, you can start the planning process! Consider making checklist when planning for your trip, as there is a lot to consider and you don’t want to overlook anything. Again, being prepared is the difference between having an amazing experience of a lifetime or cutting a trip short because you just used your last tube to repair a flat.

Beware of the contact points

Since you’ll be spending a significant amount of time on your bike, make sure your saddle is truly comfortable. Add ergonomic grips, and wear padded gloves to avoid sore hands. Run your handlebar height higher than normal to keep stress off your back. Since your butt is the main contact point between you and the bicycle, spend some time researching and experimenting with padded shorts. Not all chamois pads are equal, some might simply not work for you, don’t find that out 300 miles away from home. If you’re likely to chafe, consider a chamois cream, it is surprisingly effective.

Stowing your stuff on your bike

Once your bike is ride-ready, you’ll have to determine the best way to stow your stuff. You'll be carrying the same gear as you would when backpacking, but you don't want to carry all of that weight on your back. When possible, secure items onto your bike instead. A few well-placed items can keep your bike balanced and easy-to-ride while delivering adequate space for your camping needs. The most common types of storage are found below.

Bike frame storage

As mentioned earlier, forgo back water packs and use bottles affixed to your bike. Most bikepacking bikes should be able to fit three water bottles on the frame: two in the frame and one below the downtube. Top tube bags and frame bags are designed to fit snugly on your bike in a secure, convenient manner. Top tube bags are especially useful for storing items that you might need to have readily available, such as snacks or a camera. Frame bags are great for stashing food, hydration bladders, tools, and other heavier items. Keep in mind that if you chose to use the frame bag, you will be giving up water bottle storage in the frame.

Rear rack

A rear rack is another useful piece of equipment that can carry heavier items, such as cookware and a camp stove. You’ll have to find out if your bike can accept a rear rack, as not all bicycles are capable.

Seat bag

Store light, bulky items or things you'll want to access quickly. A seat bag can sometimes substitute for a rear rack.

Handlebar storage

A handlebar roll bag is your best bet when loading up your handlebars. These bags are specifically designed to carry lightweight and bulky items. If you don’t have a handlebar bag, simply latch your tent, sleeping bag, or dry bag filled with clothes onto the bars instead.Avoid attaching heavy items to your handlebars because the weight will make steering difficult and compromise your safety.

Panniers

Increase your capability for carrying heavy items such as food, water or a two-burner camp stove. Because of their bulkiness, panniers are best reserved for longer bikepacking trips or family outings. Also keep in mind that panniers can be a hindrance on wooded singletrack because they increase necessary clearance.

Prepare for emergencies

Another important aspect of planning for a bikepacking trip is to foresee at least the most common emergency situations, such as flat tires, a broken chain or spokes, or even finding yourself lost and exposed to the elements. Use tire liners and sealant to guard against flat tires when you're away from civilization. Spare tubes and tube/tire repair kit and a multi-tool that includes a chain tool are an absolute must. Equipping yourself with a personal water filter and solar blanket could prove to be a life-saving decision.

Packing for the Trip

A common mistake made by first time bikepackers is either over or under packing. A lighter load means you’ll have better control of your bike and will subject your knees to less stress. The challenge in creating a light load is that you must ensure that you still pack the essentials and don’t overlook any details that might result in you cutting your trip early. A sleeping bag, a tent and/or a sleeping pad will likely be the bulkiest items; water will be the heaviest.

Shelter

The environment and season in which you are camping will directly impact the type of gear you will need to pack. For cooler weather or during rainy seasons, invest in a compact, lightweight tent and ultralight insulated sleeping bag. If the weather is projected to be warm, consider skipping the tent altogether and bring a hammock and compressible lightweight tarp instead. A second tarp can protect your bike should you experience a rainstorm. If you opt for a tent, get a recent model (some of which are as light as 3 pounds). Add an inflatable sleeping pad and ultralight down sleeping bag, the more compressible the better: The best models weigh as little as 20 ounces and stow away in a 5-inch by 12-inch bag.

Water

How much water you will need to pack will depend on your options for refilling water bottles along the way. Whenever possible, try to find inexpensive, convenient refill points. Panniers can provide extra storage for routes where refill points are few, or you can purify natural sources by boiling or adding chemicals. Affordable personal water filters are available at most stores that carry outdoor or camping equipment.

Food

Focus on packing food that will deliver plenty of energy for your journey and make you feel satisfied after a long day on the trail. Avocado, hummus, cheese and sausage are a few easy-to-eat items to fill the bill. If you’re hoping to get in your daily dose of caffeine with a hot cup of coffee or tea, consider packing an alcohol burner and backpacking cookware. By including these items, you’re also planning ahead for some delicious, stomach pleasing hot meals. And after a long day of adrenaline-packed riding, who doesn’t want a hot meal?

Safety

Bikepacking will take you through rugged terrain far from emergency services and Good Samaritans, so be sure to pack and understand how to use a wilderness first aid kit. Take an extra battery for your cell phone and keep it turned off unless needed to preserve battery life. Bring extra flashlight batteries, and consider an emergency GPS tracking system if you're going really deep into the wilderness. As mentioned earlier, a personal water filter and solar blanket are always good to have. Even packing some extra Zip-Loc bags might turn out to be worth the effort, as you can use them to protect electronics and other water-sensitive items in the event of a rain shower or storm.

Choosing a route

Make the most of your bikepacking excursion by selecting a route that's well suited for your bike and the abilities of the least experienced member of your group. If you're headed out with the whole family, know that lesser traveled forest roads or double-tracks, like Arizona's Craters and Cinder Cones Loop, offer away-from-it-all stretches with little technical riding. Check out Bikepacking.com's Bikepacking Routes page to get some ideas. The site lists bikepacking rides by length, location and type of trail.

And finally, always make sure your take the time to map out the route. You should include all trails and pit stops that you might take. There are several ways to track your ride, depending on your needs and interest in using technology. If you’re hoping to disconnect from the outside world and live off the grid for the weekend, consider using a paper map. (This is where that plastic bag might come in handy). Many bikepackers prefer the old school appeal of a hands-on map to that of a GPS screen. However, if you prefer to use some sort of navigation device, then go for it! When it comes to choosing and mapping out your route, the method you choose doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you do it.

Upon mapping out your trip, be sure to either text or e-mail a picture of it to a loved one. When you’re going out into the wilderness, it’s always best to make sure that at least one person knows where you are going and for how long.

Insurance

Bikepacking can lead you through some of the most remote, scenic paths imaginable, it’s important to remember that it does come with its share of risks. That’s why it’s important to plan ahead for the most common emergencies. Packing certain safety items is one way to protect yourself, but so is bicycle insurance. Velosurance offers a highly customizable policy designed to provide coverage for almost any risk associated with bikepacking. The policy covers the bike for theft and damage, and offers optional coverages including gap medical, liability, vehicle contact protection, and even roadside assistance. If the unexpected happens, trust Velosurance to get you back on your bike.

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