One could be forgiven for mistakenly hearing you say backpacking, when instead you were talking about bikepacking. After all, the two sports, at their core, are fundamentally similar. Both require at least one overnight stay, preferably off the beaten track. Both require packs, which you transport yourself, that contain the necessary rations and technical accoutrements to make your trip at the very best enjoyable, and at the very least livable. Both can be dog-friendly. And, at least at the beginning of the trip, both demand of participants only the lure of adventure.
The key difference, of course, is that bikepacking requires a bike. But quickly vanquish any images that might be carouseling through your mind right now of bikes weighted down with heavy panniers and enormous front and rear racks, plodding along the side of the road, looking like overloaded pack mules on wheels. That’s cyclo-touring. That’s different.
So what is bikepacking?
It’s more than mountain biking and minimalist camping combined. Bikepacking emphasizes the word’s prefix: bike. It’s an undertaking that stresses mobility, maneuverability, and off-road exploration, not necessarily just getting from point A to point B. It’s about going way out there and having the right equipment strapped to your bike to enable you to eat well and sleep comfortably in the wilderness at night, so you can get up the next morning to shred singletrack and cruise along on untraveled dirt roads until you arrive at your next night’s resting stop. It plucks a sentimental chord for every kid at heart who fancies his or herself an explorer and a bike rider. It’s a part of cycling culture that’s been around since the dawn of the mountain bike. It’s just that in recent years, advances in gear make it possible to carry everything you need, while cycling clothing, constructed from innovative performance fabrics like Ibex’s Merino wool, ensure comfort and breathability for long distances.
With bikepacking defined and your interest fully piqued, these five tips will help guide your preparation for your first velo voyage.
1. Start with the bike.
Modern mountain bikes are ideally suited for bikepacking. Multiple wheel and tire sizes, advanced suspension systems, wide handlebars, and slacker geometries, allow riders of every size to find a reliable, comfortable, and fun ride. Bikepacking gear (like the equipment you see featured in the video) complements the bike’s performance and handling – an extension of the frame’s design, rather than a hindrance. But if you’re not up for the investment of a new bike, start with the mountain, cross, or gravel bike you’ve got, and work with a bikepacking expert at your local outdoor gear purveyor or bike shop to determine the equipment that’d best suit your goals and your bike’s capabilities.
2. Dress for the ride.
Bikepacking is cycling first and foremost. You’re going to be working your body, hard. So, clothing like denim cutoffs and flimsy tank tops won’t do. Neither will skin tight, Tour de France team kit. The last thing you need on a 500-mile bikepacking adventure is skin chafing, saddle sores, and restriction of movement.
Instead, go for dynamic and durable cycling-specific performance bib shorts or shorts with a chamois for your lower half, and progressive, moisture-wicking, comfortable jerseys with back pockets for your upper half. Technical pieces like Ibex’s Crosstown Polo jersey, which blends cycling-specific functionality into a post-ride polo shirt. The patrons at the pub will never know the difference (except for that dried mud on your legs, of course).and Spoke Full Zip jerseys, coupled with a natural fibers/spandex blend are capable pieces for all-day riding comfort and performance, whether your bikepacking amidst the lush hardwood forests of Vermont’s Green Mountains or maneuvering through the sun-drenched red rocks of Arizona’s desert. Remember, weight and space are at a premium, so think at most only one change of clothing. If stops at towns along the way are part of your itinerary and walking around in bike clothing isn’t for you, consider the
3. Understand the different types.
Your next step is to figure out what kind of bikepacking you’d like to try. Bikepacking can be categorized into three specializations: multi-day mountain biking; ultralight, race, and gravel; and expedition and dirt touring.
Multi-day mountain biking is bikepacking’s one-size-fits-most description. It evokes the sport’s main tenet – to carry just bare essentials for overnighting so that the bike is free to perform the way it’s supposed to while riding during the day. Some multi-day mountain bikepacking trips require careful logistical planning while others may be the result of a spur of the moment decision. These are trips that might be 50 miles over the course of two days or several hundred miles throughout a month.
Ultralight, race, and gravel bikepacking is the competitive side of the sport. It’s less concerned with exploration and more with speed. It features light, high-performance hardtail or full-suspension mountain bikes piloted by trained athletes looking for personal bests on mapped routes. Courses comprise a combination of trail and gravel and paved roads.
Expedition and dirt touring is all about distance, exploration, and living on and off the bike. Think Ferdinand Magellan, Leif Ericson, and Marco Polo exploring by bike. Riders will need to bring some additional gear for these longer range trips that don’t compromise their bike’s performance.
4. Map out your route.
You have two basic options for route design: a loop or out-and-back, and a through route. Loops start and finish in the same place. No worrying about how to get back to the car. These routes are typically good for those with limited time, and are available in one form or another in most states. Through routes will take more planning, especially determining how to return to the starting point once you’ve reached the trip’s terminus. Most of the famous routes are located within the mountain and west coast states.
5. Familiarize yourself with weather patterns.
The weather determines when to go. But it’s anything but predictable, which is why you’ll need to be prepared for most kinds of conditions. If you’re route takes you into the mountains in the summer, be ready for cooler temperatures and even snow at high elevations; or, if you’re traversing the desert, make sure that you’re prepared physiologically for the unrelenting daytime heat. Pedaling a bike along rough back roads or trail when the temperature isn’t cooperating, at either end of the thermometer, is going to slow your progress way down..
Go long. Go ride.
Invest in high quality bikepacking gear and riding clothing that’s built with weight savings, packability, and versatility in mind. Make sure your bike is in optimal condition, which means taking it to a shop for a tune-up or once over. Recruit a couple of friends. Plan a route. Determine the day and time you’ll depart, and predict your return. Be brave. Be bold. Push off with your planted foot and bikepack your way into a new age of exploration.
Special thanks to the folks at Outdoor Gear Exchange, support your local bike shop!