Everything You Need to Know About Bikepacking

Looking for a new way to get out on some longer, more remote camping trips this year? The solution is bikepacking! Check out this expert guide for everything you'll need to know!

A biker rides up a dirt trail. There is sagebrush on the sides of the trail.

Photo by Carlo L.

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What Is Bikepacking?

Bikepacking, a portmanteau of the words bicycling and backpacking, is the new rage in the adventure cycling community. People have been touring by bicycle for as long as the bicycle has been around. But bikepacking owes its roots to the recent popularity of gravel biking and the evolution of ultralight camping gear.

The type of surface traveled on is the distinction between touring and bikepacking. A bikepacker typically favors unpaved surfaces such as gravel roads, singletrack, and sometimes snow, whereas the bicycle tourist usually follows paved paths.

The Bike

The bikepacking ethos is to travel light while being self-sufficient. That’s not to say exciting adventures can’t be had traveling from town to town or hut to hut and sleeping indoors. But the true bikepacker carries everything they need on their bike to survive in the great outdoors for one or more nights.

The type of bike selected for bikepacking is determined by the terrain to traverse. A winter trip over snow or a summer trip where sand is likely demands the use of a fatbike (typically with tires 4” or wider). Singletrack over technical terrain may favor a full-suspension mountain bike whereas a hardtail or gravel bike might be best if the path involves longer distances over smooth gravel roads.

There is no one perfect type of bike for bikepacking. But rather than put off a trip to have the perfect gear, why not start with what you have and choose an appropriate terrain and distance?

Once bitten by the bikepacking bug, some cyclists purchase a purpose-built bike for their cycling adventures. Brands such as Salsa have built a culture around adventure cycling. There are also many frame builders that specialize in bikepacking-specific models customized to individual rider needs.

How to Pack

A tent and a bike both covered in snow.

Unexpected May snowstorm. Black Rock Desert, Nevada. Photo by Carlo L.

There is no perfect type of packing system. Most bikepackers choose a set of bags that attach to the bike frame or fork. These include a handlebar roll, a frame bag (that fits in the triangle), and a seat pack. Panniers are an option but may cause issues if riding tighter singletrack trails.

Beginners always ask if it’s possible to bikepack with a backpack. While this might work for a short first trip, experienced bikepackers say carrying the weight on your body on long trips is tiring. The best place for your gear is on the bike. Place heavier items as low as possible.

Packing and planning a bikepacking trip is not that different from preparing for a backpack outing. You need some kind of shelter unless you are omniscient and know the weather will cooperate and you can sleep on the ground.

Sleep Systems

The options run from lightweight backpacking tents, minimalist tarps, bivvies, and even hammocks. One big consideration for me when choosing my sleep system is bugs and if they are going to be a factor. Nothing is worse than getting eaten alive by bloodthirsty little critters! It can ruin your evening in camp.

Your sleep system is determined by the expected temperatures and your preference for comfort. You can’t go wrong with a quality lightweight sleeping bag, but many bikepackers use quilts to ditch the zipper to reduce weight and improve packability. Paired with an inflatable or foam sleeping pad to insulate you from the ground, the quilt is as comfortable as a bag even in colder temperatures.

You will rarely get the shelter and sleep system dialed on your first trip, so it might make sense to repurpose old camping gear, borrow, or even rent equipment before investing in new. As always, ask a Curated Expert for advice before committing to large purchases.

Food and Water

Once you have your shelter and sleep system figured out, the next thing is nutrition and hydration. Most people carry a small stove for making hot drinks, rehydrating food, or boiling water for purification. Packing prepared foods (such as burritos) on quick trips can reduce weight by eliminating the need for a stove and pot.

The amount of water you carry depends on the distance between resupply points. Consuming 1 to 2 liters of water per hour of cycling depending on temperatures and level of exertion is recommended. Start by estimating how long the ride is and researching water sources available along the way.

Pack enough water to get you to the next water source. But remember, water is heavy (1 kg or 2.2 lb per liter). Always carry a water filter or water purification tabs if there is any question about whether the water supplies along the route are potable.

What to Wear

Two bikepackers wear their puffy jackers as they ride along a trail. There is snow on the ground on the sides of the trail.

Cold morning start. Black Rock Desert, Nevada. Photo by Carlo L.

Clothing is up to the individual and dependent on the expected weather. Will it be cold or raining? Plan for the best, but be prepared for the unexpected when in the mountains. The same rules apply to bikepacking as any other outdoor activity. Avoid cotton and fabrics that lose insulation value when wet. Wool and synthetics are excellent choices that can be layered to adjust for changing conditions.

Layering

In cooler weather, three layers are optimal. Choose a soft, fast-drying, wicking layer next to your skin. The middle layer should be an insulating garment that traps air but also wicks away perspiration. The final and external layer should protect against the wind (or rain). Waterproof breathable fabrics are an option, but might not be effective enough during periods of high exertion. To help regulate core body temperature if you perspire, always shed a layer before you feel clammy.

Accessories

We know a lot of heat is lost through the extremities, so pack a hat and gloves. A thin hat worn under a cycling helmet makes a cold ride more bearable. Quality windproof gloves (mittens or pogies in extreme weather) are also critical, as are the right boots or shoe covers when temperatures drop. Wool socks are my choice for cold winter riding. Lightweight socks made of merino or blends can be worn year around.

Warm weather riding is easier to pack for, but adventurers should always be prepared for sudden changes in the weather. It isn’t unusual to experience hail and violent temperature changes during summer storms in the mountains.

Sun Protection

Assuming the weather is nice, the primary concern is sun protection and avoiding overheating. Good wicking layers next to the skin help with evaporation to regulate body temperature. A light-colored long sleeve technical top is as cool as a short-sleeve shirt while providing extra protection against UV rays.

Bottoms

Bottoms are another individual choice. Most riders prefer padded shorts or liners for long days in the saddle. While tops can be mixed and matched from multiple outdoor gear suppliers, consider cycling-specific bottoms. They are a critical piece of kit that comes in contact with the saddle and can cause discomfort if not designed for cycling.

Camp Clothing

After a long day on the bike, it’s great to change into dry, comfortable clothes for lounging around camp and sleeping. I carry a spare pair of dry wool socks, long johns, and a compressible puffy jacket which increases comfort once camp temperatures drop. Extra layers increase the temperature rating of your sleep system. Depending on the comfort of your cycling shoes, consider also packing a lightweight camp shoe or sandal.

A map is pulled up on a phone and the phone is attached to the handlebars of a bike.

Photo by Jay Miller

A well-stocked first-aid kit is something I always carry but never hope to use. There are several excellent lightweight kits for sale, but purchasing a small dry bag and stocking it with a trip to the pharmacy allows you to customize its contents and replenishment as needed.

Your bike needs a first-aid (repair) kit too! Essentials include a pump, spare tubes, patches for tire repair, and a good multi-tool. While it's impossible to anticipate every component failure, some folks carry spare spokes and chain links to deal with the unexpected. A few strips of duct tape and zip ties round out the kit and are useful for impromptu trailside repairs.

What you know is as important as what you carry on your trip. Taking a first aid class such as Wilderness First Responder is critical for your safety and that of your riding partners. A class in bike maintenance and repair is another great idea. When traveling in remote areas, help may be hours away. The knowledge and confidence that comes from knowing how to deal with minor setbacks relieve anxiety when setting out for a new adventure.

While unnecessary, electronics make a trip safer and more fun. Today’s smartphones perform multiple duties such as being a camera (for documenting adventures), a GPS navigation device with downloadable maps, and an emergency lifeline if the area has cell service.

For travel outside of cell coverage, it’s smart to carry a satellite communication device such as the SPOT or Garmin InReach. Make sure you have a way to recharge your devices with you. Small portable battery packs are handy for brief trips, while longer trips might require portable solar chargers.

Evolution of the Sport

Six bikepackers stand on a dirt trail. One is pointing down the trail.

Bikepacking is better with friends! Black Rock Desert, Nevada. Photo by Carlo L.

Online bikepacking forums and clubs are great for learning about the sport and tapping into the collective knowledge of others. Most people love sharing their experiences to get you started or refine your kit. The sport is in constant evolution, and even the experts learn something new every time they go out.

After every trip, reassess your packing list for what you can do without or what you wish you had but didn’t pack. Some like to weigh each individual piece of gear and are on the constant lookout for an alternative so they can shave a few grams from the overall pack weight. From the bike to your camp kit and what you wear, the choices are personal and ever-changing.

The best way to learn any sport is to get out there and do it. While some prefer solo adventures, beginning bikepackers benefit from joining a more experienced group. Lasting friendships are cemented through the camaraderie of pushing a fully loaded bikepacking rig up a hill too steep to pedal. In retrospect, even bad or stressful moments seem like fun when back in town enjoying a few post-ride adult beverages.

Reach out to a Cycling Expert here on Curated if you have any questions, and we can help you find all the best gear to build out your kit for your first bikepacking adventure! Have fun out there!

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Written By
I've been cycling for close to half a century! Avid road/gravel cyclist, mountain biker, and bikepacker. Licensed Level 3 cycling coach for the Nevada Interscholastic Cycling League. Trail builder and community cycling advocate. Home is between the east slope of the Sierra Nevada and Nevada's Great...

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