Bikepacking is on the rise and for good reasons. If you never planned a bikepacking trip before make sure you prepare properly. Safety, not getting lost, nutrition, spare parts and keeping it light is key, but also a couple of shakedown rides will help you to prepare for your first bikepacking trip.
Here’s how you prepare for your bikepacking trip:
- Plan your route carefully, use apps and experiences from others and study the areas you’re going to ride.
- Pack lightly, only take what you need. Spare parts, proper nutrition, lots of water, tools and a first aid kit.
- Inform others about your trip and show them where you’re going to ride and how they can reach you.
There’s a lot more to it so I did some research and added my own experience to give you an idea about what to do and what not to do to make your trip as smooth as possible. It’s going to be fun and you’ll also encounter problems you didn’t prepare for. I’ll start off with planning and preparation and tips that are helpful during your tour. There are going to be hiccups, but that’s part of the adventure!
1. Thoroughly plan your bikepacking trip
One of the most difficult parts is planning your route, now this isn’t a problem if you tag along with someone more experienced but you also don’t want to ride with someone twice as fit. Planning a trip can be frustrating but it’s vital to a successful trip, do proper research! You don’t want to be walking and dragging your bike along half of the time, it really depends on where you want to ride. There are apps available that can assist you like:
- RidewithGPS: Check for USGD maps if you’re in the US
- Strava heatmaps is another great tool. The heatmaps show routes that others have used before and should help you to plan your trip.
- Bikepacking.com have many reports on trails others already did and there are useful tips specifically for these routes. Every trip is different so if they have a report on one you want to take, all the better!
- Garmin might be useful for roads and gravel and you could combine this with Google maps (though Google maps isn’t always very bike trip friendly).
Don’t go overboard with the distance you want to travel each day. If you push yourself too hard you might burn yourself out within days and it needs to be fun. Set realistic goals and targets, some areas may prove to be harder to ride than anticipated.
Triple check your route, you might even want to check it out using your car if possible. Use google maps to get familiar with the route and note any areas that might give you a hard time. Search Google to see if anyone has advice on the areas you plan to visit and make sure to ask some questions on Reddit/r/bikepacking. It’s a great friendly sub with lots of experienced bikepackers! They don’t care if you’re new, just make sure you are clear about what you want and the questions you have to get the best advice.
2. Pack your bike properly
Packing your bike efficiently isn’t rocket science but you need to make sure you pack according to terrain and climate and bring the right stuff. The more you pack the harder you need to pedal which also means burning more calories and taking more food.
Make sure you evenly distribute the weight you carry, bikes can be harder to handle if not packing properly. Lose as much weight as possible, repack for from glass and metal into plastic etc. Keep the back free of heavy stuff.
Make sure to asses the weather, food and water availability, the distance and how much luxury you want to bring. There needs to be a good balance in essentials and items that make your trip more comfortable.
Rule number one is to pack as lightly as possible. Every extra ounce or gram will slow you down and will take away the comfort that you expect to get from your materials.
Seat packs are great but be careful not to pack it too heavy. Weight distribution is important so only put lightweight and bulky items in your seat pack. get rid of the stuffing sacks to save weight and room and make sure your seat bag is waterproof.the heaviest items should go near your seat post to limit side sway when you’re riding. Don’t put anything in it that you need frequently.
Here’s what bikepackers recommend for seat packs:
- Clothes and rain gear
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
Again, think of weight distribution. A heavy handlebar pack makes handling and steering difficult and can be dangerous. The weight of your handlebar pack should be about the same as your saddle bag to keep your bike balanced. This pack is great for sleeping bag, your tent and apparel. Make sure your stuff can’t get wet by using dry bags or using a waterproof handlebar bag. Make sure you can easily access stuff that you need frequently. If you have a pack with an outer zippered pouch, use it for small items.
Here’s what I recommend to pack, but you can vary as long as you keep it lightweight:
- Dry bag with clothes
- Sleeping bag
Here’s where you put the heavy items as it’s in the center of your bike which keeps your bike stable. Put the heavy stuff below and items you need more often on top. Zippered pockets are ideal for small stuff so I advice you to get a decent frame pack that has these features. Again, keep things dry.
- Spare tubes
- Camp stove,
- Food that you won’t need immediately at the bottom
- Hydration reservoir
Additional bikepacking storage options
- Stem bags: These are small pouches that go behind your bikes handlebar. Use it for frequently used items like snacks, water, a map, you phone or sunglasses.
- Top tube bags are great to quickly grab something while riding. Food, sunscreen, energy bars, your phone or a pocket knife/multi-tool.
- Bottle cages: obviously to store water
- Cargo cages: also for water but are placed on your fork
- Backpacks: Sometimes you need to bring a backpack, though most bikepackers hate it as it’s just very uncomfortable and can start to hurt because of the friction. Not to mention a sweaty and hot back. If you decide to wear one, keep it as light as possible and don’t use a backpack that can carry over 20 liters. Carry stuff in there that doesn’t really go well with your other bags.
3. Only bring essential items
Forget about luxury items, it will only add weight. You need stuff that help you survive and maybe a small bottle of liquor to enjoy at your campsite in front of a campfire. Don’t forget about personal care items like sunscreen and wet tissues to clean your hands and face (also saves water).
Shelter and sleeping gear
Depending on the temperatures and conditions you need to look into proper shelter and sleeping gear. You don’t want to freeze at night and proper wind and rain protection will make a huge difference. Bad weather can really get to you so make sure you can shelter and keep your sanity. Also get good sleeping pad with thermal insolation and a bit of support.
- Shelter like a tent, the right one depends on the weather conditions.
- A sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
Cookery & food
One of the more heavier items but cooking and eating a warm meal after a long day makes you feel like a million bucks.
- Stove/pot combo
- Lighter or waterproof matches
- Food (obviously, pastas are great!)
- Water to cook your food
Spare parts and tools
Prepare a list of items that are vital like a survival kit, tent, sleeping bag etc. Once you got that list, take some items off you don’t really need. Some items will sneak in there that just add extra weight. If you’re planning a trip with someone else make sure to split up stuff. No need to bring too much.
Here are a couple of items to consider but what you need depends on the duration of your trip and conditions:
- Spare master link,
- Chain tool,
- Allen wrenches,
- Phillips screwdriver
- Spare hangers
- Zip ties
- Tire levers,
- A good multi tool (which would make this list shorter)
- Safety kits and tools
- Headlamp or a flashlight
- Water purification system
One set of riding clothes, sleeping clothes warmer shirt and a jacket. Depends on where and when weather. Clothes that don’t stink like Merino underwear. Do bring enough socks, dry socks are bliss, wet socks not so much.
Make sure your pants are seamless or at least don’t get in the way when you’re riding. Seems cause friction and will rub off skin, very painful!
4. Training and shakedown rides
Before you’re going on a long journey take a couple of days to get a taste of what it’s like. Saddle pain is real and you need to make sure you break in your saddle before you go. If you, don’t the pain is going to be really unpleasant and can ruin your experience.
Start light and gradually increase the weight on your bike. Try to ride gravel and asphalt and feel the difference. 5 miles off road can feel like 30 miles on a paved road.
So here’s what your shakedown should look like, if you can bring someone experienced along:
- Start with a short trip and include overnight.
- Don’t go to far away from home and don’t push yourself too much, it’s about experience.
- Learn about how to use your gear, setting up your tent/hammock, cooking and maintenance.
5. Keep it safe
Bring GPS, a compass and a map and make sure the map is water resistant! A small first aid kit is vital and make sure you have an idea what you’re going to encounter during your trip. Water is really important, even though you want to pack lightly, you can’t bring enough water. If you get stranded or won’t get to a fresh water source anytime soon water is essential to survival. Bring water purification tablets just to be sure! Make sure to tripple check water sources along your route!
Get familiar with the terrain before you head out, rough terrain can make your journey longer than planned so know what to expect. Weather conditions can change, especially near mountains and temperatures can drop significantly. Take proper clothing to keep you warm and dry, a decent tent, sleeping bag and a proper sleeping pad.
- Wear a helmet
- Emergency blanket (mountainous regions)
- First aid kit
- A pocket knife or multitool
- Tape and a lighter (store dry).
To get an idea on how to stay as safe as possible I recommend going through this article at bikepacking.com. A great resource that tells you exactly what you need for different circumstances.
6. Wildlife and insects
You’ll encounter wildlife and bugs will give you a hard time. Bears, cougars, dogs you can run into one depending on your region. I advice you to check your route and research the type of animals (and insects) you may encounter during your bikepacking trip.
Bugs that can ruin your sleep and if your unlucky trigger an allergy. Bikepackers recommend to treat everything with Permethrin to keep the bugs away.
One of the most common problems are dog encounters, especially stray dogs. I don’t know why but unleashed dogs love to chase cyclists and some attempt to bite your legs. I’ve had it happen a lot, not only on a bike, they like to go after me when I’m running and even skateboarding causes them to go nuts (must be the noise).
If you’re in Australia for example, Dingos are a problem but Aussies are probably aware. Dogs often tend to be more aggressive at night so riding during the day is advised. That doesn’t mean the won’t come after you during the day (sigh).
I’m not a dog whisperer but there are some tactics you can use to stay out of their way. If you spot a dog and it seems to want to go after you, sprint away as fast as possible. Dogs will give up chasing you if you keep a distance, it’s usually not aggression that triggers the chasing behaviour but dogs like to have a bit of fun. If you’re going uphill you might have a problem, just be careful not to fall off your bike and injure yourself.
A safer strategy is to go batshit crazy, scream like a madman and act like a complete psycho. Might want to practice getting that crazy eyes look in front of a mirror to see if it’s convincing (kidding). Look at the dog while you act crazy and aggressive, it helped me recently to scare a dog away. Some dogs will go for you anyway, thats when you bail and sprint. This may work on a single dog, but not on a pack.
If you can’t get away (uphill for example) step off your bike and keep it between you and the dog to protect yourself. Often dogs lose interest when you become a regular person and not some freakish weird animal on a bike that dogs aren’t familiar with. Last resort, pepper spray.
I don’t have any experience encountering bears fortunately but I did some research to help you out. I advice you to thoroughly research this topic further if there’s a chance you encounter one and not take my word for it.
Bear attacks are rare and most attacks by black bears occur because they get startled. Bear attacks are often defensive to people in close proximity which can be avoided if you pay attention in bear country. There are 750,000 black bears in North America and less than 1 person gets killed per year. It’s more likely to get killed by a person when you look at the statistics.
If you see cubs you should get away as fast as possible. Make a lot of noise so bears know you’re coming, like singing your favorite song (this might also scare people away). Bell bears or popular but from what I’ve read not very effective so don’t rely on a bear bell. Bear spray have mixed results and I advice you to do some research.
When camping the food you bring might attract bears. Pack all your food, strap it to a cord and hang it in a tree at a safe distance from your camp. Cooking should be done away from the campsite!
7. Keep it cost effective
Don’t blow all your money on fancy equipment. You don’t need to spend hundreds of Dollars on bags or thousands on a bike. Use what you have and invest in a pair of new tires with puncture protection and inspect your bike before you go.
If your budget is tight you can use a dry bag and two voile straps to make your own seat bag. Same materials and you can fabricate your own handlebar roll, strap it using compression straps and your done.
8. Take your time
Enjoy yourself, don’t rush anything. Heck even bring a fishing pole if you like. Don’t push yourself to get to a destination on a set time if it isn’t needed. Take photos, you want to relive the memories and it sure will get you stoked to plan another trip. Don’t bring a heavy camera, your phone is usually fine!
A bikepacking trip is all about you vs nature and can be extremely relaxing. Stressing yourself and pushing goals might take away some of the fun. Sure there are some times when you need to ride faster to get to a destination but don’t overdo it. Make sure you keep the daily distance you want to travel reasonable.
9. The best bike is the one you already own
Don’t blow your budget on an expensive bike. The best bikepacking bike is the one you already own. Make sure to check your bike or have it checked by your local bike shop before you head out. Your bike should be mechanically sound to prevent it from becoming a bike hiking trip. Bring some spare parts that are more likely to break down. I’ll go into that further down this article.
If you don’t have a decent bike, get a second hand bike. There are tons of great bikes out there and buying a new one and finding out bikepacking isn’t for you is a waste. Here’s a guide on how to get a decent second hand bike for the right price and what to look for.
10. Careful about the trail you pick
Sometimes you need to do hike for a long time. If so, you need to think about the pedals you’re gonna bring. Shoes and pedals can make a huge difference. A hybrid shoe might be an option if you’re unsure. Hiking on clipless shoes is a complete nightmare.
11. Bring a map and a compass
Technology may fail, batteries run out out,/ you’ll need a backup plan. Not to mention bringing electronics adds up to the overall weight carving around. Learn how to use a compass and a map and you should have a good general direction on where to go if technology fails on you.
12. Avoid anything that can cause an accident
Like bungee cords getting into your spokes. Nets are fine. Be careful how you pack, don’t cut corners and get sloppy.
13. Bring lights
In case it gets dark or you’re forced to ride at night due to unforeseen circumstances bring a headlamp or lumens that will help you see what’s in front of you. Riding at night is a lot more dangerous as you won’t see what’s in front of you. A flashlight is also pretty handy when your campsite is completely dark.
14. Vary your nutrition
Eat food that has lots of calories and carbs to keep you going. Try to add some fresh food in the mix to vary your diet. Eating the same food over and over again is just the worst and not pleasant for your digestive system. Don’t eat too much just before you continue your trip, it might get in the way leading to cramps or just inefficiency.
15. Fancy gear is nice but not needed
No matter how good or bad your gear is make sure you know how to handle it. Know how to use your tools when you need to fix your bike because looking for tutorials on Youtube might not be possible. Make sure you know how to tackle common problems, that includes fixing a flat tire.
You can have all the fancy gear but if you don’t know how to use it, you’re on your own.
16. Leave some extra space
You never know what you’ll run into, maybe someone offers you a bag of chips or maybe you’ll find a cool skull you want to take home as a memory.
17. Bring money
Keep cash on hand for if you come across paid camp sites on government land. Not just your credit card, make sure you have some cold hard cash.
18. You can’t escape the law
I know, you want to be out there by yourself and don’t think about what’s allowed and what not. At least make sure you don’t make any mistakes that can get you into trouble. Make sure you know what you can and can’t do, some areas are restricted and you might not be allowed to go there. The rules for federal land and state vary a lot and so check governmental websites and make a call if you’re unsure.
19. Learn while you go
There’s no way to prepare for everything and you have to experience it yourself to know what works for you. After your first bikepacking trip you have a good idea of what you need and how to handle unforeseen event. These are just basic tips, go out there and be safe!
If you have some tips of your own or think I made a mistake, be sure to let me know in the comments!