Your Complete Guide to Bikepacking

a fat bike on icy stream leaning against a wooden fence


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Over the past few years, cycling tours have become a staple of adventure travel. There's nothing quite like exploring a destination from the seat of a bike. But bikepacking takes that experience to an entirely new level, giving cyclists an opportunity to visit even more off-the-beaten-path destinations in a self-supported, independent fashion.  

As the name implies, bikepacking is a combination of cycling and backpacking. Riders carry all of their gear and supplies on their bikes, which allows them travel to any destination. While you can bikepack on standard, paved roads, it's also a great opportunity to leave the highways behind and explore the backcountry on singletrack and jeep trails too. This makes it a far more versatile and adventurous way to travel as compared to a standard cycling tour.

Bikepackers tend to be more independent and self reliant while an organized cycling tour usually offers guides, a strict itinerary, and a "sag wagon" that provides support and even gives riders a lift when they get tired. On a bikepacking trip, you're on your own, choosing your routes, carrying your own equipment, and traveling completely independently—if that's more your style, use this guide to get started. 

Choose the Right Bike

Since bikepacking involves a lot of time in the saddle, the bike you choose to ride is easily the most important piece of gear that you'll need. Just about any type of bike (including the one you already own) can be converted for bikepacking by simply adding cargo racks and panniers to carry the gear. 

That said, however, if you'll be riding off of paved roads for much of the trip, a mountain bike, fat bike, or gravel bike will probably be a better choice. Those types of bikes are designed to handle the rougher terrain with tires better suited for the task.

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Outfit the Bike

As already noted, just about any bike can be outfitted with the proper gear for a bikepacking trip. Adding cargo racks and panniers, which serve as saddle bags, allows the rider to carry all of the important gear needed for the journey. In a sense, these bags serve the same purpose as a backpack does on a backpacking trip, but instead of the traveler hauling all of their gear on his or her shoulders, it is strapped to the bike instead. 

Other possible additions to the bike include new handlebars that are designed to be more comfortable for riding over extended distances, as well as plenty of water bottle cages too. Bickpackers often put a handlebar bag on the front of the bike to keep important items, such as snacks or a smartphone, close at hand, and they will sometimes wear a small daypack as well.

The important thing is to have plenty of carrying capacity for everything you want to bring along on the trip. As with backpacking, you'll learn quickly what is essential and what is superfluous. 

Get Fit for the Trip

Unlike a standard cycling tour where a support van helps carry your luggage and gear, you'll be responsible for ensuring everything you bring along on the trip makes it to the next campsite. That means that even if you are an avid cyclist who rides plenty of miles, you'll want to be sure you are accustomed to pedaling the bike with the extra weight of all of your gear. 

Start slow on your training rides. First add the cargo haulers and panniers to your bike to get used to how they affect your riding. Then, begin adding some weight to the bags so you can get accustomed to that as well. It won't be easy, particularly when climbing hills or riding off-road, but as you train you'll get the hang of it within a few weeks. 

Take Practice Rides

The added weight on the bike will cause it to handle very differently then what you're accustomed to, and this can affect more than your fitness. To help compensate for the additional baggage, be sure to allow yourself plenty of extra distance when stopping, particularly when traveling at higher speeds or going downhill. Also, give yourself more room when turning corners as your bike won't be quite so nimble with all of the equipment strapped to it. Finally, don't be afraid to ride in a lower gear, as that will make it easier to pedal and can reduce fatigue over longer distances. 

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Plan Your Trip

Before you set out on your grand, cross-country tour, take a few smaller cycling trips first. Do a couple of overnight camping excursions in your immediate area, perhaps riding to a nearby national park or national forest to set up camp.

If you intend to ride off road, be sure to explore some forest-service trails or even singletrack ones. These exploratory rides will help you to get the feel for bikepacking in general and reveal which pieces of equipment work well and which ones can be left at home. This is vital information to have before setting off on a longer, more challenging trip. 

Bring the Necessary Gear

One of the questions that most beginning bikepackers ask about is what gear to bring along on their trip. Honestly, the packing list isn't that much different than a standard backpacking excursion. That means you'll need a tent or other shelter of some kind, a sleeping bag and pad, a stove to cook meals, food, clothing, rain gear, and so on. If you think your equipment is useful when you're hiking in the backcountry, it will probably come in on a bikepacking trip too.

Because you'll be traveling long distances on a bike, you'll also need to bring tools and equipment to maintain your ride while on the road. For instance, you'll want to pack a few spare tubes for your tires, lubrication for the chain, a tire pump, and so on. Those are items that you wouldn't take on a normal camping excursion, but they'll definitely come in handy here. 

Just Go!

Planning for that first major bikepacking trip can be a bit overwhelming at first. In addition to packing your gear, planning meals, and prepping your bike, you'll also want to plan your route too. That can seem like a major undertaking at times, but it's really part of the fun. (Like taking a look at the Off-Road Wonders of the Trans-America Trail!)

For your first destination, select somewhere unique and interesting, pick some dates that work for you, and just go. Once you're out on the road, you'll understand why bikepacking has become so popular.