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What is bikepacking? The ultimate guide

What is bikepacking
(Image credit: Graham Cottingham)

As long as there has been a bicycle there has been bikepacking. There just wasn't always a name for it. For some people, it's a line that follows road cycling and bicycle touring as it transitioned off-road. As tires got bigger and traffic got worse on-road touring became off-road bikepacking. For others, the trajectory is a story of mountain biking and a desire to go farther. Cross-country mountain biking is already great. If it's great for a day what would it be like for two days, or ten?

Alongside these bike-centric transitions, there was a shift happening in the backpacking world as well. The traditional thought was that longer distances meant more gear. Then people started to question that concept. Could you go farther, faster, with less gear? Ultralight backpacking was gaining steam. Lightness was always an important consideration for backpacking but this was a whole new level. Leave behind everything you can, weigh every piece of gear, and travel as light as possible.

Jump back to the bike and you have to think about the races that began to gain attention. Things like the IditaBike, which followed part of the Iditarod sled dog race course and later the Tour Divide race, which follows the Continental Divide from the US border with Canada south to Mexico. As mountain bikes became better and more accessible, more people raced them. Small races across rugged terrain gained popularity and captured the attention of a greater audience. There was a pull to adopt the ultralight backpacking knowledgebase to bikes.

The coalescing of all these forces pushed a commercial opportunity. Racing has always pushed the extreme of what's possible but with more interest comes those who want to purchase a solution. As companies jumped into the space, the movement snowballed. Instead of needing to make your own gear, you could choose from a variety of companies that catered to an ultralight ethos.

Today we find ourselves in a paradise of bikepacking. Any kind of product you need is available and the trails and routes are there for anyone to follow.  Remember what it's all about though. Get into nature on your bike and enjoy what is right in front of you.

Bikepacking bikes

What bike for bikepacking

Almost any bike can be easily adapted to go on a bikepacking adventure (Image credit: Graham Cottingham)

Bikepacking is a huge category encompassing lots of different types of riding. With that in mind, there is no single bike that makes sense in every situation. You also don't need a specific bike to be able to try bikepacking. Start with what you have. Design your trip around the strengths and weaknesses of the equipment you have and start getting out there.

As you develop expertise, preferences will come along for the ride.  As you get more specialized, allow the type of riding you like to dictate the type of bike you get. Whatever you end up with there are a few general considerations to keep in mind. Gearing is a big one; steep climbs on a loaded bike require different gearing than you might see in other situations. Don't be afraid of big, easy, climbing gears.

There's a lot of latitude for gearing preferences based on need, but disc brakes are nearly a must-have. Don't be afraid to use what you have, or what you can get cheaply, but if you are considering something new then opt for disc brakes. There are very few things in cycling that have changed so quickly and so completely as the switch from rim brakes to disc.

More important than anything, never settle for an uncomfortable, ill-fitting bike. Just because you score a great deal on a dream bike doesn't mean it's the right option for you. Make sure you spend time getting to know your bike and finding comfortable touchpoints.

Bikepacking equipment

There is a never-ending list of little details for your bike. Feel free to obsess about it all, but once you have a complete bike you are looking at a few major components that go on the bike. 

Bikepacking Bags

Bikepacking is all about staying light and nimble while carrying your gear on your bike. You need a way to do that and that means bags. 

As with most things in history, technology spurs adoption. One of the biggest expansions in bikepacking comes down to the availability of good bags. The early days of bikepacking meant sewing your own bags, or maybe having them custom made, for a specific bike and a specific need. As more bags became available, more people were able to get out in nature on their bikes. Today we are still very early in the history of commercially available bikepacking bags but there are some amazing options out there. 

The primary bags you will want to look at are a seatpost bag, a frame bag, and a handlebar bag. Some of the secondary bags to consider are a top tube bag and a feed bag. 

Seatpost Bag

A seatpost bag is where the longest pieces of gear can fit. They go under the saddle and they connect to the seat rails as well the seatpost. There are one-piece options as well as some options that consist of a holster and a bag. The advantage of the two-piece system is flexibility in terms of fitment. Longer pieces that don't need weather protection could go outside the bag. Look for the straps and other solutions for sticking jackets on the outside of the bag.

If you have a mountain bike and want to occasionally take it on overnight adventures you might run into an issue with fitting a saddle bag to your dropper post. Similarly, if you are tackling a seriously technical bikepacking route and need to be able to drop your seat out the way. The under-the-saddle bag is one of the most important locations for storage in a bikepacking setup but a dropper post makes it more complicated. There are an increasing number of solutions out there, just make sure you consider if that's a need.

Frame Bag

Frame bags can cover the entire frame triangle or just the upper portion. Your needs, as well as considerations for bike design, come into play. Going with a full-frame bag allows you to keep heavy items low on the frame for a better balance. The downside is that you now have to figure out a new solution for carrying water.

Water is still the primary concern if you choose a partial frame bag. Traveling fast and riding hard you need to be able to stay hydrated. If the bag you choose is too tall, it makes getting water bottles out difficult. Depending on the situation, you may find yourself reluctant to stop and get a difficult-to-reach water bottle. Whichever direction you go consider how to access your water or where else you can store it.

What bike for bikepacking

As bikepacking has become more popular, more and more manufacturers are offering luggage solutions (Image credit: Topeak)

Handlebar Bags

Handlebar bags represent the other primary storage location for on-bike bags. Keep in mind though that adding too much weight to your bars can affect the handling of the bike. As well as weight considerations, handlebars are a location with a diversity of needs. If you are running flat bars, you have different needs than those with drop bars. There are also suspension forks vs rigid forks.

Like seatpost bags, handlebar bags generally split into roll-and-harness or one-piece systems. Similarly, the same issues of flexibility vs simplicity are at play. Using a roll and harness system is a more flexible option but it can be finicky and challenging with smaller loads.

Use a two-piece bar bag for larger or longer loads. If you are using a flat bar set up, you could add long thin items outside of the dry bag. If you need to keep things narrow, pack the dry bag short and fat. On the other hand, if you have a small load, a one-piece bar bag is an easier option. 

Accessory Bags

With all the large bags covered, there are a couple of options for smaller items you need access to while riding. Top tube bags, also called bento boxes, are the most common. These bags attach to the top tube just behind the stem. Typically, they use a few hook and loop enclosures on the top tube plus a strap around the headset for stability. Many modern bikepacking focused bikes have a couple of braze-on mounts in this location. If you have the mounts, look for something to fit them. Mounts or not, look for a cable port to facilitate charging while riding, and bright interiors make finding small items easier.

Another option in this area is a feedbag. They connect to the handlebars and the stem in a triangle arrangement. It's an item seen less often but use it along with a top tube bag and you get a place for quick access to items as well as easy access to food. Top tube bags have often been a place for food, but feedbags don't have a zipper to fight with, making food even easier to get at while riding hard.

Lights

The need for lights is very situational. Depending on the time of year, and location, that you are planning your trip, you may have a relatively short window for daylight. Even if you aren't doing what most people would think of as nighttime riding, you might find yourself starting before the sunrise. Alternatively, some race situations might mean riding through the night. If there is any chance of riding in the dark or poor light conditions lights are a good idea just in case. 

The best way to know you will always have battery power is with a power generating hub and a hard-wired light setup. If riding through the night is a frequent issue this is the way to go. Keep in mind that if you are riding slowly, through technical terrain you will need a solution designed for this. As you slow down the power generated drops.  

If you aren't ready to build a new wheelset for charging then you are looking at battery-powered options. Some systems use a light that is separate from the battery. These options are more expensive, and heavier, but they offer the advantage of extra batteries. For most people, the best solution will be a self-contained light. You will want 800 lumens, or more, for riding comfortably in the dark. That doesn't mean you want to look for an 800-lumen light though. A light running at its max power will have a short runtime. Instead, look for a powerful light and reduce the power. Running at half power you should see 3-4 hours of runtime. 

To go beyond the battery of most lights you can either run multiple lights or charge them while riding. There are some lights on the market that will run while charging. They do exist but look carefully. This is a great way to handle the problem unless it's raining. Opening the charging port on a light will leave it susceptible to rain damage. If you need to ride through the night in the rain grab a few lights.  

GPS Bike Computer

It's possible to plan a bikepacking trip without using a GPS bike computer. On the other hand, using one can greatly reduce your anxiety on the road or trail. Even if you aren't that concerned with metrics like speed, power, cadence or heart rate, it's nice to know where you are. There's an old saying that when you are sure you've missed the turn and are now hopelessly lost, you are close. It's 2021 and there are a lot of great options out there. Instead of being nervous about where you are, keep an eye on your position all the time. The added bonus is a Strava humble-brag post after you've conquered an epic route. 

In modern bikepacking, battery power is a real consideration. A bike computer with long battery life solves a few battery-related issues. If you have enough battery power that you can use your bike computer for the entirety of a short trip, that means one less thing to charge. At the same time, using a bike computer instead of your phone means you can save your phone for emergencies and might not need to charge the phone either. Even on a longer trip, the less you have to worry about charging something, the better. 

Make sure whatever you choose has the info you need without cell service. If you have to rely on your phone and you need your phone to have service, then you reduce the functionality of the bike computer. Depending on your route you may also be well outside of the service for your phone when you really need a map. 

Bikepacking equipment for the rider

When it comes to equipment for the rider, we are really talking about the equipment it takes to sleep outdoors. You need food, water, and shelter. You also need to be able to carry everything you require on a bike. Bikepacking is a sport that borrows heavily from the modern ultralight backpacking movement. Think in terms of usability, weight, and volume. Consider every single item through this lens. 

Even if you have your bike fully outfitted with all the largest bags you can fit, there's not a whole lot of volume available. Something like tent poles might not weigh a whole lot but they might be too long to fit. You need to consider the most space-efficient possible solutions for every single item you have with you. 

When it comes to concerns, right behind space efficiency is weight. Even if you manage to pack everything into a small space it might be too heavy. A flat route on the road is a lot more forgiving for weight than a steep route over singletrack territory. As much as the wallet allows, try to go with the lightest option available for everything you carry. Also, consider balance. Keep heavy items centred and low on the bike.

The path to meeting volume and weight goals has a lot to do with usability considerations. If you are bringing something with you consider leaving it at home. Will you be able to complete your goal without it? If so, is there some other reason to bring it along? Sometimes it's worth bringing a little extra weight if it's going to make life on the trail more enjoyable. At the same time, if you can use items for multiple uses that are an easy way to save weight and space. Consider if you can swap two products for one that does both jobs. 

What is bikepacking

When the weather is good you a bivy bag setup is one of the lightest sleeping system (Image credit: Graham Cottingham)

Sleep System

For years, sleeping bags were the only option for lightweight warmth at night. To make a sleeping bag light, the size got reduced to the point that it was hard to move in them. If your feet tended to be hot you might end up with sweltering, sweaty feet trapped in a tiny foot box. If you were a side sleeper then good luck. Then people started to consider the whole sleep system. The sleeping pad moved from being only a buffer to being an equal partner. The solution that got introduced was the sleeping quilt. A sleeping quilt gets rid of all the parts of a sleeping bag that aren't doing much anyway but it retains the warmth. By pairing up with your clothing and your sleeping pad you get flexibility, reduced weight, and you also stay warm.

When choosing the best sleeping pad part of your sleep system, you are going to want to go with an inflatable option. Foam sleeping pads are inexpensive, lightweight, and generally work very well. On the other hand, inflatable sleeping pads are relatively expensive and it's not impossible to puncture them. The reason inflatable makes sense for bikepacking is volume. Bikepacking puts a lot of emphasis on volume as a packing consideration because the load gets split into multiple locations. Inflatable sleeping pad packs down very small. It takes a little bit of practice but once you've got the hang of rolling it a good inflatable sleeping pad will get down to about the size of a water bottle. Avoid self-inflating mats too as they don't pack done nearly as small as a regular sleeping pad and offer little advantage.

Stove

Backpacking, and by extension bikepacking, stoves fall into two main camps. There are canister stoves and liquid fuel stoves.

Most of the time a canister fuel stove arranges things with the canister at the bottom. The canister provides the base and stability for the entire contraption. On top of the canister is the actual stove in the form of a long narrow shape. This is where the regulator sits and it leads to the burner at pot support at the very top. The whole arrangement is lightweight but it means that you are forever dependent on purchasing canisters.

On the other side of things are liquid fuel options. Liquid fuel stoves use a refillable container that is easily opened. The stove itself tends to be the base for the pot, and this arrangement is more stable on rough terrain. Unlike a canister fuel stove, you can, and should, use a windscreen so in windy conditions they are easier to use. There are also options that allow the use of a variety of fuels that are easier to obtain in remote locations. The downside is they require some maintenance and can be more finicky to get started.

Cooking systems are bulky so consider options that allow everything to be packed into itself to keep your setup as compact as possible. While hot food after a big ride and a morning coffee after a chilly night is nice it's worth considering whether you actually need to cook at all. Less cooking equipment opens up more space for food and other potentially more beneficial equipment.

What is bikepacking

Stove and a mountain hut is bikepacking luxury (Image credit: Graham Cottingham)

Shelter

There are a lot of options available for shelter. The easiest place to start is, can you do without? If you aren't worried about insects or weather, sleeping under the stars is the easiest, lightest, solution. It doesn't get much lighter than a small piece of plastic to cover the ground under your sleeping system. 

If you decide you need some shelter then you have a lot of choices. There are systems that use parts of the bike as support. That's a great option as long as your bike isn't a wet, muddy, mess. There are hammocks meant for backpacking or bikepacking, but that can mean looking for a place to hang them. 

If you want to go with something more akin to a traditional tent that leaves you with still more options. A single person bivy, a tarp with stakes and a support line, or a small single person tent. The heaviest, most luxurious option is a small tent. It weighs a bit more but will keep you dry if it rains, doesn't require finding the right trees for setup, and will protect you from insects. Just make sure it will fit in your bags. 

Batteries

All the modern electronics you are carrying need power. Like shelter, the first place to start is can you go without? If not, then what size battery is actually a fairly simple calculation. Look at the battery size, in mAh, of everything you need to charge. Add up the numbers and multiply the answer by the number of times you need to charge things. The answer you get is how much battery power you need.

Once you know the amount of power you need, then you can look for a battery. Unfortunately, there is no magic when it comes to batteries. You will not find a super small battery with a huge capacity. If that existed it would be the choice for every piece of modern electronics, and electric cars, on the market. The power density of batteries is somewhat standard. If you need a lot of power that will be a significant amount of weight. The only real choice is do you carry multiple smaller batteries or a single large one.

Solar panels do offer another hope for a charging solution but there's no miracle answer there either. Delivering lots of power takes a lot of surface area. Anything more than low power trickle charge is going to be larger than you can carry on your bike. In some situations, spending all day in the bright sun will mean time is on your side and a trickle charge is worth it but think hard about it.

What is bikepacking

Why shouldn't you bikepack? (Image credit: Graham Cottingham)

Why you should bikepack

Choosing bikepacking isn't a binary choice of either racing or vacationing or bikepacking. You can really have it all when it comes to bikepacking. If you want to race you can do an ultra-endurance race that takes you across a continent and spend your night sleeping on the route. In some ways that's the root of bikepacking and if you want to feel the push of competition the option is there. You can even choose to do something a bit shorter that still involves long-distance bikepacking. 

The advantage of a race that involves bikepacking is that it is just you and your thoughts for most of the race. There is no peloton where you have to spend time racing elbow to elbow and there is no need to worry about COVID safety either. The only real question is can you ride faster while sleeping less?

If that kind of competition doesn't sound like your cup of tea, then a bikepacking vacation can be the complete opposite. Instead of riding until you can't see straight, you can ride as far as you want. Set up camp where you want to enjoy the rest of the day exploring. Choose the right route and you could even bring a little one with you in a trailer. Feel like staying an extra day before moving on, go ahead. Bikepacking can be as relaxing, or as intense, as you want it to be.