More and more people are jumping on the bikepacking bandwagon—and for good reason.
Bikepacking, which can be best described as a mix between biking and backpacking, brings you all of the benefits of camping, plus more. You can get off the grid without being too far away. You can cover more ground than if you were just hiking. You can choose your own adventure, from a backcountry bikepacking trip on your mountain bike to a gravel-grinding week of 100-mile days to cruising on a road bike with nothing but a credit card in your jersey pockets.
When it comes to bikepacking, there aren’t many rules—and that not only applies to the bike you ride and the ground you cover, but also to the places you stay along the way. You can plan to stay in hotels along your route or camp on roadsides, stop for two nights or two months, load down with lots of gear or just have a single extra-large bar bag. It’s all considered bikepacking and that’s the beauty of it.
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While some purists may argue that you’re not bikepacking if you don’t carry all of your gear, the community is becoming more open to the potential of doing a bikepacking trip without the big pack included. So you can travel for multiple days and pay for your hotel room or Airbnb, wash your kit in the sink, and change into the single pair of shorts and tank top that you brought in your handlebar bag.
Even the pros get in on the bikepacking fun. Professional road and cyclocross racers Coryn Rivera and Kaitie Keough went out on a bikepacking excursion on the coast of California for Rivera’s bachelorette party back in 2020. They were joined by fellow pro riders for chunks of the trip, including Alison Tetrick and Justin Williams.
Then, there are the enthusiasts who've learned to love bikepacking during the pandemic, taking it as seriously as they used to take their racing. Ene Underwood and Brooklyn Smith are two former weekend warriors who traded start lines for tiny tents—though Smith still uses bikepacking as a chance to race.' Underwood uses bikepacking as a way to indulge in some quiet time away from her corporate 9-to-5.
“I want people to fall in love with the bikepacking community, and not feel like it has to be this bro culture and specific way things need to be done for it to count,’” says Joe Cruz, a philosophy professor at Williams College and a veteran bikepacker. He and Matt Kadey, founder of the BT700 loop in Canada, a longtime bikepacker and registered dietitian who’s written a book on cycling nutrition, both have tons of tips to share.
All of these bikepackers allowed Bicycling to pick their brains about what you should know about bikepacking—from safety concerns to picking the right pack for your riding style.
Planning is half the fun
When he plans a route, Cruz admits he spends far too much time first with a paper map, then on satellite and street views online to find the perfect roads.
“I share routes online, but I don’t tell people what time of year to go, and I leave out some suggestions of stop options. What I want is for people to be engaged in in the planning process so that you can think for yourself during it, and have ownership of your trip,” he says.
When assessing a route, make sure you read up on the terrain—gravel will be harder to ride and take longer than smooth roads—and the elevation. A flat 50 miles of road is very different than a 50-mile mountain traverse on singletrack!
In fact, all six bikepackers we talked to are eager to share their extreme planning prowess. Smith is a fan of making a spreadsheet that includes a timetable, exact food and water stops, and gear needed depending on the weather. Underwood has a simpler general packing list she uses for trips, but after each excursion, she revisits and refines it based on her past experiences.
But the key is that bikepacking, unlike a casual day of riding, does require more planning. And the more remote you’ll be, the more you need to plan to ensure that at the end of the day’s ride, you can be warm, dry and well-fed. So, check the forecast, as well as the GPS file.
Pack for the trip you’re taking
Not planning to stop in towns along the way? You can get away with few casual clothes. Staying at Airbnbs and hotels? Your toiletries kit can consist of just toothpaste and a toothbrush.
Both Rivera and Cruz noted that you’ll want to pack differently, depending on what kind of bikepacking trip you’re planning. Rivera opted to carry a flannel rather than something heavier for the summer California climate, while in the Northeast, Cruz won’t leave home without his puffy jacket stashed in his frame bag.
If you are camping, Underwood is a fan of a quilt system rather than a sleeping bag, because it’s a little more versatile and easily tucks away. And while it’s a bit of a splurge, she recommends spending on a bikepacking-specific tent if you’re going to be camping regularly, because the design and sizing means you can pack the tent poles and everything else down into bike bags. Underwood’s big indulgence? She brings a tiny, lightweight camp chair by Helinox because “after a long day on the bike, it’s nice to sit down and have proper back support,” she says.
The other important piece is what you’ll wear off the bike: “Having something warm and dry to change into at the end of the day is critical, especially if it’s cooler at night,” says Underwood. Pack your casual clothes in a waterproof bag and protect them at all costs.
Finally, if you’re planning to stop anywhere in town for meals, a restock on necessities, or for sleeping, a bike lock is an important piece of gear that’s easy to forget.
Keough thought she could get away with borrowing her dad’s bulky bag for the back of her bike to carry some spare clothing and other necessities. But when she realized that Rivera and the other pro racers on the bikepacking excursion with them weren’t planning on a leisurely pace, she knew her bulky bag was going to drag her down.
“On day two, I stopped at a UPS, mailed the old bag home, and got a new, lighter, smaller bag at REI,” she admits. Panniers might be optimal for someone attempting a slower-paced long trip—which Underwood prefers—but if you’re hoping to go quickly or hit singletrack along the way, Cruz recommends upgrading to soft packs that attach to your seat, handlebars, and even the frame.
Try before you buy, if possible. If you're new to bikepacking, you probably shouldn’t drop thousands on a bikepacking setup before you’ve tried it at least once. Start with a hotel bikepacking weekend, then progress to borrowing gear from a friend if possible. It’s better to know exactly what style of bags you love so that you can buy high-quality, versus opting for the cheapest ones available.
Stay local-ish to start
As borders have re-opened and travel is back, it’s tempting to start in a far-flung destination, but try a local trip first. Even in your own backyard, there’s plenty to explore: The gravel road you’ve never ridden, the secret singletrack, the long highway to nowhere. You can still adventure without taking a plane or bus to your starting destination.
If you’re new to bikepacking, try this fun trick: Camp in your own backyard for the first night. That’s actually what Smith does every time he gets new gear. He loads up his bike as he would for a normal trip, then does a long ride with the fully packed bike, then pitches his tent in his own backyard to test everything out. That way, he knows how everything works before being stranded somewhere remote.
“If you are venturing into the deep wilderness on your own, it’s recommended to bring some sort of tracker system,” says Kadey. “This way, if things go really sideways, emergency help is possible with a push of a button. I have the What Three Words app on my phone, as an increasing number of emergency services can use this. Any unique three-word combo can help pinpoint your exact location if you need emergency help.”
It’s a good idea to share your route, location on your phone, and projected timeline with a trusted friend or spouse, but if you’ll be venturing into areas with spotty cell service, you may want to consider an inReach or Spot tracker as an added safety measure.
If you’re leaving a car at the trailhead or in a public parking lot, Underwood also recommends leaving a note on the dashboard with your contact info, an emergency contact, and your projected return date.
Of course, on-bike safety matters too! “Since many bikepacking routes also have to venture on some busy roads out of necessity, I believe it is a good idea to have a red blinking daylight on your bike, even if most of your trip is on empty gravel roads and trails,” says Kadey. “We tend to get too complacent on these types of trips but it is still important to be car aware.”
Be prepared to be exhausted
Rivera and Keough both agree that bikepacking does, in a lot of ways, feel like a stage race. Sure, your average speed and effort while riding won’t be as high, but riding long distances carrying all of your necessities does break your body down after a couple days. Add in sleeping in tents or uncomfortable hotels, scavenging for gas-station snacks and meals and rinsing kits in bathroom sinks, and it’s harder than stage races in many ways.
“We weren’t riding super fast, but it was long day after long day for seven days in a row,” Keough says. “It was definitely a fitness-builder. And it was hard! But that said, if you’re excited and curious about what’s going to happen each day, it doesn’t feel as much like training or racing, it becomes a fun adventure.”
Make sure you eat
“I actually do jaw training for bikepack-racing,” Smith admits. He chews gum constantly as he tries to prepare for the tremendous caloric load he’ll be expending and trying to balance on his longer race-effort rides. The BT700, a 700-kilometer loop in Ontario, took him two straight days of self-supported riding with minimal stops to snooze and refuel. That meant that for much of the time, he was chewing while he pedaled.
On normal trips, he and Underwood are in perfect accord: Nothing beats an all-day diner breakfast for serious calories from a stack of pancakes, protein in a loaded omelette, and maybe a couple slices of toast to stick in a bag for later.
You can also bring plenty of your own food, the way you would for a normal camping trip. For longer rides, maybe try to make sure you eat the occasional vegetable as well.
“Depending on the route and time of year, I’m a big fan of stopping by farm stands where you can grab some fresh food that can be added to meals when on the go. This can certainly add a nutrition upgrade to the ultra-processed food that can dominate bikepacking trips,” says Kadey. “I typically make a batch of homemade energy balls that provide easy and delicious fuel when moving along. These tend to be a healthier option to help fuel a bikepacking trip than most packaged foods. I also almost always make my own power oatmeal packets that consist of quick-cook oats mixed with cinnamon, protein powder, seeds, and dried fruit such as dried tart cherries. This provides a pretty nutritious start to the day and better than most of the packaged instant stuff.”
Leave no trace
Whether at a public campsite, in the backcountry or tucked in the woods doing the stealth camp thing, remember the golden rule of leaving no trace. As Underwood points out, make sure you're packing out all your trash, hanging your food at night to prevent critters making a mess or a bear in your tent, and generally be respectful of the land where you’re camping.