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Bikepacking for Backpackers

Bikepacking for Backpackers

Bikepacking, essentially backpacking with a bike, is a great way to explore backcountry destinations that can’t be reached by hiking trails or are closed to cars and trucks.

Want to climb a remote peak that no one’s climbed? Photograph wild animals in their natural habitat? Or discover a wild trout stream that’s never been fished? Just hop on your mountain bike, pack up your overnight gear, and ride into the sunset down the gated forest service roads, fire roads, logging roads and ski mobile trails that criss-cross the backcountry.

It’s as easy as riding a bicycle. Well almost…

Learn how to fix your bike before you bikepack in the backcountry
Learn how to fix your bike before you bikepack in the backcountry

Bikepacking Basics

Best backpacking bikes

While you can bikepack with a road bike on paved roads, a mountain bike is your best bet for riding dirt or gravel roads in the backcountry. There are a wide variety of mountain bikes available…hard tails, fat tire bikes, gravel bikes, etc. When getting started, choose a bike that you can afford and ride frequently near your home. You can always upgrade later when you have a better appreciation for the terrain and features you prefer.

If you’re not a mountain bike expert, I’d encourage you to develop a relationship with a bike store that is focused on mountain biking and buy a bike from them instead of over the internet. They’ll help you get a good fit, help you outfit your bike, and can teach you basic bike repair and maintenance skills which will make you self-sufficient and save you time getting into the sport.

Saddle time

If you’ve never mountain biked before, saddle time is important. Bike maneuverability skills on rougher terrain take practice to learn and it’s important to get in shape before you start taking any backcountry trips.

Riding a mountain bike all day instead of shorter rides can put a lot of strain on your body, so make sure to tune your bike’s fit properly before you start taking all day trips. Getting a padded seat, adjusting your seat height and stem distance, using padded grips, and repositioning your brake and shift levers, etc. – can reduce wrist strain and bum discomfort on long rides.

Bikepacking repair

Learning how to fix your own flat tires is a must and you’ll want to build a bikepacking repair kit so you don’t have to push your bike out of the backcountry on foot if it breaks down. Check with your local bike shop. They may offer a repair and maintenance course to help you up the learning curve. Learn by doing. Ride with other mountain bikers and take an experienced friend on bikepacking trips before heading out on your own.

Bikepacking Gear

Bags and Packs

While you can carry all of your bikepacking gear in a backpack, you’ll be a lot more comfortable if you pack it in stuff sacks or pockets attached to the bike frame itself. There are a wide variety of bikepacking bags and pockets available for stowing your gear on a bike including, but not limited to:

  • Saddle and seat bags that attach to your rear seat post or bicycle seat
  • Handlebar bags that hang above your front wheel
  • Frame bags that hang below your top tube
  • Gas tanks that attach on top of your top tube

There are really no limits to the ways that people use to attach gear to their bikes. There’s also burgeoning cottage industry of small manufacturers that are constantly inventing new products in the space, much like those that help spearhead the ultralight backpacking industry. Some notables are Relevate Designs, Portland Design WorksWingnut, Porcelain RocketOveja Negra, Arkel, Apidura, and Bedrock Gear, but there are many others.

But before you go overboard and spend a lot of money on bikepacking bags, get yourself some straps and experiment with lashing waterproof backpacking stuff sacks to your handlebars and frame. Low tech, low-cost solutions exist for carrying gear on bikes that can save you a lot of coin. Use your imagination and save.

Journey into the unknown with your bike and lightweight bikepacking gear
Journey into the unknown with your bike and ultralight bikepacking gear

Ultralight and Lightweight Backpacking Gear

If you already own ultralight and lightweight backpacking gear, you’ve got a huge leg up on mountain bikers who want to break in the sport. In addition to weight, the volume or bulkiness of your gear becomes increasingly important on a bike because packing space is at such a premium. Small shelters like tarps or bivy sacks pack up smaller than tents, going stoveless or using a wood stove can save valuable pack space, using a quilt instead instead of a sleeping bag…these are all variables that you’ll want to consider when bikepacking and may help you further refine your backpacking gear and skill set.

Wilderness Navigation Tools

Planning and navigation can also be quite challenging and fun depending on where you decide to bikepack. While knowing how to use map and compass is still essential, it’s often easier to use a smartphone navigation app like Gaia when bikepacking because the roads you’re traveling on twist and turn so frequently. Up front planning can also be a huge challenge, depending on how well mapped the area you plan to travel is. Learning how to use a planning tool like Caltopo, which has satellite photos, can be a big help is discovering new backcountry roads to travel or where existing road are.

Bikepacking and Backpackers

Bikepacking is a great way to explore new terrain for backpackers that lets you use much as the same camping gear and navigation skills you use on the trail. In fact, there’s no reason you can’t combine the two into multi-modal adventures where you bike and hike more remote peaks, camp at seldom visited destinations, or fly fish small streams and headwaters. Bikepacking provides a great way that you can push back the boundaries of time and distance and experience the wilderness more deeply.

Have you taken the bikepacking plunge?

Written 2017.

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  1. I have taken the plunge using all gear I already had. In fact I started on my road bike with 28’s. Better to have a bike that can take fatter tires though. Quite a relief to have nothing on your back for once. This is a great option for folks with plantar fascitis btw Philip! I do more bike stuff when my feet can’t take the pounding of backpacking.

    • Good to switch between different activities to prevent overuse…I did a lot of remote hikes last summer up in the New Hampshire North Country which is criss-crossed by unmapped, often temporary, logging roads. I bikepack for fly fishing “out-there” headwaters and to get close enough to some bushwhacking peaks down gated roads, so I can climb them. It saves my 170,000 mile car from being shaken to bits on dirt roads that are often washed out. It’s also fun way to use all my gear and navigation skills in a slightly different way.

  2. Golly! The last photo of the cyclist on a trail looks very much like a certain section of the CO Trail between Silverton and Durango.

    Bikepacking (and mountain biking in general) is very fun although I’ve switched to hiking and backpacking for the time being – gaining access to Wilderness Areas being one reason. Bushwhacking and the ability for deeper exploration being another.

    Most of the same hiking rules and guidelines apply directly to bikepacking except for the bike maintenance, safety, handling and pack loading. The weight on the bike can be surprisingly invisible.

    Good to see some bikepacking information on here :-)

    • Being a blog, the content follows my personal interests as they evolve. Fly fishing, XC skiing, bikepacking – all things I do for fun and with a certain intensity, when not hiking, backpacking, and bushwhacking which are still my main passions.

      • You’ll have to come join me for some hang gliding. It gives a very different perspective to the large forests I often backpack and canoe in. The downside is my glider, harness, and parachute weigh almost 120 pounds! Very light in the air though!


  3. I too took the plunge a few years ago. I purchased a rear rack for my cyclocross bike. Fitted her (him?) with 35c gravel tires, strapped my ultralight backpacking kit to the rack, and cycled the length of C&O Canal Tow Path. I’ve been hooked ever since.

  4. I’ve got a good mountain bike and lots of ultralight backpacking gear but I don’t know where to use it. Could you recommend any good resources for bike packing routes?

    • Any place with forest service roads, fire roads, or logging roads – basically any national park or national forest will probably do. Many of these roads are mapped on the old USGS maps. If not, you can draw them in a tools like Hillmap which lets you synch topos with Satellite Photos, which is how I map out logging roads and forest service that I want to use. I’m sure there are lots of mountain biking web sites with GPX files you can download, but I rarely use anyone else’s routes for much of anything and like to roll my own.

  5. With the grandkiddos, I’m slowly becoming somewhat competent in mountain bike maintenance and repair. Bikepacking sounds interesting.

    One problem I have is acquiring the amount of oomph necessary to avoid walking the bike up the hills. I also need to avoid executing any more epic helmet breaking over the handlebars wipeouts on the downhills, such as I performed for the kiddos last month. Nobody died… or even required hospitalization.

    • Same problem all of us have. The trick is to keep your butt on the seat for traction and get in shape. I didn’t think they had hills in Texas though…?

      There is a bike maintenance leaning curve though. Don’t mess with it until it’s broke.

  6. Had to read this twice. If I can’t hike it a bike sure isn’t going to get me there I don’t care how fat the tires are.

    • I think what he means is you can go further, faster. So you can get deeper into the backcountry for a weekender than you could on foot.

      As far as terrain goes you are right, your feet can take you places a bike can only dream of rolling over.

      • I think he’s joking and knows that I’m a fanatical backpacker already. Bikepacking gives me just an excuse to travel to places where I wouldn’t want to walk to, like down logging roads, but ones that go to some pretty interesting places.

  7. We’ve been interested for a couple years, and are hoping to take our first trip this autumn. By the way, the website has a pretty good routes section, everything from the easy to “how the hell did they do that one?”

  8. Phil,
    As an UL backpacker in my mid 70s I’m seriously entertaining the idea of getting an electric bike with mid drive (motor on the crank).
    AND there has been a recent Federal rule change ALLOWING electric bikes anywhere mountain bikes are permitted. YEA!

    I have old Cannondale rear panniers and aluminum rack and a front pannier rack. I’m looking for some tough but fairly small front panniers. Especially for packing out meat when big game hunting this e-bike revolution is a Godsend.

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