Words and photos by Cameron Sanders
If you give “Bikepacking” a Google, you’ll be bombarded with overwhelming lists of equipment reviews and route suggestions to leave you drooling and wanting to quit your job and hit the trail… but let’s admit it; most of us can’t afford to up and embark on year-long, month-long, or even 10 day-long journey, let alone buy all the fancy bikepacking equipment we've seen emerge over the last few years. The truth is you probably have the means to go bikepacking right now. Likely, you are able to accomplish some pretty rad trips at this very moment. Bikepacking is about the spirit of adventure, escaping the day-to-day and discovery. The most important tool to bring to any journey is the will to get out there.
Bikepackers are born from trial and error, expeditions you’ll remember for the rest of your days and some you’d prefer to forget, and repetitive touring. This blog will not be focusing on some outlandish epic adventure, or how you can best spend your entire paycheck on equipment. This blog is about empowering anyone, anywhere, equipped with any skillset, to get out there and @adventure_by_bike.
The Journey is the most important part of any adventure. While the Baja Divide, Tour Divide, Iditarod Trail, White Rim Trail or that trip to Vietnam you’ve been dreaming about for half your life all rank up there in our minds, the best place to explore is the radius around your house you can drive to after work on Friday. The culmination of adventures you can have if you dutifully go bikepacking every other weekend will outweigh even the grandest singular pursuit. These micro-adventures, not only add up to a very happy lifestyle, but each experience builds to make you a more competent bikepacker and trip planner. Try a bikepacking trip straight out your front door - you’ll be surprised how empowering it is to spend the entire trip under your own power. You’ll be amazed by the places and things you never realized were lurking nearby.
Dream big tours while you execute small ones. Dreaming of riding the Tour Divide? Bikepack every mile of the 2745 mile epic around your neighborhood. Find out what’s the most elevation gain you experience in a 48hr window on the Divide and try and replicate the same gains on a weekend overnight (a challenging prospect if you live in Kansas or Florida). A good bikepacking trip may be linking all your favorite trails together, exploring totally new trails, or by simply randomly selecting backroads to explore you’ve never been on before. Have a friend pick gravel roads on a map at random and form a loop or use online tools to do the same (some cycling computers can also do this). I guarantee you, you will learn something important about yourself, your abilities and, most importantly, your expectations as a result of just getting out there.
It's good practice to have a route planned and available upon demand. I build my routes on Google Map Maker and ridewithgps.com, export .gpx files to my phone and cycling computer, and send .pdf files to my old black and white Kindle and phone. I use the paid version of the US Topo Maps app and cache detailed maps of where I plan to visit prior to departure, on my phone. For tours longer than a singular weekend, I annotate my .pdf file with additional details. A black and white Kindle can last weeks on a single charge and can be picked up for virtually nothing these days. Here's an example of the annotated route I made for my 3 Rivers 3 Sisters trip last fall. It's good to come back to these route plans post ride and follow up with lessons learned and altered expectations.
It is very important to be willing to alter your route mid-bikepack. “Summit-fever”, or sticking to your planned itinerary at all costs is dangerous and counterproductive. Know when to push yourself and when to change plans.
Accommodating overnight camping may or may not be an issue depending on your proximity to public lands. Bureau of Land Management and US Forest Service Lands are best for accommodating impromptu adventures and offer the most camping flexibility. Visitors on these lands are allowed to disperse camp – or camp outside of officially designated locations – for free, given they follow some basic guidelines:
- Follow Leave No Trace Principles and keep our public lands pristine.
- Do not camp within a half mile of designated develop campgrounds or sites.
- Do not camp within visibility of travel corridors, be they roads or trails.
- Do not camp within 150 ft. of waterways (lakes, streams, ect.).
- Do not camp in camping restricted areas/corridors.
- Know and adhere to any fire restrictions. Practice fire safety.
Additionally some agencies, like the US Forest Service and some State Parks, offer primitive cabins, yurts, fire towers and huts for various rates. These huts can often be linked together to form multi-day bikepacking adventures. Utilizing these huts can help you get started if you are still working on growing your equipment arsenal. Remember to check on whether these resources require reservations (most do) before taking off. Recreation.gov is the best source for discovering most federally reservable sites and cabins.
For at least some of your adventures, let the place itself be the deciding factor for route development. For example, go bikepacking someplace because that area of the state or those canyons or peaks interests you. Look for primitive roads and trails to interconnect within the area. This sets you up for an entirely different kind of experience than hitting the local “flow” trails… a journey of discovery.
Add your own personal flair to your bikepacking expeditions. Like to fish? Learn how best to carry a fly rod while cycling and plan an adventure to an alpine stream or lake. Enjoy rock climbing? Plan a series of trips along canyon roads or river bluffs in search of climbs with your climbing gear in tow (which is a challenge, I can assure you). Take your fatbike skiing. Ride towards a mountain you’ve always wanted to summit. Get as close as you can and then stash your bike in the woods, transfer your touring bags to a backpack and head for the peak.
I will be covering “bikepackrafting” – my personal favorite form of adventure cycling – later this year.
Bikepacking is the balance of being self-sufficient and traveling with as little “stuff” as possible. The more you bikepack, the more stuff you’ll get rid of. There’s no doubt that money can assist you in getting your loaded rig’s weight down through high-end ultralight gear; however, a few good packing decisions can make a bigger difference than a bottomless bank account. Additionally, weight isn’t everything. Straightforward reliability is a much more important gear/component factor for equipment selection when bikepacking than counting grams.
Know your machine. Having at least a basic understanding of your bicycle is absolutely paramount when doing remote cycling. The further you plan on getting out there, the more you should know about your bike and how to repair it. If you breakdown days out from the nearest town, it’s not only a bummer, it’s dangerous. I find that remoteness - or distance away from services - can be just as big of a factor in my equipment selection as anticipated time spent traveling and/or distance traveled. It goes without saying, if you’re bringing a tool for making field repairs, know how to use it. Don’t try a new repair technique on the trail for the first time. Fortunately, youtube and quality time with your bike can teach you all you need to know.
Be creative. Nearly all the new fancy bikepacking gear on the market today wasn’t around just a few years ago. Garage tinkerers have built the bikepacking gear empire of today and you are just as capable. Look at every empty space on your bike as a potential way to store things. Tape a spare tube under your saddle or behind your seatpost yolk. Store a spoke or two taped down inside your handlebars (only if you know how to repair a broken spoke or else what's the point). Use some King Cage dryer hose bottle cage mounts to put cages all around your bike and remember: bottle cages can hold more than just water bottles and water bottles can hold more than just water. There are tons of excellent DIY resources online for the crafty. If you can’t fabricate worth a lick there’s always the tailor in town, the welder and metalworker down the street, or the drafter who can make you 3D blueprints to send to the printer. The majority of my bikepacking gear has been fabricated by myself, neighbors, and cycling friends I’ve met through social media.
Not all weight is created equal. This one’s an important factor to continually refine. Weight lower and more centered to your bike frame is better than weight higher and further away from your frame. This is why having a good framebag is so important. By putting most of your heavy gear low and centered to your frame - like in a framebag - you create a much more stable ride. Weight on your back not only leads to additional fatigue and sweat for you, but it makes your cycling experience significantly less stable. If you have to ride with a pack, try and keep it to a fanny pack. For this reason, I ride with my hydration bladder in my framebag, running my hose out of the bag and attaching it to my handlebars, rather than in a backpack. Water is heavy and if I have to ride with a pack, I’m going to put my lightest equipment in the pack.
Don’t let the lack of fancy equipment be the reason you don’t go bikepacking. I would encourage you to go out and ride with incomplete, or subpar, setups (as long as you’re not putting yourself in needless danger). While bikepacking you will think of things you never previously imagined needing, and more importantly, realize a lot of what you thought you needed would be a waste. Keep safety in mind, and manage risk through good planning, communication, and balanced equipment. Remember there is no perfect, ultimate bikepacking setup. Your needs will change overtime just like your adventures.
Keep it Simple Stupid (KISS). KISS is the mantra of First Responders the world over. This same mentality applies to bikepacking. The extra “features” along with the “bells and whistles” a lot of products advertise more often than not end up being pointless hindrances. If you’re an ultralight backpacker, you’ve probably come to similar conclusions.
Just as road cycling and mountain biking can be further broken down into sub-disciplines with their own variations on the bicycle, so is bikepacking multi-disciplinary. More than likely the bikepacker you’re looking for is not the rig with the highest price tag at your local bike shop (unless your LBS carries a Moots or two). Suspension forks and dropper posts add significantly to the complexity of your bicycle but perhaps your backcountry adventures require such components…. Perhaps not.
More on suspension… Suspension parts are complicated. If you’re running a hardtail or a full suspension, the extra weight of your equipment may require you adjust your sag. If you don’t know what sag is or how to adjust it, then you have some work to do prior to taking off bikepacking with suspension. Know what the dials do on your bike’s suspension. Know how to adjust your suspension’s air and have the tools to do so. Know how temperature variations affect your moving parts, including your dropper post. Full suspension bikes will greatly limit the space you have available for a framebag. Remember, your framebag is one of the best places to store weight on your bike. If you experience catastrophic suspension failure in the backcountry, there will likely be no way to fix your problems trailside.
International Travel requires additional preparations. Your bicycle and your kit need additionally levels of attention when traveling internationally. Things like tubeless sealant, compressed white gas, hydraulic brake fluid, parts for more “modern” cranks and wheel standards, and so on may not be available in all locations. Steel bicycles are also advantageous in the instance of frame failure, as metalworkers with the means and ability to repair steel are common the world over.
If you’re wondering what I ride, I’ve purposefully been vague on disclosing my bikepacking kit. This is because bikepacking is a personal journey and your equipment needs are likely different than my own. I will go out on a limb and disclose fat and midfat tires have revolutionized how I ride. While fatter tires do behave very differently than traditional suspension systems, they do eat up the bumps and help you and your equipment have a more enjoyable ride. This in turn allows me to focus more on keeping my bike simple and straightforward. Fat tires additionally open up entire new realms of adventure previously unobtainable, and I’m not just speaking of winter snow rides. Personally, I never run more than 1x drivetrain and have been known to bikepack singlespeed. Finally, #SteelisReal, especially when it comes to bikepacking.
Reliability. Durability. Repairability.
Go Bikepacking. That’s all there is to it. If you have a limited supply of gear, skills, experience, and time still Go Bikepacking.
Set yourself a goal: “try it for the first time”, “twice a season”, “once a month”, “every Saturday night”, “every other weekend in summer and twice in winter”. Make adventure cycling an integral part of your life. As you grow as a bikepacker, challenge yourself with new expectations, routes, places, and distances. Once you’ve got things down pat, spread the love of bikepacking to your fellow cyclist.