Bikepacking 101

Photo: Colt Fetters/TandemStock

Bikepacking: How To Get Started

If you know how to ride a bike and you’re comfortable camping, you’re ready for bikepacking. You don't need the most rugged terrain or remote singletrack. Dirt roads offer a great way to get started. And once you get comfortable with the equipment and skills, bikepacking can take you from weekend wilderness escapes to multi-month transcontinental journeys. Let’s get going. 

Choose the Right Bike

Bikepacking starts with the right bike, and you may already have it. The most important consideration is what terrain you will be riding on, such as dirt roads or singletrack trails. For dirt roads, the speed and weight savings of a rigid bike, like a gravel or cyclocross bike, might be the best option. But if you’re planning on rowdier riding, you’ll want a hardtail or even full-suspension bike. Check out our bikepacking bike buyer's guide to find the best choice.

Outfit Your Bike with Gear Bags

You need to carry your camping gear, just like with backpacking, and the key to comfortable (and safe) bikepacking is outfitting your bike so your load is balanced. You want compact gear distributed between the front, middle, and rear. 

Bags: You’ll find a variety of bags designed to fit the front of your handlebars, in the gap between the tubes of your bike’s frame, and underneath your seat (extending outwards over the rear tire). For longer or more gear-intensive trips, you can also get bags that attach to your front forks and on either side of the rear wheel, and in small crevices where you can squeeze a bit of storage. Start with a handlebar bag, a frame bag, and a seat bag. Test packing your kit in bags before buying, as you want a good fit (without loose fabric or needing to cram gear in). To save weight and improve balance, get bags that attach directly to the bike. 

Waterproofing: Waterproof bags offer extra insurance, of course. They’re more expensive, but worth it if you’ll be riding in wet weather. If you’re mostly a fair-weather rider, you can always use waterproof stuff sacks or garbage bags to keep your gear dry (use these on the inside of your bike bags).  

Pack Smart 

When loading gear for a bikepacking trip, keep three priorities in mind: balance, organization, and access. 

Balance: Stow your heaviest objects low on your bike to maintain the best handling. This means your frame bag is often the best place for dense, heavy items like water, tools, and food. Distribute other gear between your handlebar bag and seat bag. Store the bulkiest items (like a sleeping bag) in the rear so they extend out behind you rather than in your field of vision. Keep the weight balanced between the front and rear. 

Organization: Think of your gear in systems. Pack your sleeping bag and pad together, stove and cookware, etc. This will make loading and unloading easier, especially if you want to cook a hot lunch in the middle of the day.

Access: Keep things that you need frequently or quickly within easy reach. You don't want to be digging around for your rain shell when you need it. Same for navigation tools and snacks. Consider adding extra bags, like a small snack bag on the top tube or a phone mount on the handlebars. 

Bring the Right Gear

Plan your trip with two categories of gear in mind: what you need for biking, and what you need for camping.

Bike Gear

You need standard maintenance and repair tools, plus a little extra since you’ll be riding for more than a day. This list includes a bike-specific multitool with a chain breaking tool. For flats, be sure to bring tire levers, a spare tube (or several for longer trips), and a patch kit so you can repair a damaged tube multiple times. You’ll also need a pump, which is preferred to CO2 since it can be used indefinitely. On long trips, consider bringing chain lube and grease. And if you plan on stopping in town, pack a small portable lock so you can pop into a store or pub without worrying about your bike.

Camping Gear

The number one rule: Keep it compact. The best camping gear for bikepacking is light and low-bulk, which makes riding with a load safer and more fun. In many cases you can use gear that you already have. But if you only have bulky car camping gear, you’ll want to upgrade. Anything made for ultralight backpacking works well for bikepacking. For an overview of what to look for, check out our packing list for long-distance hiking. 

Dress Smart

Wear what you’d use on any ride—helmet, padded bike shorts or bibs, and gloves. If you’re using flat pedals, use comfortable riding shoes, and if you opt for “clip-in” shoes that attach to your pedals, go for SPD-compatible mountain bike shoes and pedals that work best in dirt and mud. Wear wicking layers while riding, and pack a change of clothes (appropriate for the weather) for camp. Don’t overpack—you don’t need fresh clothes every day—but a spare set of riding shorts, shirt, and socks that you can wear while the other set dries is a good idea.

Ride Smart

Whatever your experience level as a cyclist, riding a gear-laden bike will feel different than any riding you’ve done before. Use these tips to stay confident and upright.

Give Yourself Time

Allow extra time to pack and load your bike and extra time to get to your campsite each day. Loading a bike well takes longer than packing a backpack, and you don’t want anything to fall off. You won’t ride as fast as you do without a loaded bike and you don’t want to take risks to beat the sun. 

Go Slow

Your bike will be much heavier than you are used to. Limit your speeds in the downhills, give yourself extra room for braking, and enter corners carefully, understanding that your bike weighs more and will corner differently than you’re used to.  

Move Your Hands Around

Riding in the same position can cause stress and fatigue, especially on long days. If you have drop bars, move your hands around, changing positions to stay comfortable. If you have flat bars, consider handlebar add-ons like bar-ends to give you more grip positions.

Check Tire Pressure

Adjust pressure according to the conditions. Adding more air can help your bike handle a heavy load without getting pinch flats, while letting some air out can give you better traction in wet and sloppy conditions. 

Plan a Trip

For your first bikepacking adventure, start with an easy overnight trip, in good weather, to make sure that your system and gear all work. Good bikepacking destinations can be found all over the country, from local parks to national parks. Just check that both biking and camping are allowed!

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.