A simple guide on how to approach your first bikepacking trip.
A Guide for How to Go Bikepacking.
Sure you could go down the bikepacking gear rabbit hole. You could spend the next few weeks or months listening to hundreds of hours of video reviews, and reading dozens of trip reports. Then you could spend half of your life savings on a bikepacking specific setup, but we think that you’re better off keeping it simple. Here’s why…
First, you might not like it! The last thing anyone wants is to waste their hard earned cash on bikepacking specific gear, just to find out it isn’t their jam.
Second, experience is key! One of the most satisfying things about bikepacking is personalizing your kit. Everyone is different, with unique needs on and off the bike. Finding out what gear suits your needs, and where to put it is part of the fun. And, if you’re handy, there is a whole world of DIY bikepacking gear to discover.
Bikepacking is full of exploration, wonder, and yes, sometimes, frustration. The biggest thing to remember is that there are no hard and fast rules. If anyone tells you there are, have fun making up new ones. It is about finding your own way through the madness, and we promise that after reading through this article, a quick trip to the hardware store (or your garage), and some proper planning, you’ll be ready to embark on your adventure.
First, let’s figure out which variety of bike you’ll be taking. Do you have multiple bikes? No? Great! That was a quick decision. Your trusty steed will do the job admirably. If you happen to be privileged enough to have a quiver of bikes, the best way to decide which bike to use is investigating the route. If you are going to be putting in long stretches on tarmac with just a little single track, you probably won’t need suspension or knobby tires. If you are heading up into the mountains to spend your days on meandering single track, suspension and sturdy tires might be your best friend.
There are many nuanced categories of bikes, but there are some styles and materials of bikes that have advantages when it comes to bikepacking. Here are a few guidelines.
Commuter bikes are perfect bikepacking rigs. They are already built up to carry your stuff! Racks and panniers allow for ample storage space, while keeping the weight low to improve handling. Commuter bikes generally have room for larger tires which will make the ride much more comfortable over uneven terrain like gravel, loose dirt, and unmaintained roads.
Hardtails make for amazing bikepacking rigs, efficient, yet comfortable, and capable of adapting to almost all terrain types. Hardtails offer plenty of room for storage inside the frame, lots of rack compatibility, especially with Old Man Mountain’s Fit Kits, and more room to strap things compared to a full suspension bike. Hardtails are great when there is a mix of singletrack and pavement on the route. They won’t be quite as efficient as a gravel/commuter bike on pavement, or as capable as a full suspension bike on singletrack. But they are better at bridging the gap between the others which means you can be confident heading toward any surface you may encounter.
Full suspension bikes will give you the most comfortable ride when it comes to backcountry routes, gnarly singletrack, and rides where you want to get a little wilder on the descents. Full suspension bikes present some interesting challenges for mounting gear due to all of the moving parts, but luckily Old Man Mountain has built a rack system that mounts directly to the axles of the bike, keeping all the weight on the wheels and not on the suspension. They offer Fit Kits for virtually every bike and standard available.
Once you have your bike loaded up be sure to cycle through its travel to make sure any items strapped on will not interfere with the suspension. You don’t want to damage your bike, or your gear and possibly get stranded on the trail because you put your tent poles in the wrong spot. Cycling through your suspension can be done by removing the air from your shock and compressing the rear. Be sure to mark down what pressure you had inside the shock before taking the air out!
As it turns out, all bikes are bikepacking bikes!
Choosing your Route
Especially for your first bikepacking trips, tailor your route to your bike. An overnight trip on a smooth gravel road can be just as much fun as a steep and rocky section of the Oregon Timber Trail. Your first trip is about learning to ride with gear, figuring out what you need and don’t need to take with you and spending some good time outdoors.
It’s always possible to hike a commuter along a section of singletrack that is too steep for the bike’s capabilities, or you could always use a full suspension bike on open stretches of pavement, the goal is to simply enjoy your experience. Each bike has pros and cons. It is important to understand those, and plan accordingly. If you’re planning to take your commuter bike on singletrack, it is important that you’re mentally and physically prepared to walk your bike. Whereas you’ll also need to mentally prepare to use a lot more energy to pedal your full suspension bike across long stretches of pavement than you would on your commuter. No bike choice is perfect, and finding out more nuance of each bike style is part of the adventure!
There are some amazing resources for finding routes, and we encourage you to explore the possibilities.
Whatever your bike is made of, carbon, aluminum, steel, or bamboo it’ll work great but each material needs some consideration.
Carbon bikes are fantastic. They are light and responsive and let bike engineers go wild without the constraints of using metal. However, carbon is more susceptible to abrasion than steel or aluminum so it is best to avoid strapping gear directly to a carbon frame or fork. This is where using racks like the Divide or Elkhorn really shines. Our Fit Kits are designed with all types of bikes in mind, especially carbon. They carry all the gear you need, keep the weight off your back and protect your frame at the same time. If you are going to be using a carbon bike, make sure to check the manufacturer’s maximum weight limit for the frame before embarking on an adventure.
Aluminum and steel bikes are durable and forgiving. While metal frames are more abrasion resistant than carbon, paint is still susceptible to abrasion, so be sure to protect each spot you are mounting to with something like 3M frame protection stickers. Some alloy bikes come with eyelets to mount racks or fenders. If there are upper and lower eyelets on the rear of your bike — one by the axle and one up by the seatpost — then they are likely built to carry a rack. If there are only lower eyelets by the axle, they are likely just meant to attach fenders, and not built to support any weight and you will need to use one of our FIt Kits to axle mount your rack.
Now that we have locked in which bike to bring, let’s figure out what gear you will need to attach to your steed.
Space is limited on a bike.
If you have ever gone backpacking before, the average backpack is around 65 liters of volume. On a bike, that number can be much smaller — around 30 liters if using soft bags. Racks with small bikepacking panniers or a handful of drybags strapped to them can easily get you back to that 65 liter capacity. Either way you should consider each item you choose to take. You can spend a fortune for gear designed specifically to pack down smaller, or buy specific bags to fit everywhere on your rig, but you don’t have to. While we aren’t going to tell you exactly what you need to bring, we want to cover some important tips.
Combining two things into one thing is the best way to save space and weight. Your cooking utensils can be the same things you eat with. You can wrap your sleeping bag around your shoulders to keep warm at camp. You can use your hydration bladder as a pillow — plus you can hydrate in the middle of the night! We don’t wanna ruin too much of the fun of figuring out how to really fine tune your kit, but these are a few tricks we’ve tried.
This is going to be the biggest indicator of what you need to bring. Unfortunately, rain & cold weather trips require a lot more gear. While it is always important to be prepared for anything out in the wilderness, we suggest postponing your inaugural bikepacking trip if faced with forecasts filled with rain/snow/freezing temps. Wait until you are more experienced to face those sorts of challenges. Nothing ruins an experience more than getting completely drenched without the proper gear. If you are set on venturing out in the wet, be sure to bring ample rain protection for you as well as your gear. Drybags work wonders for wet weather bikepacking. For trips where it is dry and warm, you will be able to pack less, and enjoy more.
Personal Gear vs. Group Gear
Spreading group gear out is a great way to conserve space and weight. Consider splitting up things like kitchen gear. You can carry the fuel while your partners carry the stove and cooking utensils. If there’s only two of you, consider sharing a tent. That way one person can carry the tent body and one can carry the poles. The group can likely get by with a single water filter, a medium first aid kit, a single set of repair tools. Remember, sharing is carrying. But sometimes you need redundancy. The further you are from civilization, the more important it is to carry backup systems; an extra multi-tool, some iodine in case the water filter fails, etc.
Water is life. Make sure to carry enough. If you are heading out on a route with seasonal water sources, it is a good idea to check with the local ranger station to make sure those sources are flowing at the time of your trip. Nothing worse than expecting a stream for an important refill, just to find out that source isn’t running. On trips with little to no water sources, make sure that you carry enough for your whole trip, or plan a supply drop with a water refill.
Bikes will inevitably have failures. It is important to be prepared for anything that could happen to your bike. Walking 20 miles back to the car is doable, but it hurts and takes a long time. It is much better to have the tools you need to get rolling again than to call for backup or trod out. Flat tires are the most common issue. It is a good idea to carry a reliable hand pump, tubes, and plugs if you’re running tubeless setups. While the pump and plug kit can be shared items, it is important that each rider carry tubes that fit their specific setup. You can make an incorrectly sized tube work in a pinch, but it is always safer to have the correct tube for the job. We really like Tublito tubes because they are lighter than a standard tube and pack much smaller. A multi-tool is a must, but be sure to check that it has all necessary sizes required for the parts on your bike. Big bonus points if it includes a chain breaker. Quick links as well as a few extra links to repair a broken chain take up very little space and are well worth taking. Consider bringing an assortment of zip-ties and a small roll of duct tape for creative repair jobs. For a weekend trip, this should be sufficient. On longer trips, consider bringing a more comprehensive repair kit with enough supplies to last.