Getting the call…
So it finally happened. Your bike buddies invited you to join them on a weekend bikepacking trip. They promise peace and solitude, but after a quick google search you start to panic. Anxiety creeps in as you find your way into the depths of the bikepacking world. You spend a few moments hyperventilating, looking at ludicrous prices for bike packing specific bikes, reading extensive gear reviews filled with words and situations you don’t yet understand — unsprung weight, panniers, anything cages. You try and make sense of it by reading through the r/bikepacking subreddit, but after reading hundreds of comments discussing the differences in rear hub standards you decide to give up.
We are here to tell you most of that is unnecessary. It is unnecessary because…
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.
Bikepacking Route Finder
Ride with GPS
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.
Repair Kit Checklist
Extended Trip Add-Ons
We’ll get to how and where to attach your gear to your bike next. First we need to decide how to contain it. An assortment of bags and straps should do the trick. If you have a collection of stuff sacks or dry bags that you have accrued over the years, these will come in handy. Otherwise you might need to get a little creative, or hit the store. There are some reasonably priced core components that can help you get started, and we are going to share those below. Most of these items will be available at your local outdoor store or hardware store.
Straps are essential for attaching gear to your bike. They are also great for keeping bulky items compact inside your bags. There are many types of straps, but we will focus on the varieties we find most useful in the bikepacking world. Each strap has its benefits and limitations, and generally it is helpful to have an assortment of them and not just one variety.
These classic utility straps were invented in the 80s as a way to bind skis together. Since then we have repurposed them as the premier utility strap. They are pretty much indestructible, and are available in a variety of lengths and buckle materials. Voile straps are naturally grippier than nylon, which makes them perfect for attaching anything with a smooth surface. On bikes you generally see them securing large water bottles or fuel canisters to cages. We have some glorious OMM voile branded straps on our web store.
These little guys are incredibly useful, but less robust than the burlier voile straps. Consider these for lighter and softer items, that won’t put as much stress on the strap. We like these Gear Aid Fast Straps.
Webbing & Cinch Buckles
Webbing & Buckles are another useful strap option. These are more readily available and customizable, they are generally more durable than velcro straps, and more secure. Be sure to keep an eye on the tail of the webbing after you cinch it down to make sure it doesn’t get caught up in your wheels, chain, or brakes. Austere Manufacturing makes some extremely nice cinch straps that we really like. They are made in Port Orchard, WA too. However, they are a little spendy and any cinch strap will do.
Bags are the backbone of the carry system. You gotta have receptacles for your stuff! There are many different types of bags, and some work better than others. Especially when confronted with weather or wet trails. Wet bags = Wet gear, and once your gear is wet, it can be an ordeal to dry it out again. The best approach is to be prepared.
Most gear comes in a handy stuff sack. Cylindrical sacks tend to work well when packing for your trip. Basic stuff sacks will get the job done, but they aren’t as durable as some other options out there.
These are ideal for any wet condition bikepacking. It is very nice to know that your gear will be dry when you show up to camp. They are usually much more durable than their stuff sack brethren, and available in all sorts of sizes.
These are tried and true bags that can fit a lot of gear and keep the weight low while riding. We recommend slim panniers, like our North St. Micro Panniers or the Revelate Nano Panniers, for the rear of your bike, so they don’t catch on brush or get in the way when pushing your bike — oh we forgot to mention that you will definitely be pushing your bike at times. Hopefully not too much but it’s likely you’ll reach a little terrain that too much for comfort, making it the perfect time for a stroll. In addition to giving you the most space of any bag option, keeping the weight lower on the bike than any other option and keeping your gear more organized and easier to access, panniers are generally weatherproof and a great option when the sky opens up on you.
Waist bags & Backpacks
If you’re not ready for a rack or bike specific bag setup, you might need to carry some of your gear on your back. That is OK! Many folks end up carrying a backpack or hip pack. Backpacks tend to fatigue the back quickly, this is especially true on bikes with a hunched riding position. They also get extremely sweaty in warmer weather. If you can fit everything on your bike, your back will thank you.
Ok, you’ve got all your stuff packed up and ready to rock. It’s time to mount everything up to your bike. There are some go to points for carrying your gear. On the sides of your fork, inside your frame triangle, under your downtube, on your seat post, and on a rear rack. Some bikes are built with eyelet mounts in all those locations, but if you don’t have mounts everywhere don’t worry. We have workarounds that carry gear just as well. The added weight of gear can change a lot of the bike handling characteristics and physics. To keep this in check, it is important to carefully load the bike. Heavy stuff like water lower on the bike, and lighter stuff like sleeping bags and clothing up high. A lower center of gravity will make for a more stable and comfortable ride. Balance is also important, making sure there’s not too much weight on just the front or the back of the bike.
Let’s split the bike into different areas and talk about the caring options for each. It’s likely that you’ll use a mix of carrying styles to suit your needs.
If your bike is designed for bikepacking it may come with mounts on the fork legs, which is a great place for a cage or small bolt-on bag. If you don’t have cage mounts you could use hose clamps to secure cages to your fork legs but don’t do this on a carbon fork, you will likely crush it! While cheap, the downside of hose clamps is that they are best on round fork legs and they are likely to scratch and marre your paint. We prefer to use a front rack like the Old Man Mountain Elkhorn or Divide. They can be eyelet mounted if you have eyelets or you can thru axle mount them on nearly any thru axle fork. The Divide is great to run panniers and the Elkhorn provides 3-pack mounts to use cages on the uprights. Both have a solid deck to lash whatever you’d like to the top.
Eyelets • Axles • 3-Pack
Front rack with panniers
Front rack with cages
Fork with bags
Fork with cages
Handlebars / Top of Rack
In front of your bars is a great place to put some gear. A lot of folks simply take a drybag and strap it to the bars! It works, but there are plenty of options out there to make things more convenient and stable. The biggest issues with simply strapping a bag to the bars is how it interferes with your brakes and shifters. A bag will squish your cables, which can lead to issues if there’s not enough slack to turn your bars. It can also lead to excessive cable rub which can destroy paint & finish.
If you have a front rack, there are MANY bag options that will sit on top of the rack. Some are designed to mount only to the deck of the rack, they are often called trunk bags. Others use your handlebars or steerer tube for support while the bulk of the weight is carried on the rack. The Caradice Audax is a popular bag that is used this way, Ron’s Fabio’s Chest is a modern take on the Caradice that has been remade specifically to be used in the front of a bike. Note that this style that attaches to the rack and handlebars will not work with suspension forks since that distance changes as the fork compresses.
With a rack deck you can strap anything from a dry bag to a small cooler. Cheekily named, Basketpacking is becoming more popular too as people use bike baskets to support their front bags. Just make sure that it’s mounted securely to the rack.
Rack Deck • Handlebar Clamps • Steerer Tube • Eyelets • Axles • OMM Pucks
Drybag on Rack Deck
Rack Top Bag
Basket & Bag
Depending on your bike, the frame can either be an amazing place for storing gear, or a nightmare. Generally speaking, a full suspension bike will be more of a challenge when mounting things to the frame. This is because of all the moving parts. If you do end up trying, be sure to test out your setup before heading out on the trail. Unchecked rubbing or suspension interference can result in irreversible damage to your bike.
On the other hand, if you are on a rigid bike, the frame is a perfect place for storing gear. There are a plethora of different types of bags available for your frame; full frame bag, half frame bag, fuel cans, bento boxes, and many others. You can spend a fortune on outfitting your bike in custom bags. If you were to choose one, a frame bag would be a good place to start. The other bag styles generally hold less, and have more specific applications. If you don’t want to splurge on a frame bag, your frame is a great place to store water. You can utilize the frame’s water bottle cage mounts, and there’s sometimes room to fit an even bigger bottle under the downtube. Some frames come with mounts, if not, you can use the hose clamp technique on steel or aluminum bikes. Remember, anything mounted under the frame WILL get dirty, so plan accordingly.
3-Pack Mounts • Water Bottle Bosses • Above Top Tube • Under Down Tube
Top Tube Bag
Mixed Bags & Bottles
One of the most common styles of bikepacking bags is the seat bag. Small seat bags for carrying a spare tube, and a few tools have been common for decades. So, when people started trying to use road/gravel bikes for bikepacking and the bikes didn’t have rack mounts they made bigger seat bags to carry a jacket as well, and then bigger to also carry a lunch, and then bigger to…you get where this is going. A small 5 liter or under seat bag is great for carrying a few items and you will hardly know it’s there.
Larger seat bags pose some problems. If you are running a dropper post, this is not recommended as they strap around the post, getting in the way of movement and they will rub and wear away at your post. Big seat bags are also prone to wagging like a tail. Companies have come out with some innovative designs to reduce this wag but they never get rid of it and those designs add weight which contradicts the point of using a seat bag instead of a rack.
If you decide to go with a large seat bag, there are many products available, but you can also use a drybag and a strap to effectively create your own. This requires a little finesse to mount, but in the end will save you hundreds of dollars and perform 80% as well as the purpose built stuff.
Seatpost • Saddle Rails • Seatpost Collar
Small Seat Bag
Large Seat Bag
A rear rack is a great place to carry anything you want and especially heavy items. Having the weight further back on the bike can help your bike feel more stable on descents, but it can also be challenging on steeper climbs so remember, balance is best. Depending on what rear rack you decide to run, there are plenty of options for carry. You can use panniers with a dry bag or trunk bag on the deck, you can use a dry bag or trunk bag and cage mounts on the sides, or simply use the rack to hold up a dry bag.
Racks offer a lot of surface area for bags to attach so you don’t have to spend a fortune on the lightest and smallest gear. The great thing about rear racks is that they hold your gear rock solid so you don’t feel it wagging around and affecting your ride. They also allow for use of your dropper post, which makes maneuvering the bike on technical sections much, much easier. Panniers tend to be rectangular with wide openings at the top so finding your gear without having to pull every item out of the bag is much easier.
Eyelets • Seatpost Collar • Axles • OMM Pucks • 3-Pack
Rack With Full Kit
Rack with Bag & Cages
If you want to haul a ton of gear, trailers are a fantastic option. They are easy to load, and don’t affect the bikes handling the same way loading gear directly on the bike does. You need to be careful with trailers depending on your route. They are generally wider and can become incredibly cumbersome on technical singletrack. Trailers are especially helpful on bikepacking excursions where you set up a basecamp, then go out for day rides from your basecamp.
You can easily detach the trailer and leave all the hauling weight behind. Racks are also good for this since they can be detached with just a few bolts or you can leave them on and remove the bags. Riders who have strapped various cages and clamps directly to their bike in order to haul everything will have a harder time detaching everything.
Axles • Eyelets
Two Wheel Trailer
Single Wheel/BOB Style Trailer
In order to be successful on your initial trip, there are a handful of small things that you can check to make sure everything goes smoothly.
Additional weight can make tires fold under lower pressures. Adding a few PSI can help keep the bike rolling smoothly. Take a test ride with your loaded bike and see how it rolls before you take off on your trip. If you can feel the tires flex, you might want to add air. Just be sure not to exceed the manufacturer’s recommended pressure. Use a tire pressure calculator to determine a good starting pressure for your tires. Remember that it is total weight, meaning you, your bike, and your gear.
Your brakes won’t feel the same when barreling down the hill carrying 30+ additional pounds. Be sure to check your pads, cables, and hoses before you depart. Brake earlier on the trail than you would on a normal ride. Larger rotors can make a world of difference when your bike is loaded, we recommend a minimum of 160mm rotors but you’ll feel a lot more confident with 180mm in the front at least.
This is another area where our racks make a huge difference because the weight is loaded directly onto the axles. This means the compression in your suspension isn’t affected. If you wanted to make it perfect you could increase the rebound but we don’t bother and the bikes ride great!
If you have everything loaded onto yourself and your frame, instead of racks that put the load on the wheels, you will need additional air in the shocks to make up for the additional weight. If you don’t adjust your shocks they could bottom out and get damaged. Ride around your neighborhood and compress your shocks. If you can get them to bottom out on the flats, you’ll need to add pressure, or possibly a few tokens. If you are riding a full suspension bike, it might be a good idea to add a small shock pump to the community tool kit. It might be good to incorporate some planned stops in your itinerary to make some small tweaks to your suspension as you ride. Remember to mark down the changes you’re making, so that you can return your settings to how you like the bike unloaded. We also find it useful to take notes on what works and what does not work as you discover it on the trail.
While this section might have ended at the end of the post, it is the top priority. Bikepacking is inherently dangerous activity, but with planning and understanding you can negate most of the preventable safety concerns.
Make sure to share your itinerary and contact information with someone not on the trip. Tell them where you are going on the ride and where you are parking, what car you are driving (with license plate number) and when you plan to return. Anything can happen in the backcountry and search and rescue have way better odds finding you if they know where to look.
In Case of Emergency Plan
While it might seem unnecessary, it is always important to have a rough plan in place for various “what if?” scenarios. Anything can happen out there, so make sure you are responsibly planning for those possibilities within your group. The buddy system works wonders. Make a plan for who will ride out and who will stay put in case of emergencies.
GPS is a crucial piece of safety gear that can save your tail in an emergency. Make sure to bring extra batteries or a charging device if using your phone. One major advantage of a dedicated bike GPS is that they are built to have better battery life as a GPS than your phone is. Apps like Komoot and Ride With GPS are great tools to plan and share your routes.
Bikepacking is all about the journey. Don’t forget to take breaks, snap photos, eat snacks, try new things. You only ever get one first trip, so make sure you enjoy it. Give yourself ample time, try not to rush, and make the most of the little things. We love bikepacking, and we hope this guide will help lead you to a successful trip and a future filled with epic two wheeled adventures.
If you need some inspiration for possible routes, BIKEPACKING has a great route finder that has routes and adventures across the globe.
If you have any other questions, please ask us in the comments or jump on our live chat and talk to Tory. We’d love to help you have a great first trip.
Leave A Comment