One of my favorite things to do is plan and go on adventures with my friends and our bikes. There’s something really sublime about putting everything you need (or most of everything you need) on your bike and heading out into the woods. I’ve learned a lot on each of my bikepacking trips, starting with a weekend at a campground to the most recent five-day adventure through northcentral Vermont. Here’s my Top 5 tips to make bikepacking enjoyable. Experience will help you dial in what’s right for YOU.
Note: I’ve linked to different products but they are not affiliate links. It’s just what I’m using.
Safety First: Know your route to dial your ride – and provide detailed information to your emergency contact back home
Planning is everything. Spend some time reading up on where you are going, what the road/trail conditions may be like, the weather, sunrise and sunset times, where resupply opportunities are and at what mile marker (both overall and daily mileage), and determine how long you intend to be out for both best and worst case scenarios. Write all this down. Bring a physical copy with you on the road to reference when cell service is spotty – but also share your plans with your emergency contact.
My riding partner and I created shared Google Docs and Sheets while planning our trip, which made it easy to update before the trip and the provide to our partners back home while we were out.
This will also help you choose the right gear. Chunky logging roads and singletrack are generally more comfortable on wider mountain-bike tires whereas hardpack and paved roads are more amenable to narrower gravel tires. Significant off-road will require secure loads that don’t shift much while dirt and paved roads will allow for a more DIY setup.
Start with the gear you have. It’s also ok to buy specialized items
It’s true that you can bikepack on the bike you have today with the gear you have today. This is often the cheapest way to get started. Borrowing gear from a friend to try it out first is also great! Sometimes this will mean things are heavier, bulkier, or don’t have a natural home on the bike. This is also OK!
Limited Space Tip: Separate the pieces of your gear to fit into the different bags you have … and yes, a backpack might be unavoidable given smaller framed bikes don’t have the same generous cargo space as larger frames. If so, keep the lightweight stuff in the backpack to minimize stress on your shoulders.
If you are like me and a shorter rider, you don’t have a ton of space on your bike and you’ll need to make tradeoffs to fit everything. Warmer-weather trips may be easier to fit everything on the bike whereas a spring or autumn trip – and the variable weather that comes with those seasons – may require using a rack or backpack to expand your carrying capacity. And yes, you absolutely can use your existing rack and panniers to bikepack – don’t let anyone tell you differently. Bikepacking isn’t an aesthetic – it’s using your bike to transport you and our gear over a variety of terrain.
For my 5-day trip, I wrapped my tent poles in my self-inflating sleeping pad and strapped them to the rack while my tent, rainfly, and stakes went into a 13L drybag harnessed on my handlebars.
If you had a great time and want to keep bikepacking, pick one or two items to swap and start lightening the load over time and as you have funds. Picking up items on sale or “old” versions when a company releases a newer version is also a great way to get high quality gear on a budget.
My experience: When I started, I spent about 6 months buying a lot of stuff because a car-camping 2-burner Coleman Stove doesn’t fit well into a bikepacking setup. I picked up a half framebag and a seatpost bag for my road bike. I used a backpack to hold clothing. I bought a hammock because it was cheaper than a small tent and sleeping pad – and fit into my seatpost bag. It also meant I could avoid a sleeping bag altogether. I read about hammock camping and bought an underquilt (lashed it to my handlebars with two straps I found at an outdoor shop). I bought a one-person backpacking cookset and backpacking stove with my REI divided (also went into my seatpost bag). The half-framebag held food/snacks and layers.
I eventually bought a tent and sleeping pad that I continue to use on camping trips – but came to realize on the last bikepacking trip that at 7 pounds total, they are too heavy for longer expeditions. So I am replacing these with ultralight versions for future longer bikepacking trips. This change alone shaves 5 pounds off my setup … which brings me to my next tip.
Make a packing list and edit it. Then edit again. And Edit once more before you go
Over the past couple bikepacking trips, I’ve started to develop a basic packing list for my adventures that I can add or subtract from based on my needs to a particular trip (see bottom of the post). Somethings will always be needed – on-bike navigation, ID, insurance card, and funds, charging cables for electronics – but for everything else, be ruthless. Especially if you don’t have a ton of space to begin with.
Because you did your research on the weather, conditions, and resupply opportunities you can start dialing in what gets packed. If you plan to stay in BnBs along the way, take the tent and sleeping pad off the list. If you are camping, you probably don’t need to bring a full toiletries kit; a travel toothbrush, toothpaste, and a way to clean up at the end of the day may suffice. I like travel packs of baby wipes or Wilderness Wipes. You may not need to bring meals for every day if you have frequent resupply opportunities – bring a day or so worth of food. Prioritize items that meet your dietary needs and anything with limited availability.
Then as you get closer to the time to leave, check your packing list against likely conditions and make adjustments. Edit out anything unnecessary. Can you live without Item X for Y Days? If yes, remove it from the list. If no, keep it.
And edit again as you are packing. Swap heavier items for lighter weight options. Prioritize items that can serve multiple purposes or can be worn for multiple days, like rain jackets or wool socks. Bring food in single-serve sizes, removing items from their containers to consolidate space. It is OK to decide to take something heavier or single-use because you want to … just remind yourself of that when you are in the middle of a challenging moment and ruing some of your life decisions around packing.
My experience: On my summer Catskills bikepacking trip, I packed a lightweight travel dress (swelter shelter dress) under the misguided impression we might have time to hang out after a days ride. We did not – but it came in handy when we only had one option for a place to eat the second night and it was a fancy restaurant. Zero regrets because it wasn’t a huge impact on weight – it packed down really small and didn’t weigh much.
But on the autumn Vermont trip though, I didn’t heed my own advice and started adding things right before I left. I brought two pairs of pants: one that rolled up to capris if it got too hot and a pair of athletic joggers to sleep in if it got too cold for just my wool baselayers. I did not need both and one packed better than the other. Next time, only the most packable and flexible pants will be packed. Don’t give in to Panic Packing!
A note on multiple kits: In the past I brought a fresh kit for each day. For shorter trips, this is fine – but on longer trips, that’s dead weight. Lael Wilcox talked about her ultralight bikepacking tips and one was bringing only one kit (although she doesn’t ride with a chamois). While my male riding partners have long subscribed to this tip, I was reticent because women’s plumbing is different. But! Fear not – on my last trip I brought 2 kits total, one to ride in and a spare, and used a travel-size package of witch hazel wipes to clean up my chamois before hanging it to dry each night. I rode three long days in the first kit before switching and didn’t feel unsanitary.
To be real though – putting on a fresh pair of bibs after three days feels amazing because the chamois isn’t so compressed.
Make peace with possibly needing to change your plans or route along the way.
Adventure means sometimes things go sideways despite all planning. Don’t hang your hopes on doing everything exactly as you thought it should be. Just starting is something most people don’t accomplish – so make contingency plans and be ok with modifications. Know you will be much slower than when you ride your unloaded bike.
My experience: When I knew I didn’t have enough stove fuel for the trip, I tried to locate more locally with no success. When I ran out on Day 2, we decided to make the trip into town to buy more. When we came across an outdoor shop, they didn’t have any. We called the next option before going and thankfully they did have the right fuel and we got back on route quickly.
When we attempted singletrack with our fully-loaded bikes early in the ride and it was much slower, we made a decision to skip the singletrack sections in favor of making up time on the road. With limited daylight and plenty of hike a bike sections, it was a good decision to keep our average as efficient as possible.
The whole point of bikepacking is to do something fun and different – so embrace the adventure! Your bikepacking trip might be to a local campground or it may be in another location altogether. The keys to having a good trip are being prepared, being realistic, and being open to possibilities. Make a plan, gently push your comfort zone a little further out, rinse and repeat.
It’s also important to know your limits and when to pull the plug and head back to civilization. Especially after my last trip ending in a taxi ride back to my car, I’ve heard so many stories of very experienced adventurers also having to cut their adventure short because something wasn’t going well. Those stories help me put my own experiences in the context of trying and learning when things don’t go well and adapting for next time. I’m already planning to do more trips next year, mostly focused on 1-2 nighters to experiment more. And of course, a redemption shot at the Green Mountain Gravel Growler.
See you out there!
Laura’s Basic Packing List
Here’s the start of my packing list. I add or subtract items based on the weather, where I’m going, and how long I’ll be out. It’s not exhaustive and I’m sure this will keep evolving over time and as I get more experience … but it’s a place to start.
|Clothing||Gear||Bike Items||Food||Cleaning up||Other|
|2 full kits (jersey, shorts, sports bra, socks)||hammock setup (hammock, rainfly, gear sling)||Garmin||backpacking meal(s)||baby wipes||cables for electronics (phone, garmin, lights)|
|bike shoes that can also be used around camp||MSR Pocket Rocket stove||Lights (front & back)||electrolyte tablets||chamois cream||cloth facemasks|
|gloves||mug||repair kit (multitool, tubes, tire irons, pump)||energy bars||Sunscreen||Road ID|
|helmet||sleeping bag||Instant coffee, sugar packets, non-dairy creamer packets||Toiletries (biodegradable soap, face lotion, deoderant, toothbrush, toothpaste)||Sunglasses|
|packable layers for camp (shorts or pants, puffy jacket or quarter-zip wool or fleece)||Sleeping Pad||Instant Oatmeal||witch hazel wipes||Wallet with cash, credit card, health insurance card, and ID|
|rain jacket||Soloist cook set w/titanium spork||quick energy gels/gummies/goos||medications|
|Underwear||stove fuel||trail mix||Phone|
|wool sleeping outfit (tights, shirt, socks)||tent||Water Bottles (2)||spare batteries & portable chargers|