When the Tour de France started over a century ago, riders weren’t much concerned with aerodynamics, energy gels, or heart rate monitors. Instead, they concerned themselves with trying not to fall asleep on the route, making sure they could scavenge enough to eat, and avoiding any race-ending encounters with livestock. Today, the tour has changed, but cycling hasn’t. The spirit of adventure lives on in bikepacking.
Unlike the Grand Tour pioneers, modern bikepackers have profoundly more choice when it comes to gear and apparel. But the spirit of loading up your bike with everything you need for an adventure remains the same. Bikepacking is, as the name suggests, backpacking on a bike. If you like riding, and you like being outside, the combination of the two offers a great opportunity to join up your favorite roads, visit new places, sleep under the stars, and feel like you can travel anywhere in the world so long as you have enough snacks and inner tubes. Of course, before you set out, you’ll want to make sure you’re prepared so you don’t end up, as one early racing pioneer did, fixing your bike at a blacksmith’s forge.
If you are interested in bikepacking, I am going to assume you have at least some experience cycling and camping. You’ll probably have a bike, and honestly, that bike is probably just fine. You will need one that isn’t super-duper light if you want to hang bags on it, and if you’re going off road I would suggest not pushing the limits of your bike when you have all that extra weight attached. But your normal bike for your normal type of route will be just fine.
What you might need to modify is your camping gear. Generally, stuff that works for backpacking works for bikepacking, but the biggest issue is shelter. Bikes don’t offer the same amount of real estate as backpacks and this can make bulky shelters and sleeping pads impossible to mount. I opt for a pretty minimalist tent with short poles that are narrower than my road bike handlebars. Some riders will prefer flat bars, and this does give a little more leeway. I also make sure to use a pretty compact pad and bag to save space. My preference is for the Thermarest Neoair Uberlite and Vesper quilt, they both pack down to about the size of a grapefruit and are robust enough to keep me warm down to the 30s. If I know it won’t rain, I sleep on a Tyvek groundsheet but if the weather is questionable, a tarp shelter or an MSR Huuba NX with the fast and light pitch kit are my go-tos. I’ve used this combo from Iceland to the Inland Empire and (touch wood) never had to pay for a motel.
A bike lets you cover ground pretty quickly, which can allow for you to carry a bit less in the way of cooking gear. I like to take a small MSR Pocket Rocket Stove, because I don’t go anywhere without coffee, but if I am not in the back and beyond I’ll grab a burrito for dinner and use breakfast as motivation to get riding in the morning. When I do cook, I’ll take mostly grains and often pre-soak them in a Nalgene bottle or a Talenti Gelato jar.
You’re probably going to want to charge a bike computer, bike light and maybe a phone or GPS device as well. I normally pack one braided cable that charges all three, and a battery pack that will last a few days if I am conscious of not overusing my electronics. On longer trips, a dynamo hub or a lightweight solar set up is necessary. If it’s summer I need less warm gear, so I have space for a solar panel. Over winter, nights are longer and colder so I rely on a dynamo for my bike lights and to save space for warmer clothes.
The last thing on my list is clothes, because I can always fill all the available space with them. When you’re bikepacking it is important to think of clothing that can do double duty. My Softshell jacket, and/or RECON vest depending on the temperature, serves to keep me warm on the bike, around camp, and when I am sleeping. It’s also great to have the back pockets for things like tent pegs. My merino base layer is my t-shirt around camp, my cycling overshorts are also my camp wear etc. I rely heavily on merino wool, it performs better when wet and doesn’t get as smelly as synthetic breathables. I’ll generally carry two pairs of merino wool socks in case one gets soaked (the spare pair goes in a ziplock bag to keep it dry). I tend to wear LUXE bib shorts, because they are comfortable even on dawn to dusk pushes (a lot of times, I find using TRAIL shorts over bib shorts helps me look a bit less weird when I stop and wander into rural Mexican gas stations) and the RECON micromodal jersey, which looks way less “techy” but performs as well as a jersey. I love that it has pockets for snacks but not a zipper to break. Also, I always bring a tiny waterproof jacket, even in the desert I have ended up eating lunch under what turned out to be an irrigation system and I often drape the jacket over my upper body when I sleep to keep morning dew away if I am sleeping in the open.
So, how are you going to carry all this stuff? That’s where bikepacking differs from bike touring. Bikepackers attach bags to their bike, not to racks. I’m a big fan of Ortlieb’s waterproof offerings, they are affordable, durable, and should be available in a size to suit any bike. They also have waterproof seams and zippers, which really helps when you drop your bike during the final river crossing of a long day. Nobody likes a wet sleeping bag . Whichever bags you select, you’ll want to run a bar bag with a harness, a saddlebag, and a frame bag. If you need more space, remove your bottle cages and use a bag that takes up the whole triangle, you can put a bladder in there to carry water and you’ll still have more space for other stuff. You’ll want bulky but light things in your saddlebag (heavy items will cause the bag to swing and make balance hard), things you need during the ride go in a top tube bag and heavy small things in the frame bag. I normally put tent poles in my bar bag along with the tent fabric, my sleeping bag (without stuff sack) in my saddle bag along with my groundsheet and some clothes, and everything else in my frame bag. If you’re small or like to bring a lot of gear, you might consider a larger cage, like the Outpost Elite from Blackburn. You can use it on a bottle cage mount underneath your downtube, or rig it with some zip tyres on your fork. Don’t put anything super heavy in there but a sleeping bag in a waterproof stuff sack should be just fine.
Ready to roll? Do yourself a favor and take a test ride first. Do your knees hit the frame bag? Try putting bulky items further forward on the bike or in your saddlebag. Do your bags shake and feel insecure? There’s nothing you can’t fix with ski straps. Does your bike feel slow and heavy? Get used to it, you will recalibrate your expectations as soon as you set off and leave the stress of everyday life behind. Even with a heavy bike, I feel light as a feather once I know every pedal stroke is pushing me towards adventure and that all-important dinnertime burrito.