Last month the MBA team took a look at self-supported, ultra-endurance mountain bike racers and how they pushed themselves to accomplish their goals, but what about the average rider looking for an adventure? Do you have to be an endurance athlete to explore? The answer is no, but there are some essentials to consider if you are planning to go bikepacking. In simple terms, bikepacking merges backpacking and cycling.
It is important to carry the right gear for your adventure. You might think this will require a hefty investment, and while it is true that quality camping gear is worth it, it is certainly not a must to get you started.
In this feature, we list some essentials to look at when starting off, depending on the type of terrain you will be covering. In addition, we will also cover how, where and when to venture out bikepacking. Your adventure could be anything from a sub-24-hour overnighter (S24O) to a multi-day expedition spanning several hundred miles.
How To Start
Begin by choosing the right bike. Many mountain bikes are capable of bikepacking; however, your bike choice will determine the type of terrain you’ll enjoy most. Comfort and gearing are fundamental. You want a bike that is fitted properly and gearing that will not leave you hurting on the climbs.
There are basically three types of bikepacking scenarios: multi-day mountain biking adventures, lightweight gravel racing and long expedition dirt tours. We decided to focus on the multi-day, intermediate-level rider who is looking to learn more about getting involved.
What’s the gear all about?
Designated bikepacking gear has replaced traditional racks and panniers. The latest tech consists of a frame bag, handlebar bag, seat pack and outer bags. Typically, they are light and designed to work on a modern mountain bike. The bags enhance carrying capacity while keeping the rider in control of handling. Some bags are even designed to specifically fit within the frame, as seen with our example.
For starters, we recommend investing in a seat pack and roll bag, then looking at possible frame bags. Of course, you may not even have to buy bags. You may be able to use simple gear you already own for overnight routes. To find out what works best, we recommend trying a comfortable backpack, along with some dry bags tethered to your handlebars and seatpost. From there, you can determine if investing in purpose-built bikepacking bags is worth it for your proposed adventures.
The Gear Fundamentals
These are the big four: a safety/repair kit, sleeping equipment, food and kitchen supplies, and water. This is where weight becomes crucial for the ride experience. A light overall weight is desirable, as a heavy load can compromise handling on technical sections and even make the bike impossible to carry on unrideable sections of trail.
Safety and Repair Kit
On any ride, safety should be a top priority, so it is important to carry a medical kit. Mountain bikepacking can involve riding through desolate and rough terrain, making it extremely difficult for emergency services to reach you. It is best to prepare beforehand and not to take unnecessary risks. A solid toolkit can also help keep you safe by allowing you to tackle any mechanical issues that arise so you don’t get stranded.
As with the bags, this doesn’t mean you have to drop a ton of cash and buy everything at once. We recommend starting with what you already own, and then over time deciding what is essential for the trip you want to take. We advise doing some research and then investing in a lightweight shelter. Some environmental conditions call for specific gear, but if you really want to save weight and money, a tarp, bivvy bag or hammock could be your answer. With shelter covered, you will also need a foam pad and a quality sleeping bag to keep you resting comfortably under the stars.
There are a number of compact camping stoves on the market. Although it’s bulky and typically used by backpackers, we have really enjoyed the versatility of our Jetboil cooking system. The platform is wide enough to accommodate lightweight aluminum pots for cooking—something to consider if you ever want to fry up some food. We typically carry dehydrated food options. Yes, this means we need to plan out our water rations. We carry a specific bottle or sleeve of water for cooking. Once the water is heated with our cooking system, we simply add it to whatever dehydrated food bag we choose.
This last step is the most crucial for any adventure. Water is life. If you are planning a long desert route, you will need some extra capacity for carrying water. Some forks are fitted with water-bottle cage mounts, and some frames can carry extra water under the downtube to save your neck from the weight of a hydration pack. Sometimes we have been able to save space by storing the bladder from our hydration packs right inside the frame bag of the bike. If you plan to go deep into the wilderness, make sure to research water refill areas. We’ve found there are a number of useful water filtration systems that do not weigh much or take up much space.
Where to go?
We hit on some of the basics you will need for your adventure, but choosing the route is the real key to success. There are some great online resources for creating digital maps. We recommend diving into Google Earth, Strava, AllTrails and MTB Project as a start for planning your next adventure. We will be the first to admit that it can be a lot to absorb at first, but in the end it will help you be prepared and know the area you will be riding in. Nowadays, you can even use the routes created and upload them straight to a Garmin or smartphone. Yes, we agree that traditional paper maps are important for backup; nevertheless, it goes without saying that a tough GPS unit that can perform in bad weather conditions would be very handy to have with you.
You’ll want LED lights to see, GPS units to navigate, phones to communicate and maybe even electric derailleurs to shift. For long trips that will push the life of your electronic devices, we recommend tools like USB power packs, crafty dynamo hubs, a USB solar panel and rechargeable batteries if they can be used.
When to take off
Having appropriate gear for the season and the weather you will encounter is important. Plan for the current weather, but also check reports for years prior for the days you plan on taking your journey. Take into account the overall weight of your rig, how tough the route is, and the number of daylight hours you will have to pedal.
As a starting base mileage for the intermediate rider, we recommend a range of 7 to 18 miles per day while gaining no more than 2500 feet of elevation. Try to start with a three- to four-hour pedal time and then bump up to five to seven hours per day when you become more comfortable. This can be adjusted to work with any rider level by tacking on or decreasing the amount of riding. Use trial and error. Start small and find out what works.
Bikepacking is all about exploring places less traveled to find something unique. It can take some time to gather the basics and set off, but as you gain experience, you will discover what works for you. Wake up, ride, camp, then repeat!
Mountain Bike Action is a monthly magazine devoted to all things mountain biking (yes, that’s 12 times a year because we never take a month off of mountain biking). It has been around since 1986 and we’re still having fun.