An Introduction to Bikepacking

Here's everything you need to know to get on your bike and get off the grid
August 11, 2016Words by James Stout

This past spring, James Stout rode across the Baja California Peninsula, a grueling journey that saw 10,000 feet of elevation change and took him through sun, sand, and snow. If that doesn't qualify him to give us a few pointers on bikepacking, we really don't know what would.

It all started in a bar. Well, it actually all started before I was even old enough to drink. I’d been sleeping outside to ride bikes since I was old enough to disappear from home overnight without someone calling the police. At first, it was about wanting to go somewhere and not having a car to make it happen. Then It was about wanting to race somewhere and not having enough money to pay for fuel and a hotel. And now? Now it’s about wanting to go somewhere without email, invoices, or phone signal.

Recently, this thing I've been doing also got a hashtag, and what was once just me doing what I loved became bikepacking. (No, it’s not cycletouring.)

The outdoors remains free and the roads, trails, and tracks are your playground.

But I’m not one to get all “I got here first” about it. We live on an enormous planet full of wide-open spaces, and I want everyone to get out there and enjoy them. Just don’t bum my cookies if we run into each other, ok? 

The beautiful thing about bikepacking is that nobody has really commercialized it yet. In this rare incidence, the outdoors remains free – once you have the gear you need – and the roads, trails, and tracks are your playground. You can pretty much run what you’ve got with some minor modificationss and turn your commute bike, mountain bike, or road race machine into the Rocinante to your Don Quixote. With that said, here are a few rules to live by out on the road.

Test Your Rig

Before you find out the hard way that it's too heavy, that you don’t really fit in your sleeping bag, or that your tent doesn’t fit in your pannier, take it all out for a trial run. You’ll feel like a bit of a lemon, but DO IT. Ride to the park, pitch camp, take it down, pack it up, and ride home. You’ll thank yourself when you have to do the same thing fast during a hailstorm. Get your bike checked over as well; anything that's a little annoying now will be a nightmare out in the middle of nowhere.

Don’t Bring Too Much Stuff

Part of the fun of bikepacking is going slow enough to enjoy the surroundings. But the moment you get off road or on any kind of steep terrain, you’re going to be hating yourself for bringing that stupid camping frying pan which looked so great on the Internet.  If you’re not going to touch something every day, or use it to save your ass in an emergency, leave it at home. With that said, here are a few things you didn’t know you’d need:

A good map. Not one on your phone, but one you can fold out when that LTE signal is a distant memory.
A compass. See previous entry. 
A spare tire and spokes. Heavier bikes break much more easily. 
A flask of whiskey. You didn't think this was all business, did you?

I always allow myself a little indulgence, and for me, that’s coffee. I won't travel without my Aeropress and Porlex grinder.

Eat for an adventure.

Not for a race. Bikepacking is pretty sub maximal as far as exercise goes. My last adventure did involve taking a run at a 100 kilometer Strava KOM with 10,000 feet of ascent, but for the most part, you’re just riding along on these trips. Be sure to eat to sustain yourself and to avoid getting hungry. If you normally go out on shorter rides and just smash a gel halfway through, that isn’t going to work on eight-hour days. Bring and eat food with fat and protein as well as sugar. Bring a stove and something to cook at night on multi-day trips; hot coffee in the morning and a hot meal at night make everything better.

Get the Right Bags...

Some bikes come with rack mounts, and some don’t. Either way, a good set of waterproof carriers is the way to go. If you have the mounts, I love the Tubus Low Rider rack and Ortlieb panniers. If not, you’ll want a combination of saddlebags, framebags, and barbags. Make sure to distribute your weight wisely (heavy things lower down, left-right balance, etc) and get used to riding a loaded bike.

...And Big Tires

Allowing for mud clearance, get the biggest tires you can fit on your bike. More volume means more grip and more comfort. If slowing down a little bit due to higher rotating mass is a problem for you, then bikepacking probably isn’t your thing. You want to be taking the road less travelled, and that means being prepared for the road turning into a trail and the trail turning into mud. Wider rubber will keep you smiling when this happens. That’s what adventures are all about – not knowing what to expect but knowing you’ll enjoy it.

Don't Be Intimidated by the Great Outdoors

Start local and go national. Plan well but be ready to switch it up on the road. Bring a friend and come home with a BFF. I can’t tell you where the road will take you or what you’ll find, but pay attention to these basic tips and approach everything with a spirit of adventure and I guarantee you’ll be hooked. Every horizon you cross or new person you meet has the potential to make your ride even cooler. So go far, don’t try to go fast, keep smiling, and enjoy every twist and turn in your journey.

Unless you get hailed on. That’s always a bummer. [H]

James runs Appetite 4 Adventure, a nonprofit working with people with diabetes in the Native American community. He also writes for various cycling publications and spends far too much time riding in the middle of weekdays. He has diabetes, but has yet to let it stop him pursuing his search for the perfect cookie.


Images courtesy of James Stout


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