For many, there’s a special joy in riding a bike that’s reminiscent of childhood: the freedom to go and do as you please, the feeling of flying down the road at speeds your legs are incapable of, and a sense of limitless exploration. And if there’s one way to amplify those experiences, bikepacking may be it.
But if you’ve never loaded up your camping gear onto a set of pedal-powered wheels and hit the road, you may have some questions. Fortunately, we have answers.
What is bikepacking anyway
Think of bikepacking as an activity that hovers at the intersection of backpacking and overlanding: a type of trip where you spend a night (or several) camping outdoors carrying everything you need on your back or vehicle. The main difference is that your mode of transportation is two aluminum rims instead of your feet or a gas-powered engine. But beyond that, the details are up to you.
“There’s no one way to do it,” explains Marley Blonsky, athlete, and co-founder of All Bodies on Bikes, a non-profit organization based in Bentonville, Arkansas, that aims to promote size inclusion in the cycling world. “People get caught up in doing it ‘the right way,’ but just go out and have fun,” she encourages. “There are no rules and no trophies—it’s whatever you want to make of it.”
That means bikepacking can be comprised of road or trail riding, camping at developed sites or off-grid in the backcountry; rides of two days or ten, distances of five miles or 500, or any combination of the above. You can do it solo or with friends and family, and anyone who has the desire can do it. Provided you have the necessary gear, of course.
Start with a bike
What you’ll need will vary from adventure to adventure, but the basics will likely stay the same, and the item at the top of the list is a bike. You don’t need an expensive steed, and Blonsky says that as long as it has two wheels and you can attach a rack and a bag to it, you should be good to go.
That said, if you want to be picky, a bike with a wide range of gears will make conquering different terrains easier, while chunky tires will offer stability if you’ll be riding off-road.
As for other necessary items, Blonsky recommends making packing lists in categories—ask yourself what you’ll need to ride, sleep, eat, and wear.
In addition to a bike, you’ll need cargo racks and bags that attach to them (such as panniers) to carry all your gear. For safety, bring powerful bike lights for riding in the dark (don’t forget about spare batteries or charging cables) and repair gear for addressing minor maintenance mishaps. At the very least, the kit should include a multi-tool, a patch kit, a spare tube, electrical tape, a pocket knife, and a hand pump.
It’s important to know that you don’t have to be an experienced bike mechanic to go off on your own bikepacking adventure. But you should at least know how to change a flat tire and fix a chain that has fallen off, two of the most common repairs you’ll address. Just don’t think that you can simply search YouTube for an instructional video when it’s time to fix things. You may find yourself with a broken bike part and no cell service when you’re off the beaten path, so make sure you learn before you leave.
If you’ll be spending most of your nights outdoors, make sure you pack what you need to spend a comfy night under the stars. You’ll need a tent or hammock plus a sleeping pad and bag—the smaller the better. Lightweight backpacking gear is often well-suited for bikepacking, but some manufacturers also offer bike-specific items like tents with shorter poles that fit better on a bike frame.
Fuel your ride
As for what to eat, Blonsky recommends choosing your own adventure. Meaning, if you’re passing through small towns, you may prefer to stop for a meal, but if you’ll be farther from civilization, you may have to pack all your food for the trip. If you’ll be avoiding other human beings and want more than sandwiches and energy bars, you’ll likely need a stove to cook. With that and a small pot or pan, you can whip up any number of dishes using fresh or dried ingredients.
You may want to prioritize quicker meals for lunch and snacks. Make or grab a sandwich or spread hummus and veggies on a tortilla. For snacking, Blonsky recommends “whatever you can eat one-handed while you’re peddling,” like energy bars, fruit, and small bags of trail mix.
And if you like to have a treat at the end of the day, whether that’s a cupcake or a six-pack, bring it! Blonsky encourages new riders especially to pack whatever makes the trip more enjoyable for them.
What to wear
When choosing what to wear, avoid cotton and opt for comfortable, quick-drying and moisture-wicking fabrics that won’t chafe or feel heavy and soggy after a long day on a bike. Keep the weather forecast in mind when choosing clothing and bring an extra layer in case temperatures drop or it rains.
Blonsky also recommends bringing a change of clothes just for camp, like a lightweight pair of shoes and a cozy outfit that isn’t sticky with sweat. Nothing feels as good after a long day of riding as stripping off your padded bike shorts and salt-crusted shirt to enjoy a meal around the campfire.
Safety and navigation
Planning a trip doesn’t end with a packing list, so don’t forget safety and navigational tools. Bring a first aid kit that includes any personal medication, plus a paper map in addition to any apps you’ll be using on your phone. If you will be relying on digital tools, bring along a power bank to make sure you always have access to them.
Avoid accidents by doing a safety check every day before you ride: Ensure your wheels are securely attached to your bike, your brakes are in good working order, and nothing needs attention or repair. Finally, always adhere to safe riding practices when sharing the road with motorists.
Finding a route
Once you have the gear and the drive and you’re ready to give bikepacking a go, it’s time to select your route. Organizations like AdventureCycling.com and bikepacking.com both highlight popular routes across the country and offer maps to aid in planning.
Or, if you’re already familiar with an area, make your own map by marking bike routes and trails, points of interest, campgrounds, and more on Google Maps. You can also use an app like Ride with GPS that’s specifically designed with bikepackers in mind. If you don’t know where to start, you can always ask around at your local bike shops and organizations—they can likely give you tips and suggestions.
Ease into it
Your first bikepacking trip doesn’t have to be a week-long ride or have an aggressive amount of mileage over wilderness terrain. Start with an overnight not far from where you live, and when you feel comfortable and confident, you can then go farther and faster.
“There’s no right or wrong way to do it,” Blonsky says. “Figure out what works for you and have fun with it.”