Advice For First-Time Bikepackers

Everyone remembers their first bikepacking trip. 

Mine was in 2004 when my partner and I hatched a harebrained idea to ride bikes from Denver to Durango on the Colorado Trail. Never mind that I had never backpacked or bike toured before. Bikepacking wasn't even really a thing back then. It just seemed like a really great way to spend the last two weeks of summer vacation before college classes started back up. 

We bought some racks, panniers, and a few other hokey-looking bike bags that were more meant for getting your lunch to work than traversing 500 or so miles of rugged trail. Our friends dropped us off at Waterton Canyon and shook their heads. What could possibly go wrong?

On the first descent, panniers went flying. On the second day, we sent a package home with my knee warmers (I had leg warmers as well), three of my five pairs of underwear, one of my spare shorts, an extra jacket, some of my partners' spare clothes, our coffee maker, and a lot more. The packaged weighed 10.5 pounds. We ended up buying a new coffee maker at the next town. 

Over the course of the trip, we were rained on, hailed on, and baked by the sun. We ran out of food and water, we cried, we outran thunderstorms and cried some more. We once bought nothing but candy at a resupply point and ended up spending two days taking honey shots out of a Hunny Bear. 

In the end, it was an absolutely amazing trip. But I have to admit that a shake-down trip would have done us a whole lot of good. 

You don't need a lot of experience to go bikepacking. You don't need a special bike or the most modern gear—all that can come later after you've fallen in love with the sport. For your first foray into bikepacking, all you need is a bike that you're comfortable on, overnight gear and a way to carry it, and a route that you're excited about. 

Three riders are riding on a dirt road in a forest. Their bikes are loaded for bikepacking.

1. Bike Selection
Full suspension bikes can be great bikepacking bikes. So can hardtails. Cross bikes are fantastic too. If you're riding smooth surfaces, road bikes work as well. Fat bikes are great on snow, sand, trails, and—if you don't mind plodding along—pavement. Don't let the belief that you don't have the "right" bike for bikepacking deter you from trying it. 

Before you head out on an overnighter, make sure your bike is in good working order. Top off sealant if you're running tubeless, check your tires for wear, make sure your cables aren't frayed, and perform any other maintenance that you'd do before a big ride. 

If you're riding with suspension, adding 10-20+ pounds of gear to your bike will affect how well your front and rear shocks work, so re-set your suspension sag with your bike fully loaded. 

Your bike may be in perfect working order when you leave, but a lot can happen out on the trail. Assemble a repair kit that will get you through most realistic scenarios—a multi-tool, spare tube and patch kit, inflator, tire levers, spare chain links, and some duct tape and zip ties should be enough to get you through an overnighter.

A bikepacker is inflating his bright yellow air mattress. His bike and tent are set up behind him. There are forested mountains in the background.

2. Overnight Gear
If you’ll be riding technical trails, keep your base weight as low as possible. Mountain biking simply isn’t as fun when your bike weighs a metric ton. When debating what gear to bring, compromise on comfort items, not safety items. Take the rain jacket but maybe leave the extra t-shirt behind. You don't need a clean jersey for every day. Some would argue that you don't even need clean shorts every day. 

Camping doesn't take a lot of gear. You need a sleeping bag, preferably a sleeping pad, and, if it's going to rain, a tent or tarp. Cowboy camping, or sleeping out under the stars in a bivy bag or just a sleeping bag, is amazing. Try it.

When it comes to your camp kitchen, you can make a case for going stove-free. Though it won’t be hot, you can always mix instant coffee in a water bottle in the morning (If you have access to a Trader Joe's, their flavored coffee packets are 1/3 coffee, 1/3 milk powder, 1/3 sugar, and 100% amazing). While fresh food tends to weigh a bit more than dehydrated meals, you won't have to carry the weight of a stove and fuel. Think donuts for breakfast—bikepacking is a great excuse for donuts. 

Always have a dry set of clothes for sleeping. Make a hard and fast rule that no matter how badly you don't want to put wet socks on in the morning, you won’t ride in your dry sleeping socks, unless you're headed home that day. Warm and dry clothes provide a safety net if something goes wrong. Don't count on the sun coming out after a storm to dry you off before night comes. 

A bikepacker sits and drinks a warm beverage.

3. Carrying Gear
If you don't want to jump into buying purpose-specific bikepacking bags quite yet, you have a few options. You can easily strap an inexpensive stuff sack to your handlebars. Lightweight dry bags with compression straps work great for this. 

Backpacks are often looked down upon, as people think that they put excessive weight on the bum and other sensitive areas. These people aren't wrong, but a backpack is a great way to carry bulky items that don't weight a lot (think sleeping pad, clothing, donuts). 

If you don't have a seat bag, a rack with a dry bag strapped to it can carry a lot of gear. On my first Colorado Trail Race in 2010 when bikepacking-specific bags were rare, I had a cheesy rack with a bag on it. I strapped my rain jacket to the top of the bag but it flew off in the first three miles. Thanks to whoever picked it up and returned it to me down the trail! Panniers are also a solid option but try not to succumb to the idea that if you have space on your bike, you have to fill it. Stay light. 

A tent is set up on a campsite next to a bike. The site is next to a lake or river.

4. Route Selection
Your first overnighter doesn't have to be epic. In the spirit of Alastair Humphreys, make it a micro-adventure. Go to a place you know and feel comfortable with. Don't add the stress of navigating difficult terrain to what will already be a new experience that will probably take up a good bit of your mental energy. 

A bikepacker sits in front of a fire at a campsite. His tent and bike are behind him. There are mountains in the background and stars are visible in the darkening sky.

5. Campsite Selection
If you're bikepacking on public lands, it's not hard to find camping. Just swing off the road or trail and set up camp. It’s best to get out of sight if possible, especially when camping near a road. Bushes and trees provide great cover. 

Don't set up camp right next to a creek or river, no matter how romantic it seems. The moisture in the air will condense overnight and soak everything. Plus, it'll be at least five degrees cooler at water level than 20 feet above. 

Always practice Leave No Trace principles. Pick up and pack out your trash. Whenever possible, use established fire rings rather than creating your own. If you have to poo, dig a hole far away from water and put your toilet paper in a baggie and take it home. 

Gear and tools for bikepackging are lined up on the floor. The items include zip-ties, cash, a multi-tool, tire lever, spork, and chopsticks.

6. Keep Mental Notes
Your first trip won’t go perfectly. You'll forget important stuff: a lighter, your headlamp, tent stakes. You'll bring stuff you don't need: a sponge for washing plates after dinner when you can just lick the plate clean. Keep a mental checklist of gear you use, stuff that you don't need, and items that will make your trip more fun. Some people can't imagine bikepacking without a cast iron pan to cook eggs in the morning, others will wear the same pair of shorts for two weeks. Figure out what makes you happy. 

In summary, it doesn't take a lot to start bikepacking. Strap some bags to whatever bike you have and go. If you love it, then you can delve into the deep end of bikes, gear, and toys. For now, focus on the most important part: beginning. See you out there.

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Eszter Horanyi Explore Mountain Biking Overnighter Skills Sponsored Riders

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Eszter Horanyi

Eszter Horanyi

When Eszter Horanyi was in second grade, living in Tucson, Ariz., her dad bought the entire family Schwinn mountain bikes; she’s been riding ever since, dabbling in racing disciplines from road, to cross, to track and mountain biking. Most recently she’s loving adventurous long rides, bikepacking and exploring the world from two wheels.


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