by Heath Brown
Traveling through the mountains, your bike smoothly descends rolling alpine single track. At the bottom of the hill you skid to a stop just before crossing a wooden plank bridge. You take in the smell of the wildflowers, and scan the trickle of water under the bridge for darting shadows indicating scared brook trout swimming for cover. This will make a perfect camp. Except for the cool mountain water you will drink from the stream and the trout you will catch for dinner, everything you need is attached to your bike or your body. Life is simple. This is bikepacking.
If you love bikes and being outside, you will love bikepacking.
The first step to a successful bikepacking trip is to set your intention. What is it you hope to get out of the trip?
Bikepacking can provide a new challenge, but it can also be a relaxing vacation, time to spend with your family, or even a spiritual retreat. If your intention is to stop and smell the roses, but you set your daily mileage at a race pace, then your experience will be very different from what you intended. Your intentions dictate things like what trail you choose, how far you will ride each day, and the partners with whom you will ride.
Bikepacking is all about slowing down.
Unless you are seeking a new record on the Tour Divide, chances are your bikepacking pace will be slower than your race pace. If you are a ten mile per hour racer, plan to ride six miles per hour on a bikepacking trip. Eating food, taking pictures, exploring the mysteries of the wild- these all take time. Save yourself undue stress by planning fewer miles per day, or so you can just wing it and camp whenever the urge hits.
Bike, water, food, shelter, luxuries: these are your hierarchy of needs for any bikepacking trip.
Bike – It would be easy to say that the bike you need is the one you already have. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Go back to your intention for the trip. Will the bike you have do what you need it to? A reliable hardtail mountain bike is usually a good bet for any bikepacking trip. The large frame triangle provides a good place to store gear in a frame bag, and the rigid rear means your seat pack will stay away from your tire. It’s not that a full suspension mountain bike won’t work, but you will trade suspension for space.
Water – You can carry it on your back or your bike, or even filter it from streams you encounter. Water is crucial. Make sure you know your trail. On a bikepacking trip through the desert, you might be drinking six liters of water a day, with no place to refill. Water filters work great for areas with lots of stream crossings, but they do take up space. Iodine tablets are very compact, but taste awful. Some trails even intersect campgrounds or ranger stations where you can fill up with clean drinkable water.
Food – Food just tastes better when eaten around a campfire after a long day outside. Bring food that you like. Nothing is worse than being hungry with nothing to eat but unappetizing freeze-dried eggs. Even more important than the food you bring is how you haul it. Large frame bags work great for a stove, cookware, and food for breakfast and dinner. Toss in something special like a beer or a coke for a treat after the first three hours. Pack your snacks in an accessible place like a chow sack attached to the handlebars, so you can eat easily during breaks. I personally like to add some chocolate-covered espresso beans into my trail mix as a little pick-me-sup. A backpack or top tube pouch works well for lunch on the go. Quesadillas tend to travel well, and still taste good cold. Salty chips are easy to pack and really hit the spot when you’re working hard.
Shelter – There is nothing like sleeping under the stars when the weather permits but, if this isn’t an option, tents, tarps, or hammocks can all be carried easily in a stuff sack on your front handlebars. If you distribute the tent components among other riders, you can usually find room for extra clothing in the same stuff sack. Sleeping bags work well if stuffed into a large volume seatbag, which perform best when stuffed full. They are great for storing items that will not be used but not consumed during the trip. A sleeping pad is a luxury I would not like to go without, and it can also be stuffed alongside a sleeping bag.
Luxuries – Even on the most stoic of trips it is worth bringing along a little luxury: flip-flops for camp, your favorite tea, a flask of whiskey- whatever is your flavor. My personal favorite is to keep an extra charge in my phone to listen to a This American Life podcast as I drift off to sleep.
Now you are ready for your own bikepacking trip! Where would you like to go? What trails would you like to travel via mountain bike? Let us know in the comments! Happy trails.