A beginner's guide to bikepacking: gear list, clothing, popular routes and tips.
Published: April 7th, 2020
Bikepacking provides a way for you to cover long miles and live minimally while staying off the beaten path. Unlike cycle touring where you are riding with some luxury and comfort, bikepacking merges the ultralight hiking ethos with the biking community. Another difference between the two is that cycle touring takes part mostly on paved roads, while bikepacking involves gravel, mud and dirt trails; thus, it requires a sturdier bike.
Either way, you'll be transporting the essentials that you need on your bike while you pedal your day away and sleep under the stars each night.
Bikepacking merges hiking with biking, so you'll need some solid backpacking gear and a rugged bike to match. Here is our list of recommended biking equipment to help get you started. If you're already a backpacker, you'll need to focus here on the bicycle-specific items.
1. Bike type
You'll want a rugged mountain bike to take you off-road. For the smoothest ride, choose front and rear suspension or look for a hardtail with front suspension. To save money, you could go with a rigid bike without suspensions at all. Test out the bike to make sure it is comfortable. Upgrade the saddle if needed and look for handlebars with ergonomic grips and a sweep to help take the pressure off your wrists.
2. Wheels and tires
Most mountain bikes ship with either 26-inch or 27.5-inch wheels, but some bikes are equipped with larger 29-inch wheels. These larger wheels are faster and smoother, but they can be heavier. Width is another consideration with measurements from 1.6 to 2.5 inches. The wider the tire, the slower it will be on the pavement, but the better it will do in difficult terrains such as mud and snow.
Choose lower, easier gearing especially if you are traveling uphill. You’ll have to spin more, but you’ll avoid the dreaded walk-the-bike-up-the-hill maneuver. Many bikepackers choose a 1X configuration with a single chainring up front that is paired with a back cassette. Because there is no front derailleur, this combination is easier to maintain and lighter than a traditional back-and-front derailleur setup.
4. Frame material
Bikes are constructed with either Chromoly steel, carbon fiber, aluminum or titanium. Chromoly steel is the heaviest, but it can take a beating which is critical when you are traveling to remote locations. It also can be repaired easily if it does get damaged. Aluminum frames are lightweight but they are stiff which makes them jarring to ride on rough terrain. As a result, many aluminum bikes are equipped with front or dual suspension. Both carbon fiber and titanium frames are both light and strong. They are expensive and reserved only for those with some extra cash to invest in a bike.
You can bike in a pair of sneakers, but you’ll need to attach a pair of toe clips onto each pedal. They are necessary to hold your foot on the pedal while you ride, but they can be frustrating. When you try to hop off your bike, your foot often gets stuck in the clip. You also have to tighten and loosen each one at least once a day. Some mountain bikes use clipless pedals that require specialized shoes. These shoes attach directly to the pedal making it easy to hop on and off your bike.
The biggest difference between toe clips and clipless pedals is efficiency. Clipless pedals are more efficient than the traditional toe clips because they help transfer all your leg power to your pedals without slipping. This added power may mean the difference between biking up an incline or walking it. A clipless pedal system is more expensive, but it is worth the extra expense if you can afford it.
Bikepacking essentially is backpacking with a bike. You’ll want the lightest gear you can afford so you can travel without being weighed down. Below we run down the essentials you'll need for your rig. Check our backpacking essentials list or ultralight backpacking gear list for additional suggestions. Just be sure to stick with gear that works on a bike. You don’t need trekking poles, for example, when you are pedaling.
BIKE Repair Supplies
Food and Water
GEAR: YOU'LL HAVE MORE ON A BIKE, BUT LESS TO ACTUALLY "CARRY"
Both bikepacking and backpacking emphasize lightweight equipment, but you'll need more of it while bikepacking. You not only have to take care of yourself, but you also have to tend to a bike. Though you have more gear, bikepacking is easier on your upper body as you can store most of your supplies on your bike instead of your back.
SLEEPING SITUATION: IDENTICAL
Bikepacking and backpacking share the same sleeping situations. As long as you bike the path, both hikers and bikers have access to shelters, campsites, and stealth sites.
ROUTES: PERSONAL PREFERENCE
Bikepackers travel mostly on trails, but oftentimes a lot on roads as well. This means there are nearly endless routes to pick from. However, a lot of 'trails' are designated for foot traffic only. This means that hikers generally have more pure trail options.
DISTANCE: THREE TO FOUR TIMES THE DISTANCE IN A DAY
You can travel further and faster on a bike. It's easy to go 60 or 70 miles a day for several days in a row on a bike. Most hikers average 15 to 25 miles a day once they have their trail legs. This can make travelling on bike more appealing if wanting to cover more ground. Also, how can you turn down the nice breeze from a bike?!
EFFORT: RELATIVELY JUST AS DEMANDING
Whether it's 20 miles a day backpacking or 60 miles a day bikepacking, both burn an extraordinary amount of calories. Both groups should carry plenty of calorie-dense foods for their trips, as well as sufficient water to properly hydrate.
SAFETY: SPEED AND CARS MAKE YOU MORE VULNERABLE
Biking is a bit more dangerous than hiking because you can crash at high speeds. Helmets required. It sounds obvious, but watch out for cars. A lot of parts of the world are not used to keeping an eye out for cyclists and bikers.
SECURITY: MORE TO LOSE
Unlike a backpack that you carry almost everywhere, a bike must be left behind when you go into a restaurant or a store. Unfortunately, this probably makes it susceptible to being stolen. Bring a lock to deter people from stealing your bike and keep it in sight as much as possible.
Bikepacking should come easily if you have some backpacking experience under your belt. Here are a few tips to help you transition from foot-powered to pedal-powered adventures.
#1. TAKE A CLASS OR VOLUNTEER AT A BIKE SHOP
A great way to learn how to maintain your bike and fix it. The two most common problems you'll encounter on the trail are flat tires and chain link breaks. At the very least, know how to handle those situations.
#2. CONFIGURE YOUR LOAD FOR COMFORT
Look for bags that are rubbing against a tire or your legs. Be sure to distribute the gear evenly on your bike, so your bike doesn't list to one side. You will tire more quickly if you are continually fighting to keep your bike in balance.
#3. START WITH AN EASY ROUTE
At the beginning, stick with short and easy trails. That'll give you a chance to test out your gear, make any necessary adjustments, and familiarize yourself with the unique challenges that come with traveling on two wheels. Once you feel comfortable on those easier trails, slowly increase the distance and difficulty of the routes you choose.
#4. ADJUST TIRE PRESSURE AND SUSPENSION
Tweak your tires and suspension to account for the weight of your gear. You are carrying extra weight and should compensate for it by proportionally increasing tire pressure and suspension settings. Check out this article by MTB Time for guidance on tire pressure.
#5. ORGANIZE YOUR GEAR
You have a lot to carry in a small space. Compartmentalizing your gear using stuff sacks will save you time and frustration as it'll help you know where everything is located.
#6. KEEP IT LIGHT
The less you pack, the more comfortable and more enjoyable your trip will be. Stick to lightweight options, get rid of non-essentials and hack your gear to shave off additional ounces.
|1. Denali National Park, Alaska||AK||92 miles|
|2. Huracan 300, Florida||FL||313 miles|
|3. Oregon Timber Trail, Oregon||OR||668 miles|
|4. Virginia Mountain Bike Trail, Virginia||VA||473 miles|
|5. Black Canyon Trail, Arizona||AZ||67 miles|
|6. Maah Daah Hey Trail, North Dakota||ND||248 miles|
|7. Kokopelli Trail, Colorado And Utah||CO & UT||158 miles|
|8. Olympic Adventure Route, Washington||WA||66 miles|
|9. Colorado Trail, Colorado||CO||539 miles|
|10. Alabama Skyway, Alabama||AL||120 miles|
|11. The Arizona National Scenic Trail, Arizona||AZ||739 miles|
|12. Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, Multi-State||Multi-State||2700 miles|
|13. Trans North Georgia, Georgia||GA||357 miles|
|14. Tahoe Rim Trail, California And Nevada||CA & NV||165 miles|
|15. Great Allegheny Passage And The C&O Canal Towpath, Pennsylvania||PA||334.5 miles|
|16. Wild West Route, Multi-State||Multi-State||2700 miles|
|17. North Country Traverse, Michigan||MI||173 miles|
|18. Coconino Loop, Arizona||AZ||250 miles|
|19. Three Sisters Three Rivers, Oregon||OR||250 miles|
|20. Los Padres National Forest, California||CA||275 miles|
1. Denali National Park, Alaska
Distance: 92 miles
Denali National Park in Alaska limits private passenger vehicles to the first 15 miles, but it does allow bikes to travel the park's 92-mile long road. You can bike between campgrounds or snag a permit and camp in Denali's pristine backcountry. Most of the road is gravel, making for a smooth but sometimes steep ride.
2. Huracan 300, Florida
Distance: 313 miles
Designed as a self-supported bikepacking race, the Huracan 300 lets you experience the sun and sand of Florida in a whole different way. The ride mixes singletrack with double-wide forest paths and pavement that lets you cruise. You'll need wide tires for the sandy stretches, and you may have to traverse a deep few river crossings, so be prepared to get wet.
3. Oregon Timber Trail, Oregon
Distance: 668 miles
Designed with mountain biking in mind, the Oregon Timber Trail is considered by some to be the world's best long-distance biking trail. It's 60 percent singletrack, so you don't have to worry about running into jeeps or UTVs. Not for the faint of heart, the path climbs 8,000 feet in its first ten miles. It's broken down into four tiers and ten segments, which makes it easy to cover in small section rides if you can't do all of it at once.
4. Virginia Mountain Bike Trail, Virginia
Distance: 473 miles
Travel through the Allegheny and Blue Ridge mountains in this epic backcountry ride. It's a rugged trek through remote forests and rocky ridgelines. Be prepared to suffer while you enjoy the but oh-so-worth-it Virginian views.
5. Black Canyon Trail, Arizona
Distance: 67 miles
The Black Canyon Trail is known for its fast and flowing singletrack that winds through the beautiful Sonoran Desert. Pedal your way through the canyons and saguaro forests as you cruise along this mellow route.
6. Maah Daah Hey Trail, North Dakota
Distance: 248 miles
A wild adventure the Maah Daah Hey Trail takes you through the badlands of North Dakota. You'll encounter ample wildlife -- bighorn sheep, elk, and coyotes, to name a few -- as you pedal across the flat grasslands and push your quads to the limit up the steep buttes.
7. Kokopelli Trail, Colorado And Utah
Distance: 158 miles
You can pedal from one mountain bike capital to another in this epic ride that begins in Fruita, Colorado and ends in Moab, Utah. You'll traverse steep and technical singletrack along with hard-packed jeep roads as you make your way across the desert. Want to ride even longer? Then complete the Grand Loop which includes links the Kokopelli Trail, the Paradox Trail, and the Tabeguache Trail to create a 360-mile loop
8. Olympic Adventure Route, Washington
Distance: 66 miles
A weekend getaway in the woods, the Olympic Adventure Route takes you through dense, old-growth forests in the lush Olympic Mountains of Washington. You'll spend your days traversing flowy singletrack and navigating steep climbs that reward you with glimpses of Vancouver Island and the Strait of Juan De Fuca.
9. Colorado Trail, COLORADO
Distance: 539 miles
Instead of hiking the Colorado trails from Durango to Denver, consider biking it the next time you are ready for a challenge. You'll climb over the high Rocky Mountain peaks (13,000 feet), pedal around glacial lakes, and cruise through mountain forests. There are only a few places where you have to hit the pavement as you detour around wilderness areas that prohibit bikes.
10. Alabama Skyway, Alabama
Distance: 120 miles
Plenty of primitive campsites line the Alabama Skyway, formerly known as the Talladega Traverse, in the Talladega National Forest. Steady inclines will challenge your fitness, but most of the trail follows forest service roads and paved roads, making it an easy ride.
11. The Arizona National Scenic Trail, ARIZONA
Distance: 739 miles
Ride across Arizona from Mexico to Utah as you cover a diversity of terrain on this multi-use trail. You'll travel through the desert and grasslands of the Saguaro National Park, the gorgeous canyons of the Grand Canyon, and the mountains of Sky island. You will have to plan your trip across the Grand Canyon as you can only walk across the national park. You either have to shuttle your bike or disassemble and carry it.
12. Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, Multi-state
Distance: 2700 miles
The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is The Continental Divide Trail for bikers. The 2,700-mile trail lets you bike along the continental divide from Canada to Mexico. The route isn't technical -- its actually 100 percent rideable --but it does require a fair amount of endurance and a ton of commitment to pedal that far and for that long. The path is the grandaddy of bikepacking, considered by many to be the birthplace of the sport.
13. Trans North Georgia, GEORGIA
Distance: 357 miles
The Trans North Georgia trail winds through the southern Appalachian mountains. The trail starts in South Carolina, snakes through Georgia, and ends in Alabama. Though not a highly technical ride, the Trans North Georgia trail will test your physical endurance with thigh-crushing ascents and bone-jarring ascents. In between the highs and the lows are a few short stretches of flats that give you a chance to recharge. The trail travels through a variety of terrain, including hardwood forests, stands of pine, and rock-laden mountain ridges.
14. Tahoe Rim Trail, California and Nevada
Distance: 165 miles
The Tahoe Rim trail climbs high into the mountains and winds down to the lakeside trails that hug the beautiful Lake Tahoe. The Tahoe Rim Trail is also used for hiking and traverses several wilderness areas, so you cannot bike the entire trail. That isn't stopping some creative mountain bikers who have created a custom route that lets you circle the lake without having to travel on foot.
15. Great Allegheny Passage and The C&O Canal Towpath, Pennsylvania
Distance: 334.5 miles
Ride along these two historic routes as you make your way from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Washington DC. The first leg on the Great Allegheny Passage follows a 150-mile railroad bed that was converted to a gravel trail. It has a very mellow 1.5% grade that climbs steadily from 720 feet in Pittsburgh to the top of the Eastern Continental Divide at 2,392 feet. It then descends gradually into the nation's capital.
16. Wild West Route, Multi-state
Distance: 2700 miles
If you want a truly remote wilderness experience, then the Wild West Route show be one of your top choices. Passing through Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Arizona, the trail is mostly dirt roads and jeep trails. It provides non-technical traverse for those craving an epic adventure. You also can do it in sections if time is a limiting factor.
17. North Country Traverse, Michigan
Distance: 173 miles
The North Country Trail (NCT) is a National Scenic Trail that passes through Northern Michigan's stunning landscape. You'll ride on sweet singletrack and dirt roads that wind through Michigan's hardwood forests, lush river banks, and old-growth stands. Remote but not very technical, it is suitable for beginner bikers with backpacking skills.
18. Coconino LOOP, Arizona
Distance: 250 miles
The Coconino loop trail connects some of the best trails in Northern Arizona, including sections of the Arizona Trail and trails within the biking epicenter of Sedona. Almost half of the trail is challenging singletrack, while the rest is rough jeep paths and country roads. You'll ride through ponderosa pines, lava rocks, mesas, and snow-covered peaks. There are even a few hike-your-bike segments thrown in for good measure.
19. Three Sisters Three Rivers, Oregon
Distance: 250 miles
Saddle up and climb your way through Oregon's Cascade mountain range on the Three Sisters Three Rivers route. More than 60 percent of the trail is technical singletrack, some of which hugs the sides of cliffs and is not for the faint of heart.
20. Los Padres National Forest, CAlifornia
Distance: 275 miles
Bike the public forest roads and trails in this often-overlooked national forest. you'll have to pick and choose your paths carefully as the park is dotted with wilderness areas that are open only to foot traffic. If you'd rather follow a route instead of freewheeling through the backcountry, you can bike along with the Tour De Los Padres, a 275-mile bikepacking route through the southern part of the Los Padres National Forest. You can bike this course alone or join others in the annual race/group ride.
Bikepacking is growing and there is a growing number of resources online to learn more about the sport. Here is a list to get you started:
By Kelly Hodgkins: Kelly is a full-time backpacking guru. She can be found on New Hampshire and Maine trails, leading group backpacking trips, trail running or alpine skiing.
About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.
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