Washington Trails Association
Trails for everyone, forever
Bikepacking is a lot like backpacking. Only — you guessed it — you ride your bike. And it's a fun way to go car-free or explore closed Forest Service roads or other bike-friendly routes | By Ben Popper.
You have a bike. You love camping. Why not marry the two?
Few of us would call putting in long miles on Forest Service roads exciting, but when you add a bike, it can be. Those rails-to-trails paths or washed-out roads are both perfect candidates for putting your bike to work to help make the miles more fun. There are a few pieces of specific gear that help, but most of us probably already have most of what is needed to enjoy a night out under the stars via a two-wheeled adventure. The only things you need to get rolling are a bike, a way to carry your stuff and a destination.
But first, what is bikepacking anyway? The simplest way to think about it is essentially the same as backpacking, except you get to your campsite by pedaling a bicycle. Bikepacking is differentiated from standard bike touring by deviating from paved roads and using non-motorized routes. You can hook up a bike trailer full of gear, put your kiddo on a tandem or take it ultralight — whatever you want.
What do you need to get started? For first-timers just trying a short jaunt, your trusty backpack can probably carry all the gear you need, and whatever bike you have will work great. For off-pavement travel, a flat handlebar and fatter tires will make for a more comfortable ride, but cyclists roll out on all forms of bikes.
If you’re using a backpack to haul your gear, be thoughtful about its height. Can you comfortably sit on your saddle, helmet on, and not hit your head on the backpack? If possible, removing the lid from your pack will give you more helmet clearance. Fitting your gear into a smaller backpack will also ultimately make your ride more comfortable: Once you begin to take on trips with longer distances or multiple days, carrying a large backpack while riding a bike will become uncomfortable.
A commuter-style rear rack with panniers is probably the easiest and most affordable way to carry gear, although many prefer a front rack in order to keep the weight forward for improved handling on off-road surfaces.
Much like backpacking, it’s no fun to carry extra-heavy items or unnecessary bulk. The more compact and lightweight you can pack your gear the better — it’s easier to pedal less weight! If you use panniers, however, size is more important than weight. You need your gear to fit in the panniers. And if your gear is heavy, at least it won’t be sitting on your shoulders.
You want both your bike and your biking skills to be ready for a bikepacking trip. The most important factor is ensuring that what you have is in good working order — pushing a broken bike miles home is going to flat-out ruin an otherwise fun trip. Have your bike tuned up at a bike shop before setting out, and make sure your chain is in good condition and lubricated well, your cables are solid, and shifting and braking are working well.
Outside of a well-tuned machine, knowing how to fix the most common cycling problems is critical. Ask a bike shop technician to teach you how to change a flat tire, for starters, and be sure to carry a small repair kit containing a spare tube, pump, tire levers and a multitool. As your trips get longer, knowing how to fix your bike becomes more important.
Riding a bike with camping gear is pretty easy — it’s like riding a bike! (I know, I know.) Most important is feeling balanced and safe on your bike. Before you head out, practice riding with your complete load to make sure the weight is balanced between the front and back tires. You want to be sure that you can ride up and down hills without having too much weight on either the front or back. Also, be sure that all your gear will stay attached to the bike when rattling through gravel or on trails. Bungee cords are awesome for securing loads but without careful use, you might lose items that shake off the bike.
Don’t worry too much about climbing hills — if your bike doesn’t have a huge range of gears, you can always walk it. Nobody’s watching. When descending, keep in mind that gravity loves that extra weight of your gear and be careful to control your speed.
Through experience, you’ll figure out your own system of packing and carrying gear while riding, which might employ any number of solutions to fit the specific needs of your trip. And once you get the hang of bikepacking, it won’t feel so much like a completely different activity — it will simply be using a different tool to have the same fun you’ve always been having outside in the forest.
So the next time you see a campground 10 miles up a closed forest service road, don’t give up. Trade your boots in for your bike and get out there.
Ben Popper is an avid cyclist who formerly raced cyclocross at an international level but now prefers riding long gravel climbs, bikepacking with his 8-year-old son and exploring decommissioned fire service roads.