Why Bikepacking Is the Next Big Adventure Trend and How to Do It
Backpacking + biking = bikepacking!
If you’re plugged into cycling culture, you’ve probably already heard the buzz about bikepacking. But even if you’re not familiar with the trend, there’s plenty to love about grabbing your mountain bike, strapping on some camping equipment and heading down some long forest trails, wilderness access roads, desert hiking routes and more.
The name of the game is “off-road.” So as long as you’re plotting a route off the beaten path, you’re bikepacking. With its combination of adventure and fitness, it’s no wonder bikepacking is gaining popularity with cycling’s biggest trendsetters.
What Exactly Is Bikepacking?
Bikepacking (biking plus backpacking) cropped up around the same time the bicycle did, but the catchy moniker has really only been used in the past couple of decades. As early as the 1900s, cyclists were strapping the bare essentials to their bicycles for long, mostly off-road rides spanning multiple days.
Cyclists were also used as messengers, scouts and infantry during the wars and conflicts of the 20th century, often covering distances of hundreds or thousands of miles on two wheels while loaded down with all of their gear. Those cyclists and their ambition to explore are still at the heart of bikepacking today.
Bikepacking has popped up in the United States as a cottage industry almost overnight, with hundreds of manufacturers and small businesses getting in on the trend. Mountain bikers have continued to test the limits of innovation, demanding custom bags, ultralight camping gear and bikepacking-specific cycles.
So what’s the difference between this bikepacking trend and bike touring? “While touring tends to rely on paved routes and byways, bikepacking is based on the exploration of off-pavement and backcountry trails and tracks,” says Logan Watts, founder of Bikepacking.com.
A good bikepacking route minimizes time spent on pavement and maximizes time spent on fun trails.
Rockstars of the Bikepacking World
Bikepacking reached the mainstream in just a few short years, thanks to several trendsetting cyclists and some of the biggest cycling websites on the internet.
John Prolly, a blogger who creates or stumbles upon cycling’s biggest trends, runs The Radavist. His site has millions of readers, and he collaborates with all of the biggest names in every discipline of cycling. Bikepacking cycles are regularly featured on his site, and he’ll likely be the one to call out the next trend.
In 2016, British cyclist Mike Hall made a name for himself by breaking the world record for the Great Divide route, a 3,000-mile ride from Banff, Alberta, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico. He finished in a blistering 14 days, 11 hours, 55 minutes. That includes several days in excess of 250 miles of riding, a superhuman feat.
Other big names in bikepacking include Nicholas Carman and Lael Wilcox, the couple behind the blog Gypsy By Trade. They’ve just finished plotting a 2,000-mile route, called the Baja Divide, from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas. Wilcox is also the fastest woman in endurance cycling, with several titles and world records under her belt in just a few short years.
On social media, @UltraRomance, aka Poppi Benedict, aka J. Bene Romanceur Esq., is one of the most entertaining personalities on two wheels and is an avid bikepacker. He’s been featured on the cover of Bicycling Magazine, with frame bags and an old-school wire basket, proving that any bike is a bikepacking bike if you want it to be.
Essential Gear for Bikepacking
You ready to hop on your bike and start your bikepacking adventure? Start with a route that’s well-planned and easy, says Prolly. “Remember, less is more in terms of packing, and always bring a water filter like a Sawyer when traveling to remote regions.”
And make sure you have all the necessary gear, equipment and clothing before you set out. Here are three essentials to put on your packing list.
A rigid mountain bike with wide tires is ideal for soaking up rough terrain on big off-road riding days. The author's bike was perfect for conquering Iceland’s volcanic rock and loose sand.
1. A Bike
Bikepacking can be done on any bike. Some of the most influential mountain bikers have proved this on every possible permutation of bike. You can bikepack on a touring bike, a mountain bike, a fatbike or even a road bike, as long as you can take the punishment of dirt and gravel routes.
The ideal platforms are usually the hard-tail mountain bike or the rigid mountain bike, which are both efficient over rougher terrain and very comfortable for long days in the saddle.
The author used rear racks and small panniers to carry four to five days’ worth of food for Iceland’s remote regions and typical frame bags, a lightweight and efficient solution for off-road riding.
2. A Bag System
Perhaps the most identifying feature of a bikepacking bike is the unique bag system. Most bikepackers use soft-frame bags strapped in the empty spaces of the frame, behind the seat and in front of the handlebars.
Frame bags are often custom-made to fit the triangle of the frame perfectly, making maximum use of the space. And they keep weight close to the bike’s center of gravity. For long off-road rides, they eliminate the mechanical issues associated with traditional racks and panniers on rough surfaces.
Watts says that while the bags are important, the weight of your camping gear is a much bigger factor. Keeping your storage space small might be one strategy for packing light. “If you have bag space, you will fill it up,” he says.
The author carried a four-season tent to contend with Iceland’s hurricane-force winds, as well as lightweight sleeping bags, one cooking pot, a change of clothes and basic tools to keep the packed weight as low as possible without compromising safety.
3. Camping Equipment
Bikepackers carry the bare minimum. Generally speaking, the lower your packed weight, the more fun it will be to ride. A down sleeping bag, a minimalist shelter like a tarp or one-person tent and one pair of riding shorts are staples.
Innovations in camping gear allow for a comfortable camping setup that weighs less than 10 pounds, and camping companies like REI are recognizing the new crop of camping cyclists with bikepacking-related marketing for their equipment.
Max Roman Dilthey is a science, health and culture writer currently pursuing a master's of sustainability science. Based in Massachusetts, he blogs about cycling at MaxTheCyclist.com.