Swap feet for wheels, take on a new challenge this year and jump on the latest sustainable travel trend with this bikepacking guide.
Take the best parts of mountain biking and the best parts of backpacking and put them together and you’ve got a pastime that’s become particularly popular in recent years, although people have been doing it for decades.
Bikepacking combines mountain bike trips with a spot of camping and is something you can do with your cycling buddies, as a family or a couple. You get to cover many more miles than you would if you were hiking. In addition, you get to access dirt roads and trails that are inaccessible to other vehicles. There are various rides to choose from ranging from local overnighters right the way up to epic cross-country trails.
If you’re interested in getting started, read on to learn more. Including:
- Bikepacking history
- The benefits of bikepacking
- The challenges for bikepackers
- The best bikepacking itineraries across the world
- Bikepacking tips and tricks
- Essential gear for your adventure
- Where to look for inspiration
Brief Introduction to Bikepacking History
Bikepacking was a term first coined back in May 1973. This is also the time when Bikecentennial, an event comprising bike yours on the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail was formed.
Dan Burden, the co-founder of Bikecentennial, used the word in an article he wrote. The article was about his journey across Alaska and Canada on a bike. National Geographic published the article and from that point, the popularity of bikepacking started to gain momentum.
Bikepacking made it into print one more time when Robin Adshead introduced his book titled “Bikepacking for Beginners.” This publication sparked the public enthusiasm for the sport even more.
Bikepacking might be a relatively new concept, but bicycle touring has existed for much longer. The first person to cycle around the world, for example, was Thomas Stevens who set off on his penny farthing in 1984.
Benefits of Bikepacking
Bikepacking is the ultimate self-sufficiency adventure. You have the freedom to go where you want at your own pace and if you love mountain biking and hiking, it’s the best of both worlds.
Cycling is known to have many health benefits. Getting out on two wheels regularly has been shown to have a positive effect on the following:
- Muscle strength
- Cardiovascular fitness
- Body fat levels
- Bone health
- Joint mobility
- Posture and coordination
- Stress levels
However, the greatest benefit of mountain bike trips and bikepacking has to be the time spent reconnecting with nature. You get to enjoy the freedom of camping and hiking combined with the thrill of mountain biking. Bikepacking is an exhilarating, liberating experience for anyone who loves the outdoors.
Here are a few more benefits worth mentioning:
- Improve your mood and wellbeing: Being outdoors surrounded by nature lifts your spirits and makes you feel happy.
- Challenges you mentally and physically: Bikepacking can be tough, both physically and mentally. However, the more you do it, the easier it gets and the fitter you become.
- Builds a community and helps connect you with new friends: Bikepacking is a great way to meet new friends. There are lots of Facebook groups to get involved with and clubs that put on events.
- You get to spend time in incredible destinations: Bikepacking is an opportunity to explore and spend time in some amazing destinations. It might be a stunning red rock singletrack of Sedona, rolling green hills of Vermont, mountainous fjords of Squamish, or the top of Whistler Mountain with 360° views of the peaks and valleys around.
- Builds confidence: this confidence can spill over into the real world and improve your self-esteem in life, work, relationships, body, and more.
- Helps to relieve stress levels: Exercise and spending time in nature can help relieve stress, making bikepacking a great choice if you need to blow off some steam.
- It’s a great family activity: You can take bikepacking vacations together, ride local trails, do post-ride meals, talk about bikes, and a lot more.
- It’s one of the most sustainable ways of traveling: Last but not least, cycling and bikepacking are two of the best ways of getting from point A to point B while keeping a super low carbon footprint. And that’s something worth giving it a try alone, agree?
Read more: All the adventures you can take without flying
Main Challenges of Bikepacking
Most bikepacking challenges fall into four categories. Knowing what these are will help any new bikepackers and give hesitant riders the encouragement they need to strike out on their own.
“Fix Now” Problems
These are problems that come with significant consequences for life or limb if you don’t take action immediately. Things that qualify for this category include:
- Lightning storms on exposed ridges
- Whiteout blizzard conditions
- Heat exhaustion
- A grizzly bear entering your camp
The solutions for these types of problems include moving to lower ground, setting up your shelter and staying warm, stopping and drinking water, and pulling out your bear spray, in that order.
You’ll be pleased to know that not every problem is of the “Fix Now” variety. A mysterious creaking sound, for example, can probably wait.
“Fix Soon” Problems
Problems in this category include:
- Broken chain
- Flat tire
- Unrideable busy highway
- Failing brakes
- Blocked or closed road
- Minor injury from a traffic incident
- A physical knock
All of these scenarios require attention or a decision soon, often before you can start moving again. However, because there’s no immediate danger to life or limb, there’s no reason to panic or rush.
“Fix When Convenient” Problems
A saggy seat bag, leaky sleeping pad, brake rub, sticky shifting, and similar issues can wear you down during a long trip, but they should stop you from making forward progress.
You can fix problems in these categories on your terms. Simply find a nice flat spot in the shade to make adjustments to your bike or wait until it’s time to stop at camp.
These fix later problems may or may not be actual problems, only time will tell. For example, if a handlebar plug falls out and you make a temporary fix with some electrical tape, it might last for a couple of months or you might need to fix it properly the next day.
You’re very vulnerable on a long bike ride and dependent on a small set of gear and techniques. It’s easy to get worried if one small thing isn’t quite right. But sometimes, problems solve themselves or turn out not to be a problem in the first place.
Quick Problem Solving Tips
- Carry a tools and spares kit and know how to use it
- Download several types of maps before you lose data reception, include nearby areas in case of reroutes, and always have a backup navigation device in case one fails
- In remote places, carry a 2-way satellite messenger so you can get that one critical piece of information you need
- Pack sufficient clothing and shelter for the weather conditions, and use it before you get too wet or cold
- Practice self-reliance, but when all else fails, embrace the kindness of strangers
- Don’t panic
Also read: How to dress in winter
Best Bikepacking Itineraries Across the World
Several classic bikepacking routes can be found all over the world. They consist of everything from single-track mountain biking trails to smooth, modern highways. These routes are known for being incredibly beautiful, fun to explore, and particularly bike-friendly.
Whether you’re new to the sport or looking to take your bikepacking to the next level, here are our top seven bikepacking routes around the world:
Great Divide Mountain Biking Route
The US and Canada, North America
The Great Divide Mountain Biking Route covers more than 2,100 miles stretching from Banff National Park in Canada to Antelope Wells, NM, along the US Mexican border.
The Arizona National Scenic Trail
United States, North America
800 miles in length, the Arizona National Scenic Trail is an opportunity to ride across the entire state of Arizona from north to south. It even passes through the Grand Canyon, albeit briefly.
The North Sea Cycle Route
Several countries in Europe
This trail crosses through nine countries including Scotland, Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. It covers more than 3,728 miles and is a favorite for long-distance bikepackers.
The Old Ghost Road
New Zealand, Oceania
The Old Ghost Road is the longest single-track route in the country and stretches for 52 miles across a remote section of the South Island.
Munda Biddi Trail
The 1000km Munda Biddi trail is way-marked, with day-ride sections which are family-friendly. It takes between 10 and 20 nights and reaches a maximum height of 13,700 feet.
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Asia
The Pamir Highway is the second-highest road in the world and a classic route for adventure cyclists. It crosses passes of more than 4,000 meters, below 7,000-meter peaks.
This seven-night adventure will take you through Africa’s tiny “mountain kingdom” that’s full of sweeping valley vistas, high mountain views, and epic off-road tracks.
Bikepacking Tips and Tricks
If you want to make your bikepacking adventures as unforgettable and smooth as possible, here are some tips to help you on your way.
- Tweak your tires: Adjust tires and suspension to fit the terrain and amount of weight you’re carrying.
- Slow your roll: You’ll better deal with heavy loads in mountainous terrains if you add lower gears to your range.
- Liters of water: Attach as many bottle cages to your bike as possible because it’s important to keep yourself hydrated.
- Lighten up: Think like a thru-hiker and pack only what you need. Choose gear that’s ultra-light because your body will thank you.
- Have a system: Be smart with organization and always pack items in the same place. Keep the items you use regularly accessible in your frame or handlebar bag.
- Warm hands: Good gloves and warm socks are key ingredients for any bikepacking adventure.
- Stay charged: Make sure your electronics are useful the whole trip by taking plenty of backup batteries. A solar panel can also be a good choice.
- Snack attack: Pack some of your favorite guilty pleasures.
- Find a watering hole: When planning a route, consider your water sources. Make sure to treat or filter any water you plan to drink or use for cooking.
Essential Gear for Your Bikepacking Adventure
There are no hard and fast rules for bikepacking. Some bikepackers thrive in riding thousands of miles in nothing more than cutoff denim shorts, drinking from streams, bivouacking under the stars, and tempting fate with every decision.
Others prefer to carry the extra weight of tents, sleeping pads, and stoves to ensure their comfort, safety, and well-being.
There might not be a wrong way to do it, but there are some key items that will make your two-wheeled foray into the wild more enjoyable.
Here are some bikepacking essentials.
- Bivvy: This is somewhere you can unwind after a long day’s pedaling. However, weight and size are key when selecting gear for your bikepacking adventure.
- Sleeping mat: Even a thin mat can make a difference in terms of comfort while camping. It offers additional cushioning and a layer of insulation between you and the cold earth below.
- Sleeping bag: Look for a sleeping bag that’s super-lightweight and well-insulated.
- Cooking system: There’s nothing quite like a steaming hot meal after a full day of navigating trails, even if it’s nothing more glamorous than a tin of hotdogs and baked beans.
- Compass: High-tech GPS computer systems are all well and good but there’s always a risk of them failing or running out of juice. With a good old-fashioned compass, you’ll still be able to navigate.
- Waterproof jacket: Unexpected downpours are par for the course when you’re bikepacking for an extended period. A waterproof jacket is a must.
- Multi-tool: Things can and do go wrong with your bike and when that happens, it’s important to be self-sufficient. Having a good multi-tool at your disposal is essential.
- Water filtration system: This essential bit of kit will ensure you don’t run out of drinking water for longer rides into the unknown.
- Bike lock: If you need to leave your bike somewhere it’s good to know your bike will be there when you come back.
Also read: Making the most of the great outdoors in winter
If you need some inspiration, here are some movies, YouTube channels, books, and documentaries to look out for:
Bikepacking videos on YouTube
- 540 Miles: A Colorado Trail Bikepacking documentary
- Chronic Wetness: Fatbiking Alaska’s Gulf Coast
- Bikepacking the Cairngorms
- A Bivvy, a phone, and a drone: Cycling home from China
Bikepacking movies to watch
- The Collective
- Return to Earth
- Janapar: Love on a bicycle
Bikepacking books to read
- The Lost Cyclist: The Untold Story of Frank Lenz’s Ill-Fated Around-the-World Journey
- Changing Gears – Nancy Sathre-Vogel
- Into the Remote Places – Ian Hibell
- Four Cheeks to the wind – Mary Bryant
- Cycling home from Siberia – Rob Lilwal
Would you add anything else to this bikepacking guide? Get in touch: aworldtotravel @ gmail . com
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