Updated: Sep 7, 2020
Bikecamping, bikepacking... whatever you call it, it’s one of the best ways to stoke adventure and wanderlust while getting stronger. If you love cycling + camping, you need to go on a bike tour, even if just for one night.
But before you strap a tent and sleeping bag on the back of your old beater, there are a few strategies and important considerations that will help make your first trip a lot less stressful. Not every bike has the required payload and endurance built in, and not all camping gear is ideal for hauling up (or flying down) steep grades.
I did a lot of research and talked with experienced bikepackers before my first trip, but I still learned some hard lessons along the way that I feel are worth sharing. Read on for my list of tips, tricks, and can’t-leave-without gear and gadgets*.
Find the right bike with this comprehensive guide from REI. This article will help you understand the features and components which make a bike suitable for these adventures. Don't be fooled into thinking that you need a bicycle marketed as a "bikepacking" or "touring" bike... depending on the terrain you expect to encounter, some mountain bikes, hybrids, and road bikes already have the right bones and can be converted into the perfect touring machine.
Ortleib waterproof panniers
Many seasoned bike campers and commuters alike will tell you this is the only pair of panniers worth your money. There’s a reason for that. Their roll-down, rainproof style makes packing a cinch, and plenty of clips means extra or awkwardly-shaped items easily and securely strap to the outside.
When you need to take your gear with you without unpacking them, lift the handle for quick release and be on your way. The best part is that these bags have the versatility to evolve with your adventures because Ortleib sells conversion accessories, like the system that turns your pannier into a backpack.
If you're shopping new or used gear, try your best to find these. However, you can also bungee a backpack wrapped in a tarp to your back rack, and be on your way! Anything that you can securely attach to your bike and protect from the elements will work great.
Lightweight backpacking tent
I can’t speak highly enough of my old Kelty Salida 2 tent, as it weathered the world with me, through hail, rainforest downpours, high winds, and more despite Kelty’s insistence that it’s a 3-season tent. Their 4-seasons could probably survive locust plagues. I've since moved on to an REI Quarterdome, which is even lighter and tougher but a bit more expensive if bought new and in-season.
Lots of cheaper tents are a great fit if you don't plan on being somewhere really rainy or snowy or especially windy. As long as it's not super heavy and is small enough to affix to your bike, it will work.
Your perfect sleeping bag might not be mine, and your choice will depend on the climate and season you plan to travel in. There are seemingly infinite choices out there, but this list hones in 2019's to a few top-rated ultralight models.
Looking for cheaper options? I use lists like the one above as guides to help me narrow which features are most important to me, like temperature rating or sustainable material. Then, I shop sites like Backcountry for deals on my favorite brands; they're currently having a semiannual sale.
Compact inflatable sleeping pad
In cold temperatures or wet weather, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a subzero sleeping bag and merino wool undies; sleeping on the ground relentlessly zaps body heat. A sleeping pad, especially an inflatable one that puts a layer of air between you and the earth, is essential.
I've used Kelty self-inflating sleeping pads for car camping, but their size isn't ideal for bikepacking. Today, I love my REI Flash All-Season inflatable pad, which rolls up to about the size of a pint can. It's super-light and blows up in just a few breaths. It doesn't have the best reviews online, but I've found it to be durable and reliable. 🤷
Handlebar bag... or even a fanny pack
Easy-to-reach storage is a must-have for anything you may need to access without stopping (namely, energy gel or whatever your go-to mid-ride snack is).
Compact rain jacket
My partner and I went many years without owning cars, and he still commutes, tours, and basically lives on his bike... we value high-quality rain jackets, and you will too on your first bike overnight. He bought an Outdoor Research shell to stay dry through our epic late-summer Virginia thunderstorms and couldn’t be happier with it.
For bikepacking, look for a minimalist design which folds down into its own stuff pocket, shrinking enough to fit into a bike jersey’s back pocket for easy storage when the sun comes out. Look for a lightweight, breathable model so it won't weigh you down or capture sweat. Visibility is key, so whatever color you choose, make it bright.
This video by OR highlights a bunch of rain jacket features and their usefulness for different types of adventures. It's worth a watch, even if you don't go with that brand.
Get multiple water bottle holders for your bike frame or wear a hydration bladder so you can stay hydrated en route.
Pack extra socks and undies!
Safety: outfit your ride with reflectors, bright safety lights, and a headlight. Depending on how lit and trafficked your route is, you might want to wear extra safety lights on your person, too.
If you’re old school enough to insist solely on trail maps, right on. You can skip the next few items. While I, too, love pouring over a paper map, I also appreciate the technology that allows us to track and share trips, challenge stats, and easily find that waypoint (or the route again).
Phone dock: To keep your phone handy, get a dock that secures to your top bar and easily shifts between portrait and landscape.
External battery: Extra power is essential for overnight trips, especially if you plan to zap battery life by constantly running apps during your ride. Portable power banks with the capacity for at least another full charge are consistently dropping in price.
Solar panels: On longer trips, consider harnessing the sun. Most nomads I know (and we) love our compact Goal Zero solar panels; they’re great for staying connected off the grid.
Bike computer: If you’re stoked on stats and want greater precision than GPS apps can provide, invest in a bike computer. They affix to your handlebars, allowing quick speed and cadence reference through a sensor that attaches to your spokes. Ones with bigger screens offer navigation, and the fancier models can even track heart rate and estimate VO2 max (with debatable accuracy).
Strava: I wish I knew how much of my conditioning progress I owed to this simple, free app. One-click ride recording motivates me to push harder on climbs and beat yesterday’s time on segments quirkily named by other users, like “I’ve got hotdogs” and “Grace-fully done.”
Auto-pause means that your time and average speed aren’t compromised by stops (and that you don’t have to remember to pause it during breaks). After logging a ride, you have instant feedback on where you rank for certain segments that day and for the year.
My favorite feature, however, has to be the heat maps. Available in web view, you can pan around the world to see where Strava users (and there are a TON of them) bike. This citizen science is not only helping inform municipalities’ bike/ped plans; it also allows you to identify safe and fun routes beyond Google Maps-designated paths and trails. You can pay for more features, but I still get a lot out the free version.
Warm Showers: This is basically Couchsurfing for cyclists. For planning longer trips, you might want a break from the tent and yep, a warm shower. Two friends of ours traveled from DC to South Dakota and back, camping, WWOOFing, and staying with hosts through this network. Many have made lifelong companions and travel buddies through it.
Good ol' fashioned mApps: You’ve got Strava and GPS on, you’ve downloaded all your maps for offline use, and you’ve got a backup battery. You’re set, right? Wrong. Anything can happen, so you don’t ever want to fully rely on electronics for all your orientation and wayfaring. Check out the Adventure Cycling Association for an endless library of trail guides (and really any other bikepacking resources).
As a general rule, you want weight front to back to be as evenly distributed as possible. Pack the heaviest stuff on the bottom of your panniers so you aren't top-heavy while riding. Beyond that? It's all preference.
Some people hate frame bags because they’re difficult to pack and access things from. Others love the aerodynamics and improved center of gravity of them and deplore handlebar bags. Others still find an under-seat bag handy for quick repairs while others find it unnecessary, storing those quick-grab items in their bar bag.
By outlining exactly what you plan to pack based on the length and goals of your trip, climate and forecast, terrain, and accommodation (amenity-rich campground or backcountry wilderness?), you’ll hone in on the right setup for you. All in all, though, balance is going to come through trial and error.
More trips with varying elements equals more experience, which helps you not only better understand the logistics of bikepacking and respond resiliently to the unexpected, it also gives you a better grasp on your personal ambitions and style.
Don't stop here. Keep reading, and more importantly, keep riding! Happy trails...
Onward + inward.
*None of the brands or sites mentioned in this article are compensating me in any way.