An Intro to Bikepacking
The hardest part of writing about bike-packing is knowing where to start, and the hardest part of reading a bike-packing article is the same; so you’re not reading a load of stuff that you already know. So:
I'll start from real basics and will assume greater knowledge and experience as it goes on. I’ll try to make it obvious at what level we’re talking within each subject.
To start with though: Lets divide this into:
- The Bike,
- The packing and what/how to carry stuff
- Camping skills 101
That way you can already choose which section to fast-forward to right now.
Before we start though there is a lightweight backpacking saying that is relevant to remember throughout all of this:
“Don’t think about what you want to take, think about how much you are prepared to sacrifice”
– and what you are willing to sacrifice – speed, comfort, calories, time……..
Minimalist Bike Packing
Section 1: The Bike
BASIC BIKE SELECTION:
I’m going to put it right out there at the start, that you can ride any bike you want. A road bike will take bike packing bags as well as panniers and you can load it up, same as a tourer or hybrid bike, gravel bike, cyclocross bike, same as a hardtail mountain bike, and almost the same as a full-suss trail tamer. You could take a BMX……
Your decision therefore about the bike is where/what do you want to ride (Or what bike do you have to ride)? Towpaths and estate tracks may be best ridden on a gravel bike, but there is no reason a hybrid, road (with larger tyres) or mountain bike wouldn’t do. You may well need to ride the others differently, or less or more carefully, but they would all work at a greater or lesser speed. In this way I would suggest that your choice of bike is best based on the following (in this order):
- What choice (if any) of bike do you have?
- Where do you want to ride?
- How fast do you want to go?
- How comfortable do you want to be?
- How much are you prepared to push
DECISIONS ABOUT MODIFICATIONS
Gearing I like 3x9 speed on my hardtail. If I give the derailleur a whack in the middle of nowhere, I can probably get a handful of gears useable with a little bit of tinkering. I would not be so comfortable saying that about my 12 speed single set-up where the tolerances (and therefore tolerance) is much less. It also happens to be cheap to get spares at the moment too. One modification I do like is the manual front mech – where the front mech is removed and if you want to change from the cruising ring into the climbing ring on a 2x set-up, you do it manually (I once met someone who could do it with his toe).
Bars and grips Holding on for hours on end can mean that you need to change hand position both for your hands-sake and also for your arms sake. Straight flat bars are all very good, but you can get other shapes too. The Jones J bar is pretty iconic, and very expensive too, but there are other alternatives out there if you have a poke about. These can give you a choice of arm/hand positions, but some (like the Jones) also give you a more ‘aero’ position for bashing out smooth track miles. Don’t forget also that if you have dropped bars, there are plenty out there where the lower bar is flared outward giving you a wider grip on the drops for any occasionally more technical trail, and also slightly more room up front for bags.
Your grips are definitely worth thinking about, like your saddle these contact points can be the end of a ride if not got right. Soft, wide, allowing change of hand position while still accessing gear shifter and brakes are the most important factors, but also consider the surface and how it feels, whether your grips are thicker on the palm area, or even do they have ‘wings’ to give a broader area to rest a palm on?
Finally, for both – can you (if you wish) expand the grip area by using road bike bar tape to create more choice of usable grip area. Not forgetting of course to factor in any mounts you might want for navigation tools or lights
Saddle it should go without saying that you need a comfortable saddle. Don’t forget to factor in the fact that you will most likely be sitting down cranking away for longer periods than when out for a blast say on the mountain bike. Road saddle, touring or mtb saddle can make the difference between a great trip and a suffer fest. Certainly my mtb saddles on the whole will become much more uncomfortable when I spend time sitting cranking, because normally we’re up and down all the time on an MTB whereas what we’re doing when touring is much more akin to the action of road biking (with its associated skinny saddles).
Brakes Do you want to run hydraulic brakes or cable brakes? Disc or rim? Think about the relative pros and cons. Certainly in my experience I would always go off-road on discs so I can pretzel a wheel and it will still turn and will still brake, but have you ever thought about pulling a hose out when you are a long way from home? Cable brakes for the long and remote trip have distinct advantages with the loss of power against hydraulic being the only downside.
Hardtail, Rigid or Full-Suss If you’re running a road bike, or gravel bike this is irrelevant, but worth thinking about if you have the choice. Advantages for any form of suspension generally sit around the major surface type you are riding on. That is to say the make-up of the majority of the trail surface you expect to ride on. If there is a majorly technical section on a route do consider the fact that for 200metres of black graded trail you could carry your gravel bike rather than try to ride your big 160mm Full Suss for three days on gravel tracks (for instance).
Suspension in this context takes the rubble and smooths it out, both for arms if its in the fork, and in the rear end and back if its rear suspension. If it’s only needed a little, then go for the lightest and simplest set-up you can afford. In parallel with the tyre and wheel choice it can be said that the more aggressive your set-up suspension-wise the heavier the bike will be, and the less efficient it will be in general. I say in general, as a little rear suspension can go a long way in relieving arse ache, and back ache on rough stuff, and undoubtably helps the rear wheel ‘track’ and remain in contact on steeper technical rubbly or rooty climbs. I’ll finish here by again suggesting that you just need to remember to prepare for the majority of the riding and be prepared to be a little under-biked for the most technical section.
Finally, on the subject of suspension – don’t forget that your bike is now loaded up and so your sag settings for any suspension will all be very wrong (too soft) you will need a shock pump, and if you are using the bike to pack in, then ride some remote techy trail unburdened, and then ride out, then you might need to reset the pressures in shocks and forks several times on a trip.
Tyres and Wheels
I’m going to go out on a limb here – you’re probably aware that 29er wheels are almost the same diameter as 700c wheels and 27.5 and 650b are almost interchangeable. So what about using 700c/650b wide road/cyclocross/Gravel rims on compatible MTB hubs and thus converting any mountainbike to run narrower tyres for gravel trips and mtb wheels for rougher trips? Not tried it yet, but in theory this would let you have one set-up and run it with the wheels that best suit the terrain saving having two bikes. I really like the concept personally. Having used a 29er externsively, I can say that a 700c road bike goes significantly faster on those skinny little tyres/wheels so to get some of that on the tourer would be fantastic.
In terms of tyres then you can a) Just go with what you have and pump them up really hard when you are on harder surfaces, or b) look at optimising. A small-block tyre does go some way toward giving rolling speed with ability to grip wet or muddy trail, or gravelly road. A XC tyre will be lightweight and give good levels of grip on more technical routes, and will be light weight although not necessarily very robust, and a full on mtb tyre might give lots of support and grip at lower pressures on very technical and steep trail, but it will be very sluggish on hard trail or road.
On the whole though I know that I tend to go OTT with tyre choice, but the saving grace is that I pump them up to high pressures so regain some of the lower rolling resistance lost to aggressiveness of the tread. Don’t forget that you can get tyres with harder rubber, and also that your rear tyre is the one that produces drag, so a hard, well pumped, slightly less aggressive rear tyre than the front will pay dividends on those long hauls up hard dry trail or (heaven forbid) road sections.
Gravel Bike Tyre on a 29er Wheel
Section 2: Packing your Stuff
Let’s remember at this stage that it is perfectly acceptable to put everything in a rucksack and go. I rode the Tour du Mont Blanc like that – with a small repair kit under the saddle and a spare tube attached to the downtube and everything else in the rucksack – I suspected that I would have to push/carry some sections and didn’t want to haul a heavy bike about. However there are lots of options, mostly dependent on your budget.
- Rucksack - the cheapest and simplest set-up for a beginners overnighter and other scenarios too.
- Bike rack / rucksack combination with kit in a drybag on the back
- As above with a bar bag of some kind
- Rear Rack and panniers (and maybe a small sack and/or bar bag)
- Rear and front pack and panniers
- (about the same price potentially) full set of frame bags
- (and a little more) – trailer
The quote from the beginning is definitely aimed at this area. What you take and therefore what you need to pack it in will definitely be a direct effect of how much you are willing to leave behind. You will need to think about your choice of bike, budget, duration of the trip. Location of trip etc before deciding on the method. I’ll give some pros and cons and notes on most of the above:
Rucksack – Take as little as possible, and multi-task kit as much as possible. Why? – Because the extra weight on your back will be hammering your rear end into the saddle and after a couple of days you may have issues sitting down if you haven’t prepared carefully. Do take bum butter, do get the most comfortable saddle and undershorts you can find. Most suited for folks trying it out for the first time, those on a tight budget, and those intending to ride a significant amount of technical trail.
Bike Rack & Rucksack a good way of removing some of the weight from a rucksack without adding a lot of cost, it does rely on rack bosses being present so not all hard-tails will have the capacity to take a rear rack.
There are some ‘bossless’ racks which attach to the seatpost, and would theoretically work with a full-suss, but I’ve yet to try one although I have used the Alpkit frame but not with their rather expensive seat pack designed to go with it. Can be top heavy to ride giving some balance issues at low speeds, and you need to get one that won't swing about.
With a dropper you need to have a rear pack that won't rub on the post
The (almost) full monty - With the rack mounted rear bag, you can keep the pack off the dropper post. Also of course we have a range of frame bags fitted as well - notably even within a full-suss frame. Note the 2x crank set-up for maximum range of gears.
Panniers need racks, and therefore bosses – still often used but mostly road and canal-side touring. You can get a lot in a full set of front and back panniers and on top of a rack and in terms of carrying capacity, the issue is likely to be not taking too much – you certainly shouldn’t be carrying a rucksack. In the past it used to be difficult to keep panniers on on anything approaching a rough track, but they are better now, and as far as balance is concerned, then the load height drops and so the bike becomes more stable.
Frame Bags – modern solution to packing bikes, using the ‘cavities’ in the frame to put your kit in. Often frameless (although some under saddle frames exist, as do front frames and braces on forks) the packs work best when filled, and rely on a series of carefully designed and attached straps. This is all cloth/tape and so adds little weight to the bike when attached.
Arguably these bags lower your centre of gravity and allow an even spread of weight, thus allowing the bike to handle with less difference than say loading up with panniers. For the speed freak, they can be the most aero type of bag, but notably they are individually often smaller than some of the alternatives so stoves and larger items need to be selected carefully or will be hard to pack.
Things to think about with frame bags:
- Bottles – a full triangle may well take up the place where a bottle would sit. Solutions to this are strap on bottle mounts or wearing a hydration bladder fitted rucksack or carrying mini water pouches. You can get front fork, TT back of saddle, and bar mounts for bottles, so there are plenty of alternatives. There are also ¾ frame bags which leave room for bottles within the main triangle. Don't forget to consider under the downtube too if it won't interfere with your front wheel.
- Organising – you may well end up with a selection of bags in different places on the bike so work out a system where you know which pouch to look in for any item you carry. Make sure the items you want the most are most accessible, and those which you'd need to get off the bike are in places you'd need to stop anyway (repair kit behind you for instance)
- Balance – try to balance out weight front to back, left to right and top to bottom. Weight is best distributed closest to the BB with large light items further away.
- Soft VS Hard – put a selection of hard items in a soft bike bag and rattle them about for a while and you will find that the hard items start to wear through the material. Make sure you protect the inside of your bags.
- Waterproofing nothing will keep all water out, but even with ‘waterproof’ bags like the Altura bags, consider putting everything in plastic bags, ziplock bags or even old-fashioned drybags for protection. Riders in really remote areas sometimes have to cross rivers which occasionally require submersion of some of the bags (2019 Highland Trail 550 anyone?).
- Frame type –
- I have restricted the size of my under-saddle bag on my carbon XC Marathon bike in order to reduce the front-back load when hitting the rough stuff – carbon isn’t great with twisting or levering/shearing
- On a bike with rear suspension, remember to select frame bags that allow the suspension actuation to work unimpeded.
- On a full-suss bike remember to check the suspension travel of the rear wheel with respect to any under saddle mounted bags. Esp if you have purchased a frame in order to run a dropper – you may find the bag being the limiting factor. You can always use an ‘enduro block’ on a dropper to reduce the saddle drop to retain travel.
- Off The Front – Front packs can be roughly divided into bar bags (relatively cheap but material an a little unstable on rough stuff without extra bungees) and frame packs – where a ‘yoke’ is strapped to the fork and bars and bags are then attached to the yoke. The latter is heavier and more complicated (and more expensive) but arguably more flexible and secure.
Bothy Trip ready for some remote singletrack with a large riding pack
Partial Frame bag leaves bottle room
Full Frame Bag and Bar Bags for accessibility
Bar Bag at its least technical it can be a small zip-over bag full of snacks, moving through drybags with straps through to harnessed dry bags attached to the fork, at increased prices. This can spread your weight more evenly across the bike, and has little effect on steering while increasing capacity at relatively little cost.
There are also stem packs which are funniliy enough small pouches that fit either side of the stem of your bike. These can be a solution to the waterbottle issue above, but can also be a good place to stash snacks or bulkier items (I have a stove and gas that fit neatly inside a stem pouch), or things you might need in a hurry (hats, gloves, windproofs, suncream, smidge)
The Full (ish - no fork packs) monty - HT and Full-suss
Trailers: Either seatpost attached, or rear axle attached, and single or double wheeled, hard or suspension, there is a wide choice out there and I’m no aficionado. These are the thoughts I’ve had on the subject:
- Single wheel suits single track, suspension suits rougher trails
- The more moving parts, the more ways the trailer has to fail so bring a good repair kit
- If there are a lot of gates or worse still, stiles on your route better make it easy to mount and demount as you may be doing it a lot on your ride.
- You can carry a lot of kit on a trailer – they are great for riding on an estate track to a basecamp (or bothy)
- If axle attached, the centre of gravity is very low, so affects the bike performance very little and axle attached allows the bike to perform almost as well as normal.
- Trailers are a one-hit big ticket item, rather than the stealthy bank account emptying of bike bags, bag by bag, bit by bit…
- Other bike-packing specific stuff:
- Think about what might go wrong and how far from home/civilisation you might be. You might consider the following for some trips:
- On some trips I have taken a spare derailleur with me, and
- on all trips I take a spare derailleur hanger.
- Sewing kit to sew up tubeless tyres on remote rides amongst sharp rocks (with rubber adhesive and a tyre boot)
- As above – an enduro dropper restrictor to keep the under-saddle pack out of the way of the rear wheel travel on a full-susser with a dropper fitted.
- Extra electrical tape for taping up the frame where the bags rub, to keep them from damaging the frame.
- Did I mention packing chammy cream?
- Articles you might be interested in from the 'What to take' point of view are the West Highland Way main article, and the Tour Du Mont Blanc article where I talk about learning and kit from both of these trips, all of which is relevant to the consideration of what to carry.
- Think about what might go wrong and how far from home/civilisation you might be. You might consider the following for some trips:
Section 3: Camping Skills 101
Always remember that when camping you want the basics:
Be a camping NINJA: - No one knows they are there, no one knows where they have been….
And be WICKED:
I Insect aware
K Keep your kit dry
E Eat well
D drink safe water
Warm – Even if you are going minimalist, have a set of dry clothes to get in to and invest in a warm lightweight jacket and leggings for the evenings and perhaps a pair of thick socks and a hat. Keep this stuff just for the campsite. Invest in the lightest weight smallest sleeping bag you can (Alpkit or Decathlon are good places to start looking) and get a thin bivibag (pertex) and a silk liner to boost its insulation with a minimum of weight or bulk.
Insect Aware – You may choose to camp in Scotland in August. If you do you will need to consider clouds of midges when you make the decision between tent or bivi bag or bivi sheet. There are also clegs to contend with in more rural areas (but not just) and of course ticks (so maybe a hammock if you are going to be camping near trees?). Ignore the advice on finding a sheltered place to pitch camp (gales allowing) find a nice breezy spot and keep the insect numbers down.
Clean – Bring bio-soap and a small towel so that you can clean yourself up a bit. It does wonders for your morale sometimes but can also help keep sores at bay, and prevent illness. At the very least bring some alcohol gel to keep your hands clean before cooking and eating. Getting a nasty dose isn’t even funny at home, so out in the middle of nowhere it’s no laughing matter (even if it’s your riding buddy (after a while)).
Keep your kit dry – it’s all well and good packing everything up at home indoors, but make sure that you can do the same when you are outdoors potentially in the rain, otherwise you will lose the nice warm dry tent and clothing and sleeping bag you could otherwise look forward to all day. It’s easy to say, but harder to do on a multi-day trip in poor weather.
Eat Well – energy and morale. You should eat simple carbs within 2 hours of finishing exercise in order to replace your muscle stored energy for the next day or else you risk running into a wall after your first hour next day. You should consider dehydrated food if you are away for more than a few days as this will cut down both bulk and weight. An expensive route to take is the boil in the bag food from outdoor shops. The advantages are speed, and the fact that it is already cooked so you technically could eat them cold if you wanted or if you ran out of gas for instance, but they are a bit bulky, a bit heavy and quite expensive. Cans obviously are heavy, and an awkward shape (which can wear through soft bags) but you can do a lot with ziplock bags and a little bit of tupperware.
Drink Safe Water - Think about the rule of three on a stream when using it for water:
- Uppermost on the stream is where you collect water from for drinking and cooking
- In the middle is where you collect water for washing up, but you carefully dispose of waste water well away from the water source
- At the lower part of the stream is where you can wash yourself
Check the water supply upstream (you don’t know where it’s coming from otherwise),
Treat water you are less than 100% sure of, (Puritabs, boiling for 5 minutes, or a filter, or a combination of the above)
Go to the loo as far from a water course as possible (try 100m as a start)
Kit: A tent will keep you warm and dry (within reason) in all weathers (providing it is robust enough) and will keep any insects out, but it is the heaviest and probably bulkiest option.
A bivi bag can be lighter and possibly less expensive (esp if you get one from an Army Surplus store) but doesn’t do so well with weather and insects unless either you invest in a hooped bivi (more expensive) or a bivi tarp. I’ve certainly spent weeks under a tarp and had a great time in all weathers (it was a nice big tarp), and for the connoisseur there is the hammock with optional midge net and rain tarp.
These all have weight / cost / bulk / ease of use implications that you will need to measure up, but in good weather with a stiff breeze and a can of smidge you can certainly get by with a £5 tarp out of B&Q, some string and a few tent pegs from the Tesco outdoor section.
Tent - all weather and insect proof, but not cheap, bulky and 1.7kg
Left - Poles pegs and tent, vs Right tarp, pegs and Guylines 1.7kg vs 0.7kg, and £90 vs £45
With some designs of tent there is a half-way house - with the solo tent above, it can be pitched outer first, which allows it to be pitched without an inner, for the room of a tent, but the light weight (almost) of a tarp.
Either as a stand alone, or as a boost for the tarp, we of course have the bivi bag - starting from the cheapest survival bag (you'll only use it for one night! - through the pertex bag to the full on gore-tex one (this one is a compromise Army Surplus one).
Army Surplus Gore-Tex (waterproof) Pertex (lightweight and showerproof) Plastic Survival Bag (cheap and everything proof)
In this the compromise mentioned at the start is most starkly realised.
Cooking - Stoves: In the principle of being a camping Ninja is the implication that you can’t light fires. Done carefully this would be okay, but remember that an open fire is a fire risk, that you would need to take a turf back so you can replace it afterward, and really properly make sure it's out before you move on. It is uncontrollable in terms of heat generated, is difficult to manage in wet or windy weather, and finally takes longer to set up than a stove. Having said that, done carefully keeping to the Ninja ethos it is much nicer melting marshmallows over a naked flame than a gas stove. One thing you don’t want to melt though is your tent so I would suggest for first timers you should cook away from the tent. Also be aware that if you do manage to cook in a tent you need to be mindful of carbon monoxide poisoning and the flammable nature of tents (on second thoughts, just don't cook in tents)
There are a multitude of stoves out there. The safest for the novice probably being the Gel Trangia stove. This is very stable, easy to use, works fine in the wind (as it has a built in wind break) and hard to get wrong. It is bulky and heavy though and difficult to pack. It can also be a bit pricy too (try £70)
Next up would be the self-standing Gas stove – probably with pull out stabilising legs and a hose to the gas bottle connector. Use a Propane Butane mix any time of the year as it ignites better under cold temperatures than straight butane. (£25)
Smaller still would be the screw-on stove that is just a burner that fits onto a gas bottle with the bottle providing the base. Get a stabilising base that clips on to the gas cannister to enjoy your meal without having to scrape it out of the grass.(£25-55)
Finally, there are of course liquid fuel (including the meths Trangia) stoves which are a bit more specialist. The great thing about non-gas fuel is that you can tell how much you have left and if necessary, ration it on longer trips. I have even used a dip-stick on multi-week trips to try to ensure I am using an acceptable amount of fuel each day. With Gas, it’s a lot more guess work, so better suited to shorter trips.
These are the 3 main gas stove types worth considering. Don't forget of course that for trying it out, you should be able to get hold of an old 'Hexi' solid fuel stove for a few quid, so no need to lay out loads of cash initially. 3 main gas stoves however:
Super Small if you want to go there
RIGHT: In 'use' and packed, left two stoves include pot & Cup.
I've deliberately not gone on to the minutiae of packing your bike and what other stuff to take. If you're starting out or trying this for the first time, then I'd recommend a sleeping mat (for comfort and insulation) and a sleeping bag. Both of these can be picked up cheaply from a supermarket, so no need to rack up a big bill, and from there you can work out your compromise levels, and go to thermarests or even inflatable mats, and smaller and lighter sleeping bags - or maybe you're compromising all of this and sleeping in your warm clothes in a pertex bag under a rock? - or sleeping in a bothy or even a B&B?? - these are decisions you need to make yourself. There is a small bikepacking section in the Real World Riding Youtube channel where you can watch some videos and see some of the decisions made by riders that are specific to what, why, and how they are riding on their trips.
For a kitlist to get you started though there is one attached to the Tour Du Mont Blanc article.
Section 4: Expeditioning
I put this section in because I am a bit of an amateur psychologist. These are my thoughts on Expeditioning from a brain point of view:
- Have a really quite short or easy day on the first day. You may be excited or apprehensive about the size of your trip so, getting going knowing you have this one in the bag is a really nice head space to be in. Also if you have totally underestimated the trip day 1 will at least be manageable even if not as easy as you’d planned (see tour du mont blanc article!)
- Set regular and easy to identify goals, so that you can tick them off on a regular basis. This will give you regular opportunities for self-congratulation which will in-turn help you remain positive when the trail is harder. This is the principle of ‘Eating Elephants’ – an elephant is a massive animal and if you had to eat one (sorry veggies and vegans (and elephant lovers)) then you would do it one mouthful at a time rather than all at once.
- Employ some tunes – sing to yourself, talk to yourself if necessary, bring up politics or religion with your fellow expeditioners; in short get engrossed in something other than the grind on big uphills and they will get much easier to deal with. This is using the principle of attentional focus (dealt with a little in the psychology articles elsewhere on the site).
- At some point you will feel – mid-way that you are at your furthest point from anywhere, where even your ‘get out’ routes are long. Concentrate on what you have achieved already and at this point get out your happy food:
- Have some happy food – something to enjoy and to lift things when they are hard. On the tour Du Mont Blanc, mine was a sachet of boil in the bag sticky toffee pudding, eaten by hand scraped with my fingers, eaten on the side of an Italian mountain. It made the heat exhausted, knackered, saddle sored world just a little bit better for just a little while, and allowed me to push on to the top. Best night of the trip that night too.
- Consider an easier last day. You will be tired, so might like that anyway, but it will also potentially do two good things for you:
- Allow you to cut a hard penultimate day off early, knowing you can add the rest to the last day and it will be okay, or
- It will take off the pressure of the end of the last day so that you can enjoy the finish a little more. This will actually affect the way you remember the whole trip so makes a huge difference.
If there was other stuff you wanted from this article, then please get in touch - I never consider them to be the finished article, and by all means get in touch if you are trying it for the first time and you want some more information or specific advice. Asked recently what I do about midges I had to admit that in the spring and autumn I consider bivvying under a tarp in Scotland, but in the summer (midge season) I always take a tent.
Have a great time, take it easy, and go have an adventure.