Introduction to Bikepacking: All You Need to Know
For bike enthusiasts, bicycle touring is one of the best ways to see the world. Whether it’s a day trip from your hometown or a year-long adventure across continents, grabbing your bike and hitting the open road provides a unique way to travel, offering a deeper perspective of the world.
However, bicycle touring also demands different considerations, from the bike and its components to the gear and technology required for a safe and comfortable journey. For example, you don’t want to be stuck in the middle of the Rocky Mountains during your tour of The Great Divide Trail with a broken frame from an overloaded and unsuitable bike.
All these questions can leave you with decision fatigue, potentially leading to delays or doubts that cause you to cancel your trip.
To help get you on the road with confidence, we’ve distilled down the myriad of resources available into the most important considerations. When applying the following recommendations, consider the particulars of your specific trip, such as the terrain, duration, location, plus seasonal and personal preferences, as this will greatly influence your final decisions!
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While it is not necessary to be at peak physical fitness to undertake a multi-day/week tour, you should be able to comfortably cycle a distance close to your planned daily average before setting off. Nevertheless, you will build some fitness while on the road, as long as you’re getting enough sleep, hydration, and nutrition.
Speaking of nutrition and hydration, always ensure you eat and drink regularly, with plenty of carbohydrates and electrolytes in your food and water. Also, load up on high-energy snacks and consider adding glucose and electrolyte packets to your water. With long rides laden with gear, the last thing you want to do is run out of energy when you’ve got another 20 miles to go until the next stop.
In advance of your trip, watch some videos and practice fixing basic mechanical issues that could arise while you’re on the road. Knowing how to fix a link in your chain, patch or replace a burst tube, and adjust your brakes and gears, will be crucial skills to have when it happens on the road. Not if, when.
1. Bike and Components
As we explained briefly in our article outlining the 8 Best Touring Bikes for 2023, choosing a touring-specific bike is not an absolute necessity but will ensure the best all-around experience when there is added weight and varying terrain to consider.
Touring bikes are built for comfort on many types of terrain, to handle well under added loads, and for durability in less than ideal conditions. For this reason, many touring bikes are made from steel which allows for smooth riding and, with proper care, long lifetimes. Having a steel-framed bike means you can easily have it welded should the need arise, and though welding is possible with aluminum, it is more difficult and may not be possible in more remote areas.
Pannier racks are vital to bike touring, providing an efficient and convenient way to transport your gear. Many touring bikes come with pannier racks pre-installed. However, any bike shop will be able to add them on for you. Depending on how light you like to travel, it may be possible to go for two bags on the rear pannier and only a handlebar bag or frame bikepacking bags.
Optimizing your packed gear should take some focused time as well. In the case of packing for a trip where you have to physically lug it all for hours upon hours of cycling over the course of many days, less is definitely more. Adopting a minimalist attitude when going on long journeys will really add to the comfort and convenience of your trip.
Tires and Wheels
The type of tour you plan on doing will also determine what size wheel and type of tire you opt for. Most multi-day tours will involve some off-roading, so touring bikes typically have high-spoke wheels and wide, puncture-resistant tires for tackling varied terrain.
Consider your tire preference for your upcoming tour (most bikes will have space for different sizes). Thinner tires will do best on predominantly road or asphalt-based routes, while thicker, larger wheels will do better when more off-road riding is required. Additionally, you can choose between tubeless or clincher tires.
- 650b (27.5″) – Most common touring wheel size that’s great for both on and off-road
- 700c (29″) – Larger bike wheels for faster rolling
- 26″ – Less common wheel size that’s seen on fat-tire bikes or old mountain bikes
Comfort is key over long distances, making the type of handlebar and saddle you opt for an important decision. But, again, this comes down to personal preference and intended usage.
One consideration for handlebars should be the number of hand positions it offers you, helping alleviate pressure on your wrists when you’re spending several hours on the road on a given day. Drop style bars give a greater choice for hand positions and are usually more common amongst touring bike models.
Having a comfortable saddle will be down to your specific body type. Widely regarded as a worthwhile upgrade in the bike touring community is the leather saddle by Brooks, which molds to the shape of your sit bones after a few hours of usage, resulting in unparalleled comfort for long journeys.
These saddles set the bar for comfort in bike touring and are usually a welcome upgrade to the stock saddle on any touring bike. This also means that you can ditch the lycra and say goodbye to saddle sores!
Choosing bike pedals is quite subjective, but clipless pedals are the winner to maximize your efficiency and maintain an ideal foot position while cycling. In addition, opting for the mountain bike style clipless shoes is best, as you can walk off the bike, compared to road shoes that are not designed for ease of walking and thus not recommended for touring.
You can also get your standard platform pedals or a combination pedal with mountain bike clipless and platform options in the same pedal. One small caveat is that they can be difficult to get used to and may result in a hard fall if you don’t clip out in time to put your leg out when stopping.
Mudguards and Bottle Cages
Mudguards are a necessity on trips where it’s likely to rain. You don’t want mud and water splashing up all over you and your gear.
Have at least two bottle cages at a minimum with large 25/32oz (750ml/1L) water bottles. There are creative ways to install more, but you can always carry a couple of bottles in your bags or use a hydration pack.
2) Bikepacking Gear
Having the right gear (and the right amount) can mean the difference between a string of wet and miserable days wrestling your bike over hills and mountain passes to a joyous trip that you wish would never end. The gear you carry and how you carry it are the biggest bikepacking and bike touring differences.
Just like you pack an extra tube and a hand pump for your weekly rides (or at least you should), you need to prepare for the unexpected while out on the road or trail, potentially in remote areas with limited resources.
Another consideration is that you should expect to ride in the rain on most longer trips. So unless you’re taking a summer tour of southern California or a dry season trip in the tropics, being prepared for a sudden downpour is wise.
Pannier or Frame Bags
Investing in quality waterproof pannier or bike frame bags will save many headaches in the long run, so it’s advisable to do some of your own research into picking the right ones for you within your budget.
The Ortlieb brand is a long-time favorite due to its durability and waterproofing. Rockbros is another well-respected but more wallet-friendly pannier bag. But whatever you choose, ensure it has good reviews from a wide range of users; you don’t want a wet tent and clothes to climb into after a long day in the saddle.
A large dry bag (50L or so) will allow you to store your tent and other camping equipment, which you can secure to the top of your pannier racks at the front or back. Having some smaller sizes will also be helpful for dirty/wet clothes or electronics.
Using good bike security habits and a high-quality lock is important for any urban biking. Abus and Kryptonite are two of the safest options out there. Having a smaller “U” on your u-lock will give less space to lock but also less space for potential thieves to get leverage to break it.
A long and lightweight wire combination lock will allow you to lock in a wider range of places, such as trees or locking your tent at night.
Essential for any urban cycling during your tour. Letting pedestrians know you’re there keeps you safe and keeps them safe. Don’t be afraid to ding!
Another non-negotiable safety component is bicycle lights. Having good quality lights that are sufficiently bright and visible after all of your gear has been installed are literal life-savers. Expensive dynamo systems exist for recharging on the go, but if you are traveling in the summer with long daylight hours, having battery-powered lights with some spare batteries is fine.
Be sure to have a basic tool kit for the maintenance and repair we discussed previously. A pump, multitool, a chain tool, some spare links, tire levers, spare tubes, and a puncture repair kit should be the absolute minimum.
Planning your route in detail before your trip is a helpful and fun way to learn about possible sights and attractions along the way. In addition, by just looking at the map or your bike computer each morning before the day’s riding, you can get a rough idea of the route that will help you once you’re on your way.
Having a phone mount to easily read directions with a power bank charger for some extra juice if you can’t use an outlet saves a lot of possible hiccups. Also, a compass and paper map as backup is good practice should technology fail you.
It’s important to remember that you should not be dressing for fashion on a bicycle tour. The name of the game is practicality and low weight.
This will obviously vary depending on where you decide to tour, but a solid base will include:
- Two sets of exercise or cycling clothes. These are usually lightweight, fast-drying, and sweat-wicking. If you opt for cycling bib shorts, wear them without underwear underneath to avoid chaffing.
- Two sets of normal day-to-day clothes. Something versatile, comfortable, and preferably quick-drying (in case you need to wash them on the go).
- Your helmet is the most important piece of clothing while on the bike. Wear it always and with pride.
- A quality rain jacket is going to be your best friend. You usually get what you pay for when it comes to rain protection and breathability, so investing in a good jacket will ensure you stay dry and warm/cool, especially important when traveling in especially hot or cold months. Bonus points if it’s a bright color for nighttime visibility.
- Shoe coverings for the rain and wind will help keep your shoes dry and are also a nice addition to any kit.
- Cycling gloves help prevent loss of skin in case of a fall, and in colder conditions, full gloves will help keep your fingers warm and nimble. Again, bonus points for a reflective pair for extra visibility at night.
- High-quality cycling sunglasses for obvious reasons and also prevent bugs from flying into your eyes.
- Microfiber towels (s) are quick-drying and lightweight for travel—a minimalist’s dream.
- A swimsuit for when you come across a beautiful lake or fancy a dip during your coastal tour.
There are many more possibilities for clothing, and these will be subjective, but having these items as your base for any multi-day tour is a great starting point.
Having lightweight camping gear is key so as not to overburden yourself with unnecessary weight. Lightweight tents, sleeping bags, and camping mats are a little more costly but will mean a more enjoyable trip.
Camping gear needs vary somewhat depending on your destination and the season of your trip, so searching out a bicycle touring forum for location, and season-specific advice would be the best bet to make sure you’re prepared for what’s to come.
If you want to eat hot food on the road, having a portable camping stove is super helpful, and carrying extra water or a water purifier for cooking with.
A camping hammock is also another lighter alternative to tent camping. Having a waterproof cover and an under-quilt (for colder weather) are important companions for this camping style.
Being prepared is the best way to ensure that your next bike tour is as enjoyable as possible. Mitigating headaches and surprises by thinking ahead will give you more energy to enjoy all of the amazing sights and experiences that the open road offers.
Keep your mind open to trying new things and diverging from the plan, as that is where the magic of bicycle touring lies as the perfect tool to help you see the world.