Bikepacking 101

Start Your Journey Here

Simply put, bikepacking is the synthesis of mountain biking and minimalist camping. It evokes the freedom of multi-day backcountry hiking, but with the range and thrill of riding a mountain bike. It’s about exploring places less traveled, both near and far, via singletrack trails, gravel, and abandoned dirt roads, carrying only essential gear. Ride, eat, sleep, repeat, enjoy!

A common misconception is that bikepacking requires a small fortune to fully appreciate: the perfect bike, custom bags, and all the latest ultralight camping gear. While investing in quality gear is never a bad idea, it’s certainly not a necessity to get you up and running. Start by using what you own and picking a short (20-50 miles) overnight route near home. Discover what you really need through experience. Check out this Advice for New Bikepackers from five experienced riders.

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Your First Bikepacking Bike

Bikepacking Bike

The best bike to use is the one you already have. If you currently ride a mountain bike that works for you on the trail, chances are it will make a very capable bikepacking rig with few modifications. After all, bikepacking doesn’t rely on a frame having eyelets for racks and panniers, as with other styles of bike touring. Alternatively, scour the classifieds for a second hand, modern cross country hardtail, as they're affordable, fun to ride, and offer maximum frame space for carrying gear.

Here are a few other aspects to consider when choosing and setting up your bikepacking rig:

bikepacking basics

Comfort and Gearing

Bikepacking lends itself to long hours in the saddle, so having a comfortable bike and saddle is key. Make sure you have a proper fit, and if you have a new bike, try it out a few times before setting out on a trip. In addition, having the right gearing is key. Ergon grips can help relieve stress on the wrists and hands, as can handlebars with a bit of extra sweep. And make sure your saddle is a comfy one!

bikepacking basics

Types of Bikes

In part two of Bikepacking 101, you'll learn much more about different types of bikes typically used for bikepacking. Generally speaking, you can take almost any bike bikepacking. However, the nature of bikepacking usually involves gravel, dirt roads, and/or singletrack trails. Make sure you use a bike that can handle whatever terrain you set out to explore.

bikepacking basics

Repair Kit and Safety

There are a few essentials that should be carefully considered before setting out on a multi-day trip. A good tool and repair kit is required for addressing any mechanical issues that may arise. And don’t leave home without a first aid kit. Bikepacking often involves riding through remote and rugged terrain that can be hard to reach by emergency services. Be prepared, and don’t take unnecessary risks. Always have a cell phone with you, and carry a spare battery. Consider carrying a Spot Tracker, especially if traveling alone:

Bikepacking Bags & Packs

Bikepacking Bags and Packs

The most significant gear innovation that has helped popularize bikepacking is the commercial availability of bike-specific soft bags. Replacing traditional racks and panniers, these consist of a framebag, a handlebar bag or harness, a seat pack, and peripheral bags. Light, rattle free and tailored to modern mountain bikes, they’ll optimize your bike’s carrying capacity without significantly adding to its weight or affecting the way it handles. Most are made by small-scale cottage industries – some are custom made on a piece by piece basis, and others are available pre-designed to fit certain frame brands and sizes. Consider investing in a seat pack and roll bag first, then a framebag when you’ve settled on a bike you’re happy with. Alternatively, check out our ideas below on how to get by with what you might already have.

If you don’t want to buy bags, you can use a few simple pieces of gear you probably own to do a quick overnighter. For starters, a comfortable daypack, along with dry bags lashed to your handlebars and seatpost, makes a good barebones approach. Small panniers will probably work if you’re pedaling forest service roads and plan to be out for several days. But if you’re exploring technical singletrack on a one- or two-night trip, it might be best to leave the panniers at home. Remember, bikepacking is about having fun on the trail, and not being overloaded with gear.

seat Pack

Seat Pack Dry Bag

For a seat pack, use a 5-7 liter dry bag clipped around the seatpost and cinched to the saddle rails with a webbing strap. Store a change of clothes and a few other odds and ends in it. To help stabilize the load, add something stiff within the bag, such as tightly rolled clothes.

Handlebar pack

On The Handlebars

On the handlebars, use a larger 14-20 liter dry bag cinched to the handlebars with two webbing or Voile straps. Include a small tent (the poles will help keep a straight shape to the bag) and a lightweight down sleeping bag. Long and slender bags work better than short fat ones. Sea to Summit Big River bags work well.

Backpack

Backpack

Although we generally aspire to riding without a backpack, they can be useful for more technical rides—especially those that require their fair share of hike-a-biking—or for carrying a camera, or if you don't yet have bikepacking bags. For such purposes, a 14+ liter hydration pack will do. Or, just use a day pack you have lying around. This can carry extras like sleeping gear, rain gear, or food and cooking supplies. Here are a few.

Find out a little more about how that kit works in An Impromptu Overnighter.

If you’re interested in investing in purpose-built bikepacking bags, here are a few pointers and resources. Or, if you have access to a sewing machine, make your own! In addition, make sure to check out our Complete Guide to Bikepacking Bags.

bikepacking basics

Seat Packs

Grab a basic seat pack. They essentially strap onto your seat rails and around your seatpost. There are several readily available options for under $100. One easy and available offering worth noting is the Revelate Designs Viscacha Seat Pack.

bikepacking basics

On the Frame

There are also frame packs designed to work within the bike’s frame triangle, available in variations for both full-suspension and hardtail frames. The most obvious and universal type is a half frame pack. These are especially usable on a hardtail or rigid bike.

bikepacking basics

Cockpit

As mentioned, it’s pretty easy to strap a dry bag to you handlebars, but you can also get a purpose-built bag or harness. Additionally, there are various accessory bags that can add peripheral packing space to your kit.

If you need advice for camping and cooking equipment, apparel, and other such gear, start at our Bikepacking Hacks and then take a peek at our list of long-distance tested stuff, Bikepacking Gear That Lasts.

Essential Gear

Bikepacking Gear

Just like other outdoor sports, there’s a direct correlation between the cost of gear and how much it weighs. A lightweight setup is certainly the goal to aspire to. The lighter the load, the more you’ll enjoy the ride. A lighter rig is also easier to handle on technical singletrack and to carry across sections of trail that may prove unrideable. Ultimately, a considered packlist will help ensure your mountain bike feels like a mountain bike – and not like a truck!

All that said, there’s no need to go out and buy everything at once. Start with what you own, and then prioritize what you really need. We recommend investing first in a lightweight, modern shelter, as older models are often bulky and heavy. Big Agnes offers a range of featherweight options, as does Tarptent, with their minimal, single-wall designs. If you really want to save weight – and cash – consider a simple tarp, or even a bivy bag or hammock when conditions allow.

Bikepacking Tent

Sleeping Gear

A quality down sleeping bag or quilt will also make a significant difference to both the weight and packability of your setup. Save the fancy, lightweight air mattress for last. Foam sleeping pads are bulky but light, cheap, and hardwearing. They’re particularly well suited to desert touring.

Bikepacking Cooking

Kitchen & Food

There are various compact stoves on the market to suit all price points. We’re fans of those that burn denatured alcohol, like the Clickstand/Trangia combination, or even a homemade Coke Can Cooker. Simple aluminum pots are cheap and light. We prefer designs that are wide enough that allow "proper" cooking, like frying vegetables. Need some inspiration in the camp kitchen? Here’s some ideas of what to pack:

Bikepacking Water

H2O

Another thing to consider is water. Longer desert routes may require extra capacity for carrying water. To save your back from doing all the heavy lifting, fit water bottle cages to the fork and downtube using electrical tape or hose clamps. Or, swap your fork out for one fitted with Anything Cage mounts. And as for filtration, check out the Sawyer Squeeze Mini. It's economical and lightweight.