So you want to try bikepacking?

Enjoy the ride and pitch your tent with bikepacking

Marek Piwnick/Unsplash

Condé Nast Traveler called it the “travel trend” of 2021, and Timeout says TikTokers are “going wild”. But it’s not a new dance craze or an exotic island destination — it’s bikepacking, the bike-camping hybrid that’s exploded in popularity in recent years.

Bikepacking is like backpacking, except you don’t carry all your gear on your back, you carry it on your bike. And it’s a great time. But if you’ve never lugged all your camping stuff around on a bike, you probably have a lot of questions: What gear do I need? How much should I realistically spend? Where should I try it for the first time?

We spoke to some Minnesota bikepackers to get these nine tips for your first overnight bike ride.

  1. Start small

Is this your very first bikepacking excursion? Do not exaggerate. “We live in a city with some of the best trail systems in the country,” says Elena Alsides-Haynes, co-owner of Minneapolis-based Hub Bike Co-op and an avid bikepacker who has participated in multi-week cycling expeditions including the Tour Divide and Baja Divide. “It’s so easy to drive to some of our great county and state parks and just take a night drive. Carver, William O’Brien – both easy to walk to and so beautiful.”

“Be realistic,” adds Jeremy Kershaw of Heck of the North Productions, who host two annual bikepacking races – the Fox and the Wolf – alongside one-day gravel races. Driving just 10 or 15 miles to your campsite can give you a sense of what to expect, along with the confidence to embark on longer bikepacking trips.

  1. Pack smart

When it comes to bags, there are big four: frame bag, saddle bag, top tube bag, and handlebar bag (or roll). So you get your gear – tent or hammock, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, clothes, snacks, water – wherever you go. Down sleeping bags are great because they pack small, and an insulated sleeping pad will help you get a good rest for the trip back. And bring a spare tube, tire levers and multi-tool just in case.

“Really know your gear and pack it the same way every time so you never have to fiddle around and constantly remember where you put things,” says Alsides-Haynes. And bring your lights—even if you don’t think you’ll be driving after dark.

Bikepacking gear
Bikepacking gear

Marek Piwnick/Unsplash

  1. Rental gear is great

If all you heard from reading the previous blurb is “huge credit card bill comes in,” well then you’re not wrong. Setting up your rig can require a decent upfront investment in bags and sleeping gear, especially when it comes to ultra-lightweight, ultra-packable gear.

The good news is that if you’re already a cyclist, you probably have some of the things you need. And when it comes to the things you don’t have, you might know some people who can help. “If you find people who already have packs or gear, it’s perfectly fine to rent the first few times,” says Kershaw. “I mean, I borrowed my gear much.” Reach out to people you know to see if they can borrow something — even a friend of a friend of a friend might be willing. Most of today’s serious bikepackers started right where you are, and they’re often more than happy to help.

  1. Don’t knock on credit card camping

Speaking of a credit card, “camping with a credit card” if you don’t bring a stove or cookware and instead have dinner at a restaurant or bar near your campsite or on the way is OK. “It saves a lot of space and equipment,” says Kershaw. “Stove, pots and food – that takes up a lot of space.” And when you don’t have to worry about cooking, you can focus on getting your clothes and camping gear in order. (Still, you should be sure you have it some snacks on the bike.)

  1. Try it before you drive

“Always do a shakedown ride,” Alsides-Haynes says, meaning a ride where you pack all your gear onto your bike — even things like water and food — before heading out on your overnight excursion.

“Even if you’re planning a short trip, don’t do your maiden voyage and test run on the same day,” confirms Kershaw. This is your chance to make sure everything fits, but also to check if anything is rattling or starting to come loose. This is also a good time to make sure your bike fits, shifts well, and is comfortable for you. You will spend a lot of time in the saddle.

  1. Know your route and take your time

Depending on where you drive, cell phone reception may not be as good and Google Maps may not be as reliable as you are used to. Try to get a really good sense of directions, know where you’re going in case you need to ask for help, and consider bringing a printed map or finding a GPX file of your route.

Take your time so you’re less likely to miss a turn or get turned around. Plus, taking your time can be part of the fun. Alsides-Haynes hates rushing and recommends: “Stop for cool rocks and beautiful views.”

  1. Find a friend

Solo bikepacking can be so much fun and so rewarding, but it’s also tougher. For security reasons, it’s good to travel with someone else, especially when you get the hang of it. (Bonus points if you can ride with a friend who’s been bikepacking before.) That’s twice the bag space, twice the phone battery life, and twice the chance of someone knowing when the next turn is coming.

  1. dress properly

As far as clothing goes, Kershaw rarely wears bike packs without an ultralight windbreaker, a pair of sunglasses and a neck seal or buff, and a pair of light woolen gloves, especially in spring and fall. “It’s always colder when you’re camping,” he notes. Padded inner shorts keep you comfortable under a pair of other shorts, and bring a pair of camp shoes when you get where you’re going. “I love Crocs for that,” says Alsides-Haynes.

Kershaw also recommends trying your first overnighter in the summer, when warm temperatures mean packing fewer clothes and enjoying less intense weather.

  1. Don’t push it

“Expect it to take longer to reach your goal than you think.” That’s Alsides-Haynes’ advice, and she’s right. That always works somehow.

Do you still have questions or would you like to find out more after tackling your first overnighter? Kershaw recommends for a wealth of advice, gear guides and packing hacks to help you complete your first trip or make bigger biking plans.