Choosing an inspiring bikepacking route is half the fun — second only to riding it, of course! This is the time to let your imagination run wild.
Let’s go through the factors that give a route its unique character and what to consider when choosing a route. In the next post, we’ll go over how to define and navigate your route using reliable maps and apps.
When you picture your dream bikepacking experience, what do you see? Solitude and take-your-breath-away scenery? Cross-cultural connection and travel abroad? Start with whatever is most exciting right now. Bikepacking is all about immersing yourself in nature, so it’s important to think about which type of nature appeals most.
Bikepacking routes are extremely varied when it comes to terrain, surface, and general ruggedness. It’s usually best to choose a route that plays well with your skills, preferences, and bike setup … or at least know what you’re getting into if you decide to stretch in a new direction.
A route’s elevation profile shows how much climbing and descending is involved, and has a big influence on pace and difficulty. As a general rule, routes with over 5,000 feet of elevation gain per 100 miles will feel hilly but manageable, and anything over 10,000 feet of climbing per 100 miles on average will feel very mountainous. Grade matters too — consistent gradual climbs are easier than steep ones — and even descents can slow you down if they’re steep or rough.
Surface is also important. Many bikepacking routes, especially long ones, are cobbled together from a mix of terrain and surfaces.
Pavement: Bikepackers tend to avoid pavement, but many routes include at least a little to join sections of trail or pass through towns for resupply.
Gravel roads are the backbone of non-technical bikepacking routes like the GDMBR, bringing riders deep into scenic places with relative efficiency and minimal traffic. The riding may not always be easy — gravel can be steep, deep, or washboarded — but it won’t be anything a standard touring bike can’t handle.
Doubletrack or two-track refers to a road wide enough for a single vehicle, or — conveniently for bikepackers — two bicycles side-by-side. Surface conditions vary from hard-packed dirt or gravel to challenging loose sand, big rocks and ruts (sometimes described as “chunky”), or overgrown bushes. Rough doubletrack is sometimes called “jeep trail.”
Singletrack is narrow trail wide enough for a single rider at a time, not open to motor vehicles (except maybe motorbikes) and often shared with hikers and equestrians.
If you see a trail described as steep, loose, technical, rocky, or “rowdy,” you might be in for a challenge unless you have some MTB experience and lightweight, dialed-in gear. Expect rocks, narrow passages, steep gradients, stream crossings, or all of the above. Keep in mind that short sections of tricky singletrack are nothing to worry about. You can always scoot around them or hike-a-bike when needed, or you might surprise yourself and rise to the challenge! There’s no shame in walking your bike, in fact it’s considered part of the bikepacking experience.
As a general rule, high mountains have a short snow-free riding season in summer and early fall. Deserts are perfect in spring and fall, sometimes passable but chilly in winter if the elevation is low enough, and best avoided in the heat of summer. More forgiving ecosystems like coastal forests, rolling foothills, or low-elevation plains may be rideable year-round. Check route descriptions, local hiking and camping resources, or monthly weather data for a clearer picture.
For most people, trip length depends on how much time they can get away for. If that’s you, choose a route (or section of a route) that fits your schedule, no matter how constrained. You’d be amazed by how much of a “reset” even a quick weekend adventure can provide.
If you have the option of a longer trip, a week gives you time to ease into a new routine and experience multiple ecosystems. If you’re in the mood for a big project and intrigued by the idea of a bikepacking lifestyle, a multi-month journey like the GDMBR might be for you.
Shorter trips are ideal for conditioning your body, testing gear, and building skills, but to each their own!
Regardless of trip length, it’s essential to decide (and discuss with riding partners) what degree of challenge you’d like to take on. This is about the tone of the trip, how many hours you’ll spend on the bike, and how much “luxury” you want available.
Does a fast and light style appeal? Expect to spend more time in the saddle, push on even though you’re ready to stop, and sacrifice certain comforts at camp (no folding camp chairs for you!) in exchange for experiencing more miles and working through a rewarding challenge.
Is relaxation your goal? Plan to ride fewer miles, stop when tired or when you spot a perfect campsite, and carve out space for that flask of whiskey, hot chocolate, or good book.
It’s ideal to know what you want while staying open to whatever the road or trail offers.
Bikepacking pace can be very inconsistent, especially compared to road touring. If you’ll be following a day-by-day plan, use your knowledge of the route to make daily estimates specific to each day’s terrain. Expect to cover fewer miles — sometimes by a factor of 2 or 3 — on days with steep climbs, rough surfaces, lots of singletrack, or bad weather. On trips longer than about a week, expect to take a rest day every week or so for a physical and mental break.
Other factors include weight of your gear (we’ll cover packing light in the next chapter!), fitness and riding experience, and recent bike-specific training. Don’t underestimate this last one; even generally fit athletes need time to work through saddle soreness and tired shoulders when new to bikepacking.
No matter how well you plan, expect the unexpected. Mechanical issues, storms, or terrain challenges can destroy the most carefully crafted schedule. Riders who see this as part of the adventure tend to have more fun. Thinking through potential backup plans, shortcuts, and bailout routes in advance doesn’t hurt either.
Consider how route shape might impact your riding experience and, perhaps more importantly, how you’ll arrange to not be stranded in the middle of nowhere when you triumphantly complete your trip.
Out and back routes are logistically simple: ride your bike as far as you want, then turn around and ride back the way you came. Out-and-backs are also great when you’re unsure how far you want to ride.
Point to point routes inspire that unique feeling of pride in transporting yourself to a faraway place under your own power. The only downside is a higher degree of commitment and more complicated transportation planning.
Loop routes are the best of both worlds: easy transportation logistics with no backtracking.
Here are some ideas for arranging transportation on your point to point route.
Research local options for transport by bus, train, airplane, one-way rental car, pre-arranged private shuttle, or helpful friend. Hitchhiking is always an option but requires flexibility and an outgoing attitude. Note that all planes, some buses (including Greyhound), and some trains require your bike to be boxed for transport.
Set up a two car shuttle: two drivers and two vehicles cooperate to leave a car at both ends, ride the route, then go back and retrieve the other car when finished. This is a very flexible option but requires a lot of back-and-forth driving.
Often it’s simpler to leave a vehicle at the finish and use transport to reach the start, rather than the other way around, since finish timing can be unpredictable.
Bikepackers are a hungry and thirsty bunch! Figuring out how to meet these pesky human needs in the middle of nowhere will have a big impact on the rhythm of your trip.
In some areas, you can hop from stream to stream carrying only a couple of bottles. In drier landscapes, you might need to carry enough water for a full day of riding, a night of dry camping, and part of the next day too. Bikepackers usually carry a water filter or chemical treatment so they can drink directly from any natural source.
Food can be handled in many different ways. Some folks bring a camp stove and a pile of freeze-dried backpacking meals and never set foot indoors. Others stock up at small-town convenience stores once every day or two, stuffing their bags with microwave burritos and energy bars and the occasional can of ravioli. Restaurant meals make a fantastic treat every couple of days, but expecting them more often will rule out many lovely remote routes.
Remoteness — being far, far away from people and civilization — is a prized feature of many bikepacking routes. When everything is going well, remoteness is exhilarating and beautiful, but when something goes wrong remoteness adds complexity and self-sufficiency. This is certainly part of the attraction, but it’s wise to work your way up gradually or venture out in the company of an experienced friend.
Most routes are designed with camping in mind. On longer rides many people use a mix, camping out for a few nights and then luxuriating in the comfort of a bed and shower when it works out.
If you do camp, there are many different ways to do it. You can seek out the amenities of established campgrounds and RV parks, which are less peaceful but sometimes have showers! Dispersed camping — camp where you want, with no amenities — is quiet, free, and legal nearly anywhere on national forest and BLM land. “Stealth camping” is what it sounds like, and is best reserved for those times when you can’t find any better option.
Riding with a more experienced friend is the perfect way to jumpstart your bikepacking journey. If you don’t have bikepacking friends yet, make some by joining a trip led by a local bike shop, or connecting online via social media groups focused on bikepacking.
Can you bikepack solo? Absolutely, and it can be very rewarding, but there are a few things to consider. Solo riders with less experience can reduce risk by making more conservative choices about remoteness, technical terrain, water availability, navigation, and communication. A satellite communicator like a SPOT or Garmin InReach Mini, with a friend on call and ready to help if needed, makes a great safety net for solo adventurers.