Levi Boughn

Getting Started with Bikepacking

Apr 8, 2022
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Anyone can start bikepacking, most definitely including you, and Adventure Cycling is here to help. In the following online series Bikepacking Basics, we’ll cover everything you need to get started and then some, including how to choose and navigate a route, select and pack your gear, prepare your bike, body, and mind, and cope with challenges on the go. 

Whatever type of experience you’re looking for, you can find it — and probably much more — as you literally ride off into the sunset. Strapping camping gear to a bike is nothing new, but bikepacking resources and communities are blossoming faster than ever before.

At its heart, we consider bikepacking to be a multi-day bike ride focused on adventure, nature, and exploring off the beaten path. Throw in a lot of gravel or dirt, a few scenic campsites, and a minimalist gear list — designed to prioritize exploration over luxury — and there’s no question about it. If you’re already familiar with bicycle touring, bikepacking is like its dustier, earthier, more rambunctious cousin. 

Styles of Bikepacking

Bikepacking may be divided into three primary categories: Self-Contained, Supported, and Credit Card. Even though we’re taking the time to separate and discuss them individually, your trip can include one or all styles.

Self-contained

Self-contained trips are, well, the peak of self-sufficiency. Typically, you carry everything you need on your bike including your kitchen and bedroom, which makes heading off into remote areas fair game. Since this is the most common way to bikepack in the U.S. and requires the most planning, this is the style of travel that we’ll focus on in this Bikepacking Basics series.

Supported

For some routes, or for some people, a supported trip makes a lot of sense, whether that’s a friend driving a vehicle with your gear, someone who caches water for you along an arid route, or a guided tour with a leader, SAG (support and gear) wagons, and maybe even catered meals so you can spend the day riding unloaded. The logistics of meeting a homespun support system on a dependable dirt road is sometimes do-able and sometimes impossible, depending on your route. 

Adventure Cycling features a rotating calendar of guided bikepacking adventures for those keen on dirt and meeting new riding buddies. We have everything from introductory gravel tours to epic bikepacking tours along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.

Credit Card Touring

It’s called credit card touring — staying in inns and eating prepared food from restaurants or gas stations — because you can accomplish it carrying little more than a credit card and a change of clothes. Can you still call it bikepacking if you're riding on dirt roads from one hotel to the next? You can call it whatever you like! But know that our Bikepacking Basics series focuses on helping riders head off into the sunset with the self-sufficiency to take the road less traveled, away from services, people, and pavement.

Old Hat, New Tricks: Transitioning from Road to Dirt

If multi-day bike travel is new to you, there’s no reason you can’t start with bikepacking. If you’ve already done some pavement-focused bicycle touring, you have a head start, but you’ll need to make a few adjustments to embrace the bikepacking style. 

A few key changes to bike, gear, and mindset will help with the transition. For more tips on the transition from road touring to bikepacking specifically, see this post.

The Beauty of the Overnighter

Thanks to the immersiveness of pedal-powered travel, even a short trip can feel like a complete press of the reset button. 

You could ride from your front door on a Wednesday afternoon and be back at work by late Thursday morning, work schedule permitting. A full weekend punctuated by a night under the stars would be downright leisurely. 

Short rides are a fantastic way to explore local trails, gather a like-minded group without an impossible scheduling puzzle, and nourish your adventurous spirit even when life gets busy. 

Bikepacking is for Everyone

Most bikepackers are normal folks quietly doing their thing closer to home most of the time. They’re riding gravel roads at the outskirts of town with their kid in a trailer, or taking a couple days off work for a solo getaway in the nearest national forest. They’re all genders, races, ages, experience and fitness levels, body types, and personality types. They’re exploring wild places, building resilience in their bodies and minds, and having fun.

Like them, you definitely don’t need to master everything before your first ride! Bikepacking is best learned by riding. You might be surprised by how quickly the essentials come together with just a little experience. 

Choosing Your Bikepacking Route (coming soon!)

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