If the idea of pedaling into the woods with everything you need packed on your bike sounds appealing, you’re not alone. We’re seeing a resurgence in interest in self-supported bicycle travel, including bikepacking and bike overnights. Consider this a quick introduction to packing your bike and finding a campsite near you!
First, a quick overview of the terms: We refer to any type of multi-day bicycle trip as “bicycle travel.” Bike travel on mostly paved surfaces with panniers is “bicycle touring.” Bicycle travel on mostly dirt surfaces, typically into more remote areas on mountain biking trails, is “bikepacking.” Bikepacking gear traditionally doesn't include panniers and instead uses bike bags that are tightly attached to the bike so they don't flop around.
You’ll often see these terms used interchangeably, and some folks refer to any type of bicycle travel “bikepacking.” It is useful to know the differences when you’re shopping for gear or trying to find the right advice for your trip. Here, we'll talk mostly about using your bike to travel to an outdoor campsite.
One of our most popular live videos this year featured two Adventure Cycling Ambassadors sharing how they pack their bikes for trips. It’s worth watching the video for a detailed look at two cyclists’ methods for packing everything their entire “house” on their bikes. Further down, we'll explain more about some of the questions that came in during the video.
Note that Joyce packed her bike like she was going to ride the Baja Divide, a bikepacking route in Mexico, while Sid packed for a bike touring route on paved roads. Also, Joyce packed her bike with panniers, which is different than how many people pack for bikepacking trips.
First, all of our guidelines come with a caveat that with the rapidly changing Covid-19 situation, nothing is guaranteed, including whether campsites will be open. Find our latest guidelines here.
If you're using an Adventure Cycling map, make sure you've viewed the map updates and corrections addenda for the map sections you'd be using. Find them on our site here.
If you’re unsure about whether a campsite or park is open, it’s best to call the authority that oversees that area before you head out.
We’ve received many queries from folks who’d like to know more about the ins-and-outs of camping, including the most basic question: How do I pick out a campsite? First, check the Adventure Cycling Route Network to see if one of our routes near you would suit your journey. Our maps list cyclist-specific places to stay, including hotels, resorts, hostels, and campgrounds (find some examples here.)
Aside from that, many sites can help you find a good campsite near you. Use Recreation.gov to find public land across the United States, and even reserve campsites and cabins ahead of time (note that many popular destinations are often booked months in advance, so keep hunting if your first pick is taken.) National Forest websites also contain useful information and are a good way to find smaller sites along a specific route; start by finding the national forest where you’re planning to bike. Bureau of Land Management areas, state parks and national parks all have good information as well. Check to make sure bicycles are allowed to access the specific trails you're interested in.
Packing for self-supported travel can seem overwhelming. It helps to break it down into the three most important categories: food, water and shelter. Bring more water than you think you need, and have a plan for obtaining more if you run out, such as a portable water filter. Pack some nonperishable, ready-to-eat food in case you’re too tired or don’t want to make dinner at the campsite. Expect nighttime temperatures to get chilly, even in summer, when packing warm clothes and a sleeping bag.
In addition, don’t forget your “garage”: basic repair materials in case of a flat tire, and the know-how to change one.
And of course, always make sure someone knows where you’re going and when you expect to be back, even if you think you’ll be in cell service the whole time.
Not sure what gear you'll need for your bike? Our Cyclosource site has a bikepacking-specific section that might give you an idea of useful items to pack.
Some campsites offer developed restrooms with flush toilets, although in many campgrounds you’re more likely to encounter vault toilets (the kind that don’t have running water or sinks for hand-washing). Either way, prepare for the possibility that you might need to answer the call of nature while out on a ride and realize there’s no facilities nearby. This is where a trowel, toilet paper, baby wipes and hand sanitizer are quite useful! (Don’t litter: stash the trash in a double-bagged Ziploc and dispose of it in a garbage can later.)
Sometimes, things go awry and you can’t make it to the campsite you wanted for the evening. There are a few backup plans to keep in mind. Visit WarmShowers.org, which is a network of hosts willing to help out bicycle tourists, to see if anyone along your route might be willing to let you pitch a tent in their yard. It's best to make connections via Warm Showers a few weeks ahead of time to give people time to respond.
Our safety advocates also work with state parks to make sure hikers and bikers won't be turned away from a full campground. Check here to see if your state park system has a No-Turn-Away policy.
If you’re cycling through public lands, you may want to be prepared to stay at an undeveloped campsite for the evening. If you’re going through privately owned land, you may want to ask around and see if a farmer or landowner would allow you to pitch your tent on their property. Our Trail Angel project certainly demonstrates how often people are excited to help out a cyclist in need.
If you’re not sure if you can make it out there on your own, stock up on gear and go “camping” in your own backyard, living room or patio. See if you can comfortably set up your tent and make dinner just using your camping items - pretty quickly you might realize something you forgot, like a potholder or a spatula.
Find our Checklist for Bike Overnights and links to more info here!
Thanks to Adventure Cycling Outreach Coordinator Eva Dunn-Froebig, who organized the How to Pack Your Bike event and contributed to this piece!