Go By Bike: Bikepacking Essentials

Setting off for parts unknown, with everything you need to stay outside strapped to your trusty two-wheeled steed. Sounds excellent, right?

Enter bikepacking.

Mostly forgoing the heavier, bulkier racks and panniers of bike touring for frame, handlebar and seat bags, the fast and light nature of bikepacking is great for knocking out any-distanced trips on even the toughest terrain.

Jumping into bikepacking requires some modifications to your existing camping (and biking) kit, though. Let’s take a look at some essentials.

A Plan

Or a vague semblance of one, anyway. Know where you’re going, what the mileage and elevation gain is, and what the weather will be like. All will inform the decision-making process on what gear to bring. The planning process usually starts with a destination in mind, such as a campsite, AirBnb, or shelter. Work backwards: use google maps or Ride With GPS to make an interesting route that’ll bring you to your point of departure. While out riding, explore your bike’s limits as well as your own. Take the long way, see if your bike can handle that double track forest service road, or see how it climbs and descends paved roads fully-loaded. It’ll help build your confidence in your rig. Remember, you’re doing this for fun, and riding in the rain or intense heat isn’t fun, generally. Save the route for a nicer weekend.

Protip: The perfect plan doesn’t exist. Focus on what you think will be fun; if that’s a 10 miles ride down to the lake campground, great. If it’s a 100 mile epic, tagging gaps down the spine of the Green Mountains? Also great.

Comfort In Going It Alone

Enjoying some camp coffee

Bikepacking can be a lonely time. Out on the road for hours, not seeing another person — let alone talking to one — can be disheartening. Cultivating the headspace to enjoy your own company will do wonders for your enjoyment of the ride. A good audiobook can help, too. Your first night alone in the woods might be spooky; remember that nature is a noisy place at night, filled with the rustling made by the comings and goings of critters, and that’s OK.

Protip: Reaching for that whole six pack of beer won’t make the night woods less spooky, it’ll just make you have to get up and pee more often in the dark, along with making you extra sluggish in the morning.

Related: Have something to do at camp

After riding all day and getting to camp, you may feel a sudden crush of boredom. An example: you’ve arrived ahead of schedule, set up camp in record time, done any maintenance your bike needed, and you have a few hours before sunset. For times like these, it’s best to have some things to keep your mind occupied while you cycle down from moving all day. A small paperback of short stories or a journal can help pass the time and make you feel more comfortable if you are in a new place.

Protip: Switch your phone to airplane mode when you arrive at camp. It’ll stop it from draining its battery, and keep you from mindlessly browsing reddit.

A campsite set up with a bike nearby at twilight

The Gear

Less is more: bike, helmet, sleep kit, shelter, food, water, clothing for different weather, emergency kit, and a way to carry it all. Your route and plan will determine what you bring. Remember, bikepacking is distinguished from bike-touring typically by its rack-less bag system; consisting usually of a frame bag, a front bag/roll, a rear-seat pack and a light backpack or fanny pack. Depending on bike and bag size you’ll have 25 – 40L to work with. Panniers on racks will increase the volume significantly, but also the weight and width of your rig. Bring as little as you can, without excluding crucial ‘peace-of-mind’ items and one or more ‘luxury’ items to keep your trip fun and comfortable.

Protip: Try the ‘rooms of a house’ method of packing. Think of packing your camping gear like a house, with a bedroom (tent/hammock, sleep kit), a kitchen (stove, fuel, water, and food) and a bathroom (toiletries and first aid).

Gear That Actually Works: The Author’s List

The page author standing with his bike, loaded up with gear

Bike

Whatever one you have around, within reason. You don’t need to own a specific bike for bikepacking, leave it up to the route to dictate what bike you use. Between a hardtail and a gravel bike, you can go anywhere you need in Vermont. Author Picks: The Heller Shagamaw (a 29er hardtail) or the Niner RLT Steel (a gravel bike).

Front Bag

A starting point for a front bag could be as simple as a dry bag with some straps to hold it on your handlebars. A purpose-built bag will have more features and quality of life improvements, though. Author Picks: The Revelate Designs Sweet Roll (large) or Roadrunner Bags Middle Earth Jammer Bag.

Frame Bag

The most important thing is to find a frame bag that fits your bike reasonably well, and to not pack it so full that it rubs on your legs while you ride. Author Picks: A custom Class 4 Designs Corner Pocket (on the Niner only) or a large Blackburn Elite Frame Bag.

Seat Bag

If you’re going to buy a new bag, this is the place to do it. Cost matters here too: the difference between a $150 model and a $75 model can be huge when it comes to sagging and bobbing. Author Picks: A Blackburn Elite Universal Seat Pack and dry bag, or a Road Runner Bags Middle Earth Jammer Bag (requires additional hardware).

Fanny Pack

A matter of personal preference. Some folks like riding with a bag, some folks do everything in their power not to. You’ll have to experiment. Author Picks: A Mountainsmith Day or Tour Pack with Strapettes.

Clothes

If you like being warm and dry in your sleeping bag, pack accordingly: being able to change into non-riding clothes at the end of the day is great for morale. Author Picks: Wool base layers for camp/sleeping, extra socks, an extra chamois of a different shape, and a comfy shirt.

Sleep System

A 30° bag + insulated sleeping pad = an excellent combo for all conditions from April – October in VT. Your mileage may vary depending on your location and elevation of course, so make sure you’re getting the right temperature rating for your sleeping bag. There are benefits to both tents and hammocks, and whichever you choose will come down to personal preference and the campsites along your route. Author Picks: The Nemo Moonwalker sleeping bag and Tensor 20 pad, with an Eno DoubleNest Hammock or the Marmot Tungsten 1-person tent.

Cooking

Bringing the tools to cook elaborate meals while riding takes planning, experience, and bag space — if you’re perfectly happy with a box of mac and cheese or ramen for dinner, all you’ll need is boiling water and (maybe) a way to slice things. Author Picks: A Jetboil MicroMo (or any ultra-light canister stove), chopsticks, a long handled plastic spoon, and a fixed-blade knife.

Water

Always carry a water filter, and keep in mind where your next drink of water will be coming from while you’re riding. Author Picks: Two 24oz water bottles (or three if it’s hot) and a Katadyn BeFree 3.0L.

Food

Snacking constantly throughout the day is a great way to keep your energy levels up. Be careful at lunch breaks: it’s easy to shovel food into your face without thinking and get a stomach ache. Author Picks: For snacks: Bars, candy, and jerky. For Entrees: Anything from Trailtopia or Good2Go.

Navigation

Navigating with a smartphone has come a long way, with multiple apps specifically made for route-making and navigating via GPS with no cell signal necessary. That being said, a map of the area that you’re riding in is a good idea to have as a backup if anything happens to your phone. Author Picks: I do a pre-planned route on Ride with GPS or Google Maps, but more so Ride with GPS. It shows many dirt roads that Google Maps doesn’t, and will allow you to route them easily.

Lighting

At least one headlamp, a handlebar light, and a tail light are key. Be seen while riding both day and night — even a small blinking light can extend your riding hours and bring you peace-of-mind. Author Picks: A Petzl rechargeable headlamp, a back-up battery-powered headlamp, a handlebar light, and a taillight.

Bike Tools and Maintenance

Bike tools and the know-how to use them are absolutely essential for any kind of remote biking. Don’t get caught out in the middle of nowhere with a busted bike! Author Picks: A solid bike multi-tool like the Crank Brothers M10, 2 tubes, a Blackburn Mammoth Flip Mini Pump, a flat kit, a dollar bill (as a boot for tire holes), some scrap cloth, T-9 chain lube, KMC Missing Link tire lever, a bike chain master link, Voile straps, and a small bike lock.

Toiletries

Remember the ‘rooms of a house method’: what do you need to bring to feel comfortable and to take care of yourself in your bathroom? Author Picks: Toothpaste and brush, floss, deodorant, an eye mask, soap concentrate, a microfiber towel, a first-aid kit (trauma, stomach and pain-relief), water treatment tablets (for emergencies), toilet paper, and any personal medication.

Optional Luxury Items

What’s going to spark joy for you after a long day of riding? While it’s important to keep weight and totally extraneous items to a minimum, make sure you balance that out with the things you like to bring to make camping fun. Author Picks: Aftershokz bone-conduction headphones, a Goal Zero Flip 24 power bank (depending on your trip length, this could be a necessary item), camp shoes, a journal, and a paperback book.

Learn to enjoy your time out in the woods and on the bike. Listening to a good book or music while riding (safely), charging electronics at camp and journaling can help turn your brain on after a long day of pedaling. Camp shoes make exploring off your bike much more fun.

Some Inspiration: Vermont Bikepacking Routes

We’ve curated some great VT bikepacking routes that we found on RideWithGPS into this OGE Bikepacking Map. Check it out, get inspired, and go bikepacking!

Extra Reading

Check out Bikepacking Collective, the essential publication if you want to dive into the world of person-powered pedaling. They have everything you’ll need from routes and videos to gear indexes and photography, plus much more.

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