If you’re plugged into cycling culture, you’ve probably already heard the buzz about bikepacking. But even if you're not familiar with the trend, there's plenty to love about grabbing your mountain bike, strapping on some camping equipment and heading off on long forest trails, wilderness access roads, desert hiking routes and more. The name of the game is “off-road” ― so as long as you’re plotting a route off the beaten path, you’re bikepacking.
With its combo of adventurism and fitness, it’s no wonder bikepacking is gaining popularity with cycling’s biggest trendsetters and personalities.
What Is Bikepacking?
Bikepacking cropped up around the same time the bicycle did, but the moniker only came about in the past couple of decades. As early as the 1900s, cyclists were strapping the bare essentials to their bicycles for long, mostly off-road rides spanning multiple days.
Cyclists were also often used as messengers, scouts and infantry in wars and conflicts during the 20th century, often covering distances of hundreds or thousands of miles on two wheels while loaded down with all of their gear.
Those cyclists, and their ambition to explore using two wheels, are still the heart and soul of bikepacking today.
Bikepacking has popped up in the United States as a cottage industry almost overnight, with hundreds of manufacturers and small businesses getting in on the action. Mountain bikers have continued to test the limits of innovation, demanding custom bags, ultralight camping gear and bikepacking-specific bikes.
What’s the Difference Between Bikepacking and Bike Touring?
“Generally speaking, the difference is in the places that are ridden,” says Logan Watts, founder of Bikepacking.com, one of the most popular websites for advice, routes and equipment reviews. “While touring tends to rely on paved routes and byways, bikepacking is based on the exploration of off-pavement and backcountry trails and tracks.”
Watts’ website helps riders plan trips all across the world with his ongoing collection of off-road routes, complete with maps and essential info.
What Gear Do You Need for Bikepacking?
1. The Bikes
Bikepacking can be done on any bike. Some of the most influential trendsetters in mountain biking have proved this on every possible permutation of bike. You can bikepack on a touring bike, a mountain bike, a fatbike or even a road bike, as long as you can take the punishment of dirt and gravel routes. The ideal platforms seem to be the hard-tail mountain bike or the rigid mountain bike, which are both efficient over rougher terrain and very comfortable for long days in the saddle.
2. The Bags
Perhaps the most identifying feature of a bikepacking bike is the unique bag system. Most bikepackers use soft-frame bags strapped in the empty spaces of the frame, behind the seat and in front of the handlebars. Frame bags are often custom-made to fit the triangle of the frame perfectly, making maximum use of the space. They are useful all the time, since they keep weight close to the bike’s center of gravity. For long off-road rides, they’re hard to beat and eliminate the mechanical issues associated with traditional racks and panniers on rough surfaces.
Asked about his favorite bikepacking bag, Watts says, “I would have to say the seat pack. It’s key to having the right amount of storage.” He adds that while the bags are important, the weight of your camping gear is a much bigger factor. Keeping your storage space small might be one strategy for packing light. “If you have bag space, you will fill it up,” Watts notes.
3. Camping Equipment
Bikepackers carry the bare minimum. Generally speaking, the lower your packed weight, the more fun it will be to ride, and that’s the top priority for bikepacking. A down sleeping bag, a minimalist shelter like a tarp or one-person tent and one pair of riding shorts are staples of a bikepacker’s ultralight philosophy. Innovations in camping gear allow for a comfortable camping setup that weighs less than 10 pounds, and many camping companies like REI are recognizing the new crop of camping cyclists with bikepacking-related marketing for their equipment.
Who Are the Bikepacking Trendsetters and Innovators?
Bikepacking reached the mainstream in just a few short years, thanks to several trendsetting cyclists and some of the biggest cycling websites on the net.
John Prolly, a blogger who creates or stumbles upon cycling’s biggest trends, runs The Radavist. His site has millions of readers, and he collaborates with all of the biggest names in every discipline of cycling. Bikepacking bikes are regular features on his site, and he will likely be the one to call out the next trend.
“I don’t think there will be a ‘big thing,’ so to speak,” he says. “If anything, I think more people will get into it and more companies will be making products suited to this style of riding.”
For cyclists looking to give bikepacking a try, “do a route that’s well-planned and easy,” says Prolly. “Remember, less is more in terms of packing, and always bring a water filter like a Sawyer when traveling to remote regions.”
Other big names in bikepacking include Nicholas Carman and Lael Wilcox, the couple behind the blog Gypsy By Trade. They’ve just finished plotting a 2,000-mile route, called the Baja Divide, from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas. Lael is also the fastest woman in endurance cycling, with several titles and world records under her belt in just a few short years.
On social media, @UltraRomance, aka Poppi Benedict, aka J. Bené Romanceür Esq., is one of the most entertaining personalities on two wheels and is an avid bikepacker. He’s been featured on the cover of Bicycling Magazine, with frame bags and an old-school wire basket, proving that any bike is a bikepacking bike if you’re ready to get rad.
The Next Big Thing in Bikepacking
One of the staples of the bikepacking discipline is endurance mountain bike racing. Riders are unsupported and tasked with covering huge distances, like the 3,000-mile Great Divide route from Banff, Alberta, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico.
This year, British cyclist Mike Hall broke the world record for the race, finishing in a blistering 14 days, 11 hours, 55 minutes. That includes several days in excess of 250 miles of riding, a superhuman feat. Endurance bikepacking races are starting to gain more widespread appeal, thanks mostly to GPS technology, which allows real-time tracking of riders.
If there’s a sport to watch in cycling, endurance bikepacking is definitely it.
What Do YOU Think?
Ready to strap some camping gear to your bicycle and take off into the great unknown? Or have you tried bikepacking already and have some tips you’d like to share? Tell us in the comments!