Pale, penniless, and skinnier than a street dog, was this the bikepacking adventure I’d been dreaming of?

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George B

To me, bikepacking means freedom. It allows us to bike further and deeper into the wilderness than ever before. To discover places previously off-limits to the two-wheeled explorer.

In this monster guide, I’ll share the most important lessons I learned from 18 months on the road -  from where to go and how to do it, to what bike and equipment you’ll need. I'll also share some thing’s I wish I knew before setting off.

By the time you’ve finished reading you'll be fully primed for your own trip.

Let's dive in!

Bikepacker on mountain bike with school children

What is bikepacking? And how is it different to cycle touring?

Bikepacking (or bike-packing, as you like) is a fairly recent addition to the outdoor adventure scene. Whilst cycle touring has been around for well over a hundred years, bikepacking (in its modern form anyway) is still in its infancy.

In fact, cycle touring has been around for donkey’s years. The Bicycle Touring Club of Great Britain (now Cycling UK...I much prefer the old name) dates back to 1878. That’s older than the vacuum cleaner (1901), radar (1904), radio broadcasting (1906), the bra (1913) and even tea bags (1904). How did they drink their brew out on the road?

History of bikepacking with two ladies and their bikepacking bags

So if bicycle touring is just travelling by bicycle, what is this elusive bikepacking?

Bikepacking is a fusion melding the best parts of mountain biking with ultralight backpacking all into one beautiful adventure soup.

In its simplest form, bike-packing involves strapping all your gear to your mountain bike for whatever escapade you have in mind - a day ride, an overnighter (perhaps an S24O - sub-24-hour overnighter for those in the know...), a multi day or even an expedition escape.

Whilst there is certainly some overlap, one of the keys giveaways is the way your kit is attached to the bike - panniers vs bags.

montana mountain bike for bicycle touring

But the divide runs deeper. After meeting thousands of bikers out on the road - both bikepackers and cycle-tourists - it's clear they differ in both their desire and approach.

Cycle tourists tend to be more focused on the travelling aspect itself. They are often more keen on attending the local village fete than seeking out abandoned forest track. Those on a bikepacking trip, on the other hand, seem more stoked on the biking aspect itself - the epic trails, the solitude, the (quite frankly obscene) number of miles covered - don't forget the chauffage cream!

Of course, that’s not to say that those bicycle touring don’t also venture off-road into the wilderness or that bikepackers don’t ever see civilisation, enjoy frequenting the local museum, or meeting fellow bikers in the cafe. Just be ready for the scornful looks when the locals see your clothes that haven't been washing since Christmas.

It seems that bikepacking emerged to extend the time bikers could go mountain biking - obsessing over lighter kit, gear development, and innovative ways to keep themselves streamlined.

Cycle tourists meanwhile use the bicycle as a new way to give an extra dimension to their travels (usually on a road ride). They are often looking to shake things up after backpacking around and have had enough of the chicken bus.

Bikepacking bike with bikepacking bags - no seat bag

The type of routes most commonly chosen by the two groups (of course there’s overlap) is another good indicator. Those cycle touring mostly travel on tarmac through places with interesting culture to enjoy; the castles of the Loire Valley (such a good option close to home by the way), or opt for long-distance classics like the Silk Road.

The iconic bikepacking adventure routes, on the other hand, include remote epics like the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (2,700 miles largely off-road from Canada to the Mexican border), and the Baja Divide (1,700 miles down the Baja Peninsula of Mexico), both of which we were lucky enough to sample. They are truly stunning adventure cycling routes, taking riders away from civilisation and indeed people, and deep into the backcountry.

Why go on a bikepacking adventure?

Thanks to the development of specialised bikepacking bags, ultralight gear, and a whole load of study off-road yet comfortable mountain bikes, whose geometry is designed with many hours in the saddle in mind, a bikepacking adventure offers the opportunity to get off the beaten track and then some.

Whilst in pre-bikepacking days it was possible to cover long distances when bicycle touring, now we're able to go deeper into remote regions previously reserved for only the most dedicated hikers.

Now more than ever we need the benefits of spending time in nature. We need to take the lid off the pressure cooker of modern life and enjoy the solitude, challenge, and unpredictability the deep backcountry has to offer.

Not to mention that your bike carries all your stuff for you, so one point to bikepacking, nil points for hiking.

bikepacking / mountain biking the baja divide desert bike

When to go on a bikepacking adventure?

Whilst we might not have it quite as good as the Scandinavians, we certainly have it better than the Yanks. Your weekends, annual leave, and national holidays leave you with a whopping 130 days off from work each year (ish). That’s a boat-load of opportunity for quick escapes.

Start with a single day ride. This will be a great opportunity to test out gear, give you some experience planning and following a route, as well as a taster of things to come. Not cooking or camping means you can leave the heaviest things at home. This keeps it fun and fast-paced.

bikepacking cycling guatemala on mountain bike

Progress to overnighters. Nothing screams adventure like an epic day in the saddle followed by a night out under the stars. Warning! This is sure to get your giblets wibbling.

Tagging on annual leave to weekends and bank holidays opens up more routes and even trips abroad. That being said, we have loads of great longer rides right here in the UK listed below.

If you want to build your confidence or just fancy joining a likeminded group, you can always join us on one of our bikepacking trips over on the adventures page.

Where to go on a bikepacking adventure?

Where you go will, of course, depend on how much time you have, your level of experience, and the type of trips you’re looking for.

Are you looking to cover some epic miles or enjoy the serenity? A seasoned pro or a first timer?

Resupply points, accommodation (if you aren’t camping), the type of terrain, your gear, and transport options (can you throw in the towel if you’ve thrown all your toys out the pram?) are all things to consider.

For shorter rides (single to a few days), just look for any green bits near where you want to go on the map. National parks, trails, and general countryside are all great places to start.

bikepacking alaska to panama on mountain bikes

Types of bikepacking adventures

We’ve touched on day rides and S24o’s (remember those?). But some of you may be particularly sadistic and fancy something more along the lines of Ultra Bikepacking.

Ultra bikepacking involves multi day racing over freakishly long distances, across punishing terrain, carrying less than most people do on their daily commute.

The Tour Divide is the quintessential Ultra bikepacking adventure race.

great divide mountain bike route map

Photo: American Cycling Association

We were introduced to the world of Ultras by the phenom Lael Wilcox. Having followed her races since, I’m still undecided as to whether she’s human. I mean it’s ridiculous.

Lael manages to pump out around 20,000 miles each year on her bike and is, I think it’s safe to say, obsessed by all things bike related.

On day two of our trip biking from Alaska to Panama, we stopped by the local bike shop (LBS) in Anchorage to pick up a last few bits and bobs. I asked the guy at reception if he knew anything about bikepacking and he waved Lael over.

lael wilcox biking on her mountain bike with bikepacking bags
Photo: Lael Wilcox

Unenlightened as to who she was at that point, I proceeded to take at least 10 minutes to explain to Lael what bikepacking was and that we intended to do something called 'The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route' and then 'The Baja Divide'.

Lael waited patiently for me to finish. “Are you familiar with the Baja Divide?” I finally asked.

“Sure. I. Um. Well. I kind of created it” she responded in a humble and gentle way, trying not to make me feel like too much of an idiot.

“I thought that was Lael Wilc….Ohhhh you’re Lael Wilcox” I sighed, shrinking back into a shell of my own ignorance.

lael wilcox with roadbike
Photo: Lael Wilcox

Fortunately, Lael wasn’t bothered and kindly offered to help review our kit before embarking on our journey.

The words “don’t need that” were then uttered repeatedly by Lael pointing to almost everything we’d brought.

“But I was so looking forward to that solar-powered hot shower”, I thought to myself.

The golden rule for a bikepacking adventure, Lael explained, is to only take what you think you absolutely need. And then only take half of that.

You can follow Lael over at @LaelWilcox on Instagram or head on over to LaelWilcox.com

Check out her awesome vid 'I Just Want To Ride - Lael Wilcox' too.

How to go on a bikepacking adventure?

Responsible adventure

As with all outdoor escapes, the overriding principles is to Leave No Trace. We’ve written extensively about responsible exploring in our Ultimate Guide to Wild Camping but in short, remember to leave everything as you found it or ideally a little better. For example, by taking rubbish you find along the way with you.

The seven principles of Leave No Trace are:

  • Plan ahead and prepare
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  • Dispose of waste properly
  • Leave what you find
  • Minimise campfire impacts - or don’t have one at all
  • Respect wildlife
  • Be considerate of other visitors

Our own additional Call to Adventure principle on this is ‘don’t be a tw*t’. You know, keep the noise down, no 30-foot bonfires, don’t even think about leaving that beer can there!

cycle tourist looking out with mountain bike

What to bring bikepacking?

Go light or go home (and drop some stuff off)

Remember what Lael said. Embrace minimalism. It’s part of the appeal. Don’t be tempted to bring ‘nice to have’s’. Ask yourself, ‘could I get by without this?' If the answer's yes, leave it.

Packing light will make climbs more enjoyable (bearable), make the bike more nimble, result in less wear on bike components, and mean that the journey is that much less of a slog.

More on this later, but never compromise on safety. A first aid kit and means of contacting emergency services if things go south is always a must.

How to plan a bikepacking adventure route?

The internet is awash with endless information, most of it nonsense, but there are a few beacons of light.

Following a predetermined route is a nice way to ease into things.

Bikepacking.com has some fantastic routes to try as well as Komoot.com.

planning a bikepacking mountain biking route mexico

Loading the GPX file (the file type read by Sat Nav and some smartphone mapping apps) makes following these a doddle.

You may prefer to trailblaze your own route. Google Earth is fantastic for getting up close and personal with very remote regions. This is particularly helpful abroad where good maps can be hard to come by.

In the UK, we are blessed with OS maps. They are available in paper version or as a download through the app. When purchasing the paper map you get a free electronic download.

One secret weapon in our arsenal is Bing.com (Microsoft’s version of Google). No really. Bing Maps offers the option to switch to Ordnance Survey mode and see the whole of the UK for free. Thank you, Bill. Thank you.

os maps available at bing.com for planning mountain biking / bikepacking routes

Aim for anywhere between 20 to 50 miles per day depending on your fitness, how many hours you want to be in the saddle for, and importantly, the terrain. Even after 12 months of the road, we were covering at little as 20 miles on some of the tougher sections of the Baja Divide.

Bikepacking navigation and finding your way

GPS units are a great addition to any kit list. They are more rugged than phones and have many obvious advantages over paper maps. Battery life is often much longer than most phones too.

If you’re very remote, having power can mean the difference between everything going swimmingly and things steadily going from an enjoyable day out to an episode of Bear Grylls (without the 5 star hotel). Paper maps are therefore always a smart idea as a failsafe backup.

Smartphones have come into their own recently with the release of phenomenal apps such as Gaia GPS (what we use), ViewRanger (also very popular, particularly with backcountry hikers), OSM Cycle Maps (for free maps), and MapOut (iPhone only).

Download maps to your phone for offline use and to save data and battery.

Keeping the screen active on your phone will sap the juice like there’s no tomorrow. We kept a power bank (the Ravpower 20,000mAh - below) in the frame bag connected to our phone or GPS when needed.

20,000mAh should see you through 6+ full charges of even the most power-hungry mobiles, Sat Navs or cameras. It’s unlikely that you will need more than that even when you’re really in the middle of nowhere even on multi day rides. This model comes with 3 USB slots too, which are extremely convenient for charging multiple devices at once especially.

os maps for navigating england

You can bring a solar charger to power up the bank or the devices directly but we didn’t end using ours even once. Take a decent power bank and save the weight and the cost of a solar charger.

Don’t ignore low tech options either. Paper maps are always a nice backup to have. At the risk of causing some readers a mild heart attack though, they aren’t strictly necessary, especially if you have a GPS, and a couple of phones too.

They are great for planning routes and are worth their weight in gold when electronics fail. But with 3 devices it's almost impossible that all breakdown. If they do, it’s likely the apocalypse, and you’ve got bigger things to worry about than the elevation of that grassy knoll.

On longer trips paper maps are even less practical - they take up lots of room, can be expensive, outdated, inaccurate, and worst of all, require regular stopping and starting to ensure you haven’t gone the wrong way. This slows the pace, the fun, and can mean getting cold.

That being said, nothing feels better than running your finger down a paper map and plopping the compass down to find tonights sleeping spot.

Bikepacking safety

All the best practices of exploring the great outdoors apply here with a few extras.

Always wear your helmet, well you can take it off in the shower but otherwise keep it strapped up. Unfortunately, some bikepackers ignore this for the sake of fashion. Skipping the helmet is fine, so long as you’re happy to forgo emergency service response if things go wrong.

bikepacking baja divide on mountain bike

We met a guy bikepacking in Central America who refused to wear a helmet for aesthetic reasons, citing his experience as a semi-pro mountain biker in his younger days as the reason why he didn't need to. But he didn’t like you to even mention the possibility of what might happen if he fell off, stating he didn’t want any ‘bad juju’. His words, not mine.

Priority should be given to those who are doing their best to ease the strain on the already taxed mountain rescue and first responders. Brains are expensive and resources consuming to fix. So don’t be a tw*t, get over yourself, and wear a f*cking helmet.

What to cook when bikepacking?

You’re going to need loads of energy to keep you pedalling up mountain after mountain so do yourself a favour and get food right. It’s especially important on longer journeys, and even more so with races, but don’t overthink it. Just getting the calories in will go along way.

In an ideal world, you’d be consuming about a third of your calories from fat, protein, and carbohydrates respectively. Although for exceptionally testing rides you might want to up your carbs.

The NHS recommends, on average, 2,000 calories a day for women and 2,500 for men. Obviously, this should be scaled up based on the amount of exercise you’re doing and the level of intensity.

Bikepacking cooking under the stars with MSR

On expeditions where you are consistently busting out 100 miles a day plus, this can be a real challenge. The See Food Diet is a good option. When you see food, eat it.

One thing to be aware of though is the types of food you’re eating. Again, on shorter rides it’s not important, but try to avoid only gorging on mainly sugary sweets and gels.

Gels, whilst good for short bursts of energy, are often just suckable bags of sugar, and are usually followed by crashes when blood sugar dips again. Not to mention that they are expensive and too many of them will play havoc with your bowels.

A much better tactic is to cook/eat ‘proper food’ when possible. Veggies are your friend and are vital to maintaining proper bodily functions. Remember what you’re mum used to say ‘eat your greens’. But don’t be a snob. All colours of vegetables are just as worthy.

In fact, colours are a sign of the beneficial antioxidants and phytochemicals (the good stuff) within the veggie itself, so try to eat as many different colours as you can. Eat the rainbow as they say. Not literally. That’s what Skittles are for.

Mushrooms to eat when camping

Rice and pasta will likely form the basis of most meals, unless you’re still on that keto fad. Both are cheap, storable, easy to cook and pack a decent amount of calories.

Quinoa is possibly an even better option (more protein but more expensive) if you can get hold of it.

Rice is filling and all-round fantastic but it does take longer to cook, which means more waiting for hungry bellies, and the need to use more fuel. Pasta is cheap, quick, and sometimes comes in bow-tie shapes, a win all on its own.

You want to carry foods that are calorie-dense for their weight, are durable, don’t spoil quickly, and ideally taste alright too.

Ginger, garlic, and onions make everything taste better (except for chocolate) and last forever. Carrots are also a heavyweight hitter in the Great Biker Bakeoff. If abroad, try any local varieties that fit the bill too.

Beans, tomato sauce, lentils, and coconut milk are all up there with the best go to’s for lunch and dinner.

Sandwiches made the night before or porridge both make excellent breakfast / snacks.

Prepared meals (ie those that come in a bag) are very convenient and are great option for shorter trips. Some actually taste pretty good and are made with decent ingredients too.

It cuts out the washing up which for many is a deal-breaker, not just because they dislike washing up but it can require precious water, which is at a premium in drier environments.

The downside is they can be expensive and offer limited options.

How to pack for a bikepacking adventure

Whilst there is no ‘correct way’ to pack, some ways are definitely better than others. Respecting the golden rule of bringing only the essentials will help you pack better.

Where you pack things matters because it will impact the handling of the bike. And when you’re on some technical single track near the end of a 300-meter cliff drop, you want to be pretty nimble on that bad boy.

Even in less extreme circumstances, better handling is always a good thing.

bikepacking and camping equipment

Before packing anything yet remember to try to keep a fairly even load from side to side and front to back.

Start by whacking the heaviest things into the frame bag (if you’ve got one). Aim to pack the heaviest items as low as possible in the centre of the bike. This has a material impact on handling, as heavy items high up or off to one side will create a lean in the bike which you must counteract.

Cooking equipment and food can live here. Electronics too. Just remember it won’t be that accessible, so better to keep things like phones upfront on the bars.

The seat pack can be used for heavier items like food and clothes. Keep clothes rolled tight to maximise space and minimise sway.

The handlebar roll bag should be used for heavier camping equipment like you tent poles (which also helps give is some structure) and a sleeping bag (only go as warm as is necessary). Use a liner to add warmth if needed.

Only bring out the 4 season monster when it’s truly extreme weather conditions. It’s important that the handlebar doesn’t feel too heavy or steering will become tricky and tiresome.

A backpack is a perfectly good option when you’re just starting out or tackling exceptionally technical terrain. You almost certainly have (or can borrow) a backpack, which can mean a ride is on the cards this very weekend.

Plonk anything in here like bulky clothes and waterproofs. Some just like to use it for water. Try to keep it light though as you’ll notice it after just a few hours into your bike ride. When you’re ready, transition away from a backpack to more specialised bags to avoid the sweaty achy mess.

Stem bags, sometimes called feedbags, sit just behind your handlebar next to the stem (obviously). They are great for storing snacks but also make a great home for water bottles and small electronics.

alpkit stem bag on road bike

Similar in functionality to the stem bag, the top tube bag is a great holder for phones, cameras, and snacks. Mine has a clear waterproof top making it the perfect place to keep my mobile when I’m navigating/getting us lost.

camelbak bum bag fanny pack for bikepacking

Bum bags (or fanny packs) are a bikepackers best friend. Especially if you’re into photography. I can't even count the number of times I missed a great shot because my camera was tucked away deep in a frame bag. You’ll also look rather fetching so don’t be shy. Phone, wallets, and valuables are also great to keep here as they remain attached to you when you dismount your noble steed.

Water bottle cages are a godsend for bike-packing. You want to use all available space in bags for things other than water bottles, which can be kept elsewhere. Avoid ones which sit between the frame as this is where your frame bag will sit (if you’ve got one).

Instead, attach the water bottle to the underside of the frame. Just be aware that when tackling muddy routes your pristine water bottle will emerge utterly caked in brown stuff, so keep the top covered.

Other spots for water bottles include the handlebars. A genius bit of kit is the stem cap replacement like Alpkit's Love Mud Bheesty. Other models are available too but this one comes well rated.

alpkit bikepacking bags top tube and handlebar roll bag on gravel bike

Another ninja move by the accomplished bike is the addition of Salsa Anything Cages. They attach to the front fork and can house water bottles or bags to put kit in.

Salsa (as well as the usual suspects like Alpkit and co.) make special bags for these cages like the Salsa Anything Cage but as ever you can be resourceful and fit a dry bag if you want to save the cash. Just be careful of your forks.

For your first outing try just the following to get a taster - daypack (light and bulky things), dry bag lashed to a rear rack or seat post (heavier stuff and clothing), handlebar bag lashed to…the handlebars (tent, sleeping pad and bag), and water bottle cages.

For a more advanced set up consider - a large seat bag, handlebar bag, frame bag, top tubes, gas tanks, stem bags, potentially a day bag, and water bottle cages.

A quick word on panniers (I know, blasphemy in the minds of some purists). Panniers aren’t necessary for shorter trips but become increasingly valuable on a longer bike tour. Still, the giant Ortliebs can be avoided if you like, instead opting from something like Revelate Nano’s which are a great option for extended bike travel. Not only are they smaller but a lot lighter on a litre for litre basis.

Panniers do require a rack. Something durable is essential on a long off-road bike ride.

revelate bikepacking bags in bikepacking bike - frame bag, roll bag, panniers

What gear do I need for bikepacking? The bikepacking kit list

Like a lot of advice in this guide, the answer depends on context - trip length, type, conditions, time of year.

Before we kick off there are two fairly vocal camps in the bikepacking kit space (and outdoor kit more generally). Those who tell you that you shouldn’t spend a penny on any new gear, and it’s pointless to ‘waste money on expensive kit'. And those who tell you that you need to purchase all the latest ultralight top of the range stuff before leaving your front door.

Walking the middle path will get you to a happy medium. It’s true that you don't need to go out and blow big wads of cash on the newest shiny gear but there are benefits to having lighter and more durable kit.

This shouldn’t stop you though as it’s possible to do it truly on a shoestring, and for shorter trips, gear becomes increasingly irrelevant - bin bag waterproofs and your old school bag ahoy.

Many of us get super stoked on the idea of buying new kit - ohhhh look at that shiny seat bag. But it will burn a hole in your wallet pretty sharpish if you go all guns blazing (which may be fine for you).

For the rest of us, keep in mind that Facebook Marketplace (and anywhere else you can buy second-hand mountain biking and camping gear) is your friend here. Not only does it save the bank account but more importantly reduces demand for new products and therefore resources required to make them.

Whilst we're on it, did you know that

"growing just one kilo of cotton takes as much as 20,000 litres of water to produce? And 2,700 kilos for one t-shirt?” Rebecca Smithers - The Guardian

The World Economic Forum has identified water scarcity as one of the top ten global risks over the next 10 years.

Buy second hand whenever you can. Onwards!

What is the best bike for bikepacking?

Almost every guide online will tell you that the best bikepacking bike is the one you already have. And that is kind of true but the best bikepacking bike is actually the one that is most suited whatever it is you're trying to do. If you have a penny farthing, you aren’t going to break any records, but you might have a lot of fun going from A to B.

I get the sentiment though, and that’s very true, don’t feel like you can’t go on a bikepacking adventure just because you don’t have a fancy pants mountain bike. And don’t go and spank cash you don’t have on a specialised bikepacking bike because you think it will make you a better biker. Unless of course, that’s what you choose to spend your hard-earned cash on. Just know it’s not required.

unusual custom road bike for long distance cycle touring

probably don't choose this one though...not a great choice of bikepacking bike

The first step is to decide what type of bike will best suit your needs.

For single or multi day journeys avoiding the most challenging terrain, a cyclocross bike or gravel bike are a great option and allow you to cover some mega distance.

If you’re going to be hitting more remote and technical riding, and you like the idea of doing long distance, then a mountain bike / bikepacking bike tailored towards bikepacking is going to give you a lot more flexibility. A mountain bike can also be highly tuned to the task. Typically they have a relaxed geometry (ie a fairly upright riding position) making hours upon end of pedalling more comfortable.  You'll want something with disc brakes too.

A few good options include:

  1. Surly Troll - Highly-Versatile, Dirt Road Expedition Touring Bike - best for dirt roads - 26”, braze ons for panniers, rim or discs
  2. Surly Ogre - now we’re talking - this is the 29er version of the Troll and more suited to bikepacking
  3. Trek 1120 - Designed specifically as a bikepacking bike. A beauty.
  4. Salsa Timberjack - Salsa’s answer to Surly’s bikepacking options. A popular choice of bikepacking bike.
  5. Kross Bike Pure Trail 29er - Our bikes - Relatively new on the bikepacking scene but perfect for serious off road mountain biking or bicycle touring. And steel framed (ohhhhh Reynolds 853). Not one mechanical fault on our whole 18 month trip.

Fat bikes

Fat bikes come into their own on sand or snow. They are great fun to ride but are very slow on the tarmac and can be tricky to acquire parts for. For rigid frames (those without suspension), opt for nice wide tyres (3”+) which dampen some of the vibrations of mountain biking off-road. As far as bikepacking bikes go, a fat bike is certainly a great option if the conditions dictate.

Surly fat bikes with bikepacking bags - great for mountain biking

Cheaper options for bikepacking bikes

For a cheaper option, mountain bikes from the late 90’s such as the Specialized Stumpjumper or Trek830 can be transformed into great bikepacking bikes / bicycle touring machines by adding modern componentry. Keep in mind that mechanical disc breaks are fantastic for more technical and steep terrain. Thank you to Neil and Harriett Pike for this tip.

Tyre size - 26, 27.5 or 29er

Nobby Nick 29er mountain bike tires

A mountain can be made out of a molehill here. They all just relate to the size of the tyre.

26ers are standard and easy to find parts for abroad.

27.5ers are the least common but offer the benefits of a slightly bigger wheel.

29ers are increasingly found on mountain bikes / bikepacking bikes. They are better able to deal with bumps, have less rolling resistance (making your job a little easier), and are great for the taller ones amongst us. More on this over at Schwalbe.

Saddles

As long as it’s comfy, it’s a good saddle.

If you aren’t used to mountain biking long distances for many hours like this though, you might find that your saddle isn’t up to the job (especially off road, cycle touring on tarmac can be more forgiving).

Brooks saddles lead the way in long-distance touring. They are made from high-quality leather and last a lifetime. The B17 is the normal go-to.

They do however require breaking in over a good few hundred miles before moulding to the shape of your backside. This can be rather unpleasant and is another great thing to do before setting out on a big trip. Vaseline anyone?

We personally chose to save a few hundred quid though and just bought two pairs of cycling shorts instead of a fancy saddle. It worked like a charm and I had no problems with it.

At $5 a day each in Central America, this made a material difference to our trip.

Always frame purchases like this. Do I really need this? If I didn’t buy it, how else could we use the cash? Extra days on the road always trump fancier kit.

A few other tips on bikepacking kit

Do take a repair kit when bikepacking

  • Multi-tool
  • A decent pump like the Topeak Mini Morph. This is what we used and found it to be excellent. On sale at time of writing.
  • Chain breaker
  • Spare tubes (even when running tubeless. It gives you one more life)
  • Disc brake pads
  • Chain lube (dry or wet depending on weather)
  • Links
  • Zip ties (always come in handy)
  • Tyre levers
  • Tyre patching kit inc. tyre plugs (for larger holes). We use this one.
  • Tubeless tyre sealant (Stans works great)


ALWAYS take a first aid kit when bikepacking

  • Iodine for sterilisation
  • Steri-strips (easy stitches)
  • 1 large Bandage
  • 2 large Non-adhesive dressing (cut to size)
  • Sterile swabs (cleaning wound)
  • Waterproof plasters
  • Antibiotics (if abroad and remote)
  • Emergency blanket
  • Ibuprofen (Less important. Can be purchased along)
  • Tweezers


Other bits and bobs for bikepacking

  • Bring a lightweight bike lock on longer trips that warrant it. Some don’t bother but having had a bike stolen in Mexico I always do. We use Kryptonite
  • Use a helmet. It doesn’t need to be fancy, just safe. Here's a twenty-something quid jobbie that would be fine
  • Bring a water filter. The Sawyer mini-filter is an exceptionally good choice and what we use personally. But it does get clogged after a while so keep the syringe to clean it
  • Use straps, not bungees

How to choose bikepacking bags?

As ever, the first port of call should be Facebook Marketplace or anywhere you can buy second-hand bikepacking bags. It can be a cost-effective way to build out your bikepacking setup.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for though, there are a number of excellent brands who supply bikepacking bags.

mountain bike with revelate bikepacking bags - seat pack, top tub, frame bag, roll bag

Anything by Revelate Designs (what we use) or Apidura is very likely to be a good bet. Alpkit gear provides a cheaper alternative but still offer quality. They are a UK based company and provide almost any outdoor goodies you could wish for. Certainly worth checking out. They even have their own range of bikepacking bikes.

You can also choose to get custom made bikepacking bags for your bike tour. This is a good option if standard sized bikepacking bags don’t fit (usually the tube bag), or you want something with an extra bit of pizzazz. Although they don’t come cheap, so beware.

Sleep systems for bikepacking

We’ve covered this in detail in our wild camping guide so take a look at the camping equipment recommendations there afterwards but here’s a quick summary for now.

Tent vs hammock vs bivvy vs tarp

  • Midges, creepy crawlies, and bad weather puts some off bivvies and it is possible to find very lightweight tents
  • Bivvying feels the most adventurous and sleeping under the stars (when it’s not pissing down) is unparalleled
  • Tarps are a good idea to pair with your bivvy, especially in the UK
  • Hammocks can be bliss but require trees so can limit your options
wild camping under the milky way stars

Bikepacking Sleeping bags

  • Down packs down smaller and is lighter than synthetic alternatives, although is more expensive and is useless when wet (unless you opt for the hydrophobic option, which is considerably more expensive)
  • We use the Teneqa 850 by Cumulus - great for the depths of winter here in the UK or on long expeditions
Cumulus Teneqa sleeping bag

Sleeping pad or sleeping mat

  • Choose an inflatable pad or mat over a roll mat
  • There are many differing opinions when it comes to the most important bits of camping equipment to buy first. Personally, I think it’s worth getting your mitts on the best inflatable sleeping pad / mat you can and even prioritising that over a ridiculously good down sleeping bag. Obviously, in an ideal world, you’d have both. But down requires loft to insulate. When you squash the down (by lying on it for example) it loses most of its warming properties. You, therefore, want a decent sleeping mat to offer that insulation. I’ve slept pretty well with just warm clothes on a good sleeping mat and terribly in a top of the range sleeping bag on an awful roll mat. Inflatable sleeping pads / mats also pack down much smaller and can be a lot lighter than roll mats too.
  • Thermarest and Sea to Summit both provide great options
  • We’ve used pads from both and are currently loving the Comfort Plus Insulated Air by Sea to Summit. It is truly a magical bit of kit and has performed well in all weather conditions.


Whilst we’re on it, one thing to note is that wild camping ie camping outside of a campsite is technically illegal in the UK other than Scotland, and a couple of other spots (inc Dartmoor). When possible, you should seek permission from the landowner but in reality as long as you’re respectful and leave the place as you found it, you’re unlikely to have any trouble. See our guide to wild camping for more.

Cooking and eating equipment for wild camping when bikepacking

As with all gear go as light as you can comfortably afford.

Pots and pans

The latest and greatest pots and pans are made from a hard-anodized alloy (like the Sea to Summit Alpha 2 Pot Cook Set that we personally use). And whilst most pans, dishes, and cups will do just fine, it’s helped us saved valuable weight.

The double pot combo allows us (well anyone who I may be biking with) to cook up a right old feast.

Stoves

The two main options here are multi-fuel stoves and disposable gas canisters.

Multi-fuel stoves such as the MSR Whisperlite or Primus are a fantastic option, especially abroad when finding white gas may be tricky.

Disposable gas canisters, whilst portable, aren’t as green and can be hard to find. They can also struggle when it’s very cold out so be wary if that’s your only means of cooking and you’re headed up to the Arctic Circle.

Jetboils and the like certainly have a place and are fantastic for shorter trips, especially when you have a boil-in-a-bag or just want a few cups fo tea.

Is bikepacking safe?

Before letting your imagination run wild, keep in mind that most people just want to carry on with their own business, some people want to be your mates, and very few people (or animals) want to do you any harm.

If you want to do something dangerous, try Weatherspoons on a Saturday night around closing time or even a Monday morning commute into the city on your road bike, racing the busy traffic and impatient Uber drivers.

That might sound flippant, but the stats support it. Nearly three and a half thousand cyclists were killed or seriously injured in the UK in 2016, with the majority of those in busy cities.

Sleeping out on a hill however is probably one of the safest places you can spend the night. Just watch out for those killer squirrels…

If you’re nervous, go with a friend.

Additional precautions should be taken in more dangerous countries and places where wild animals pose a threat. Although neither of these should stop you completely. Remember to check the weather conditions before any trip.

Your first night out can be a little daunting for some though. If that's you, why not come along on one of our bikepacking adventures over on our adventures page.

Maria polish cyclist

Where to go bikepacking in the UK?

This wonderful little island has plenty of great bikepacking routes, many of which involve wild camping.

Also, keep an eye out for bikepacking routes with bothies along the way. A bothy is a building offering shelter to passers-by. Most of them are found up in Scotland. You can’t book them and must be willing to share with whoever else has rocked up that night. Remember to leave it better than you found.

Some of the best bikepacking routes in the UK include:

The GB Divide - The GB DIVIDE bikepacking route runs the length of Britain, linking its wild places with its rich industrial past.

  • 1,200 miles
  • Multi day - 15 days
  • 55% unpaved

Highland Trail 550 bikepacking route - explores 550 miles of the most rugged and remote terrain in the Scottish Highlands.

  • 550 miles
  • Multi day -14 days
  • 50% unpaved

Bikepacking Exmoor and Quantock Hill  - This laid back loop in Southwest England is a perfect late summer escape.

  • 114 miles
  • Multi day - 4 days
  • 50% unpaved
  • 30% singletrack

Bear Bones Bash Bikepacking Route  - Mid Wales -  230km loop through remote and sparsely populated Mid Wales.

  • 145 miles
  • Multi day - 4 days
  • 60% unpaved
  • 10% singletrack


Other goodies include the Bear Bones Bash and the Trans Cambrian Way.

Head over to Bikepacking.com for more epic routes and inspiration for bike travel.

How much water do I need for bikepacking?

One question that often pops up is how much water do I need for bikepacking?

Again it depends on the length of the trip, the terrain, the temperature outside, the availability of water along the way, and how much you’re planning to exert yourself.

For a bog-standard day out in the UK, you’d be ideally looking to gulp down about a litre per hour on a regular day and about a litre and a half on a very hot day. But less will do.

Take a water filter to save cash and eliminate unnecessary plastic. More on that in the gear section.

One of the more challenging points of our 18-month trip was tackling the most remote section of the Baja Divide off-road biking route through the Mexican desert.

We were both a bit sick (5 tacos for a dollar might say something about the quality of the ingredients, but needs must) and so moving pretty slowly in what already is a very tough environment.

street food mexico

We were facing a 4-day stretch without resupply, it was 40 degrees C out (104 Fahrenheit), and there was not a tree in sight for an ounce of shade. It made for the most magnificent experience and I can only liken it to what I imagine cycling on the moon would be like (except much hotter) and no bodies of water could be counted on for filling up along the way.

We stocked up with 3 litres each per day for 4 days. That’s 12 litres of water as extra weight on the bike, along with everything we needed for a lengthy expedition. At 1 kilo per litre, this was another 12 kilos to lug through the punishing sand. Brutal.

On top of this, our tyre clearance didn’t allow for anything wider than a 2.25” tyre. Not ideal in deep sand. A minimum of 3” is usually recommended.

After an impossibly long day of spinning our wheels (literally) in the baking sun, we learned that going to sleep hungry isn’t too bad. But going to sleep thirsty after 10 hours in the saddle, knowing you’ve for another 3 days to go is one of those formative experiences which we wouldn’t wish to repeat anytime soon.

It did, however, do what bikepacking does best though, and give us an appreciation of the little things. And made for a good story in the pub, so on balance was well worth it.

Lesson learned. When possible, bring enough water. If not, hunker down and put up with it knowing 'what doesn't kill you...' and all that.

What to do in an emergency when bikepacking?

Heading out to your local trails is unlikely to go too horribly wrong. The further away you are from civilisation though the more important it is to have a plan. Some parts of Scotland, Snowdonia, and the Lakes can find you pretty far away from help.

Have a plan so you know what to do if things go pear-shaped. Prevention is always better than treatment but sometimes things do just go wrong.

Being able to contact emergency services is probably the single most important factor. Having at least one mobile phone is a must. Ideally, bring along one of those old indestructible pre-smartphone phones as well. The battery lasts forever and they are super durable. And, you can also play Snake whilst waiting for first responders.

Calling for rescue should only be done as a last resort ie when there is no other chance of rescue, or when death or loss of limbs is imminent. That is time to contact the emergency services.

The problem with mobiles though is that you need service to ring 999, something you often don’t have in the remote countryside. That’s where Personal Locator Beacons (PLB’S) and Satellite Messenger’s come into their own.

Whilst they don’t work everywhere, they do increase your chances of alerting Emergency Services to let them know you need help.

Spot Devices are one of the most popular choices (and what we personally use) but there are others on the market. You can also message close friends and family a pre-populated message letting them know that you haven’t been eaten by bears. Yet.

When far from help, always have a backup option and don’t push it too far.

Bikepacking tips - things I wish I knew before our trip

Most importantly - Bike your own bike. Do whatever feels right to you. It’s not a competition, unless you’re racing, in which case it is, and so start pedalling and stop enjoying yourself.

  • For a bigger trip, build up your fitness and test your gear on practice rides. It’s not essential but I wish we’d done it. Just like school, everyone’s determined to outdo each other with how little prep they have done for the upcoming test. But preparing for a trip can add to the excitement, prevent injuries which will balls up your plans no end. It also allows you to get used to your kit and hopefully prevent any major disasters.
  • Nerd alert - use colour coded dry bags to store different types of kit - clothing, kitchen, etc.
  • Travel as slowly as possible if your biking for travel
  • Cycle at a faster cadence (in a lighter gear) than usual to save those knees
  • Control your speed on the downhills, more weight means you’ll pick up speed quickly and it can be hard to stop, turn quick enough, especially when forced onto the road
  • Invest in a decent sleeping pad - a good place to spend money
  • Sit a little more upright than normal - better for the views and the neck
  • Give the dynamo as miss. Save the cash and just take a power bank for recharging electronics. Use a head torch as a front light.
  • Go tubeless
  • Let some pressure out your tyres on sandy surfaces for better float and rocky surfaces for a more comfortable ride
  • Remember go light. It’s part of the experience and your knees will thank you later on the uphill
  • Take a bivvy over a tent when possible. It’s not just the weight but the whole experience that changes
  • Be more efficient, especially for longer trips. Pack as much as you can the night before so you have less to do in the morning. Skip breakfast and cycle a few hours before it gets hot and busy or make sandwiches the night before
  • Separate tasks if you’re with others like cooking and setting up camp
  • Don't use a backpack unless you really need to - sweaty and achy
  • When someone says 'nice rig’ that’s a bikepackers term for nice bike set up, not a compliment on the chest
  • Prepare yourself for when shit hits the fan or your socks...
  • Just do it
Cabin with two bikes

Your first bikepacking trip

Start by using what you own and picking a short (20-50 mile) overnight route near home

  • Don’t do what we did and start with a trip from Alaska to Panama and end up in hospital after 2 days
  • Start small
  • Do a day trip, don’t cook (keep it light), stay in a hostel or BnB
  • Remember to be respectful of those you’re sharing the trail with
  • For longer trips remember this sage advice from Pip Stewart. ‘Remember. Enjoy it. Even this shit bits’. Before the trip, she imparted this bit of timeless wisdom to me. I didn’t really understand what it meant until nearing the end of the trip but it became seemingly more profound as the months went by. Even when its driving rain and you’re p*ss wet through, you’ve forgotten the bag with all the food in at the last camp, and you’ve just encountered the third flat of the day, there is something magical about travelling by bike, even if it’s just for the weekend. You aren’t doing it because it’s inherently pleasurable or relaxing. You’re doing it to break up the mundane routine of everyday life, to inject some passion and emotion into your too few days here on this beautiful rock. 'To front only the essential facts of life' as Thoreau said. You’re doing it for the stories you can relive with your mates. You’re doing it to really experience what it means to live.

Go forth and get muddy

You now know everything you need to get yourself out on an epic bikepacking adventure - big or small, near or far.

We’ve only done our job if you this into practice though.

So please do get out there and experience the great things bikepacking has to offer.

If you still feel like you’d like to build your confidence before heading out on your lonesome, or you just fancy joining a like-minded bunch, come along to one of our bikepacking weekends over at our adventures page.

Bikepacking FAQ quickies

What is bikepacking?

Bikepacking is a fusion melding the best parts of mountain biking with ultralight backpacking. Special bikepacking bags are strapped to the bike allowing for long distance multi day trips.

What to pack bikepacking?

A helmet, tent or bivvy, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, first aid kit, water bottles, suitable clothes, repaid kit, GPS, paper map, food, cooking equipment, phone, toothbrush, camera, battery pack

How to pack for bikepacking?

Distribute weight evenly. Frame bag - heaviest items - cooking equipment, electronics, repaid kit. Seat pack - food and clothes (tighly folded). Handlebar roll bag - tent poles, sleep system. Stem bag - snacks/phone


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