By Chris Hopkinson
Bikes are ace aren’t they? Even with the technological advances of today they are still the most primitive form of mechanical transport I know of. I think it’s safe to say I like bikes and, ergo, I like riding bikes. However, as much as I enjoy using a bike as transport on the roads and cycle paths around town it’s not what I like to do for fun. At risk of upsetting the “roadies” amongst us I find riding mile after mile of tarmac dull, uninteresting and tedious. That’s where mountain biking comes in, mountain biking is by far my favourite of the cycling disciplines. Now the manicured man made single-track of a good trail centre has me whooping and a hollering with the rest of the crowd but it’s not really where my heart lies, what I really love is the big sky, middle of nowhere adventure feeling of riding “off the beaten track” natural trails. On a good day I could ride this stuff forever without getting tired or bored but at the end of the day the ride has to end and it’s time to go home. So what do you do if you don’t want the ride to end? You don’t want to go home? Well the simple answer is don’t go home and that’s where bikepacking comes in.
So what is Bikepacking?
In its purest form it’s backpacking with a bike. But the term is a relatively new word to describe what is essentially off road cycle touring. The recent boom in the popularity of bikepacking is undoubtedly linked to the giant leaps and progress made in the field of lightweight camping equipment. Riders have been freed from the shackles of heavy equipment and can now carry everything they need for an overnight trip without diluting their riding experience, meaning that trails that were once thought of as unrideable when laden down with front and rear panniers full of bulky, heavy kit can now be ridden with the aforementioned whooping and a hollering during a bikepacking trip. In an effort to keep the load light and manageable bikepackers like to keep pack sizes as small as possible and so have developed a cut throat attitude to what gets packed and what is left behind. Weight is a serious issue meaning the cutting down of long toothbrush handles and drilling holes in cutlery is common place in the ongoing quest to lose that extra gramme. As well as lightweight equipment the way bags are loaded has changed. Metal racks add weight and are prone to breaking over rough terrain forcing the experienced bikepacker to find evermore advanced rackless pack systems. There’s a growing array of packs designed to be strapped to the bike at different points, custom made frame bags that fit in your bike frame’s front triangle can be bought, even bottle cages are utilised.
How do I get in to Bikepacking?
Well you’ve already got the bike, get some kit together and get out there and do it! Think about what you’ll need and what you won’t. You’ll be sleeping out in the open so some kind of protection from the elements should be a high priority. At the opposite end of the scale you’re probably not going to die if you can’t take your iPad with you. There’s an essential kit list at the bottom of this page but getting it all together doesn’t have to be expensive. As well as that here are some helpful tips to get you going.
Things break when you are at the furthest point from help. A loaded bike handles differently and things tend to bounce around, stressing seams and load points differently than the designers perhaps thought. Try to keep your equipment and pack system as simple as possible. This will not only help with its durability but also the time it takes you to load the bike.
Why carry a down jacket and a four season sleeping bag? Could you get away with a three season bag and wear your down jacket in bed?
Keep Things Handy
Throughout your day you’re going to be delving into your bags to get food, water, tools, camera’s etc. Try to plan your pack system to keep these items handy and accessible. You don’t want to open the drybag with your sleeping bag inside, in the rain, just to pull out a spare tube buried at the bottom of the bag. Having an order items are loaded and unloaded off your bike can help streamline setting up camp without getting equipment unduly wet
Get The Balance Right
Go for a test ride and make sure you ride your bike around the local park before heading out on the trails. Try different configurations of weight and luggage distributions and see how it affects the handling and carrying of the bike. Make sure there are no straps and fixtures that could work loose and cause you an embarrassing tumble. A local sub-24hr overnight ride, or micro-adventure, makes the ideal test ride
What do I need for Bikepacking?
This list is by no means exhaustive; it contains a run-down of what is a basic kit list and covers the most important stuff. Everyone is different and you may find you want to take extra or have your own ideas about what should be on the list, either way this will give you an idea.
Sleeping Bag – Possibly the most important bit of kit and definitely worth spending money on for a good one. Everybody’s different, some people sleep warmer than others but at least a 3 season bag is recommended.
Bivvy Bag – A lot of people prefer these to a tarp, it’s basically a waterproof bag you put your sleeping bag in.
Basha/Tarp – Some people don’t like bivvy bags, they can get too hot and cause condensation. Tarps are very versatile and can be set up in a variety of ways, they also pack down smaller than a bivvy bag which is important when you’re trying to get all your kit on a bike. Tarps can be quite expensive but ebay is your friend and there’s some very good ex-Army kit about.
Sleeping Mat – for comfort and insulation from the cold ground. Self-inflating mats are good but again you need to think about pack size. A blow up mat will pack down smaller but will need to be manually inflated.
Small Ground Sheet – not essential, especially if using a bivvy bag, but it’s a good idea to have a waterproof layer between sleeping bag and ground.
Lightweight Stove – There’s always an option to eat while passing through towns and/or villages but it’s nice to be able to brew up first thing in the morning. Worth remembering that if you intend to eat at the bivvy site you’ll have to carry food as well.
Cooking Kit – No point having a stove if you nothing to put on it! Good quality 1 man cook sets are available from most camping shops.
Rucksack – Your Camelback Mule will carry a fair bit of kit but you may find you want something a little more substantial, a good idea if it’s waterproof as well.
Dry Bags or Frame Bag – You can buy custom made frame bags that fit in the front triangle of your bike’s frame and they work very well. Most experienced bikepackers use a rackless system and drybags strapped to the bars or seatpost are ideal for this. There is of course the option of using panniers. However, metal racks add weight and have been known to break when riding rough terrain
Woolly Socks and Thermal Underwear – Just in case you get cold at night.
A Small Trowel – for digging toilet holes
Apart from the above you’ll need spare clothes and/or whatever you think you’ll need to get through the trip but remember you’re restricted by size and weight. Some good advice would be to do 1 or 2 single night practice trips before embarking on a bigger adventure.