So You Want to Try Bikepacking?

Popular trend combines camping with biking
Enjoy the ride and pitch a tent with bikepacking
Enjoy the ride and pitch a tent with bikepacking

Marek Piwnick/Unsplash

Condé Nast Traveler called it the “travel trend” of 2021, and Timeout says TikTokers are “going wild for it.” But it’s not a new dance craze or an exotic island destination—it’s bikepacking, the cycling-camping hybrid that has exploded in popularity over the last several years.

Bikepacking is like backpacking, except instead of carrying all your gear on your back, you carry it on your bike. And it’s a blast. Although if you’ve never lugged all your camping stuff around on your bike before, you probably have a lot of questions: What kind of gear do I need? How much should I realistically spend? Where should I give it a try for the first time?

We talked to a few Minnesota bikepackers to get these nine tips for your first overnight bike trip.

  1. Start small

Is this your first-ever bikepacking excursion? Don’t overdo it. “We live in a city with some of the best trail systems in the country,” says Elena Alsides-Haynes, a co-owner of the Hub Bike Co-op in Minneapolis and an avid bikepacker who has participated in multi-week cycling expeditions including the Tour Divide and Baja Divide. “It’s so easy to ride out to some of our great county and state parks and just do an overnight trip. Carver, William O’Brien—both are easily accessible by trail systems and so beautiful.”

“Keep it realistic,” adds Jeremy Kershaw of Heck of the North Productions, which hosts two annual bikepacking races—the Fox and the Wolf—in addition to single-day gravel races. Just riding 10 or 15 miles to your campsite can give you a feel for what to expect, along with the confidence to embark on longer bikepacking journeys.

  1. Pack smart

When it comes to bags, there are four big ones: frame bag, seat pack, top tube bag, and handlebar bag (or roll). This is how you’ll get your gear—tent or hammock, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, clothing, snacks, water—where you’re going. Down sleeping bags are great because they pack small, and an insulated sleeping pad will help you get a good night’s rest for the ride back. And bring a spare tube, a tire lever, and a multitool just in case.

“Really know your gear, and pack it in the same way every time so you’re never fumbling, constantly trying to remember where you put something,” says Alsides-Haynes. And bring your lights—even if you don’t think you’ll be riding after dark.

Bikepacking gear
Bikepacking gear

Marek Piwnick/Unsplash

  1. Borrowed gear is great

If all you heard reading the prior blurb is “huge credit card statement incoming,” well…you’re not wrong. Getting your rig set up can involve a decent up-front investment in bags and sleeping gear, especially when it comes to the ultra-light, ultra-packable stuff.

The good news is that if you’re a cyclist already, you probably have some of the things you’ll need. And when it comes to the stuff you don’t have, you might know some folks who can help. “If you can find people that already have packs or gear, it’s absolutely OK to borrow the first few times,” Kershaw says. “I mean, I’ve lent my gear out a lot.” Reach out to people you know to see if they have anything they can lend—even a friend of a friend of a friend might be willing. Most people who are serious bikepackers today started exactly where you are, and they’re often happy to help.

  1. Don’t knock credit card camping

Speaking of credit cards: “Credit card camping,” when you don’t bring a stove or cookware and instead grab dinner at a restaurant or bar near your campsite or on the way, is A-OK. “That will save a lot of space and gear,” Kershaw says. “Stove, pots, and food—that takes up a lot of space.” And when you don’t have to worry about cooking, you can focus on getting your clothing and camping gear figured out. (Still, you should be sure to have some snacks with you on your bike.)

  1. Try before you ride

“Always do a shakedown ride,” Alsides-Haynes says, meaning a ride where you put all your gear on your bike—even things like water and food—before you leave for your overnight excursion.

“Even if you’re planning just a short trip, don’t have your maiden voyage and the test run all in the same day,” Kershaw confirms. This is your chance to make sure everything fits, but also to check if there are rattles, or if something is starting to come loose. This is also a good time to make sure your bike fits, is geared well, and is comfortable for you. You’re going to be spending a lot of time in the saddle.

  1. Know your route and take your time

Depending on where you’re riding, cell service might not be great, and Google Maps may not be as reliable as you’re used to. Try to have a really good sense of the directions, know where you’re headed in case you need to ask for help, and consider bringing a print map or finding a GPX file of your route.

Take your time so you’re less likely to miss a turn or get turned around. Besides, taking your time can be part of the fun. Alsides-Haynes hates rushing and recommends: “Stop for cool rocks and pretty vistas.”

  1. Find a friend

Solo bikepacking can be so fun and so rewarding, but it’s also tougher to do. For safety’s sake, it’s good to travel with someone else, especially as you’re getting the hang of things. (Bonus points if you can ride with a friend who has already gone bikepacking before.) That’s twice the bag space, twice the cell phone battery life, and twice as good odds that someone will know when the next turn is coming up.

  1. Dress right

Clothing-wise, Kershaw rarely bikepacks without an ultralight windbreaker, sunglasses, and a neck gaiter or buff, plus a pair of light wool gloves, especially in the spring and fall. “It’s always colder when you’re camping,” he notes. Padded liner shorts will keep you comfy under a pair of whatever other shorts you like, and bring some camping shoes for when you get where you’re going. “I love Crocs for this,” says Alsides-Haynes.

Kershaw also recommends trying your first overnighter in the summer, when warm temps mean you can pack fewer items of clothing and enjoy less intense weather.

  1. Don’t push it

“Expect it to take longer to get to your destination than you think it will.” That’s Alsides-Haynes’s advice, and she’s right. It somehow always does.

Still have questions, or want to learn a little more after tackling your first overnighter? Kershaw recommends, where you’ll find extensive advice, gear guides, and packing hacks that can help you finish your first trip or make some bigger bike plans.