The Cycle Life

How to Build the Ultimate Bikepacking Rig

Here’s what I used to support an 850-mile backcountry mountain bike trip across Arizona

How to Build the Ultimate Bikepacking Rig

The Trek Fuel EX 29 9.9 kitted out. Photo: JJAG Media

There’s no one right way to bikepack. I’ve seen everything from dirtbags on antique, rigid mountain bikes with hand-sewn packs and sleep kits to yuppies aboard state-of-the-art carbon bikes loaded with the full complement of new gear—and all of them were having a good time. No matter what your setup, I encourage everyone to load up the bike and hit the trail: there’s no greater sense of adventure and freedom.

Personally, I favor the most minimal setup I can get away with, though I prioritize sleeping comfort and warmth. The Arizona Trail, or AZT, which runs the length of Arizona, is particularly demanding to pack for, not only because the riding is often technical, but also because of the huge climate range, which can swing from 100-degree dry heat in the Sonoran desert to 20-degree nights and snow on the Grand Canyon high plateaus.

The kit I carried for my nine-day crossing this year was ultra-light, except for the Osprey Stratos 24 pack, which I chose, despite its weight (2.5 pounds), because of its the metal frame and off-the-back suspension. It was the best small-pack option I could find for the task of carrying 55 pounds of bike and gear on my back while crossing the Grand Canyon on foot. (You can’t ride your bike below the rim.) For courses without that kind of hike-a-bike, I favor the lightweight Osprey Rev series, which has comparable packs that are less than half the weight of the Stratos.

In the end, I was extremely content with my setup, and would make just a few changes if I were to do it again.

The Bike

In past years, when I’ve typically ridden the shorter, AZT300 course, I’ve always chosen a four-inch XC race bike for the lightweight and aggressive position. Given that I expected to be on the bike at least seven days this year, I chose the Trek Fuel EX 29 9.9 for its slacker angles. I will likely never go back to a smaller bike, which is partly a reflection of the continuing improvements in design. Not only is this bike just as light as the best XC rigs (23 pounds), it has more travel (4.7 inches front and rear), a stiffer front end (courtesy of the Fox Float 34 fork), and a more upright position (which was easily more comfortable for the long haul). I credit the bike for allowing me to ride much more of the difficult terrain this year, including a majority of the trail on Mt. Lemmon’s precipitous Oracle Ridge. If I could own just one mountain bike—for everything from day rides to bikepacking and even reasonable tech—this would be the one. Also noteworthy, I’ve had this Fuel EX for over eight months, and without even a basic tune-up since it arrived, it worked flawlessly on this ride—a testament to both the bike and the incredibly durable Shimano XTR drivetrain and brakes.

I did make a number of small modifications from the stock setup. First, I downgraded to a 28-tooth front chain ring for easier hauling (and probably should have upped the rear end to an 11-42 cassette). Though I love riding with a dropper post, I went with a rigid model here, both because it weighs a lot less and because the dropper wouldn’t have worked with the seat bag anyway. I went with a shorter (40mm) stem and wider (810mm) bars to open my chest and ease neck pain, and also added Ergon GS3s for a variety of hand positions. Most importantly, I switched to Maxxis Ikon 2.35 EXO tires, which are fast rolling but extremely grippy, and lightweight but still tough as nails. Despite the brutal, rocky terrain throughout the ride, I didn’t have so much as a burp, much less a tear or flat.

Frame Bag

  Photo: JJAG Media

Because the decision to ride the AZT was last-minute, I couldn’t get a custom frame bag and settled for the Revelate Tangle bag, which didn’t fit perfectly but worked great nonetheless. In it, I had two spare tubes (which I hand-filled with Stan’s sealant, a lighter option than Slime tubes), both a tire and shock pump, and a fairly extensive tool kit. The latter included an air inflator and canister, a 2oz. bottle of Stan’s, chain links, spare cleats and cleat bolts, a rear derailleur hanger, tire plugs, extra spokes, zip ties, duct tape, tire levers, a sewing kit and dental floss for stitching up ripped sidewalls if necessary, and a Leatherman Micra, which I favor for its pliers and blades. The mark of a good trip: In nine days on the trail, I never once opened this bag, meaning the bike worked flawlessly.

Seat Bag

  Photo: JJAG Media

The Revelate Viscacha is the company’s biggest model, and it fit everything I needed for overnighting. I went with the Kuiu Super Down 15 sleeping bag, which is rated to 15 degrees but packs down smaller than a cantaloupe, as well as a Mont-Bell bivy to add warmth and protection from snow and rain. I like to pack the sleeping bag inside the bivy so that the down remains dry, even if I have to ride all day long in the wet. Rather than a typical sleeping pad, I bought a $10 windshield sunshade from Target and cut it to fit, partly because it saved some weight but also because it provided better insulation factor than an air mattress. The only time I wished I’d had more was the night on the North Rim when I chose to sleep on a concrete pad, which was both hard and cold.

Also in here, I carried spare clothes, including an Icebreaker 200-weight long underwear set (for extra protection and sleeping duties), a Patagonia Down Shirt, SealSkinz waterproof gloves (which I layered over my riding gloves on cold nights), and Gore Bike Wear Power Trail shorts (double-duty for inclement weather as well as hiking the Grand Canyon). Finally, a four-liter MSR Dromedary bag provided extra fluid capacity on long, hot crossings, such as the nine-hour trip up Mt. Lemmon and the 65-mile Mogollon Rim passage between Mormon Lake and Pine.

Gas Tank Bag

  Photo: JJAG Media

In the past, I’ve used the Revelate Gas Tank for snacks, but this time I put all of my electronics and batteries in here and stowed snacks in a pair of Revelate Mountain Feed Bags. I worried that the combination might be too bulky, but it worked perfectly. In the Gas Can, I had the battery pack for a Fenix BT20 light (which lived on the bars opposite the Garmin eTrex 35t), an iPod, a $10 Timex watch (so I didn’t have to drain my phone battery for an alarm), and a GoalZero Flip 10, which gave me enough power to recharge my phone twice and iPod once.

I was also loaded with spare batteries: CR123s for the BT20, AAs for the Garmin and Fenix LD22 on my helmet, and AAAs for my SPOT Tracker. This would probably be the only major change I’d make to my kit. Originally, I planned to run a Schmidt Edelux II light powered by a Son28 dynamo hub. It puts out just as much light as the Fenix but it powers off your wheel rotation and so requires no additional batteries. At the last minute, I had to switch bikes because of a fit issue, and the 100mm Son28 hub would no longer work because the Fuel EX uses Boost (110mm) spacing. (To be clear, they make a 110mm version of the Son28, but I just didn’t have time to get it.) I would have preferred the reliability of the self-powered light, as well as the convenience of not carrying (or having to worry about finding) CR123 batteries on the road.

Top Tube Bag

  Photo: JJAG Media

Revelate makes a really nice version of this bag, called the Jerrycan, but I’ve had this Novara Nucleus (or it’s predecessor) for years and decided to stick with it in the name of saving some cash. Truth be told, it worked just fine, fitting all toiletries and personal items and providing quick access with the mesh, Velcro top flap. Two very important personal items to remember: individual-serve Chamois Butt’r, of which I carried eight and wished I’d had more given the long days of chafing; and wet wipes, which are essential for good hygiene.

Backpack and Kit

  Photo: JJAG Media

As noted, the Osprey Stratos 24 is beefier than I’d normally choose, but it was the ideal choice and carried my bicycle, gear, and enough water and food to get me across the Grand Canyon admirably well for its diminutive size. Other than food and fluid, the pack load was minimal: clothes I might need of a day in external pockets (including a Gore Bike Wear ONE jacket, arm and knee warmers, an Assos Rain Cap, and a beanie), a Lezyne CRV 20, lube, and rag in one hip-belt pocket, and my iPhone (for the camera) in the other. I also ran a Spot Tracker Gen III at all times so my family could keep tabs on me.

Kit was straightforward and the very minimum: Assos T.Rallyshorts_S7 bibs, Sugoi RSX jersey (this jersey is my hands-down favorite for long days, but sadly the company has modified it), Specialized Body Geometry Gel Long Finger gloves, and a Craft base layer. I prefer a road helmet like the POC Octal for ultra events because the light weight offsets the heft of a headlamp like the Fenix LD22, which I chose because it produces 300 Lumens and runs on universally available AA batteries. The Specialize Rhyme shoes have to be considered the gold standard of bikepacking as they are plenty stiff for pedaling but also proved comfy and supportive enough for 21 miles of fully loaded hiking. They are tough, too, as this pair is now in its third season of big adventures like this. Finally, the Uvex Sportstyle 700v glasses are my go-to optics because the photochromic glass means I don’t have to carry and switch out between dark and clear lenses at night.

Filed To: Mountain Biking

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