7 Tips for Better Bikepacking
A primer for getting out on multi-day trips based on our editor’s nine-day, 850-mile traverse of the Arizona Trail
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Bike touring is making a comeback, but it goes by different names these days: randonneuring on the pavement, and bikepacking on dirt. The gear is evolving, too, as featherweight camping setups have allowed for more minimal hauling options, and trail riding has dictated the need for svelte frame packs rather than panniers. Niche companies such as Revelate have been serving the small contingency of us who have been doing this for a decade or more, but an increasing number of big brands, including Blackburn and Ortlieb, as well as Salsa, Surly, Rocky Mountain, Diamond Back, Moots, and even Specialized, have also begun tailoring equipment that lets you get out for days at a time.
With more riders taking to the trails for overnight trips, I get lots of questions about how to do it, what to carry, and all the minutiae and practicalities. It’s not quantum physics or anything that difficult, but the truth is that little things can make a big difference in success and enjoyment. A few weeks ago, I spent nine days riding the length of the Arizona Trail, a predominantly singletrack route that traverses from the Mexico border to Utah. With detours and town stops, I covered 858 miles, including the 21-mile, rim-to-rim passage of the Grand Canyon through which riders must carry their bikes on their backs. I wasn’t racing, but my goal was to go fast and light in order to maximize my enjoyment (and not miss too much work).
What follows are a few suggestions I came up with on the trail. There are no rules, and I’d encourage everyone to experiment and find systems that work for them. But these tips might inform your expeditions and—hopefully—make the experience more fun.
When riding long miles (I averaged 12 hours moving each day, with several days as long as 18 hours) and pushing big climbs (like the 6,000-foot ascent of Mt. Lemmon), the less you carry, the happier you’ll be. Lightweight gear is definitely a plus. But even more important is simply nixing items you don’t need.
Sure, hot food tastes good, but a stove, fuel, and cook set adds bulk, so you might be better served by stopping for cooked meals at restaurants along the route and making do with cold food (burritos, sandwiches) at night. Likewise, choose the least bulky, most versatile clothing you can—arm and knee warmers as opposed to tights and a long-sleeve jersey, or a waterproof vest that can replace a raincoat. Don’t scrimp on things you need, but aim to carry nothing extraneous. For me, the mark of a successful trip was arriving home and realizing that I used every single thing I carried, but didn’t want for anything else.
With so much gear in such small quarters, it’s easy to lose things and get overwhelmed by all the stuff. I’ve seen bikepackers spend hours futzing with equipment on the trail—searching for something they know they brought, organizing over and over again, constantly stopping and starting because they can’t remember what went where—all at the expense of time and riding. The best way to save time and frustration is to build systems, organize gear by when and how it will be used, and (as per above) bring less.
On this trip, my sleep kit and warmies went in my seat bag, which never got opened except at night. My tools and spare tubes stowed in the frame bag (except a multi-tool and lube, which were readily accessible on my pack belt strap). Electronics, including batteries, cables, chargers, and iPod, went in the gas tank bag, while personal items, such as sunblock, lens cleaner, painkillers, and eye-drops, stowed in the seat post top-tube bag. Snacks in the feed bags kept me fueled while riding, and my backpack was reserved for additional food and water, as well as the few things I might need throughout the day, including warmers and a rain coat.
As with loading a pack for hiking, where you carry weight can really affect how your bike handles. The best place for carrying is inside the frame’s front triangle, as the weight is centered and keeps the bike planted—I like to put heavy tools and tubes here. Bags on top of the top tube are also fairly neutral, though they can make it more difficult to mount and dismount your bike. A seat bag is a great spot for bulky items like sleeping bag and extra clothes, while a bar bag is a nice counterbalance to that, but can really change the way your bike rides. I’ll often carry a tent and sleep kit up front if I’m riding mostly dirt roads, but for technical trail rides like the AZT, I skip the front bag as it impedes bike handling.
Choose a Small Gear
If you only make one modification to your bike for touring, install smaller gearing. With the added weight, a smaller than normal granny gear will likely mean the difference between being able to ride and lots of hiking and pushing your bike. Before I began loading, my Trek Fuel EX 9.9 for the AZT was a feathery 23 pounds. Once packed, that jumped to nearly 36 pounds—and I ran a pretty slim kit. I knew all that extra weight would be tough to haul using the stock, 32-tooth chain ring, so I downsized to a 28-tooth. And though I stuck with the Shimano XTR 11-40 cassette, switching to the 11-42 XT setup would have had me riding more terrain and kept my legs fresher.
This might seem obvious, but I’ve seen lots of riders make the mistake of loading their bikes but neglecting to tweak suspension and tire pressure. Calculate how much extra weight you’re carrying, and up the air accordingly. For instance, between pack, gear, food and water, I estimated that I was carrying around 25 extra pounds, which is about 16 percent of my body weight. To compensate, I increased tire and suspension pressures by about that much. Failure to make these adjustments is likely to end in a poor-handling bike, undue flat tires, and perhaps even crashes.
Minimize or Skip the Backpack
Hydration packs are great because they keep you drinking regularly and also provide a ton of extra hauling capacity. But weight on the back can cause neck and shoulder pain and fatigue, which can transform a fun day into a death march. Aim to put most of your gear on the bike, and bring the smallest pack you can get away with—the more space you have, the more you’ll carry. If you can manage it, skip the backpack altogether and put a hydration bladder into your frame bag instead. For the AZT, I wanted a bag with a good suspension system for strapping and carrying my bike through the Grand Canyon, so I went with a larger-than-normal, 24-liter backpack. But other than that long hike-a-bike section, the pack remained mostly empty except for some water and a little bit of food.
Get a Good GPS
I think it’s fine to make do with anything you already own (versus buying new stuff) and scrimp on gear wherever necessary—except for a GPS. If you are going into the backcountry, this is your lifeline, so getting a reliable unit and knowing how to use it is a must. Choose a GPS that runs off AAs (not an internal rechargeable unit) and always carry extra batteries so that you don’t get stranded. Learn how to upload and follow a course long in advance of your trip (it can be complicated), and if you are going somewhere remote, bring a backup drive with a duplicate course. Also, consider supplemental base maps, such as OnXMaps, which show land ownership and boundaries to make it easy to decide if and where you can camp.
I’m practiced in routefinding, and I still managed to make a wrong turn on the AZT—following the hikers’ route, not the cyclists’—which I didn’t realize until four hours down the trail. Because I had a good GPS, the Garmin eTrex 35t, I was able to quickly make sense of what had happened and plot the quickest return route by shortcutting the trail with some dirt roads. All said, it was a seven-hour time suck in the middle of my final night of riding, but without the eTrex and some good knowledge of how to use it, it could have been much longer as I likely would have had to wait till morning to regain the route.