Bikepacking 101

In Bikepacking How To by Brian Raines

What is Bikepacking?

The idea of bikepacking combines backpacking with cycling.  Everything you need is typically carried by bike – food, clothing, shelter, and camping equipment.  There are many trip types including overnighters (or sub-24 hour overnights), multi-day trips (3-4 days), and day trips and special events.

A typical bikepacking day for my cycling club consists of 35-40 miles of riding at an average pace of 8-10 mph. It should focus on a very casual pace and stop frequently (as often as every 5-7 miles) and spend extended downtime during these stops (from 20 minutes to an hour).

The Bike

Just about any bike will do – old or new. Ride what you have with the gear you have!

Racks, Panniers, Bags and More

Frame bags, racks and panniers – don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t do.  Ride what you have – the important thing is to get out there if it is something you want to do. In my club, the most common setup is simply a rear rack and panniers but many purists stick with frame bags, front rolls and “rocket” style seat bags.  You can strap larger gear such as your tent to the top of the rack and stow other gear inside your bags.  Adding front racks to expand your carrying capacity and to balance the load along the entire length of the bike is a good idea.  Tow behind trailers are another option (both 2 wheel and single wheel options are available).  You can further extend what you can carry by adding frame bags, handlebar bags, and seat post bags.  Just be mindful to not get carried away and attempt to bring too much weight.  It’s time to tinker!

Camping

Light weight camping equipment and gear is important.  Tents vary drastically with regard to quality, durability and price.  The key is balance weight, cost, and size to your personal preference.  In the summer months you may be able to get away without carrying a sleeping bag and opt for a sheet.  But one item you should consider essential is a sleeping pad.  There are many types but their main purposes are to insulate you from the ground and provide a comfortable sleeping platform.  Many campers opt for hammocks during the warm weather months.

Don’t forget some comfort items – backpacking chairs and collapsible coolers can be well worth the carrying weight.  And always remember first aid and the ability to charge your portable devices with a USB battery pack.  You can find a checklist of camping equipment on REI.com.

Clothes

You need to consider clothes for biking (YES bike shorts with chamois are important!), clothes for camp, rain gear if the weather is unpredictable, and cold weather gear as well.  It’s best to be prepared for rain and for temperature swings than to find yourself lacking. Dry socks and a second pair of shoes – and I strongly recommend some shoes that can get wet and stay secured to your feet (not sandals).  The river is calling on the C&O but it’s rocky.

TIP: Pack your clothing in a Ziploc space bag or a dry sack to both compress your gear and to keep it dry.

Cooking

Probably the easiest food option is dehydrated meals.  By adding hot water from a Jetboil or heated in a pot over a compact cook stove you can have a hot meal in minutes.  These are easy to “doctor” up as well with hot sauce, cheese, or my favorite an avacado.  Oatmeal with granola for breakfast along with some hot tea or instant coffee is perfect as well with the Jetboil.

But that is far from your only option.  We have seen steak and eggs, bacon, french onion soup, and more.  Simply search the web for backpacking recipes and your eyes will be opened to the possibilities.

So whether you go for time savings or go all out for breakfast, lunch and dinner it’s all about your preference.

On many trips we will encounter lunch locations or even dinner locations, but be cautious not to depend upon these as sometimes it is hard to plan the timing.  Or they might just not be open (prime example – Bill’s Place in Little Orleans on the C&O – “we are open when we wanna be”).

Carrying snacks is also recommended – trail mix, nuts, beef jerky, rice cakes (my new favorite!), M&M’s, etc.

Water availability is also important to consider.  Not all trails have water available so the ability to carry water needs to be addressed.  Along the C&O Canal towpath there are well pumps approximately every 5 miles that are treated with iodine.  Carrying some water flavor enhancer or additive is smart if you find the taste of treated water unpleasant.  On the Pine Creek Rail Trail there is limited water and we are required to draw the water from the creek and filter it.

We practice “Leave No Trace” so whatever we pack in that can’t be burned in the fire gets packed back out.  Carrying a large Ziploc bag for trash is smart.

Trip Types

A “Through Route” starts in one location and ends in another so we need to address transportation and logistics.  A “Loop Route or Out & Back” begins and ends in the same location so logistics are easier to address.  Our overnight trips are Out & Back routes and many times are less than 24 hours.

We utilize a broad range of campgrounds from public lands (hiker biker sites on the C&O Canal towpath which are free) to private campgrounds that may cost several dollars per camper.  These logistics are typically worked out during the trip planning.

Day trips are also a great way to enjoy the trails at a leisure pace with something like lunch or a brewery tour stop on the other end.

Mid-Atlantic Trail Examples

These are some of my favorite trails but the Mid-Atlantic region is full of new opportunities and we are adding new destinations every year.