Adventures, Bikepacking, Cycling, Guides, Inspiration, MTB

Bikepacking Basics

My bike handles impressively well considering the amount of kit strapped onto it and my legs haven’t yet protested too much about the extra weight they are hauling up the hill.  I credit the extra zip in my pedal stroke to my growing sense of adventure because, although I am cycling familiar trails, tonight I have no intention of returning home…

Bike, Camp, Repeat…

Bikepacking is the perfect blend of a number of fine ingredients; take a love of riding offroad, add in the wanderlust of the backpacker along with the freedom of the wild camper and finish things with the ‘fast and light’ attitude to equipment of the alpine climber.  The concept has evolved over a number of years and is now firmly established as a popular niche within cycling, but at its heart it remains the simple act of loading your bike up with overnight kit and riding off into the hills.

Although the extra weight is a small burden, adding in an overnight stop can liberate your route planning and loops not readily achievable in a single day can be broken down and ridden.  Trails just beyond your ‘local riding’ can be explored and you can head further into the wilderness without worrying about looping back before dark.  Taking off the shackles leads to a greater willingness to explore and less urgency in your riding, encouraging you to enjoy the trail fully and take in the sights.  The camping itself is an equal part of the experience, with your knobbly tyres able to whisk you quickly away from the trappings of modern living and take you back to a simpler existence, even if just for a night...

Fully loaded bike rolling through…

adding in an overnight stop can liberate your route planning and loops not readily achievable in a single day can be broken down and ridden…

Getting Started

So, how to get started?  Well, as bikepacking has grown in popularity it has gained the attention of the cycle industry who are now producing ever greater numbers of bespoke kit.  However, most outdoorsy people probably already have what they need for a first foray into bikepacking –

The Bike –  The industry might want to sell you a cycle optimised for bikepacking, but the best bike to start with is almost certainly the one you already own.  The beauty of the sport is that the bike needs no special features, so provided your machine is capable of heading offroad you are in business and, although front and rear suspension cycles do work as bikepacking rigs, the fewer complications the better for carrying a load into the wild.

Carrying Stuff –  The more weight you can carry on the bike the less you have on your back so finding ways to load the cycle without ruining the way it handles is the way forward.  Panniers may be popular with bicycle tourers but away from the road they can rattle, catch on trailside obstacles and ruin the handling of the bike.  More suitable for bikepacking are soft bags that can be quickly attached to the frame, handlebars and seat post, spreading the weight without impacting the bike’s profile.  At their simplest these can be a pair of dry bags tightly bungeed onto the handlebar and seat post, but if you get the bug then tailored bags are more secure and can be quite cavernous (Alpkit do an excellent range).  What you cannot fit on the bike simply goes on your back; my first adventures were very rucksack dependent, but now I often don’t wear a rucksack at all.

Camping –  I do not intend to make this article about wild camping as it is clearly a massive area in itself.  What I will say is that bikepacking definitely sits at the fast and light end of the camping spectrum.  Many bikepackers choose a bivvy bag and small tarp which are generally lighter and smaller than a tent, but equally I personally often use my lightweight tent.  Sleeping bag and mat are picked to be on the svelte side and only essential cooking kit and food are taken – this is not the time to break out the 4 piece pan set!  Finally, pack warm and/or waterproof layers but be sparing with the spare clothes; when you are riding along it is very difficult for anybody to detect what you smell like anyway!

Waking to sunrise after a wild camp on a local hilltop…

Biking Essentials –  It is really important to remember that you still need to take the repair essentials that you normally carry on a trail ride, possibly even more if you are heading further off the grid.  If anything, the extra weight on the bike makes mechanical failure more likely and the fact you may be further into the wilds makes any walk back even longer.  So don’t forget the basics to fix a flat, a pump and a cycling multitool that includes a chain breaker, just in case…

Time for an Adventure

With your steed loaded up it is time to head off.  A great first adventure is to keep things really simple and ride out after dinner for a night in the wild with a plan to return home for breakfast, reducing the need to cook at camp and so keeping your kit load light.  This is a perfect way to test your gear choices and bike loading whilst having a fun microadventure.  The ‘where to sleep’ question is a big one, and there are lots of rules and regulations governing where you can legally wild camp, but my experience has been that if you approach the problem with an open mind and plan to arrive late, stay discreet, depart early and leave no trace then there is an abundance of places to sleep for the night, even close to population centres.  Whatever you do, don’t let trying to plan the perfect adventure stop you from getting out and trying

…arrive late, stay discreet, depart early and leave no trace…

When you are happy with your set up the world is your oyster and it is relatively straightforward to build adventures that cover significant distances between any number of nights in the wild.  Equally, just keeping things simple and completing more micro adventures may be just perfect for you.  Either way, be warned – the combination of covering ground easily whilst carrying all you need for a night under the stars is quite addictive and once you discover the joys of bikepacking you’ll be looking for every opportunity to head out on another adventure. 

Big Scottish skies

A version of this article appeared in the Winter edition of the wonderful online Adventures Mag for whom Live2Flow is a regular contributor.

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