Maybe you've seen photos online as you lurk through some forum populated by slightly odd people who make their own gear, pack the barest essentials onto their mountain bike, and head off into the backcountry for a few days, covering huge distances via trail. Perhaps you've actually seen these people as they emerge, dirty, wild-eyed, and fragrant, from your local singletrack. Or maybe you've seen them in your local dive bar, clacking around in bike shoes and a helmet, well after any reasonable hour for dinner has passed, begging the barkeep for something, anything, to eat, because everything else is closed and they need to be on the trail at 3AM. You've been exposed to the genus of bikepackus, which comes in two basic species: racerus - the guy in the bar at midnight saying he'll be riding again at 3AM, and touristus, which is the person who goes out to enjoy the woods and not necessarily to attempt suicide via mountain bike. Many bikepackers belong to both species at one point or another. Either way, you're either repulsed or intrigued, and if you're not intrigued, why are you reading a bikepacking primer?
Overview - What is Bikepacking?
If you enjoy the outdoors, sleeping outside, and mountain biking, you'd probably love bikepacking. There's nothing like starting early, riding all day, watching the sun set from the trail, riding through dark wilderness, pitching a tent or bivy, waking to a frosty sunrise... and then doing it all over again. It's just a pleasant experience. Bikepacking is effectively backpacking with a bike. You're out in the woods for multiple days, but at least one night. As compared to backpacking, bikepacking differs in two significant ways - you're riding, not walking (obviously), which means you can cover much greater distances per day. A huge backpacking day might be 20 miles - a huge bikepacking day might clock in at 100 miles. This is sweet if you want to explore a large area but don't have a week or two off work, or if the pace of walking is just a little slow for you.
The other major difference is that you can't carry as much weight. Traditional backpacking setups (not ultra-light setups) can weigh 40 lbs. There is no way you can mountain bike effectively with 40 lbs of stuff on your bike and back. So if you're going bikepacking, you're committing yourself to the ultra-light ethic, at least to some degree.
Bikepacking also differs from traditional bicycle touring in two major ways: One, the weight issue again - although your bike can easily handle 60 lbs of gear, you can't ride singletrack for long with that kind of weight. Two, traditional touring requires rack-based bag systems - front and rear panniers being the most common way of loading a bike. Bikepacking utilizes rackless bag systems. These bags are generally smaller, less capacious, and more in line with the bike's shape than panniers, thus making narrow trails navigable. There are a few companies that make these bags (more below), and some people make their own.
Below are a few complete bike setup examples:
In contrast with backpacking, as mentioned, bikepacking gear setups must be fairly light. Shoot for under 20 lbs max, not including food/water (and, obviously, the bike itself). Getting that weight down to under 12 lbs is nice, but also really expensive. My 2011 CTR kit weighed in at around 16 lbs. Bikepacking gear can be broken down into several smaller categories: Bike, Bags, Clothing, Shelter, and Extras. We'll check out each one in turn.
Do you have a mountain bike? Yes? Then you're set - at least to give bikepacking a try. If you decide you like bikepacking a lot, you may end up, as with anything, looking for something that will work really well for your purposes. There are no hard-and-fast rules about bikepacking bikes (or anything bikepacking, really). Number one priority - make sure you can trust your bike mechanically. You'll be out in the middle of nowhere, likely with no easy way out. Breaking something would be a pain at best and a dangerous problem at worst. Number two priority - make sure you're comfortable on your bike. Riding around local trails for two hours is nothing like being on your bike for at least several hours a day for multiple days. Beyond these major checkpoints, as far as bike choice goes, simpler is generally better. Many bikepackers prefer hardtails because there's less to break (and incidentally, more room for bags than on most full-sus frames), but a full-suspension can save energy over the long run, just by allowing you to sit down over the rough stuff. Just make sure you keep it maintained thoroughly.
You need some way to carry your gear out there. The less weight on your back, the better - some people can get away with no backpack at all. Most people end up with a frame bag, handlebar bag, seat bag, and a hydration-pack-type bag on their back. Frame bags make use of the space within the frame's tubes. These can be as many different sizes and shapes as there are frames out there... there are basic bags that will fit most frames, and you can order or make custom bags to fit your frame like a glove. Handlebar bags are good for carrying long, thin items - tents/bivys, clothes in a stuffsack, or sleeping bags in some cases. Seat bags generally use the seatpost and saddle rails as anchor points and are good for stuffable items - the tighter they are packed, the less they sway. There are also smaller accessory bags that fit in various places for more capacity. Durango's Bedrock Bags, Alaska's Revelate Designs, and Canada's Porcelain Rocket are three companies that specialize in bikepacking bags. We stock and are partnered closely with Bedrock Bags and we stock Revelate Designs bags (along with Arkel and Jandd bags for more traditional touring).
You have to get this right! Too much will take up all your carrying space and weigh you down; too little will leave you cold, wet, or both, a bad scenario in the backcountry. You want to be able to deal with any and all realistic weather contingencies for the time you'll be out. Think of the warmest you can imagine it being; the coldest; the wettest. One thing you absolutely need is solid rain gear. One thing you don't is multiple changes of clothes. You'll need to determine what you can live with, but it isn't a fashion show out there. You will be dirty, smelly, and yes, you'll have to wear the same pair of shorts multiple times. The importance of rain gear cannot be overstated, unless you live in the Sonoran Desert or something. Get a solid breathable rain jacket. Rain pants are really nice to have (even cheap ones keep you dry and pack small). Waterproofing your hands somehow is good - wet hands get cold! Waterproof gloves can work, but moto-style nylon lobster shells are light, pack small, and keep the wind off too. One thing that won't stay dry no matter what are your feet. Just count on having wet feet when it rains. You can cut your rain pants off about mid-calf - your feet will be wet anyway, and this keeps the pants out of your drivetrain.
What people do for shelter runs the entire spectrum. On one end you have the guy sleeping under a silnylon tarp - on the other you have full-on mountaineering tents. Somewhere in the middle is nice - a 3-season bivy sack, or a ultra-light one-person tent. Most people use relatively light sleeping bags - 20 or 40-degree bags are common for summertime Colorado high-country bikepacking trips. Sleeping pads are good to insulate you from the ground. Reflectix water heater insulation from a hardware store, cut to shape, works well and is very light, if a little bulky. Automobile windshield sunscreens work pretty well too, and are also quite inexpensive!
This is up to you! Definitely bring some tools and spare bike parts along. Obviously you'll want tubes, a patch kit, some tape, a pump and multi-tool. Don't forget chain lube! Think about tire boots, a few spare bolts, spare brake pads, a spare cleat, a spoke? You can't bring one of everything, but you can make educated decisions about what you think you could likely need out there. Having the right mix can mean being able to get out of trouble without being too weighed down. Some folks bring stoves for hot food, or even camping dishes and utensils. A small toiletry kit is essential. A GPS unit you're familiar with is pretty sweet to have, although not a substitute for maps. A small medical kit is a no-brainer, as is a small headlamp. A small taillight and a more powerful headlight are good for more extended trips, or racing, or any time you'll spend a lot of time riding through the woods in the middle of the night (more often than you might think!). We stock small, lightweight lights for just this sort of thing. And with the advent of dynamo systems, we now stock complete, disposable-battery-free lighting and charging systems!
Food is pretty simple. It has to be appetizing, as light as possible, keep well in a range of temperatures, be okay with getting squashed... on second thought, coming up with bikepacking food isn't very simple at all. Here are some tried-and-true ideas: Nuts, dried fruits, bagels, tortillas, PB&J, salami, parmesan, apples (damn the water weight!), Snickers bars, M&M's, granola, etc. If you have a stove you can add all kinds of things to this list - pasta, cous-cous, quinoa, and more. One thing about bikepacking is that given that you have limited space, you have to pop out into civilization for re-supply a bit more often than traditional backpackers, who can trudge along with over a week's worth of food on their back. This also means that you can grab a sub sandwich or burrito when in town, so you get a little break from the trail mix routine.
Water is obviously something you'll need a lot of. You can't carry enough water to get you from town to town, at least in many places. You'll need a water filter so you can take advantage of natural water sources along the way. The MSR Sweetwater is about the size of a mini air pump, pumps quickly, and has always worked for me!
Taking Care Of Yourself
There are three things we're going to touch on here: Pacing, caution, and hygiene.
If you're going to be out riding your bike for a matter of days, you want to make sure you can finish what you started. Obviously you can't just ride along at the pace you would for two or three hours. Slow down, enjoy the scenery, and don't ever let your heart rate get into the red zone. Slow and steady is the way to go!
In the same vein, you probably should be a little more cautious technically than you typically are. It's one thing to clean that tricky section while on a trail in town - and quite another to risk something you're not confident on out in the middle of nowhere. Even if you're riding with someone, it could take a long, long time for help to arrive if you're hurt badly.
Hygiene is the one thing everyone wonders about but few people talk about. You just have to realize the difference between okay dirt and bad dirt. Your body's not going to fall apart if it's covered in mud and sunscreen for a few days. But your nether regions can make it well-nigh impossible to sit down after even just a day or two in the saddle if you don't take care of them, and if bad symptoms go unchecked, you can literally end up in the surgery room. For starters, don't just expect to go out and do an all-day epic if you've never subjected yourself to more than three hours in the saddle. Once you are ready for multi-day trips, make sure to clean yourself up down there every single night before going to sleep. Baby wipes work well for this. Chamois cream works well for some people during the day as a friction reducer. Fall River Botanicals, in Idaho Springs, makes a thin salve called Geronimo that works wonders. Air out your shorts or bottom-half skin contact layer overnight. Your feet are the other place that you'll feel problems arising, especially if you're doing significant hike-a-biking, and even more so if it's raining consistently. Make sure you keep a pair of socks dry at all times, and when you go to bed, clean your feet and put on those socks. Your feet may feel like new in the morning, once out of the wet and abrasive shoes for a while!
Bikepacking routes are whatever you can dream up. Link up that big loop you've always wondered about. But if you're looking for something specific, check out the routes section of bikepacking.net - and while you're at it, take a good look through the rest of that site. Bikepacking.net is probably the best source of bikepacking info on the web, and you can learn a lot just by checking it out once in a while. My personal favorite bikepacking route would have to be the Colorado Trail - Denver to Durango, just under 500 miles, average elevation of 10K, mostly singletrack. Beautiful!
Yes, there are bikepacking races. Virtually anything that's considered a bikepacking race is completely self-supported - no arranged support of any kind. Look up the Colorado Trail Race (CTR), the Arizona Trail Race (AZTR), the Grand Loop, the Coconino 250, and the Tour Divide (mostly gravel and pavement, though), to get you started.
Finally. I thought my hands were going to fall off with all this typing. Time to go ride... stop in the shop if you have any questions or would like to check out some bikepacking gear!