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Simply put, bikepacking is a mix of all-terrain cycling and backpacking. It evokes the freedom of backcountry hiking and travel off the beaten path but with the added range, quicker pace, and thrill of riding a nimble bicycle. Bikepacking involves carrying the essential gear—and not much more—on an off-road-capable bike for an overnight or multi-day ride. That could range from a full load with sleeping gear, a cooking kit, and food for camping to a minimal kit with just the clothing and supplies you need to link shelters or hotels. It’s all about pedaling further into places less traveled, both near and far, via singletrack trails, gravel, and forgotten dirt roads, and connecting with the vast landscapes, welcoming people, and diverse places encountered along the way. If you ask us, nothing else compares to adventure travel by bike.
In this Bikepacking 101 Handbook, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know to get started. You’ll also find curated links throughout, collating useful information from a wide variety of subjects from our 11-year archive, the most comprehensive bikepacking resource on the web. If you’re new to bikepacking, start with the topics below before you dig into all the comprehensive information offered throughout these pages.
Bikepacking versus Bicycle Touring
While the two are quite similar, and can often be used interchangeably to describe the same thing, there are some key differences that set bikepacking apart from bicycle touring—particularly in terms of how we talk about and create routes. The primary distinction is a focus on off-pavement riding.
Bikepacking involves multi-day cycling primarily on dirt roads, trails, and gravel. There are many reasons to prefer off-pavement riding, but a big part of the magic is that cycling on low-traffic and traffic-free routes allows riders to be immersed in the surroundings, the riding, and the experience.
The surfaces used on most bikepacking routes range from smooth gravel to rugged singletrack and from rutted dirt roads to purpose-made cycle paths. Bikepacking routes commonly incorporate a variety of mixed surfaces linked via paved backroads, towns, byways, and rail trails. The beauty of off-road cycling is that it can take on many interesting forms. We’ll dig into the assortment of bicycles and bags made to tackle different types of routes in the next two sections of the guide. In the meantime, here are a few related articles:
A common misconception about bikepacking is that it requires a small fortune to participate: the perfect bike, custom bags, and all the latest and greatest ultralight camping gear. While investing in quality gear is never a bad idea if you plan to use it, it’s not a necessity to get you up and running.
In this Bikepacking 101 Handbook, we’ll cover all the details, gear, bags, and techniques you need to know about. If you’ve never been bikepacking before, start with this seven-step synopsis for how to take your first trip. Keep this in mind as you’re sifting through all the beta on these pages:
Whatever bike you already have will do. Try it out, whether it’s a rigid 90s mountain bike, a gravel bike, a full-suspension mountain bike, or an old hardtail. A bike that’s not specifically designed for bikepacking may not be as comfortable or competent as newer and pricier models, but that shouldn’t hinder you from getting started.
Start by using the camping equipment you own, and don’t go too far down the rabbit hole of lightweight gear. If you don’t have something, try to borrow it from a friend or rent it before buying it new. The same concept about bikes applies here. Fancy ultralight equipment is nice, but don’t let not having it stop you.
Strap stuff to your bars and use a backpack. You don’t need premium bags to try bikepacking; there are plenty of easy DIY options. There’s also nothing wrong with using a small backpack if that’s what you have.
Pick a short loop around 10 to 20 miles (15 to 30 kilometers) near home for a quick overnighter. Use trails or roads that are familiar to you as a trial run, and keep to an established campsite.
Forgo the cooking kit. Pack a tin foil-wrapped burrito or other easy-to-carry meal and your beverage of choice for dinner, and grab breakfast on the way back home. Keep it simple.
Have a bailout option, and plan ahead. Try to keep your first overnighter in a comfortable and familiar zone where you could easily bail if necessary—such as if you forgot something or had an equipment malfunction. Pay attention to the weather and assess the risks before you roll out.
Evaluate what worked and what didn’t after you get home. This can help inform decisions on what gear you want to purchase in the future.
All too often, the image of mountain biking is portrayed with speed, aggressive riding, and destroying land, not savoring it. Bikepacking and the ethos that surrounds it tell a different story and present the opportunity to promote a new vernacular that offsets aggressive imagery with a focus on stewardship and appreciation. With this, we at BIKEPACKING.com think travel by bicycle has the power to encourage conservation, inclusivity, and respect for all people and cultures. We believe in these values and strive to encourage them within our community by curating stories that support the mission, developing comprehensive educational information and resources, and making space for a variety of voices. If you’re new to bikepacking, take a minute to delve into these materials, which are both informative and inspiring:
Revised and expanded in 2023, the Bikepacking 101 Handbook (2nd ed.) required thousands of hours of research, design, and writing, all of which was made possible through the generous support of our Bikepacking Collective members. As with all of our detailed route guides, in-depth reviews, and daily news, stories, and event coverage, this 20,000-word resource is available to the public for free. If you appreciate what we do here at BIKEPACKING.com, consider joining to support our efforts.