One Question, Five Voices: Advice for New Bikepackers
In the first installment of One Question, Five Voices – our new Q&A series – we ask a group of five experienced riders to offer their best piece of advice for new bikepackers. Find out what our panel thinks you should know before setting off on your first trip…
One Question, Five Voices is a brand new series here on the site, and our goal with it is to gather interesting, diverse panels of experts to tackle a broad range of questions, from practical to philosophical. We hope you’ll be able to take something away from these regular roundups, and we invite you to contribute your insights in the comments below. And so, without further ado, let’s meet our first panel and get into the first question:
What’s the best piece of advice you have for someone who is planning their first bikepacking trip?
Jocelyn Gaudi Quarrell
One of the aspects that I like best about bikepacking is how open ended it is – there is no wrong way to bikepack because there is no “right” way to do it, either. There are so many different types of bikes, camping setups, bags, and gear that work well for bikepacking! The same can be said of the riding, too. Routes can be long or short, ridden fast or slow, and go through towns or right into the middle of nowhere.
So, for someone readying for their first bikepacking trip, my advice would be that they avoid trying to fit into any predetermined style and instead plan an experience that reflects themselves and how they enjoy spending time outside. Consciously decide what challenges to build into the trip or goals to set so that you can use them specifically as an opportunity to learn.
For example, if you love camping but have never camped by bike before, set a goal of trimming down your camping gear to the bare minimum, which will be easier to pack onto your bike. If you’re new to off-road cycling, plan a trip that mixes both paved and unpaved roads so you can challenge yourself to learn how to ride in gravel or through rocks in shorter, more manageable stretches. Also, we should always make it a goal to follow Leave No Trace ethics!
Finally, don’t ever be apologetic for being a beginner. It’s much more relaxing to acknowledge that you’re starting something new so you can allow yourself to have fun with the learning process! Celebrate victories, however minor they seem. Learn what you love best about bikepacking and then bake that special ingredient into future trips, so you’re always hungry for more. And don’t forget to share your love with others, too!
Sometimes, the simplest solution is the best one. Or, at least as good as the complicated and expensive one. Sure, there are things you really want to invest a lot of money in, like a quality sleeping bag, for example, but the reality is that there’s an affordable gear option in nearly every category. You can go out and have an amazing time camping and riding off road with a hardware store tarp, Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest sleeping pad, homemade beer can stove, and a Sawyer water filter. You can throw all of the above into an IKEA bag for abrasion resistance and strap it into a basket, to the top of a rack, on the back of your saddle, or even buy some fancy dry bags.
Invest your money into your bike, repair kit, or other truly essential things. Or, perhaps save up until you’ve been out a few times and have a better picture of what you’ll actually need and use. If you end up loving the experience, you’ll be tinkering with your setup either way, and that’s half the fun! And if you’re like me, the longer you tinker, the more fond you may become of the cheapest, non-specialty solutions.
It sounds clichéd, but remember that you don’t need a bunch of fancy gear to go off-road bike touring and have an amazing time. There are so many incredible bikepacking and bike-specific gear solutions out there! But think of them as luxury items – awesome to have, like my down pants that I take everywhere – but in no way necessary to having an amazing trip.
On The Road
If you’re sensitive like me, taking your first dip into the bikepacking sea is less about stuff and more about spirit. Like most of you, I have been riding my bike since I was a kid, and that foundational skill has been building for years. So, firstly, trust yourself enough to know you can ride your bike at the most basic and fundamental level. The mechanics of riding and handling a loaded bike will come to you easily. The loaded emotions you’ve been intentionally or unintentionally suppressing will surface and manifest themselves into sprites and guides along your journey.
I haven’t been so hippie-woo-woo about my approach to bike adventuring in the past, but the magick of the road, the people you meet, and the things you find got me wearing crystals and talking chakras. Be kind to yourself and your riding companions when emotions come up, and communicate what’s happening. The joys and the sorrows are best experienced when you’re mindful of all that’s going on around and inside of you.
A good way to make sure you’re blessed with good weather and have these magickal connections is to make sure you’re gentle with yourself, your pals, your things, and most importantly, the planet. Be mindful of where you poop, how much trash you’re creating, the animals who share the spaces with you at camp and on the road, etc. Wear natural fibre underlayers (like wool) to avoid smells and to keep you warm even when wet.
We ride bikes because it’s the best darn way to see the beautiful and heartbreaking details of the world, but also because we’ve existed in relationship with Mother Earth since the beginning. Keep yourself open and focus on your inner light and magick and remember that you’re doing this out of choice. You can always choose your path ahead, even if it wasn’t pre-loaded into your Garmin. You got this!
It’s easy to never start. There are always excuses: It’s too cold, I don’t have the right kit, I’ll not be able to keep up with the others, or, perhaps worst of all, I might feel stupid. It’s much easier just to stay in that velvet rut and keep doing the stuff you’ve always done. I call it living the flat line. There are none of those prickling-hot, stressful moments of feeling out of your depth, but there are also none of those soaring highs when you feel indescribably giddy with glee and blessed by life.
I’d never presume to tell anyone that going bikepacking for the first time is going to be all fun and easy. Of course there will be highs, but there will undoubtedly be lows too (though probably none more so than the stress felt before deciding to actually do it!). Cold, hunger, fatigue. You might even get lost or hurt yourself, but let’s fast-forward a few years: When you’re an old woman, what memories will make you smile?
So, my advice would be to not hold on too tightly to any preconceived notions of how an adventure might turn out. Don’t expect things to be perfect. Be prepared to bend, adjust, problem solve, and roll with the punches. When things get grim, remind yourself that the feeling won’t last, and what will follow – if you keep your mind open – is a soaring high. Living the flat line is fine… but all the time?
Get out there.
The best piece of advice I can give to first-time bikepackers is a simple one: embrace vulnerability, in all its forms. You’ll be exposed to the people and places around you in ways that might feel new or overwhelming at times. Luckily for you, though, the most memorable bits of any trip tend to happen during those moments.
If you’ve never traveled by bicycle, you’ll likely find that it opens you up to strangers in a way you haven’t experienced before. Folks are going to stop you to ask you questions about your bike, your gear, and your trip. Talk to them! Those conversations will often open doors. That might mean a locals-only tip on where to set up camp, an invitation to come inside for a meal, or simply a chance to connect with someone new (an act most of us tend to avoid in our “normal” lives).
When I recall past trips, it’s typically those serendipitous connections that I replay in my head. The guy who brought us a tray full of cookies instead of kicking us off his property in Scotland. That quick stop in Albania that turned into one week, then two when I found a great group of new friends. Escaping the rain to drink warm tea and smoke terrible newspaper cigarettes with an enthusiastic old-timer in Kyrgyzstan.
Use your best judgement, but trust that people are more good than bad, no matter where you are. And they’re almost always more curious than anything. Let that little girl or that old man take a quick spin on your bike, and try not to smile as you watch them awkwardly pedal around in circles. It just might spark something inside them, or you.
What piece of advice would you give to a first-time bikepacker? Let us know in the comments below!
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