Bikepacking Packing List
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Bikepacking, also known as “mixed terrain cycle touring” or “rough riding” in North America, involves biking over different terrain with a specialized bike that can handle dirt, gravel, rocks, and pavement. Bikepacking is different from cycle touring in that it’s lightweight, minimal, and involves rough terrain. This article aims to outline the best bikepacking packing list and prep for beginners. We’ll cover the history, equipment, common mistakes, and preparation.
The most notorious beginning of bikepacking was the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps Unit in 1896, commanded by Lt. James A. Moss. The unit was formed to test the combat ability of soldiers mounted on bicycles. They traveled 1,900 miles from Missoula, Montana to St. Louis, Missouri in June 1897 in the grueling summer heat, facing contaminated water sources, mixed terrain, and harsh weather all while carrying their belongings, nutrition, and equipment. Their bikes were equipped with frame bags and handlebar bags, much like you see today.
They realized fighting a war on bikes wasn’t sustainable. Then the automobile was invented.
Fast forward to the summer of 1976. Greg and June Siple, organized a mass cross-country bike ride called “Bikecentennial” to celebrate the bicentennial founding of the United States. Around 1,750 cyclists signed up to ride across the United States on the TransAmerican Bicycle Trail, starting in Astoria, Oregon to Yorktown, Virginia, a total of 4,250 miles. From the success of the Bikecentennial summer, the founders began creating long-distance bike routes throughout the United States. The organization is now known as the Adventure Cycling Association.
People started using Adventure Cycling Association’s routes to do their own cycle touring. Most stuck to paved roads until the mountain bike was invented.
Joe Breeze is credited for bringing the first mountain bike to the market in 1978 after taking pieces of different bikes and putting them together. As mountain biking’s popularity grew, the Adventure Cycling Association published The Great Divide Mountain bike Route in 1998. The first Tour Divide race was in 2009 and bikepacking has grown in popularity ever since.
BIKEPACKING PACKING LIST FOR BEGINNERS
Bikepacking is known for its minimalism. As a beginner, it’s easiest to start with what you have and begin exploring. Most beginners who start to bikepack will use a backpack. You’ll quickly learn what you need as you bikepack more. If you have absolutely nothing, we’ve assembled a bikepacking packing list for your first trip.
Let’s start with the bike. If you’re bikepacking, a road bike won’t get you as far as a mountain bike – especially traversing rocky trails. To explore the wild and get a little lost among trees, you’ll want a mountain bike or something very similar. If this is your first time bikepacking, use what you have. If you only have a road bike, stick to roads you know your bike can handle.
In our post, Best Bikepacking Setup for Lightweight Bike Touring, we recommended a couple of bikepacking bikes you can review for yourself. There’s also a lot of other great information on packing for your trip. As for the bike, just make sure you pick something you’re comfortable riding for many days.
Bikepacking Packing List: Bags
Next come the bags you’ll need for your bikepacking trip. These attach directly to your bike. Each serves a specific purpose and helps distribute the weight evenly throughout the frame. Any bikepacking packing list begins with the bags.
A large handlebar bag is generally used to carry things like tents and hangs between the handlebars at the front of the bike. There are mini handlebar bags and there are larger ones. The larger ones will hold your tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad. On the other hand, the small handlebar bags are used to carry snacks and your phone. Most bikepackers use larger handlebar bags because they camp overnight.
Items to pack in handlebar bags:
- Sleeping bag/pad
- Cloth or towel
Make sure you don’t over stuff the bag. A heavy bag can make steering difficult.
Top tube bags
A top tube bag allows for easy access to snacks and your phone. Having items you need quick and easy access to is best packed in the this bag. If you plan to carry everything you’ll need with you for your bikepacking trip (instead of buying it as you go), a top tube bag is good to have for snacking on-the-go.
Items to pack in top tube bags:
- Cash/Credit Card/ID/Passport
- First Aid Supplies
A frame bag fits inside the bike frame. Different manufacturers make varying sizes of frame bags. Some use the entire frame space or portions. Before purchasing a frame bag, measure your bike and decide whether or not you need room for your water bottles. A full-sized frame bag will eliminate space for water bottle cages but you’ll be able to pack a lot inside. On the other hand, a smaller frame bag will save room for water bottle cages but you won’t be able to pack as much inside. Whatever the case, it’s an essential part of your bikepacking packing list.
You’ll want to pack heavier items, like tools or hydration packs, in your frame bag as this lowers your center of gravity. That’s important because it makes your bike stable.
Items to pack in frame bags:
- Hydration packs
- Bike Repair Kits/Tools
- Stakes (if needed, for a tent)
Saddle bags are secured to the seat and seat post. Buy a large saddle bag so you can pack your off-bike clothing and bulkier items on your trip. You’ll want to look for a water-proof or water-resistant saddle bag in case of inclement weather. That goes for all of your gear. Additionally, the bigger the bag and carry load is, the more sway you’ll likely have as you pedal.
Items to pack inside saddle bags:
- Off-bike clothing
- On-bike clothing
Bikepacking Packing List: Equipment and Gear
We recommend the following pieces of equipment to include in your bikepacking packing list:
Front and rear lights as well as a headlamp that can strap to your helmet or around your head are a must in any bikepacking packing list. If you plan on biking at night, it’s imperative to have lights that span across the trail so you’re not caught off-guard either by a rock feature, drop-off, or critter.
A durable tail light helps others see you. If you’re bikepacking with friends, communication is key. Lights are part of communication. Riders will be able to see you ahead and will help avoid any crashes on trails.
When setting up camp or milling about your campsite, a headlamp makes life easier. You won’t be fumbling around with a flashlight (also a good idea to bring though) moving things or walking around. A headlamp on your helmet is also a great safety addition to have. Notice that you’ll look in the direction you want to go before your bike starts turning that way. Without a headlamp, the trail is dark until the bike positions that way. Having a headlamp will help illuminate the entire trail.
We’re lucky to live in an age where our phones can be our navigation, compass, communication device, and camera. You can download map areas on your phone to use in case you don’t have a signal on your bikepacking trip.
Additionally, there are a lot of devices that can track your ride and navigate for you as well. Some big names are Garmin and Wahoo.
Or, kick it old school and bring a printed map with you. Either way, add a means of navigation to your bike touring packing list. In fact, we recommend having at least two different methods to find your way.
Bike Repair Tools
Biking in remote areas requires you to be very self-sufficient. This means adding bike repair tools to your bikepacking packing list in case something breaks. Also, it’s important to know basic mechanic skills when it comes to fixing typical problems. If something happens to your bike and you’re twenty-something miles away from the nearest bike shop, you’re going to need to know what to do on your own.
Bicycle Touring Pro recommends knowing the following before heading out on your adventure:
Things to know how to do before leaving on a bikepacking trip:
- Install a new tire
- Replace a flat tube with a new one
- Patch a bike tube with a patch kit
- Adjust your front and rear brakes
- Install new brake pads
- Adjust the height and position of both your seat post, saddle, and handlebars
- Install your front and rear racks (if you are using racks and panniers)
- Attach your trailer (if you are using a trailer)
- Clean your bike chain
- Adjust your front and rear derailleurs
- And install/remove your pedals
Before starting your bikepacking trip, make sure you know how to take care of your bike in case something happens to it on the path.
You’ll also need to carry an assortment of tools in your kit. We recommend adding the following to your bike touring packing list:
Tools and parts to carry on a bikepacking trip:
- Spare tubes
- CO2 cartridges or bike pump
- Tube patch kit
- Tire levers
- Chain lube
- Chain tool
- Extra chain links
- Cycling multi-tool
- Duct tape
- Zip ties
- Spare batteries
Some people like to rough it and simply sleep on the ground, maybe with a sleeping bag. Others like tents, tarps, bivies, or hammocks. There are pros and cons to each of them. A tent will likely take up the most room in your bag, especially if it requires stakes. It will provide enough room to spread out with a sleeping pad or sleeping bag and protect you from the elements. Tarps will protect you a little less from the elements since it’s essentially a sheet that’s tied to immovable objects. This takes up less space in your bag though.
Hammocks take up as much space as a tarp but require two immovable objects and some rope. You aren’t protected from the elements at all, but you save space in your bag – that is, unless you opt for a fully enclosed hammock solution. Finally, you can choose a bivy, typically used by mountain climbers. It usually holds a single person with a sleeping bag.
You know what you like to sleep on and if you don’t, you’ll find out the first night of a bikepacking trip. So, it’s a good idea to limit your first trip to one night.
Before packing a ton of cookware in your saddle bag, consider the length of your trip and what you plan (and need) to eat. If you intend to cook, add a stove, fuel, and a lighter/waterproof matches to your bikepacking packing list. You’ll also need a spork and a bowl/mug.
Water and Food to Pack
This is one of the most important factors for bikepacking: water and food. It’s also the easiest to under- and over-pack for bikepacking trips. These are our recommendations for some food items that work well when traveling by bike. They’re easy to pack and provide well-balanced nutrition for long and strenuous trips.
Food options for a bikepacking trip:
Instant refried beans
Instant mashed potatoes
Carry all the water you’ll need for the trip, unless you’ve confirmed places to refill your bottles. If water is accessible on the route, a water filter weighs less than full water bottles. Some riders prefer a hydration pack, but bear in mind this could wreak havoc on your shoulders, neck, and back.
Bikepacking Packing List: Clothing
Another easy thing to either over- or under-pack is clothing. Take too much and you’re hauling it through the mountains. Pack too little and you’ll be unprepared for inclement weather. Check the weather in the area you’re biking as you pack. Are rain, snow, high/low temperatures in the forecast? Plan for the weather. And also plan for bad weather. Many bikepackers will use one cycling jersey and one pair of cycling bibs or shorts on their trip. That’s a personal choice for everyone.
Clothing Items for a Single-Night Trip:
- Cycling shorts/bibs and jersey
- Cycling shoes
- Sports bra
- Rain jacket
- Weatherproof gloves
- Wind Jacket
- Arm/leg warmers
Extra camp clothing:
- Wool socks
- Insulated jacket
- Long sleeve base layer top
- Base layer bottoms
- Warm hat
Clothing is a personal choice but this list helps get you started on your first over-nighter. If you live in a hotter and drier environment, you may not need some of these items. If you live in a colder and wet environment, you may need more.
Bikepacking Packing List: Hygiene and Toiletries
If you want to rough it, some of these items can be left behind. Otherwise, they might be a good idea as part of your bikepacking packing list for your first trip. Again, bring only as much as you think you’ll need and consider the conditions you’ll endure.
Toiletries to pack for a bikepacking trip:
- Lightweight emergency kit
- Bags to carry food and waste
- Hand sanitizer
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Toilet paper
- Body wipes
- Feminine hygiene products
- Chamois cream
- Contact case/solution
You can pack these in the frame or saddle bag, as you won’t need them until you set up camp.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The same goes for bikepacking. Even though this isn’t directly related to a bike touring packing list, it is very important. Proper preparation for your first or hundredth bikepacking trip will save you a lot of frustration.
Know the Route
Research Routes on RideWithGPS, MapMyRide, or MTB Project. These are both websites and apps you can use. Mountain Bike Project provides detailed information about mountain bike trails in the area you choose. It’ll list the description, terrain, and difficulty level. You can create your route on RideWithGPS or MapMyRide and transfer it to your computer device. By building the route on one of those websites, you’ll see the mileage and elevation gain.
Ask your friends about the route you’ve chosen for their experience or post in local bike groups online. They can tell you if there’s water, campgrounds, or fire stations along the route. They can tell you if it’s rocky, steep, rolling hills, covered in trees, or out in the desert.
Look up the route on Google Maps. You can assess where there may be water or alternative routes in case something happens along the trail. Create the alternative route on RideWithGPS or MapMyRide just in case.
Find a spot where you’ll camp and assume it’ll take longer than you expect. When mountain biking for only a few hours, you usually only carry 1-2 water bottles and 1-2 packs of gels. On the other hand, when bikepacking, you’ll carry more weight to accommodate the longer trip. More weight will slow you down. Plan for that.
Research the Weather
We all know weather’s unpredictable, but having an idea of what the weather may be will help with preparation. Does the forecast predict afternoon thunderstorms? Will you still be on the trail or at camp inside your tent? How low will temperatures get at night? Plan for it.
Can you expect wind? How fast? From what direction?
Knowing the weather or at least having an idea of what the weather will be during your bikepacking trip will help you determine what you need to bring, how long you have to be on the trail, and how to sleep comfortably at night.
Test All Equipment Prior to Leaving
That includes riding your bike, checking your GPS device, your phone, reviewing the map you’ve downloaded on your phone, the routes you’ve imported to your GPS device, testing the front and rear lights, headlamp, the tent/tarp/bivy/hammock, and your tool kit. Make sure it all works. Check for holes or broken zippers on your bags. Set up camp, including your tent, just as if you were already under way. This can reveal challenges you might encounter while on the road.
The worst thing to do is assume everything’s good to go because it worked the last time you used it. The time you don’t check is when something will break.
COMMON BIKEPACKING MISTAKES
We’re human. We’re bound to make mistakes. We’ve already mentioned a few things, but here’s a roundup of common mistakes people make when bikepacking for the first time.
Under or Over Packing
Some of us would rather keep it lightweight and pack the bare minimum while others are worried about “what-if” scenarios and want to bring it all just in case.
There’s a fine line between under- and over-packing, but opt for a lighter kit. It’ll make biking a lot easier if you don’t bring your entire closet and refrigerator. It’s why we recommend going for an overnight for your first bikepacking trip. You’ll learn a lot and likely realize you didn’t need as much as you packed or you packed too few items and were either hungry, cold, or miserable. Better one day of misery than a week or more.
The most common under/over-packed items are food, water, clothing and shelter. Consider the mileage and how much you need to consume to stay hydrated and energized to finish the trip. Think about the weather and where you’ll spend the night when planning your shelter system. There are all important considerations when building your bike touring packing list.
Poor Gear Choices
We recommend testing everything before going on your bikepacking trip, because things break. Did you buy a cheap knockoff and it’s already falling apart? Test, test, test everything before heading out. Zippers break, seams come apart, and the jacket you thought would keep you warm felt like a flimsy shawl.
What about your sleeping bag? Is it warm enough for the night? The tires on your bike – are they worn out?
While you’re unlikely to be racing on your first bikepacking trip, you don’t want to waste time either.
Consider how much extra weight you’ll be carrying with all your bags packed. Generously estimate the amount of time it will take you to get to your campsite. Even though you’ll have lights, do you want to bike in the dark, searching for your campsite, and trying to set up camp with your headlamp?
As we mentioned earlier about preparing, a common mistake is taking a wrong turn or guessing the route. Don’t assume you know the trail because you looked at the map a couple of times.
Download the route and import it to your device.
It’d be a bummer to take the wrong turn and descend 3 miles and have to climb back out.
Poor Distance Planning
In conjunction with navigation, another common mistake is poor distance planning. Err on the side of caution with your first few bikepacking trips.
Don’t plan a route too far away, as in, don’t choose a camping spot that’ll force you to ride the furthest distance you’ve ever biked. In case something happens, it’s safer to ride a doable distance as opposed to struggling for miles on end to get to your turnaround point.
Bikepacking is likely gaining popularity because of the specialized bikes and gear made for such an activity and peoples’ desires to get away from everyday life.
Overnight bikepacking trips are an accessible “microadventure” that most adventure-seekers can easily take over the weekend. The idea of being able to pack everything on a bike and go is freeing to many.
Keep it Simple
Although, we just threw a ton of information at you, don’t over-complicate it. Make a bikepacking packing list. Bring the necessities. Go on a trail you know. Do what you’re comfortable with, because you’ll more likely do it again if you had a great first experience.
Test all your gear, components, and tools. The one time you don’t test everything you’ll be in the middle of the woods and something will break. I can’t stress this enough. Test, test test!
Do Your Research
Look up the route and the weather. Find campsites, water sources, and alternative routes. You will always miss something; but remember planning and research can lessen the chance you get caught off-guard or end up in a dangerous situation.
Bikepacking is about adventure, so have fun. Stay optimistic and keep a sense of humor about the whole thing.