Gravel bikes are hugely popular for encouraging a sense of adventure and exploration, and nowhere is this spirit better encapsulated than bikepacking.
In this article we’re going to take you through all the essentials you need to know if you’re going bikepacking for the first time, including:
- What bikepacking actually is
- The different types of bags for bikepacking
- Sleeping gear
- Cooking equipment
- Water supplies
- Safety measures
What is bikepacking?
Bikepacking is the idea of packing everything you need for one or more overnight stays into bags strapped to the bike, and then armed with a route, supplies, friends and a willingness and freedom to explore, going where no other mode of transport can take you.
What you need depends on the adventure you are planning. What you need to carry for one overnight stop is very different to a three week trip around Europe. And it’s different if you’re racing or touring. So you need to first decide what sort of riding and adventure you want to embark on and then choose the kit and equipment to match.
It can be easy to think you need to spend a small fortune on all the equipment you need to get started with bikepacking, but that’s not really the case. You can easily homebrew a lot of luggage solutions and there’s now an abundance of companies making dedicated luggage solutions at a wide range of prices to suit all budgets.
You can go bikepacking on the cheap. Dry bags can be bought from an outdoor store and attached to your bike and handlebars using simple straps. You can also use a backpack which you might already own, but it’s often preferable to try and avoid riding with a pack as all that weight on your shoulders can be uncomfortable on longer rides.
If you want to invest in purpose-built bags, there are many to choose from. The three most common types are:
- seat pack
- frame pack
- handlebar bag
…with smaller top tube packs and fork-mounted accessory bags. The three main bags will provide the backbone for your bikepacking setup and give you all the space you need to carry all the essentials needed for an overnight stop.
The bags come in a vast range of sizes and to suit different bike designs and frame sizes. It’s easy to be tempted by the biggest bag size but the bigger the bag, the easier it is to carry a lot of stuff and a classic beginners mistake is to take way too much kit. It’s a fine balancing act and experience alone is the best way to get your setup right for you.
The size and number of bags you choose depend on the kit you carry. For an overnight stop, the essential kit includes at the very minimum sleeping gear, cooking equipment, spare clothing and food and water. What you carry depends on your overnight arrangements, whether you want to wild camp, bivvy or use a tent, head to a campsite or stay inside a hostel or bunkhouse.
Our recommended bikepacking bags:
BackLoader is a large capacity seat bag specially designed for bikepackers providing a streamlined way to carry gear without the need for a rear rack. The upgraded saddle mount system, in conjunction with compression straps, reduces the pendulum effect associated with large rear payloads, providing a comfortable ride for those long miles.
MidLoader carries the heaviest items for your bike adventure. Constructed of lightweight, highly water resistant and durable materials, it mounts and removes quickly with hook and loop fasteners. Two water resistant zippered openings provide easy access to all your gear from either side.
The perfect travel mate for any journey. If you’re a bikepacker, you won’t want to miss this. TopLoader is a large capacity top tube mounted bag giving bikepackers quick and easy access to energy bars, phone, wallet, tools or any small essential gear they need close at hand.
FrontLoader is perfect for carrying light yet bulky items like sleeping bags, camping gear and spare clothing. Featuring a tough outer support harness and constructed of durable abrasion and water resistant materials, it’s easily installed or removed with two straps, special spacer mounts and quick release buckles.
For sleeping you’ll need a sleeping bag and the more you spend, the lighter and smaller it’ll pack down.
Sleeping mats are optional and it depends on the ground you expect to sleep on. Whether to sleep inside a lightweight tent, use a bivvy, tarp or even a hammock comes down to personal preference and the environment, so choose the solution that matches your requirements.
Designed using a combination of advanced technologies to keep you insulated whatever the conditions. Made for year-round explorers looking for an ultra small pack size and weight, yet needing high thermal capacity from their bag. Look out for its 4T insulation, Tri-lateral construction and Thermal Embrace which combine for the ultimate trekking pack.
You’re going to want to cook some food and heat water for drinks and coffee, so here you want a compact stove. There are many available to choose from so we won’t go into detail here but choose based on your budget. A small aluminium pot for cooking food and heating water, a spork, and if you’re really into your coffee before a ride, then the appropriate coffee-making kit.
The MightyMo can reach a rolling boil in roughly three minutes with half the fuel consumption of traditional systems. The four-turn regulator offers incremental heat adjustments from light simmer to full boil, perfect for sautéing greens, simmering sauces, and more. The MightyMo accommodates a Jetboil skillet and FluxRing cooking pot without the need for pot support (fuel, skillet, and pot sold separately).
Water Bottle Cages
Don’t forget to carry plenty of water. How much depends if you expect to be passing water sources but when you’re in the middle of the countryside it can be difficult to easily source water. The tricky balance is fitting the largest water bottles inside your frame alongside the frame pack, so a compromise is sometimes necessary.
For riding in the heat or desert you can fit optional water bottles to the fork mounts if your bike has them. You can also get water filtration systems for making any water source safe.
Be prepared for any eventuality with the Ninja CO2 Plus Bottle Cage. Offering up the ultimate quick fix, this Topeak favourite boasts a Micro AirBooster and two threaded 16g CO2 cartridges to help assist with flats with a simple twist. Inflating with CNC aluminum, the bottle cage is also extremely lightweight.
Where am I allowed to camp when I go bikepacking?
The beauty of bikepacking is you can sleep anywhere. Almost. The rules about wild camping vary all around the world so it’s worth checking with the spot you intend to camp before pitching up. Here in the UK, it’s legal to wild camp in Scotland following the rules, but in England, Wales and Northern Ireland there aren’t many places you can legally wild camp.
In all other situations, it’s best to get permission from the landowner before pitching up, but if you can’t then wait until dusk and camp well away from public paths to minimise the change of being seen. And it goes without saying that you should leave no evidence of your stay, so clean up all your rubbish and mess afterwards.
Bikepacking common mistakes
One of the biggest mistakes is either being over or underprepared. It’s always better to be over-prepared but equally the additional weight of all that unused gear can make it slow going and ruin your enjoyment of riding a bike. Being under-prepared can be downright dangerous though, so it is a tricky balance. Experience is the best solution here so be conservative when you first start out and tailor your equipment as you gain experience with each successive bikepacking adventure.
There’s safety in numbers so it’s smart to ensure you tag along with a few friends on your first bikepacking adventure. Not only is it safer but it can also be more fun as well, though we admit there’s sometimes a tranquillity to riding solo. If you are going to ride solo then make sure someone at home knows the intentions of your route just in case the worst happens.
To avoid such eventualities, we would recommend carrying a first aid kit, survival blanket and safety whistle. It might sound overkill but it’s better to plan for the worst and not need to use it. It’s also worth carrying a fully charged phone and ensuring you have the number of the local emergency services.
Follow this advice and you should be well on your way to having the first of many fun bikepacking adventures!