A simple, local overnighter or months on the road: bikepacking gives you the opportunity to explore more outside and get back to basics.
You may be surprised by how little you really need to get started. Even if all else fails, at least the experience will make you really appreciate the comfort of your own bed again.
But what exactly is bikepacking, what do you need to take and how should you plan your trip? Let’s dive in.
What is bikepacking?
Bikepacking, in simple terms, is an overnight or multi-day adventure on your bike.
The emphasis is on self-sufficiency and packing light. Bikepacking adventures often take you well away from civilisation, frequently on a gravel or mountain bike, although as we’ll come on to, you can go bikepacking on any bike.
Bikepacking typically involves packing your kit into bags that can be attached to any bike frame without requiring the use of a rack. These are used to load up everything you need to bring with you: overnight gear, food, clothing and spares.
Bikepacking vs cycle touring
The classic way to head out for multi-day adventures on your bike used to be on a cycle touring trip and it’s still practised today, even if bikepacking has become its trendier cousin.
Predominantly an on-road experience, cycle touring involves loading up your bike with pannier bags, which sit on a rack at the rear of the bike. These are sometimes joined by another set of bags attached to a rack on the forks.
There’s a specific category of touring bikes designed for cycle touring, usually made from steel for durability, with generous gearing for fully-loaded climbing, mudguard eyelets and lights (sometimes a dynamo light).
In contrast, bikepacking uses bags designed to lash to your bike, which might be a mountain bike or a gravel bike, opening up off-road adventures rather than having to stick to tarmac, although you can also bikepack on a standard road bike.
Often, bikepackers will be aiming to travel as light as possible: think bivvy bag and wild camping in place of the tourer’s tent on a campsite or ‘credit card touring’ between B&Bs (although there’s nothing to stop you from carrying a tent and using a campsite, or staying in B&Bs, while bikepacking).
What to take on a bikepacking trip
What to take on a bikepacking trip depends on where you’re riding (how far you’ll be from civilisation), for how long (an overnighter or round-the-world trip?) and your personal inclination to rough it (can you take the bare minimum or do you need a few luxuries?).
While compiling the ultimate bikepacking kit list often comes with experience, if you’re preparing for an overnighter – perhaps your first introduction to bikepacking – here are the essentials.
1. Your bike
It’s true what they say: any bike is a bikepacking bike. In fact, that’s one of the joys of bikepacking.
Don’t wait until you can fork out for the ultimate long-distance touring bike – simply plan a route based on the type of terrain your current bike can best handle, whether that’s sticking to road, easy gravel trails or singletrack.
As some bikepacking routes take you to more remote places, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re as self-sufficient as you can be, not only when it comes to looking after yourself, but your bike too.
As with any ride, make sure you pack spares and tools to fix common mechanicals, such as flat tyres or chain issues:
- Inner tube(s)
- Puncture repair kit or tubeless plugs
- Pump and/or CO2 inflator
- Tyre levers
- Multi-tool with chain tool
- Chain quick link
The further you’re riding, or the further you’ll be from civilisation, the more you’ll need to take with you, to ensure you are self-sufficient in the event of more serious mechanicals. This may include a spare derailleur hanger, brake pads or gear cable.
It’s also worth stashing a handful of spare bolts in case a bottle cage or any luggage rattles loose. The same applies for cleat bolts if you expect to do lots of hike-a-biking.
If you’re not very confident in your own bike mechanic skills, why not invite a friend along who can help you?
You’ll also need a GPS bike computer or map for navigation. Remember, if you’re using a bike computer, you’ll need the means to charge it, too.
A lightweight bike lock is also a sensible addition, to secure your bike at a campsite or if popping into a shop.
2. Bikepacking bags, panniers or a rucksack
In order to carry what you need with you for your overnighter, you’ll need some luggage, either on the bike, or carried on your person.
Although a rucksack will suffice for shorter trips, it’ll certainly be less comfortable than bags strapped onto your bike, and limited in terms of capacity, too.
Bikepacking bags are designed to be strapped to your bike and, unlike most pannier racks, don’t require specific mounting points on your frame, so can be used with just about any bike.
Bikepacking bags are most commonly mounted to the seatpost/saddle rails, the front of the handlebar and inside the main triangle.
Many of the the best gravel bikes – often used for bikepacking thanks to their ability to comfortably handle both road and light off-road riding – have additional mounting points on the fork, the top of the top tube and on the underside of the down tube. This will be particularly useful if you’re going all-out on capacity.
Bikepacking bags range greatly in price from entry-level options to premium waterproof, robust and custom designs. Don’t feel you need to invest in the best to get started, nor splash out on a full matching set – a handlebar bag and saddle bag will likely give you enough capacity for the bikepacking essentials.
If you’re on a tight budget, a waterproof drybag lashed to the handlebars using bungee cords or voile straps can work well.
If you already have a pannier rack and bags for your bike, you can use those to go bikepacking too, although they tend to be most effective on the road rather than on bumpier off-road trails. Most racks require your frame to have eyelets for mounting, too.
However, some brands, including Tailfin, offer lightweight racks that don’t require specific eyelets, instead using a quick-release mechanism to attach to your frame.
3. Sleeping kit
How and where will you stay overnight on your trip?
Will you camp out in a tent, hang out in a hammock or go minimalist with a bivvy setup? Of course, there’s also nothing wrong with staying in a guesthouse, B&B, hostel, hotel or bothy.
In fact, sometimes it’s essential after a few days to wash your kit and recharge your batteries – not to mention enjoy a good night’s rest in a proper bed! Plus, if you’re just starting out bikepacking, booking into a B&B or campsite gives you some security in knowing where you’ll sleep at the end of a long day in the saddle.
The optimal bikepacking sleep system is light, durable and packs down small, but as you can imagine this comes at a cost.
If you’re camping, you’ll need:
- Tent, bivvy bag or tarp
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping mat
When it comes to packing your sleeping kit in your bike bags, it’s a good idea to put it in the least easily accessible bag (typically a handlebar roll), because you’ll only need it once you’re finished for the day. Placing light but bulky items here also has less of an effect on steering.
As before, if you’re venturing off the beaten track, your kit list will expand significantly beyond these bare essentials, with cooking equipment and so on.
4. Basic toiletries and electronics
Never underestimate the importance of basic hygiene – even on a bikepacking trip. A travel-size tube of toothpaste and small toothbrush will help to keep your teeth happy after the inevitable sugary energy snacks.
Sunscreen and insect repellent are both small but very important additions to your kit list that you shouldn’t overlook, as well as lip balm (SPF options come in handy) for sunnier, windier conditions.
It’s also really important to try to keep yourself clean and dry ‘down there’ to avoid any skin irritation or saddle sores. Take off your shorts as soon as you finish riding and switch into clean, casual clothing, then use a clean pair of shorts the next day or clean and dry the original pair if you can.
Without access to electricity overnight, it’s a good idea to take a fully charged battery pack with you, so you can recharge items such as your phone, GPS device, lights and camera.
It’s always a good idea to let someone know where you’re heading and when you anticipate being back, especially if you’re riding solo. Some of the best cycling apps offer tracking functionality so your loved ones can make sure you’re safe.
5. Warm layers and waterproofs
While bikepacking is typically focused on travelling light, making sure you have the right cycling kit for the conditions you’re likely to encounter is vital.
Beyond your basic cycling kit and casual clothing for off the bike, warm layers and waterproofs are important considerations for most bikepacking trips.
In many parts of the world, temperatures tend to head south as the night falls, so taking some extra, warm layers is always a good idea. A down or insulated jacket is a really good idea – it’s a lightweight option that offers plenty of warmth, and you can also sleep in it if it’s really chilly.
Make sure you change out of any sweaty or damp kit as soon as you get to your overnight spot to avoid getting cold, and layer up with warm, dry kit to stay warm as you prepare your sleeping setup and dinner.
Finally, only a fool would go bikepacking without a waterproof cycling jacket. No matter what the weather forecast says, take one with you, just in case.
If you’re on a multi-day ride, consider where you’ll be able to wash your kit. This will help keep your kit clean – important for personal hygiene – and also reduce the amount you need to take with you.
6. Cooking equipment
Unless you’re planning on eating in a pub before heading to your camp spot or opting for a cold meal, you’ll need to pack some form of stove for your trip.
The easiest bikepacking meals require only boiled water: dried noodles, pasta or dehydrated food, plus porridge, tea and coffee in the morning.
Just as with the sleeping kit, the best bikepacking stoves are both compact and lightweight, but do come at a price. If you’re heading out with friends, consider sharing one stove between a few of you and either cooking together or taking it in turns.
Bikepacking kit list
What you need for your trip will depend on the scope of your ride, however here are some of the essentials required for many bikepacking trips.
|Spare cycling kit||Spare inner tube(s)||Sleeping mat||Toothpaste||Stove||Lightweight lock|
|Waterproof jacket||Puncutre repair kit or tubeless plugs||Sleeping bag||Toothbrush||Gas canisters||Water bottles|
|Thermal jacket||Pump or CO2 inflator||Bivvy bag, tent, tarp or hammock||Sunscreen||Lighter||Front and rear lights|
|Casual clothing||Tyre levers||Insect repellent||Pen knife||Mobile phone|
|Multi-tool||Lip balm||Mug, spork, foldable plate or bowl||Wallet and cash|
|Quick link||Contact lenses||Food||Phone charger|
|Bag for rubbish||Bike computer charger|
|Water purification tabs or filter||Power pack|
|First aid kit|
How to pack for bikepacking
When you’re loading up your backpacking bags, it’s important to try to keep the weight low and central.
Heavy kit placed high on the bike or disproportionately over the rear wheel will affect your balance – something that’s particularly important if you’re heading off-road. It also makes any out-of-saddle efforts harder.
With the largest bikepacking bag typically being a saddle pack, that’s easier said than done, but consider where you may be able to place heavier items. For example, if your bike has additional bottle cage mounts underneath the down tube, you can use these for a tool keg.
A separate tool pack will also mean that your tools are close at hand if you have to fix a mechanical – preferable to having to rummage in the depths of a saddle pack or bar bag.
Items of protective clothing such as waterproofs also need to be close at hand for when you need them, as do things such as sunscreen and snacks, so keep them at the top of bags or pack them in a frame bag.
A bento bag, strapped or mounted to the top of the top tube, or canister bag on the handlebar, can also help keep ride essentials at hand.
Kit that you’ll only need occasionally, or at the end of the day, can be packed further down in your bags, for when you’ve got more time to pull everything out and reorder it.
Also make sure that items such as a down jacket, spare clothing and sleeping kit, especially a sleeping bag, are somewhere waterproof; there’s nothing more miserable than a night trying to sleep in a cold wet bag.
It’s worth having a waterproof dry bag to be doubly sure they’ll stay dry, rather than relying just on the bike bag’s waterproofing.
Where to go bikepacking
You can go bikepacking pretty much anywhere you like, provided you can legally ride there, with your bike likely to be the limiting factor.
If you’re on a road bike, you’re going to have to stick to tarmac (or very light off-road trails, if you have wider tyres), but even if you’re on a gravel bike you might not want to go anywhere too extreme. Consider what’s manageable for your gearing and tyres. Remember, your bike will weigh considerably more and may not handle as well as it would when unloaded.
A mountain bike will open up a wider range of terrain but, once again, remember that the bike’s off-road capability – and your ability to manoeuvre the bike – may be affected by the extra weight placed on it.
In general, your average speed is likely to be lower than when riding unloaded, so don’t be too ambitious with your route planning.
One way to avoid overextending yourself is to follow all or part of an established route and see how others have tackled it. There’s a growing number of established routes in the UK, such as the South Downs Way, West Kernow Way and King Alfred’s Way in the south, and the Way Of The Roses across northern England.
Further afield, routes such as the Tuscany Trail and the Traversée du Massif Vosgien take you well off the beaten track, while the USA has classics such as the Black Canyon Trail in Arizona or, if you’re feeling ambitious, the 3,000-mile off-road Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.
How to plan a bikepacking trip
With your bike sorted and ready to go, here’s how you should plan your trip to get the most out of your venture out into the wild.
1. Plan your route
There are a huge number of established bikepacking routes across the world, which you could tap into for your first bikepacking ride. Or you could plot your own route closer to home.
Komoot is one of our favourite apps for planning bikepacking routes. You can use the planner to build a multi-day course, seek inspiration from user-generated highlights or browse Komoot’s ‘collections’, which contain pre-established routes.
Don’t feel you have to try anything too extreme on your first go – you can still learn a lot by travelling relatively short distances and taking on the challenges of carrying gear, setting up camp and cooking for yourself for the first time.
Double check your planned route to make sure it’s suitable for the type of bike you’re planning on riding, and the current weather conditions. For example, avoid river crossings after heavy rainfall and high ground if there’s any chance of thunderstorms.
If you’re not passing through many towns or villages along the route, make sure you take plenty of snacks and water with you. Alternatively, plan your resupply points in advance: you won’t want to go hungry.
2. Take a sleeping kit dry run
It’s a smart idea to do a dry-run of your kit setup at home before your trip, to make sure you understand how to use it.
New tent? Pitch it in the living room or garden for practice, and you can double check that you have all the pegs and poles too.
If you think you might encounter some rainfall overnight, a tarp can help keep the worst of the rain off your bivvy or hammock. Practise stringing up a tarp in your garden or local park to make sure you have everything you need and are familiar with how it works before you have to try setting it up in a downpour.
It’s worth checking local laws about wild camping if that’s something you intend to do, or alternatively book into a campsite or other place to stay. If you plan on staying in a bothy, always make sure you have a back-up plan, because when you arrive you could find that it’s shut or full.
3. Pack light (ish)
As you haul your laden bike up a rocky, steep hill, you’ll realise just why packing light is important. However, that comes with a massive caveat: you shouldn’t pack so light that you omit key pieces of kit that could save you in an emergency, or if the weather turns on you.
It’s always a good idea to carry a survival blanket, small first aid kit (and know how to use it effectively) and enough warm and waterproof layers, as well as spares and tools of course.
As you gain experience bikepacking, you’ll learn what kit works for you and what isn’t necessary.
Yes, you’ll probably be surprised by just how little you do need to get by, but it’s important to always remember that heading out into remote areas puts more onus on you to be self-sufficient and safe.
Pack light, but not too light.
4. Learn from the experience
Once you’ve got your first bikepacking trip under your belt, reflect on your experiences.
What worked and what didn’t? Which items were really useful and which didn’t you touch? What gear did your friends use and did it work for them? Which parts of the route were enjoyable, and what would you change for next time? How did that sleeping arrangement work for you?
Just like any sport or skill, practice helps you learn what works best for you and when.
5. Enjoy it!
Heading out into the wild can be daunting, challenging and outright tough at times. Embrace everything that the elements throw at you, the views and the nature around you.
Consider inviting some more experienced pals along, who can help to show you the ropes, and be there for moral support if things get tough.
Stop to take pictures to remember your trip, draw sketches, savour local delicacies and watch the stars from the comfort of your sleeping bag.
Above all, bikepacking is supposed to be fun. Take your time, savour the experience and enjoy yourself!