The year 2020 saw a lot more people getting outside. Anyone who tried to buy cycling components last year—let alone an actual bike—knows that cycling is having a moment, particularly in the adventure space, which includes gravel riding and bikepacking. And while the categorical distinction—“gravel grinding”—is a tidy way for brands and events to characterize (largely) less-technical off-tarmac riding, as with most trends this latest niche sphere in cycling is actually a return to a past style (as many modern-day gravel bikes take after early, drop bar mountain bikes). Bikepacking—or bike touring, but more on that distinction later—largely goes hand-in-hand with gravel riding, as being equipped to ride unpaved surfaces expands route options and allows riders to escape much motorist traffic. Adventure rigs are typically sturdier than road steeds too and, now, commonly come stock with touring-friendly accouterments, like extra mounting options for additional bottle cages, fork mounts for racks/ bags, and room for wider tires. And while it may be true that there are now more cyclists than ever strapping bags to their bikes and pointing their wheels down unpaved paths, the adventurous spirit that continues to kindle such excursions has been a common thread throughout cycling history.
There are earlier records of individuals touring throughout the U.K. on proto-bicycles (before such innovations as cranks and pedals, and chain-driven drive trains) but the phenomenon really took off in the latter part of the 19th century, and the first officially designated Bicycle Touring Club was founded in England in 1878. The first, known, feat of a transcontinental crossing by bike took place not long after, in the United States, over several months in the spring and summer of 1884. For the next century, touring clubs continued to emerge, attracting like-minded cyclo-pioneers. Cycling writ large continued gaining in popularity, too, with the introduction of famed spectator events like the Tour de France, founded in 1903, alongside the rise of randonneuring culture and long-distance brevets, like the 1200km Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP). Founded in 1891 (though, it was originally held only every ten years rather than its current four-year occurrence), PBP is the oldest ongoing cycling event in history and still considered by many to be the most prestigious randonneuring event. The event’s touriste-routieres (i.e. amateur) category was also an early leader in promoting a self-supported style of bike touring in a mass start event.
The early 1970s saw the advent of the 10-speed bike and the new technology propelled the sport further while coinciding with a boom in cyclo-touring that was as much a cultural response as a technological one. It’s always hard to identify the catalysts for change in one’s own time, but one might point to similar technological advances (e.g. bike computers with GPS navigation, drop bar disc brakes, higher clearance frames) along with a growing awareness of the risks inherent in road riding as the main contributors to the rise of today’s bike touring/bikepacking popularity. Of course, scrolling through backcountry golden hour shots on social media helps too.
So, if the idea of long days on the bike exploring new terrain has you hooked, read on for some tips on getting started.
Define Your Ride
At the risk of splitting hairs, bike touring and bikepacking are not exactly synonymous terms, depending on who you ask. You might say the former is geared towards the whole experience—late mornings spent brewing up hot coffee cowboy style or with your collapsible pour-over set-up, leisurely evenings spent cooking with friends by the fire—and offers a more relaxed approach to spending a few back-to-back days in the saddle. Bikepacking on the other hand perhaps implies a performance element—either in the context of a bikepacking race, or simply with the goal of pushing yourself and logging big miles day after day. Historically speaking, available gear technology dictated this distinction. Racks and panniers—and later, tow-behind trailers—enabled early cyclo-tourists to carry necessities so long as the road was relatively smooth.
However, on gravel and rougher terrain (generally couched under the umbrella term“off-road,” though gravel roads are in fact roads) racks are more prone to break. On singletrack, panniers are prohibitively wide. Such limitations gave rise to soft bags (no mounting hardware required) around the turn of the 21st century which could be strapped directly onto the bike’s frame. Offering a lighter weight option with a lower chance of breaking while providing a more nimble set-up for non-tarmac riding, the use of soft bags is what largely defines bikepacking today. It’s no coincidence that around the same time ultra-distance bikepacking races began popping up (albeit, initially in an underground way).
Gear choices can help set the tone for your trip. A classical touring set-up might include rear or front rack(s) outfitted with panniers. This is a great option for smoother-surface riding (i.e. pavement and smooth gravel), but racks can fail on rowdier terrain (as well as affect the handling of your bike). Paired with a large capacity handlebar bag, this setup has room for a tent and stove, camera, ample food and water, all easily accessible. Still, this is not a light setup, but it’s comfortable, makes getting to your gear a cinch, and provides extra volume for carrying all of your campfire feast ingredients (and maybe even a brew, or four).
Alternately, a bikepacking set-up—which centers around soft bags—is honed with efficiency in mind, no extra fluff, and allows for more technical riding if that’s your jam. Ditch the racks and panniers for a slim seat bag and full, or half, frame bag combo. Replace your canvas or Cordura bar bag with a sleek and tidy xpac or Dyneema bar roll. Swap the tent for a bivy sack and/or tarp and ground cloth. Heck, throw on some aero bars if you want to switch up your hand positions while maximizing time in the saddle. The idea is to keep your bike feeling svelte and packing list trim so that you won’t be wasting time unpacking/packing unnecessary extras in between bouts of riding.
Regardless of bag choices, one gear consideration that, while not mandatory, will greatly reduce stress on multi-day trips is a tubeless tire setup. Tubeless tires can withstand small punctures and are (usually) self-sealing, making flats less of a threat. When running tubeless, it is a good idea to bring tire plugs and at least one tube and a patch kit, just in case. Depending on your route, you may also consider running wider tires. If you plan to encounter sand but no rubble, running wider tires with low-profile lugs gives you more flotation without adding rolling resistance. For rougher terrain, consider a wider tire with beefier tread. If you’re tarmac touring, slicks should do the trick (but 32-35mms might be a worthwhile choice to provide a little more stability if riding a loaded bike).
The relative remoteness of your intended route will factor greatly into how you pack for your trip. Deciding how much food and water to carry is ultimately up to you but knowing resupply points along your route will certainly aid in that decision-making process. A four-day trip through the desert of New Mexico or Utah will look a lot different than a town-hopping spree through Colorado’s high country, or along the California coast. If you are desert touring, plan to have the ability to carry at least 3L of water per person/day (more if you plan to use water for cooking, or it is going to be very hot). This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to set out with that much water strapped to your bike but you certainly want to have that carrying capacity if water sources are scarce.
For example, if you’re planning on riding 50mi on your first day, and there’s a water source at mile 30, only carry what you need for those first few hours, then camel up for the next stretch (don’t forget to factor in riding at a slower pace when touring)! Alternatively, if you are not guaranteed to hit water until the end of Day 2 plan more conservatively by packing all of your water from the outset. When carrying a lot of water is a must—or if you don’t have fork mounts for extra cages—packing a water bladder in your frame bag (or wearing a camelback) is another way to make sure your hydration needs stay met! If there are natural water sources along your route bring a small filter for on-the-go refilling (filtering from smaller creeks and streams is more ideal than large rivers, as they are generally less contaminated and contain less particulate matter that can clog your filter).
Take a similar approach when making caloric considerations—a remote desert tour may mean packing enough food for a few days at a time, but if there are towns and services along the way you could carry less (just double-check store/ restaurant hours in small towns and/or seasonal tourist destinations). If a light-and-fast trip is your goal, planning all of your big meals/ resupplies around towns allows you to keep your food list to a handful of bars/ on-the-bike snacks—the big asterisks in this plan being that eating is absolutely contingent on reaching your destination, which implies some amount of risk (and you might want to stash a couple stickers in the bowels of your seat bag, just in case).
Packing Your Bike
Iconic French randonneuring style bikes are characterized by skinny, straight steel tubing with level (or nearly level, on smaller frame sizes) top tubes. This creates a large front triangle as compared to more progressive modern-day geometry. If this is your rig, maximize that interior triangle with a full-frame bag. If you ride a carbon bike, your interior triangle might have less available real estate, and curved tubing may require running a slightly smaller bag. Either way, prioritize carrying your heaviest stuff—electronics, tent (if bringing), repair items, toiletries, stove (if bringing) and dense food—in the triangle, and ideally low to the ground (if running panniers, heavy items can also ride there). Lighter, bulky items, like extra clothes, can ride up high, but keep them handy for ease of layering. Keep your sleep kit tucked away for morning and evening use, in a bar roll (which is more involved to access), in a large handlebar bag and/or seat bag. Touring or bikepacking with wider handlebars is common—they allow for more room up front to accommodate a bag or bar roll and provide extra stability for handling a loaded bike.
A Basic Packing List:
•Repair Kit: Pump, tube(s), patch kit, plugs (for tubeless), multi-tool, tire levers, chainbreaker & extra link(s), extra sealant (depending on route/ distance), duct tape, valve core remover.
•Lights: Front and rear bike lights, headlamp (nice for mornings/ evenings at camp). BE SEEN.
•Batteries & Electronics: spare batteries if your lights require these, wall-charger (for short charges at cafes, restaurants, gas stations, etc.), power bank (such as Goal Zero), and all your accessory charging cords.
•Sleep System (unless you are hotel/ Airbnb touring): sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and some combination thereof a bivy, tarp/ground cloth and/or tent.
•Clothes: Your call, but dry layers for sleeping are always welcome at the end of a long day. Rain gear? Riding in Moab, probably not necessary. Touring in Washington, absolutely.
•Food & Water: Decide how much of both you will need based on your route, and remember to leave a little extra space in your bags if you’re planning to buy extra food en route!
It’s easy to get caught up in the details. Remember that the best bike is the bike you have and you can refine your set-up for trips as you gain more experience. So gear up, get out there and have yourself an adventure!