I have enjoyed nearly every outdoor activity (except ice climbing) I’ve ever tried. On one hand this is a good thing. It means I have the gear and the knowledge to at least survive most outings. From climbing to skiing to biking to backpacking to kayaking, chances are I’m going to accept the invitation. On the other hand, it means I’ve sunk a lot of money into specialty gear setups. So when I decided I wanted to try bikepacking last year, the major question was what to do about the gear.
Bikepacking (or bike touring) is a challenging, technical way to see new terrain. It lets you cover more distance than could be accomplished on foot and comes with the bonus of ridiculously fun downhills.
The setup is pricey though. Once you’re fully equipped, the cost of bike touring is nominal, but a specialized initial kit will set you back thousands of dollars. That wasn’t feasible for me, so with a little finagling and a lot of trial and error, my adventure partner and I managed to make bikepacking work by rigging our mountain bikes with backpacking gear — and it’s something we’ll be doing a lot more of.
A full touring setup typically uses a touring bike, frame bags, and panniers, but if you are going out for less than a week, you can get by without panniers, and your current bike will do — just be sure to check the route terrain to make sure your bike can handle it, as well as make sure your bike is tuned and in good condition before you leave.
The key here is going as minimal as possible. We weren’t worried about weight as much as having enough space on the bikes, particularly because our aim was to make it work sans specialty touring bags.
We rigged our mountain bikes using two stuff sacks, a seat-post rack, a small cockpit bag, and a hydration pack. I used my backpacking sleep system, which was an ultralight 30-degree quilt, a packable sleeping pad, and an ultralight two-person tent. I also carried a rain jacket, down jacket, headlamp, water filter, and food… all of my normal backpacking gear.
We fit all of these things into four storage places:
- Stuff sacks strapped to our handlebars
- A stuff sack tied to the rack over our rear wheel
- Small hydration packs we wore on our back
- Cockpit bags for our phones and critical items like gummy worms
The only major storage space we didn’t use was on the bike frame, which proved too hard to jury-rig with our non-bikepacking-specific gear.
My bike is full suspension, which means I have less room between my tubes, plus a curved top tube. My adventure partner had a hardtail, arguably better for long-distance biking. Since she had a straight top tube, she strapped the tent poles to that and we split up the rest of the tent.
Overall, we spent a total of about $100 on gear. This will vary based on what you already own, but we only had to purchase a few bungee cords and ratchet straps, the seatpost rack, and the small cockpit bag. Here are the details, and what we put in each place.
1) Seatpost Rack (Used with a stuff sack and ratchet strap): Extending from under your seat, the seat pack is a critical place to carry gear for bikepacking. After a few false starts, we found seatpost racks used for bike commuting, and secured them to our seatposts with the quick lever. The ones we bought could handle up to 20 pounds, and they felt very secure. I crammed my sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and down jacket in the stuff sack, and secured it with two small ratchet straps. Make sure to leave the racks as high under your seat as possible if you’re riding a bike with suspension, since it could hit the tire over bumps.
2) Front Pack (Stuff sack, bungee cord, ratchet strap): Front bags for bikepacking are awesome. They can be fully enclosed, or more of a roll style. For this, we used smaller, narrower stuff sacks and filled them with meals and extra layers… things we didn’t need readily accessible. These had to be secured tightly on the handlebars or else they’d start to flop around.
3) Backpack (10L mountain biking pack with 2L hydration bladder): Most bikepackers won’t carry a backpack, but since we didn’t have frame bags, we needed the extra space. I carried a hydration reservoir, and used my mountain-biking pack since it’s well ventilated and convenient. I carried snacks, a layer, and my bike repair tools / spare tube in here.
4) Cockpit Bag: This is the only bikepacking-specific item we bought. It cost $30 and it was super handy. It strapped to my top tube and head tube, with an open window so we could see our phone screens. I used my phone for navigation, and it was helpful to glance down and see if we were on track. I also kept Chapstick, a mini pump, external battery, and gummy worms in here. If you go for one of these bags, look for one with a zipper. The one I bought had the tendency to open up and drop things due to the partial Velcro closure.
That was it! We had to stop a few times to adjust the gear and reset the bags, but overall it was easy, successful, and rewarding to take on a bikepacking trip with gear and bikes we already owned. Remember to carry the most packable gear possible, don’t overpack, and if you aren’t using a specialized touring bike, know the limits of your own rig before choosing your route. Then, of course, have fun out there!
Maggie Slepian is a freelance writer and editor. She enjoys backpacking, drawing horses, and trying to get her cat to walk on a leash. Writing clips and contact info can be found on social media or at maggieslepian.com
I an old (79) solo long time and distance camping motorcycle rider. Even with my experience, your approach is most appreciated.