Bikepacking in the desert

What is Bikepacking?

If you’re like most people searching for the term “bikepacking”, you’ve probably noticed Google trying to autocorrect your searches from time to time; “Showing results for backpacking.” Well, it seems Google has finally caught onto the fact that literally millions of people are intentionally searching for “bikepacking”.

So let’s get to it. Bikepacking is a recent trend (last 10 years) that can be thought of as ‘ultralight’ cycling’ or ‘ultralight bike touring.’ Even though you’re using a bike instead of your feet to move along, bikepacking and backpacking are not too different after all.

You can think of bikpacking as a cross between backpacking and bicycle touring.

You likely know what backpacking is… the activity of lugging camping gear, food, water, and everything else you need to survive out into the wilderness, doing so under your own power. You probably also have some idea of what bicycle touring is. If you’ve ever seen a couple bicycle riders pedaling along a long, lonesome highway, seemingly headed nowhere, with some bags strapped to their bikes, then you’ve seen what bicycle touring is.

Bikepacking is exploring the backcountry on a bicycle.

What is the Difference between Bikepacking and Bicycle Touring?

Now that we’ve introduced you to the bikepacking concept, let’s be clear: there is no singular definition of what bikepacking is. Purists will say that if you mount any kind of rack to your frame, you are not a bikepacker. Others say the use of saddlebags or panniers automatically disqualifies your bike from being a bikepacking rig. And what about the type of surface you’re riding on? Does it always have to be offroad for it to be considered bikepacking? After all, there are already plenty of “bikepacking” routes that are primarily on paved roads.

The line between bikepacking and bicycle touring is certainly blurred. So, instead of focusing on drawing a definite line around what bikepacking is, let’s focus on some of the most significant differences between bikepacking and bicycle touring.

Difference #1: Bikepacking Weight and Storage Capacity

This is likely the largest difference between the two. You can think of bikepacking as ultralight bicycle touring. In fact, backpacking has the same subcategory: ultralight backpacking and ultralight hiking. These are the guys and gals who measure out every bit of sunscreen, cut the handles off their toothbrushes, and use the same pair of underwear for weeks on end (ok, maybe not that bad… mostly) in order to shave weight off their total pack load.

Consequently, bikepacking actually uses much of the same gear that ultralight backpacking does, but more on that later.

Let’s quickly take a look at the average weight and capacity of the bicycle touring setup vs. a bikepacking setup in terms of luggage weight and capacity.

Bicycle Touring Setup Using Panniers

  • Rear Rack (Salsa Alternator Rack): 1.68 lbs
  • Front Rack (Salsa Down Under Rack): 1.17 lbs
  • Rear Panniers (Ortlieb Roller City Rear): 3.34 lbs, 40 liters
  • Front Panniers (Ortlieb Sport Roller City Front): 2.66 lbs, 25 liters

Total Bicycle Touring Setup Weight: 8.85 lbs, 65 liters of capacity

Bicycle Touring Panniers
Bicycle Touring Setup with Panniers

Bikepacking Setup Using Bikepacking Bags

  • Seat Pack (Ortlieb Bike Packing Seat Pack): 0.95 lbs, 16.5 liters
  • Frame Bag (Revelate Designs Ranger size XL): 1.08 lbs, 10 liters
  • Handlebar Roll (Revelate Designs Sweetroll): 0.9 lbs, 14 liters

Total Bikepacking Setup Weight: 2.93 lbs, 40.5 liters of capacity

a typical bikepacking setup
A typical bikepacking setup

That is a huge difference in weight between the bikepacking setup and the bicycle touring setup. Granted, you have less gear capacity with the bikepacking setup (40.5 liters vs. 65 liters). However, going lighter with less gear is also the goal of bikepacking. The less space for stuff you have, the less stuff you’ll find yourself actually needing. As the old saying goes in backpacking, if you have empty space in your pack you will find something to fill it with. The smaller capacity of bikepacking bags will make you smarter at packing and at minimize weight.

Minimizing Weight

  • Bikepacking Frameset– Do you choose a steel, aluminum, or carbon fiber frame? When bikepacking all day on single track, the weight difference between these starts making a big difference in terms of the energy you expend. In bicycle touring there will also be a difference, but it can be much less consequential because the terrain you’re riding (paved roads) is much more forgiving.
  • Gear – Ultralight tents, ultralight sleeping bags, ultralight sleeping pads, ultralight cooking sets, ultralight everything. Choosing ultralight gear is more important when bikepacking versus bicycle touring. That’s not to say you need ultralight gear for bikepacking, but it can certainly make things much easier. When bicycle touring, there is generally more leniency in terms of gear weight, as pannier racks and smooth roads makes carrying heavier loads less of an issue. 
  • Food – Calorie-dense snacks and dehydrated meals. Bringing 10 lbs. worth of uncooked potatoes up into the mountains on a three day trip is going to weigh on you. Literally. Calorie-to-weight ratio is the name of the game in bikepacking, so lugging around a sack of potatoes probably isn’t the best idea. You wouldn’t necessarily do such a thing when bicycle touring either, but it is much more common to haul a full on cooking set and raw ingredients when touring. Bikepacking, on the other hand, often relies on calorie-packed dehydrated meals and energy-rich snack foods (which can be natural!).
  • Clothing – Ultralight and lightweight fabrics and insulating materials. The days of cotton thermals and fur overcoats are long gone. In our opinion, bikepacking gear more closely resembles backpacking gear than it does proper cycling gear. Why? Because the conditions you’ll encounter in the backcountry while bikepacking are the same ones you’d encounter when backpacking. Warmth-to-weight ratio is the critical factor here. That means that lycra shorts, racing jersies, and cycling bibs don’t often feature in bikepacking circles. You’re much more likely to find ultralight down jackets, ultralight rain jackets, and other lightweight gear (that is normally intended for backpacking) to be suitable for bikepacking.
Bikepacking in the Alps
Keeping weight to a minimum makes all the difference on those narrow tracks.

Difference #2: Bikepacking Frameset and Configuration

To the lay person, it would be difficult for them to differentiate between a bikepacking bike and a bicycle touring bike. And indeed, many bikes can and are used for both. Examples include the Surly Long Haul Trucker, Salsa Vaya, Salsa Journeyman, Specialized AWOL, REI’s Co-op ADV 3.2, or Soma Wolverine. Each bike has its pluses and minuses depending on what you use it for, but here are some common areas where bikepacking bikes differ from bike touring bikes.

  • Suspension – It is rare that you would ever need a front or rear suspension on a bicycle tour, since tourers spend almost all their time on pavement. Even on gravel roads, suspension is often not needed. Although there are certainly bikepacking routes where suspension is not needed, some trail-heavy routes absolutely require at least a front suspension.
  • Tire Type – Bicycle touring generally uses specific touring tires that aim to last a long time on paved surfaces. This is a hotly debated topic, but some the best bicycle touring tires include Schwalbe Marathon Mondial, Schwalbe Marathon Plus, and Schwalbe Marathon Supremes (yes, the Germans make excellent, long-lasting tires). Bikepacking tires, meanwhile, have a huge variety of possibilities, ranging from aggressive, dirt-oriented tires like the WTB Trail Boss to the slightly less aggressive Maxxis Minion to the more all-purpose WTB Ranger.
  • Tire Size – Bicycle touring tires usually stay in the range of 32mm to 48mm widths. Bikepacking tires, once again, vary hugely depending on the type of terrain on the route. Generally, tires will range from about 42mm to 3” (aka ‘plus size’ tires). If you start to dabble in the fat bike touring world, tires can go up to 5”, but that’s a story for another day.
  • Panniers vs. Bikepacking Bags – This is probably the most notable difference between bikepacking and bicycle touring. Bicycle touring almost always uses a rack system to carry a set of panniers. Bikepacking uses specially-made bags that do not use a rack system to mount to the bike. These bags usually consist of the big three: frame bag, seat pack, and handlebar roll. Additional, smaller capacity bags can be added as well, including top tube bags and stem bags. However, bikepackers almost never use panniers since the point is to be as sleek and ultralight as possible.

Difference #3: Bikepacking Trip Logistics

The way someone goes about planning a bikepacking trip might be considerably different than someone planning a bicycle tour. Here are some of the ways planning a bikepacking trip may be different.

  • Route research – Planning resupply points and camping options. This is a big one that folks often overlook. In bicycle touring, you’re normally on paved roads where there is at least some sort of civilization around. It’s common to have some sort of mini-mart, gas station, or small town with a shop or two within a few miles of your location. Daily planning doesn’t need to be too detailed, and generally you can stop whenever you’d like without stressing too much about finding food, water, or shelter (there are exceptions of course).
    With bikepacking, finding yourself hours away from the nearest civilization is the norm. What does this mean? Knowing ahead of time where there are possible stores, campgrounds, shelters, and water sources along the route ahead becomes much more important. The commitment factor is just that much higher in bikepacking.
  • Autonomy – Again, in bicycle touring a rider will usually spend far less time away from civilization than if they were bikepacking. This means help is usually not too far off for the tourer if something goes wrong. The bikepacker, however, may be hours or days away from getting help. For that reason, bikepacking requires the know-how to do your own repairs and javing all the tools in order to do them.
  • Wilderness Knowledge – As any backpacker will tell you, getting stuck out in the open when a storm opens up is no fun, and in some situations can be dangerous. Generally, bicycle tourers have more opportunity to take shelter under a roof than bikepackers would. All the other rules of wilderness travel such as how to deal with wildlife encounters, assessing weather patterns, and reading terrain are more relevant to bikepackers than they are to bicycle tourers.
    • NOTE: One of the most important aspects of traveling in the backcountry is the principle of ‘Leave No Trace.’ Always remember that the outdoors are for everyone and every generation. People have come before you and people will come after you, so ensure that their experience is as good as yours by packing out everything you arrived with, adhering to fire bans, and respecting the local flora and fauna.
  • Emergency Situations – In the same way that a bikepacker needs to be able to fix their bike in case of a mechanical break, they need to have basic first aid knowledge (at minimum) to deal with injuries. On some routes that are very remote, it is not advisable to ride alone. Instead, the same rules of backcountry backpacking apply: carry a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger (like a SPOT device) and travel with a partner. The devices, coupled with a knowledge of wilderness first aid and wilderness medicine are crucial to remaining safe.
Intense Bikepacking in the desert
If your bikepacking route includes this, you may want to re-evaluate.

Difference #4: Type of Bikepacking Tour – Onroad vs. Offroad

One way many people like to differentiate bikepacking and bicycle touring is by highlighting the surface that is being ridden. In most cases, bicycle tours stick to paved roads. This is why you’ve probably seen a bicycle tourer while driving; they’re the ones furiously pedaling up that backcountry two-lane highway with a bunch of gear strapped to their bikes and clad in hi-vis everything.

You’re much less likely to see bikepackers unless you catch them as they come out of the forest, muddied and bloodied, to feast on cheap gas station hot dogs before disappearing into the woods again. That said, there is some variety in the types of surfaces bikepackers ride.

  • Road – That’s right. Just like bicycle tourers, bikepackers may very well spend some time on asphalted roads. In general, if over 50% of the route is on paved roads, then it is not considered a bikepacking route. One could argue that if the other 50% of the route is single-track, it should be considered bikepacking. But really, if you’re riding a route that is 50% asphalt and 50% single track, you’re probably a masochist, since whatever bike you bring will probably not be suitable for either.
  • Gravel Roads – This could be considered the quintessential bikepacking surface. Gravel roads usually mean low traffic and rural areas. Bikepacking is all about getting out to places that not many people visit, and gravel roads will get you there.
  • Double-track – These are the two-track roads you see in national forests, BLM lands, logging areas, and many others that are just wide enough for a single vehicle. The surface can vary between gravel, rock, sand, mud, dirt… anything you can imagine. You are unlikely to run into any cars out here, which makes them even better than gravel roads.
  • Single-track – This is the stuff you see in all the professional mountain biking videos. Many times it is shared by hikers, trail runners, backpackers and sometimes horses. Vehicles don’t fit on these. As with double-track, the riding surface varies greatly. If you are thinking, “How could you ride a bike with luggage for days on end on a hiking trail?” then you are not alone. These types of routes are hardcore, committing, and difficult.
  • Cross-country – Sometimes there simply is no road. Or maybe your GPS shows a road on the map, but it either never existed, it’s not where you expected, or it is completely overgrown. In these cases, you are riding over the land itself, forging your own path.
Bikepacking offroad in the desert
Bikepacking generally takes place on dirt or gravel roads and trails.

Bikepacking Gear List

The gear used in bikepacking is a combination of bike touring gear and ultralight backpacking equipment. Although much of the ultralight gear for backpacking can be used for bikepacking, more and more companies are starting to create gear specifically for bikepacking. Don’t get too bogged down with all the hyped up gear lists out there if you’re just starting out. The most important thing is to go out and ride.

Check out our Bikepacking Gear List to get a general idea of what to bring on a bikepacking trip.

Why Bikepacking?

So why would one want to start bikepacking anyway? If bicycle touring is so popular, what’s the point of choosing to bikepack instead of bike tour? Let’s start off by saying that in no way is one better than the other. Rather, each has its advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice in the same way that some people would much rather do multi-day backpacking outings while others enjoy hiking without the burden of carrying a huge backpack loaded up with all their gear.

With that said, let’s look at the pros and cons of bikepacking.

Bikepacking Pros:

  1. Efficient Travel – On a bike, distances become a lot more manageable. Hiking 5 miles on flat ground can take 1-2 hours. That same distance could be covered in 20 minutes on a bike (depending on many things of course). The takeaway is that you can cover a lot more ground on a bike while still having a satisfying outdoor experience. The efficiency of a bicycle makes remote areas much more attainable, greatly increasing your ability to explore.
  2. Getting into the Backcountry – The beauty of bikepacking is that it gets you into areas that seldom see visitors. This makes the interactions you have while on route all the more authentic. Being off the beaten path lets you encounter scenery, animals, and people that most people take for granted. There is a kind of beauty and novelty about encountering the non-sugarcoated aspect of a country.  
  3. Learning New Skills – Bikepacking will force you to learn new skills. You will get better at packing, better at navigation, better at reading the weather, better at doing more with less. This depends on the person, but bikepacking can allow you to view the landscapes, people, and the world in a different light. Being at the mercy of the elements is humbling. After setting up your camp in the wind and the rain, you’ll never take having a roof over your head for granted again.
  4. Exploration – There is something inherently fun, adventurous, and fulfilling about riding your bike offroad. Don’t believe us? Next time you’re on a bike ride and you see a gravel road shooting off your paved route, take it. See where it goes, see what you find. Bikepacking gets to the heart of what it means to explore. A bikepacking setup will be able to take you nearly anywhere you can dream of. As the late mountaineer Kyle Dempster once said, “Adventure burns brightest at the map’s edges.”
  5. Bikepacking Bags vs. Panniers – We’re going to hit this one again to emphasize it. Touring with bags instead of a rack and panniers has the following advantages:
    • Reliability – There are no welded joints to crack or mounting points to break with bikepacking bags. If a rack breaks on a bicycle tour, it is very difficult to find a stable fix until you get you to the nearest welding shop. With bikepacking bags, a broken strap can be fixed with Velcro or even better, Voilé straps (we’re huge fans of these).
    • Weight is Minimized – We’ve already mentioned this above, but we’ll do so again. Racks and panniers are considerably heavier than bikepacking bags. Lighter weight means being more nimble, easier to maneuver, and more efficient. Bags also place all the weight along the axis of the bicycle, meaning there is less side to side momentum to fight against when pedaling.
    • Aerodynamics Are Improved – Bikepacking bags are streamlined, meaning considerably less drag when you’re cruising down a 10-mile-long downhill gravel road. Pedaling into a frustrating head wind also becomes considerably easier because of the aerodynamics of bags. Try that with panniers and you’ll quickly be a convert to bikepacking bags instead.
    • Hike-a-Bikes Are Less Painful – Ah yes, the dreaded overgrown and rocky trail that is completely unrideable and forces you to push your bike. We can tell you from personal experience that this becomes a huge pain when you’ve got panniers sticking out. The backs of your ankles will thank you for investing bags in cases such as these.
    • Bikepacking Bags Look Cool – This one is totally subjective and probably a bit vain. But let’s be honest. A proper bikepacking setup looks killer. That’s not to say a touring setup can’t look sweet too (more bags implies you’ve been to more places!).
    • Panniers are Noisy! – You might not think this is a big issue, but after seven 80-mile days in a row where your panniers are banging around, rattling, and making other mysterious noises, you will be become clinically insane. Bikepacking setups are famously clean and tidy and make far less noise on rough tracks than a pair of panniers. 
  6. Overall Wear and Tear – This one depends on how hardcore you are. If you ride the same rough trail with both a bikepacking setup and a bicycle touring setup, chances are you’re going to have much more wear and tear on the touring setup simply because you’ve got more weight bouncing around and stressing the different components on your bike. Things like tires, wheels, chains, chain rings, cassettes, bottom brackets, and spokes will undergo more stress and fail more quickly on a heavier touring bike. More weight also means you burn through your brakes faster (pads and discs). However, if you stick to paved roads as you normally do in bicycle touring, your wear and tear of components will likely be the same on a bikepacking setup and a bicycle touring setup.
Bikepacking in the Swiss Alps
This kind of riding is way better suited for bikepacking over bicycle touring.

Bikepacking Cons:

  1. Less Storage Space – Let’s address the elephant in the room. As we saw in the weight and capacity comparison above, you’ve got about one third less room to pack gear into with a bikepacking setup compared to panniers. Bikepackers make up for this by really minimizing what they bring with them, optimizing the gear that they do bring, and doing more extensive route planning.
  2. Less Comfortable – With less storage space onboard the bike comes less probability that you’ll be able to bring that big comfy camp chair, that extra thick sleeping pad, or an entire 6-pack of beer. Ok that last one is a lie… there is always room for beer. The good news is that outdoor ultralight gear technology has gotten to the point where ultralight versions of all these things exist.
  3. Could be More Costly – The cost of panniers vs. bikepacking bags is actually quite comparable. As we saw in the chart above, each set up will run you in between $300-$450. However, because bikepacking is more fun with lighter loads (and the limited storage capacity), bikepackers tend to invest in ultralight bikepacking gear, which tends to be slightly more expensive than the gear you can get away with on a bicycle tour. The biggest cost difference comes in terms of the big three: ultralight bikepacking tents, ultralight bikepacking sleeping bags, and ultralight bikepacking sleeping pads. However, these are one time investments that are usually very high quality and can be used for all other outdoor pursuits as well.
  4. Winter Riding is More Difficult – Inevitably, the limited storage capacity makes it harder to haul around winter camping gear for bikepacking. In these cases, many people opt to combine bikepacking bags with lightweight bikepacking racks and small panniers in order to increase their carrying capacity. Nothing wrong with that! Try to tell someone powering through a winter wonderland with panniers that they’re not a true bikepacker and let us know how that goes.
  5. Packing is Not As Easy– You might think this refers to the amount that you can pack. While that may be true, we are referring to the time and practice it takes to pack. This is often overlooked, but it is an important point. Packing bikepacking bags becomes a true art. Unlike panniers (or even a backpacking backpack), you can’t just throw all your gear into them after breaking down camp. Certain items will only be able to fit in certain places. For example, it might be difficult to fit your entire tent into your seat pack. You might have to only store the rainfly in the seat pack and put the tent body and tent poles in your handlebar roll. Likewise, your sleeping bag, an item that cannot be split up, might only be able to fit in your seat pack, forcing you to find somewhere else to store other equipment. It’s also worth mentioning that it might take you longer to pack up camp every day unless you know exactly where and how everything is stored in your bags. In contrast, a lot of bicycle tourers can simply throw everything into their panniers with no second thought. On the one hand, it takes practice to really dial in your packing method when bikepacking. On the other hand, it makes you get really good at packing and organizing.

Where to Go Bikepacking

Anywhere. That’s the beauty of bikepacking. It allows complete and total freedom to explore. Sure, you’re probably not going to go to the summit of a Himalayan peak with your bike. But that’s entering into an entirely different sport anyway.

There are an infinite amount of ways we could split up route types. By distance, by time, by difficulty, by country, by riding surface, etc. All of these are important to keep in mind when choosing where to ride. But the beauty is that you can combine any and all of those options to ride a route that suits what you want and what you’re capable of.

However, since this is an introduction to bikepacking and the idea is to offer a guide, below are a few tips to keep in mind when choosing where to go bikepacking.

Bikepacking Tips for Choosing a Route

Tip #1: Choose Something within Your Ability

If you’re a beginner, there’s no sense starting out on a singletrack route. You’ll probably do a lot of cursing and your chances of wanting to continue are small. Instead, choose a mellow gravel road where you know there is easy camping to be had somewhere along the route.

Tip #2: Go Prepared

Nothing worse than getting to your camp site at night and realizing you forgot the fuel for your stove. Dehydrated Chicken Pad Thai just doesn’t have the same kick when eaten cold and partially rehydrated. How does this affect where you go? Choose a route where resupply points are readily available in case you do end up forgetting something. Leave those highly committing routes for later once you’ve dialed in your setup and your preparation process.

Tip #3: Choose a Route You Think You’ll Enjoy

Seems obvious doesn’t it? But let’s say your idea of “backcountry” is riding through rural farmlands where the traffic is light. You’re surrounded by gently rolling wheat fields and big open spaces. Find a route like that (they exist!). You don’t have to do an intense 200-mile ride around a volcano on singletrack for it to be considered bikepacking. The goal is to enjoy the riding, not to prove that you’re hardcore. But hey, if riding around a volcano is your thing, by all means, do it! The important thing is to choose a route you look forward to riding.

Tip #4: Do a Local Ride Before You Attempt an International Route

This is for those of us with dreams of traversing the Himalayas, bikepacking in Spain, or shipping our bike across the USA to try bikepacking in Oregon. Before spending weeks on end doing a committing route in a far-off land, do several preparation rides to feel things out. No matter how well you think you’ve prepared on paper, there’s no replacement for an actual shakedown ride close to home. If you find something to be improved with your setup, you’ve got the time and resources to do it. Trust us when we say that finding out your butt is not compatible with your saddle on day 3 of a 6 day ride through the Oregon desert is less than ideal.

Tip #5: Keep an Eye On the Weather Forecast

As with any outdoor activity, this can make or break the trip. If you’re traveling to an area you’ve never been to, get familiar with the weather patterns, the expected conditions, and the seasons. It’s easy to think a trip ‘down South’ is ideal to escape the cold northern winter (or vice versa in the Southern Hemisphere). But you might be surprised that even comfortable desert daytime temperatures can drop well below freezing once the sun goes down.

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