Ten Steps to Bikepacking Heaven
Posted 23 April 2022
Alex Bergin is an experienced expedition leader and cycle guide. Below he shares a few tips that will hopefully prevent your dream bikepacking adventure from turning into a right royal pain in the arse (literally or figuratively).
1 - Go Light
Lightweight kit is crucial in the mountains and even more so when bikepacking. It’s quite rare for there to be a change in your weight during a ride, so if my ‘domestique’ duties as a chaperone rider on charity cycle events taught me one thing, it’s that you feel extra weight on every pedal stroke.
Stick to absolutely necessary items and take as many things as possible that serve two purposes (e.g. insulated clothing that can be worn at night to allow for a lighter sleeping bag, camping pillowcases that are stuffed with clothing, etc.).
I trust it’s sufficiently obvious that you’ll forgive me writing this in a blog for Tundra, but a high-quality, lightweight down sleeping bag should be one of your priority purchases for bikepacking.
I use Tundra’s Supalite Traveller, as it’s warm enough for 3-season use, weighs next to nothing and I value a hood as being worth the small weight disadvantage versus a hoodless bag.
Super-lightweight tents come at the expensive of durability and/or space and often require the use of a footprint (taking them back up towards the weight of far cheaper, mid-range options). I find a good middleground is around 1.8kg for a 1-man and 2.2kg for a 2-man, which should mean you spend under £200 and stay dry through stormy nights.
I have several sleeping mats from Exped, which all pack down to nothing and weigh between 350g and 550g, depending on the level of insulation provided. Old foam mats are now confined to Arctic kit-lists where punctures could prove disastrous.
Bivvi bags are back in fashion and definitely have their uses when it’s cold and dry, but they have serious drawbacks too. In traditional British drizzle they leave you with nowhere dry to get changed, without a porch to cook in and, if you have to zip yourself in, the moisture levels demand heavier synthetic sleeping bags that negate any weight savings made with the bivvi. Add a tarp too and you will most likely have a heavier, less flexible and poorer shelter than a tent.
3 - Plan Your Route
Firstly, your route should be enjoyable rather than purely challenging. This is an aspect all too often overlooked. Also take into consideration: access to drinking water; that it’s ridable with the extra weight you’ll be carrying; ease of navigation by whatever means you use; food stores and bike shops; safe places to camp; emergency short cuts and shelter.
4 - Navigation
Getting lost when hiking is usually a quick fix, given the slow speed and ease of regular access to maps. Missing a turn when cycling and going 25km in the wrong direction can end friendships.
Whether you learn to write route cards or programme a GPS, make sure you’ll know where you’re going and have a system in place to stick to it (setting alarms for ETA’s at crucial decision points is a great start).
If you are heading ‘off-grid’, take a compass and paper map as fail-safe back-ups to electronic devices.
5 - Food & Drink
Water purification drops/tablets can make logistics a lot easier and your bike a lot lighter. Ensure you have the ability to carry at least two litres of water, which will likely mean two bottles plus a reserve bladder.
‘Bonking’ can ruin any cyclist’s day, so make sure you have enough food for the ride you plan. 2000kcal might have you skipping through a day in the office, but it’ll see you dissolve into a sobbing mess half-way through a full-day ride.
As weight is key, dehydrated food is the only way to go for meals. Expedition Foods do a fantastic range that have got me through many an adventure.
6 - Repairs
Have a comprehensive set of tools and spares, including botches that might last those few desperate miles to civilisation. Learn basic maintenance and research a few clever hacks (e.g. a 6cm square of old toothpaste tube can be cut to patch a split tyre).
It’s not always possible or practical, but more of you riding compatible kit and tyre sizes means less spares per rider.
7 - Kit & Clothing
Invest in good bikepacking bags, as that will keep the weight off your back and they are far more aero than traditional panniers. Experiment before you go to find a packing system that spreads the weight evenly and makes sense (i.e. ride kit is most accessible and sleep kit is somewhere waterproof).
As with all long-distance adventures, merino wool is your friend if you want to avoid smelling like an old sock. Jackets that convert to gilets are great for their grams, as are arm/leg warmers.
Other key items are: lightweight stove and cook kit, high-quality mini-pump, powerbank, rechargeable lights/headtorch (plus one small battery option just in case), waterproof stuff-sacks, long-handled spoon for dehydrated meal pouches.
8 - Bikes
This is a can of worms, but make sure the bike is serviced and no key components are near the end of their life. Choose your tyres well and research the latest thinking on pressures – lower can be quicker and lessen the chance of punctures.
Lightweight is better and comfort is king. Make sure the gearing is suitable for both the route and the weight you’ll be carrying. When fully loaded on a 20% climb, an 11-23 cassette will require the quads of Chris Hoy and the lungs of a racehorse. Don’t make it harder than it needs to be.
9 - Weather & Safety
Avoid heavy traffic/dangerous roads and always be visible. Lights and bright colours could save your life. The trend towards dark and neutral colours might look good in a café, but no one will care when you haven’t showered for two days and not being hit by a vehicle is far more important.
One of the beauties of the efficiency of cycle-travel is that you can get a long way off the beaten path, but this isn’t necessarily a great thing in the case of extreme weather or a medical issue.
Make sure someone at home (or local to the ride) knows your route and timings and will alert emergency services if you don’t contact them/appear on time. Research escape routes and areas of safety/shelter/habitation.
10 - No Late Changes
One of the best things about a bikepacking adventure is that you have the perfect excuse to buy knew kit. However, whether that’s the latest gravel bike or super-sexy bib-shorts, your new purchase could prove to be your undoing.
A new bike with an unfamiliar set-up, shorts that start rubbing after 2hrs or a saddle that’s the wrong height or shape for your bum could all spell disaster.
Make sure your kit is tried, tested and fit-for-purpose. Shorts that have been fine for a 1hr test ride might leave you feeling like you slid down a rusty bannister by the end of your first day’s ride.
Ride safe and enjoy!