Bikepacking for Beginners: Complete Guide to Off-Pavement Bike Travel

Bikepacking, for me, conjures up feelings of adventure like nothing else. Strapping some camping gear to an adventure-ready bike, pedaling off toward a distant horizon, and spending a few days (or weeks or months) traveling dirt and gravel and sleeping under the stars… Sign me up! 

I love many kinds of outdoor adventure, but nothing gets me excited and uses my full range of skills quite like bikepacking. It’s such a versatile form of exploration. Bikepacking can mean riding rugged singletrack deep in the wilderness, or self-propelled travel through rural villages in a foreign land. It might be an overnighter with friends, a family vacation, or a solo expedition. 

I’ve written hundreds of articles about bikepacking on this website: about my many trips, gear recommendations, bikes and parts, problem solving and advice, camping, and much more. It’s truly my passion.

If you’re just getting started bikepacking and need an approachable way into the rabbit hole, this article is it: the ultimate bikepacking guide that ties it all together and gets you out the door on your first bicycle-powered camping trip, while also pointing you toward more detailed resources in case you fall in love with bikepacking (which, fair warning, you probably will).

I’m a firm believer that anyone can enjoy bikepacking, definitely including you. I started out solo and clueless and learned along the way. Now, 15,000+ miles of pedal-powered travel in, I’m on a mission to share the benefits with as many new bikepackers as possible. Join me!

The Bikepacking Vibe

Bikepacking is covering ground, usually gravel or dirt, faster than walking speed (usually) but slowly enough to still let every inch of it seep into your skin. It’s self-sufficiency in wild places, campfires, and cozy nights under the stars. It’s sun and rain, dust and grease, and squiggly lines on maps just begging to be explored.

Sometimes bikepacking is solitude and rationing your Cliff bars, other times it’s burgers and beer with friends, old or new. Sometimes it’s not showering for a week and then it’s a refreshing dip in a cool lake on a hot summer day. Sometimes bikepacking is fun, and sometimes it’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done.

Like any outdoor activity, bikepacking comes in many styles. You can spend hours luxuriating in lovely campsites, or you can ride through sunset and stealth nap in a ditch. You can ride with friends, as a couple, with your kids, or solo (yes, even if you’re female, despite what people will tell you). It can be a pleasant vacation or an epic sufferfest. It is what you want it to be, except when it’s not, and then we call it “an adventure.”

At the end of the day, bikepacking is really just a new spin on the old tale of outdoor exploration. But beware, because it’s both contagious and addictive, and it might be your new favorite thing.

Common Questions

What is bikepacking?

In short, bikepacking is multiday cycling where you carry your gear with you on your bike, usually with a focus on unpaved roads and trails and a moderately minimalist packing style. Think backpacking but faster, bicycle touring but more rugged, car camping without the car, or a mountain bike ride or gravel ride that lasts longer than one day.

How is bikepacking different from bicycle touring?

There’s definitely some grey area, but commonly “bikepacking” refers to mostly off-pavement rides, while “bicycle touring” means riding pavement or light gravel in populated areas. This distinction leads to differences in packing style too. Bikepacking luggage is often more streamlined, minimalist, and rugged, using bikepacking-style bags or smaller panniers. Touring, on the other hand, is traditionally done with racks and larger panniers. Boundaries are blurry though, so don’t get too caught up in the terminology.

Is bikepacking new?

Nope, sorry to break it to you, we did not invent bikepacking. People have been strapping camping gear to their bikes for as long as bikes have been around. It is, however, hitting the mainstream outdoor scene like never before.

What kind of bike do I need for bikepacking?

Short answer: the one you have! Longer and more helpful answer: one that’s best suited to the type of terrain you most want to ride. Scroll down to Bikepacking Bikes for the full answer.

Bikepacking for Beginners: Start Simple

If you’re thinking “Gimme some of that!” but have no idea where to start, never fear. I recommend that beginners keep things simple on your first couple trips. You wouldn’t buy an expensive piano if you’ve never even tried playing music before, right? Try the activity first, find out if you like it, and then invest in the fancy equipment.

Here’s where many of us started:

Backpack + tent strapped to handlebars, before I had ever heard of this “bikepacking” thing. I just wanted to try camping without a car!

Unless you happen to have an awesome friend with a well-stocked closet of loaner gear (lucky you!), you’re going to have to try bikepacking the old fashioned way. Here’s what to do:

  • Rent, re-purpose, beg, or borrow a bike. It doesn’t have to be a gravel, mountain, or bikepacking-specific bike. It doesn’t have to be lightweight. It just needs to have two wheels that roll and some air in the tires.
  • Strap some camping gear to the bike, particularly the handlebars and below your seat.
  • Take anything else you need that doesn’t fit on the bike – sleeping bag, warm jacket, chocolate, flask of whiskey, you get the idea – and put it in a backpack and wear it on your back.
  • Pack some food and water, ride to someplace you can camp, spend the night there, and then ride back. No campgrounds nearby? Try a friend’s backyard.
  • There you go! You just bikepacked.

Now obviously, there are a few safety-related guidelines to consider. They’re far simpler than you think though, and most of the stuff you might be worried about is not actually an issue, as long as you do these three things:

  • Start small, not too remote, and have an exit plan. Your exit plan could mean hiking out a short distance to a road or town if something goes wrong, or knowing you have phone service and can call a friend to pick you up.
  • Be creative with attaching gear to your bike, but check for loose straps or buckles that could catch in your wheels and cause a crash.
  • Choose low-traffic roads if you’ll be riding around motor vehicles.
  • Wear a helmet.

Yes, of course, this approach is going to lead to learning some things the hard way. Possibly lots of things. But that’s half the fun, and part of the process. The point is, don’t feel like you need to have it all figured out before you even start.

Bikepacking Bikes

Salsa Fargo, the bikepacking cult classic

First of all, if you are just starting out, the best bikepacking bike is… the bike you already have. “Run what you brung,” the saying goes, and it’s how most of us got started.

Adventurous people have been strapping gear to bikes for far longer than the term “bikepacking” has existed. But luckily for us now, there’s been a recent boom in the sport’s popularity, and bike manufacturers are definitely taking notice.

There are a few different categories of bikes commonly used for bikepacking, with the best choice depending on the type of terrain you ride most often, how much gear you like to bring, and how much you do or don’t care about things like speed and comfort.

  • Rigid 29er or 27.5″ wheel mountain bikes like the Salsa Fargo or Surly ECR. Often made of steel, but sometimes titanium or even carbon, these bikes rely on good engineering and relatively high-volume tires to deliver a comfy off-road ride. Lack of suspension helps keep weight down and maximize gear-carrying potential. They’re great for gravel and dirt roads and work fine on moderate singletrack. You’ll find a lot of them on less technical routes like the Great Divide.
  • Hardtail (front suspension) mountain bikes can expand a bikepacker’s range to bumpy or technical trails in greater comfort. You’ll find these on both the Great Divide route and more technical routes like the Colorado Trail. These are common, available in a wide price range, and very versatile, making them an excellent choice for beginning bikepackers.
  • Full-suspension trail bikes: not very common, usually only the bike of choice for experienced mountain bikers riding truly technical trail. You’ll find these on the Colorado Trail alongside hardtails. The rear suspension complicates carrying gear on the bike, adds complexity, and is also expensive.


Tire choice is another huge topic that bikepackers love to geek out about. With so many different options and use cases, I’m going to link to this bikepacking tire overview and leave it at that for now.


Pedal choice is a very individual preference, and you’ll find bikepackers riding both flats and clipless. If riding clipless, you’ll definitely want MTB-style bike shoes with the recessed cleats, essential for things like walking the bike through tricky terrain or walking into a grocery store to resupply food.

Especially on more technical terrain, it’s not unusual to find riders using flat pedals and flat cycling shoes for comfort and convenience. As an in-between choice, toe-straps like Power Grips can help with power transfer while still allowing for all those times when you don’t want to be clipped in (rocky terrain, long hike-a-bikes, mud-clogged cleats…).

Even when using SPD pedals it can be nice to have a single sided model that can function as both platform and clipless, allowing you to pedal while not clipped in when necessary.


Many bikepackers, like traditional bicycle tourists, swear by leather saddles like the Brooks B17. The Selle Anatomica series is a popular alternative. These saddles aren’t cushy, but they mold to your unique anatomy over time and help reduce chafing, making them a favorite among those who spend long hours in their saddles.

For more information on saddle choice and comfort, see this guide on reducing saddle soreness for women (many of the tips apply to men too).

Choosing A Bikepacking Route

Bikepacking routes can be anything from a quick overnight mini-adventure on a school/work night to a multi-month cross-continent odyssey. No matter how much time you have, there’s a bikepacking route out there for you.

To find a bikepacking route in your area, start by Googling for information about your local trail systems. If bikes are legally allowed on the trails or dirt roads, and there’s a campground somewhere, then you have yourself the makings of a bikepacking route. A few tips:

  • In the US, if you happen to live near national forest or BLM land, you likely live near a network of gravel or dirt roads full of legal dispersed camping.
  • To learn more about bike-legal trail systems, check out the MTB Project app. Keep in mind that this app is focused on mountain bikers, so unless you are already a reasonably skilled one of those, you’ll want to stick to the green/easy and blue/intermediate trails for your early bikepacking adventures.
  • To plan safe road connections where necessary, try the Google Maps app with the “bicycling layer” turned on. Look first for dark green lines (trails), then next for green lines (bike lanes). Use caution on unfamiliar roads that might be busy with vehicle traffic and be prepared to reroute on the fly if a road feels unsafe.
  •, always a fantastic resource, has more route planning ideas here.

To find more established routes that others have written about, try Googling “bikepacking near ____” or “gravel bike routes near ___.” Often this will turn up a variety of personal blog posts, trip reports, and even elaborate route guides from those who’ve ridden and developed established routes.

Make sure to consider the style of riding you’re looking for. The term “bikepacking” gets used to refer to everything from gravel road touring to technical mountain biking. If you’re looking for one but find the other instead, you’re likely to be a bit disappointed to say the least. When researching routes make sure you understand which side of the spectrum your potential route is on.

Looking for some of this?
Or is this more your style?

If you want to browse and get a sense of what’s out there, here are some excellent resources and guides to bikepacking routes in the US and around the world:

If you prefer the DIY approach or can’t find an established route that works for you, you can always plan your own!

Planning A Bikepacking Trip

Once you have a route in mind, you’ll need to plan out details like daily distances, food and water resupply stops, and potential campsites. It’s definitely possible to wing it if you have a flexible schedule, but this isn’t a good idea unless you already have experience on similar terrain in a similar part of the world.

Estimating Daily Distance

The most basic planning task is to estimate how far you can ride each day. Here’s one handy table, from Salsa via, with some broad estimates. Here’s my own more detailed overview of estimating mileage. Obviously, once you have a few trips under your belt, it gets easier to look at a route and estimate your daily distances.

The tricky thing about bikepacking, even moreso than backpacking/hiking, is that certain factors can make a HUGE difference in your speed. For example:

  • Uphill versus downhill
  • Gradient of uphill: steep enough that you’ll be walking, or gradual enough to ride?
  • Roughness or smoothness of terrain: cruising on smooth gravel or picking your way over rocks and roots?
  • Weather: rain can turn dirt roads into impassible mud, snow can turn a smooth ride into a frustrating hike-a-bike, hail can make you duck for cover, heat can slow you to a crawl on hard climbs.
  • Mechanical issues or recurring punctures (for example due to thorns in some areas) can stop progress completely.

Then, there are issues within our control that are important to assess honestly:

  • Hours of daylight based on location and time of year, and whether you’re equipped and willing to ride in the dark.
  • Your fitness and motivation
  • The type of trip you want to have: a leisurely vacation, a limit-pushing endurance project, or somewhere in between?

There’s a bit of an art to putting this all together, and honestly, it’s hard to get right without some experience. For this reason it’s smart to be conservative with your planning, or at least to have some backup plans in place.

Water for Bikepacking

Once you have a rough idea of how far you can and want to ride each day, consider where you’ll be able to find water. You can live for weeks without food, but if you mess up your water supply you can be in real trouble within a day (or even less in hot weather).

In mountain areas this is often easy; you can carry only a couple liters at a time and fill up several times a day as needed. In dry areas though, you may need to plan carefully and carry enough water to get you through a couple days if needed; potentially 6-8 liters or even more in extreme cases. In all cases, you’ll want some kind of water purification system, like those used by wilderness backpackers, so you safely refill from natural sources.

Bikepacking near river in Idaho
Plenty of water here in these Idaho mountains.
Bikepacking in Oregon desert
Not much water here in the Oregon desert.

As a worst case scenario, consider what would happen if your bike became unrideable for some reason and you needed to walk out to the nearest town or road in order to find water. Would you have enough water to get you there safely? Keep that in the back of your mind as you’re planning water stops.

Food for Bikepacking

Food takes space and can be heavy, so bikepackers on longer trips will usually resupply every few days at stores along the way. You don’t have to limit yourself to grocery stores though; small towns will often have a general store or gas station convenience store with basics like snacks, energy bars, canned food, sandwiches, and microwave burritos. Bikepacking diets are not always the healthiest, but it’s important to get plenty of calories in, even if that means eating some junk food.

Some bikepackers, like backpackers, use dehydrated or freeze dried meals that are lightweight and require only hot water to cook. Generally speaking though, bikepackers pass through more towns than backpackers (due to the relatively faster speed of biking) and also can manage a little extra weight more easily than those on foot. For this reason, bikepackers are more likely than backpackers to resupply from stores rather than packing dehydrated meals or mailing resupply boxes. It’s also not too painful to go stoveless while bikepacking, especially if you can get hot meals in town every couple of days.

Don’t forget to budget for some meals in town when stopping to resupply. The hearty town meal after a few days in the backcountry is, in my opinion, one of the great joys of bikepacking.

Dinner is served.
Town meals are a special treat.

Camping and Lodging

There’s nothing wrong with finding campsites as you go along, but a little advance research can make life a lot less stressful when it’s late afternoon and daylight hours are dwindling.

Rules and norms for camping vary a lot between countries. For my fellow US-based bikepackers, common places to spend the night include:

  • Established campgrounds
  • RV parks or motels that allow tent camping
  • Free dispersed camping in national forest and BLM land (check out for helpful online maps)
  • Hiker/biker campsites at state parks
Big Sky tent and Long Haul Trucker bike camping in forest in Argentina
Finding excellent camp spots, like this one in Argentina, is one of the joys of bikepacking.
Tarptent double rainbow tent, bikepacking in New Mexico
This one in New Mexico was great too!

In places where these aren’t options, your next best bet (in the US at least) is to camp in public places in small towns. This can include churches, libraries, schools, fire stations, post offices, or stores, ideally with permission from whoever is in charge of the space. Don’t camp at churches on Saturday night, or schools on weeknights, unless you plan to hit the road very early in the morning. 🙂 Generally speaking, this type of camping works best in small communities and is sometimes neither comfortable nor welcome in medium-to-large towns and cities.

If all else fails, there’s always stealth camping. Sometimes this means camping someplace you’re technically not supposed to, such as on private land. I recommend avoiding this, but I also recognize that sometimes it can be the only reasonable option available if you end up in a sticky situation. In this case be sure to choose a spot where vehicle headlights won’t out you, make camp after dark, be gone by sunrise, and leave no trace of your visit.

Finally, you would not be the first bikepacker to enjoy the cozy comforts of a motel room at some point during your journey. Camping, though a key part of most bikepacking journeys, is not required 100% of the time.

Tip: in addition to your route data (more on this below), download offline maps to your smartphone in Google Maps and for the locations you’ll be passing through. This will give you access to names and locations of motels, restaurants, gas stations, etc. even without an internet connection.

Most bikepackers these days use GPS navigation, which is indeed very convenient. But it’s worth remembering that a) electronics can fail, and b) bike adventurers used to navigate by paper maps, which are still a valid option and a good backup.

There are two ways to navigate by GPS:

These are tools for creating and following routes based on a series of GPS locations. In both cases, you’ll find or create a GPS track of the route you intend to follow and the device will show you where you are relative to that route. In some cases, if you’re lucky, you may even have a route with cues that tell you where to turn.

A dedicated GPS unit has the advantage of longer battery life and is usually more robust to water and dirt. On the other hand, they can be expensive.

A smartphone app is convenient and cheap if you already have a smartphone, and the familiar interface is easy to use. I use RideWithGPS for all my rides and love it. But, smartphone battery life can be an issue if you’re out for several days, so you’ll want to conserve carefully and carry an extra power bank and/or have a way to generate power on the go (solar panel or dynamo hub).

Tip: if battery life is an issue, keep a quick-charging cable and wall plug handy and use resupply stops to top up. When you first walk into a convenience store or restaurant, ask nicely if you can plug in your phone while you eat or shop. In thousands of miles I’ve only been turned down once, and it was because they didn’t actually have electricity.

If you’re just starting out, I’d recommend starting with RideWithGPS on your smartphone. You definitely don’t need a dedicated GPS unit to try bikepacking. That said, it’s important to remember that phones can and do fail. Your phone can break, get wet, run out of battery, or an app can have a bug. If and when this happens, you need to know how to get yourself safely back to civilization, or ideally just continue on with your route.

Always, always have at least one backup for navigation. You might have a Garmin eTrex as primary device and a smartphone with cached maps that you keep turned off unless you need it. Or maybe you have two smartphones, both with cached maps, plus a printed or paper map.

Before leaving on a more complex trip, I also always save maps offline in both the Google Maps and apps. They have slightly different map data than RideWithGPS and sometimes one will show roads or trails that the other doesn’t. It also gives me access to super helpful information about businesses in towns I pass through, like gas stations and motels, all without an internet connection.

Bikepacking Gear

While gear choice is a matter of personal preference, bikepacking tends to lend itself to more minimalist gear than bicycle touring. It’s like lightweight backpacking compared to traditional backpacking.

You’re unlikely to find a bikepacker carrying everything one might find in a long-haul tourer’s four panniers. The typical bikepacking bag setup can’t fit it all, for one thing. Plus, the more technical and demanding the terrain, the more you suffer on a heavily loaded bike. Ever try to pick up and carry a fully loaded touring bike across a rocky stream crossing? Thus bikepackers often focus on a streamlined, lightweight approach to gear.

Bikepacking Bags and Cargo Carrying Systems

Part of the fun of bikepacking is the creativity needed to attach your particular set of gear to your particular size and shape of bike. No two setups are exactly alike and there’s no one “right” way to do it. Setups can vary between hundreds of dollars in expensive brand name gear, to cheap budget gear and DIY hacks.

There are, however, some common themes. A traditional bikepacking setup hinges on these three main pieces:

  • Frame bag: fills part or all of the triangle in the middle of the frame, often used for water, tools, or other heavier items. Though this is where water bottle cages usually go, you’ll find that by storing water in a hydration bladder in a frame pack instead, you actually have more water capacity PLUS extra room for other things. Frame bags are a very efficient use of space and a great location for carrying heavy things without the weight negatively impacting the handling of your bike.
  • Seat bag: attaches to the seat post and rails behind the saddle, and is great for stuffing clothes and other relatively lightweight items. Be sure to put the heaviest items in first to minimize side-to-side sway.
  • Handlebar bag or harness: attaches to the front of the handlebars and is often used for bulky things that pack well into cylindrical bags, like a tent or sleeping bag in a stuff sack.

For additional space, people start adding on smaller bags pretty much anywhere they can fit. Examples are:

  • Feed bags: small bags that attach to your handlebars and/or stem and hold small items, snacks or water bottles.
  • Top tube bag: small bag that goes on top of your top tube, at the front, back, or middle, and holds small items like sunscreen, tools, snacks.
  • Fork-mounted cages: these mount to the front fork of the bicycle and can hold water bottles or items in stuff sacks, like a sleeping pad.

When it’s time to get truly creative, bikepackers have some handy go-to accessories. Most revolve around various ways to attach things to your frame even if you don’t have bolts in the right places. Sometimes this means gadgets like these, sometimes straps like these, and sometimes good old-fashioned electrical tape and zip ties.

Sometimes, especially if you need large food or water capacity for remote and/or dry areas, wearing a hydration pack or small backpack is the only way to get the capacity you need. It’s not the most comfortable, but it’s not so bad either.

Can you bikepack with a traditional rack and panniers? Sure, if the terrain isn’t too technical. Sometimes people use small front panniers on a rear rack. Large panniers blur the line between bikepacking and bike touring and are usually only appropriate for relatively smooth gravel and dirt roads.

If using a rack on rough or washboarded terrain, it’s best to use a high-quality steel rack (like this one from Tubus) so it won’t break, and put threadlocker on your bolts so they don’t vibrate loose.

Many small new companies are springing up, so this is definitely not a complete list, but here are a few brands that are respected in the bikepacking gear space:

Camping and Outdoor Gear

  • Shelter, usually a tent, tarp, bivy sack or hammock
  • Sleep system, usually a sleeping bag or quilt and sleeping pad
  • Water system, usually bottles and/or bladders and a filtration/purification method
  • Clothing system, often a mix of cycling clothes (like padded shorts and cycling gloves) and lightweight functional outdoor clothes (like merino wool and down jackets).
  • Food and cook system, usually a bowl, utensil, and for many people a stove, pot, and fuel
  • Miscellaneous essentials like a first aid kit, pocket knife, headlamp, etc

There’s a lot of crossover between bikepacking gear and lightweight backpacking gear. For instance, down quilts from makers like Enlightened Equipment, Katabatic Gear and ZPacks are excellent choices for both activities because they’re light and space-efficient.

Big Agnes makes lightweight tents popular with bikepackers, and I’m personally a big fan of tents from both Tarptent and Big Sky for value and weight.

The ever-popular Thermarest NeoAir Xlite sleeping pad is popular with thru-hikers and bikepackers for the same reasons: it’s light and packs up small. However, if you don’t have the budget quite yet, a classic foldable foam sleeping pad is light, cheap, and can be bungeed to your handlebars or seat bag.

Related: My Favorite Lightweight Backpacking Gear

Bike Gadgets and Repair Gear

  • Tire and tube care, such as a pump (this one works well), spare tubes and patches in case of punctures
  • A multitool (my favorite here) that can adjust most of the various bolts and screws on a bike
  • Chain care and repair, including lube, chain breaker tool and master link
  • Miscellaneous bike gadgets: handlebar phone mount (this one lasted me 4500+ rough miles), high-viz tape or flag for road sections, rear view mirror (this one is the best I’ve found), etc


  • Phone and/or GPS unit for navigation
  • Power bank / cache battery for charging navigation device, lights, etc
  • Optional but recommended for remote and/or solo trips: an emergency satellite beacon such as a SPOT or Garmin InReach
  • Tail lights and headlights if any chance of riding at night (and there’s always some chance of riding at night)
  • Optional but handy: method for generating power on the go, such as a dynamo hub or solar panel

For more details, see this post about charging electronics while bikepacking.

How to Pack for Bikepacking

Talk to any group of bikepackers and each will have their own preferred way of packing. But, they will likely all have a few common suggestions:

Pack heavy things lower to the ground and closer to the center of your bike. This helps prevent the extra weight from interfering with the handling of your bike. Some ways of doing this include:

  • Water is heavy! Pack a water bladder in your frame bag or use bottle cages in your frame triangle. If you need extra capacity, use fork-mounted bottle cages.
  • Pack heavy things like canned food, electronics, and tools in the inside-most part of your seat bag, closest to your seat, so they don’t cause extra side-to-side sway.
  • Pack heavy things like canned food, electronics, and tools in the inside-most part of your seat bag, closest to your seat, so they don’t cause extra side-to-side sway.
  • Pack light bulky things, like clothing or a sleeping bag, at the back of your seat bag or in your handlebar bag.

Pack things you use often so they’re easy to get to.

  • Snacks, multi-tool, sunscreen, etc. are convenient in a frame bag, feed bags, or top tube bag.
  • Your tent and sleeping bag, on the other hand, can be harder to get to in a handlebar bag.
  • It’s nice to have space to bungee extra layers to the outside your seat bag or handlebar bag.

Consider how waterproof your bags are and how much it matters.

  • Critical electronics should probably be double-protected with a ziplock bag + dry sack or waterproof bag when riding in the rain.
  • Your sleeping bag and warm layers must stay dry for safety in cold, wet weather. Line your bike bags with plastic trash bags, use a waterproof stuff sack, or make absolutely, positively sure your bike bags are 100% waterproof.
  • Small items like sunscreen and tools can deal with some water, but watch out for rusty tools if riding in wet conditions for days in a row.

More Info: How to Pack for Bikepacking

Bikepack Racing

As if heading out into the wilderness with all your important possessions strapped to a bicycle isn’t odd enough, there is a sub-niche within the niche of bikepacking that takes the crazy to a whole ‘nother level: ultra-distance bikepack racing.

Before you start picturing the Tour de France with tents and camp stoves… Bikepacking races are usually aggressively low-key and flaunt their lack of entry fee, prize money, and support. Riders simply line up at point A, ride to point B in a self-supported fashion along a prescribed route on the honor system, and the first one to the finish wins. Generally there is a lot of sleep deprivation, boldly minimalist gear selection, and convenience store junk food involved.

These races are usually delightfully inclusive, similar to ultrarunning races in which world-class elites race the same course as amateurs, just faster. The front of the pack is impressed by the back’s grit, and the back is impressed by the front’s speed.

Having brought up the rear now at two different such races, one across the whole US and the other through 400 miles of Idaho backcountry, I can certainly understand what makes them so alluring. If casual bikepacking captures your heart, you may find racing to be a natural next step.

Traditionally, a small but enthusiastic group of spectators, known as “dot watchers,” follows racers via satellite tracking beacons on and sometimes via Facebook groups specifically for each race.

The racing scene is full of astoundingly strong and tough athletes, most of whom fly totally under the radar. However, a few names are starting to break into mainstream news, the most famous of which is probably Lael Wilcox.

The classic documentary Ride the Divide, about the Great Divide Mountain Bike Race, has lured more than a few unsuspecting souls into the bikepack racing scene. The film Inspired to Ride, about the Trans Am Bike Race, holds a similar place in the sub-niche of bikepack racing on pavement. Watch both at your own risk!

Bikepacking Dictionary

Here’s a little dictionary of basic terms you’ll hear a lot when bikepackers get to talking.

  • Rig: your bike, often loaded with gear
  • Run: used as a verb meaning basically “to use on your bike.” You can run fat tires or skinny tires, you can run a frame bag or panniers, you can run clipless pedals or flats, you can run a particular saddle (seat), etc.
  • Singletrack: narrow trail only wide enough for one person to walk or ride at a time. Can range from smooth and easy to highly technical and rough. Speaking of which…
  • Technical: terrain that is rough with rocks or roots, or steep, or otherwise requiring some degree of learned riding skill to navigate successfully.
  • Doubletrack or two-track: the paths where vehicle wheels would go, usually on a partially overgrown dirt road, which also often make for excellent bike trails.
  • Hike-a-bike: dismounting your bike and pushing, dragging, or carrying it through sections that are too rocky, marshy, steep, loose, or otherwise not something you can or want to ride. No shame in this – it’s smart to save your energy and ride safely.

Bikepacking Skills

Part of the allure of bikepacking is the way it combines a variety of skills. While you definitely don’t need all of these skills to get started, here are some of the skills that bikepackers usually end up developing if they don’t have them already:

  • Wilderness travel: staying warm, staying safe, finding or making safe drinking water, understanding weather patterns, basic survival skills, personal care and hygiene
  • Backcountry camping: how to choose the right gear for different environments, stay warm and dry with lightweight gear, and set up a comfortable campsite in the backcountry
  • Bike handling skills: how to ride efficiently and safely on bumpy, rough, or loose terrain
  • Bike maintenance and repair, both at home and on the trail
  • Route planning, map reading, and navigation
  • Basic wilderness first aid
  • Backcountry cooking, meal planning, endurance nutrition: how much food is needed, what types of food work best, how to balance nutrition with weight and space limitations
  • Adaptability: how to solve unexpected problems and keep moving forward
  • Mental strategies for endurance: how to keep going when you’re tired and frustrated, and how your body is far stronger than you thought
  • Travel logistics: getting yourself to and from places, often without precise advance planning: hitchhiking, navigating public transport, talking to locals, etc.

Bikepacking Culture

Obviously it’s hard to entirely describe the culture of any group of people, and bikepacking is also poised for potentially culture-changing growth. But, here are some common elements of bikepacking culture as I have experienced it:

  • Love of nature and outdoors
  • Embracing adventure, exploration, and some “type 2” fun
  • Protection of and advocacy for natural spaces, including Leave No Trace ethics
  • Fitness, health, and wellness
  • Inclusive welcoming attitude toward all who are interested, regardless of bike, gear, speed, gender, race, etc.
  • Creative and practical approach to gear and bike parts
  • Bicycle culture and love of bikes in general, often including other styles of riding (commuting, road riding, MTB)

It often feels like bikepacking culture has more in common with other outdoor long-distance sports, like ultrarunning and backpacking, than with pure cycling sports like road biking or even mountain biking. While obviously this is a generalization, you could say bikepacking feels more down to earth, less competitive, and more relaxed.

Bikepacking Resources and Inspiration

As the activity of bikepacking grows in popularity, the number of online resources available is growing rapidly as well. In addition to your local bike shop – often a fantastic resource in areas with a strong bikepacking culture – here’s a list of places to go for bikepacking inspiration, knowledge, and advocacy.

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Picture of bike on forest trail with text: Beginner's Guide to Bikepacking
Picture of loaded bike in mountains with text: Bikepacking beginner's guide

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve traveled over 20,000 miles by bike and still can’t stop planning my next ride (and helping you plan yours). Pavement and panniers or singletrack and seat bag, I love it all. On my bike I feel free. Learn more about me here.

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    9 thoughts on “Bikepacking for Beginners: Complete Guide to Off-Pavement Bike Travel”

    1. Hello Alissa. I need a set of tires for my Fargo. I ride pavement and mostly forest service roads that sometimes have the edgy golf ball size ballast. I’d like to know what you’re riding now and any thoughts about durability, puncture resistance, which is most important for me.
      Great website. I check it daily for any new articles on backpacking or bikepacking and appreciate the time and information you give. I’ve learned and used many of your tips. Keep it up!

      • Hi John, right now I’m riding Continental CrossKing Protection tires on the GDMBR and they still have some tread and zero punctures (tubeless) after 2300 miles. They’ve been great for the mix of gravel and occasional rough trails on this route, and they work for pavement, though they’re overkill if you’re going to ride a lot of it. Compared to the WTB Rangers I used previously I’ve been impressed with their durability. Hope this helps!

        • I’ll check them out. Thanks. I see Maxxis tires dominate a lot of off road bikes. I’ve had great luck with Continental tires for my road bike and appreciate the feed back and confidence on the GravelKing’s.

    2. I thought there may have been a mistake and unless I’m missing something, the Gravel King sizing only goes to 40mm. For the Cross King I’m looking at the ProTection over the Performance Tire. Though more expensive I assume it’s more durable.
      A few more questions come to mind. Are you running 29 x 2.2’s and is this tire choice specific to the GDMBR? I know your kind of doing the same thing but for non competitive riding/bikepacking would you use a different tire/size. Thanks…again.

      • I’ve been very happy with the durability of the ProTection version of the Cross King – 3000+ miles and still going strong!

        Mine are 29 x 2.3. I toured the GDMBR over two months, so definitely a non-competitive pace. Durability and comfort were my priorities. I would guess most fast folks go narrower, but I appreciated the extra width on the bumpier sections with my rigid bike.

        I also just finished the Smoke ‘n Fire 400 on the same bike and same pair of tires. That event has proportionally more singletrack (some quite rough) than the GDMBR. I thought the tires were a good choice for that route too and had no issues with them.


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