Bikepacking Tips for Rough Terrain, From a Lousy Mountain Biker

Imagine this: You’ve gotten yourself in a bit over your head. That bikepacking trip you agreed to, the one your friend promised would be “chill,” is shaping up to be a wee bit… epic.

“It looked different on the map! The trip reports didn’t mention this part!” Mmm hmm…

Perhaps you usually ride gravel and now you’re staring down some gnarly singletrack. Maybe you’re a roadie venturing onto chunky gravel. Or maybe you knew exactly what you’d be getting yourself into and wanted to push your limits, and now it’s time to get it done.

Your gear is rattling loose, your wheels are slipping, and your hands ache from death-gripping the bars. How will you ever get through these endless miles?

Yes, I’ve been there! I don’t have a hint of adrenaline-seeking circuitry in my brain; I prefer smooth repetitive motions and boatloads of endorphins. But I also have a deep love of peaceful wild places, and a fear of being hit by cars. Thus my bike travel journey, which began on pavement with panniers, has progressed toward bikepacking rougher terrain. And rougher terrain requires more skill than simply pointing the bike forward and pedaling.

To be clear, I am still not a great mountain biker. Technical singletrack sometimes slows me to a walk — I am not qualified to teach you how to shred. Gravel roads and smooth trails are my sweet spot, but I can get through whatever’s in front of me. I’ve come a long way since I first took my Long Haul Trucker out to play in the dirt, and if you’re on a similar path my hard-earned advice might be just what you need.

So take a deep breath, shake out those hands, and get ready to take your backcountry riding to the next level… or at least survive the next few miles in one piece.

Enjoying a rare bit of interesting trail on the mostly gravel Great Divide Mountain Bike Route

Bike Setup

Even the most skillful rider can’t deploy their best technique without a reasonable bike setup. If you find yourself in the middle of nowhere with some challenging terrain ahead, here are two adjustments you can make on the fly to give yourself a fighting chance.

Lower Your Seat

Compared with spinning on smooth pavement, many riders like a slightly lower saddle height on rough terrain. This lowers your center of gravity and gives you more space to shift your weight around the bike, which we’ll get into shortly.

If you typically ride with plenty of extension at your knee and ankle, try lowering your saddle half an inch or so when riding off-road. On an extended steep or challenging descent you might even lower as much as 2-3 inches. Dropper seat posts are a popular way to accomplish this on the go, but a quick adjustment of a regular seat post works too.

Lower Your Tire Pressure

If you’re running tubeless tires, one of their main advantages (besides magically self-sealing punctures) is the ability to run at lower pressure without pinch flatting. Lower pressure has two main advantages for off-road riding: more traction (because the contact patch is larger) and a smoother ride on bumpy surfaces.

Optimal tire pressure depends on several factors: weight of rider and gear, speed and aggressiveness of riding style, and the terrain, to name the main ones. Your best bet is to experiment while riding and learn your own sweet spot.

For tubeless tires, a light rider with light gear could get away with as little as 15 psi in MTB or wide touring tires, while heavier riders should aim for 20 psi or more. If you don’t have a gauge, this feels like quite a bit of squishiness when you press into the tire with your thumb. How low is too low? If you’re feeling obstacles strike the rim or if you ever “burp” the bead off the rim while cornering, you’ve gone too low!

If you’re running tubes, you can still drop the pressure a bit off-road. Roughly 25 – 35 psi should be appropriate for mountain bike or wide touring tires in most cases. If you ever feel a rim strike or get a pinch flat, you’ve gone too low.

This rocky trail is hard to ride on a rigid bike, but lower tire pressure and a lower saddle can help. (Smoke ‘n Fire 400)

Riding Tips and Techniques

No matter what bike we’re on or how we’ve packed it, we can always work on riding more skillfully. Here are the adjustments I’ve found most helpful when learning to ride rough gravel, chunky jeep tracks, and technical singletrack.

Relax!

It sounds counterintuitive, but riding rough terrain will be easier if you relax everything that doesn’t need to be tense. Start by loosening your death grip on the handlebars and brakes, and unclench your jaw. Keep arms and legs firm but not overly stiff. Check in with your body often while riding and build a habit of relaxing on the go.

Relax Your Arms

In addition to relaxing as much as possible, make a special effort to relax your arms. When descending something rough and steep, it’s natural to lock out our arms and grip the bars for dear life. But trust me, this only makes it so much worse.

Instead of pushing the bars away with all your might, use your arms as shock absorbers. Your elbows should be slightly bent and your grip as light as you can get away with (including on your brake levers). When you hit a bump, try to lighten your upper body and bend your elbows to counteract the movement of the bike.

Public service announcement: when riding flat bars or the tops of drop bars, always wrap your thumb behind the bar. If your thumb is on the same side as all your other fingers, you risk being flung forward over the bars during a sudden deceleration.

Weight Your Legs

Now that you’ve lowered your seat a bit for off-road riding (see Bike Setup above), you have room to put more weight in your legs and less in your saddle. This helps with balance and also with saddle sores — win win! Here are three concrete ways to do this.

Level pedals: When not pedaling, keep your pedals rotated so they’re level with each other (3 o’clock and 9 o’clock position). This gives you a stable, active platform to balance from. It also helps avoid bashing a low pedal into a trailside obstacle.

Drop your heels: Instead of pointing your toes downward as your feet rest on the pedals, drop your heels so they’re level with or slightly below your toes. Then use this stable support to push your weight backward, especially on descents. This position takes weight off your arms and keeps your feet “heavy” on the pedals. If you don’t ride clipless and have ever experienced your feet bouncing off the pedals unexpectedly, you’ll know why this is important!

Unweight your saddle: On bumpy descents, riders often lift their bum off the seat. This helps you shift weight as needed for balance, and can also make things a bit more comfortable in the nether regions.

Ride With Your Whole Body

Compared to road riding, mountain biking feels like a full-body sport. Think of your bike and body as one dynamic unit, moving together to counterbalance each other and adjust to the terrain beneath you.

With your seat lower and more weight in your legs, you’ll have room to move your body around the frame. Perhaps a better way to think about it: keep your body strong and balanced while letting the bike move around beneath you.

This rider is doing a good job of keeping his pedals level and heels down as he leans his body to balance his bike.

Look Where You Want to Go

There’s one rock in an otherwise smooth trail, and it’s easily avoidable. Yet you find yourself riding directly into it as if pulled by an invisible force field. What the heck?!

There’s hardly a more fundamental mountain bike technique tip than this: you’ll ride where you look. So look where you want to go, not at the obstacle you’re trying to avoid.

Shift Weight for Climbs and Descents

If you struggle with steep climbs or descents while bikepacking, learning to shift your weight is a game changer.

On descents, shift weight backward. Scoot your butt back on the seat or even behind it (easier if your seat is lower), drop your heels on the pedals, and push back with your legs. This keeps your rear wheel heavy which helps with traction and reduces the chances of an over-the-bars incident. It also feels a lot more stable and secure.

On climbs, shift weight forward. Scoot forward toward the nose of the saddle and lean your torso forward over the bars. This keeps your front wheel heavy which helps with traction, and also puts your hips in a powerful position for strong pedaling.

Change Gears Proactively

On rolling terrain or trails with varied slope, skillful shifting — especially into easier gears — makes the most of your momentum. This comes with practice, but once learned it will save you energy and reduce wear on your drive train.

To shift down into an easier gear as the trail steepens, look ahead and shift before pedaling becomes uncomfortably hard. Just before shifting, use a couple firm pedal strokes to build momentum and then ease up on the pedals until you feel the shift complete. You’ll know you got it right when the shift is smooth and quiet. You’ll know you waited too long if your drive train makes sad and angry noises.

Pedal Smoothly and Evenly

You can get away with stomping the pedals on the road, but on loose surfaces — especially when climbing — you’ll find that an uneven pedal stroke causes your wheels to lose traction and slip instead of gripping the dirt. Lower tire pressure can help (see Bike Setup above), but so can good pedaling technique. Use an easy low gear if you have it, and try to pedal smoothly and evenly around the entire circle.

Make Friends with Hike-a-Bike

Get off and walk when needed. There is absolutely no shame in hike-a-bike. Loaded bikes handle differently and we all have our own comfort level and riding skills. Instead of risking a nasty crash or muscling through, save the energy — you’ll need it later.

Bike leans against rock on very rough 4x4 road
Sometimes riding just isn’t going to happen. It’s fine to get off and walk!

To Scoot or Not to Scoot?

On downhill sections I can’t quite ride, especially many hours or days deep into a bikepacking race, I’m often guilty of using the scoot technique: one foot on the pedal, the other hopping along the ground as I roll slowly over sketchy roots or babyhead rocks.

This can be more efficient than walking, but it’s only a matter of time before it goes horribly wrong, especially if one foot is clipped in. I’ve heard the advice “either be on the bike or off the bike” and I acknowledge this is probably wise. The choice is yours.

Gear and Packing

Riding tough trails is already hard enough, but bikepacking them is even more complicated. In addition to handling a heavy loaded bike, you’ll need to manage all sorts of gear and attachments that want to slip, sag, or rattle loose.

A dialed and lightweight bikepacking setup is the best remedy, but that’s easier said than done. If you’re already out on a trip you’ll have to roll with the setup you’ve got. Here are a few tips to make your life easier in the meantime.

Check Bolts and Straps

Rack and cage bolts may work their way loose (dab some Blue Loctite on them when you get home). Handlebar bag and seat bag straps mysteriously get longer as buckles slip. Bags may sag onto your tires. Sometimes this can be fixed with a spare Voile strap or creative engineering, but sometimes you may just need to retighten then periodically.

Tether Small Items Securely

That jacket wrapped around the shock cord on your seat bag, or the sandals bungeed to the top of your pannier — do you want them be there next time you look behind you? If so, attach them extra-securely.

Tie a sleeve around the shock cord, buckle the sandal strap around the rack, etc. If your water bottle cages are at all loose, add a retaining strap to your setup (learned the hard way).

Reinforce Pannier Attachments

If you find yourself bikepacking with touring-style panniers — the kind with plastic hooks that attach to the rack — you may struggle with broken parts at worst or infernal rattling at best. Some creativity and a spare strap or bungee can help hold the pannier to the rack and reduce strain on the plastic attachment points. For later, see also: Panniers vs. Bikepacking Bags.

Distribute Weight Thoughtfully

Do your best to pack heavy items — water, tools, electronics, heavy food — down low and toward the center of the bike. Frame bags are perfect for this, but if you don’t have one at least pack heavy items in the bottom of your panniers.

Be mindful of side-to-side and front-to-back balance too. If running a small seat bag with a bikepacking setup its easy to overload the front with handlebar bags and fork cages, which makes rolling up and over obstacles much harder.

Pack Soft Bags Properly

Many a bikepacking trip has been saddened by a sagging seat bag. Soft bikepacking-style bags need to be packed with care to function at their best.

In the case of seat bags: loosen the seat rail straps while packing and retighten at the end, put the heaviest things at the innermost corner, remove soft things from stuff sacks and stuff them together into a solid mass, and if needed stiffen the bottom with something rigid like tent poles or a sandal.

Tent poles in the bottom of this seat bag help prevent sagging, and those sandal straps are fastened around the shock cord to prevent accidental disappearance.

Pack Light

The rougher the terrain, the more extra weight will slow you down and sap your energy. If you’re already out there and have stuff you don’t need, stop by a post office and mail it home (they sell boxes and tape strips). If you’re packing for a trip, weigh all your gear and ask yourself “what would happen if I didn’t pack this?”

Someday I’ll write a whole post on packing lighter, but in the meantime much of my lightweight backpacking advice applies to bikepacking too.

Bike Choice

If you’ve ever seen a skilled mountain biker shred technical trail on a gravel bike, you know it’s more about the rider than the bike! But for the rest of us, the right bike can offer a huge boost in confidence and skill development.

It’s true what they say: the best bike for bikepacking is the one that’s already in your garage (or living room, in my case — is that weird?). Don’t let your bike setup stop you from getting out there. I bikepacked on my road touring bike for thousands of miles before buying a “real” bikepacking bike.

But if remote and rugged trails call to you and you have the budget to buy a new bike or modify your current one, here are a few considerations.

Tires: Wide and Knobby

If you’re a little underbiked for the terrain you want to ride, a new set of rubber is one of the easiest changes to make. A wider and knobbier tire can make bikepacking rough terrain easier thanks to more traction and a smoother ride.

Check your frame clearance and rim width to see how wide you can reasonably go, but 29 x 2 – 2.3″ (or a bit wider for 27.5″) is a good sweet spot for bikepacking. Popular bikepacking tire models include Vittoria Mezcal, Continental CrossKing, Maxxis Ikon, and WTB Ranger.

Handlebars: Wide

Wider bars vastly improve control and stability on rough terrain, which is why most mountain bikes come with wide flat bars. Drop bar mountain bikes are also popular, but their drop bars are wider than those found on road bikes.

If you’re riding a drop bar bike it can be complicated to switch to flat bars, but you can easily switch to wider gravel-focused drops like the Salsa Cowchipper or PNW Coast.

Wide flat bars are helpful for stability…
Coast handlebars pointing down red dirt road in central Oregon
But wide flared drop bars are the next best thing.

Pedals: Versatile

I generally like riding with SPD pedals and MTB shoes, but on sketchy terrain I love the ability to unclip and ride platforms when needed. Single-sided SPD pedals are a fantastic and versatile solution for bikepackers, and these Mamba Funn pedals are my favorite thanks to their large and very usable platform. More detail: Clipless Pedals and Shoes for Bikepacking

Brakes: Disc

I’ve bikepacked plenty with rim brakes, but there’s a reason modern mountain bikes come with disc brakes. A quality set of disc brakes offers better stopping power and modulation, which is very helpful in uneven terrain. For heavy loads and serious descending, consider a larger rotor size like 180 mm.

Many people prefer mechanical disc brakes for bikepacking, because they’re easier to repair on a trip if something goes wrong. Hydraulic disc brakes, however, are usually reliable enough and offer the best braking performance. If you struggle to find confidence on descents and / or experience a lot of hand fatigue while braking, hydraulics may be a worthwhile upgrade.

Fork: Suspension or Carbon

Suspension forks are heavier and some models can make a bike less efficient on climbs, but they do help you glide over bumps in the trail. For gravel and light singletrack you don’t really need one, but if you plan to ride a lot of rough trails a suspension fork is the way to go.

Without a suspension fork, the next best thing is a good quality carbon fork (ex: Whisky No. 9, ENVE MTN, Salsa Firestarter) and reasonably wide tubeless tires run at low-ish pressure. This combo can absorb a surprising amount of vibration and impact.

Geometry: Trail-Friendly but Flexible

There are many nuances to bike geometry, and the right choice will make your life much easier on the trails. Many bikepackers prefer a steed that’s nimble enough for trail riding, but also efficient for long climbs and comfortable enough on long stretches of pavement. A good example of this compromise is the classic Salsa Fargo, and you can see how its geometry compares to many other bikes on bikeinsights.com.

Loaded bikepacking bike in front of gate
The Salsa Fargo is a great example of a bikepacking-optimized geometry that works well enough for trails but is also comfortable cruising roads.

Final Thoughts

If you’re thinking about venturing onto more rugged trails and terrain, you now have no excuse! Surely at least a few of those tips will make it easier.

There can be a bit of a learning curve to more challenging bikepacking, but I urge you to not give up too soon. The rewards are worth it! You’ll learn self-reliance, and with it self-confidence. You’ll get off busy roads and away from cars. And your growing skillset will unlock some of the most beautiful and peaceful bikepacking routes available.

Pin For Later

Pictures of bikepackers on rocky trails.

More Bikepacking Resources

If you’re expanding your bikepacking horizons onto rougher terrain, you might also find these helpful:

Or, visit the bikepacking resources center for lots more.

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa. I’ve traveled over 15,000 miles (enough to stop counting) by bike and still can’t stop planning my next ride. Pavement and panniers or singletrack and seat bag, I love it all. On my bike I feel free. Learn more or say hi.

Excited to try bikepacking but need help getting started? The Bikepacking Trip Planner Workbook can help you take the next step.

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