Hike a Bike: The Art and Science (for Bikepackers)

After all the miles I’ve bikepacked, you might expect me to be a super-strong cyclist who can grind up the steepest of hills without having to get off my bike and walk.

The reality: I’m a small person with a heavy bike and an abundance of slow-twitch muscle fibers. Hike-a-bike is my friend. Maybe it’s because I was a backpacker and trail runner before discovering bikes, but I’m often asked by my bikepacking companions “How do you push your bike so darn fast?

My usual answer, a self-deprecating “Lots of practice!” is undoubtedly true. I do in fact have some specific techniques up my sleeve based on many, many miles of experience. In my experience the finer points of hike-a-bike are both physical (body position, strength) and mental (one. step. at. a. time).

This post is a guide to the art and science of hike-a-bike, or pushing your bike while you walk beside it. It’s aimed specifically at bikepackers because our heavier load and long varied routes make the need more common. However, anyone who tackles steep or rough riding or long days in the saddle may find it helpful too.

Note: To some mountain bikers, hike-a-bike means carrying your bike on your shoulders. When it comes to bikepacking that’s often not an option, so in this post I’ll be talking about pushing your bike while you hike beside it.

Related: Bikepack Racing for Beginners and Slow People

Why Hike a Bike?

If you’re still wondering why someone would walk beside a perfectly good bicycle, allow me to explain.

Bikes are fantastic tools for exploring the space from A to B. But sometimes, between A and B lies a really steep hill or a stretch of trail too rough to ride. For long-distance rides where we need to manage our energy levels over many hours, days, or even weeks, hike a bike becomes a valid and valuable tool for making forward progress.

Hiking your bike helps with this by allowing you to:

  • Save energy on steep or long climbs
  • Avoid digging too deep and then “bonking” later
  • Avoid crashing on trails beyond your ability level
  • Protect your body from overuse injuries
  • Give your saddle sores a break
  • Stretch stiff muscles and move joints through a different range of motion
  • Eat or otherwise multitask while still making forward progress
  • Cover occasional unrideable terrain in order to link up longer and cooler routes
  • Ride a bike that’s lacking ideal gearing for the climbs on your route, such as a singlespeed or whatever you have in your garage
Loaded bikepacking bike leans against rock on very rough 4x4 road
This road is a great excuse to walk for a bit and stretch the legs (New Mexico on the GDMBR)

When to Get Off and Walk

When should you hike your bike? You’ll know it when you feel it.

My rule of thumb for bikepacking and endurance riding: If I could walk my bike at roughly the same speed I’m currently riding, I get off and walk. If you wait until you can’t manage another pedal stroke, you’ve dug too deep and will be paying for it all day.

Usually the culprit is a steep climb, technical trail, or a soul-sucking surface like deep sand or sticky mud. Sometimes the issue is more about your energy level than the terrain; maybe you’re low on food or it’s really hot and you just can’t find the energy to keep the pedals turning.

Under these conditions, hike a bike generally takes less energy than riding for the same pace, so it saves a lot of energy without costing too much time. With experience you’ll gain intuition for that magical crossover point, which also depends on your bike (especially if you’re underbiking) and load.

This is totally rideable on a hardtail, but on my rigid bike deep into Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400 it was a welcome walk break.

Consider consistency and length of the effort too. A 3000 foot climb at a steady 10% grade? I’ll pop in an earbud, crank up the tunes and get to walking for the next hour or two. A short steep roller with a downhill just ahead? I’m more likely to stand up on the pedals and power to the top. Getting off and on the bike takes energy too, if you do it too often.

Bikepacker pushes bike up steep fire road in Henry Coe State Park
Sometimes hiking is the only way to get up a climb. Can you spot the cyclist? Hint: bottom right. (Henry Coe State Park in California)

Ditch the Shame

The first step to mastering hike-a-bike is to stop thinking of it as a “walk of shame.” Welcome to bikepacking! Embrace the hike-a-bike.

If you come from a cycling background, especially road cycling, you may have internalized that walking = defeat. I’ve watched plenty of these folks zoom past me in the early stages of a bikepacking race, digging deep to pedal up hills I choose to walk, only to DNF (drop out) a day or two later with intractable knee pain or other ailments.

Luckily for me I have no such challenge. Coming from a bike touring background, and before that an obsession with trail ultrarunning, I have always seen efficient walking as a valid means of forward progress. Hopping off the bike is a strategic decision, not a failure.

In bikepacking, hike-a-bike is almost a badge of honor. If your route doesn’t include at least a little bit of hiking it might not be adventurous enough. Some of the most respected routes, like the famous Colorado Trail, feature long sections of mandatory hike-a-bike that no one, not even the strongest rider, will pedal. Many of us mere mortals will choose to hike plenty of “rideable” sections too.

Sometimes hike-a-bike is a sign of how badass and adventurous your route is. (Me in Kyrgyzstan on the stunningly scenic Tian Shan Traverse.)

Walk Like You Mean It

Now that you can feel good about hiking your bike, there’s no need to trudge along with your tail between your legs. Let’s get down to business!

If you’re going to hike a ten mile climb, walking at 3 mph instead of 2 mph will save you over an hour. In a racing situation, or even if you’re just ready to be done with this gosh-darn unending climb, efficiency makes a real difference.

So embrace the hike a bike mindset and walk like you mean it.

When pushing up a long climb like this tall pass in Kyrgyzstan, a steady and efficient pace makes a difference.

Choose Your Side

Most of us naturally have a preferred side to walk on. It’s fine to take advantage of this if it makes things easier, but during extended hike-a-bikes it’s nice to switch sides. This uses the body more evenly, gives tired muscles a chance to recharge, and keeps strength gains balanced (after all, hike-a-bike is basically weight training).

Other factors might influence which side works best at any given time. Very narrow trails, off-camber surfaces, or singletrack cut into a steep hillside all have their own challenges. Generally it’s easiest to push from the lower side of an off-camber road. Experiment and see what works best.

It’s nice to also think about minimizing trail damage and erosion, which often means walking on the uphill side of the trail.

Dial In Body Position

After a great deal of experimentation, I’ve found different positions that work best for different bikes and different gradients. The goal is to keep the bike stable and close to your own center of gravity while using as little muscle strength as possible.

Generally I try to keep the far-side arm locked straight to let the muscles rest. My near-side arm is usually pretty bent and relaxed, but this depends on the bike and steepness. I rotate my far-side hand between my bars, the seat, or the stem depending on steepness and what’s getting tired fastest.

On really steep hills, my killer trick is to reach back and grab around my seat post, pulling the bike uphill with a straight arm and using my near-side arm on the bars to stabilize and steer. This gets the bike weight closer to my center of gravity, gives me much better leverage, and helps to lift the bike up and over obstacles.

I try to keep one arm locked out straight to stave off arm fatigue. (Mendocino National Forest)

Stay Strong

Pushing a loaded bike up a steep hill is basically an asymmetric a sled push, a highly effective full-body strength exercise. Powerful glutes and solid deep core muscles are essential, and strong shoulder and arm muscles help too.

Strength work is important for any cyclist even if you plan to stay in the saddle. But for hike a bike, full-body strength is essential. To prepare for moving a loaded bike through rough terrain as efficiently as possible, hit the gym for high-leverage exercises like deadlifts, squats, bench and overhead presses.

If you’re a small cyclist with a heavy bike, extra strength work is one way to close the gap to your larger and more weight-advantaged counterparts.

Hike-a-bike can be a full body workout! (Fleecer Ridge on the GDMBR)

Lighten Up

There’s nothing like wrestling a loaded bike up a steep and slippery slope to make you curse every non-essential ounce of weight (and probably the essential ones too). In my experience the challenge of hauling weight uphill gets exponentially harder as the slope steepens into mandatory hike-a-bike territory.

So on rugged routes, pack light! We can’t all afford the very latest and lightest in bikes and gear, but we can all make an effort to pack only what we need and need everything we pack.

One of my favorite tricks for bikepackers, especially those of us who aren’t objectively the strongest, is to wear a backpack on routes with lots of hike-a-bike. Transferring just a few pounds of water and food from bike to body makes it noticeably easier to wrestle a bike up and over obstacles.

If you don’t want to wear a backpack for the entire trip, consider a small stuffable backpack into which you transfer heavy things during long hike-a-bikes. If you think this is overoptimizing, I’m willing to bet you’re not a 120 pound person riding a loaded steel bike.

For this extended hike-a-bike (which sometimes borders on carry-a-bike) on the Tahoe Rim Trail, it helped to have my water and most of my food in a backpack.

Bikepacking Bags vs. Panniers

The bikepacking bags vs. panniers debate continues to evolve, and dirt-friendly rack setups are coming back into bikepacking style. But bikepacking bags objectively have one clear advantage over panniers when it comes to hike-a-bike: their narrow profile doesn’t hit your legs when you’re walking beside your bike.

You can certainly hike-a-bike with panniers, as any long-haul bike tourer knows. But if you plan to tackle plenty of rough trail, consider a streamlined soft bag setup or at least smaller panniers.

You can definitely hike-a-bike with panniers (shown here on the Carretera Austral in Patagonia)
But sometimes it’s awkward!

Hike-a-Bike-Friendly Shoes

Most bikepackers and tourers know that walkability is a key feature of bike shoes. If walking to the grocery store and laundromat isn’t already enough to convince you, miles of hike-a-bike will be.

This is one of many reasons why I recommend flexible 2-bolt SPD style shoes for bikepacking. The X-Alp Canyon from Pearl Izumi, my current favorite, is a perfect example. Flats work great too obviously, if you like riding in them. For more on this, see my post on clipless shoes and pedals for bikepacking.

When you first hike up a gravel road in SPD bike shoes, that grinding sound might freak you out. Don’t worry, it sounds worse than it is. Yes you will eventually wear down your cleats, but it takes longer than you’d think and they are cheap and easy to replace.

I may have done a little too much hike-a-bike in these shoes, but see how they flex at the toe joint for a natural gait? That’s important.

What to Do About Pedals

There’s no more telltale sign of an epic singletrack hike-a-bike than bloody shins. On a narrow trail your pedals and legs need to occupy the same space at the same time. Sometimes, depending on body position or if your pedals rotate as you walk, this can even happen to your calves.

What’s the solution? First of all, take the pedal on your walking side and rotate it all the way forward. Some people say smaller pedals help, but personally I love my Funn Mamba pedals with the huge platform and aggressive traction pins. Those pedals are fantastic for most aspects of bikepacking, but they can do some serious damage while hiking.

Practice helps a lot. After a few painful collisions you’ll dial in a body position that mostly works. Hinging at the hips, so that your feet stay safely behind the pedal (which is rotated to the front on the side you’re walking on), helps reduce shin strikes and also fires up the glute muscles for extra power.

Downhill hike-a-bike on narrow trail… Well, that can get messy. Rotating the pedal all the way to the back is usually my starting point, but there isn’t always a good solution here.

Some bikepackers slip a sock (or beer coozy, as suggested in the comments below!) over the pedal to blunt the traction pins. If you’re going to be hiking narrow trail for a few hours, you might even consider removing the pedal from the side you walk on.

Related: Bikepacking Pedals: How to Choose

These single-sided SPD pedals are super useful for bikepacking, but they’ll definitely bang your shin up if you’re not careful. Be sure to rotate the pedal on the walking side all the way forward.

Advanced Techniques

Strength and a little experimentation go a long way for most hike-a-bike scenarios. But what to do when the trail gets truly gnarly or disappears completely? Here are some advanced techniques:

Push, brake, step, breathe, repeat. When things get too steep and slippery to roll the bike as you walk, you’ll need to take it one step at a time. First heave the bike upward, squeeze the brakes, step up to meet it, catch your breath, and repeat. Yes, you will get there eventually.

Half-carry half-push. On very rough terrain I find it much easier to grab beneath my downtube or around my seat post and lift the bike upward slightly (ideally with a straight arm so it doesn’t fatigue as fast) while pushing the handlebars forward. I can usually only go a few steps before resting, but those steps are far easier than if I had tried to simply push without lifting.

Teamwork. If you’re riding with a buddy, consider teaming up to help each other over an especially rough or steep patch. (Or, in one personally memorable case, an impossibly sticky pit of adobe Death Mud.)

In this case, teamwork helped three of us get our bikes up this beast of a hill with less effort (pic by Genna, Denise is helping to push).

Unload and shuttle bags. If you’re alone and dealing with too much weight, sometimes the only option is to carry your bags ahead and then come back for the bike. This is a common technique for water crossings and fence hopping, where appropriate.

Carry your bike. Mountain bikers do this all the time, and there’s definitely some technique to it. To do this with a loaded bikepacking rig would be substantially more difficult. If you can manage it, more power to you! For me it remains the ultimate unattainable vision of badassery.

Sometimes a quick carry will get you past an obstacle more cleanly than pushing (and also prevent hubs and bottom bracket from getting wet).

Sideways handlebar drag. Let’s not get into this one. Suffice it to say, when you’re stuck at the bottom of a steep ravine in the middle of the night, you’ll do just about anything to haul yourself and your bike out.

In Conclusion

If nothing else, I hope this post has convinced you that hike-a-bike is totally normal, a smart idea, and kind of badass.

In addition to all the above tips, practice really does help. Load up your bike, take it somewhere gnarly, and make forward progress.

Don’t give up! You’re almost there!
Have fun and good luck.

More Bikepacking Resources

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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    Pictures of bikepacker pushing bike up hill

    8 thoughts on “Hike a Bike: The Art and Science (for Bikepackers)”

    1. Pro tip:
      Beer cozy to the rescue 🙂 Depending your your pedal size you sometimes can squish a foam cozy over your pedal to help prevent pedal bites.

      And they subscribe to the double-duty credo that many of us like to adhere to. Heck, if you have two, you can bike in your bare feet in a pinch!

      The thin ones that have a semi-detached bottom will flatten completely and can stretch over different pedal sizes.

      An old sock can also do the trick! But I say, down a beer and start-a-hikin’ !

      Reply
    2. I have a small strap, a bit like strap for a treking pole. I clip that at the rear of my bike( I have a Tailfin rack) with a small carabiner.
      I push and steer with my left arm and pull with my right. I have the strap over my wrist, like when using a treking pole.
      I only use it when I have a long hike a bike and also when it is very rough. Seems to me it gives better leverage and also changes your position,
      I found the piece of strapping on the side of the road.

      Roger

      Reply
    3. When I have a lot of hike-a-bike I carry a strap (like a hiking pole strap). and attach it to the bike, I attach it to my tailfin rack with a cheap light carabiner. I then can pull my bike with a straight arm and if you loop it over your wrist you’re a little bit more energy efficient.
      I started doing this with a a piece of webbing that was on the side of the road while on the National Trail here in Australia. The NT was originally for horses so there is a lot of hike-a-bike.
      Roger

      Reply

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