After all the miles I’ve bikepacked and toured, you would think I’d be a strong cyclist who can power up the gnarliest of hills without having to resort to “hike a bike.”
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. After putting down a distinctly average time at the Idaho Smoke ‘n’ Fire in September 2021, it wasn’t my pedaling pace that earned compliments. Instead, several of my fellow racers asked me: “How on earth do you push your bike so darn fast?“
My usual answer, a self-deprecating “Hah, lots of practice!” is undoubtedly true. Sometimes I feel like my hike-a-bike footprints cover the entire 400+ miles of that darn course. But when pressed for advice, I realized I do in fact have some specific hike a bike techniques up my sleeve.
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.
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, having fun, and getting 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.
If you ride long days for several days in a row, you know intuitively that mixing up your movements and moderating your energy output are critical skills. 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 terrain that’s beyond your ability level
- Protect your knees and Achilles tendons from overuse injuries
- Give your saddle sores a break
- Stretch stiff muscles and move joints through a different range of motion
- Eat a snack, check your maps, or make other adjustments 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
When to Get Off and Walk
When should you hike your bike? You’ll know it when you feel it.
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 getting dehydrated in hot weather and just can’t find the energy to keep the pedals turning.
You don’t need to wait until you can’t manage one more pedal stroke. Get off your bike proactively. 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.
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.
The exact threshold depends on a lot of factors: how much your loaded bike weighs, which bike and tires you’re riding and how they perform on the terrain, how hot or cold the weather is, how tired you are, how much food is left in your stash and when the next resupply is…
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.
If you’re training or practicing technique the equation may be different. You might push through a tough effort during a short ride in order to get stronger and better, only dismounting when you simply can’t turn the pedals over any longer. This will give you a bit more headroom during your next long ride.
Lose the Shame
The first step to mastering hike-a-bike is to stop feeling like it’s a failure. 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 (where even the leaders often power-hike up steep hills instead of running them), 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.
I won’t lie, on a popular route it’s certainly nice to see other bike shoe footprints in the dirt ahead of me. But even if I’m the only one to walk a particular section, if it’s right for me at that moment, it’s a good decision.
Walk Like You Mean It
Now that you can embrace hike-a-bike as a good decision instead of a walk of shame, 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. The following tips will help.
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 your hike a bike easier.
Also consider that pushing your bike, especially a loaded one, is essentially strength training. You want to train both sides of your body equally. On a long climb or an extended trip I’ll make an effort to alternate sides during “easier” sections of hike-a-bike. If I’m really struggling, I’ll just go with my preferred side to take all the help I can get.
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. 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 Your Position
I have different hike-a-bike techniques for different gradients and bikes, and different positions that I rotate through as my muscles tire. Experiment to find what works best depending on your body and bike.
For example, I like to push up moderate hills on the right side of my bike, with my left hand on the hood of my flared drop bars and my left elbow locked out straight. When my left shoulder tires I might switch to bending both my arms and putting my chest closer to the handlebars. Generally speaking, a straight arm will tire less quickly than a bent arm.
With my drop bar mountain bike, I find it most efficient to hike-a-bike while holding the drops. When hiking with a flat bar mountain bike, sometimes it feels best to put one hand on the saddle. On a really steep grade it’s much more efficient for me to grab the top tube or seat tube with my left hand and lift a little as I push forward, regardless of what kind of bike I’m lugging around.
Pushing a loaded bike up a steep hill is basically an asymmetric version of a sled push, a highly effective full-body strength exercise. Powerful glutes and solid 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, 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.
We all know bike weight matters, and bazillions of dollars have been spent in the name of reducing it. We can’t all afford the latest and greatest in carbon fiber or cuben fiber technology, but we can all make an effort to pack only what we need and need everything we pack. When you’re wrestling your bike up a loose and rocky incline, you’ll be cursing every non-essential ounce (and probably the essential ones too). So pack light!
One interesting difference between pushing and riding: when you’re pedaling, the weight of everything – including your body and backpack – counts against you. But when hiking your bike, weight on the bike is much harder to deal with than weight on your body.
On a steep rocky trail in a heave-a-bike, drag-a-bike, or even carry-a-bike situation, the importance of a light bike grows exponentially.
The practical upshot: on routes with lots of hike-a-bike, wear a backpack. A hydration pack with a couple liters of water will take several pounds off your bike, which is definitely enough to feel as you wrestle it over roots and ledges.
Sometimes I even pack a small stuffable backpack (useful for extended food and water carries too) and fill it with my water bottles, tools, and electronics during gnarly sections of hike-a-bike. If this sounds like overoptimizing to you, I’m willing to bet you’re not a 120 pound person riding a loaded steel bike.
One advantage of bikepacking bags (or micro-panniers) over traditional panniers: their smaller size mandates a lighter packing list. But beyond that, the narrower profile of bikepacking bags makes it easier to walk beside your bike on a narrow trail.
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.
Shoes for Hike-a-Bike
Most bikepackers and cycle tourers already 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, but 3-bolt road-style shoes with their protruding cleats aren’t going to cut it. For more detail, see my comprehensive 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 much longer than you’d think and they are cheap and easy to replace.
There’s no more telltale sign of a hike-a-bike struggle than bloody shins.
On a narrow trail it can be difficult to position your body so that your shin doesn’t smack into your pedal as you walk. 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 Mamba Funn SPD’s 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 keeps your shin at a safe distance from the pedal. 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.
If you’re going to be hiking for a few hours, you might even consider removing the pedal from the side you walk on!
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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