We’ve all been there: the bike seemed light enough and you could swear you’d packed the bare minimum. But now you find yourself struggling up the very first hill, legs burning and lungs bursting. How on earth will you ever get through this bikepacking trip?!
First of all, don’t panic. You’ll probably get used to it in a few miles! But also, yes, you probably could have packed lighter. As a beginner, bikepacking can seem like an overwhelming gear puzzle. You want to be safe out there so you pack all the things. It’s easy to overlook the importance of deciding what not to pack, and to underestimate how much a lightweight bikepacking setup can improve your enjoyment and confidence while riding.
I’ve seen this topic get heated from time to time, and I’m not here to gear shame anyone. Ride your own ride, as the saying goes. But I’ve noticed, through my own evolving bikepacking setups and those of riding partners, that gear weight really does influence where we can ride and how much we enjoy it. If you’re inspired by rugged and remote routes, covering long distances in shorter periods of time, and/or technical trail riding, a lightweight bikepacking setup will help unlock your most adventurous dreams.
Don’t expect to get this all figured out overnight. The path to light(er)weight bikepacking can be more about the journey than the destination. Many of us still enjoy finding clever ways to shave a few ounces here or there, and refining our list of non-negotiable items in search of the ultimate personalized lightweight bikepacking gear list.
So whether you’re a beginner staring in horror at a huge pile of gear, or an experienced rider looking for new ideas, I hope these lightweight bikepacking tips will subtract some ounces and add some fun to your next ride.
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Look for Multipurpose Gear
Sometimes people think lightweight bikepacking has to be expensive and complicated, but that’s not necessarily true. So let’s start with something easy, cheap, and available to everyone: being clever about how we use our gear.
In “real life” it’s easy to buy a cheap gadget for almost any purpose, so sometimes we forget it’s possible to make do. Can an item designed for one purpose be used for another? Here are some common ways to lighten your bikepacking load by cutting out redundant gear:
- Stuff sack full of clothing as pillow: Stuff a dry bag to your desired firmness with extra warm layers or other stuff sacks, wrap a Buff headband around it, and you’ve got the perfect ultralight pillow. My favorite pillow is an 8 liter Sea to Summit dry bag.
- Spare layer as camp towel: You don’t need a towel, even those cute little camp towels, for a quick campsite splashdown. Try a bandana or the t-shirt you just took off.
- Cooking pot as bowl: If cooking for just yourself, simply eat out of the pot you cooked in. No need for a separate bowl.
- Warm layers as pajamas: Sleeping in your warm layers is a great way to stretch the temperature rating of your sleeping bag. You don’t need separate clothes just for sleeping; simply sleep in your camp or cold weather riding clothes.
- Tent stake as potty trowel: It’s important to bury your business when pooping outdoors, but you don’t necessarily need to carry one of those special trowels designed for this purpose. A tent stake or cycling shoe works well in most soil types.
Those are just a few examples; feel free to get creative!
Weigh Your Stuff
If numbers motivate you, a great way to pack lighter for bikepacking is to start weighing your gear. When you can see exactly how much weight that extra nice-to-have item is adding — and more significantly, how much all your nice-to-have items add up to — it feels a lot more natural to start making cuts.
I recommend a simple cooking scale with accuracy down to a few grams and max capacity of around 10 pounds. You can put the numbers in a spreadsheet and get fancy with it, but you don’t have to. Just seeing the number on the scale is often motivation enough.
Embrace Trail Hygiene
If you’ve been camping or backpacking before getting into bikepacking, this one might come naturally. But I’ve met some aspiring bikepackers who couldn’t wrap their head around wearing the same shirt two days in a row. So I’m here to tell you: we have different grooming and hygiene standards out here, and it’s going to be ok.
Before I get into what doesn’t really matter, here are a couple things that definitely do matter:
- Keep key areas clean. You need to clean your private parts each night to prevent saddle sores and infection. A quick splash and scrub usually does the trick.
- Be hygienic about bathroom habits. A little dirt never hurt, but one thing that does hurt is Giardia. The most important thing to avoid is getting bacteria from your poop into anything you or your campmates eat or drink. So clean your hands after washing your undercarriage or pooping in the woods. A tiny dab of natural soap (not directly in water sources) or hand sanitizer will do the trick.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about ways to embrace the dirt. I sometimes see new bikepackers lugging around a couple pounds of extra clothing and toiletries, as if they needed to spiffy up and go into the office each day instead of riding their bike. It’s not the office, and that’s part of why we love it!
- Just one shirt – really! Ok, maybe two if you’re on a long ride and plan to spend time in towns or on side trips. But this isn’t civilized society and no one is going to judge you for wearing the same shirt two days in a row. Read more: My Bikepacking Clothes.
- Try merino wool. It’s naturally stink resistant and breathes well, which makes it the perfect candidate for your only shirt on a long trip with few showers. A lightweight t-shirt like the Smartwool Merino 150 is the perfect base layer for all but the hottest and most humid climates. Want more sun coverage? Try a merino sun hoody.
- Soap is optional. I usually don’t carry soap while bikepacking. I use hand sanitizer after bathroom breaks and a water-only splash ‘n scrub for personal hygiene, which works better than you might expect.
- Deodorant is optional. If you’re not spending much time indoors, deodorant just takes up space. On a long trip where I’ll need to be civilized on occasion, I’ll shave off some chunks from a larger stick so I don’t need to carry the whole thing. I often find that after a few days without deodorant, my body somehow adjusts and I don’t need it anyway (or maybe my standards just slip?).
- A little dirt doesn’t hurt. Here’s a secret long-distance bikepackers and hikers know well: once you get to a certain level of dirtiness, it doesn’t get any worse. As long as you keep your critical areas clean to avoid chafing or infection, that dust on your shins or dirt under your fingernails isn’t going to hurt anything.
Once you loosen up your grooming standards, you can simplify your toiletries supplies. I have a whole article on lightweight toiletries, but the main ideas are to bring only what you really need and carry it in appropriately small containers.
While we’re on the subject of cleaning things, all this applies to your dishwashing routine too. At home you may use a sponge, soap, and dish towel, but out in the woods you can simply scrape with your spoon, rise with water (drink it if you can, or bury it if you must), and optionally wipe with a bandana. The remnants of your last meal will add a bit of seasoning to your next. 🙂
It’s important to practice Leave No Trace ethics when bikepacking in fragile natural areas. This includes protecting water sources, which can be polluted or biologically disturbed by our waste and chemicals. The ripple affect (pun intended) can harm wildlife and plants.
Best practices: Camp and go to the bathroom at least 200 feet from water sources, and avoid washing dishes, clothes, or your body directly in water sources especially when using soap. Instead carry the water 200 feet away and wash there, so runoff can filter through soil before rejoining the source. Try to avoid using much soap at all, and if you must, use a biodegradable or nature-friendly option.
Try Not to “Pack Your Fears”
In bikepacking and other outdoor pursuits we often feel tempted to “pack our fears,” whatever they may be. The above section on hygiene is one example. Sometimes folks with germophobic tendencies or elaborate personal grooming routines struggle to embrace the “back to basics” vibe of camping. Why? They’re not quite sure, if you try to get logical about it. It just feels wrong.
You may have other, and seemingly very reasonable, fears. Scared of camping alone? You might find yourself packing a bulky solar lantern, bear spray even if not in bear country, and a hefty camping knife. Afraid of being cold? You might fill your bags with bulky warm layers even though the forecast is mild. Ran out of food that one time and hated it? Now you carry five days of meals even though your route has resupply stops every two days.
Try this: for every item you want to pack, ask yourself “what might happen if I don’t bring this?” And then – this is the key part – ask yourself “How likely is that situation to actually take place, and if it does, can I solve it with something else I’m already carrying?” Of course it’s always good to be prepared and self-reliant, but try to be honest with yourself and notice when fear is playing an outsized role.
Honestly much of this judgment comes with experience, so if you’re just starting out you can expect some trial and error. It can help to look at a concrete bikepacking gear list to understand other perspectives on whether a certain item is essential or just nice-to-have.
Lighten Your Shelter and Sleep System
I’ll be honest, this one costs money, but it’s one of the biggest steps you can take toward lightweight bikepacking. It might not cost as much as you think though, especially if you’re clever about buying used gear.
This topic could be a whole post on its own! For now here are some pointers to get you started down the rabbit hole. I suggest looking to lightweight backpacking resources as well as bikepacking-specific content in your research, since the backpacking market is larger and gets more attention.
Tents: Lightweight tents are more affordable and abundant than ever before. Aim for a solo tent weight of less than three pounds, ideally less than two if you’re going ultralight. For a two or three person tent, keep it under four pounds. See my guide to bikepacking tents for more considerations and popular models. As for tent footprints, I recommend skipping them and just using care with your campsite selection, or making a lightweight DIY version from hardware store house wraps like Tyvek, Dow Weathermate, or Everbuilt.
Other shelter types: For some situations a tarp, bivvy, or hammock can be a good lighter alternative to a tent. You’ll want to be confident in its weather protection and consider whether it meets the needs of your trip. For example, tarps are hard to pitch on gravel or concrete and don’t offer bug protection or much privacy. Bivvies are convenient and light, but not the most pleasant to spend hours in while waiting out a storm. Read more: Bikepacking Shelter Types: Pros and Cons
Sleeping bag or quilt: Good quality, high fill power down offers the best warmth to weight ratio. Choose the temp rating to match expected conditions and your own tendencies (hot or cold sleeper), keeping in mind that ratings are often for safety, not comfort. By wearing your warm layers to bed you can stretch your sleeping bag a bit further, saving weight and bulk. Sleeping quilts, which omit unnecessary insulation in the hood and under your body, save weight and are very popular for lightweight bikepacking. I use an Enlightened Equipment Convert and hood for all my rides, even with nights into the 20’s F.
Sleeping pad: Don’t underestimate the importance of your sleeping pad. The right pad will help you stay warm at night and wake up feeling ready to tackle another day on the trail. For me the pricey Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite (now the NXT) is well worth the cost. For more options and recommendations see Sleeping Pads for Bikepacking.
Streamline Your Menu
Food is one of the heavier things we carry while bikepacking, weighing between 1.5 to 2.5 pounds per person per day. If you carry four days of food you can save four pounds on the first day by being on the lightest end of that range versus the heaviest.
There are a number of tricks to make food weight (and also importantly for bikepackers, volume) more manageable. Long-distance backpackers are the experts here, since it’s not uncommon for them to carry 7+ days of food on their backs. Here are some tricks I originally learned from thru hiking that now serve me well in bikepacking too.
Pack only what you need to reach the next resupply. With a few exceptions (uncertain store hours, dietary restrictions) it’s usually best to resupply as often as possible. Why carry six days of ramen and peanut butter when you can buy ramen and peanut butter at the gas station on days two and four? I do make exceptions for lightweight ingredients that are hard to find in the right quantities along the way. I might carry a week’s worth or more of instant coffee, powdered cream, protein powder, or freeze dried veggies, for example. Carry an extra meal and some snacks in case of unexpected delays.
Count calories. Until you build intuition about how many ramen packets and Slim Jims equals a full day’s ration, use the numbers on nutrition labels to avoid overpacking or underpacking food. How many calories do you need? Depends on your size and metabolism, the route, how hard you plan to ride each day, and how many chances you’ll have to remedy any deficits with a big meal in town. For many people 3000 – 4500 calories per day is a good start, possibly more for larger folks and/or ambitious riders covering a lot of ground.
Repackage food. Unwrap and throw out any extra boxes or bags, bringing only the minimum to keep food contained. This is especially important when resupplying on the road, as most food you’ll find in grocery or convenience stores isn’t packed ideally for bikepacking. I like to carry a few extra ziplock bags, or reuse any zippable bags from previous resupply stops, for this purpose.
Choose dehydrated foods. Why carry extra water weight when you can add it on the trail? Choose instant dried rice instead of cooked rice in a pouch, or couscous instead of canned ravioli, or pre-made or home-made backpacking meals if you want to get fancy. Be wary of standard pasta, as it takes lots of time and fuel to cook unless it’s the “instant” kind (look for mac ‘n cheese in a cup). Read more: How to Make Dried Backpacking Meals Better
Choose high-fat foods for more energy in less weight. Fat provides more than twice the energy for the same weight compared to the other two macronutrients, protein and carbs. It might seem counterintuitive if you’ve heard about athletes “carb loading” or been told that eating fat is unhealthy (mostly debunked), but the best way to cram more calories into less weight and space is to choose foods high in fat content: cheese, peanut butter, salami, nuts, avocado, etc. Most people also need to eat carbs to feel energetic, but carbs are the easiest macronutrient to find. It usually takes work to NOT eat a ton of carbs out on the road, at least in the US. Read more: High Fat and Low Carb Trail Food
Food can be a tricky topic for new bikepackers. No one wants to be hungry out there, but the questions of what to eat and how to pack it can feel like quite the puzzle. For more help see my detailed Guide to Bikepacking Food.
Know Your Route and Conditions
The difference between essential and unnecessary varies by trip. What might be absolutely critical for safety on one ride — 8 liters of water in the desert, 5 days of food in the remote mountains, or a zero degree sleeping bag for shoulder season weather — would be pointless extra weight for another.
By knowing your route and the expected conditions you can tailor your gear and supplies to provide what you need without unnecessarily weighing you down. Here are the three big areas to focus on:
Weather: Cold weather riding requires more gear. Warm layers, gloves and shoe covers, a warmer sleeping bag and sleeping pad… It all adds weight and bulk. Check the weather forecast and know the coldest and wettest conditions you might expect. Prepare well for them, but don’t lug around gear for conditions you’ll definitely never encounter.
Resupply: Food is heavy, and a bit of advance planning can ensure you don’t carry more than necessary. If you understand your route, its difficulty, and the services available along the way, you can carry just what’s needed to get you between restocking opportunities (and a bit extra for emergencies).
Water: Water is one of the heaviest things we carry, and also the most critical. Humans can’t last long without it, especially in hot climates. So carry what you need to be safe, but know the refill options on your route and carry a water filter so you can take advantage of surface water. It’s a bummer to load up with 5 liters (11 pounds!) of water, only to pass another source when you still have 3 liters left. Side note: if you do need to load up, here’s how to fit all that water on your bike.
Could you use some help planning an itinerary, resupply stops, and other bikepacking logistics? My interactive trip planning workbook can walk you through all this and more.
Consider Going Without
You could say these are slightly more advanced moves, but it really just comes down to preference and style. If you’ve already tackled the above topics and are still looking for ways to cut weight, here are some items generally regarded as important that some people don’t miss:
Stove: On a route with plenty of services it’s reasonable to leave the stove behind. You can carry fresh food from town whenever possible, and the occasional dinner of cold-soaked ramen won’t kill you. Did you know that instant coffee can be made with cold water?
Shoes for camp or town: This depends on your pedals and shoes, but even SPD shoes may be all you need. If I’ll be spending a lot of time in towns or at camp (or in public showers…) I’ll bring a pair of lightweight sandals, but otherwise I just bring my relatively flexible and walking-friendly X-Alp Canyon SPD shoes.
Tent: If the weather is good, and/or you’re confident working with a minimalist tarp or bivy in case of unexpected rain, you might forgo the tent entirely and try “cowboy camping,” just sleeping out under the stars. I find this works best in remote areas where I’ll be wild camping alone, and is less pleasant in busy campgrounds.
Use Smaller Bikepacking Bags
Standard advice would be to lighten your packing list before investing in new bags, but if you’re the type who likes to rise to the occasion, try reversing the process. A shiny new (or new-to-you) set of minimalist bikepacking bags might be just the motivation you need to leave a few more things behind on your next ride. Just make sure to do a test pack a few days in advance so you’re not panic-packing at the past minute.
Unload as You Go
Despite your best intentions, you may find yourself a few days into a longer bikepacking trip and realizing you overpacked. No worries! Almost every small town in America has a post office that will sell you a flat rate box and some tape strips. Stop in and mail your unneeded gear home, then luxuriate in the feeling of riding lighter. I’ve seen people drop as much as ten pounds this way!
No Shame in Luxury Items
In closing, I want to be clear that lightweight means different things to different people. I enjoy working to streamline my setup but sometimes I still bikepack with luxury items like a Kindle, massage ball, or folding Bluetooth keyboard. Are these strictly necessary? Absolutely not! But I get so much enjoyment from them, even (especially) on long remote trips, that I never secondguess their place in my bags even when I’m lugging them up the steepest of hills.
So whatever those items are for you, embrace them! And then find something else you don’t care about and cut it out in exchange. You’ll be one step closer to your own personalized version of lightweight bikepacking perfection.
More Bikepacking Resources
If you found this helpful, you might also like these:
- Creative Gear Ideas for Bikepacking on a Budget
- Great Divide Mountain Bike Route: Essential Planning Info
- Bikepacking Solo: Pros, Cons, and Words of Encouragement
Or visit the bikepacking section for lots more.
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