How to Plan Your Own Bikepacking Route on America’s Public Land

With so many new bikepacking routes being scouted and established these days, we can ride for years without ever needing to make up our own routes.

But where’s the fun in that? ;)

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the convenience and reassurance of an established route as much as the next bikepacker. I like knowing water sources have been verified, roads have been proven to exist, and all creepy abandoned buildings have been vetted to not contain serial killers. (That’s all part of route development, right?)

But at some point in my bikepacking journey, the itch for a sense of discovery and creativity grew more intense. I found myself more interested in the obscure lines on a rural map than the security of a well-traveled route, and I began planning my own bikepacking routes from scratch.

I quickly discovered that when it comes to planning a DIY bikepacking route, at least in the western half of the US, it’s all about public land. Specifically, national forests and BLM land are a low-traffic, free camping, open-space paradise for bikepackers.

I highly recommend planning a DIY bikepacking route on public land, and I think anyone can do it. But if you’re going to point your wheels down some random dirt path called “NF-76A12C” and hope for the best, there are a few things you need to know. Read on!

Bike leans against sign saying Humboldt National Forest

Types of Public Land

We’re fortunate to have over 640 million acres of federally managed public land in the United States. This land is managed by the government and available for a variety of uses, from extractive (like mining and logging) to outdoor recreation, depending on the type designation. Here’s a helpful overview of the entire system, and here’s a map showing where they all are.

National Parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone probably spring to mind, and these are indeed examples of public land. But the national park system is just a small, crowded, and strictly regulated – albeit spectacularly scenic – sliver of America’s public lands. The busy, RV-choked roads and hiking-only trails at many national parks actually make them unappealing for bikepacking, as lovely as they otherwise are.

So then, which types of public land should bikepackers be seeking out? This post covers the two most common types of public land that are perfect for bikepacking: national forests and BLM land.

National Forests

The US has nearly 200 million acres of federally designated National Forest managed by the US Forest Service. Most of this land lies from the Rockies westward, with particularly large chunks in Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, and California. Smaller chunks are scattered throughout the eastern US as well. The green areas on this map show all the US National Forests:

Map of US forest service land
By U.S. Forest Service, Public Domain, source

National forests are very different from national parks. They allow extractive use, for example logging and mining, and you won’t find a visitor’s center or gift shop. You probably won’t find many people either, except the occasional RV or pickup truck, and you won’t find a gate with a ranger charging an entrance fee (though parking fees are charged in some places).

What you will find in national forests is a seemingly endless web of forest service roads, and this is where things get exciting. If your preferred bikepacking style is mostly gravel or dirt road touring, you’ll be in heaven on these vast networks of unpaved, low-traffic roads.

Riders who like it rougher can often find secondary or tertiary roads – more like jeep tracks or motorbike trails in many cases – for venturing off the maintained gravel. Sometimes you’ll even find dedicated mountain biking singletrack, though this is rarer.

National forests are also amazing for bikepacking because they allow free dispersed camping, in addition to sometimes having both primitive and developed camping areas. See Free Camping on Public Land below for details.

As an example, here’s a short route I recently planned and rode through some great national forest land in central Oregon.

Bicycle on rocky dirt road in central Oregon
Bikepacking in central Oregon’s Deschutes National Forest, a massive network of dirt and gravel roads

BLM Land

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages 250 million acres, the largest category of public land in the US. As you can see in the map below, this land is concentrated in the western US and is commonly, though not always, in desert ecosystems. Fun fact: 67% of Nevada is public land!

Map of US BLM land
By Bureau of Land Management, source

BLM land is the most loosely regulated type of public land. Spend much time out there and you’re sure to encounter ranching, mining, hunting, off-roading, target shooting, and RV camping.

Bikepacking is definitely allowed too, but you’re likely to be the only one doing it. That’s a shame though, because vast networks of gravel roads, dirt jeep tracks, and free dispersed camping make BLM land a great canvas for bikepacking and dirt road touring. Just be sure to double check your water supply and refill sources, as there’s not much out there except the occasional primitive camping area.

For an example, here’s a route I recently planned and rode through some remote BLM land in southern Idaho and northern Nevada.

Bikepacking bicycle lying on gravel road in open plains
Bikepacking through BLM land in southern Idaho near Bruneau Canyon
Bikepacker stands next to BLM road sign with bike
A large network of BLM roads in Central California

Wilderness Areas Are Off-Limits

Here’s an important “gotcha” that bikepackers need to know. Sometimes you’ll find a Wilderness Area inside another type of public land, such as a national forest.

The term “wilderness area” sounds great, right? Who wouldn’t want to bikepack in a wilderness area?

I’m sorry to disappoint, but wilderness areas are actually a specific designation given to over 100 million acres of land where motorized and mechanized travel is forbidden. Yup, this includes bicycles. It even includes wheeled carts!

The idea is to keep these wild places pure and untouched by human influence. I am all for this in general, and as a hiker I appreciate the peaceful mood (the Colorado Trail, for example, passes through several gorgeous wilderness areas that bikes must detour around). I find it odd that fishing and even rifle hunting are allowed – albeit with more restrictions that usual – as these seem rather mechanized to me. But hey, I don’t make the rules.

Anyway, take care to avoid officially designated Wilderness Areas in your bikepacking route plan or you’ll be forced to make a long, sad backtrack when you hit the “no bikes” sign at the boundary.

Colorful trail sign says "No mountain bikes allowed in wilderness"
The most cheerful “no bikes” sign you’ll probably ever see (Colorado Trail). Friendly clip art notwithstanding, you’ll still need to turn around.

Roads and Trails on Public Land

With hundred of millions of acres, you can bet there’s a lot of variation in the types and conditions of roads and trails on public land. Here I’ll describe some general patterns I’ve seen while bikepacking on national forest and BLM land.

This should give you a sense of what to expect when planning your own bikepacking route on public land, but be aware that I haven’t been everywhere! Finding some things out for yourself is part of the adventure.

Road Naming Conventions

Sometimes the road names you’ll find on maps or street signs will tell you which type of land you’re on. Here are some clues to keep in mind.

BLM road naming conventions vary a lot. Often you won’t even know you’re on a BLM road unless you look at a map (suggestions below) because they can have inconspicuous street names like “County Road 456” or “Elm Street.” If you do find yourself on a road marked with something like BLM-1234 then it’s a safe bet you’re on BLM infrastructure.

On BLM land used for recreation you’ll often spot these telltale brown signs at intersections and recreation sites:

Bike leans against BLM roadside in desert landscape
BLM signage points the way to Nevada in rural southern Idaho

National Forest road naming conventions also vary, but it’s pretty easy to spot many unpaved forest service roads by looking for names like NF-123 or National Forest Development Road 45B6. In my experience, roads with smaller numbers (NF-18 for example) are often better maintained and more frequently traveled than roads with larger numbers (NF-1825).

The categories below – primary, secondary, etc. – are my own terms, but they loosely correspond to the maintenance levels laid out by the forest service and BLM.

Bikepacker gets off bike to close gate with grazing cattle in background
Public land is often used as grazing land for cattle. Always close the gates behind you. (New Mexico)

Paved Arterial Roads

Many national forests have primary roads that are completely or partially paved. You can use the Google Maps satellite layer and/or well-researched paper or PDF maps to see where pavement starts and ends.

Paved roads through national forests are usually narrow and shoulderless but typically low-traffic. Busy summer weekends (holidays, opening of hunting season, etc) are the exception in popular recreation areas, when you might encounter more large RVs and trailers than you’d like.

BLM land contains plenty of paved roads as well, often rural two-lane highways or streets.

Paved road turns to gravel
China Hat Road / NF-18 turns from pavement to gravel a few miles outside of Bend, OR

Primary Gravel Roads

On both BLM and National Forest land you’ll find plenty of these “gravel superhighways,” primary unpaved roads that two lanes wide and maintained for low-clearance 2wd passenger vehicles. You’ll find everything from sedans to massive RVs on these roads, though traffic is usually sparse. Often they are surfaced to be passable in bad weather (read: less death mud) and sometimes even through the winter snows.

These roads make a great place to start when planning your own bikepacking route. They are typically low-traffic and traverse large expanses of open space, but without that “no one would ever find my body here” feeling of more remote trails and tracks. :) Use them as the backbone of your national forest bikepacking route, branching off onto smaller roads if and when you feel the urge.

Bicycle leans against national forest road sign in central Oregon
NF-18, a major gravel connector through Deschutes National Forest in central Oregon

While primary unpaved roads are straightforward to follow and offer the comfort of other road users, they are not necessarily smooth riding. They can be steep, dusty, and exposed to the sun. The most common and universally hated problem is washboarding: closely spaced corrugations caused by motor vehicles that will loosen both your dental fillings and bikepacking gear and make you curse at the universe. (Key tip: let some air out of your tires.)

Closeup of corrugations in gravel forest road
Washboarded gravel can turn an otherwise fast-rolling road into a painful slog

Secondary Gravel or Dirt Roads

Secondary unpaved roads are typically narrower, perhaps only one lane, and may or may not be passable by low-clearance vehicles. You might meet pickup trucks and campers on these roads, but usually not large RVs.

These roads make fantastic bikepacking or dirt touring routes in the right conditions. They see some traffic but not as much as primary roads; I always see tire tracks on roads like this, but rarely encounter actual vehicles. They give more of an off-the-beaten-track feeling while still allowing some fast miles in the right conditions.

Don’t count on these roads being easy riding in all conditions, though. They can be washboarded in places, as well as rocky, muddy, sandy, or rutted, depending on the location and terrain. They can also be blissfully smooth and fun, if you’re lucky.

A fully rigid mountain bike is an ideal bikepacking rig for these types of roads, though a gravel bike can work too. In some particularly sandy or washboarded places wider tires would be helpful.

Bike lies on smooth dirt road in pine forest
This dirt road in Oregon was smooth and fast.

Bike leans against sign saying "End of road improvements"
This dirt road in Utah can turn to “death mud” if it rains.

Tertiary Roads

These roads are single lane, rarely maintained, and only driven by high-clearance 4wd vehicles like jeeps, ATVs, or dirt bikes. They don’t see much traffic unless maybe it’s the weekend in a popular OHV (off-highway vehicle) recreation area.

Expect plenty of rocks, ruts, and potentially sand or mud in some conditions. A rigid bike with 2″ tires at minimum, or maybe a hardtail mountain bike, would be a good choice for riders spending a lot of time on this type of road.

Overgrown two-track through pine forest
Overgrown and rocky two-track in Oregon
Bikepacker in blue shirt rides down rocky desert road in remote area
Rocky jeep road in New Mexico

Unmaintained and Forgotten Roads

I include this category mainly to illustrate the importance of using a good map when planning a bikepacking route through public land. There are some tracks which might have been actual roads in a previous life, but have been unmaintained for so long that they are currently not deserving of the name “road.”

If you simply pick lines randomly off Google Maps, you’ll probably encounter one of these eventually. Depending on your riding style you might love it or hate it, but you’ll definitely want to know about it in advance either way.

Bike leans against rock on forgotten old road too rough to ride
This old “road” near Downieville, CA turned out to be mostly a pile of rocks. Good thing we were only out for a day ride and could just turn around.

Singletrack Trails

If you love mountain biking, you’ll be excited about these trails which are off-limits to anything with more than two wheels.

Do note that many are designed for and mostly used by motorized dirt bikes, so don’t be surprised when they come zooming through. And some are designated for hiking and horseback riding but exclude bicycles, so check before riding. A rare few are the holy grail of backcountry singletrack bikepacking: open to hikers, bicycles, and horses but not motorized dirt bikes.

Bikepacking bike leans against trail sign in national forest
Woohoo! Sweet singletrack open to bicycles but closed to motorbikes. Can we get more of this please? Deschutes National Forest, Central Oregon

Mapping and Saving Your DIY Route

Now that some sweet dirt roads or trails have caught your eye, it’s time to save your tentative routes in the form of GPS tracks. The best bikepacking route planning tool I’ve found is; I use it for both route planning and navigation. The free version will get you started, and for more features (including offline route navigation, very important) the cheap subscription is totally worth it.

When it’s time to navigate your route, you can either use the RideWithGPS app on your smartphone (be sure to download the route for offline use), or export the GPX file and import it into any app or GPS navigation device you prefer.

Watch Out for These “Gotchas”

National forests and BLM land are wonderful canvases on which to plan your own bikepacking route, but you do need to watch out for a few things. I share these so you can learn from my mistakes, because I learned most of them the hard way!

Private Land

If you’re just looking at Google Maps or an Open Street Maps viewer like, there’s no way to tell if a road is private. Public land often surrounds or abuts ranches, military bases, and other private establishments. Sometimes this means the road is public but no camping is allowed alongside it. In the worst case, it means you arrive at a large gate with an intimidating “no trespassing” sign and need to backtrack dozens of miles.

How to avoid this? Use a good map from a researched source like Benchmark, National Geographic, or the free Motor Vehicle Use Maps from the forest service (details below). Google Maps’ street view tool and satellite layer can also help you spot gates and signs at key intersections.

Private property sign on dirt road
Private property sign in national forest
Mendocino National Forest, California

Dry Water Sources

In remote national forests or BLM tracts it’s essential to make sure you can refill water when you need it. Where water is scarce it’s smart to plan out every refill so you know how much capacity you need and how much to carry from each source.

Do NOT assume that every blue line (river / stream) and blob (lake) you see on a map is a reliable water source. That stream might well be dry by mid-summer. The reservoir could be drained. This is especially likely in late summer and fall, once snow has melted out of the high country. I have bikepacked in areas criss-crossed by supposed “creeks” on my map without finding any actual water for 70+ miles.

Here’s a real-life example where the map is very misleading:

Screenshot of what looks like blue lake on Google Maps
Looking at Google Maps, you’d expect to find a lake here in the middle of the desert at the Idaho-Nevada border.
Satellite View showing dry lakebed
A quick toggle to the satellite layer, however, shows you would likely be disappointed by a dry lake bed, at least during certain times of the year.

This goes for any map, from Google Maps to well-researched recreation maps. The latter will often use dashed lines vs. solid to show which sources are likely to flow year-round, making them more reliable than Google but still not guaranteed, especially as climate change leads to increasingly unpredictable weather patterns.

How to avoid? This one takes a combination of techniques. First, use specialized and well-researched maps to find sources that are supposed to be flowing year-round. In dry areas, pinpoint a few emergency backup options even if they are off-route.

Use Satellite View to investigate further, but keep in mind that satellite pictures could have been taken in a different season. A source that’s dry in the satellite imagery should be highly suspect, while a source that’s full is not a guarantee.

Consider your margin of error when pushing limits of water availability, especially when riding solo or in hot weather. These could be good times to stick to primary gravel roads where there is some chance of encountering a kind stranger in case of injury, mechanical, or an essential water source that’s unexpectedly dry.

Carry enough water capacity for a safe margin when traversing dry areas. Here’s how to estimate your water needs and how to carry more water on your bike.

Water Crossings Without Bridges

Primitive backcountry roads are not guaranteed to be passable in all seasons and conditions, and one example of this is water crossings without bridges. Here’s an example from Mendocino National Forest:

Screenshot of road crossing river with no bridge on Satellite View
Screenshot taken from RideWithGPS satellite mode showing a water crossing with no bridge.

In that satellite image you can see that a road crosses a river, but there’s no bridge to be seen. Depending on the size of Rice Fork, that crossing may be an easy ankle-deep ride, a knee-high bike carry, or a dangerous waist-high ordeal.

When I did finally go and scout this route, here’s what I found in late fall (typically the driest time of year):

Bikepacker crosses river where abandoned vehicle is stuck
Ankle deep and passable in November, but that abandoned car tells me this crossing might be harder at other times of the year!

How to avoid? Use Satellite View to spot-check any suspicious areas, and Google for road information on the local forest service website (though expect that minor roads might not be mentioned).

Highly Variable Road Conditions

Route mapping tools like RideWithGPS don’t always choose the ideal bikepacking route between two points. Their algorithm might choose a path that’s a bit shorter in distance but takes far longer in time, because the shorter route is actually a barely-there sandy desert slog or overgrown forgotten trail.

This is a great reason to use Motor Vehicle Use Maps (more below), a Benchmark Atlas, or some other resource that gives clues about the maintenance status of backcountry roads. On Google Maps they ALL look like smooth white lines. Better maps usually use different patterns of dashed lines to indicate gradations of quality. Whether your goal is to avoid rugged unmaintained tracks or seek them out, you’ll want to know where they are.

Screenshot of GPS route following unmaintained road instead of the main gravel road
Here’s an example in northern Nevada. RideWithGPS chose the much smaller unmaintained parallel track instead of the main road, when in this case I preferred to stay on the maintained gravel.

How to avoid? This is where switching to Satellite View is critical. Check to make sure you see what you’re expecting beneath the route line that’s been drawn, and modify as necessary by dragging the route onto roads and trails you like the looks of (making sure, as mentioned above, that they are open to public access).

As you can see, avoiding all these issues comes down to using multiple reliable sources of information when planning bikepacking routes in remote areas. Always a good idea!

Bikepacking bike leans against sign that says "Travel at your own risk"

Using Satellite and Street View

I know I just told you Google Maps will lead you astray when it comes to planning a bikepacking route. But wait, it does have a couple very helpful features! These Google Map features are your friends and will help you learn about road surface, shoulder width, water sources, gates, etc.

  • Satellite layer: click the satellite box in the bottom left (or access via the layers menu on mobile)
  • Street view: drag the little yellow person from bottom right onto the blue line where you want to see a closeup (also accessible from layers menu on mobile)
Screenshot of Google Maps with Satellite Laer in bottom left and Street View (little yellow person) in bottom right
How to find satellite layer (bottom left) and street view (bottom right) in Google Maps

Free Camping on Public Land

National Forest and BLM land are both loved by outdoor enthusiasts for their acceptance of free and legal dispersed camping. This means you can camp for free wherever you like, more or less, as long as you follow a few basic rules.

There are a few guidelines for dispersed camping (BLM version here), but it basically boils down to this: respect the land, leave no trace, and don’t camp anywhere it’s specifically prohibited. For most bikepackers this won’t be a problem, as our mode of travel is fairly low-impact. While the large RVs are limited to big gravel pullouts on primary roads, we can sneak off down that unmaintained track or even off into the forest for a stealthy and quiet night.

Bike campsite in forest
A perfect cyclist-sized dispersed campsite in northern New Mexico

Both national forests and BLM land also have designated camping areas. These range from quite primitive (just some pullouts and maybe a fire ring) to quite developed (numbered sites, water, trash cans, bathrooms, etc). A few of the primitive sites are free, but more developed campgrounds require varying fees.

Three bikes and tents at a campground
A well-appointed BLM campground in Central California

Personally, I prefer dispersed camping when bikepacking. Designated campgrounds are often full of large RVs and not the most peaceful place for a cyclist to sleep under the stars. I love sneaking off onto smaller side roads and trails where vehicles don’t venture.

Related: Dispersed Camping for Cyclists

Entrance Costs

Riding through NF and BLM land is usually free. Certain parking areas in high-use places may require a parking fee, for example the Northwest Forest Pass system of Oregon and Washington. Check locally if planning to park your car at a trailhead like this.

Maps and Resources

It should be clear by now that Google Maps by itself is not adequate for planning a bikepacking route, especially not on public land. I find Open Street Maps (as in the app for example) to be only slightly better.

So, which maps should you use instead? Here are some of the best resources for mapping a bikepacking route on national forest or BLM land.

USGS interactive map of US public land: great for getting the “big picture” or figuring out which type of land is where

RideWithGPS: convenient route mapping tool with easy switching between many different map layers including topo maps, Open Street Map, and Google Maps with bike layers, Satellite View, and Street View. Mobile app offers offline navigation with the basic subscription.

Printed maps: Benchmark atlases like this (Idaho) are fantastic for the western US. National Geographic maps like this (Sawtooth National Forest and nearby) are good for specific smaller areas where outdoor recreation is a major focus.

Printed maps for smartphone: Benchmark, NatGeo, and many other printed maps can also be purchased and accessed on a smartphone via the Avenza app, along with many other free and paid maps.

Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUM’s) and Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Maps: Available in many forms, these maps show the roads and trails open for motor vehicle use in many national forest areas. They’ll usually give a sense of primary versus primitive roads, but they’ll leave out rare gems that are not open to motorized travel. For example, this MVUM for Deschutes NF doesn’t show Swamp Wells Trail, which is lovely non-motorized singletrack leading down the northern side of the crater.

How to get MVUMs:

BLM maps page: interactive map of BLM land and rec sites, plus links to PDF downloads of many specific maps has yet more resources noted in their Bikepacker’s Guide to Public Land.

Other Land Users

If you, like me, live in a populated area where public land is highly regulated, you likely don’t have ATV driving, hunting, or target shooting high on your list of hobbies. So it’s understandable that you may feel a bit out of place deep in the BLM land of Nevada, for example, where these activities are the main attraction for most visitors.

Sign on dirt road says "Trail bike xing"

The outdoor community is often fractured along these lines, but I’ve come to learn that all of us are out there to enjoy the outdoors, just in different ways. I’ve met the friendliest families out driving ATV’s (I’ve even rented one myself too – they’re a blast!), been gifted food and water by hunters, and encountered target shooters practicing their aim safely and politely.

So if you feel a bit out of place amongst these other forms of outdoor recreation, my advice is to interact with the people you meet and try to let stereotypes evaporate. I’ve had countless positive experiences with people I’ve met while bikepacking in these areas, and I hope to have left them with positive impressions of bikepackers.

Bikepacker holds gifted beer
Happy to take a beer break when a passing hunter offered a cold one from his cooler in northern Nevada

More Bikepacking Resources

If you’re excited about planning your own bikepacking route, you might find these helpful too:

Or visit the bikepacking section for lots more!

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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