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 bikepacking route as much as the next gal or guy. I like knowing that water sources have been verified, roads have been proven to exist, and all creepy abandoned buildings along the way 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 is basically all about public land. Specifically, national forests and BLM land are a gravel road, jeep track, free camping, open-space paradise for bikepackers.
I highly recommend planning a DIY bikepacking route on public land. 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. This post is all about how to safely and enjoyably plan your own bikepacking (or gravel or dirt touring) route through some of the biggest unpopulated spaces the US has to offer.
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 two massive collections of public land perfect for bikepacking: national forests and BLM land.
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:
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.
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!
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, but you’re likely to be the only one doing it unless you’re on an established route. 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.
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 or BLM land.
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 passes through several gorgeous wilderness areas that bikes must detour around). I find it a bit 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.
So, 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.
Roads and Trails on Public Land
With hundred of millions of acres, you can bet there’s a lot of variation! 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.” Of course, if you 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.
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 (but not always) 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.
Paved Arterial Roads
Many national forests have primary arterial 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) might be the exception in popular recreation areas, when you’ll encounter quite a few large RVs and trailers.
Examples of national forest roads with paved sections include:
- Henness Pass Road / S309 in Tahoe National Forest near Downieville
- Alder Springs Road / Forest Highway 7 in Mendocino National Forest
BLM land contains plenty of paved roads as well, often rural two-lane highways or streets.
Primary Gravel Roads
On both BLM and National Forest land you’ll find plenty of these “gravel superhighways,” primary unpaved roads that are usually 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.
While primary unpaved roads are straightforward to follow and offer the comfort of occasional 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.)
You could definitely ride these roads on a gravel or touring bike, or even a road bike with beefy tires. If they’re badly washboarded though, you’ll need to take it easy and maybe even walk some short sections.
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. A high-clearance 2wd vehicle might be fine, or 4wd might be useful in some places and conditions. You might meet pickup trucks and ATVs on these roads, but usually not large RVs.
Don’t count on these roads being easy riding in all conditions. 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.
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.
A fully rigid mountain bike is an ideal bikepacking rig for these types of roads, though a gravel bike might work too. In some places – particularly sandy or washboarded – wider tires would be helpful.
These roads are single lane, rarely maintained, and only driven by high-clearance 4wd vehicles like jeeps and 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 ideally a hardtail mountain bike, would be a good choice for riders spending a lot of time on this type of road.
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 rough going.
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.
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. A rare few are the holy grail of singletrack bikepacking: open to hikers, bicycles, and horses but not motorized dirt bikes.
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 ridewithgps.com; I use it for both route planning and navigation. The free version will get you started, and for more features (including offline route navigation) the cheap subscription is totally worth it.
When it’s time to navigate your route, you can either use the Ride with GPS 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 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 there are a few things to watch out for. I tell you these so you can learn from my mistakes, because I learned most of them the hard way!
If you’re just looking at Google Maps or an Open Street Maps viewer like Maps.me, there’s no way to tell if a road is private or not. 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.
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 feeding these streams. I have bikepacked in areas criss-crossed by supposed “creeks” on my map without finding any actual water for 70+ miles.
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 were likely 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 issue, or an essential water source that’s unexpectedly dry.
Carry enough water capacity for a safe margin when traversing dry areas. Here are tips on 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:
In that satellite image you can see that a road crosses a river, but there’s no bridge to be seen (in fact I can barely see the road either). 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):
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 Types and Conditions
Route mapping tools like Ride with GPS 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.
Again, this is a great reason to use Motor Vehicle Use Maps, 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. Whether your goal is to avoid rugged unmaintained tracks or seek them out, you’ll want to know where they are.
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 the 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!
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)
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.” While this usually applies to campers who arrive by motor vehicle, there’s no reason it can’t also apply to those traveling by bicycle.
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.
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.
Personally, I prefer dispersed camping when bikepacking. Designated campgrounds are often full of large RVs and not always the nicest place for a lone cyclist to sleep under the stars. I love sneaking off onto smaller side roads and trails where vehicles don’t venture.
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 remote public land. I find Open Street Maps (as in the Maps.me 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
Ride with GPS: convenient route mapping tool with easy switching between many different map layers, including satellite and google 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 with a focus on recreation.
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.
BLM maps page: interactive map of BLM land and rec sites, plus links to PDF downloads of many specific maps
Other Land Users
If, like me, you 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.
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 their ATV’s, been gifted food and water by humane 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 take a deep breath, interact with the people you meet, and try to let stereotypes evaporate. We could all use more connection and less division these days, in my personal opinion.
Bikepacking Route Examples
This route planning guide comes from my own experience planning bikepacking routes, including these:
- Bikepacking Central Oregon: K Falls to Bend
- Bikepacking Idaho and Nevada: Boise to Elko
- Bikepacking Overnight in Mendocino National Forest
More Bikepacking Resources
If you’re excited about planning your own bikepacking route, you might find these helpful too:
- 5 ways to carry a tent on your bike
- How to carry more water while bikepacking
- Tubeless tire mistakes to avoid
- More bikepacking resources from Exploring Wild
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