According to the editors at Bikepacking.com the summer of 2021 will be … a lot like the summer of 2020. We may be able to walk mask-free into a convenience store to fuel up on Snickers and Gatorade, but the unpredictability of international travel will keep most of us exploring in our own backyards. For those of us who love our backyards, that’s not such a bad prognostication. If you’ve already got a working bike, all you need is a goal, whether it’s exploring new roads solo or finally signing up for that multiday charity ride.
There are no hard and fast rules for bikepacking. Some cyclists thrive on riding 1,000 miles in cutoff denim shorts, drinking from streams, bivouacking under the stars, and tempting fate with every decision. Others prefer to carry the extra weight of tents, sleeping pads, and stoves to ensure their comfort, safety, and well-being. There may not be a “wrong” way to do it, but there are some kit items, bike accessories, camping gear, and food that will make your two-wheeled foray into the wild more enjoyable.
What you’re reading now is a newly updated version of the guide we originally published last year. We’ve provided a few new suggestions for key pieces of the bikepacking puzzle and kept a few steadfast no-brainers provided last spring by Jeremy Kershaw, a registered nurse who for more than a decade has been organizing events like the Heck Epic, a three-day bikepacking race in northern Minnesota. Kershaw has pedaled thousands of miles to hone his systems. As he likes to say, “Bikepacking is a tinkerer’s dream. The pros and cons of each piece of equipment can be dramatic, but that’s part of the fun.”
There’s plenty of bike-specific gear available to outfit you from head to toe, but here’s our advice for what works best on those week-long backcountry rides.
If you want to maximize time off the bike on a multiday trip, try Specialized’s Rime Flat Shoes ($130 at Specialized, $130 at Backcountry). It sounds like an oxymoron, but Specialized designed this relaxed biking shoe with hiking in mind. The design pairs an uber-grippy rubber outsole with a durable mesh and TPU upper that breathes well and drys quickly in inclement weather. It also has enough interior support to properly optimize hip, knee, and foot alignment on the bike, reducing your risk of injury. At 13.6 ounces, it feels like a light hiking shoe when you wear it off the bike. In the saddle, it’s stiff enough to power the pedals forward.
For those who want maximize their power, efficiency, and style quotient while minimizing weight, the answer is the Rapha Explore Powerweave shoe ($355 at Rapha). Yes, it’s pricey, but it’s packed with tech. The stiff carbon sole of a road shoe is topped by a 3D-woven fabric with TPU-reinforced yarns that give it strength and weather resistance. The two-wheeled boa lacing system ratchets to just the right tension so the shoe ends up feeling custom designed for your own foot.
Some bikepackers believe that helmets only add to the fatigue they feel over long miles while providing little added benefit, especially when riding on roads lightly traveled by cars and trucks. Others wouldn’t even consider straddling a bike without wearing a brain bucket. Here’s one helmet that meets the debate in the middle: the POC Ventral Lite ($275 at POC, $275 at The Pro’s Closet). Weighing 8.5 ounces, this highly ventilated helmet is one of the lightest ever produced, making it far less of a burden on your head. POC shaved weight by scaling back the outer shell to cover only the essential parts of the liner, which is made using a lower-density EPS foam.
A cycling baselayer should wick sweat going uphill and keep you warm and dry going down. It should also stretch in the shoulders, be compressive enough to provide support, and be long enough to keep you covered. We like the Specialized Merino Seamless Short Sleeve Base Layer ($80 at Specialized, $80 at Backcountry). Made from soft merino wool, this lightweight base layer does all of the aforementioned tasks well. Thanks to its naturally antimicrobial threads, it will also keep you stink free for those nights you happen to roll out on the town.
What you wear as your primary layer is a matter of personal choice. Some prefer a basic technical tee, while others will want a standard zip-up, three-pocket cycling jersey. So, let us consider the outer layer. The latest trend in cycling apparel is the technical hoodie. They’re great for cool riding in shoulder seasons, but they are also awesome off the bike while camping. Five bike companies sent me their hoodie for testing. I especially loved Velocio’s Recon Hoodie ($249 for women, $249 for men, both at Velocio). I wear it every day. The Italian-designed piece has a streamlined fit, a merino fleece lining, two zip pockets on the front, and one smaller zip pocket on the side.
A jacket needs to be roomy and pliable enough to allow you the freedom of movement you require to safely maneuver your bike. A good jacket should also be breathable while staying fully wind and waterproof for long-haul rides. A hood is nice too. The POC Signal All-Weather Jacket ($280 for men or women at Backcountry, $350 for men or women at POC) ticks all those boxes while still packing down wherever you want to stash it; just stuff it into its own back pocket and attach it, via snaps, to the front handlebars. Its built in RECCO receiver will ping search and rescue folks with your whereabouts if you wind up in a ravine, and an NFC chip inside can store critical health details that first responders can access using a companion app that’s available for Android or iOS.
Diehards like to show their grit by riding in cutoff shorts with no protective chamois. And while those may dry faster, bib shorts are better. Bibs are aerodynamic, don’t bind in the waist, stay up, and have a chamois to keep your undercarriage from getting chafed. There are beefier bibs out there, but we like the Pearl Izumi Interval Cargo Bib Short ($124 and up for men or women at Pearl Izumi) because it has cooling mesh side panels for hot summer riding. It also has pockets on the thighs for quick access to snacks, a leg-gripping hem, and a comfortable friction-reducing chamois. Ladies take note: The distaff version has a drop panel designed for quick and easy pee breaks. Pearl Izumi tends to run slightly smaller than other brands, so consider sizing up.
Every season, I waver on whether expensive sunglasses are worth their lofty price tags. After testing multiple brands, I found that the more affordable Tifosi Sledge Light ($70 and up at Tifosi Optics) are as good as the more expensive options. They’re lightweight, flexible, and slip-free. And, importantly for long days, they come with interchangeable polycarbonate lenses—swap in clear, all-condition, or full-sun lenses—that keep your eyeballs covered no matter what kind of light the sun throws at them.
Bandanas are still more popular, but we can’t let go of our Buffs ($14 and up at Buffs) because they provide better coverage and a wider variety of protective features. The various models offered by Buffs guard against annoyances like the wind, the cold, biting insects, and the sun (with SPF 50 protection) to match whatever riding conditions you happen to find yourself in.
On a long ride into the unknown, you’ll need a piece of technology to count the miles, and of course tell you where exactly on the green hills of Earth you are. Stem-mounted bike computers are the standard-bearers of GPS systems among dedicated bikepackers, but some multi-sport athletes prefer the versatility of wearing their way-finding tech on their wrist. Plus, a smartwatch has the added benefit of tracking your heart rate and other physical data points. Whichever option you choose, Kershaw advises that you “make sure you understand your system before heading out.”
Wristwatch: My top pick is the new Suunto 9 Baro Titanium ($419 at REI, $599 at Suunto). It’s a premium, upgraded version of the Suunto 9 that debuted in March. Track the weather, your heart rate, and your route using the intuitive buttons, or by swiping across the touchscreen on this beautifully designed Finnish timepiece. The watch offers turn-by-turn directions (the navigation system is powered by adventure mapping specialists Komoot) and provides up to 170 hours of GPS tracking in the battery-sipping tour mode—a key feature for those in the wild for multiple days with limited access to recharging. In standard mode, the watch ratchets down to 25 hours of battery life, which is plenty for city-to-city rides.
Cycling Computer: Go for the Wahoo Elemnt Bolt ($280 at Wahoo). Wahoo’s updated bike computer is a highly intuitive companion. Slightly larger than a pack of dental floss, it unobtrusively mounts to your handlebars. The waterproof—and, thanks to its Gorilla Glass screen, nearly crash-proof—device packs a new, 64-color high-contrast screen and expanded navigation features. Wahoo also increased the battery to provide a 15-hour runtime and increased onboard memory to 16GB, which means you can preload as many miles of maps as you can handle. When paired with the Wahoo Elemnt mobile app, riders can customize their data screens, sync routes between computers, and analyze their ride data.
It’s nice to get out of the elements on occasion with a night in a hotel or couch surfing with friends, but it’s also good to be prepared for those days when you’d rather just sleep under the stars.
“The ultralight tent versus bivvy versus hammock debate is endless,” says Kershaw. Hammocks you can string up between two trees, and simple bivvies (ultra-minimal shelters) are easy options because you don’t have to deal with poles, but Kershaw says you should consider an ultralight tent if you want a dry place to read at night.
For minimalists, we like the Rab Ridge Raider Bivi ($375 from Rab), a one-person bivvy rigged for sleeping anywhere—even in a ditch if you have to. You have to squeeze yourself inside, and it’s a tight fit, but its Pertex shell gives you a dry, breathable, secure hideaway for sleeping. With only one overhead hoop and a micropole at the feet to keep the morning dew off your sleeping bag, it takes less than five minutes to set up. Weighing just under two pounds and packing down to the size of an overstuffed Chipotle burrito, it’s an essential rig for those who want to keep it as simple as possible.
Those craving something more luxurious should try the SeaToSummit Telos TR2 ($499 at SeaToSummit). This two-person, three-season, two-door backpacking tent has a unique pole system; the middle pole curves in the opposite direction outward, like butterfly wings, so at its apex, the tent becomes roomy enough for somebody to almost stand fully upright. The packed weight of 3 pounds, 7 ounces, is mere peanuts, but with an innovatively designed segmented stuff sack, the tent can be distributed between two bikes. With a floor area of 28 square feet and a vestibule area of 19.5 square feet, the weight to footprint ratio is exemplary, especially when you need to spread out and dry stuff after a long, wet day in the rain.
When it comes to sleeping bags, Kershaw’s advice is to find a sleeping bag and pad that packs down and keeps you warm. “Go as light as you want to,” says Kershaw. “There’s such a wide variety of temperature ranges out there.” Some seasoned riders just bring a tarp and wrap themselves up in it like a burrito. If this is your first bikepacking trip, however, we recommend sucking up the extra weight of a bag and pad.
Kelty’s Cosmic Ultra Down 20 sleeping bag ($200 and up at Kelty, $200 and up at Evo.com) was already a pretty ideal selection, but this year Kelty upped the down fill from 600 to 800, changed the rectangular baffles to trapezoidal ones to retain more heat, and added a soft taffeta liner. The upgrades over last year’s model shaved a few ounces off the weight (it now measures 2.4 pounds for the men’s version and 2.9 pounds for the women’s) and added $40 to the cost, but I find that added comfort is worth the extra money.
For a ground pad, try the Big Agnes Insulated Axel Air pad ($152 and up at REI, $152 and up at Big Agnes). For its light weight (around 17 ounces for my midsize pad) the Axel Air sleeps like a much beefier pad, and with an R-Value (the measure of a sleeping pad’s ability to resist heat transfer; higher is better) of 3, it kept me warm and dry even in the damp chill of early spring in Minnesota. There’s always a risk that a pad this lightweight will pop, so be gentle with it. The pad comes in multiple lengths and widths, and in a mummy shape or as a rectangular pad. All the sizes and shapes are different prices, and some are easier to find in stock than others.
You have to eat and drink out there. Here’s some tested advice on what to pack, how to pack it, and some other strategies for staying fueled up.
There’s no getting around it: you’re going to have to carry water with you. Kershaw says to secure any water bottles or bladders to your bicycle frame instead of relying on a hydration pack. “It’s much better to carry as much weight as possible on your bike as opposed to on your back,” he says. He also offers this expert advice: If your route is remote, pack a filtration system.
For those looking for efficient water storage, I like the HydraPak Seeker 2L ($22 at REI, $22 at HydraPak). More versatile than your average hydration bladder, this ultra-tough TPU water carrier will scrunch into the size of a fist when not in use. It’s also compatible with any filter (like the Katadyn BeFree) that screws on to a common 42mm thread, and it can be kitted out with a separate hydration hose for use as a hydration pack during the day. At the campsite, secure it with its leakproof screw cap and use it for water storage.
If you want 99.9999999 percent piece of mind that a water-borne illness won’t force you to end your trip early, pack the MSR Guardian Gravity Purifier ($250 at REI, $250 at MSR). It’s a little bulky for ultra-streamlined rigs, but if space isn’t critical, this high-flow, gravity powered system is handy. It filters bacteria, particulate matter, viruses, and intestine-ravaging protozoa.
“A lot of the fun of bikepacking is coming into a town for a food stop,” says Kershaw. But, he adds, “We can’t assume we can find places to eat, so know in advance where reliable food stops are.”
If you’re going to be far from civilization, just BYO nutrition. I can recommend the delicious, nutritious, just-add-water meals from Good to Go. For me, these have made backcountry food prep a thing of the past. The company’s new pre-packaged food kits offer an assorted selection of meals to last five to 10 days. Breakfasts, lunches, and dinners are included. The five-day package offers 305 grams of protein, 8,430 calories, and tasty options like Cuban rice bowls, Thai curry, and Good to Go’s award-winning chicken pho. There are meal kits for vegans too. ($135 and up for the five-day kits.)
Kate’s Real Food Dark Chocolate Mint bars make a great on-the-bike snack. The peppermint-tinged bar is packed with organic ingredients including peanut butter, gluten-free oats, dark chocolate, peppermint extract, and natural cacao powder. (12-pack, $30 at Kate’s Real Food.)
When you’re sweating it out all day on a bike, you need more than just water to replenish lost electrolytes. The new Honey Stinger Rapid Hydration Mix ($15 and up from Honey Stinger) offers three types of specialized hydration: Prepare for swigging pre-ride, Perform for sipping on the bike, and Recover for your evening come-down. Each mix uses organic honey for sweetness and to provide a natural energy boost, and combines it with sodium to speed the absorption of key added nutrients. The best part: each flavor has a satisfyingly tart taste without the sickly aftertaste of many performance drinks.
If your route takes you through towns with shops and restaurants, Kershaw advises that you follow this simple plan for fueling up your engine: “Bring a tiny stove and a little tiny cook kit for cooking breakfast, then credit card camp for the rest of the day,” he says.
For making that first meal of the day, we like the MSR Pocket Rocket II ($45 at REI, $45 at Amazon). Screw this featherweight burner onto an isobutane-propane-fueled stove, and it boils water in less than three and a half minutes.
It’s about more than just the bike. Supplement your ride with these items for storage, repairs, and safety.
You might be tempted to pack a big backpack, but that’s the wrong move—see Kershaw’s advice above about carrying weight on your bike instead of on your back. “Frame bags are great, just make sure you load up and see how your bike feels before you go,” he says. And put some quality test miles on your loaded-up chariot so you can dial in your setup. “If a strap is rubbing, that annoyance will be compounded when it starts to rain.”
I like the Ortlieb Frame-Pack RC Toptube pack ($150 at Ortlieb, $150 at REI). The German-designed, four-liter, waterproof frame bag is ideal for bikepackers in wet climates who need dry storage for things like a tent, a stove, and food, yet still want to access the water bottles secured to their frame below. The combination of Velcro and roll closures keep your goodies on the inside. For more storage, Ortlieb’s fork packs ($60 each) and rear panniers ($190 for a pair) are a welcome addition; they attach to either side of the wheels in front and back.
Flats are a reality on a long ride. There are two good options for spare tubes: good old rubber; or TPU, a stretchy thermoplastic. The tradeoff between them is that the rubber may be more versatile in terms of the size tires it can accommodate, but the TPU is unmatched in weight and packability. I recommend Tubolito’s S-CX Gravel Tube ($40 at Tubolito). The lightest, smallest tube on the market, this 35-gram TPU tube with a Presta valve is as strong as a standard rubber tube at a fraction of the weight. It’s compatible with tubeless tires too, making the S-CX is the ideal spare for all 700c and 650B tires between 30-mm and 47-mm tire widths.
The best method for getting a tire up to pressure and ready to roll after a repair is also a matter of debate. Some prefer the trusty method of pumping air into a tube via a mechanical pump. But that’s tedious and time-consuming, which is why others insist on the quicker, easier, and occasionally explosive option of inflating the tire with a pressurize CO2 canister.
The good news is that you can have it both ways with the Cannondale CO2 Road Mini Pump ($38 at your local bike shop). This super-compact pump is the size of an Epi-Pen, and it eliminates the debate by pairing a speedy CO2 cartridge mechanism with a mechanical backup of a real pump. The pump comes with a bike mount, but it’s small enough to be stashed in a jersey pocket or pack. It’s an especially good bet for winter riding, since the metal CO2 cartridge is already in position and ready to fire, and those things can become too cold to handle on frigid days.
A study conducted by Clemson University in 2016 showed that, on average, cyclists believe they are 700 percent more visible to cars than they actually are. That’s why, even the minimalists should still pack a strong lighting system. Consider Bontrager’s powerful and easy-to-mount light combo, the Flare RT and Ion Pro RT ($185 at Trek Bikes, $185 at REI). It comes with a headlight to illumiante the full width of any road or trail, and a rear flare that can be seen from 2 kilometers away thanks to its unique flash pattern. If you have a Garmin computer or any ANT+ device, you can use the display to track the lights’ battery levels.
There’s also a place for a headlamp in a bikepacking kit, as a backup headlight on the road, and for use in camp to more quickly and easily put up the tent or cook meals in the dark, or just to relax and read. I like the 168-lumen Third Eye Headlamp ($50 at Third Eye, $48 at Amazon) because it throws a beam that can extend up to 360 feet. It has two easy-to-use push buttons, one for white light and one for red light, which preserves night vision while still providing illumination. The headlamp portion is made from 100 percent recyclable, non-toxic plastic too. The various designs for the machine-washable headband are fun as well.
Kershaw’s recommended fix-it kit list includes a bunch of small items. Definitely pack the mini Leatherman Squirt ($40 at Amazon, $40 at Huckberry, $40 at REI) with pliers to fix cables. For tire maintenance, you’ll want a tire boot for repairing sidewall cuts, a small pump (like the one above), a tire lever for getting tires on and off the wheels, and a patch kit for fixing flats (try this $7 kit from Park Tool). All of that, of course, is in addition to your spare tube. If your route is long or filled with gravel sections, then maybe bring two tubes. Also take along a set of extra brake pads and a quick link/extra chain link for fixing drivetrain issues. And don’t forget the extra batteries or charging pack for your GPS unit or smartwatch.
To treat the small scrapes and aches, Kershaw packs an antibiotic ointment, several large Band-Aids or 2-inch bandages, cloth tape, and ibuprofen. He also never leaves home without a bug net, headlamp, sunscreen, and lots of Voile straps ($4 at Voile Straps) for securing gear to the bike. These brilliant orange, perforated polyurethane strips with clips were originally designed to haul skis, but they work perfectly for holding a tent tight to the handlebars.
One last thing: Never underestimate the importance of seemingly small details, like the cushion in your handlebar tape. Lizard Skins just debuted a 4.6mm-version of its popular DSP V2 tape specifically designed for bikepacking ($40 and up at Lizard Skins). It provides extra vibration damping and cushioning where your hands meet metal. Plus it comes in four colors—Jet Black, Graphite, Crimson Red, and Electric Blue—so you can look stylish even when there’s not another soul for miles.
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