What Is Bikepacking: The Ultimate Trip Planning Guide


Many people don’t know what bikepacking is, and that’s a real shame! Bikepacking is a great way to get out and away from your boring 9-5 job and appreciate all that biking has to offer. As a keen bikepacker and cyclist, I wanted to take the time to explain what bikepacking is and take you through the steps of planning your first trip.

Bikepacking involves going on multi-day trips, carrying you, your gear, and everything you need to survive on your bike. Bikepacking trips involve a lot of off-road riding and normally last between two days and a week. Most bikepackers will use a mountain or gravel bike as these are well suited to this terrain.

So, we’ve established what bikepacking is, but what is the difference between bikepacking and bicycle touring? And what about adventure touring? I take a look at this, as well as run you through the steps of planning your own bikepacking trip in the rest of the article.

What is bikepacking?

The basics

Bikepacking is just backpacking, but with a bike. This involves going on multi-day trips with you and your gear (tent, sleeping bag, food, etc.) being carried on your bike.

Traditionally, bikepacking has been seen as a pretty minimalist hobby, with its main aim being that of “getting away” from the normal world for a few days, appreciating the joy of riding your bike, and getting away from all your stresses. It also allows you to pack light, with small bags that will enable you to enjoy the ride more.

The trips themselves tend to follow mountain bike trails or fire roads, as these allow you to feel like you’ve really “left the city behind”, but in reality, any overnight trip with you and your bike can be a bikepacking trip.

Typically bikepackers will ride on mountain or gravel bikes as these are best suited to the mountain bike trails and fire roads that trips will take you on. As these types of bikes do not have many attachment points for racks and panniers, bikepackers tend to strap their gear onto the bike itself, usually inside specifically-designed bikepacking bags.

What is the difference between bikepacking and bike touring?

Bikepacking and bicycle touring are very closely linked, and some people will use the terms interchangeably. While there is no formal definition that will distinguish the two, there are a few elements of bicycle touring that are different from bikepacking.

The first main difference is the aim of the trip itself. A bikepackers main aim is to enjoy the process of riding the bike (the fun of off-road cycling, the challenge of a long and hard route, etc.) however, the main aim of a bicycle tour is to “enjoy the journey”. When bike touring, the bike is simply a tool to experience new places. This means that bicycle tours end up lasting much longer than bikepacking trips, with some even lasting years.

Because the main aim of a bicycle touring trip is to get from A to B, the types of routes taken by bicycle tours tend to be less focused on technical mountain bike trails, and more on long-distance established routes. These trips normally take you on more formal roads between cities or even different countries and continents.

Because of the type of terrain you are cycling on while bicycle touring, the bicycle that bike tourers use is also different. Touring bicycles (the types of bike mainly used for bike touring), tend to be more akin to road bikes than mountain bikes, being good for long distances, but also very comfortable. This makes them better suited to handle long days in the saddle, and also helps them to carry lots of heavy gear in pannier racks.

What is the difference between bikepacking and adventure touring?

Adventure touring is the other main category of long-distance bike cycling. Adventure touring is harder to categorize than the other two types that we have already looked at, mostly because it is a combination of the two.

Adventure touring involves many of the aspects of bikepacking, for example getting away from the monotony of day-to-day life, and choosing a fun technical route to take your bike on. However, it also takes some elements of bicycle touring, for example choosing to take longer and easier routes during some section of the ride, or choosing to ride a more comfortable bike and taking more gear with you.

Bikepacking vs Bicycle Touring vs Adventure Turing

In reality, while there is a difference between bikepacking, bicycle touring, and adventure touring, getting caught up in definitions isn’t really that important. At the end of the day, all of these different hobbies involve cycling long distances on a bike, carrying yourself and your gear, and seeing new places.

Interestingly, some bikepackers have noticed that European riders put less focus on differentiating the different types of long-distance riding, whereas American riders have a much bigger distinction between the three terms.

BikepackingBike TouringAdventure Touring
Short tripsLonger tripsLong or short trips
Off-roadOn-roadCombination of on and off-road
Less gearMore gearDependant on the trip
The focus is on “the ride”The focus is on “the journey”The focus is on practicality
Use bikepacking bagsUse panniersDependant on the trip

How do you plan a bikepacking trip?

Planning a bikepacking trip can be a daunting task, there are many different elements that you will need to arrange in advance, and many of them you won’t even think about until it’s too late. When planning a bikepacking trip, I find it easiest to think about it in 3 main steps:

  • Picking my route
  • Picking my bike
  • Picking my gear

Step 1: Picking a route

The first step of any bikepacking trip is picking a route. After all, the type of gear and bike you pick will depend on exactly what type of trip you are planning to take. Obviously, if you already have a bike then you might need to pick a route that suits what you have at hand.

How long are bikepacking trips?

The best way to start planning your route is to decide how long it is you are going for. Bikepacking trips can be anything from a sub-24-hour overnight trip, to a multi-day off-road expedition. Which of these you choose will depend on how many days you have, as well as your level of skill on a bike.

Beginner Tip #1 – Try a few single night trips before you try anything longer.

Where are the best bikepacking routes?

Obviously, where you live will also play a large part in where you plan to go bikepacking (unless you are thinking about catching a plane). There are many pre-planned bikepacking routes in Europe, the UK, and the USA, all of which have been ridden by multiple bikepackers and so would be a good place to start.

Below are a few suggestions of the most famous bikepacking routes, if this is your first time bikepacking these will be too far for you, however, you could do a small section of one of these routes as a first trip!

EuropeThe UKThe USA
The Tuscany TrailThe South Downs WayBlack Canyon
The Traversée du Massif VosgienKing Alfreds WayGreat Divide Mountain Bike Route
The GR247Land’s End to John O’GroatsTrans-America Trail

What type of route can you do on a bikepacking trip?

Bikepacking trips tend to come in two main forms, loop routes and through routes.

Loop Routes

Loop routes, as the name might suggest, start and finish in the same place, forming a large circuit. In general, these are the types of routes I like to do, as then you can more easily arrange the start and finish of your trip, either leaving gear behind to collect when you have finished, or even starting and ending your trip at your house.

Through routes

Through routes on the other hand start at point A and end at point B. These can be a great way to see lots of new places on your trip but can be harder to plan.

Beginner Tip #2 – I’d suggest planning a loop route for your first trip.

How far do you cycle each day on a bikepacking trip?

How far you can cycle on each day of your trip is another key factor in where you should be going. As a baseline, a beginner could aim for 5 hours in the saddle, which would equate to around 30-40 miles a day.

This might sound like a slow pace for more experienced cyclists, and will definitely put you under the average of a typical bikepacker, but for a first trip that is the right choice. You need to remember that when bikepacking people tend to take more breaks for eating, seeing the sites, or just taking a breather than they might normally.

Also, you can always add more cycling to the end of your day once you have arrived, but trying to catch up on miles you had planned to have completed the day before can be a painful experience.

Obviously, this is a large generalization, and the terrain you are cycling on, the gear you are carrying, and how long you are cycling for will impact how many miles you should expect to cycle each day. Final tip, make sure to plan for rest days on longer trips.

If you want to learn more about how long bikepacking trips should be, take a look at my article here.

Beginner Tip #3 – Consider aiming for around 30-40 miles a day of cycling, planning to ride for up to 5 hours a day.

What type of terrain does bikepacking involve?

Obviously, the type of terrain you are cycling on will have a huge impact on the speed and distance that you can travel each day. I’ve had particularly tough sections of trips where I was happy to cover 15 miles in a whole day riding, simply due to the number of water crossings and how often I had to spend pushing my bike through thick mud.

Bikepacking typically tends to involve more off-road riding than bicycle touring or adventure touring would do, however, this does not mean this is the only terrain you can bikepack on. If for example, you only have a hybrid or road bike, then picking a less technical route, one that is mainly based on the road or very easy fire paths will be the best option for you.

It is important to pick what type of terrain you would like to cycle on as you plan your route, as this will make a big difference in how and where you should plan your trip.

How much does a bikepacking trip cost?

On average, bikepackers spend $34 per person per day on a bikepacking trip, this is made up of the cost of food, accommodation and bike repairs, etc. Longer trips, those between 2 weeks and a month may actually cost you less though. Obviously, the amount that an individual rider spends will vary greatly depending on what country you are cycling in, what accommodation you are using, and what you are eating.

If you want to look into budgeting for a bikepacking trip, take a look at my article here.

How do you decide on your route when bikepacking?

So now you know how long a route you want, what terrain you want to look for, and what type of route you’d like to find. The only thing left is to actually pick a route.

  • Step 1 – Pick a destination
  • Step 2 – Map out a rough approximation of what your route might look like, taking into account terrain, time limitations, and daily mileage limits.
  • Step 3 – Breaking the trip down day by day, deciding where you will sleep each night and if you need anywhere to resupply during the trip

How do you navigate on a bikepacking trip?

When on a bikepacking trip, there are 3 main methods of navigation that riders will use; a phone, a GPS, or a map. For a first trip, you probably do not need a GPS and most bikepackers will just use a phone instead. However, I’d strongly suggest investing in a bike GPS if your trip takes you across multiple countries or on exceptionally long trips. In these situations being able to take replacement batteries is crucial.

PhoneGPSMap & Compass
CheapExpensiveCheap
Easy to useHarder to useHardest to use
Requires a portable chargerCan take replacement batteriesDoes not need any batteries
Need to download maps in advanceHave maps pre-installedWorks when offline

How to use a phone for navigation?

If using a phone, I would suggest using an app called Komoot. Komoot can be a great way to both navigate on a trip, as well as plan your trip in the first place.

When you are planning your route, try putting it directly into the app, it will then be able to tell you the “average time” it would take other bikepackers to finish this route. You can then use it to break the cycle into your set amount of days and it will even help you to find accommodation, bathrooms, restaurants, or points of interest along your route.

Once your route is set up, Komoot acts like any other navigation app, giving you turn-by-turn directions and adjusting your route if you get lost.

Still not sure if you want to use a bike GPS or phone, take a look at my article here.

Beginner Tip #4 – For a short first trip, you can probably use your phone and a portable charger for navigation.

How to stay safe on a bikepacking trip?

I’m here to persuade you why bikepacking is great, but I should make sure you know that there are some risks associated with it. Only 5% of bikepackers have experienced an issue with safety on a trip however 80% of women still prefer not to travel alone.

The best way to stay safe when bikepacking is to ensure someone knows where you are and to check in with them regularly (for example every 24 hours). This means that if anything goes wrong on your trip that the alarm is raised as quickly as possible.

Thinking about planning a solo trip? Take a look at my article here on how to stay safe when bikepacking alone as a woman.

Step 2: Preparing your bike

What are the most popular types of bikepacking bikes?

The type of bike you want for your trip will depend on your choice of location and route. However, most bikepacking trips will involve some forest-service roads or singletrack trails.

Mountain bikes and gravel bikes are the best types of bikes for bikepacking. While any bike can be used for a bikepacking trip, these bikes are specifically designed for the type of riding you will be doing, and so picking one of these can lead to an easier, and more fun ride.

Hardtail Mountain BikeFull-Suspension Mountain BikeGravel BikeTouring Bike
Flat handlebarsFlat handlebarsDrop handlebarsFlat handlebars
Good at rough terrainVery good at rough terrainGood at rough terrainPoor on rough terrain
Large tire clearance Large tire clearance Medium Tire clearanceLarge tire clearance
Medium carrying capacitySmall carrying capacity Medium carrying capacityLarge carrying capacity
Front-wheel suspensionTwo-wheel suspensionNo suspensionNo suspension
Best for off-road routesBest for technical routesBest for mixed routes Best for on-road routes

Other types of bikes such as road bikes or hybrid bikes will work for a bikepacking trip, you just need to make sure that you adjust your route. They will suffer by not having the low gearing, high clearance, or durability of the bikes used on a typical bikepacking trip.

Want to look at the different types of bikepacking bikes in more detail? Take a look at my article here.

What are the most popular models of bikepacking bikes?

Beginner Tip #5 – The best bike is the one you have at hand.

When it comes to specific models of bikes, 42% of the bikepackers I spoke to recommended the Salsa Journeyman as the best beginner bikepacking bike, making it the most popular option. It has low gearing, wide tires, and a comfortable upright seating position. However, if you will be cycling on very rough terrain you may want to consider getting a mountain bike instead. Below you can see some of the other popular recommendations from bikepackers.

What is the best material for a bikepacking bike?

The four main types of bike materials are carbon fiber, steel, aluminum, and titanium. Bikepacking bikes can be made of any of these materials, and the type of bike you are using will impact which material it is more likely to be made from. However, in general, some materials are more suited than others when it comes to bikepacking.

Titanium is the best overall bikepacking frame material provided that budget is not a concern. Titanium is almost the perfect choice for bikepacking due to its low weight, durability, and versatility. However, if you are looking to do any long-distance or transcontinental bikepacking trips, you may want to consider an alternative such as steel.

While all of these materials are good options for a bikepacking bike frame, there are advantages and disadvantages to each type. Below is a table summarising the main benefits of each material that bikepackers suggested when we asked them. 

SteelAluminumCarbon FiberTitanium
HeavyLightweightVery LightweightHeavy
StrongWeakWeakVery Strong
Easy to repairHard to repairHard to repairHard to repair
CheapCheapExpensiveExpensive

Not sure which bike frame material to go for, take a look at my how-to pick flowchart here.

What type of wheels are best for a bikepacking trip?

In general, bikepacking wheels need to focus on durability over other factors such as weight. They should aim to have at least 32 spokes as well as be at least 25mm wide to ensure they are strong enough to survive your trip. You also need to ensure the wheel you buy is compatible with your bike frame, freehub, and the type of brakes you have.

This is a very basic summary of wheels for bikepacking tires, and if you are thinking about upgrading your wheels before your trip, you should take a look at my article on bikepacking wheels here.

What type of tire is the best for bikepacking?

When it comes to bikepacking, the tire you choose will be heavily impacted by the route you are taking. In general, bikepackers will want to use wide and durable tires, that will limit punctures and help them maintain grip and stability on tough bits of the trail.

What are the best types of handlebars for bikepacking?

When it comes to the type of handlebars for a bikepacking trip, you want the ones you find most comfortable. For me, this is actually a set of drop handlebars, but I understand that many will prefer flat ones. No matter which you choose, make sure to move your hands around the handlebars every so often, changing positions to limit the pressure on any one single point of your hand.

What is the best gearing for bikepacking?

In general, low gearing is better for bikepacking. This means that the gears of your bike will make it easier to pedal but means that you go more slowly. This is particularly good for hills when you are carrying lots of gear and after a long day cycling.

How to stay comfortable while riding on a bikepacking trip?

The whole point of a bike packing trip is to enjoy the ride, you aren’t racing anyone else, and you’re trying to relax. As such, you want to make sure that your ride is as comfortable as possible.

Get a bike fitting

The first bit of advice I would give you is to get a proper bike fitting. Lots of regular cyclists will do this with a new bike to make sure everything is adjusted to fit them perfectly, and this can limit your risk of neck or back ache on longer riders.

Get a saddle fitting

As part of your bike fitting, see if the bike store also offers saddle fitting. Riding long distances can be very uncomfortable on your bum, especially if you aren’t used to cycling for this long. A saddle fitting will make sure the saddle you have is positioned in the correct way to put weight onto your sit bones rather than your soft tissues.

Choose the right bike frame design

If you are looking at getting a new bike for the sole purpose of bikepacking, I would suggest looking for one that prioritizes comfort over speed. This means one that is low to the ground and has a less aerodynamic sitting position. This helps you to sit more comfortably for your hours in the saddle and means that you have to focus less on handling the bike in poor conditions.

Step 3: Packing your bags

When it comes to packing for a bikepacking trip, there are two main elements to consider; first of all, what you are taking with you, and second how you are going to carry it.

Beginner Tip #6 – Everyone overpacks on their first trip

What do you take on a bikepacking trip?

What you pack for a bikepacking trip will again vary depending on the trip you have planned. There’s a big difference between how you’d pack for a 30-mile overnight trip and a cross-continental expedition. However, there are a few general pieces of gear that you will almost always want to take. 

Sleeping

Sleeping Bag

Sleeping Mat

Shelter

Cooking

Stove

Cooking pot

Fule

Food

Water

Clothing

Shorts

Clothes

Waterproof

Helmet

Comfy shoes

Gloves

Toiletries

Toothbrush

Toothpaste

Toilet roll

Tampons

First Aid Kit

Shovel

Bike Repair

Bike Tool

Puncture Kit

Bike pump

Tire levers

Quick Link

Chain Lube

Pliers

Extras

Lock

Charger

Phone

GPS

Spot Tracker

Bike lights

Dry bags

Sleeping system

A sleeping system is all the gear you’ll use to set up camp for the night and normally comes with 3 main components.

Your sleeping bag (or backpacking duvet) is designed to keep you warm as you sleep. Make sure the one you are using is temperature rated to the conditions you will be sleeping in. After a long day of cycling, and with another day ahead of you, a good night’s sleep is a must, and being cold all night won’t be fun. A 3-season bag (one made to work in spring, summer, or autumn) should work for most people.

Your sleeping mat is designed to not only make the ground more comfortable but also insulate the underside of your body. While they are more expensive, I would suggest an inflatable mat such as this one on amazon. Inflatable mats are smaller, weigh less, and also have higher R values (a measure of how warm they are). Don’t end up spending all your money on a sleeping bag and having none left for your sleeping mat, as no matter how good the sleeping bag is, you’ll still be cold.

Your shelter is probably the most important part of your sleeping system. This can take the form of a tent, hammock, tarp, or bivvy bag, and which one you choose will depend on your environment, budget and preferences. Whatever you choose, try and get one that is small, lightweight, and packable. Some tents are specifically designed for bikepacking, for example, the Alpkit aeronaut tent found here, but for your first trip, any lightweight shelter will do.

if you are thinking about doing a 2-person trip, take a look at my article on the best 2-person bikepacking tents.

Cooking equipment

When it comes to cooking equipment, your main decision is what type of stove you plan to take (if you want one at all). On short overnight trips, I often skip out on a stove completely, taking a flask of boiled water with me to make a dehydrated meal or cup of tea.

Beginner Tip #7 – If you don’t have a camping stove, take a flask of boiled water with you

If you want to take a stove, the most common options are gas burners, alcohol stoves or woodfire stoves.

Gas StoveAlcohol StoveWood Burning Stove
Worst for the planetAverage carbon footprintBetter for the planet
Easy to carry fuelFuel must be kept in a leakproof bottleDon’t have to carry fuel
Easiest to useCheapestThe most fun
Easy to lightEasy to lightHardest to light
Allowed in the majority of placesNot allowed everywhereNot allowed everywhere

Once you’ve decided on a stove, the only other thing to get yourself is a cooking pot. While there are some very lightweight titanium options available, I still use a cheap aluminum one I started with. I’d suggest a pot above 1L in size as this can then be used to store any gas canisters you plan to take with you.

Food

Deciding how much food to take with you on a bikepacking trip is actually very difficult, even after years of bikepacking trips I still end up with far too much food left over. Recently, I’ve had lots of success by calculating how many calories I need for each day of my trip, and then using this to plan my meals and snacks.

The average bikepacker will burn 4509 calories per day or 608 calories per hour. The main factors that impact how many calories you burn for each day of bikepacking are how long you are cycling, the weight of your bike and gear, as well as other factors such as your fitness. That’s a lot of food.

If you want to work out how to calculate your own personal calorie requirements, take a look at my article here.

The best way to get this energy is from high-calorie foods such as trail mix, granola bars, or peanut butter wraps. You want something that’s easy to graze on as you’ll be snacking every 45 minutes you spend cycling.

Food won’t be able to be stored in a fridge overnight, so you will have to avoid certain food such as meat and dairy. If you aren’t taking a full cooking kit, then dehydrated meals can be a good option, but end up being quite expensive if you buy the pre-bought ones.

Finally, you need to consider how you plan to store the food you are taking. In most parts of the world, I would suggest using zip lock bags or Tupperware boxes, however, you must check if you require a bear canister where you are cycling, this is more common in certain areas of the US.

If you want more details on when you might need a bear canister, take a look at my article here.

Water

In general, you should take 1 liter of water for every 2 hours of cycling that you plan to do on your bikepacking or bike touring trip. On top of this base amount, you should make sure to take an emergency water buffer, this should be a minimum of 500ml.

If you don’t want to carry a lot of water, consider investing in a water filter, which can make the water you find from streams or lakes drinkable on the go.

If this sounds like a lot of water for your trip, take a look at my article here where I show you why you need that much, and go through situations where you might even need to take more!

Clothes

As far as clothing goes, you will want to adjust this to your local climate, but I would suggest as a minimum that you pack a pair of cycling shorts, a spare pair of clothes, and a waterproof rain jacket. Even if it’s not forecast to rain, a jacket packs down very well, and not having a jacket can completely ruin a trip.

Many people wonder what shoes they should be wearing for bikepacking, in general, you want to try and use some hard-soled trainers that are fairly breathable (for example trainers or mountain bike shoes). Clip-in shoes are not a good option for this type of riding as you are more likely to twist an ankle if you come off the bike in rough terrain, If you want a spare pair of shoes for around camp, people often use flip-flops for this as they are easily packable and lightweight.

Toiletries

This one is quite simple, while you’re out in the wild, it doesn’t mean you don’t need to brush your teeth. Remember to work out if you need to take any female hygiene products with you, (tampons/pads, etc), and finally don’t forget some toilet roll and a spade in case nature comes calling.

Bike repair

Given you’ll likely spend a lot of your ride out in more secluded areas, having the right gear and know-how to fix basic bike problems is necessary for a bikepacking trip. Certainly, things such as changing a flat tire, dealing with a broken chain, or tightening parts of your bike such as pedals, saddles, or handlebars are the bare minimum you should be able to do.

Being stuck 20 miles from the closest town, having to carry or push your bike can not only make for a rubbish experience, but if it is getting cold or late, it can make for a dangerous one.

Beginner Tip #8 – Make sure you can do basic bike maintennce before you go bikepacking

How much should your bikepacking kit weigh?

In general, packing less is better than packing more. The lighter your gear is, the easier your cycling will be and the more fun you will have. As well as this, lighter gear keeps your bike more stable. The main issue is that lighter gear almost always costs more.

Your tent is statistically the heaviest single item you’ll be carrying (along with food and water), so investing money here can be a good way to save weight on a budget. As well as this I would suggest looking at getting a water filter to take with you. This limits how much water you have to carry on each section of your trip and can save you a lot of weight.

If you want to take a look at all the other ways I found to save weight while bikepacking, take a look at my article here.

What bags do you need for bikepacking?

Bikepacking bags are bags specifically designed for bikepacking, they are made of soft materials and normally attach to your bike with velcro straps. Because of this, they make good versatile options as they can fit almost any type of bike, and can also help you to spread the weight of your gear evenly over the bike, helping with stability.

There are multiple different types of bikepacking bags, each of which is categorized by where on the bike they are meant to go. The most common types of bikepacking bags include frame bags, saddle bags, and handlebar bags.

If you want more detail about the different types of bikepacking bags, or look into some of the alternatives (such as backpacks, panniers, or homemade bike packing bags), take a look at my 2022 bikepacking bag guide.

How to pack your bags for bikepacking?

Many people who go bikepacking, pack their bags incorrectly. This isn’t really their fault though, most people who try bikepacking have a background in backpacking, and simply use what they learned there. When you are backpacking you want to carry as much weight as you can close to your back, this is not the case in bikepacking!

When bikepacking you want to keep the weight as low to the ground as possible, this difference is due to the different center of gravity you have when backpacking vs bikepacking. If you do this it makes handling and pedaling the bike much easier, especially if you are on rough terrain.

Beginner Tip #9 – Pack your gear as low on the bike as you can, this helps make you more stable

This is especially the case with a saddlebag, which is prone to swaying if packed incorrectly. The most important step in tackling saddle bag sway is to ensure that you are packing the heaviest items first, making sure you are not overloading the bag, and tightening the straps as much as you can. These bring the weight of the bag close to the saddle, keeping it secure.

Overall

As you can see, planning a bikepacking trip may be tricky, but by following the simple steps of planning your route, bike, and gear, you’re less likely to miss out on something, and hopefully, you’ll be out on your first adventure soon!

Mark Holmes

30-year-old doctor with an interest in cycling, bikepacking, and statistics.

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