I knew diddly about bikepacking when I signed on for a multi-day, unsupported, ass-breaking ride on rugged Western singletrack that turned out to be a big mistake, ego-wise. Actually, the outfitter tried to talk me out of it. Please, they said, do the sensible thing and opt for our supported trip, ditch the bags and let us shuttle your gear to the campsites, bring you fresh eggs in the mornings and cold beer at night. There’s no shame in it, really. No, I said, thanks but no. I’m a man who carries his own bags. Self-reliant! A pasty city boy? Sure. In backcountry shape? Not by a long shot. A mountain biker? Well, now that you mention it, no. But a man nonetheless! Bold, brash, and autonomous! Teddy Roosevelt trekked out here, you say? Would Teddy “The Lion,” “The Bull Moose,” “The Wilderness Warrior” Roosevelt do a supported mountain biking trip? There’s your answer.
I probably should’ve listened. Minus the 40 extra pounds I carried — with bags strapped to nearly every extremity, bike and body — the going would’ve been far easier. But in a perverse way, I was glad to have done it. Rarely do I get to eject from my domestic dawdle and re-jigger my comfort zone so utterly. I’ve never been one of those types who approach the outdoors as a personal trial. But this time I sort of wanted to, and while it was tremendously humiliating (oh, frail ego!), I did it, and the rewards were huge in the end. Way, way out in the Dakota Badlands, things are prelapsarian, forsaken, and you see nary a soul. In fact, I encountered exactly one other person over three nights and four days, and 10 times as many pronghorn antelope, as I surged from pinyon-juniper forest to alpine meadow to rolling grassland and back again. Against this landscape it didn’t matter that my entire ass from tailbone to taint was insensate, or that the cornrows of spider and horsefly bites on my legs were pustuled and necrotic. I was riding too high to care.
But gear-wise, the learning curve was practically a circle. At first, I figured my messenger bag would suffice: toss in a few granola bars, Capri Suns, a bottle of Scotch; that’d get me through, right? Thankfully, the outfitter talked me into a pricey but vital set of bike bags, a hydration pack, gloves, helmet, the whole works. At pains to shed bag weight, I pared down and down again, like a chainsaw artist at the block, distilling my backcountry kit to the lightest, hardiest, biggest-league essentials. What I found was that serious bikepacking — I mean the kind that puts you where you want to be, plop in the maw of Mother Nature, far from cell towers and graded roads — requires an extensive base-level ensemble. Admittedly, altogether, it adds up. But without this stuff, or some version of it — except perhaps the inflatable pillow — you’d be screwing yourself. It’s your call, of course. What do I know? Only that each of these items was pretty much central to my emotional and at times physical survival (again, save the pillow). Central enough that I’ve piled them in a corner of my office like a shrine, where it all sits surrounded by oranges and votive candles. I bow in gratitude every morning.
Diamondback Overdrive Pro
Diamondback has a storied history of making some of the strongest, smartest, loveliest hardtail warhorses in the business, and the Overdrive Pro is up there with the burliest and baddest of all time. It’s a highly refined, exemplary piece of machinery that makes you marvel at the weird miracle of quadrilateral geometry. Designed for steep, technical trail riding, the OP has a hardy, hand-built 6061-T6 aluminum frame with a tapered head tube, 27.5-inch alloy wheels, a 36 x 22 SLX crank, Rockshox Reba 120mm fork, and Shimano 2 × 10 drivetrain and hydraulic disc brakes. In other words: exactly the hands you want to be in during high-angle, screaming descents.
POC Tectal Helmet
I’m accustomed to bicycle helmets that leave a ring of divots in my chin and temples and that, at ride’s end, I want to punt into a lake. The Tectal is the first helmet I’ve ever felt good about. Light and airy, I forgot it was even there at times, until I bounced off my head during a wipeout and was grateful for its deceptively stout construction.
As asshole-ish as these things look, they’re practically weightless and refuse to fog up or slide down your nose or pinch your ears. Plus, the panoramic lenses eliminate the strobe-like effect of dashing through a wooded draw on a sunlit morning.
Avex FreeFlow (34 Ounce)
There are afternoons when 34 ounces is the line between life and death, or at least the line between a clear head and a splitting headache. Even with a three-liter hydration pack on my shoulders, I desperately needed these extra ounces, and the Avex fit perfectly in my frame pack and kept things cool through the blazing afternoons.
It’s impossible to overstate the utility of a hydration pack. I was doubtful, but I became a convert within minutes. CamelBak is the industry leader for a reason, and the M.U.L.E. has been their best-seller for the past 20 years. In addition to three liters of water, it has ample space for gear, food and maps.
Oveja Negra Bike Bags
Because bikepacking is still in its manufacturing infancy, gear companies are few-and-far-between. Oveja Negra, one of just a handful of vanguard outfits in the field, is easily among the best. Everything is handmade by expert sewers at the shop in Salida, Colorado, and you can tell. The bags are ingeniously designed, tough, easy to open and close (a simple detail that some manufacturers flub), and have a far wider range of use than the company probably intends. For instance, I was able to stuff my binoculars in the Lunch Box along with a couple of ham sandwiches; the Snack Pack accommodated a pump, multi-tool, spare tire and cell phone; and for what it’s worth, a fifth of Crown Royale fit perfectly in the butt-end of the Gear Jammer.
Apidura Handlebar Pack
The handlebar pack is probably the most crucial component of the bag ensemble, as it affects balance and mobility. I doubled up Apidura’s bag with Oveja’s Front End Loader, stowing my sleeping bag and pad in the former and lashing my tent atop the whole kaboodle with the latter. It looked tipsy, but the Apidura endured several borderline catastrophic wipeouts, including a wild creek-bed plummet that nearly ended my trip three days early.
Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL2
Besides the obvious weight and durability metrics, which the Fly Creek HV UL2 passes admirably, you want something fundamental out of a bikepacking tent — it’s the moment when you’re creaking into camp past dusk coated in mud and ticks and would consider selling your own family into servitude for a quiet, cozy place to crash. Fortunately, the UL2 assembles lightening quick.
Big Agnes Q-Core SLX
The company’s promise of “quilted comfort” isn’t far off. Though not quite tempurpedic, the SLX is about as comfy as a low-grade futon, which counts for a lot in the wilderness. I’ll never look at camping the same.
Mountain Hardwear Lamina Z Spark 34F
This thing bundles down to about the size of a cantaloupe and fits snugly into a handlebar or seat bag, and only weighs two pounds. It also feels less coffin-ish than most sleeping bags, and breathes well in that clogged, western high-desert air.
Black Diamond Storm Headlamp
Super light, waterproof, with 250 lumens of arclight intensity — you simply can’t do better in the headlamp department.
MSR is practically universal among backcountry folks for the durability and ease of use of its products. An example: I own an ancient version of this windproof stove that sat in my closet for almost two decades. Just for laughs, I broke it out prior to my trip and placed it on my front walkway, fairly certain I had an emergency room visit in the my future. But the thing lit right up and didn’t explode, and kept lighting up on the trail, night after night. Impressive stuff for a museum piece.
Sea to Summit Delta Camp Set
For those of us who came of age on tin Army-surplus camp kits that made everything taste like a socket wrench, Sea-to-Summit’s kitchenware feels like something handed down from Heaven. I’ll never look at camping the same.
Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow
Scrap the rolled-up sweats in the sleeping bag cover. This balls up to the size of an egg, inflates quickly, and makes the nights far more restful.
Good To-Go Meals
Founded by former Iron Chef Jennifer Scism (she trounced Mario Batali), Good To-Go makes gourmet dehydrated camp meals. As paradoxical as that sounds, I found their Thai Curry and Indian Vegetable Korma packages to be equal to most Indian takeout I’ve tried, and the Herbed Mushroom Risotto was almost on par with my own leek-and-edamame version — a compliment of the highest order.
Maloja Simon Bib Shorts
Aesthetic compromises must be made in bikepacking, and as ridiculous as you’ll look and feel in these (“Macho Man” Randy Savage may come to mind), your taint will thank you. The Simon shorts employ Maloja’s shock-absorbent technology (S.A.T.) to radically reduce impact. Just try not to catch yourself in the mirror.
Garneau 12C Air Gel Gloves
With ample silicone padding, the 12C Air Gels are a critical distinction between normal, functioning palms and wads of ground beef.
Gerber MP 600
This dexterous improvement on the multi-tool has everything you need for bike and stove repairs, including pliers, wire crimper, Tungsten carbide cutters, Phillips driver, serrated and straight-edge knives, and, of course, a bottle opener.