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How to Go Bikepacking: Tips to Make Your First Trip a Success

The freedom of camping, vis-à-vis two wheels: sounds pretty fun, right? Check out our top tips for your first ride.

a man on a bike with bikepacking gear on a dirt road in the mountains
Hayley Helms

Crunching gravel, the hypnotic rhythm of pedal strokes — it doesn't get much better than traveling by bike. If you're an outdoorsy kind of person and have tried your hand at thru hiking, backpacking and cycling, you're the ideal candidate for getting into one of the fastest growing categories in outdoor recreation: bikepacking. On the surface, it's as simple the name suggests: you go camping, and you transport yourself and your gear via bicycle. However, like any outdoor pursuit, there are tips, tricks and nuances to bikepacking.

As you plan your first bikepacking trip, you'll face a whole bunch of questions only you can answer: How many pairs of socks should I bring? Do I need that shell, or can I leave it at home? What style of bike works best for the ride I have in mind?

Each person, and adventure, is different, after all. But, after taking the plunge on bikepacking myself, I can offer a few peices of advice from first-hand experience.

Just remember... part of the charm in bikepacking is the unknown; that's where character is built and experience is cultivated.

Do a test run.

    Pack up your bike, get your gear on and hit the trail system or roadway nearest to you that closely mimics your route. Do this several times if you can: a month out, two weeks out and a week out, making adjustments to pack size and load as needed. Doing a dry run will help you curate necessary gear and trim down on extras.

    If you'll be using an e-bike, get to know your bike before you take your first pedal stroke. If your bike dies, it's going to be a miserable ride — take it from someone who biked over 50 miles with a malfunctioning torque sensor, which took my bike from bitchin' to essentially broken in less than a minute. If I had gotten to know my bike's ins and outs (and studied its manual) I would have known how to adjust the sensor to restore power to my bike. Instead, I biked for two and a half days with a 45 pound bike loaded down with all my gear.

    a woman standing next to a bike
    Hayley Helms
    a man standing next to a bike
    Hayley Helms

    Get to know your emergency gear before you need it.

    Radio, GPS, first aid kit, tire change kit: Whether it's for your bike, your body or your communication with the outside world, you'll want to make sure you're familiar with your emergency equipment before the need to use it arises.

    Don't forget an often-overlooked but essential piece of emergency kit: a paper map.

    Typically emergency scenarios are coupled with high emotions and stress, which is no environment to be testing out your emergency beacon, bandages and dressings or multi-tool with chain breaker. Before your trip, educate yourself: read articles, watch videos online and if applicable, practice using your emergency kit until you know it like the back of your hand

    And don't forget an often-overlooked but essential piece of emergency kit: a paper map of your planned path, complete with a couple of backup routes.

    Take it easy your first time.

    For our first bikepacking trip (with 8 year old in tow), we mapped out a couple restaurants and general stores along our route. This helped keep load weight lower and allowed us to build in rest stops naturally. We also used these pit stops to refill hydration bladders and other supplies, as needed.

    Take your first adventure in an environment that you’re semi familiar with. This doesn’t mean you have to stay in the neighborhood, but I’ve found that planning a trip in an environment I’m familiar with — the deserts and coastlines of Southern California — means I’ll be prepared for weather shifts and wildlife typical of those areas.

    a man on a bike at the start of a trail
    Hayley Helms
    a tent set up off of a dirt trail
    Hayley Helms

    Consider bringing a camera.

    It may feel like unnecessary extra weight, but I’ve found it is always worth the extra ounces (okay, pounds) to bring along my Pentax K1000, as well as one disposable camera per rider. Sure, you've more than likely got a quality camera on your smartphone, but there's nothing like an analog roll of film to bring your trip full circle.

    Don't forget you need to pack out your waste.

    When mapping out your load weight and packing plan, don't forget to leave room for trash — bring a container or scent-proof storage bin that can unobtrusively house your trash without harming the environment or messing up your pack. Fortunately, unless you're picking up litter as you go, all the waste you will need carry out should already be in your pack when you set off.

    Be ready for an emotional rollercoaster.

    Would you like to mix a cocktail of disaster? Mix together one shot of exhaustion, two ounces of wrong turn, one jig of downhill crash and a couple dashes of flat tire, and you've got the makings of a bad time. Anyone who's challenged themselves in the outdoors knows the danger in giving into a bad mood.

    three people biking
    Hayley Helms

    To keep bad attitudes at bay, have morale boosters and things to look forward to packed into your panniers — it can be as simple as a deck of cards or a flask of your favorite whiskey. Whether you packed your favorite book, tea or game or decided to leave the little luxuries at home, make an active effort to maintain a positive mindset. There will always be challenges, but indulging a little to keep your spirits up is always worth the extra weight.

    As the late, great Hunter S. Thompson said in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, "Buy the ticket, take the ride..."

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