AMC Outdoors > Features > From the Magazine

Bikepacking Gets You on the Trail with a Load Off Your Back

August 25, 2017
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Grab your tent and your pals for an adventure that combines the best of backpacking and mountain biking: backpacking.

I glide to a stop and step off my bike, leaning its considerable weight against a tree. As I amble down to the edge of Bailey Pond, I take in the glassy, bluegray surface, backed right up to the dramatic cliffs of Marshfield Mountain. For a Friday afternoon, this is the place to be. I’m less than an hour out from my workday and only 12 easy miles via the Cross Vermont Trail from civilization, but Vermont’s Groton State Forest is light years from all I’ve left behind.

I raise my arms to the sky, arching into a slight backbend, and breathe the fresh air deep into my lungs. Even though my bike is loaded with packs—attached to the frame, the seatpost, the handlebars—I barely register the burden while riding. But it still feels good to stretch. I’ve got plenty of energy left to unpack my tent, sleeping bag, and camp kitchen for a serene night in the woods.

This pursuit, called bikepacking, weds my two outdoor passions: backpacking and cycling. I love backpacking for its peaceful miles through wild places, while cycling allows me to travel longer distances with greater efficiency. Combine the two, and I can cover more ground in my favorite remote settings. Simply put, bikepacking is remote camping plus mountain biking, utilizing much of the same lightweight gear as backpacking.

Named “the traveling trend of 2017” by Lonely Planet, bikepacking is also something of a new take on the long-beloved endeavor known as bike touring. Whereas bike touring implies long-distance rides on paved roads, bikepacking has come to mean traveling in the backcountry by trail or dirt road. The boom is new enough that statistics are hard to come by, but one measure of growth is the Tour Divide ride, a multiday, unsupported bikepacking race from Alberta, Canada, to New Mexico, which expanded from 17 riders in 2008 to 185 in 2016.

That’s not to say bikepacking is relegated to endurance athletes. One of the activity’s core appeals is its accessibility for riders of all abilities, regardless of location. You can set off from your own front door, says Lisa McKinney of Adventure Cycling Association, based in Missoula, Mont. While the western United States is already a bikepacking hotbed, McKinney sees the trend spreading rapidly to New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the southeast coast. That growth, she says, is spurred by riders with a do-it-yourself ethic seeking thrills close to home. Although the Northeast doesn’t have the same expansive tracts of open land as out west, we’ve got plenty of opportunities for creative itineraries, such as Vermont’s Green Mountain Gravel Growler route, linking breweries via farm roads, historic paths, and rugged mountain-bike trails.

For bikepacking newbies, there is a learning curve. But much of that education comes from getting out there and doing it yourself. Here’s how to kickstart your own joy ride.

1. CHOOSE A BIKE
Above all, you need a bike. Fortunately, there’s a simple approach to picking the right one: The best bike for bikepacking is probably the one you already have. Most common bike types can work for bikepacking, although every model comes with pros and cons. Mountain bikes, whether full-suspension*, hardtail* or fully rigid*, make great options, particularly if you’re riding single-track* or rough trails. (*For all terms marked with an asterisk, see “Talk Like a Bikepacker,” below.) But gravel/adventure bikes*, fat bikes*, and cyclocross bikes* are good too.

For my own bikepacking adventures, I’m fortunate to have three bikes from which to choose: a hardtail mountain bike, a fat bike, and a cyclocross bike. I tend to take the fat bike out most often, thanks to its go-anywhere, beefy, 5-inch tires; its relaxed geometry*, which lets me adopt a comfortable posture on longer rides—not too bent over or too upright; and the frame’s ample real estate for attaching bags.

In the market for a new bike to power your adventures? Jamie Stewart, a bike mechanic and sales technician at Onion River Sports in Montpelier, Vt., says almost any bike can be made into a bikepacking bike, so it’s best to choose based on intended use. For example, if you envision riding mostly single-track trails, a full-suspension mountain bike might be the best option. Compromises here include a heavier bike and a smaller frame for attaching gear. Many of these models also have a dropper seatpost*, which can pose problems for attaching a seatpost pack, although some companies make packs designed for dropper posts.

For Northeastern bikepackers, Stewart says the ideal bike would be a fat-tire, 29-inch-wheel, hardtail mountain bike. At 3 inches wide each, the tires on these bikes are beefier than on standard mountain bikes. More tire surface connecting with the trail provides more stability, better traction, and a little more cushion. Plus, the larger wheel size covers distance more efficiently than 26- or 27.5-inch wheels, and the hardtail’s relaxed geometry  features a more upright riding position. This style is built for long-distance rides and has plenty of space for packs. It’s a capable trail bike that also rolls smoothlyon flat surfaces, such as dirt roads and bike paths. Bonus points for models that have plenty of attachment points for extra water-bottle holders.

2. ASSEMBLE YOUR GEAR
As with backpacking, there are several philosophies toward bikepacking gear, from ultralight to “bring everything.” In general, bikepackers carry a sleeping bag and a pad; a shelter, such as a lightweight tent, bivy, or hammock; the usual equipment for cooking, treating water, and eating; a first-aid kit; basic toiletries; a headlamp and bike lights; a way to pack out your trash; and a bike-repair kit.

When compiling your repair kit, prepare for multiple flat tires with extra tubes, a patch kit, and a small air pump. Other useful tools include a chain breaker* and powerlinks*, a multitool, and a full set of Allen wrenches. And then there’s the first-aid gear: gauze, tape, bandages, blister treatment, and care for insect stings and bites. Last but perhaps most important, wrapping some extra duct tape around your bike frame, water bottle, or elsewhere will get you out of a surprising number of situations.

On the upper end, riders should limit themselves to about 50 pounds of gear weight. Whether you go minimalist or full-comfort depends on your goals. A lightweight load will allow you to handle your bike more nimbly on single-track trails. A lighter setup is also better for long distances, rugged routes, and big climbs. A fully loaded bike is best kept to rail-trails, dirt roads, and easy grades. When it comes to packing and pack weight, McKinney has one key piece of advice: “Go with everything you need and nothing you don’t.”

3. PACK SMART
Specialty packs—such as framebags*, handlebar rolls*, top-tube bags*, and seatpacks*—allow bikepackers to carry all of this gear on their bikes rather than their backs. You can add a backpack, but carrying weight on your shoulders while riding is not fun. If you opt for a backpack, reserve it for a hydration bladder or light but bulky items, such as extra clothing or your tent’s rainfly.

When it comes to specialty packs, a framebag is your workhorse. It takes up the otherwise unused space within the triangle of your bike frame and is a stable place to carry your heaviest gear; think tent, tools, food, and larger supplies of water. A handlebar bag fits around your gear shifters and brake levers—a good place for a lightweight sleeping bag. A top-tube bag lets you store things you want to access quickly and easily, such as your cell phone or GPS, paper maps, and snacks. A seatpack adds more cargo capacity without requiring special parts for attaching paniers, a type of pack popular with commuters and bike tourers that hangs on either side of the rear wheel. Paniers could be used for bikepacking, but they make navigation more difficult on narrow or bushy sections of trail.

Custom framebags are ideal, as they’re designed to match the exact dimensions of your bike, but they’re more expensive than off-the-shelf models. For universal-fit models, I like packs made by Relevate Designs, Giant, Ortlieb, and Blackburn Design. There are loads of other bag options and a million different ways to divvy your gear among them. Practice and preference makes perfect.

4. PICK A ROUTE
Some bikepackers are Very Intense People, with training and race schedules that culminate in grueling, ultramarathonlike trips of a lifetime. Others opt for mellower outings—a fellow writer has referred to this as “funpacking”—that allow for enjoying the trails at a slower pace, with stops for local food and sightseeing. For beginners, a daylong jaunt or a short overnight, known as a shakedown trip, are excellent ways to prepare for more ambitious undertakings.

With my own young family, bikepacking has become the best way to explore remote places together, integrating our toddler into our outdoor-centric lifestyle. Since we’re pulling our daughter behind us in a bike trailer, in addition to carrying all of our gear, we stick to routes that are relatively smooth and that minimize climbing, such as rail-trails and dirt roads. Other amenable surfaces include gravel roads, off-season snowmobile and ski trails (where summer travel is permitted), old carriage roads, and single-track mountain bike trails.

Keep your trips more fun than grueling, especially if you’ve convinced friends to join you, by including destinations such as lookouts and swimming holes. Regardless of where you’re headed, your first few itineraries should be low mileage, with easy navigation and terrain. My inaugural weekend trip was 9 miles each way on a dirt rail-trail, with only one night of camping at a state campground. On that outing, my goal wasn’t to bag miles or reach remote backcountry but to try out my gear and get the hang of riding with extra weight.

Mileage is largely terrain dependent. It might be reasonable to expect 50 miles a day on dirt roads, while routes following single-track or other rugged terrain could dictate days in the 20-mile range. To begin piecing your route together, refer to atlases, federal and state maps, and websites, such as those listed in “Routes & Resources,” below. You can’t depend on a reliable signal, but be sure to pack a means of GPS navigation and a smartphone to help you stay on track. For digital topographic maps and remote routes, try Google Earth and Topofusion (topofusion.com). Always bring paper maps for backup and always leave your itinerary with a trusted friend at home.

A note on seasons: In the Northeast, I recommend planning beginner trips for summer and fall. While some hardcore enthusiasts head out on fat bikes in winter, those treks are best left to experienced bikepackers. Also avoid spring, when many trails and dirt roads are wet and muddy from snowmelt and rain, and need to dry out before they see heavy and potentially damaging use.

5. DRESS FOR THE OCCASION
Keeping your wardrobe simple is one of the easiest ways to pack light. Depending on the length of your trip, bring one or two pairs of riding shorts made from wool or a synthetic material, such as Spandex or nylon, and one or two pairs of light, quick-drying wool or bike-specific synthetic socks. You can rinse these out and let them dry overnight at camp to keep your bum and feet happy.

On the topic of feet, clipless pedals and shoes are a good choice because the secure connection between the bike and the foot yields more efficient travel over rough terrain. But you can certainly opt for flat pedals and shoes—possibly a better choice if you hope to get in some hiking.

For your core, bring a riding shirt or two, also made of quick-drying material, plus a long-sleeved option. If the mornings or evenings will be cool, consider carrying arm and knee warmers. These cycling-specific garments protect exposed joints from cold, rushing air, and they’re lighter and more packable than everyday pants and fleeces. Once you warm up, you can take them off and stash them in a pocket. As long as temperatures won’t drop too low, rain gear is a personal preference. Some cyclists choose to get wet and let their clothes dry out at camp rather than to sweat inside weighty waterproof gear.

No matter your sartorial style, always pack one extra set of warm clothes for camp: long Capilene or wool layers, a compressible down or down-alternative jacket, and thick socks. Depending on season, a light hat and gloves might be a nice addition. Also consider packing lightweight flip-flops or foam shoes to give your feet a break at camp.

Finally, don’t forget a helmet. Choose one that is lightweight, with ample vents for good airflow when you’re pedaling hard. You want to protect that noggin so you can plan your next bikepacking adventure.


LEARN MORE: TALK LIKE A BIKEPACKER

Don’t let the lingo keep you from bikepacking like a pro. Below is some of the most common vocabulary you’ll hear in retail shops, in online forums, and on the trail.

Chain breaker: A small tool used to sever links in a bike chain, allowing a broken link to be removed and replaced.

Cyclocross: A form of bike racing—and corresponding style of bike frame—designed to cover varied terrain. A cyclocross frame roughly resembles a road bike but with less aggressive geometry and room for wider tires.

Dropper post: A seatpost that can be raised or lowered, while riding, with the push of a button.

Fat bike: A bike with oversized tires for off-road riding, particularly in soft terrain, such as snow or sand.

Framebag: A bike-specific pack designed to fit in the triangle of your bicycle frame; a stable place to carry your heaviest items.

Full suspension: A mountain bike that provides shock absorption for the front and rear wheels via a suspension fork and pivot points.

Fully rigid: A hardtail mountain bike that does not include a suspension fork.

Geometry: The length of the tubes used to construct the bicycle frame and the angles at which they’re attached. Frame geometry dictates riding position and is based on the intended use of the bike.

Gravel/adventure bikes: A bike designed for long distances on uneven terrain.

Handlebar roll: A bike-specific pack that fits around a handlebar’s gear shifters and brake levers; a good place to carry a lightweight sleep system.

Hardtail: A mountain bike with a solid, rigid frame that does not feature suspension elements within the frame
but may include a suspension fork.

Powerlink: Also called a master link, this quick-release attachment point joins two ends of a broken chain.

Seatpack: A bike-specific pack that attaches to your frame’s seatpost; a good use of extra space.

Single-track: A style of mountain-bike trail that is approximately the width of one bike.

Top-tube bag: A pack that attaches to the horizontal bar, or top tube, of your bike frame; a good spot for items you need to access quickly or often.

Touring bike: A bicycle that is designed to carry heavy packs and go long distances on paved roads.


LEARN MORE: ROUTES & RESOURCES

Designing your own itinerary is half the fun. Look for single-track trails, old carriage roads, and gravel paths you can link together. If you want to keep your logistics simple, choose loop routes. For excellent off-road connections and easier shakedown trips, opt for bike paths and rail-trails. For maximum adventure, seek out mountain bike trails.

†For three recommended routes in AMC’s region, try:

  • Roach Ponds, Maine: The Roach Ponds tract of AMC’s Maine Woods Initiative, within the 100-Mile Wilderness, is a mecca-in-themaking for bikepacking. There you’ll find about 130 miles of bikeable former logging roads, gravel ski trails open to bikes in summer (some year-round), and lots of options for lodging, from backcountry tent sites to AMC’s three Maine lodges—including the newly reopened Medawisla. An existing network of singletrack is accessible from the ski trails, with more single-track planned for the next two to three years.
  • Cross Vermont Trail: This established route connects roads, trails, and bike paths. Bisecting Vermont from Burlington to Wells River, it empties into more bike-friendly trails at each end. At the Burlington terminus, the Champlain Islands offer more miles of scenic riding, as well as campgrounds and other lodging, while the Wells River terminus yields smooth rail-trail riding through Groton State Forest and access to five state park campgrounds.
  • Cross Vermont Bike Packers Route: This rugged, self-supported route running the entire length of Vermont provides: “no markers on the ground, no maintenance assurances, and no one who can provide directions or support.” In other words, advanced bikepackers only.

Although slim on Northeastern itineraries, the following websites provide great background reading:


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Sarah Galbraith

Sarah Galbraith is a backpacker and cyclist who recently started putting the two together on bikepacking trips with her young daughter. She lives in northeastern Vermont.