How do you tackle your first bikepacking adventure? You will probably get a different answer from each cyclist you ask. There are as many strategies as there are personal experiences, and every cyclist will have his or her own survival manual based on what they've experienced on a bike.
In fact, Kromvojoj, a group of four long-distance cycling enthusiasts - Oriol, Tomás, Joan and Bernat - could all tell you different things. Not everyone will agree, as each of us has a different experience with bikepacking. Some of us always take the dirt roads when we can, while others are more comfortable on tarmac. Some prefer shorter, more explosive, well-planned two or three-day routes, while others aren't satisfied until they've been away from home for at least five days and prefer to improvise as they go along.
Either way, bikepacking is a cycling experience that has its origins in travelling by pedalling while carrying luggage. It was in 2012, following a round-the-world trip by cyclist and adventurer Mike Hall on a road bike with bags built into the frame, that the concept of what we know today as bikepacking began. It has a lot to do with panniers but the aim is to travel light so that you can ride long distances and over all types of terrain. It is a format that also allows challenges against the clock and, sometimes, competition.
However, today we will focus on the first steps, on taking the plunge towards that first bikepacking experience, setting off with your house on your back with the intention of spending at least 48 to 72 hours with your bike.
Choose the route that's right for you
Pick your route depending on your experience in outdoor activities and your physical abilities as a cyclist. It's best to pick a circular route, so that you can have that satisfying feeling of reaching home again. It’s important to be realistic in your aims and, gradually, knowledge will come. Equipment needs are determined by the experience you have, so at the beginning, use your imagination because practice will help you to fine-tune your needs.
Once you have decided on a route, it is always interesting to talk to other people who have already completed that same route or similar. This way, you can find out useful details like where there are water supply points, refuges or shelters where you can spend the night, as well as what the terrain and gradients are like. All information is welcome and helps you to draw up a plan. When you put it into practice, it may not work out as you had planned, but, in the end, one of the best things about bikepacking is that it gives you a certain margin for improvisation. You have to enjoy this too.
When you're packing, consider where you'll be riding. If you're going to pass through towns or cities, that may allow you to go lighter, because you can stop to buy what you need or fix anything that’s come a cropper on the bike en route. You also have to take into account the climate and what each territory has to offer. For example, if you are going to the Pyrenees or the Dolomites you should take warm clothes, if you are travelling to a coastal area or an island, take your swimming costume.
Take the time to check the route using tools such as Google Street View or apps such as Komoot, which can give you information on the different types of terrain and road conditions. Preparation is all part of the fun.
Preparing your bags
Every cyclist has their own manual and, from the very first ride, you will start to write your own. Everything is built on trial and error. We recommend preparing all your gear in good time, without rushing, and thinking about it as much as you can. Organise what you are going to take in several categories: clothing, personal hygiene, sleeping utensils, tools for the bike, food and navigation.
It is advisable to distribute the weight of the luggage throughout the bike to ensure that it is well balanced. One possible way to do this all is to use three bags attached to the bike: the handlebar bag, the frame bag and the saddle bag.
Clothes: what should I take?
One option is to wear a short-sleeved T-shirt or cycling jersey, bib shorts and baggy shorts on top. Why? Because you can wear them at the end of the day as casual clothes too. You should also pay attention to the shoes. Often SPD mountain bike pedals are better as they are more comfortable and not as stiff as classic road shoes.
In your bag: take an extra T-shirt just in case (thermal if you spend the night outdoors), an extra pair of bib shorts (for multi-day rides), an insulating down jacket, a waterproof jacket, gloves, a buff or similar and an extra pair of socks. You can wash the ones you are already wearing.
Sleeping, eating and keeping clean
Another big challenge of bikepacking: finding the time for a good night's sleep. Perhaps for the first few adventures, you can opt for a hostel or small hotel, but if you're going to go all out, you'll need equipment such as a bivvy or bivouac bag (depending on the temperature at night) and a full-body inflatable mattress (comfort first). Then you need to find your own little corner to spend the night.
It is also important not to forget about personal care: hygiene and cleanliness. This will help you feel energised, healthy and ready to conquer the world. Take the basics with you: wet wipes, toothbrush and toothpaste and, if you are staying for several days, a bar of non-polluting soap. This will also help reduce your environmental footprint.
What about eating and drinking? There are no rules here and you should listen to your body. The golden rule is always eat before you're hungry and drink before you're thirsty, so take advantage of supermarkets and bars to recover your energy and stay well hydrated. And if you can, carry 750ml bottles on the bike.
Prepare your bike
The most important thing is that your bike is reliable and in perfect condition. You should feel comfortable on it, because you will spend many hours in the saddle. The same goes for the clothes and shoes you wear. Going on a shorter trip before the big event is often a good way to check how the bike fits your body. If you have discomfort when pedalling, it might be worth considering a bike fit at some point and making those adjustments. Better to prevent injury than have to abort the adventure.
It is also advisable to carry tools and some essentials with you, such as cable ties, a utility knife, a chain cutter, inner tubes to fix punctures and a power pack to charge your communication and navigation devices. Similarly, it's essential to be visible, especially on the road, so carry headlights (and a headlamp if you want to cycle at night), a rear light with spare batteries and a comfortable, high-visibility waistcoat. Over time, as you extend the duration of your rides, you can incorporate more sophisticated features, such as a power generator with USB power from a hub dynamo. This will allow you to recharge your devices while you ride. For night riding it is best have experienced a full weekend on the bike at night before a longer adventure.
More items to consider are valve adapters for petrol station pumps and water purification tablets. As you become more experienced, you will incorporate some items and probably eliminate others.
And, when you have all the material ready, you will put your hands on your head and shout: "but how am I going to fit this all in my bags?!” It might be that you don’t need everything, and this is where the selection process begins. Everyone has their own rules and over time you learn to know what the essentials are for you. If in doubt, don’t take it.
Get your mind ready
Once you have prepared the route, the bike and the luggage, you have to prepare the cyclist. If you are facing a challenge, competitive or not, it is very likely that you will be exposed to your own mental and physical limits, so it is important to reduce your worries as much as possible before you reach moments of weakness or confusion while on the road. Having trust in the bike and the equipment you have is essential to ease any doubts.
In long challenges of several days, managing to reach a long-distance bikepacking event or route usually depends on 70 to 75% of the mental state in which you find yourself. When your morale is low, accept it, it's part of the game. It's all right. Be patient and persist, keep going. Never decide to quit at night when you are tired. If you make decisions, make them with a clear mind and with the day ahead of you.
One of the most wonderful things about ultra-distance cycling is the possibility of being able to make decisions all the time. This involves mistakes, but they help us to learn and, above all, to know ourselves.
10 key tips for first-time bikepackers:
- Prepare for the adventure with time and in advance whenever possible.
- Don't use new equipment during the trip. Use everything you have tried before.
- Adapt the route to your physical circumstances, experience and state of mind. The adventure can be very close to home and it’s important to take the bad times in your stride.
- Be flexible with the circumstances and with yourself. The important thing is to enjoy the journey.
- If you are hesitant about carrying something, leave it at home.
- Be visible: take a front and rear light and a high-visibility waistcoat.
- Divide the weight of your luggage between the bags on the frame.
- Carry bike tools, a power pack for your devices and a credit card.
- Eat before you're hungry and drink before you're thirsty.
- Enjoy and learn from the experience.
Visit Komoot to get some inspiration for your first bikepacking trip. They have ready-to-go Collections with handpicked Tours and lots of handy information via this link.