Backpacking + Biking = Bikepacking
“Simply put, bikepacking is the synthesis of mountain biking and minimalist camping; it evokes the freedom of multi-day backcountry hiking, with the range and thrill of riding a mountain bike. It’s about forging places less travelled, both near and afar, via singletrack trails, gravel, and abandoned dirt roads, carrying only essential gear. Ride, eat, sleep, repeat, enjoy!” – Bikepacking.com
I love planning a route. Whether it’s backpacking 250 miles through California’s High Sierra or finding the perfect after-work gravel ride, route planning is at least half the fun for me. Getting to the trailhead, calculating mileage and elevation, and picking out campsites and resupply stops; I love it all. My newest adventure discovery, bikepacking, allows me to combine my love for long-distance route planning through remote terrain with my other love, two wheels.
Put simply, bikepacking is the combination of remote camping and biking. It can utilize lesser-traveled gravel roads, Class IV roads, and trails, and the rider is completely self-supported and carries their own gear in a remote setting. Adventure Cycling’s Josh Tack explains the appeal: “You can extend the range of exploration in your region by getting deeper into the trails than you would on a day ride.” The same organization’s Paul Hansbarger adds, “It allows you to go further in a shorter amount of time, so weekends and overnight trips have the potential to be a bit more epic than what you can cover on foot.”
Some riders take bikepacking very seriously with plenty of training and races. Many of them aspire to the trip of a lifetime, a grueling self-supported bikepacking race from Canada to Mexico called the Tour Divide (http://tourdivide.org). Others opt for “funpacking” and set out to fill a cross-Vermont trip with as much ripping singletrack mountain bike trails, beer, good food, and comfortable lodging as can be crammed into six days (see links and more info in the sidebar “Trip Reports”). For me, bike packing is a fun way to explore the outdoors with my family. (But for the record, I would opt for the singletrack-beer trip any day.)
Bikepacking with a Family
In my child-free years, I planned long distance backpacking trips and all-day mountain bike rides. My partner, Tristan, has set out on backcountry bike tours with rustic cabin lodging in Groton State Forest and around Jackson’s Lodge in Canaan, Vermont. But we hadn’t yet discovered bikepacking. Now that we have a family, bikepacking seems like the best way to explore remote places together and integrate our young toddler into our outdoor-centric lifestyle. Together we’re planning and venturing out on bikepacking routes that will bring us through exciting terrain on two wheels that meet our need for adventure while also meeting our young daughter’s needs.
Brining a child adds a new level of complexity to our trip planning. Since we’re pulling our daughter behind us in a bike trailer, plus carrying all of our gear, we’re looking to start off with routes that are relatively smooth and minimize climbing, so we’re sticking to rail trails where possible. It turns out there are plenty of great ones to explore in the northeast, including the Cross Vermont Trail that runs from Burlington to Wells River, Vermont and the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail (currently under construction with some portions completed) that takes riders from St. Johnsbury to Burlington, Vermont.
To prepare for multi-day trips with our daughter, we have done a few shakedown trips with increasing mileage. We ride from our home in Marshfield on gravel roads, old rail road bed, and dirt trails into Groton State Forest where there are five state park campgrounds that are accessible from the Cross Vermont Trail. These rides are a great way to practice getting our gear and setups right and they help our daughter get more comfortable with longer distances in the bike trailer.
In addition to considering the terrain, there’s the mileage to think about. Since we are traveling with a toddler in tow, who has her own set of needs for activity and exploration, we plan to pedal about 4 to 5 hours per day while she naps, reads, and plays contentedly in the trailer. When she begins to get fussy, we can usually keep her happy for a little while longer by singing songs and pointing out things for her to look at. She peers out from the plastic windows in the trailer and seems to enjoy watching the scenery go by as much as we do. Then, the remainder of the day is filled with ample opportunities for her to explore and play to help her get her energy out so that we can have some peaceful hours pedaling and setting up camp. If we generally move at a pace of 8 to 10 miles per hour or more, we can plan to cover at least 30 to 50 miles per day.
Our plan is to build off of our shakedown route to eventually head further from home by crossing the border into New Hampshire on the Cross Vermont Trail and then linking up with the Ammonoosuc Rail Trail. From there, we plan to follow the rail trail to a private camping spot we’ve arranged near Highland Mountain Bike Park in Northfield, New Hampshire, and then follow the same route back home taking 4 days in total (and perhaps a “rest day” in the middle to relax and take turns doing some riding on the mountain bike trails with friends who live in the area). This is all working up to longer routes we hope to take, including lengthening our loop by returning via additional New Hampshire Rail Trails and the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail in Vermont, and traveling to Canada to ride Le P’tit Train du Nord Bike Path in Quebec and the many rail trail options in Nova Scotia.
Whether you are bikepacking as a family or on a solo adventure, there is a learning curve. Much of the learning comes from getting out there and doing it yourself, but here are some tips to get you started.
Pick a Route
For the more rugged among us – and child-free – there are more remote route options than rail trails, like the Cross Vermont Bike Packers Route that runs from Massachusetts to Canada on gravel roads, VAST trails, Class IV roads, and singletrack mountain bike trails (not to be confused with the similarly-named Cross Vermont Trail described earlier). This is a rugged and self-supported route, and as a website for the trail describes, “There are no markers on the ground, no maintenance assurances, and no one who can provide directions or support. Be prepared and self-sufficient. Enjoy maple creemees and whoopie pies at local stores.” (See sidebar “Where to Go” for links and more information.)
Regardless of where you head out, your first few routes should be low-mileage with easy logistics and moderate difficulty. Try to keep it interesting by including destinations like lookouts and swimming holes to keep it fun. As for planning the route, research is key. Atlases, Forest Service maps and websites like www.BikeOvernights.org and www.bikepacking.net are great places to get ideas. Maps and navigation can be a bit of personal preference, with great options for GPS navigation and smartphones. Google earth and Topofusion (topofusion.com) are excellent ways to view topographic maps and remote routes online. But regardless of the electronic system you choose to carry, always bring paper maps as backup on the trail.
Pick a Bike
Once you’ve picked a route, there is the gear to consider, including your bike, packs, and camping gear. As for the bike, one saying among bike packers is, “The best bike for bikepacking is the one you already have.” Mountain bikes, whether full suspension, hardtail or fully rigid, make great options for bike packing, particularly if you’re hitting singletrack or rough trails, but gravel/adventure bikes, fat bikes, and cyclocross bikes are all great options as well. This is really a matter of personal preference and which bikes are currently in your garage.
Pack Your Gear
Bike packing combines standard backpacking equipment with your bicycle repair kit. Just as is the case with backpacking, there are several ways to approach bikepacking from ultralight minimalist to “bring everything” comfort camping. In general, bikepackers will carry sleeping gear, including a sleeping bag and pad, a shelter such as a lightweight tent, bivy or hammock; and all of the same gear for cooking, collecting and purifying water, eating bowl and utensil, basic backcountry toiletries, headlamp and/or bike lights, and a way to pack your trash out with you.
For the repair kit, be prepared for multiple flat tires by carrying extra tubes, a patch kit, and small pump. Other commonly useful tools include a chain breaker and powerlinks, a multi-tool, and a full set of Allen wrenches. Don’t forget the first-aid gear: gauze, tape, bandaids, blister treatment, and care for bee stings or insect bites. Last but perhaps most important, duct tape wrapped around your bike frame, water bottle, or another piece of gear will get you out of a surprising number of situations.
To carry all of this gear, specialty packs, like framebags, handlebar rolls, top tube bags, and seat packs allow bikepackers to carry their gear on the bike rather than their backs. A frame bag takes up the unused space within the triangle on your bicycle frame. It’s a stable place to carry your heaviest gear like a tent, tools, and food. A handlebar bag is designed to fit around your shifters and break levers and is a good place for a lightweight sleeping bag. A top tube bag is a great place for things that you want to access quickly and easily, like your cell phone or GPS navigation system, paper maps, and snacks. A seat pack adds more gear toting space without the need for specialty parts to connect paniers.
A backpack can also be used, but carrying weight on your shoulders while riding is not fun. A backpack, if used, should be reserved for a hydration bladder and lighter bulkier items like extra clothing or your tent’s rain fly. There are plenty of options for bags in addition to these, and a million different ways to divvy your gear up among them – practice and personal preference will make perfect.
Keeping your wardrobe simple is one of the easiest ways to keep pack weight and size down. Depending on the length of your trip, bring one or two pairs of riding shorts and socks. These can be rinsed at camp and dried to keep your bum and feet happiest. A riding shirt or two is all that’s needed. Rain gear is a personal preference item: Some prefer just to get wet and then dry their riding clothes out at camp, rather than sweat inside a rain jacket or pants and lug that extra weight.
Regardless of your choices for riding clothes, be sure to pack one set of dry, warm clothes for camp, like long capilene or wool layers, a compressible down puffy jacket, and thicker socks. A light hat and gloves, depending on the season, might be a nice addition. Also consider bringing flip-flops or foam shoes for camp; these are lightweight and give your feet a break from your biking shoes.
Get Out There
Here comes the fun: Now that you’ve picked a route and packed your bike, you’re ready to go. As always, leave your itinerary with someone for safety. Better yet, bring some friends and enjoy the ride.
Sarah Galbraith is an adventurer and writer based in Marshfield, Vermont.