From road cyclist to bikepacker in a month – Everything I’ve learned
In less than 3 weeks, I went from having this crazy idea of going on a bike trip, to leaving Las Vegas toward the plain desert, on a fully loaded mountain bike, having never camped before. It was quite the learning process! From the routes to the gear, the obstacles and questions seemed infinite! I reached out to countless people for help and experienced it myself. Here is my extensive guide, everything I would like to tell you if you are considering doing a similar bikepacking trip for the first time! (Tip #1 : You should DO IT!)
I did a 32 days bikepacking trip for my first trip, starting in Las Vegas USA, into Utah and down south in Arizona. About half the 1,800 km were off-road and included some remote areas. My goal was to train while seeing new places and experiencing a solo adventure.
Deciding what kind of trip you want to do
The first big decision is figuring out what kind of trip you want to do. What kind of bike do you want to use (what bike do you have), what destination, what type of terrain, what’s the weather expected. All this will impact your choice of gear and preparation.
It could be bike touring in a beautiful warm location on a road bike with minimal gear. It could be a winter expedition in Alaska on a fat bike, or going off-grid on a gravel bike somewhere in between.
Make sure to check the expected weather for that specific time of the year you want to travel. It might look a lot different than in the picture you saw! Especially if altitude is involved.
You can go with any bike. They say the bike you have is the best bike. Carbon is not recommended for some areas in the world or very remote places, but other than that it’s totally fine. My bike was carbon (and heavy-loaded). The real long-term bike touring people would usually choose a steel bike though – easier to repair in any country. Just make sure tires and gear ratio suit the terrain, and that you can fit everything you need on the bike.
I found (too much) inspiration from many websites and blogs: bikepacking.com bikepackingroots.org adventurecycling.org have routes all-detailed. This helped me to get started and then I customized my trip from there.
*See note about Bikepacking.com routes below
Connecting the dots – segments by segments
I was so overwhelmed by all the options until somebody gave me this useful advice: pick your key interest points (places you want to go or things you want to do), then connect the dots. It’s much easier to plan segment by segment.
Another crucial advice was to set priorities. Soon I realized I can’t do it all. Setting priorities will help you guide a TON of decisions: route choice, gear choice, where you sleep, etc. There are as many ways to do this as there are people, identify what’s most important to you, what you want to get out of your trip.
The gear you need will depend on the length of the trip, weather, how remote or accessible your route is and which country you’re traveling into.
If you go remote: water filter (I used BeFree also used as storage water pouch, but many are fans of the smaller Sawyer system), pristine tablets, extensive bike repair tools, water capacity at least 6 L, more in hot conditions, possibly a solar panel, possibly a satellite device.
Stove options: I went with an easy-to-use (safer for beginner) isobutane canister and mini-stove. In North America it’s fairly easy to find it in outdoor gear stores but if you plan to go international, Mexico/Central America, I would use a stove that can use regular petrol oil or alcohol as fuel, easier to find.
Battery vs Solar panel
I went with a 20,000 amp battery because it’s cheaper (than solar) and works well if you can charge it every few days. Near the end of my trip when I stopped less often, it became harder to have it fully charged.
I would charge it everywhere I can: laundromat, starbuck/McDonald, convenience stores.
I hear solar panels are also fairly difficult to work with if you’re not planning to stop let’s say for a day, it takes a big surface exposed in the sun during a few hours of daylight to generate enough power, which in my case was not going to work because I was moving most of the daylight time. The smaller portable one won’t generate a lot of power (it’s a good backup for sure).
I wanted to charge : my phone, garmin, gopro, headlight, rear bike light, airpod, mini bluetooth speaker (this was nice!), ipod, outdoor watch…(maybe too much!)
Battery saving tip: download the maps offline, keep your phone on airplane mode and low battery mode
Camp gear : tent or bivy, sleeping bag, sleeping mat (I had an inflatable pillow and liner). A tent is very nice, you can sit and feel safe, it offers privacy if you stay in campgrounds. It was really nice when I hit a rain storm and snow storms. A bivy is lighter if you’re brave (or for a shorter/warmer trip).
Kitchen : 1L pot is plenty for 1 person (that eats for 2!), mini-stove, a bowl, a cup and a spork. I did have a little sponge and fast dry hand towel for dishes. I rarely used my soap! (ain’t got time for that!)
Layers – less is more. I had cycling clothes and regular clothes, although long-term bike tourists make no distinction. At first it seemed impossible to have just one of each essential, then I realized I’d rather wear something I wore the day before than having too many things to pack every day.
Bring technical clothes (for wind, cold, wet) that can be all layered together, so that you can reach the widest temperature range in the lowest total weight.
Here’s what I had
On the bike everyday :
- Short sleeve base layer
- Long sleeve jersey
- Tight wind vest
- Looser wind jacket (pocket size ultra-thin)
- If needed North Face polar hoodie jacket on top
- If needed light spring dawn jacket on top
- If needed looser wind/rain shell on top
- I did wear all of those at once when I rode in -10 (14F) once.
- Hat, buff, 2 pair of gloves
- Bibs – although I can see why just padded short would have taken less space and be quicker for multiple pee stops (you end up spending a LOT of time in the bib..) After a week I stopped using the shoulder straps and just let it hang to save time!
- In fact, some days I didn’t wear a bib and it was great, I enjoyed staying dry. The bibs get wet.
- Knee warmers – although I barely ever wore them
- Outdoor pants – OMG this was essential, a good windbreaker fabric that won’t break when you sit on rocks for breakfast/lunch/dinner or have your knees on the dirt, can be worn over your bib or over PJ at night. I wore them almost 24/7.
- If needed neoprene shoe cover (very useful)
Loose clothes is great, it’s not aero, but it can keep you warm when you need, and is not too hot when the sun burns (while protecting you from burning actually). Loose long sleeve/pants is the way to go.
Off the bike/sleeping :
- Top : Merino long sleeve shirt – polar hoodie – dawn jacket – buff
- Bottom : Polyester baselayer pants – outdoor pants
- Many socks (and I bought more, when it’s cold, dry thick socks are great)
- I brought 3 undies but also used the disposable liners to go longer without laundry
I did bring one pair of light pants and a light t-shirt for recovery days off the bike, I really didn’t need them.
Laundry : I tried doing laundry myself once. Then I stuck with laundromats, haha! You could wash your bib in a public restroom if you need.
Footwear – Clip vs clipless
Well it depends. Most seem to go clipless, but I was a cyclist first so there was no way I go clipless. I also wanted to go hike so I decided to bring both shoes (as well as neoprene shoes cover for my only warmer option). A comfortable clip-shoe would be my go-to if you’re not planning to hike.
A friend (who rode from Alaska to the tip of South America) wrote his deep analysis on footwear : https://theplacesipee.com/2019/11/28/4_seasons_of_feet/
Fitting your gear on the bike
Be creative. You can attach things to your fork or frame with zip ties (you can use an inner tube wrapped around the frame to protect the paint). I used a plastic jar attached with zip ties on my fork to hold my tent poles! They also sell bottle cage holders that you can strap around anywhere.
All bikes and setups are different. Put your gear in front of you, then puzzle it out. (It turned out to be very different from what I initially planned according to other vloggers). Test ride it! (I had a few surprises!)
Rear bag: You can find really big saddle bags if you go lightweight (that would be best on a carbon bike). Although for my situation, I wanted to go in cooler weather and carry my laptop, so I had to use a rear rack for extra space.
I found the Axiom DLX was super versatile, made for disc brake bikes. It was attached to the quick-release and to the seat post via a clamp adapter (to add eyelets to my aluminium seatpost), it was not clamped on any carbon part (which you should avoid). Axiom has many versions, I’m sure you can find one that fits your bike. (I found the clamp adapter on Amazon, adjusting the size with a shim)
Frame bag: put everything heavy in the frame bag, closer to the center of gravity. Electronic and tools.
A note on Rockbros bags since they seem to be a popular and cheap option on Amazon. Their « waterproof » zippers were cutting my hands off! To the point that I hated them, and would replace them before going on a long trip again. They were waterproof and cheap and did their job (didn’t break).
Maps and route
This was a massive challenge (especially if you go off-road). What app should I use? There are tons of options, here the apps I used and what they’re good for :
OSM – daily route plan, route analysis (steepness graph and surface detail), navigation (best used in car mode using roads, when connecting 2 points by the shortest distance, like Google Map) I used this all the time in the end. Difficult to use in advance as you can’t save route easily, more of an on-the-go tool.
For off-road, I had to place a marker on intersections, then connect 2 markers. I would take notes on a paper, then move to the next segment.
Map Out – topography and offline map, escape plan or big picture plan, going around a mountain or finding a way to access water source. I use this to prepare the next segment, to have an idea of what I’m going through before digging into the details on OSM. Really good visual detail. Not good for drawing route.
RidewithGPS – finding if anyone else has ridden this area, where they went, and copying/navigating their route. Many websites uses RidewithGPS to share their route using POI (point of interest) info along the route. The app also works well on navigation mode and offer offline maps (premium). You can plan a route in advance, easily save it on the app, and send it to your Garmin. I didn’t like the route mapping feature, I only used this for already-created routes.
Strava – drawing your own course, using the cycling heatmap (this only on desktop though). You can easily see the most popular route cyclists take (sign of trust) and build your route easily with detailed analysis as you build it. Use this tool to plan in advance and save the routes on the app, send it to your Garmin. *Build 1-2 day segments rather than a long thing, it will be easier for your device to fully load it
Komoot – never figured out what it’s good for, someone please tell me!
AllTrails – finding hiking trails and directions to trailhead
Google Map Street View – see what the road actually looks like, is there a shoulder? Can I camp nearby this road or is it all wide open, or any obstacles (a steep wall of rock!).
Food – what do you eat!
Keep it simple. I stopped occasionally in grocery stores but most often in convenience stores. No fancy expensive dehydrated food. No restaurant. (ok once.)
I chose to carry a stove to have warm food (considering cooler weather), it was really nice and fun.
Morning : oatmeal with a cinnamon/sugar mix (I made at home prior leaving) and trail mix, (occasional banana), instant coffee (I ditched the pour-over after a week haha!) Starbuck instant coffee is SO good anyway!
Lunch : bagel with peanut butter packet, fig soft cookies, Larabar bars, candies gummies, snickers, trail mix, pita bread with tuna (occasional spinach), occasional cheese/pepperoni stick. I loved the dehydrated green peas with sea salt snack!
I kept my lunch/snack food in a separated bag so that I don’t have to unpack everything and can make quicker stop.
Dinner : powder mash potatoes with tuna/salmon in packets. Ramen noodle with beef jerky. Rice/pasta mix « cooks in 7 minutes » were my cheap-easy-yummy go-to.
If I can stop at a store close to my overnight destination, I can buy something heavier because I don’t have to carry it: like ready rice packet, soup/chili in a can already made, you just heat it up.
Always on hand. I ended up having a bag of bagel and pitas, few peanut butter packets, tuna packets and ramen noodles always in my bag. Then I would buy fresh food when I can and buy snacks on the go. I did carry a bag of fresh spinach a couple of times and added it to every meal I can, as my only source of vegetable (greens!), it would last a few days.
Minimum. I had salt and pepper that I never used, got rid of my olive oil, soy sauce and spices. Also never used my sharp knife. When you all crammed into the tent or with your knee on the dirt and it’s cold, it really changes your perspective!
The faster cook time, the less fuel you will need to carry. You can go about 2 weeks with just a tiny canister if you just boil water.
A home-made aluminium windshield will save you a lot of fuel. Look for DIY videos.
If you decide to go stoveless to shed some weight, you can eat sandwiches, snacks, and use the cold-soaking method. Oats and instant noodle can be ready fairly quick, other grain takes more time to soak but it’s possible to cook grain just by letting it soak in cold water.
If you stick to the road and plan to ride across a city every day, there are more options, and more expensive options (restaurant, fast food). You can carry less food weight.
For shorter (remote) trips under 7 days, you could prepare in advance a few dehydrated dinner and breakfast bags for example, if you have a food dehydrator at home. That would be the cheapest healthiest yummiest.
Warmshowers.org is a website for bicycle-tourist/bikepacker, where people can offer (for free) a overnight stay, or backyard camp spot, a shower, laundry, etc. they are usually traveler themselves. I used it on 2 occasions, met extraordinary people, learned things, slept and ate a lot! If you have a space to share at your home, join the community!
Carry less soap, more sunscreen.
4 days in, my thumb was in blood, all my fingers aching. The sandy desert and the sun had dried my hands, and every strap or things I had to pull or clip to attach anything on and off my bike or tent felt like knives through my fingers. I discovered a hand cream made for rock climbers Rhino which was Magical and saved my hands!
A note on Bikepacking.com routes : their MTB « dirt road », « no specific skills required », « 99% ridable » were not exactly true to reality (much harder, a lot more walking than expected). I did hear the same feedback from many people. Be prepared, make more research, ask on FB groups.
I would use the wifi at Starbuck/McDonalds while charging my batteries. For an extended trip, I definitely recommend getting a sim card in the country you’re traveling to (with an unlocked phone).
You can have a shower in a restroom sink using a hand towel and soap. Put your head in the sink for a rinse!
Finding a good camp spot : try not to be visible from the road. Find a flat surface. Remove rocks or things that could potentially damage your tent or inflatable mat. Know the sunset time and find it before dark!
Fire stations are a great backup plan if you are in a city and you don’t feel safe camping in the area, or have any issue. They are open 24/7 and are helpful trustworthy people. You can ask them to camp next to the station and they usually say yes. They are your safe shelter anywhere you go. (I didn’t use it but I assume this would be great advice if traveling in a not-so-safe country)
Find Facebook groups (ie. Utah bikepackers) for the area you’re traveling to. Locals are the best for updated information on road situations. Road closure, detour, recommendations, etc. (although I did receive many conflicting opinions sometimes which led me more confused than anything.)
I used a cycling computer (Garmin) to track my rides – to save the battery from my phone. Used an iPod for music for the same reason.
Many people helped me fast-track my learning process, before and during the trip. Some advice written here are exactly the same they gave me so I want to thank them, and gave them credit :
My friend Emily Hauss – a weekend bikepacker
Olympian Léandre Bouchard – he likes to do 2-weeks lightweight bikepacking for training
Chris Haag – bike toured from Alaska to Argentine in 2 years
Adriana & Victor – bike toured all over Americas for 6 years
I also had help from the local community from the Utah Bikepacker and Arizona Bikepacker FB group. Mark Kennedy, Nan Pugh, Kurt Refsnider and many more.
Hope this helps to prepare for your first trip or at least inspires you to start organizing your first trip!!! Go out there, go ride your bike, amazing things will happen I promise!