How to turn your mountain bike ride into an overnight adventure

Come hell or high/not-that-high water, bike packers are self sufficient.
Want to try something new? Bikepacking combines mountain biking and backpacking for riders who want to take a multi-day pedal off the beaten path. Photo: Gabriel Amadeus/Flickr

Bikepacking is the two-wheeled adventure that brings cycling and backpacking together. Because with a bit of planning and a little more gear, it’s easy to upgrade a fun mountain bike ride into an epic bikepacking overnight escapade. And there’s a good chance you already have most of the stuff you need; bikepacking is king of the “run what you brung” ethos.

“If you have a mountain bike, you can try out bikepacking without buying a new bike,” says Joey Ernst, owner of Velorution Cycles in Durango, Colorado, who has finished the self-supported, 500-mile off-road adventure known as the Colorado Trail Race twice, as well as the 300-mile Arizona Trail Race.

Two bikes, lots o' basalt.
Two bikepackers discover some basalt columns mid-ride. Photo: Courtesy of Gabriel Amadeus/Flickr

Ernst emphasizes that preparation is important, but to keep your research in check.

“The gear is necessary, but don’t let yourself get swallowed into the rabbit hole of gear … You don’t need to obsess over everything,” he says.

Bikepacking gear needs for an overnight include shelter (a bivouac sack or a tent), a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad (optional), food, water, whiskey (totally not optional) and seasonally appropriate clothing (especially a beanie for at night). You’ll also need the means to carry your kit. Ernst is a big believer of keeping gear on the bike and off your back and swears by bikepacking-specific bags that attach to your seatpost, handlebar and frame, favoring Durango-made Bedrock Bags.

Cannondale Trail 1
A stiff rear end makes the new Trail 1 from Cannondale a great bikepacking bike because it handles are rear rack admirably and the component spec is solid all around. Photo: Courtesy of Cannondale

Although bikes by Surly and Salsa are popular with bikepackers, I’m setting up my Cannondale Trail 1 for overnight excursions. Thanks to a cool design on the back half of the rig, which bike geeks call the “rear triangle,” it’s compliant without being too stiff. The 29-inch wheels help me roll over small to medium obstacles on the trail.

And hats off to Cannondale for admitting that a 29-inch wheel isn’t always a good choice for smaller riders (it makes the frame design wonky). The extra-small and small models are built with 27.5-inch wheels. Lightweight, reasonably priced at $1,620 and overnight ready, it’s a rad bikepacking beast.

Similarly, I’m going to run my Osprey Escapist 32. Having ridden with panniers as well as backpacks off-road, I like how keeping the bag on my back keeps the bike more nimble. And my medium/large Escapist can accommodate about 32 liters and up to 30 pounds of stuff. A hip belt and harness keep the bag steady and lower compression straps help me stabilize the load.

If you want more info on going on your first ride, check out your local shop. Many host occasional bikepacking expeditions. And some, like Topanga Creek Bicycles, host weekly rides that often include an overnight.

If you want to see how big some of these trips can be, check out bikepacking.net or take a look at what happens when a bunch of pro athletes tackle an epic trail.

A three shot from a three-day bike packing adventure.
Fat bikes are favored by many bikepackers. Photo: Courtesy of Jereme Rauckman/Flickr

Want a few more tips? The owner of Topanga Creek Bicycles, Chris Kelly, says that coordination among your riding buddies is key to reducing the amount of gear you have to bring. Avoid redundancy when it comes to items like a camping stove, cooking tools and some bike tools. Packing light is key, and it doesn’t have to be expensive if you go with alternatives like tarps instead of tents and using zip-locks and garbage bags to keep you and your gear dry.

Riding with saddlebags? Kelly suggests you lower your bike’s center of gravity by placing heavier items at the bottom of your bag. Riding with a pair? Make sure you balance out the load.

Kelly also recommends choosing a route close to home — within 15 miles or less, if possible — for your maiden voyage, because if things go south, you’re relatively close to civilization.

Nervous but excited? Join the club. Although Ernst says that most bikepacking virgins are initially a little apprehensive, the nerves soon subside when they realize how much fun they’re having on the trail.

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