How does bikepacking work? From motivation to goal setting to the right equipment – this article is a short introduction into bikepacking.
You dream of endless freedom on your bike? Just being out in the fresh air day and night and feeling limitless? Discovering new places by bike and taking a break wherever it’s nice? We do too!
Bikepacking is a form of travel that combines vacation, nature experience and sporting activity. Being mobile under your own power and with light luggage. On gravel or road. Fast or leisurely. Far or near. Be at home in a tent or with friendly hosts.
What is the difference between Bikepacking and Biketouring?
Many people define traveling by bicycle as “bikepacking”. Actually, bikepacking explicitly means the form of bicycle travel where the bags are attached directly to the frame – without a luggage rack. In cages to the fork, a handlebar roll, a seatpack under the saddle and the classic frame bag is what counts as the usual set-up that is often seen. This bag selection pairs well with the road bike, gravel bike, crosser or mountain bike.
Biketouring means using panniers, which are attached to a rack. Touring bikes are rugged and designed to carry a lot of luggage and weight. Many touring bikes offer the option of attaching pannier racks to both the front and rear of the bike, allowing for optimal weight distribution. Thus, biketouring offers much more storage space for longer bike trips.
How to plan your first bikepacking tour
Maybe you don’t know yet if bikepacking is the right thing for you? Wiebke and Sandra briefly talk about their first bike touring and bikepacking experiences to give you a little insight.
Wiebke's first bike touring trip
I jumped right into the cold water. My first real trip by bike was in 2019 in South America. 7,000 kilometers solo from Colombia to Argentina. Before that, I actually only did day trips on my road bike.
So I bought panniers, a gravel bike with a rear rack & off I went. I didn't even test the tent I had bought before (not so highly recommended). For me, camping in Germany or going somewhere without a "real" destination didn't seem to hold much appeal. But in Colombia, I had my mind set on learning everything at once.
Spoiler: It worked out
I was a big fan of bike touring from day 1. While I didn’t have a classic touring bike, I felt very comfortable on the gravel bike with racks. It had the sporty geometry I was used to and I could still stow all my luggage easily. The motto was: just ride, pause, turn and sleep where I wanted.
Having everything on the bike with me, being completely autonomous and getting from A to B without any outside help or motor was a lot of fun. On the road, after a month, I installed a front rack on my bike so that I could better distribute my luggage with the help of a sturdy plastic bag. I was getting better at packing, loading and distributing weight.
Panniers were the optimal solution for me because I had a lot of luggage and also transported a laptop. You can reach everything quickly on the road and packing was easy. Bike touring on long trips for the win!
Sandra's first bikepacking tour
My first multi-day bike tour was as a child with the family, using panniers of course. But the first bikepacking tour I planned and prepared together with two friends went from Leipzig to Hamburg. A friend wanted to ride the route and asked if I would like to come along. In short, the tour looked like this:
- Navigation: printed maps from radweit.de
- Overnight stays: in hotels and with friends
- Bags: We had everything with us – pannier, backpack,seatpack. The backpack was the worst, because neck and shoulders quickly strained.
- Luggage: running clothes, running shoes (in Hamburg sightrunning was on the program), toothbrush stuff, first aid, I bought a rain jacket on the way (there was more rain than expected)
Photo: Nina Dalitz
Our tips and tricks for planning bikepacking tours
On the just described but also on many other bikepacking trips we have gained some experience and important knowledge for us. In the following we would like to give you our most valuable bikepacking or biketouring tips along the way. Thereby we clarify what there is to consider when planning the route, choosing the equipment and finding accommodation.
How do I find a route?
Do you just want to get out into nature? Or maybe you want to visit your family or friends and you can divide the way there into several cycling stages? Or cross the Alps by bike? Or travel to a new country?
Planning starts with (rough) route planning. For this part of the planning it is important to find out how much time you have available. Based on this, you can see if your destination can be reached in that time, or if you would like to use other means of transport. Sometimes it is worthwhile to keep an eye on train connections and to find out in advance about bicycle transport.
Travel preparation: route planning
There are numerous websites and apps for route planning. Many apps also provide information about the respective surface – with a road bike you might not want to ride so much on loose surfaces. But with a gravel or touring bike, that’s exactly what you want!
Plan the daily stages in such a way that the respective stage destination is easily accessible. When planning, take into account that everything goes a little slower with luggage. In addition to normal stops and breaks, you should also allow for breakdowns – in other words, plan for buffers. It is not desirable, but quite possible, that you will be surprised by a thunderstorm in summer, which can mean a forced break. Headwinds can also significantly limit your progress.
If you can’t go any further, you can use public transport to cover a few kilometres. Of course, it is also possible to spontaneously change your route or your stage destination in between – go further, go less far, go differently.
A tip from us for your planning:
Take it slowly. If you give your body enough time to regenerate, it will be fun and you will avoid injuries. So plan one or two rest days per week. You can use these to relax, wash your clothes and bike and replenish your reserves. If you are going to be cycling for longer, we recommend a complete rest week every 2-3 weeks.
If you want to ride to a specific destination where you will be staying longer or where you need different clothes than on your tour, you can consider sending luggage to the destination beforehand. This way you can significantly reduce the weight of your luggage on the road.
How do I navigate on the bike?
Maybe you’re wondering how to stay on the right track when you’re on the go? There are many ways you can navigate.
A mobile phone or a GPS device with navigation function, such as a running watch or bike computer, are ideal for navigation on the bike. Some prefer an “old school” approach and prefer to navigate with a map. If you don’t have a mobile phone or map holder, a piece of paper with the most important places you want to cycle through can be attached to the top tube, for example. In many places there is also good signposting on cycle paths, which can also serve as a navigation aid.
A mobile phone is a good start
When you start bikepacking, it is probably a good idea to use your own mobile phone and fix it to the handlebars with a holder. This way you always have the map in view and can steer safely. For longer tours, consider taking a power bank with you. To save battery power, you can also switch your mobile phone to flight mode. Beforehand, it is a good idea to save the maps and the route offline so that you can navigate without mobile data.
Where and how to spend the night?
It is not necessary to sleep under the open sky. There are many options for overnight stays on a bikepacking tour. Which one you use depends on many things. Do you have the necessary equipment to sleep outside? Sleeping indoors doesn’t make your trip any less cool or adventurous!
Before your first night out, ask yourself:
- Do you feel safe sleeping alone in a shelter or alone outdoors?
- Is your equipment sufficient?
- Do you have sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tarp, bivy sack, tent,? to name a few examples.
- Is a shower in the evening important to you or maybe a cat wash in a stream, river or lake is enough?
Which bike do I need for bikepacking tours?
Bikepacking is possible with almost any bike. The best bike is the one you already know and are comfortable with. If you have several bikes to choose from, then of course it depends on what kind of roads, paths or trails you want to ride.
You will soon be able to read more about the advantages and disadvantages of different bikes in a separate article.
If you don’t own a bike with which you can or want to do your tour, then maybe first look for the possibility to rent a bike – this will also help you to find out what is important to you on your future bike.
It makes sense to learn how to do small repairs yourself before your tour. This includes, in particular, changing or patching a bicycle tube. Or you can take a person with you who can do this and show you how to do it if necessary.
Of course, nothing works without equipment. Equipment is a topic that is never finished. There is always something to optimize or something new to try out. But what is essential for a bikepacking tour?
First things first: the bags. There are many options (again). The most common are:
- Bikepacking bags
If you’re hesitant to purchase expensive new equipment at first, see if you might already have a backpack that fits comfortably and offers enough storage space. Alternatively, ask your friends if they can lend you something. This way you can also find out right away which is the best option for you and your type of bikepacking.
Tips for packing bikepacking bags:
- The saddlebag should be packed as tightly and compactly as possible.
- the stiffer the bag, the more stability
- It makes sense to distribute the weight on the bike.
- Things you need more often should ideally be put in quickly accessible pockets like the frame bag.
- Have a small backpack or gym bag ready that you can easily stow away, e.g. for grocery shopping in the evening.
What other equipment do I need to take with me?
What equipment you need for a bikepacking tour depends on your way of traveling. How do you stay overnight? Do you need a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tent? How cold is it? Do you want to change your clothes?
It doesn’t take much to get started. If you feel like giving bikepacking a try, do it! Start with what you have and if needed, get used or new gear that works for you and your type of bikepacking! In the end, it’s all about having a good time, experiencing nature and finding your form of bikepacking or biketouring.