The Basics of Bikepacking
Whether spending one night at a destination ten miles from your home or venturing out into the wilderness for a multi-day journey, getting ready to go bikepacking involves thinking about three essential concerns: water, food, and shelter.
Obviously, your need for water and food - and, therefore, your need for food and water storage - will depend on how long and/or far you intend to ride and how many opportunities for resupply there will be along the way. A good rule of thumb for water storage for bikepacking is to provide yourself at least 1 oz. of water for every mile you intend to ride. If I had to ride a 100-mile stretch with no source for refill, then I would start out carrying no less than 120 oz. of water. Food intake depends on your body type, metabolism, and dietary restrictions/preferences, but whoever you are or however you like to eat, listen to your body: if it tells you it's hungry for something and that thing is at hand, then eat it. Also consider carrying a small variety of food options, especially if you're taking on a longer journey. Just because something looks good to eat when you're comfortably packing, that doesn't mean it will look good to eat when you're fatigued, rain soaked, or sun baked hours or even days later. Give yourself a variety of food options on the bike so no matter what state you're in, you'll always be able to choke something down. Most experienced bikepackers will find themsevles carrying a bag of M&M's, Sour Patch Kids, or some other form of junk food that they'll always be able to eat, no matter what. Every bikepacker will have need for some amount of food and water, and every bikepacker will have some difference of opinion with the next when it comes to ideas about an appropriate shelter.
This is where things can get a little difficult for people looking to get started bikepacking. To know what your needs are in the department of shelter, you have to have some idea of what kind of bikepacker you are. But how are you supposed to know what kind of bikepacker you are if you've never gone bikepacking? A good place to start answering this question for yourself is to consider where you fall on the spectrum of bikepacking philosophy. There are two extremes of bikepacking theory and practice that every rider is going to fall somewhere between: bivouacking and glamping.
Bivouacking represents the essence of simplicity and minimalism; you venture out on a bicycle for a night or more with the bare minimum of gear. Your shelter may consist of a tarp, bivouac sack (or bivy), hammock, a sleeping bag thrown on the ground, or some combination of these items. You might bring a change of underwear or socks if you bring any additional clothes at all. Depending on weather conditions, you might decide to carry a rain jacket or portable winter coat, gloves, or hat, but the idea is that you bring only the clothes you absolutely need, not the clothes you may necessarily want. And you don't bring much more than you can carry by wearing, reducing the need for storage space on the bike itself. Nutrition bars and trail mixes are the go-to "meals" of the bivouacker. If you go to bed completely satiated, unable to eat another bite, then you're not bivouacking. If you sleep in complete comfort, with no draft or foreign object intruding on your slumber, then you're not bivouacking. If it takes you more than five or ten minutes to pack up in the morning and pedal off into the sunrise, then you're not bivouacking.
For our favorite article on Bivouacking in the entire galaxy, check out this post over on the Surly Bikes blog: The Art of the Bivouac
Items for the bivouacker at District: wool socks, Nightrider light set, ProBar, Surly wool jersey
Glamping is the school of bikepacking for the creature of comfort. You carry everything on the bike that you can imagine having some possible need for, and you give zero thought to the difference between what you brought and what you actually ended up using. You likely don't consider the possibility of sleeping outside without a tent big enough to change clothes in, and your sleeping bag only ever gets used when it sits atop a pillowly air mattress that compensates for rough or uneven surfaces. You have refined opinions on the virtues of various inflatable pillows, and you've sampled the range of dehydrated meals available at your local outdoor supply store. If you fall asleep shaming yourself for all the grams you could have shaved leaving your portable camp chair at home, then you're not glamping. If you have no means of warming up your toes and buttocks at camp, then you're not glamping. If you have not shopped for a fanny pack that will allow you to bring more unnecessary consumer products with you on your regular rides, then you're not glamping. Spoiler alert: we LOVE bike-glamping! Most of our short overnight adventures fall a lot closer to this version of bikepacking than bivouacking.
Three items for the glamper at District: Stanley flask, coffee bean grinder, Must-Stache Bags District gear bag, Revelate Designs Washboard strap
Whatever bikepacking trip you are thinking about undertaking, no matter how long or how removed from civilization, you can teach yourself a lot about what you need to prepare for that journey by considering where you want to fall on the bivouacking-glamping spectrum. Extreme bike tours that feature long distances and extensive climbing will urge you closer to the bivouacking end of the spectrum in the interest of weight-savings, but that means that you will have fewer items to help you recover when you have the greater need of recovery. Bikepacking trips featuring shorter distances and less extreme riding conditions might urge you closer to the glamping end of the spectrum in the interest of fun and comfort, but then you have to ask yourself how much money are you willing to invest in gear and accessories (and how much time are you are willing to invest in packing them) for infrequent trips that never take you that far from home. Bivouacking and glamping are two types of bikepacking experience that are not really attainable in their purest forms. You're only ever going to be able to pull off something in between the two, but you'll always be closer to one experience than the other. Which one is up to you.
Interested in bikepacking? Let's talk about it in the comments, we love to talk gear, routes, and whiskey choices. But mostly whiskey choices.
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Written by Seth Wood, edited and photographed by Tyler Siems.