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Go bikepacking

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It’s like hiking, but better.

By Cy Whitling EBS CONTRIBUTOR

This summer—when and if it ever comes—you should go bikepacking. And you shouldn’t worry about all the expensive gear that’s been keeping you from giving it a shot. Let me explain: Bikepacking is just like hiking, except that instead of putting all your camping gear in a heavy pack and trudging around with it, you strap all your camping gear to your bike and pedal around with it. It’s a subtle distinction, to be sure, but it makes all the difference. 

If you listen to the wrong people, they’ll tell you that you need a specific sort of bike and a whole host of expensive, specialized gear to go bikepacking. That’s not true. You just need whatever bike you own or can borrow, whatever camping gear you own, and a whole bunch of ski straps. 

Start by taking your camping gear and strapping as much of it as you can to your bike. It will make riding a little easier if you carry the heavy stuff like water lower down on your frame near the bottom bracket and axles, and the lighter stuff like sleeping bags and tents higher up behind your seat or off your handlebars. If you can’t get it all to fit, don’t sweat it, put the rest of it in a backpack. Now go ride your bike into the woods.

Sure, you can spend thousands on specialized bags. But honestly, unless you fall in love with bikepacking and you’re trying to do very long rides very fast, you really don’t need much. Nearly every group bikepacking trip I’ve been on, someone has bought or borrowed an expensive, fancy handlebar yoke or harness system, and every time, that system has failed within the first day.

When that happens, I commiserate with that friend, and then I pull a few ski straps out and help them replace their $200 harness with $10 of Voile strap. I have yet to see a bikepacking-specific handlebar harness that was as lightweight, secure and reliable as my “two-ski-straps-and-a-drybag” setup. 

The same goes for saddlebags, which attach to your seat. They have a tendency to wiggle a lot, work their way loose and get sucked into the back tire. Sure, sometimes they’re fine. But a $15 rack from the thrift store will be more secure and often easier to use.

The only bikepacking-specific bag that’s really worth investing in at some point is a frame bag. You don’t need one to start out, but if you get hooked, they’re really nice to have. And a good frame bag works for casual riding and grocery store runs as well. Sure, you can spend hundreds on a custom frame bag. Or you can buy the materials needed for around $40, and then follow one of the excellent tutorials on the internet and sew it yourself. Your mom, or your friendly local Maker Space probably have a sewing machine you can use. Or, if you’re really into it, you can buy your own sewing machine for the cost of a nice custom frame bag and then sew all your own bags and repair all of your clothing and be the envy of all your friends.

When it comes to bikes, use whatever bike you already have. If you don’t have a bike, and you’re in a city with one of those public bike-share systems, grab one of those and start riding. The “wrong” bike is still better than no bike. Do you only ride bike park, or only own a burly downhill bike? Heck, I bet you can still pedal that thing faster than you can walk, and when you’re going uphill you’ll be pushing a bike loaded with heavy gear instead of having all that weight on your back.

The same goes for camping gear. You could spend a bunch of money on “bikepacking-specific” tents and the like. Or you could just use that tent that still smells like your little brother’s farts from when you last used it when you were 12. 

Don’t own camping gear? That’s fine too. Choose a warm night, pack a few blankets and some sort of water purifier and go sleep under the stars. If the Cub Scouts can do it, so can you.

There’s something really special about camping off a bike. It’s hard to beat waking up somewhere beautiful with the knowledge that the only thing on your agenda for the day is to ride your bike to the next beautiful campsite. 

Take your commuter bike and find some camping off a bike path. Load up your road bike and ride it from B&B to B&B. Strap your gear to your trail bike and rip some sick singletrack before bed. Pony up your fat bike and disappear into the woods to build a cabin, surviving on foraged berries and small game you hunt with a slingshot. Bikepacking is whatever you want to make of it. Pedal to your campsite instead of driving. Ride from home. 

Take your bike camping. It’s simpler than it’s made out to be, and it’s a whole load of fun.

Cy Whitling is a freelance writer and illustrator from Idaho. He likes bikepacking trips that involve hot springs, chasing kids into new jumps, and buying art supplies that he doesn’t really need. 

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