Bikepacking: 15 tips on packing your bags

Bikepacking: 15 tips on packing your bags

Preparing all your equipment and packing your bags is an integral part of the bikepacking experience and can make or break your journey. Which type of luggage should you use? How should you pack your things? Here are 15 tips to get you on the road in the best conditions.  

Are you getting that heady whiff of adventure, despite not having even set off yet? You're not the only one. Because choosing your equipment and packing your bags is all part of the fun. Every single bit of painstaking preparation is an integral part of the bikepacking experience. It can make or break your journey. Which type of luggage should you use? How should you balance out the load on your bike? How should you pack your things so that you can find them when you need them? Here are 15 tips to help you hit the road in the best conditions.

When it comes to bikepacking, nothing's set in stone. If you want to do things differently, you're more than welcome. Bikepacking is a minimalist approach to bike touring that's highly flexible. It changes based on the terrain, and accommodates the entire cycling community. So you could almost talk about "bikepackings" in the plural. Everyone is free to do whatever is most convenient for them and their bike. The tips in this article are no exception to this rule. They're born out of years of bikepacking experience, but they're not necessarily the right thing for everyone. It's up to you to take them and shape them around your own needs.

Bikepacking: 15 tips on packing your bags

1. Analyse your route

You won't need the same equipment for a weekend ride along the banks of the Loire as you would for a solo expedition across the remote mountains of Kyrgyzstan. If you're going to make the right equipment and baggage choices, you'll need to know where you're going to be riding. The remoteness of the location, the weather conditions, the elevation gain and the type of surface you're riding on will all affect what you take with you. Is it worth making extra efforts to pack light if you'll be tackling steep hills or poor-quality surfaces? Should you take your cold-weather kit, just in case? Will you be able to regularly replenish your food and drink supplies en route? These are the types of question you'll have to answer. Before you even think about packing your bags, read up on your destination and get to know the map of the local area in intimate detail.Route-planning apps will prove invaluable in deciding on the best way to go.

Here, we explain how to plan a route:

2. Decide on your level of commitment

Now that you understand the terrain you'll be riding on, you need to plan the nitty gritty. Will you be completely alone and sleeping under the stars, or will you be treating yourself to restaurant meals and hostel stays? Will you be keeping an eye on your bike computer to monitor your speed, or will you be gazing around admiring the landscape without worrying about how far you've gone? It's up to you to decide how comfortable you want to be, what your budget is and how hard you're willing to pedal so that your trip reflects who you are as a cyclist. Naturally, this stage will also determine which bags and equipment you need.

Bikepacking: 15 tips on packing your bags

3. Draw up a packing list

Jot down everything you need on paper. If you want to be organised, this is a must. It's a good way of making sure you haven't forgotten anything, and of remembering what you've got with you. If you want to be even more efficient, divide everything up into categories: cycling kit, camping kit, toolbox, cooking, sleeping, etc. Remember to note down where you're going to put each item. Images speak louder than words, so you could even draw a picture of your packing plan. This map will help you to visualise your set-up. It's handy for memorising exactly where each item is packed so that you don't have to rummage around for things in the pouring rain.

4. Think minimalist

Pack light if you want to ride faster and explore further afield. Ultimately, that's what bikepacking is all about. Forget "be prepared"; your motto when putting your equipment together should be "be frugal". Do you really need that extra outfit? If you're having to ask yourself the question, you probably already know the answer! When you're travelling, the lightest item is the one you don't take with you.
Get rid of anything superfluous and go back to basics, but without becoming obsessive. Packing light is all part of the fun, but it's not an end in itself. It's up to everyone to figure out the right balance for them. Here are a few things you can do to reduce the amount of stuff you take with you: don't take too many spare clothes, use a tarp rather than a tent, take a child-sized inflatable mattress, take your toothpaste in tablet form and, for the real radicals, cut off the handle of your toothbrush!

5. Which is the right bikepacking bag?

Pick your bags wisely. Handlebar bag, frame bag, saddle bag: this is the Holy Trinity of bikepacking. You can select the size of each one based on your needs. Generally, they'll hold between 5 and 20 L each. To protect your belongings from the rain and from getting splattered with mud, it's best to go for waterproof bags (IPX6 rating).
You can of course get other, smaller bags to increase the amount that you can carry. These easy-access extra bags are great for separating your belongings. Top tube bags, which attach to the top of your frame, are a great option. They're the perfect place to put small tools, cash, your phone, batteries and more. As for food pouches or stem bags, they look like soft bottle cages and hook onto your handlebars or stem. They keep your snacks or drinks within easy reach. The fork can hold two "cargo cages" - harnesses that you strap to your bike which can be used to carry water bottles, an inflatable mattress or even a small sleeping bag.

Bikepacking: 15 tips on packing your bags

6. Balance your load

This is one of the strengths of bikepacking compared with using classic pannier bags that sit on the side of your bike. Your bikepacking bags won't affect your bike's behaviour as much. But you still need to load them up correctly! Thanks to its central position, your frame bag will only slightly affect your bike's centre of gravity. So this is where you should put your heaviest items: power bank (battery pack), tent pegs, etc. Anything that goes in your handlebar bag will affect your steering. But don't worry: you'll soon get used to the sensation of having slightly more weight on the handlebars. Some people might even feel more stable with a heavier handlebar. On the other hand, anything too heavy in your saddlebag will tend to destabilise your bike. It's best to use it for bulky yet lightweight items such as your sleeping bag and clothing. To stop your bike swaying too much, position the heaviest bits of kit nearest the seat post. And remember to tighten your bags up regularly throughout your journey.

Bikepacking: 15 tips on packing your bags

7. Don't get rid of your pannier rack prematurely

Doing away with the need for a pannier rack means that you can travel using any bike. This is the whole point of bikepacking. It's an innovative approach to carrying your belongings that's a great alternative to the pannier bags so beloved of bike tourists. It doesn't completely replace them, though. There are plenty of situations in which you'll still need to use your trusty old panniers. And if your bike allows, why not combine the two approaches? There's nothing stopping you from using a hybrid solution so that you can enjoy the best of both worlds. By mixing and matching, you greatly increase your different options and can come up with new ways to balance convenience, weight and autonomy.
Just make sure to check that the pannier rack is compatible with your bike.

8. Protect your frame

Bikepacking bags can sometimes leave scratches or marks where they come into contact with your frame. To avoid damaging your bike's brand-new, pristine paintwork, consider attaching tape in strategic points before you mount any bags!

9. Use compression bags

Compression bags or dry bags offer multiple benefits. Their main function is to make your belongings take up less space. This makes everything easier to pack away and helps to stabilise your load. These waterproof bags also offer additional protection in the rain. So your clothing will stay dry whatever the weather.
Plus, compression bags make it easier to move your kit around. There's no need to take your bikepacking bags off your frame. They can stay exactly where they are on your bike. All you need to do is remove the dry bag that you want. It saves a considerable amount of time. The Riverside bikepacking bags have been designed with this in mind. They consist of a harness that stays attached to your bike throughout your journey, and a waterproof bag with a double roll top that's easy to take out of the harness.
Another great thing about compression bags is that they allow you to separate your belongings. This optimises your packing and saves you space. For maximum efficiency, pack down all of your non-cycling clothing, or even your inflatable mattress and sleeping bag, into the same compression bag.
And a bonus tip: a compression bag stuffed full of clothing makes a perfectly respectable pillow!

Bikepacking: 15 tips on packing your bags

10. Pack your kit based on your daily routine

The objective being? To always have the right piece of equipment to hand at the right time. Your bivvy (waterproof sleeping shelter), which you only use at night, could, for example, be stored at the bottom of a bag along with your camping stove. But there are other items that will need to be more easily accessible throughout the day. Never stuff your toilet paper deep down inside your handlebar bag… The same goes for your waterproof jacket. It'd be a shame to have to unpack all your other gear in the middle of a cloudburst in order to get to it!

11. Don't bother with a backpack, unless…

When bikepacking, a backpack isn't such a good idea as it might seem. Although it considerably increases the amount that you can carry, it also means carrying the full weight of your excess baggage on your shoulders. Over time, your back and your neck will start to ache, which will make the rest of your ride much less enjoyable. Backpacks can also be uncomfortable by making you sweat more.
However, they can still prove useful in certain situations. A lightweight model that packs up small is handy for carrying your valuables when you get off your bike.
Lots of people use a backpack for transporting their camera equipment. In a classic bikepacking handlebar bag, there's no obvious place for a camera and it isn't easily accessible for a spontaneous photo op.
At any rate, if you decide to ride with a backpack, pack it as light as possible and opt for a model specifically designed for cycling.
If you need easy access to more equipment, a waist pack might be a good option. You can also slip some of the things you use the most frequently into your pockets, provided that they won't get in the way of your pedalling and won't present any danger if they happen to fall out.

12. Straps galore

Whether they're elasticated, have a buckle, or do up with velcro, straps are your best friend when it comes to attaching all of your kit securely to your bike. They're particularly handy on your fork in addition to a cargo cage. The type that you'd use to attach two skis together are particularly good. Just don't do a bodge job. Any straps that aren't properly tucked away are likely to get tangled up in your spokes and send you flying over the handlebars. Nothing should be sticking out (watch out for things like the sleeves of jackets that have been shoved away in a hurry). In an emergency, a cable tie can be a lifesaver. Make sure you always keep a few spare ones in your bags. They're sure to prove useful if you ever have to improvise an on-the-go repair to your bags or bike.

Bikepacking: 15 tips on packing your bags

13. Tidy your cockpit

Your cockpit should be uncluttered and easy to find your way around. Nothing should get in the way of your hands and your movements. To help with navigation, attach your GPS device or smartphone to a specialist mount. Running out of space? Did you know that you can get handlebar extensions for mounting anything that won't fit?

14. Always leave a bit of free space

If you're heading anywhere remote, you may find that you need to carry a bit more food than normal. Similarly, if it suddenly gets really hot, you might need some extra water. So it's always worth leaving a bit of extra space, just in case. Likewise, always remember to take a ziplock bag with you for your rubbish. If there's one golden rule for bikepacking, it's that. Leave no trace!

15. Give yourself enough time and learn from your mistakes

Carrying too much stuff, not attaching your bags properly, spending ages rummaging around for the thing you wanted… You're sure to mess up once or twice on your first bikepacking ride. These mistakes are all part of the learning process. After each ride, spend some time thinking about what went wrong so that you'll get it right next time. If you're going to be riding for a long time, it might be worth scheduling in one or two test weekends in authentic conditions to get used to your set-up before you embark on your adventure for real. Just bought a new piece of equipment? Don't wait until you're under way to unwrap it. Spend some time getting used to it at home!

Through a bit of trial and error, you'll gradually manage to hone your set-up to the point where you can head out on a long-distance ride with complete peace of mind… Before tweaking something as your needs and preferences change. There's always room for improvement!  

Bikepacking: 15 tips on packing your bags

Olivier Godin

A fan of cycling in all its forms. Particularly enjoys taking the scenic route. Has equally fond memories of the Great Divide, Paris-Cape Town and Scandinavia as he does of crossing the Pyrenees, cycling the Millevaches plateau and riding around Picardy! Loves a good climb, because it's a natural high - both figuratively and literally. Rides alone, as a couple and as a family. Endeavours to convey the call of the road in his books. Author of "A vélo, 50 itinéraires pour pédaler le nez au vent" published by Gallimard.

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