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Authored by 2021 Kaden Ambassador Kate Emmons
Not too long after diving into the world of cycling did I discover bikepacking. Coming from a background of backpacking and thru-hiking, the allure of packing up the essentials and heading off for a multi-day adventure was immediately present. Similar to thru-hiking, I realized that bikepacking had the potential to bring about a tremendous amount of gratification and at the same time allow for the opportunity to overcome great challenges. Whether in the company of others or on a solo trip, there's no doubt that you'll learn a thing or two about yourself as well as the land through which you travel. For this reason in addition to so many others, I would always recommend giving it a go and seeing for yourself all of the insight and beauty that can come from a bikepacking adventure.
I'm certainly not an expert on the topic, but can share from my own experiences a few things I've learned along the way and continue to be educated on. As with any adventure, each experience is unique to each person, so know that there are many ways to tackle the challenge.
Are you looking to find scenic camp spots off the beaten path or get cozy in a cabin that has a few more amenities? Potentially you'd like to incorporate both? Whichever style you're aiming for, it can make it easier to decide on this first. Your route, gear, and food choices will all depend on this detail.
Everyone has a different style for planning and that will certainly come into play here. I enjoy mapping out my route so I have an idea of what I'm getting into and don't have to spend time making tedious decisions during the trip. That being said, I always leave room for a little spontaneity since things might not go as planned or a cold beverage from the general store down the other road sounds like the exact item necessary to boost my energy for the next climb. I haven't quite found one best solution for creating a route but there are existing resources you can play around with. When it comes to gravel bikepacking, I like to start out with Google Maps and utilize the satellite imagery to gain a better understanding of the type of roads I'll be traveling on. If you're specifically looking for gravel, dirt, double track, or class IV, this method can be very useful. Two other resources I've used for this very goal are Trailforks, gravelmap.com, and seekingdirt.com. Once you have an idea of how many miles you're aiming for, you can start to map your route. I'll often use the route planner tool on Ride with GPS or if you have a Garmin device, creating a course on the Garmin Connect website is also a great option. Ultimately, I'll end up downloading the gpx file of my created route and uploading into my Ride with GPS account so that I can access it on the go. As a backup, I'll always download an offline version of Google Maps for the specific area in which I'll be traveling. There are a multitude of ways to go about creating and accessing your planned route, and like with other details of bikepacking, individual preference will be shaped over time with experience.
The gear to set up your rig can be expensive. From handlebar packs to panniers everyone has a different system, and it can take a few trips to figure out what works for you. The gear you choose for a trip can also depend on the type of bike, weather, terrain, and your personal adventure style. There's plenty of gear out there to choose from which can be overwhelming, so I'd always recommend borrowing the essentials from a friend before investing in your own setup. And if that's not an option you have access to, checking out the consignment section of your local gear shop could be another less expensive way to play around with the options. Getting creative can be valuable as well and there are plenty of ideas out there to utilize what you already have in your gear bin to get a feel for the setup that feels right for you.
Like with any endurance challenge, hydration and nutrition play a key part. I like to know where my water sources are on my route and always bring a portable filtration system with me. I'm also a fan of electrolyte mixes to keep me going. Stick with foods and snacks that you enjoy and try to incorporate those that will sustain you. I know personally that I need to focus on packing whole foods to sustain me during the ride, but you'll never see me without some sort of sugary treat. Another option when creating your route is to pinpoint markets or general stores to stop at so that you don't have to worry about packing food for the entire trip. This topic also brings up your optional cook system. Similar to backpacking, this comes down to personal preference and length of trip. Having a lightweight cook system can allow you to feel more at home with a hot meal. And if you have a riding partner, you can share the load. On the flip side, it's certainly quicker and less baggage to stick with dry foods. Play around with the options and it won't take more than one or two trips for you to realize your preference.
Once you think you have your setup dialed in, get out there for a day and see how it holds up. It's inevitable that you missed a detail or your DIY seat pack isn't strapped on appropriately and drags against your tire. There will likely be something that you can add to your setup or potentially go without. If possible, ride along the type of roads you'll be experiencing. Bumpy dirt roads might make you reevaluate where or how you place your gear on your bike. Going for a test ride also includes the benefit of identifying any mechanical issues going on with your bike that you may have not noticed if you haven't been riding it consistently.
Once you've embarked on your journey, don't forget to be friendly to others. Whether you're out on your own or with a riding partner, you'll encounter and potentially get the chance to interact with different communities. Not to mention the fact that part of your route could unknowingly lead you to the edge of someone's land with the only way forward to gracefully pedal through their driveway. Since there's only so much you can glean from a map, this happens all too often in Vermont. Thankfully, most landowners are understanding and are happy to point you in the right direction.
If there's one consistent reminder on each of my bikepacking trips, it's that all of the planning in the world will not prevent at least one small unexpected thing from coming up. Whether that includes an injury, random chafing, a gear mishap, not enjoying the food you packed, or a route surprise, there inevitably will be something making your trip less perfect than you intended it to be. One memory that has remained with me details the time my partner and I were bikepacking through the Adirondacks and opted to take Sally's Road. On the map it appeared to be a dirt road with scenic potential. Turns out it was a much overgrown logging road that led to a lack of any trail in the middle of the forest and directly on the edge of a swamp. Forty-five minutes later through hike-a-bike terrain while cursing Sally we miraculously emerged to a main road. Ultimately, know that imperfection is completely acceptable and part of the adventure. While some surprises are truly unfortunate, others can allow for a positive experience or at least a dose of type II fun.
Hopefully these tips will allow you to gain some insight and create your own future list for bikepacking. Regardless of how you plan or execute your trip, it will surely be memorable. Navigating new routes will allow you to develop an appreciation of the land, and certainly open up ideas for which you might want to explore. There’s no doubt that you’ll finish feeling accomplished in some way and learn a few things about yourself. Bikepacking can be an enjoyable, difficult, and altogether powerful experience. If you’re considering tackling the challenge, stick with it because you won’t regret it.