You’ve surely heard of backpacking. But how about bikepacking? Simply put, bikepacking is the synthesis of mountain biking and minimalist camping. It evokes the freedom of multi-day backcountry hiking, with the range and thrill of riding a mountain bike. It’s about exploring places less travelled, both near and afar, via singletrack trails, gravel and abandoned dirt roads, carrying only essential gear. Needless to say, Pisgah is a great bikepacking playground. With loads of backcountry campsites and hundreds of miles of singletrack, dirt roads and gravel, Pisgah National Forest offers a wealth of opportunity. Here are a few pointers to get you started.
A common misconception is that bikepacking requires a lot of new gear and countless hours of planning; the perfect bike, custom bags and all the latest ultralight camping gear. While investing in quality gear is never a bad idea, it’s certainly not a necessity to get you up and running. Start by using what you own and picking a short overnight route (30-60 miles).
The best bike to use is the one you already have. If you already ride a mountain bike that works for you on the trail, chances are it will make a very capable bikepacking steed, with few modifications. After all, bikepacking doesn’t rely on a frame having eyelets for racks and panniers, as with other styles of bike touring.
The most significant gear innovation that has helped popularize bikepacking is the commercial availability of bike-specific soft bags. Replacing traditional racks and panniers, soft bags consist of a framebag, a handlebar bag or harness, a seat pack and peripheral bags. Light, rattle free and tailored to modern mountain bikes, they’ll optimize your bike’s carrying capacity without adding significantly to its weight, or affecting the way it handles. Consider investing in a seat pack and roll bag first, then a framebag when you’ve settled on a bike you’re happy with. If you don’t want to buy bags, you can use a few simple pieces of gear you probably own to do a quick overnighter.
For starters, a comfortable daypack, teamed with dry bags lashed to your handlebars and seatpost, makes a good barebones approach. Steer clear of traditional panniers if you can; they’re cumbersome out on the trail, and will impact the way your bike handles. Remember, bikepacking is about having fun on the trail, and not being overloaded with gear. Use a 5-7 liter dry bag clipped around the seatpost and cinched to the saddle rails with a webbing strap. Store a change of clothes and a few other odds and ends in it. To help stabilize the load, add something stiff within the bag, such as tightly rolled clothes.
On the handlebars, use a larger 14-20 liter dry bag cinched to the handlebars with two webbing or Voile straps. Include a small tent (the poles will help keep a straight shape to the bag) and a lightweight down sleeping bag. Long and slender bags work better than short fat ones. Sea-to-Summit Big River bags work well. On your back, any14-liter or larger hydration pack will do. Or, just use a daypack you have lying around. This can carry extras such as sleeping gear, rain gear, or food and cooking supplies.
If you’re interested in making a few investments for purpose-built bikepacking bags, grab a basic seat pack. There are several readily available for under $100. One easy and available option worth noting is the Revelate designs Viscacha Seat Pack.
There are also frame packs designed to work within the bike’s frame triangle…variations for both full-suspension and hardtail. The most obvious and universal type is a half frame pack. These are especially usable on a hardtail or rigid bike. Buy local and check out Rock Geist’s ½ Fly Rock Frame Pack, or have them make a custom bag specific to your bike (full-suspension or hardtail). Based in Winston-Salem and tested in Pisgah, they make some great packs including the Swami handlebar harness.
There are various accessory bags that can add peripheral packing space to your kit. Stem bags are small can shaped bags that fit at the stem and handlebar. They’re often referred to as feedbags because they are a great place to keep snacks. Also, pick up a top tube bag for added snack storage; Revelate Designs also makes the aptly named Gas Tank and Rock Geist has the Cache Top Tube bag.
WHERE TO RIDE
As important as it is to have a reliable bike and packing as light as you can, choosing the right route is perhaps the key to your enjoyment – whether this involves forging your own path or following an existing one.
Be it short or long, bikepacking routes fall into one of two categories: a loop, which starts and ends at the same place; or a through ride, which is linear in nature, and requires an additional logistical component if returning to the start.
For your first trip, we recommend a short 20-40 mile overnight loop. Pick a trail you’re familiar with where you’ve seen access to a good camp spot. Bring a few essentials, a dehydrated meal, a breakfast bar, and a post-ride beverage of your choice. Have a fire, sleep under the stars, then wake up and ride some more!