When you’re just getting started in with bikepacking or bike touring, it can be a bit intimidating. Between setting up a bike to carry all the things, gathering that ideal selection of things, and then actually planning the destination — it can be a lot. Especially if you’re going to go big, and travel abroad while doing it.
The thought of setting out on an unsupported journey in an unfamiliar place can be daunting — it certainly was for me. Before my trip to Iceland, I remember stressing about whether the logistics would line up. What if our flights were delayed or our luggage lost? What if we couldn’t fit our bikes on public transportation? It wasn’t until we arrived at our departure point (with bikes intact), that I was finally able to breathe a small sigh of relief. Though not before sending a few thoughts and prayers up to the Icelandic gods that no one would bend a derailleur hanger or break a chain mid-journey.
Even with the proper planning, bikepacking (or touring.. for simplicity in this post moving forward, we’re going to reference any kind of mountain bike/self-supported adventure travel as bikepacking) can be a demanding endeavor, and you will probably make your fair share of mistakes (I know I did). Since I kept a thorough record of my process, we figured it might prove useful to others as a Beginning Bikepacking series to assist others in getting inspired to embark on their own adventures. In this series, I’ll provide tips to ensure that those mishaps are at a minimum and your adventure is nothing less than memorable.
Part I: Selecting a destination (AKA adventure planning begins)
Ok, so you know you’d like to embark on a bikepacking adventure… where to start? Obviously, the internet is your friend, and we start by doing some research. Make a list: Pinterest board, spreadsheet, doc, etc., of destinations that call to you – this will help direct your search. Think about what style of trip you’re looking for. An immersive, multi-day backcountry epic? Or a scenic, city-to-city tour? Or maybe you’re just going to pack up some gear and go out for a local overnighter to break some new gear in and give this bikepacking thing a go. If you’re like me and have a rapidly-growing list of dream destinations, here are a few things to consider before selecting a spot:
Riding Style & Cycling Experience
Are you looking to rally some gnarly single track, grind some gravel, or tour from town to town? The type of riding you choose will radically influence the style of your trip as well as your destination. My favorite thing to do is to combine international travel with bikes, so I like to think (and go) big. If anything, remember- the sky is the limit!
One thing to consider – bike packing isn’t always all about bike camping – you don’t always have to camp! There are lots of ways to do a cycling tour; if you’re reading this you’ve probably decided that you’re looking to camp and be self-supported, but it’s also possible to plan trips utilizing permanent shelters over your head. If planned strategically, some routes will allow you to be in towns or cities overnight. For the off-road rider, there are plenty of hut-to-hut routes that exist around the world if you’re not feeling the camping aspect. Pro-tip though — you’ll want to book accommodations early! There’s nothing worse than planning out an entire route only to find that your lodging options are fully booked.
If you’re planning a trip abroad, one thing to consider is how you’ll be transporting your bike in-country. Assuming you bring your own bike, you’ll have to get it from the airport to your departure point. Before heading off to Iceland, I sent emails to various bus companies and airport shuttles, inquiring whether they allowed bikes on board. It turned out that the answer was ‘yes,’ but we had to reserve spots for our bikes in advance. Additionally, you’ll have to find a spot to stash your bike box or bag once you’ve assembled your bike. We stored ours at our hostel in Reykjavik for a small fee, but it’s worth inquiring in advance whether your hotel offers long-term storage.
This might be an obvious one, but it’s worth reiterating. Simply put, cater your trip to your experience and comfort level. If you’re new to bikepacking, perhaps don’t choose a two-week venture through the Himalayas where the difficult riding, complex logistics, and the language barrier is sure to drastically “level-up” the challenge (and stress level). Instead, selecting a more established, well-traveled bikepacking route or a destination where transportation logistics won’t be as much of an issue will make for a more pleasurable and less-intimidating experience.
Part II. Route Planning & Logistics
Researching your route may be one of the more daunting tasks when planning your bikepacking adventure – especially when opting for an off-road expedition. But, with adequate research and careful planning, you can eliminate most of the unknowns and build a route that’s suitable to your skill level, time frame, and desired riding style.
Choose Your Departure Point and Destination
This is a key decision, and you have two options: 1) completing an out-and-back or circular route, or 2) a point-to-point journey. Point-to-point trips allow you to cover a lot of ground, but you’ll have to arrange transportation from your endpoint back to wherever you started. You’ll also want to make sure when planning transportation, you’re able to transport your bike on board. Anecdotally, transportation was one of the biggest stressors of our trip to Iceland. Buses were rarely on time and, oftentimes, there was only one bus running for the entire day. Because we had to reserve space on the bus for our bikes, missing it was not an option.
Break Up the Mileage
This step of the planning process is highly dependent on a few factors: 1) the number of days you’ve given yourself to complete the trip, as well as the total route mileage, 2) characteristics of the route itself, and 3) personal fitness and ability. You’ll need to have a good idea of the maximum mileage you’re comfortable with in the saddle each day. Once you do, break up the route into sections of manageable mileage, keeping in mind where you’ll be staying each night. Keep an eye on elevation maps to make sure your desired daily mileage is feasible. Apps such as Google Maps, Strava, and Kamoot are helpful when planning.
On the Laugavegur route, we split our days into manageable sections based on hut locations, opting to skip over a few huts in exchange for longer days on the trail.
Research Route Specifics
When on a bikepacking trip far from home, the last thing you want is to encounter too many surprises. So, researching route features closely beforehand is key. What will the elevation gain look like each day? Will there be any hike-a-bike sections that might take longer? Any river crossings? If possible, calling or emailing local guide services or tour companies can be helpful when researching local conditions. This will also give you a better idea of what to pack.
Hopefully, this article has been helpful and provided some inspiration for researching your own adventure, whether it’s the nearest state forest or an international destination! In some ways, that’s the hardest part of the planning process. Stay tuned for Part III, where we dive into what kinds of gear to bring, and possible ways to pack it.