Glenn Charles

Adventurer | Photographer | Connector

Today I am a Time Traveler with a Camera... Tomorrow, who knows

Bikepacking 101

I first started reading about the whole world of Bikepacking as I was riding a single speed Salsa Fargo around the country towing a lovely BOB trailer.  While I had become a huge advocate of ultra light travel, this was my first bike tour in more than 15 years and I really did not know what I was doing.  Like all forms of travel, we tend to carry whatever our luggage will allow.  The BOB was a gift and so before I knew it my UL style of travel became overburdened with  all kinds of extraneous gear, food, and anything else that would fit.  I remember vividly the day out on the west coast when I looked in horror at what had occurred and decided then and there to change things up.

Fast forward to the results of a bit of research and I had discovered the fast moving trend of bikepacking.  A style of bike touring that gave up traditional panniers, did away with towing trailers and instead focused on using the bike frame as a vehicle for carrying gear.  As I researched my way through the web it became apparent that this was how I wanted to travel on the bike, but I had absolutely no money to spend on fancy frame bags, seat packs or handlebar slings.  How in the world was I going to dump the trailer and still carry a minimal amount of gear without spending a ton of money on kit?

With a little more research and a good deal of saddle time, I figured out that I could rig my bike for bikepacking without spending much more than $100.  To say I was stoked was an understatement so I dumped my trailer and began the process of converting my setup over to what I have coined 'Super Simple Bikepacking'.

In order to switch over, I stopped at an REI and was able to purchase most everything that I needed. In order to bikepack you do need to have a reasonably small set of kit to begin with.  It does not have to be super UL, but you can't be using a 4 season mountain tent and expect this to work.  However, with reasonably inexpensive and relatively minimalist gear, it is all doable.  Over time you can refine things to go as UL and as minimalist as you like. No matter what type of touring you are doing, the basic kit elements remain the same.  You will need to be carrying at a minimum the following types of gear:

  • Shelter & Sleep system
  • Spare Clothes
  • Cooking kit
  • Tools/spares
  • Water
  • Food

Here is all you needed to acquire in order to set up an inexpensive and super simple bikepacking kit:

  1. 2 10L dry bags @ $24/each
  2. 2 sets of ¾ inch webbing straps with buckles @ $6/pair
  3. 4 velcro straps @ $3.00
  4. Spare old Water Bottle – As large as possible

Note: these are prices I grabbed from REI on the web.  With a little shopping, scrounging, begging and borrowing, you can make it all work for much cheaper.

Optional Items:

  • 8-20L Backpack - $50 to $150
  • Seat post clip on rear rack $50
  • 2 x Salsa Anything Cages with 5L dry bags - $20/each plus bags
  • Tangle bag - $60

There you go, that is it.  There are obvious adjustments you can make to this based on where you are going, what the temperature range is, and how much food you need to carry.  However, with this basic setup you can roll out the door and have a super simple and inexpensive bikepacking setup that will take you wherever you want to go.  The kit works like this:

Front Dry Bag:

This dry bag contains your sleeping bag, spare clothes, and possibly even your cook kit.  It will really come down to how big your sleeping bag is as this is the largest item to compress.  Personally, I like to just stuff the sleeping bag into the bag first, second add the rest of my clothes, and then use brute force to compress everything.  Compression bags work well, but often you end up with a compressed bag that does not fit optimally into your dry bag, thus you loose precious space. 

Once you have filled up the bag and compressed it using body english to squeeze all of the air out, you clip the bag tight and use the straps to cinch the bag to your handlebars.  Two 3/4 inch straps work perfect for attaching the bag to whatever types of handlebars you are using.  Flat mountain bike bars provide the most room and actually allow you to use even bigger dry bags up front.  Salsa Woodchipper bars are drop bars and provide the least amount of room, although still enough space for a 10L bag.

Rear Dry Bag:

This dry bag contains your kit that can be wet, starting with your shelter system, followed by your cook kit and then food.  For most of my UL trips, I employ a bivy and tarp type setup.  For this, I will keep my bivy in one of the dry bags, but use a small sil-nylon stuff sack for my tarp/ropes/stakes.  This small tarp bag is then strapped to either the rear bag or the front bag, whichever works best.  If you are using a tent, then poles can be simply attached to the outside of either your front or rear bag using velcro straps, whichever works best for you.

You can attach the rear dry bag by first compressing it down and then clipping the bag around your seat post.  You then use one of your straps to tightly cinch the bag up under the saddle, by threading the strap through your saddle rails and then down and around the dry bag. You may need to use one of your other straps to cinch the bag towards the post, so have a go and play with it to see what works.  A bit of experimenting is needed to get the kinks worked out based on your saddle/seatpost height and the weight of the bag itself.

Spare Water Bottle:

I use a spare water bottle to carry my tools, patch kits, and spare tire.  I am lucky enough to be riding either a Salsa Fargo or Salsa Mukluk, both of which have plenty of water bottle mounts.  This is an easy way to carry those miscellaneous items and keep them out of your other packs.

Options:

Salsa Anything Cages: The Salsa Anything Cages are probably the most versatile pieces of kit that you can add.  Salsa designed these with a triple brazeon mount that is unique to their Enabler fork.  If you are riding something other than a Salsa bike, you will need to use an alternative method to mount the cages.  The two most popular are the Two Fish adjustable mounts or simply adjustable metal pipe clamps.  The latter is definitely the cheapest and most rugged alternative method for mounting the cages.  Using the clamps provides a rock solid mount that will not budge.  Add two 5L dry bags and you have just increased your carrying capabilities by a whopping 50%.  I consider this option to be almost mandatory, but still, if you are on a budget, you can live with out it.

Clip on Rack: These racks are perfect for bikepacking.  They are light, inexpensive, and more than sturdy enough to carry a 10L dry bag.  The advantage a rack has over the method described above is that it is not only a bit more stable, but some riders will have a hard time getting the dry bag to not hit their legs during the pedal stroke.  By moving it back on to a rack, you not only eliminate this issue but you create platform that is capable of carrying just a bit more gear.  The downside to tis approach is weight and the cost of a rack.

Backpack: Backpacks are something you either love or hate.  Personally I hate backpacks and do whatever I can to avoid them.  However, depending on what you need to carry, especially clothes and tools, you may find that you need some form of pack.  When I have been forced to use a pack, I have found the 8-12L capacity to work perfect for me.  It is enough room to carry a bit of extra gear/food/tools.  If you are me and don't like backpacks, then pick up one of  the Sea to Summit Ultra-Day packs (1220cu).  These packs  compresses to the size of 2 golf balls,  weigh next to nothing, but when in use, can easily carry several days worth of food, clothes, or other miscellaneous items.  I tend to use mine when I am fress off of a food resupply.  It can carry all my food items until I get to camp, at which point I can break everything down and repack it as required.  It is not for carrying heavy loads, but it is a great small item to add if you in general don't use a backpack.

Tangle Bag: Tangle bags are smaller versions of frame bags that are generic in shape and form.  Adding a tangle bag creates just a little more flexibility in how your frame is used and what you can carry right at your fingertips.  This option does add about $60 to the overall cost.

DIY Bags: I am always searching for ways to reuse kit that I already have.  I have a set of small ditty bags that were used for camera gear such as lenses and other small accessories, that work perfectly on the bike.  I simply use 2mm cord to strap these bags to my handebars and then use them to carry small things like snacks or even a small camera.  

I have since tested this strategy out on several friends, including my mate Richard whom I bikepacked around Africa and Ellen whom I bikepacked around Ireland with, both using very similar variations of this exact setup. Richard already had drybags and straps so all we had to do for him was buy a rear rack and off we went.  Ellen chose to buy a Revelate sling for carrying her handlebar mounted dry bag, but this could just have easily been the two strap method and worked just as well. Traveling the dirt trails and rustic roads of Africa and the hilly SW coast of Ireland, the setup withstood everything that we encountered.

If you are traveling with a friend, it works even better because you can split up those items like cook kit and shelter.  Bikepacking is fun and enjoyable because it gets you to focus on only carrying what you need, keeping your overall kit weight down and making your ride more enjoyable.  The very first thing I noticed after going with this setup was how much easier those late night hills became after a long day in the saddle.  It also dramatically changes your gearing as only the most extreme hills will require a granny ring.

Once you have spent some time bikepacking there really is no other way to tour. The only issue you are truly likely to encounter is a newfound lust for lighter gear and a propensity to spend way to much time thinking of new ways lighten up your gear.  The freedom of only carrying what you need becomes liberating and allows you to really enjoy the ride.

Fargo in UL mode in Oregon

Ellen Bikepacking SW IrelandRichard bikepacking the Atlantic coast of MoroccoMohammed and a true 'simple' bikepacking setup