Feb 21, 2020
As mentioned in other articles (on hiking and bike touring), bringing the right gear is one of the most important ways to prepare for any self-powered journey. You can camp comfortably, or you can move comfortably. It’s hard to do both.
A lot of emphasis is, somewhat rightly, put on weight. A lighter load is easier to push, especially uphill, when the going is toughest. However, volume is an underrated factor when it comes to gear. As it turns out, aerodynamics is a bigger factor than weight (CyclingAbout has done a few excellent studies on this). Choosing items that are smaller in volume allows you to use a smaller, sleeker cargo setup, shrinking your aerodynamic profile. If, like most bikepackers, you don’t use racks or panniers, not only do you benefit from improved aerodynamics, but you save a significant amount of weight. Racks and panniers are among the heaviest things cyclists carry.
While having the most high-tech ultralight gear is nice, reducing the number of things you bring will have an even greater effect than reducing the weight of each item. On top of the weight savings, less stuff also means less volume, which in addition to the benefits listed above, makes it easier to pack up in the morning or to find things in your packs during the day.
This list is specifically for bikepacking. By our definition, that means you’re staying on dirt roads or trails most of the time, riding a flat bar mountain bike, and using neither racks nor panniers. If you’re looking for a packing list for bike touring, we’ve written a similar packing list for that.
Every adventure (and adventurer) is different, so this list may not be perfect for you or where you’re going. For the purpose of this list, we’re assuming temperatures will stay between 0-38 °C (32-100 °F).
- Seat pack
- Full frame bag
- Handlebar roll
- Feed bags (2x)
- Stem bag
- Cyclewerks double bottle cage adapter
This setup should give you a cargo capacity of roughly 40 L, depending on what bags you use. That’s not much; space will be at a premium. There aren’t many more places it’s even possible to mount another bag, though. Bikepacking is an exercise in minimalism.
If you’re looking to increase your cargo capacity, one popular option is to use hose clamps (or something similar) to mount extra-large cages onto your fork, then strap dry bags onto them. While this can increase your capacity by 5-10 L, putting that much weight on the sides of your fork will affect the steering, and almost every option for this setup is expensive compared to how much extra space you get.
It’s rare we recommend a specific brand or product, but the Cyclewerks double bottle cage adapter appears to have no peers, and it fills a need. By using it, you can carry two water bottles on a standard bottle cage mount while using a frame bag. If you use extra large bottle cages, those which can hold a 1 L bottle, you can either carry an extra 2+ L of water or simply mount a large canister in each holder. A 28 oz jar of peanut butter works well!
Most feed bags are the perfect size to hold a Nalgene bottle, and they do an excellent job keeping your water cool.
- 30 °F quilt/sleeping bag
- Inflatable sleeping pad
- 1-person tent
We could write an entire article on quilts vs. sleeping bags, but for now, suffice to say quilts do 90% of what a sleeping bag can, while being lighter and more versatile in warm weather.
You might consider a sleeping bag liner, which will add roughly another 10 F to your sleeping bag. A bag that's 10 degrees warmer will add less weight than a liner, but the ability to layer your sleep system is well worth an extra ounce or two. After all, it’s not going to be below freezing every night.
Even if you’re going somewhere that gets below freezing, you might not want a sleeping bag that’s rated any lower. Even the warmest sleeping bag won’t keep you warm while you’re taking down your tent in the morning. Instead of sleeping in a thicker bag, sleep in thicker clothes, because they keep working even after you get out of the bag.
Inflatable sleeping pads are superior in almost every way, except for price and durability. Foam pads are much cheaper, weigh about the same (sometimes less!), and can’t possibly spring a leak. The downside is they’re less comfortable, not as warm, and they take up a lot of space. If you’re going minimalist, you won’t have room.
The description “2-person” tent is, at times, awfully generous. Many “2-person” tents are essentially big enough for one person and their gear. In some cases, a 2-person tent only weighs a few extra ounces compared to its 1-person counterpart. However, if you don’t carry too much gear in the first place (and you’re on the small side yourself), a 1-person tent can be enough.
If your trip is in a warm, dry area, you might consider using the fly and footprint only, leaving the body of the tent at home. This will usually cut the weight of the tent in half, at the expense of letting in cold air and/or bugs at night.
- Short-sleeve running shirt
- Short-sleeve T-shirt/polo
- Waterproof/breathable jacket
- Arm warmers
- Bike shorts
- Hiking/athletic shorts
- Socks (2x)
- Bike shoes
- Fingerless gloves
- Long-fingered gloves
The name of the game is layering. Done correctly, you should be able to cover all your bases with only a few pieces of clothing.
While it may not seem like...
- Short-sleeve running shirt
- Short-sleeve T-shirt/polo
- Waterproof/breathable jacket
- Arm warmers
...includes anything warm enough for near-freezing temperatures, if you wear all of them at once, it’s just enough! There’s no law that says you can’t wear all the clothes you have at the same time, and that includes inside your sleeping bag.
This may seem too minimalist to some (1 pair each of underwear and bike shorts, for example), but with a daily rinse ‘n wring, you’d be surprised how manageable it is.
Some cyclists prefer to use only one pair of shoes, whether that be sneakers/sandals on flat pedals, or a hybrid shoe on MTB pedals. Even for a minimalist approach, we recommend bringing dedicated bike shoes for riding, and something comfy (but not bulky) for off the bike. The added weight of a pair of shoes is easily made up by the superior pedaling efficiency provided by clipless pedals.
A bandana has many uses, as a headscarf, head band, neck warmer, handkerchief, towel, dish pad, bandage, the list goes on. They’re cheap, weigh next-to-nothing, and take up almost no space. Bring one.
- Plasticware bowl with screw-top lid
- Odor-proof bag
- Nalgene water bottle (2x)
- Water filter
If you’re using feed bags as part of your cargo setup, as mentioned before, they’re the perfect size to hold a Nalgene bottle, and they don’t weigh any more than a bottle cage. Given their large size, two Nalgene bottles hold about as much water as three typical cycling water bottles.
There are other options when it comes to a mess kit, but a plastic bowl with a leakproof screw-top lid is invaluable. Being able to seal your bowl for hours at a time allows you to prepare food by cold soaking, and in a pinch, your bowl can serve as a backup water container.
As far as a stove is concerned, it’s a luxury item. We’ve written an article on going stoveless, and the benefits are numerous. In short, you save nearly 1 kg of weight and an amount of space about the size of a soccer ball. On a bike tour, you’ll probably have the ability to purchase a hot meal often enough, so if you get sick of cold food, not to worry.
Except during mealtime, all of your food, and everything that might smell like food (like toothpaste), should be kept in some kind of odor-proof container. If you’re in bear country, you may want to carry a bear canister (in some places, this is required by law). All of your food should be inside its own sealable container (a freezer bag will do), and all of those should go inside the odor-proof container. An odor-free camp is a critter-free camp.
On a road bike tour, a water filter isn’t necessary, because you’ll come across a town (or at least a gas station) often enough to fill up on tap water. On a bikepacking trip, however, it could be days in between access to running water. A filter is necessary. We recommend a simple squeeze filter. They don’t require batteries, nor do they malfunction.
- Unscented camp soap
- Lip balm
Obviously, if you need more than what’s listed here (like medication), bring it.
Camp soap, if you’re not familiar, refers to all-purpose liquid soap that can be used for nearly anything: body wash, shampoo, laundry detergent, dish soap, etc. In a pinch, it can even be used as toothpaste (a travel-size tube of toothpaste is worth it, though). It’s best to get unscented camp soap if you don’t want critters invading your campsite. Most camp soaps are eco-friendly, so you don’t even have to worry about spilling it on the ground or in a stream.
A loofa may seem like a greenhorn thing to bring along, until you consider its many uses. When you can’t take a proper shower, scrubbing off in a stream, even without soap, will get you impressively clean. A loofa can also be used to scrub almost anything else: dishes, stained clothes, sap on your pack, and so on. As long as you’re OK scrubbing yourself with something that’s not 100% clean (and during a bike tour, what is?), a loofa works wonders. And they’re light, cheap, and scrunch down to take up almost no space.
- Patch kit
- Tire boot
- Tire levers
- Frame pump
- Shifting cable
- Swiss army knife
- Cigarette Lighter
You’ll notice more than half of these are for the purpose of fixing the most common maintenance issue: Flat tires.
For the most part, having only one spare tube and cable is enough. When you get a flat, swap the spare for the flat, patch the flat that evening, and it becomes your new spare. If you feel a tube is on its last legs, you can probably get a new one in a matter of days.
The same thing goes for a cable. The likelihood that you’ll need two spare tubes or cables within a few days of each other is awfully small. Also, brake cables almost never break from normal use.
Carrying a spare tire isn’t necessary if you start with good tires. If you plan to ride a distance that’ll completely wear out a tire, you won’t want to carry a spare the entire distance. It would be more reasonable to either mail a tire to yourself or simply buy one in a shop after a few months. Yes, a tire can get a bad slice in it, but a boot will get it rideable again, at least for long enough to make it to a shop.
Whether you’re going tubeless or not, it’s a good idea to carry a spare tube. In the event your tubeless tire gets a slice that’s too big to seal, a tube and a boot will get you riding again.
Go to an outdoors store and you might find many different fire-starting kits. If you find one that’s cheaper, lighter, smaller, and more reliable than a cigarette lighter, buy it. Until then, bring a cigarette lighter. You probably won’t need to start a fire, but it’s good to have in case of emergency.
- Phone case
- Power bank
- Charging cable
With their many uses in a small package, you’d think smartphones were designed with hiking in mind. Anything more than a smartphone, like a tablet or e-reader, is a luxury item.
Keeping your smartphone charged can be difficult, but if you keep your phone in airplane mode most of the time, it should last 3-4 days on a full charge. A reasonably-sized power bank, about the size of a deck of cards and weighing about half a pound, should be able to charge your phone about three times. That means you can go about 10 days between charges, by which time you’ll almost certainly visit a town for one reason or another and get the opportunity to recharge.
Solar panels work, but not as well as one might hope. Under ideal conditions, a solar panel the size of a magazine will provide roughly one full phone charge per day. If it’s cloudy or you’re hiking in the shade most of the time, your solar charger may not keep up with your use. A power bank weighs about the same and works more predictably.
- Cable lock
- Freezer bags
Depending on where you’re going, as well as how much you like to rely on your phone, you may or may not need paper maps. One advantage paper maps have over phone apps is the much larger screen, as well as unlimited battery life.
A book is a luxury item, but for less than a pound, you have entertainment every evening for as much as a month, possibly more. Like paper maps, they have an unlimited battery life.
Freezer bags are the best way of keeping your gear separate, organized, and in case of rain, dry. Bring lots of these and use them to store everything.
If you follow this list, you’re probably looking at a total weight of roughly 11 kg (~24 lbs). That’s not ultralight, but it’s getting close.
Going ultralight usually involves giving up something most people would consider a necessity. For example, using a tarp or bivy instead of a tent, using unworn clothing as a sleeping pad, or carrying only one pair each of socks and underwear. There are certainly advantages to going ultralight, but this list is meant as a reasonably light setup that should work for most people without giving up too much.
When it comes to packing, some of the most valuable information is knowing what luxuries you can do without, which things you especially appreciate, and what discomforts you’re willing to put up with. Our best suggestion is to start with these lists as guidelines, then go try it out! If you find there are certain things you missed, bring ‘em. If there’s something you barely used, ditch it. Afterward, you can pare down your packing list to include all the things that make a difference and none of the things that don’t.