Bikepacking Basics

Bringing along only one pump for a long-distance dirt bicycle trip for two people seemed like a good idea.

That is, until it broke.

It was in New Mexico, and it was hot and dry. Trying to repair a flat without a pump wasn’t too much fun and frustration became inflated.

A local man and his two companions stopped to offer assistance. The pump didn’t work for them either, but they said it would be no problem. The man offered to bring his portable air compressor from home the next day. Not only did he show up, he did so one-half-hour early and brought water, too.

Scenes like this aren’t just played out along America’s premiere mountain bike ride, the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from Canada to Mexico.

The possibility exists for all sorts of encounters whether it is a Vermont dirt road or a former logging road in a national forest. “More wildlife and rural settings,” says Tom Masterson of Coyote Hill Mountain Bike Camp in Fairlee, Vt., when asked about the differences between touring on pavement versus dirt.

It’s a whole new world for mountain bikers who tour on dirt roads. Marty Basch photo.

There was a time when anyone who wanted to go any long distance on a mountain bike would put on a backpack and hop in the saddle. Now, panniers and one-wheeled trailers are the preferred means to carry gear.

Like any outdoor excursion, gear decisions can make or break you.

“Don’t bring more than you need,” says Masterson. Thirty-seven-year-old John Worth of East Burke, Vt., led bike tours for about 10 years in Ireland and Vermont. His advice is echoed by anyone who’s spent time biking and camping: go light.

“Generally, just try to use equipment that is lightweight, functional, and that takes up as little room as possible,” Worth says. “You want to minimize the amount of bulk you have. Leave some of the comforts at home and you’ll enjoy the riding more. If the bike is loaded up, it’s hard to ride and that’s no fun.”

Panniers Or Trailer?
That’s the question. Saddlebags fit easily on a rack, are lightweight and travel easily as luggage on planes. But many aren’t waterproof and uneven distribution of weight can make it a balancing act to ride. A single-wheeled trailer is affixed to the rear axle with a quick release skewer. The gear is low and behind the bike. It’s easy to hook up and take off which makes it a snap to try that local singletrack gear free. But it’s another tire that could go flat along the way. As for flying with it, try sticking it in a rather large duffel bag and claim it as one piece of your luggage.

Shelter is high on the priority list. Bivy sacks weigh next to nothing and offer about as much room, which could cramp your style after a long day of dirt. A three-season tent under four pounds should do the job, providing some leg room and shelter when it rains.

“Any time you are touring you are bound to end up in wet weather,” Worth says. “A good waterproof tent makes that less miserable.”

It’s amazing what a simple plastic shopping bag can do, so wrap clothing and the like in them before packing them.

Then there’s the sleeping bag. Comfort is a personal choice. Synthetic bags with ratings in the 35-degree range tend to be a good choice in summer. Thin-blooded fat tire hounds might want something around 20 degrees for fall’s cool season.

When bikepacking, wearing the same clothes day in and out is the norm. Hot, cold, dry and wet are all part of the program. Material that insulates and wicks are a good idea for cycling shorts and jerseys. A breathable, waterproof shell is both invaluable in rain and as an outer layer when the temps cool down. Tights provide warmth as would a wool or fleece pullover. Trying to stay comfortable is a priority. Someone like Dennis Coello, author of several cycling books including the mountain biker section of “Making Camp,” ought to know.

“My habit is first to set up my stove for a cup of coffee,” he writes. “Next comes the daily sprucing up, a quick one water bottle ablution performed in what at home would be termed sink-bath style, and with a second bottle I wash out that day’s T-shirt, socks and shorts. I’m usually sipping a cup of delicious black coffee by the time I begin to wash, two activities whose individual pleasure quotients more than double when combined.”

There are still more things to bring.

Take A Bike Repair Kit
A bike repair kit is a no-brainer. Those hotel shampoo bottles can cut weight and take up less space than regular size. Actually, any sample size product is a fine piece of touring equipment. Consider sport sandals for the end of the day. You’ll want to air out those working puppies.

With all that gear, it’s time to tackle the dirt. Bumpy dirt roads can take their toll. Shocks take the brunt of it. The terrain is ever-changing from singletrack to double track. Sand, mud and ruts are obstacles. Roads that aren’t maintained year-round tend to be steep so don’t be afraid to stick it in granny-gear and spin to the top, taking a little more time than on pavement.

“The more remote the road, the less apt you are to see people. Some of the really rural roads are not maintained in the winter,” Worth says. “The sign of a good road is that it’s not maintained year-round. They tend to be one lane and steep.”

But what goes up, must come down.

Marty Basch can be reached at

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