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The first trip -- Fall 2015. Things strapped every which way and made it work. Photo: Aaron Couch

The first trip — Fall 2015. Things strapped every which way to make it work. Photo: Aaron Couch

Bikepacking is an incredible way to see a lot of country. The trip can be a quick overnighter, or spread over several days. This past year I set a simple goal to bikepack more. I ended up pedaling 700 miles over the course of 7 trips. The year prior I only bikepacked 40 miles – a solo trip in the fall. Through each of these experiences, I’ve learned invaluable lessons. I grew from each adventure. Only through experiences and mistakes will we gain skills and insight… unless you take these 10 lessons that I had to learn the hard way to heart:

See Also
By Jeff Barber
 

Just go already!

I tend to build up the reasons why I can’t do something: I don’t have enough time, experience, the right gear, etc. Those monuments in the mind are only small hills in reality. Some may be valid, but most of the time they’re only something that keeps us from getting out and exploring. Find a way and get out there!

First bikepacking trip of the year. Location: Bitch Creek trestle bridge, Teton Valley, Idaho

First bikepacking trip of 2016. Location: Bitch Creek trestle bridge, Teton Valley, Idaho. Photo: Aaron Couch

Note: If at any point you’re using one of these lessons to justify why you can’t go bikepacking, return to this paragraph.

Pack Less, Ride More

First bikepacking trip of the year -- notice how overloaded the bike is.

First bikepacking trip of the year — the bike is very overloaded. Photo: Aaron Couch

Weight adds up fast – extra food, too many clothes, etc. As a general rule, you won’t use as much as you think you will. Bikepacking at its core is very minimalist. You can follow the same principles behind lightweight and ultralight backpacking. After one overpacked ride, I am critical of everything I’m bringing. The gear I don’t have is actually an advantage. A trip can be successful and rewarding without the gear I thought I needed.

Several months later, I dialed in the necessities, removed the bulk and made a couple upgrades.

Several months later, I dialed in the necessities, removed the bulk, and made a couple upgrades. Photo: Aaron Couch

Bring a Bike Light

Think you’ll be riding only in daylight? Think again. Bikepacking trips always have a way of throwing a wrench into your plans. I’ve descended many technical trails in the dark after not packing a light on “day rides.” I haven’t repeated this same mistake on bikepacking trips. A single 350 lumen light goes a long way. If you’re going to be in dense woods, bring a 500-800 lumen light. Better yet, bring two.

Every day of the Maah Daah Hey trip resulted in arriving into camp in the dark. Rider: Joe Stiller. Photo by Aaron Couch

Every day of the Maah Daah Hey trip in November resulted in arriving at camp in the dark. Rider: Joe Stiller. Photo: Aaron Couch

Prepare for Mechanicals and Trailside Maintenance

Let’s face it–no trip will ever be “perfect.” Something will always break, tear, pop, or leak. Bring the tools to get yourself out of those situations and back on the trail. When you’re out in the backcountry, you have you, and only you, to rely on.

Flat tire on the fourth and final day of the Maah Daah Hey. I hit a sharp cow bone, rolling fast through open grasslands. Photo: Joe Stiller

Flat tire on the fourth and final day of the Maah Daah Hey. I hit a sharp cow bone, rolling fast through open grasslands. Photo: Joe Stiller

It’s important that you take care of your bike and its components during the trip, and not only after you get home. If you’re going through a lot of silty stream crossings, it isn’t a bad idea to bring a brush and lube to keep that chain clean.

Silty river crossings along the Maah Daah Hey required persistent chain maintenance. Rider: Joe Stiller. Photo: Aaron Couch

Silty river crossings along the Maah Daah Hey required persistent chain maintenance. Rider: Joe Stiller. Photo: Aaron Couch

Opt for Backpackless Trips

The idea behind bikepacking is to put as much on your bike as you can. View the backpack as a last resort. I’ve only needed a backpack for extra water through very dry routes. If you have the top three bags: a handlebar roll, frame bag, and seat pack, you shouldn’t need a backpack for much else. A little creativity goes a long way.

Bikebacking in the Caribou Range of Idaho. Rider: Steve Griffin, a true minimalist. Photo: Aaron Couch

Bikepacking in the Caribou Range of Idaho. Rider: Steve Griffin, a true minimalist. Photo: Aaron Couch

Creativity Is King

Research bikepacking tips and hacks, use what you have, and buy only the gear you need. When purchasing gear, look for what you can use in more than one way. The goal here is to fill every bit of empty space on the bike without giving up maneuverability. Examples are endless, but here are a few:

Using a dry bag as a seat back. Rider: Justin Couch. Photo: Aaron Couch

Using a dry bag as a seat bag on the Steamboat Trace Trail, Nebraska. Rider: Justin Couch. Photo: Aaron Couch

  • Use dry bags as a seat pack and handlebar roll
  • Tape your spare tube to your frame
  • Or stick it in a water bottle cage
  • No braze-ons? Tape water bottle cages to your bottom bar and front fork
  • Prop your bike to support a tarp for a shelter
Using the bike as a tie down. Photo: Aaron Couch

Using the bike as a tie down. Photo: Aaron Couch

  • Wrap extra gorilla tape and electrical tape around bike pump or seatpost
  • Stow spare bike parts in your handlebars and seatpost. Think: cables, zip ties, spokes, or a tire boot
  • Strap a dry bag to the rear or front rack (if you have one)
  • Fill unused spaces with bottle cages: top cap, down tube, rear dropouts, and rack bolts

Notice rear bottle racks. Photo: Joe Cruz

Voile Straps Are Awesome

Voile straps made a name for themselves amongst backcountry skiers. In the event your ski binding breaks, Voile straps will secure your boot to the ski and get you down the mountain. Their durability and versatility set them apart from other straps. I’ve used them to secure oversized water bottles and dry bags to my frame over technical terrain. They also are my choice for carrying my handlebar roll. The security comes with a bit of a price tag, but the versatility and peace of mind are worth it in the backcountry.

Voile straps securing water bottle.

Voile straps securing water bottle. Photo: Aaron Couch

It’s Actually Affordable

If you think you need to buy every bike bag and a sweet new rig, you’ll disagree with this point. The fact is, when starting out bikepacking you don’t need all the fancy harnesses, bags, and gizmos. Tap into your inner frugalness. Use what you have. You’ll find new ways to do this through each trip you take.

Take notice to the cheap, but functional Smart Water bottles. These work perfectly with the Sawyer Mini water filter.

Take notice of the cheap, but functional, Smart Water bottles. These work perfectly with the Sawyer Mini water filter. Photo: Aaron Couch

DIY is a big cost savings. If you’re handy with sewing, make your own dry bags out of cuben fiber, and sew your own frame bags. Limberlost published a guide and template to make your own handlebar roll.

A pop can alcohol stove is easy to make and uses denatured alcohol.

The humble alcohol pop can stove with a stand that doubles as a wood fire stove for alternative fuel source.

The humble alcohol stove used with a stand that doubles as a wood fire stove. Photo: Aaron Couch

Don’t forget about used gear! Why buy new when you can find like-new quality for half the price? Search thrift stores, outdoor consignment shops, and bike shop clearance racks. Facebook Marketplace groups, Craigslist, eBay, and Amazon are excellent online locations. If all else fails, head to your outdoor friend’s garage and offer some cash for their extra gear.

Plot Your Route

Ride with GPS

Route plotted using RideWithGPS

If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. If your trip is more than a straightforward out-and-back on a gravel road, you should have a map in hand and route in mind. I use an offline map and GPS on my phone and plot my route ahead of time using a website like RideWithGPS.

There are several offline topo map apps. My favorite is Accuterra, which uses Neotreks data. Apps that incorporate Neotreks data include:

Backcountry Navigator interface with plotted route.

Backcountry Navigator with imported route downloaded for offline access.

Honorable Mention: GaiaGPS: raved about by backcountry explorers, but doesn’t include Neotreks map data.

With that, a GPS is great for pinpointing your exact location, but it doesn’t replace a map and compass.

Pro Tip: Cut out only the map sections you need and tape them together. Use a ziplock bag for waterproofing.

Leaving from the front door is the greatest feeling!

On several trips, I’ve left from and arrived back to my own front door. It’s an empowering feeling and the ultimate form of travel. It simplifies parking and shuttling logistics. All you have to do is pack the bike and roll away from your driveway to wherever your bike takes you!

Bikepacking in rural Nebraska. Rider: Justin Couch. Photo: Aaron Couch

Bikepacking in rural Nebraska. Rider: Justin Couch. Photo: Aaron Couch

Conclusion: The Gear Doesn’t Define the Adventure

At no point have I looked back on an adventure and saw the focal point being a piece of gear. It’s always been about the location, and triumphs over struggles to get there. Neither your bike nor your gear define what you can and can’t do. Only you define your limits. Let your adventures evolve with you.

Finding beauty in the little things is what bikepacking is all about.

Finding beauty in the little things is what bikepacking is all about. Photo: Aaron Couch

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# Comments

  • Greg Heil

    Love this! I learned some of these lessons on my first bikepacking trip last fall, but I still have more to learn and apply. Next up, I really want to do a trip leaving from my back door!!

    • mongwolf

      Soooo many options from your back door Greg. Location. Location. Location. Keep livin’ the dream.

    • Greg Heil

      Haha yeah I have a few routes already picked out 🙂

  • stumpyfsr

    Awesome lessons. I’ve learned about chain maintenance on Maah Daah Hey as well. And overpacking too 🙂

    • Aaron Couch

      Nice! The MDH is incredible… and humbling.

      Overpacking is something pretty much everyone does at least one… learning from it instead of justifying it is what we have to overcome.

  • Darren Smith

    Great article! Completely agree with less is better.
    Can I get your GPS file for the Plot Your Route map where you rode a loop starting in Victor.
    Years ago while going to school I rode sections of the trail along the Snake which shows up on your loop. Wow I would love to get back there some day.

    • Aaron Couch

      Thanks, Darren! That route is actually only one that I’ve plotted and haven’t ridden it yet — it’s on the list, which is part of the reason I used it for that example.

      Take that into consideration when studying the route. I’ve sent you the link on Facebook.

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