Preparing for your first overnighter | How to start bikepacking

Are you thinking about making the leap to ride your very first bikepacking overnighter? Bikepacking and human-powered travel is life-changing. The feeling of complete autonomy, challenging yourself physically, and being in nature are tremendously liberating experiences. But, preparing to go bikepacking can also feel deeply overwhelming.

Packing your bike with camping gear, food, clothes, toiletries, and electronics, as well as planning your route, is no simple task. We are here to break down some barriers to bikepacking and help give you the confidence to go on your first overnighter.


Bikepacking on your mountain bike
Run what you brug. Just about any bike can be a bikepacking rig, but you may need to work around certain limitations.

The Rig: Make it work with the bike you already have

You can make your very first bikepacking trip work with whatever bike you have. A gravel bike or a rigid/hardtail mountain bike are the most suitable bikes for off-road bike packing. A rigid or hardtail mountain bike will be heavier but offer a more comfortable ride, and stability on loose and rocky terrain and singletrack. Generally speaking, you will be more efficient on a gravel bike than on a mountain bike, but the narrower rubber and lower position will be a bit more skittish when the terrain gets spicy.

If you only have a full-suspension mountain bike or (gasp) a roadie, there is no need to commit to buying a brand-new bike for your first bike-packing trip. However, it will limit the what you can pack and where you can go.

With the swingarm and limited real estate inside the front triangle, mounting bags on a full-sus mountain bike can be a bit trickier, and you’ll likely have to pack a bit lighter. Of course, this is hardly a deal breaker!

Fully loaded bikepacking bike
A hardtail is a great option for big bikepacking adventures, but a gravel bike, full-suspension mountain bike or even a roadie can work too. But it may limit where you can go and what there is room to pack.

Overcoming pre-ride nerves with a low-stakes overnighter

Before a bikepacking ride, it is common to have a sinking feeling that you are biting more than you can chew. This is normal. Once you get moving, the sense of self-doubt is instantaneously overcome by bike stoke and joy.

To overcome pre-ride nerves, it is beneficial to start small. A low-kilometre and ‘low-stakes’ overnighter trip is a great way to build confidence and help you get a feel for your packing and sleep system.

preparing for your first bikepacking overnighter
For your first overnighter don’t plan something relativity easy that allows some flexibility for you to make mistakes without big consequences.

A ‘low-stakes’ route may involve passing through main towns with re-supply options, or building in multiple bailouts in case things go pear shaped.

Another way to overcome pre-ride nerves is to head out on a small reconnaissance ride in your neighbourhood with your bike fully loaded. It is good to test there is no rubbing (particularly when going over bumps) before you go on your first trip. If it’s your first overnighter, it may be helpful to go with a pal with a few trips under their belt to help with confidence, which leads to my next point…

preparing for your first bikepacking overnighter
Find your people! Bikepacking is no fun on your own, ask around at your local shop or use social media to find bikepacking groups in your area.

Find your bikepacking friends

The best times spent on a bike are those spent with other humans. Sharing a fast descent, experiencing a tough climb or a hot meal around a campfire with some riding mates can make your trip a whole lot more enjoyable.

Find companions who ride with the same goals that you can share these precious experiences with. If you haven’t found your cycling community yet, speak to your local bike shop. You can find out about local cycling groups, or shop rides in your area. It’s a great way to meet like-minded people to bikepack with. On a personal note, my cycling community is Melburn Durt. Melbourne Durt is a cycling community in Naarm consisting of like-minded women (cis and trans), trans men and non-binary folk that I ride bikes with off-road, including bike-packing.

Bikepacking gear | How, where and what do you need

Front of your bike | Handlebar bag system

Most people have a handlebar bag, and sling system on the front of their bike. A handlebar bag is the ideal place to put your sleep system (shelter, sleeping bag and mattress) because it can be fiddly to take items in and out of. With a sleep system, you only have to open up the handlebar bag when you get to camp and have stopped cycling. Having wide and flat handlebars means you can fit more volume in this area, as opposed to narrow drop bars, which can make it slightly more challenging (particularly with shifting and tyre rub)

preparing for your first bikepacking overnighter
Handlebar bags can be fiddley, so store your sleeping gear here so you only have to mess with it when it’s time to set up camp.

Middle of your bike | Using your frame efficiently

A frame bag is the best place to carry heavy items as the weight is centred, which won’t impact your handling as much. If you are carrying a bladder to store a large volume of water, this is where you want to put that weight.

However, frame bags can be expensive and a significant investment, so they are something to look into if you decide bikepacking is for you. If it is your first trip, you may be able to borrow a frame bag from a friend. If not, that is okay; it is not necessary on your very first trip.

Rear of your bike | The rack/pannier bags vs saddle bags debate

preparing for your first bikepacking overnighter
Dropper posts don’t play nice with saddle bags, and to get around this a lot of folks use some sort of pannier system.

The case for saddle bags

Saddlebags are lightweight and don’t interfere with your bike’s aerodynamics and handling. You save additional weight from not having a rack installed on your bike. Place light and voluminous items in your saddle bag to avoid tyre rub.

BUT, if you use a dropper post, you will likely not be able to use a full-size saddle bag for bikepacking. Unfortunately, short people (myself included) do not have the ability to run a large-volume saddle bag due to the lack of seat post clearance. If you want to be a bit more minimalist, then saddle bags are for you.

The case for a rear rack and pannier system

Micro panniers have become increasingly popular as replacements for saddle bags. Micro panniers are bike-packing-specific pannier bags. Micro panniers are narrower than traditional pannier bags, so they won’t get in your way when you are pushing your bike up a hill and are a great solution for shorter riders who don’t have clearance for saddle bags.

You can also use the deck space of the rear rack to strap additional items. Despite the overall form factor, they can hold a lot more capacity than traditional saddle bags. If you need more space and don’t mind the additional grams of a rack, then a rear rack and micro pannier system is the way to go.

preparing for your first bikepacking overnighter
We have had good luck with the Aeroe Spider Racks as they adapt to pretty much any bike and allow for a few different mounting options.

Dry bags and ski straps are your best friends

It is no secret that bikepacking gear can be expensive. If it is your first time bikepacking, dry bags and straps are your best friend. A Sea to Summit dry bag only costs around $20 or so. Voile ski straps are a bit like stretchy reusable zip-ties and are the gold standard in bike-packing; however, even the Grunt Versa straps at Bunnings are a pretty good and cost-effective knockoff.

Together, this combo is extraordinarily versatile and allows you to secure things directly to your bike rather than rely solely on purpose-built luggage—you can put your sleep system in a dry bag and strap it to your handlebars. Simple.

You can also use fork cages (like the Salsa Anything Cage) to strap dry bags or even a Nalgene water bottle to your fork. These are more financially accessible solutions to storing gear on your bike as you first get started on your bike-packing journey.

It’s also not a terrible idea to have a few extras in your kit, as they are remarkably useful for fixing things.

preparing for your first bikepacking overnighter
Big scenes and big adventures by bike — how good is bikepacking!

Snack for success

Snacking is important! With limited space on a bike, packing food onto a bike can be tricky. The most efficient food to carry is calorie-dense in relation to weight and volume like nuts, dark chocolate, hard cheeses, salami, and muesli bars.

Variety is the greatest spice of life. That goes with packing food as well. Don’t go too hard on one singular food item or you WILL get sick of it.

If it’s your first bikepacking trip, you don’t have to commit to buying an entire cooking system with a stove and all of the extra bits. This can be an upgrade made further down the track. If you have a cook system, dehydrated meals (i.e. Radix or Strive) or even Uncle Bens (only around $3 at Coles) are super lightweight and simple to eat — just boil water.

preparing for your first bikepacking overnighter
A tarp and a bivy bag is a lightweight and compact solution for shelter, but it still leaves you pretty exposed.

Shelter and sleeping system options for bikepacking

You have numerous options for shelter depending on your riding style.

Want to sleep in comfort? A tent is the way to go. It is the best shelter system for keeping the elements out, particularly in serious weather events like thunderstorms. Tents also give you a lot more privacy.

A disadvantage is that it generally takes a bit longer to set up and is heavier to pack on the bike. You have to carry additional tent poles, pegs, etc. Ultralight tents are costly and delicate, so it’s something that you’re going to need to take care of.

Want a minimalist set-up that is smaller to pack on your bike? A bivvy and tarp are extremely lightweight. Rolling out a bivvy takes about 10 seconds. It is super quick to set up and pack down. The major downside is condensation. If the weather is dry, you can avoid condensation by opening a part of the bivvy bag. You should check the weather before you bivvy bag it for the night. If it’s raining, you should set up under a tarp.

Sleep systems consist of a sleeping bag (either down or synthetic) with a temperature rating, which should be based on the forecasted weather conditions. Sleeping pads are either an inflated or closed-cell foam style. Inflatable mattresses pack down smaller and are arguably more comfortable however there is a risk that it will get a hole. A foam sleeping pad is simple and incredibly durable – you won’t have to worry about tears or nearly passing out after blowing it up but they are on the firmer side.

preparing for your first bikepacking overnighter
Navigation is an important element to bike packing, and having a head unit with preloaded maps and navigation capabilities will make your life much easier.

Route Control: Mapping, routing and navigation

For your first bikepacking trip, pick an established route or a lovely rail trail that goes through many small towns. There are many online resources for accessible routes, including the following websites: Commuter Cycles, Adventure Cycling Victoria, Curve and Ride High Country, just to name a few. There are also very active location-specific bikepacking social media groups that are a treasure trove of information.

For your first trip, you can route off your phone for the day on apps like Ride With GPS, MapOut or Strava. Be mindful that navigating off your phone makes your phone battery decrease quicker, so make sure you have a portable charging device. Navigating off a phone can be tedious, constantly having to unlock your phone to check the route, and you can easily miss a turn. Once you get a few rides under your belt, you may want to consider getting a navigation device like a Garmin or Wahoo. Unfortunately, these devices cost hundreds of dollars. You do not need to commit to buying one for your first bikepacking trip as navigating off your phone will do the job.

As your skills grow and you head further afield a paper map is the the way to go and an essential backup should your electronics fail. Bring one along, and every time you stop, try and figure out where you are without looking at your phone or cycling computer.

preparing for your first bikepacking overnighter
If you’re heading off the beaten path, make sure you have the spares and tools to be self-sufficient.

Repair kit and maintenance

On your first bikepacking trip, you should know some basics such as changing a tube and mending a snapped chain. If these are above your mechanical pay grade, go with a pal who has some basic bike maintenance skills. We’d recommend taking the time to learn them so you can be self-sufficient — YouTube is great for this. Some tools and spares to consider carrying include brake pads, multitool, tyre lever, spare quick link, spare tube and tyre plugs (if you are running tubeless), needle and floss, spare bolts of various sizes, valve core tool, spare valve and cable ties.

We hope this guide gives you the confidence to get you on your very first bikepacking trip. Happy trails!

Photos: Flow MTB, Kia Binch

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