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What is bikepacking?

June 12, 2022

Bikepacking is about freedom – multi-day excursions by bike with just enough gear to get by, light and agile so you can follow the trail wherever it takes you.

The traditional approach to travelling by bike is to bolt on racks, fit panniers back and front, load them to the brim and then wobble off into the great unknown.

Bikepacking takes a trimmed down approach – enough gear to survive the length of your trip, making the bike nimble enough to keep on pedalling whatever the terrain throws at you. Think of it as a cunning blend of self sufficient tramping and off road cycling.

A bikepacking bag setup is much easier to squeeze through scrub and singletrack and hike'a'bike sections where your panniers would be snagging and bashing into obstacles. A typical setup might weigh around 1.5kg (for the bags), compared to a traditional rack and pannier system which can be closer to 5kg+, before you put anything in them. The weight advantage for bikepacking is clear, and limited capacity means that you'll be forced to concentrate on essentials not luxuries. 

Adventure

Do it how you like: your bikepacking trip might be a quick overnighter squeezed into the work week, a brevet race with a super-sized portion of kilometres in few days, or an extended off-road tour done fast and light.

Whichever you choose, it'll be an adventure, and you'll enjoy the exhilaration that goes with travelling light and nimble.

Bikepacking racing

Events like the Tour Divide in the US, have brought endurance bikepacking to greater recognition, although it's still fairly fringe activity. The ethos is self supported, long distance, varied terrain, and with a focus on camaraderie and finishing, rather than clawing for victory. Although of course, someone does come first!

Riders follow a preset route, and can choose to eat and sleep as and when they wish. No outside support is allowed (ie food drops or mechanics), any any needs not met en route may require a detour from, and then back to the route at the point where you left off - no leap-frogging forward. Riders usually carry a SPOT tracker to show their position, and carry a GPS for navigation. Some events require a mandatory stop time of a few hours every 24 hours.

There are now many long distance bikepacking events in New Zealand (called 'brevets'), with the Kiwi Brevet and Great Southern Brevet being the best known for both the scenery and experience.

2016 saw the longest event yet in New Zealand, modelled on the Tour Divide. The Tour Aotearoa starts at Cape Reinga at the top of the north island and winds its way across the length of the entire country, ending in Bluff 3000 kms later! The inaugural edition saw about 200 riders, but it has now swelled to over 1000 suffer monkeys signing up per year.

One of the newest full bore bikepacking races is the Tour Te Waipounamu, which runs as a true race, with the clock ticking right through the night (no obligatory stopped time). At the time of writing, it is regarded as the toughest dirt brevet/mountain bike race in New Zealand.

The bike

The aim is to be able to go where you please, or wherever the brevet itinerary sends you - a hardtail mountain bike is a great starting point, but you can bikepack with a full suspension bike, fully rigid, front suspension - it all works.

It's likely you already have a bike that will do the job, without having to spend lots of money on a whole new setup. A 'traditional' double triangle frame will give you more room for a big frame bag, whereas a light full bounce XC bike will be more forgiving to the body.

Having a bike that is on the lighter side of the scales won't hurt as you're going to be adding to its weight with your bikepacking kit. Make sure your bike is well maintained, as you'll probably be giving it hell!

Mountain

Mountain bikepacking setup

  • The heart of bikepacking
  • The bike you probably already own
  • 29er hardtail is ideal
  • Light enough but strong enough

Expedition & Multi-day

Expedition Bikepacking Bike

  • High volume tyres
  • Steel framesets
  • Rigid forks
  • Extra bags
  • Front rack
  • Dynamo charging

Fast & Light, Endurance and Racing

Fast & Light bikepacking

  • Gravel bikes and ultralight XC bikes
  • Ultralight bags
  • Minimal gear
  • Ability to cover huge distances data after day, in relative comfort

    Luggage

    If you have a regular frame, you can fit a lot of gear in a frame bag. You can add seat bag, handlebar bag, top tube bags, and even a small backpack depending on your trip and how much you need to carry. Extra capacity can be added with a fork cage, which can carry a dry bag with your sleeping mat, or small tent.

    Some bikepacking bags are fully waterproof and feature roll closures like kayaking drybags - these are great place to store your insulation and sleeping gear that will only be pulled out at the end of the day and has to stay dry. Other bags are only water resistant and you may want to add some light weight dry bags to pack some of your gear into before packing into your frame bags. Also think about the colour - not just for style points - black bags look great but they will get hot in full sun so might not be the best choice for storing food.

    One of the best known and most used brands of framebags is Revelate, handmade in Alaska to a very high standard from strong an light materials, and the blueprint for many other brands. Other highly evolved bikepacking brands include Ortlieb (masters of waterproof), Salsa and Apidura. 

    Check them out in the shop

    There are also plenty of small makers who do custom work to order, so if you have special requirements or an unusual shaped frame, these may be worth a look, although the cost will be higher. Bike Bag Dude in Australia and Stealth Bags in NZ offer a very high quality custom product.

    Route

    You'll be needing somewhere to go! Where it's quite straightforward to find a good tramping or backpacking route along with all the maps and info needed, planning a good bikepacking route can take a bit more work. This is partly because the whole idea is fairly new, so trip details often only exist in the heads of those who've done them! You'll want to choose route that has the right mix of rideable and accessible terrain, a good slice of adventure, and within reach of your fitness and skills. There is a wealth of tracks out there in NZ, unfortunately they're not all freely accessible. However, often a call to the leaseholder or landowner is all that's needed to access that bit of track that will let you link up your route.

    Your route might take in some road, singletrack, gravel road and 4WD tracks. You might have to get a bit creative, but you can often cook up a loop so you don't have to do any backtracking. In New Zealand, NZTopo and WAMS (Walking Access Mapping System) websites might be your first stop for route planning.

    Navigation

    Planning ahead will save you from the jaws of potential navigational epics. Marking your route out on paper maps (you can print sections from NZTopo and laminate the bits you need) is your starting point. Basic compass skills are invaluable too if you are going away from main routes. If you don't know how to use one, you should learn!You can add a GPS to your nav kit, but make sure you're fully familiar with how it works, and its limitations (batteries!) before you set off on your mega trip. You can add a dynamo hub for charging devices if you're planning on being away a while. A bit of forward planning lets you consider where your nights will be spent (and on whose land) and enables you to divide your trip into realistic chunks.

    You can of course just go and hit the trails and see where it gets you, if you have a reasonable knowledge of the terrain and are well prepared for anything that may come your way, but we recommend some planning.

    Skills

    If you've done a bit of tramping then you probably have the backcountry skills required for camping out, and fending for yourself in the elements. You'll need to be savvy with river crossings (depending on your route) and being aware of the weather and conditions, and be ready to modify your plans if the weather gods aren't playing ball.

    Likewise with the bike: can you fix a puncture, a broken chain, a mangled derailleur? If not, learn the skills, and make sure you have a good (but light!) toolkit to get you through mechanical mishaps.

    Clothing

    Experience of adventurous tramping is a good starting point when choosing clothing. The rule of thumb is no cotton (poly-pro or merino is your friend here), layering allows you to add or shed insulation easily as conditions dictate, and have a shell layer against wind chill and that inevitable downpour. You might add some bike specific gear such as padded shorts and gloves, and put some time into finding the right saddle - you'll be spending a lot of time on it!

    Getting the shoes right is important too. You won't be on the bike all the time, and you may be pushing/carrying, so shoes that you can hike rough stuff in are better than your skittery cycling shoes. Some people go with flat pedals, others prefer SPDs, but with a cycling shoe that has a decent walking sole.

    Camping

    Bike Camping

    Think about your sleeping system - a tent is more comfortable especially if the weather turns sour, but a bivi or tarp might be enough depending on your nature and where you plan to sleep.

    Lights

    You'll quite likely end up doing some riding at night, so good lights are essential to keep you moving safely at a good clip. At the very least a good powerful headtorch is a must, but bike specific lights will make navigating in the dark much more pleasant. A great solution is a dynamo hub, with a hardwired light. That way you have no worry of running out of batteries, and you can also recharge other devices (camera, phone, GPS) as you ride. Double win!

    Food

    Camping stove and cup illustration

    You could be burning up to 10,000 calories on a really big day, so make sure you have enough to keep you going between resupply points, and some lightweight reserves for emergencies. If you're on a longer trip you'll need to be re-stocking en route (you won't want to carry all your food for the whole trip from the start to end), so plan these out ahead and mark them on your map and take note of opening times too - nothing worse than arriving just as the dairy closes!

    Ready to go?

    That's the basics covered - by now you must be champing at the bit! Before you head out to the wilds, remember to leave your route intentions with someone, along with a panic date if you don't show up when you were planning. You can always call in along your way when communications allow.

    Bikepacking is a great solo enterprise - it's very rewarding to be out there knowing you have everything you need and to be totally reliant on your own skills and ability. But it's also a great thing to do with a fun crew, and if it's your first trip or two, try and hook up with an adventurous buddy.

    More reading and inspiration

    Here's some more reading to get you fired up. Bikepackers tend to be a friendly bunch and most will be very happy to share beta and info.

    Bikepacking.com
    Radavist
    Bikepacking New Zealand Facebook Group

    NZ Events

    Tour Aotearoa
    Kiwi Brevet
    Great Southern Brevet
    Tour Te Waipounamu

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