Bikepacking May Not Be for Everyone

The author of this article , Patrick Bulger, paints a much different picture of bikepacking based on his one-time experience.

Like Patrick, I experimented with bikepacking when I recently rode with a Meetup group, cycling from Oceanside to Encinitas CA and back, about 34 miles each way. While it took me a little while to adjust to the additional weight, I was empowered by the fact I was carrying everything I needed to enjoy the weekend comfortably. Soon I was cruising along, oblivious to the added weight.

My configuration was front and rear pannier racks, front and rear pannier bags, and a small top tube frame bag. One rear pannier held my sleeping bag and pad; the other camp clothes, toiletries, and next day’s riding gear. One front pannier carried my tech, including my GoPro plus accessories, power blocks and assorted cables. The other held my Jet Boil, coffee press and coffee. I wore a CamelBak hydration pack for water.

My ride is a 2010 Surly Long Haul Trucker, built for bikepacking and bike touring, with plenty of places to attach racks. Drop bars, friction shifters, 3 X 9 gearset, rim brakes, Terry Liberator X saddle (replaced the Brooks B-17 that it came with). My Surly weighs over 20 pounds stripped down to the basics. Since I’m not racing, it doesn’t matter.

I read through Patrick’s article and made a few observations about his observations about his first (and maybe only), bikepacking experience.

  1. Destination and route. The author scoped out a 45-mile ride to a scenic spot in Idaho, Lake Benewah. What he discovered, as many bikepackers have, is that a route is a route until you actually start riding. There are so many variables you can’t plan for. In Patick’s case, 98-degree weather and a leaky rear tire. And yes, this kind of experience can negatively impact your attitude about bikepacking. That’s why planning and anticipating as many variables as you may encounter is crucial. That’s why I liked riding with an experienced bikepacking group. All the planning was handled by the group leader and I had a built-in support group.
  2. The weight. It’s true – bikepacking, even on just an overnight, means you will add significant weight to your bike. In Patrick’s case, 50 pounds, which seems like a lot to me for a bikepacking overnight. I calculated 30 pounds additional when I did my bikepacking overnight. I actually weighed my bike fully loaded and hit the 50-pound mark. Add my 200 human pounds and we’re talking a big load.

    The tendency of riders doing their initial bikepacking trips is to bring too much stuff, but I discovered it’s hard not to. My heaviest items included my tent, which weighs six pounds, and also my tech, consisting of my GoPro and accessories, power block and assorted cables, all of which probably weighed another five pounds. I also included my Jet Boil stove, coffee press and coffee, but those items didn’t really weigh that much but I can’t ride without coffee.

    My sleeping bag and pad probably weighed in at around four pounds, and camp clothing and next day’s riding kit another couple of pounds. I’m probably forgetting some stuff, but those were the essentials. The pannier racks add weight as well.

    One way to manage the weight is to distribute it strategically on your bike. I put a lot of my weight on the back, but I could have moved some of that to the front panniers. Others use a full frame bag to move weight to the middle of the bike, which I may consider in the future. Handlebar packs can offload some of the front weight, or front fork cages instead of panniers.

    Yet there’s no getting around the added weight that comes with bikepacking.
  3. Comfort. Look, I’ve done two RAGBRAI’s and there were mornings when I knew I had to roll out of my tent and get on my bike for another 50–80-mile ride after a tough night of sleep on the ground. I did a bike tour through Death Valley and suffered from a leaky sleeping pad, necessitating me to keep adding air to it throughout the night. If you’re used to sleeping on the ground, you may do alright. Otherwise, like the author, you may feel battered and bruised, and wishing for a hotel.
  4. Provisions. Depending on the location, you may need to self-provision. On my overnight bikepacking trip, the ride included stops at cafes. Our campground was across the street from multiple restaurants. Pretty cushy if you think about it. Otherwise, you’ll need to carry food, and I would suggest the Ryan Van Duzer approach – flour tortillas, Nutella and/or peanut butter for breakfast, and refried beans for an evening burrito. I would still need coffee, whether gifted by the coffee Gods or brewed on my Jet Boil.

Finally, I agree with Patrick that bikepacking is not for everyone. But with careful planning and acknowledgement of the challenges, everyone can give it a try.

Episode 2: Chainwheel Diaries

My guest in Episode 2 is Larry Loewy, a Long Island Native and regular bike traveler. I met Larry on an Adventure Cycling bike tour in Death Valley in 2021. Larry graciously agreed to appear on today’s podcast episode. Listeners will be entertained by Larry’s stories and inspired by his adventures. Available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Things I Learned from My First Overnight Bikepacking Trip

Recently I joined the Southern California Bicycle Camping Meetup group for an overnight bikepacking trip. We followed a route that started in inland Oceanside and headed west towards the ocean, navigating south on old Highway 101 to Encinitas and the San Eligio State Beach campground.

To prepare for the trip I re-installed my pannier racks for my Axiom pannier bags. (Note: when I bought my Surly LHT used in 2021, it came with the racks and packs). I installed both front and rear pannier racks, thinking I would use both sets of bags, even though the trip was only an overnight. Here’s my bag configuration:

  • Rear pannier bag right side contained my sleeping bag and sleeping pad. These two items took up all the space in the bag. My sleeping bag is not so ultralight and doesn’t compress that small – same for my sleeping pad.
  • Rear left. Clothing and toiletries.
  • Right front. Jet boil, coffee press, coffee.
  • Left front. GoPro kit in its case, and tech organizer with all my cables and a power block battery for charging everything (most of the weight).
  • Rear rack. I strapped my tent (about six pounds) on the top of the rear rack use Voile straps.

Total weight, bike plus equipment, about 50 lbs. Heavy, yeah. But my Surly LHT handled the weight well, and I feel like I did a decent job of balancing the weight.

Ready to ride. I wore a Camelback for hydration and a backup water bottle for camp.

As the members gathered for the ride I made a point to observe what kind of bikes and equipment they had. There were a couple of Surly LHT riders plus me, one Brompton, one Co-Motion and one recumbent. Most were carrying about the same amount of gear as I, so I felt a little better about that. Once we made camp I made quite a few other observations.

I have purchased most of my gear from Amazon. Since I have a Prime membership, it’s just easy to do. But the majority of the other riders were REI customers – tents and gear. Made a note to extend my shopping to REI. Tent sizes ranged from one person to four-person. Mine is spec’d for two people, but I’m 6-2, 200 and there’s room for me and my gear that I want to keep dry. Two people would be cozy to say the least.

Bisinna 2-person tent I bought on Amazon for $70

Dining consisted of eating out at different restaurants. Saturday we stopped for lunch in Oceanside at a Mexican restaurant. Saturday night we walked from the campsite across the street and ate at a fish cafe. Sunday morning we had breakfast in Encinitas. Which was fine with me – meant not having to think about menus and carrying food.

Sunday morning everyone awoke and laid out their coffee artillery. Everyone had their own coffee makers, Jet Boils and either fresh ground or instant coffees. Quite a sight. My setup is a Stanley coffee press where you heat the water and combine the coffee in the same container.

Stanley Adventure All-in-One Boil & Brew French Press

Observations from the trip:

  • First thing I learned is about the California State Park campsite reservation system, which is notoriously challenging. For most State parks, one has to phone the reservation line at 8 am on the day six month in advance you want to camp. But some of the State park campsites also offer “hike/bike” sites that don’t need to be reserved. First come, first served. Roll up, pay your $15 and pitch your tent. San Eligio has hike/bike, and we had a nice campsite with plenty of room, a picnic table, fire pit, and potable water.
    I also learned that some of the California State Park campsites have eliminated hike/bike sites. Leo Carillo, for instance has closed hike/bike with no indication whether it will ever open the site for hikers and bikers. The experienced bikepackers I was with understood the system and how to make sure the campsite you want still has hike/bike option.
  • Could I have carried less? Maybe. Thing is, I’m always afraid of leaving something behind and then cursing myself as I discover I needed it. So I brought everything – like my full GoPro case with camera and all accessories. I’ve done rides where I minimized my GoPro kit and would up leaving stuff that I needed to mount the GoPro on my bike. Also makes me wonder what my configuration would resemble if I was riding across the U.S. Funny thing, a rider on a road bike pulled up alongside me on Sunday as we headed back to Oceanside, asking how far we’d come. When I told him we were wrapping up an overnight in Encinitas, he said the way we were all loaded made him think we were pedaling to Alaska.
  • I could have balanced my load a little better. The rear carried most of the weight. I might have moved my tent to the front rack and strapped it on sideways. Or put the sleeping bag on the front and rearranged the other bags. Overall, though, I thought the load was manageable.
  • I wore a Camelback and would not do that again. I was freeing up handlebar space by eliminating my water bottle holders. Should have stuck with what I knew.
  • I would consider a full frame bag that adds storage in the middle of the frame. I might be able to eliminate the front racks and packs. Will investigate further.
  • Notice that many overnight configurations I’ve seen on have no pannier racks and bags. A rear under seat pack that’s large enough can carry an ultralight tent and maybe an ultralight sleeping bag. A front handlebar bag could manage one or both. I do have a seat post rear bag, and I tried to fit my tent in it, but it was a tad too small.
  • Despite the nifty display of REI camping gear, I’m pretty pleased with the shopping I did putting my equipment together. My little $70 tent has been across Iowa and Death Valley and is holding up well. My sleeping bag that doesn’t roll up easily nor compress too well, is super comfortable in 40 degree weather. I’ll stick with what I have.
  • Joining a group of experienced bikepackers is a great way to ease into self-contained bike travel. There were little things I noticed that will aid me in future trips, like tent pegs that can be pounded into hard ground. It’s also enlightening and inspirational to hear experienced bike travelers talk about some of their trips. I stumbled upon this group by googling “bikepacking Southern California”. Worked like a charm. Give it a try.

Happy Fathers Day! Episode 1 Chainwheel Diaries Podcast is Live!

It’s taken a few months and many hours but the first episode of Chainwheel Diaries Podcast is now live. My first guest is Colleen Ponzini, a bike traveler I met on a Death Valley tour in 2022. Colleen is a seasoned bike traveler, and recently rode with a small group from San Diego CA to Phoenix AZ along the Adventure Cycling Association’s Southern Tier route. She followed that with a fully-supported bike tour in Vietnam.

We explore how Colleen first got interested in bike travel and her first bike adventures. I think you’ll learn a lot from her experience and knowledge. Enjoy!

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Bikepacking May Not Be for Everyone
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