Five tips for bikepacking beginners

This may seem obvious but not planning your route could be catastrophic. Gone are the days where we spend the majority of our time, face down looking at a map, reading the stars or the height or the sun to lead us home (If you can do this, more power to you!) Applications such as Ride With GPS, Komoot and Strava offer route planning services that allow you to plan a route in minutes.

Personally, as a recent convert. Komoot is my mapping service of choice. The ease at which the application allows you to plan a route is second to none (This is not a paid advertisement). The major high-5 feature for me is the ‘Sport’ selection. Choosing your ‘Sport’ whilst planning a ride allows the automated service to choose the paths accordingly. ‘Sport’ selections such as road and gravel cycling, mountaineering and hiking will all throw up different route choices, as you would expect. 

Knowledge is power. 

Assuming you’re reading this as a fellow cyclist, the type of ride you choose will depend on what bike you have and the riding you are used to. No one wants to turn down an unknown single track to be faced by downhills in abundance, with wheel buckling stones the size of small cars on a brand new aero speed machine with 25mm slicks.

As an example, my route planning process is as follows; 

  • Select Sport – MTB, Gravel or Road.
  • Select Fitness level.
  • Pinpoint the ride start location. 
  • Pinpoint the ride end location.
  • Edit the middle of the route to suit my riding and to pinpoint any specific locations I want to see along the way. Coffee, cake and architecture are normally my priority.
  • Save the route and have a break. With a fresh mind and eyes, go back through the route and make changes should I see fit. 

I have done it and if you’re reading this as a fellow cyclist, I am going to say there is a good chance you have too. Setting off on a bike ride with a squeaky chain might be up there (along with loud eaters in the cinema) as being the most annoying sound in the world. The high pitched, face scrunching, sound of forgetfulness will not only remove all the enjoyment from the first pedal strokes of the adventure but if you’re cycling with friends, may also destroy your friendship.

If you look after your bike, the bike will look after you.

Clean your bike after every ride, or at least every every second ride. Doing this will not only allow your bike to run smoother and longer but it will look better! it will also give you a chance to get up close and personal with every aspect of the bike. If there is a defect, there is a good chance you will see it.  

Whilst cleaning the bike you can do some quick checks; 

  • Are the tires in good enough condition? 
  • Are the brakes in good condition? 
  • Do the Gears change smoothly and without jumping? 

This list can go on and on. Thankfully, we now live in the Youtube age. I am pretty sure this website holds the secrets to eternal life, somewhere hidden within the puppy and people falling over videos. If you’re not sure, look it up. 

Invest the time to learn how to care for your bike in the comfort of your home before you’re stuck on a mountain.

Learning to look after your bike is a great way to prepare yourself for a bikepacking trip. Things such as indexing your gears, tightening your brakes, changing a tire or even replacing a spoke may seem like issues only a trained mechanic can handle but in reality, these issues should not be out of reach if you’re looking to embark on a bikepacking adventure. 

Don’t get me wrong, I still use a trained mechanic when I need a full service and when I get stumped, but knowing things such as the previously mentioned gives me peace of mind when out on the road.

Packing for a bikepacking trip is nerve raking. I still remember the feeling I had when I packed for the first trip and it was exciting, terrifying and confusing. 

Make a list, double it, add some more then, remove most of it.

Once again, the great 20th century time consumer, which is the internet, will fill you with ideas, what to take and what not to take. At the end of the day, the only person who really knows, is you. You are the one undertaking the ride.

Assuming you have planned the route and you know how many stops you have along the way, you can pack accordingly. For example, if you’re traveling from one side of the UK to another you don’t have to pack anymore than two days’ food on the bike, if that. Compare that to cycling across the Nullabor Desert or across the Atlas Mountains, your itinerary should depend on the ride location and condition. 

My bikepacking setup consists of the following; 

  • Sleeping Equipment. (Tent, sleeping mat, etc.) 
  • Cooking and Eating Equipment (Camping stove, utensils, etc.) 
  • Bike Spares, Electrics & First Aid (Inner tubes, pumps, chargers and cables, plasterers and bandages, etc.) 
  • Food (evening meals and daily snacks, etc.) 
  • Clothes (waterproofs, spare clothes and evening clothes, etc.) 

As mentioned previously, this changes from ride to ride and has naturally adapted over time as I have done more bikepacking. Originally, I carried a lot more spare clothes, now I have removed these and utilise the space for more food, winner! 

Making a list of all your items and braking the list down into three parts will really help you out. 

  • Essential Items. (Sleeping, etc.) 
  • Non Essential Items. (Spare clothes, etc.)  
  • Luxury Items. (Books, etc.)

Sometime in March 2020, I was returning from a ride on my road bike. There was nothing special about the ride, I put down some good miles and the sun was shining. However, around 10 miles from my house, I climbed straight onboard the Bonk train. 

I managed to get to the end of my road, feeling weak and shaky, I stumbled into the shop. Entering into my own supermarket sweep edition of the Bonk, I grabbed a can of coke, a pack of jelly babies and a magnum ice cream and swayed out of the door. I sat outside next to my bike, much to the amusement of the bewildered members of the public and a dog with a stare of acknowledgement. I consumed the lot. Then and only then, was then ready to embark on the three minute ride home. 

This story is nothing new to anyone who is into endurance sports. The sight of the Brownlee brothers crossing the line in arms is an image that will stay with most people forever.

The bonk is real, and it will get you. 

Managing your calorie intake comes with practise and knowing your own limits. The general rule of thought however, is to eat and drink before you need it. This is all made easier now if you’re using a heart rate monitor and a GPS unit such a Wahoo. This will tell you during your ride how many calories you have burnt, you need to replace them all if not, a good portion of these. However for those without such things a few tricks I use to remember; 

  • Eat and drink something every 30 minutes. 
  • Eat and drink something after every big hill. 
  • Eat and drink something after every town, village or city. 

It is not easy to be constantly eating during the day, even more so when your only consumption is coming from energy bars or gels. Your stomach will not thank you for it after a long ride. A varied, sensible diet is essential. 

A few good foods and drinks I like to ride with / rescue me. 

  • Trail mix. Nuts and fruits are a miracle worker when you hear the Bonk train ahead. 
  • Chocolate Milk. Calories and liquid. The dream! 
  • Cereal Bars. Alongside energy bars such as Cliff Bars this gives you a good variety whilst on the road. 
  • Energy powder mixed with drinks. This makes the calorie consumption a lot easier to keep up with. 

I am pretty sure that Strava, however good the application is at tracking fitness and personal achievements, is the cause of a lot of stress within the cycling community. 

Guilty as charged! I often find myself cycling around the streets near my home after a ride, pushing up that number to make it a solid 60, 70 or 80 miles.

However, that is not Bikepacking or how I see it anyway. Bikepacking is an experience. The opportunity to ride through towns and villages far and wide, over moorland and mountain passes with eye watering views, meeting people for the first time and sharing a joke, eating something new (hopefully cake) and even filtering your own water from a stream. These are things that should be treasured and not flitted away down in the depths of statistician’s notebooks. 

Take your time, look around and embrace the moment. 

Now that I am a few rides into my bikepacking life, I know how many miles I can comfortably do a day and because of that I don’t put pressure on myself to achieve this. If I see something along the way that interests me, an old barn, a look out spot, a farmers market in a historic village, I will stop and enjoy the moment. I would advise you to do the same. It is a learning process, and a fun one. 

Obviously, if you’re taking part in a bikepacking ultra race, I don’t advise stopping at the farmers market at the historic village. The queue for the hand sanitiser at the entrance alone is a bit of a task. Then, the ordeal of reaching the coffee stall only to have to wait for the attendant to stop having a laugh with the people in the next stall before they serve you. It really won’t do your time any good.

However, if you’re just bikepacking. Do it. Enjoy yourself! Stop and laugh with the stall owners. That is why we all ride, isn’t it? 

What are your top tips?

I would love to hear your own tips for bikepacking or cycling in general. Leave them in the comments below. 

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Published by Samuel-James Wilson

👨‍🎓Studying Historic Building Conservation 🚵‍♂️ Bikepacking & Gravel Adventure Blogger 🙏 Kindness is Magic

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