With countless Insta-posts of lonely plains, wild campsites, and thousands of miles on the road – you could be forgiven for seeing bikepacking as a difficult pursuit. Route builder and gravel adventurer Erwin Sikkens is here to show you the other side of that coin, with a few lifehacks to simplify your experience.
Frame: Cannondale Topstone
Groupset: GRX Mechanical 2x12
Tires: Schwalbe G-One Overland Tubeless
Helmet: Lazer Genesis
Shoes: Shimano RX8 Gravel
Give bikepacking a Google and you’ll find a wealth of how to’s, how not to’s, how some do’s and how no one should do, ever. Packing lists. Inspiration pieces. Best bike lists. It’s all out there, and then some. Back when I started going on bikepacking adventures, things were a little different. I did some thinking – not too much – grabbed the gear I thought I needed, packed my paper map, and went for it.
Every journey comes with its own hard-but-fair learning opportunities that I wouldn’t trade for the world. These first trips taught me everything I needed to know about bikepacking. Most importantly: I survived each one of them! In fact, I enjoyed them so much that I still bikepack on a regular basis.
I'm sharing my two cents after years of cycling adventure and lessons learned. A few lifehacks I picked up on the road to make your life that much easier while plotting your grand adventure.
Lifehack 1: Keep it simple
In my humble opinion, the key to a successful bikepacking experience is all about mindset. The worst thing you can do is overcomplicate things or overthink the process until it crumbles under the weight of expectation – like a Christmas party that just has to be fun. Surprise: The more you stress, the more stressful your trip will be. My advice: Take a breath and relax. You will be fine, regardless of how many mistakes you make.
Lifehack 2: Don’t overthink packing
The first big thing you’ll need to think about is your travel companion: your bike. Once you’ve chosen your bike, it’s time to find suitable bags for the bike and the trip.
You can go bikepacking with any kind of bike. Gravel. Road. Even a city bike. And for each bike, there are different types and sizes of bags depending on a lot of factors – think frame size, mounts, racks, et cetera. Here’s a simple truth: Your bags define how much stuff you can bring.
You may worry about whether you’re bringing enough stuff. Here’s the thing. Even with a Mary Poppins-sized bag, you’re always going to forget something or pack things you didn’t need in the first place. As you ride, you’ll get to know what you need for any type of journey.
Just remember, it’s not about perfection. It’s about taking an athletic approach to a holiday with a hint of adventure.
Lifehack 3: It’s a holiday, so act accordingly
Treat your bikepacking trip like you would any holiday. Consider things that make you happy, such as choosing a location you love, and doing fun stuff along the way. Take time to relax and enjoy the food and drink wherever you may be. Especially if it’s your first bikepacking trip, the best way to go is to make life easy for yourself.
Think about things like finding nice weather and provisions along the way. Equally important when planning your trip is to remember that bikepacking is not all about long days in the saddle or putting in the distance. Bikepacking is being out and about for any length of time, however far your journey may be. Even if your days in the saddle are relaxed, that’s fine. It’s your holiday, so act accordingly.
Lifehack 4: Sleeping in a hotel still makes it bikepacking
You may be aware of the increasing number of bikepacking races out there. I’ve entered two such ultra-cycling events along the way – and didn’t finish either of them.
Sleeping is always an important part of anyone’s day, doubly so if your days are filled with cycling. Ultra-races are known for being won through sleep deprivation. One thing I learned during my GranGuanche and Atlas Mountain Race attempts is that you can sleep or take a quick nap anywhere. I’ve slept in the dirt of the desert and busy town squares – sleep is sleep, no matter where you are.
My latest trip brought me to Spain’s Andalucía. And this time around, it was not about racing, skipping sleep or relying on power naps. It was on my terms. I would decide how back-to-basics or luxurious it would be. If anyone tells you differently about any race, don’t take them too seriously. Sleeping in a hotel still counts as a bikepacking trip.
During my trip to Spain, I tried it all – sleeping in everything from tents to refugios – remote mountain shelters – to hotels. During this last trip, I stayed in hotels more often than sleeping outdoors. Does that make my bikepacking trip any less adventurous? I don’t think so.
Lifehack 5: Eat what you like, when you like
What to eat and drink during a bikepacking adventure is mostly defined by personal preference. Most important, however, is that you bring some emergency food with you just in case you can’t, or simply choose not to, stop at bars, cafes, or restaurants. This could be due to opening hours, an isolated backcountry location, or plain pickiness. That said, you’ll find food in most civilized places. Even in the most remote parts of Southern Spain, most sleepy villages will have some sort of general store – and there will always be a local bar where you can enjoy a little snack with your beer.
On one occasion, we rode into the last town of the day before sleeping out in the wild and discovered there was no food whatsoever for sale. The town’s only hotel was closed, and the only bar had no menu. After explaining our situation, the bar owner rushed to his house across the street and returned with a few oven-heated pizzas he’d bought in a supermarket earlier. He charged us next to nothing – it just goes to show there are good people everywhere. The lesson: Don’t stress about food. There’s always something around. But always have some reserves, just in case!
Lifehack 6: Stay flexible
Here’s a rule of thumb: It’s wise to plan and know your route, sleep stops, and resupply points – but the unexpected is always just around the corner – a road closure, a chance encounter, et cetera. Ergo, you can’t plan for everything.
In Spain, we noticed that our party-pace speed meant that we weren’t covering much ground every day, which increased the risk of the forecasted bad weather hitting us somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Rather than letting this happen, we rescheduled our route so we’d be back in a reasonably big town to sleep in a hotel. Moments like that, when the rain does come and you’re safe and sound due to some split-second decision, simply feel triumphant.
Lifehack 7: No time like the present
The best advice I can give you about bikepacking is to go out and do it. You can read and prep all you want, but as soon as you’ve got your gear set, the best thing is to saddle up and experience what bikepacking is all about. Start small and do an overnighter. Or go big and ride your bike to far-away places like I did when I rode from the Netherlands to Rome some years ago.
You can test your camping gear at a safe distance from home or sleep in a B&B or a hotel. If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can also bivvy – bivouac – out in the wild. It’s about getting out there and experiencing the ultimate freedom of cycling, multiplied by the holiday factor of waking up in strange places.
Just get those wheels rolling, and soon enough you’ll figure out your favorite setup and rig and make whatever changes you want along the way. As I said before, it’s not about having everything perfectly dialed in from the word go. It’s about going out and finding the experience. I hope you have a great one!