This article appeared in Wired on July 25, 2020
By Stephanie Pearson
CYCLING SALES SHOT through the roof in April, topping $1 billion in the US and marking the first time the nine-figure digit has been reached in a single month. The good news is that more people are riding bikes. The bad news is that your favorite local trails and routes are likely jammed with riders. That’s why there’s no better time than now to use your two wheels to get out of Dodge.
Delve into online forums about bikepacking and you’ll quickly learn there are numerous opinions on how to do it right. Some cyclists prefer credit card dining and bivvying in the nearest ditch for sleep. Others add extra ounces for the luxury of a hot meal in the morning and a nylon roof over their head at night. No matter the style, there are certain things to consider, especially this summer, before safely cycling into the hinterlands.
“Start with an overnight,” advises Lael Wilcox, the ultra-endurance cycling legend who has raced everywhere from Kyrgyzstan to Kansas and is currently cycling every road in her home state of Alaska. “If you know the terrain before you go, that takes one element out of the puzzle-solving.”
For a full gear list we tapped Jeremy Kershaw, a registered nurse and founder of Heck of the North Productions, who has been organizing events like the Heck Epic, a three-day bikepacking race in northern Minnesota, for more than a decade. A veteran of tough events like the Arrowhead 135 and Tour Divide, Kershaw has pedaled thousands of miles to hone his systems. “Bikepacking is a tinkerer’s dream,” says Kershaw. “The pros and cons of each piece of equipment can be dramatic, but that’s part of the fun.”
As for choosing a ride, “it’s not the sexiest aspect of a bike, but comfort is number one to consider when bikepacking,” says Kershaw. “Make sure your bike feels good for several hours loaded. Test runs are really, really important.”
Lael Wilcox is riding the new Specialized Diverge through Alaska, but she recommends that if you can’t find or afford a fancy new bike, find a sturdy, used 1990s-era mountain bike with 26-inch wheels and two-inch tires, like a used Rockhopper or Stumpjumper. “Those old bikes are amazing,” she says. If you aren't having any luck digging up an old dinosaur, the online bike store The Pro's Closet sells gently used newer models at a steep discount. The shop has roughly 900 bikes in stock at all times and ensures that all have a thorough 141-point inspection and servicing and come with a 30-day no-questions-asked return policy.
Here's what Kershaw recommends you pack for your first—and every—long-distance adventure.
A Bike Computer
We like the Garmin Edge 1030 Plus ($600 at Garmin, $600 at REI, $600 at Backcountry). The size of a deck of cards, Garmin’s updated Edge debuted in June and is packed with excellent long-haul features. The Garmin's touchscreen navigation allows you to easily toggle between maps and data, even with a wet glove, and its 24 hours of battery life can be doubled by purchasing an additional Garmin Charge Power Pack ($130 at Garmin, $130 at Backcountry). For added safety, it uses incident-detection sensors to detect a crash, then sends an alert to a preprogrammed list of contacts. It also has a feature called LiveTrack, which adds real-time location viewing so fellow riders can track you if you split up, and select friends can follow your route.
“The ultralight tent versus bivvy versus hammock debate is endless,” says Kershaw. “With a bivvy or hammock you don’t have to deal with poles, but ultralight tents offer a dry place to read at night.”
We like the Copper Spur bikepacking tent from Big Agnes ($400 at Big Agnes, $400 at Amazon). With shorter tent poles that collapse to 12 inches, a footprint that extends beyond the door to allow space to take off bike shoes, and a dedicated storage pocket for a sweaty helmet, this roomy 2 pound, 12-ounce, three-season, one-person tent is worth the extra weight. Plus it jams into a more rugged and versatile stuff sack specially designed for strapping onto your bike.
“Go as light as you want to," says Kershaw. "There’s such a wide variety of temperature ranges out there.” Most important, he says, is to find a sleeping bag or pad that packs down and keeps you warm.
We like this bag design from Nemo Equipment. Offered in both men’s Kayu ($340 and up at Backcountry, $340 at Moosejaw) and women’s Aya versions ($340 at Backcountry, $340 at Moosejaw), the bag is a plush, ultralight option with 800-fill-power down that’s treated with Nikwax waterproofing. Its contoured hood, zipping “thermogills,” and a waterproof footbed allow for maximal comfort and temperature regulation. The bag comes in 15- and 30-degree versions, and regular and long sizes. Pair it with the 180-gram insulated Zenbivy Light Mattress Pad ($159 at Zenbivy).
He also offers this expert advice: If your route is remote, pack a filtration system. We can recommend the Grayl GeoPress Water Purifier ($70 at REI, $70 at Backcountry, $70 at Moosejaw). It looks like an insulated water bottle, but this slick system can render up to 5 liters of water potable in a mere minute. Fill the outer shell with water, then press down with the inner shell. The dirty water is then forced through a purifying cartridge at the bottom of the bottle. The resulting ion exchange permanently binds virus, protozoa, and bacteria, while the activated carbon in the filter absorbs chemicals, heavy metals, flavors, and odors.
“Bring a tiny stove and a little tiny cook kit for cooking breakfast, then credit card camp for the rest of the day,” advises Kershaw.
For making that first meal of the day, we like the MSR Pocket Rocket II ($45 at REI, $45 at Amazon). Screw this featherweight burner onto an isobutane-propane-fueled stove, and it boils water in less than three and a half minutes.
We can recommend Patagonia Provisions 2-Day Camp Meal Kit for Two ($89 at Patagonia, $89 at REI). These nutrition-packed, responsibly sourced, easy, fast, and delicious meals for two adults can be prepped in 10 minutes. All you need is your camp stove and some water. The box comes with packets of savory seeds and a stash of organic energy bars. For an alternative to sugary-sweet energy drinks, try OM Mushroom Superfood energy drink, made from cordyceps fungi, which is purported to optimize oxygen uptake at high altitudes. ($25 for 100 grams, $20 at Thrive Market.)
“Frame bags are great, just make sure you load up and see how your bike feels before you go," says Kershaw. "If a strap is rubbing, that annoyance will be compounded when it starts to rain.”
We like the Cedaero Mountain Werks Waxed Canvas Collection. The small Minnesota company, founded by veteran pack maker Dan Cruikshank, specializes in custom frame bags. However, it also has a ready-made variety of bombproof waxed canvas bags, like the Tank Top Cedar Waxwing ($65 at Cedearo), that fit most frames.
“There are a few iron-hided riders who just go with jean shorts and underwear,” says Kershaw. “This style is only for the seasoned cyclist who has their saddle-butt interface dialed and the miles to prove it.” Kershaw prefers a non-bib short to more easily handle nature’s call while riding, and he recommends packing an extra-light pair of running shorts to sleep in or use while doing laundry and sending postcards while sipping a post-ride brew.
For maximal comfort I especially like a couple of women's pieces: Tonik Cycling’s Beth Short Sleeve Cycling Jersey ($95 at Tonik) and Rapha & Outdoor Voices High-Waisted Padded Short ($110 at Rapha, $110 at Outdoor Voices). Quality companies are moving toward designing kits geared toward a wider array of body sizes. Tonik took the elastic off the bottom of its roomy Beth jersey to let it breathe and added three ample pouches and a zippered pocket in the rear. Rapha partnered with Outdoor Voices to create a women’s line of cycling gear that maximizes style and high performance.
Giro’s Manta Lace Cycling Shoes ($140 at Backcountry.com, $140 at Amazon, $140 at Sun & Ski) for women hit the perfect note between performance and comfort: The breathable microfiber upper keeps the stink out while simultaneously giving the foot structure and support to avoid hot spots and cramps. The low-tech lacing system keeps the foot snug and minimizes breakage of irreplaceable parts on the trail, and its rugged outsole makes hike-a-bikes tolerable even on the toughest days.
Kershaw’s fix-it kit includes a mini Leatherman ($40 at Amazon, $40 at Huckberry, $40 at REI) with pliers to fix cables, a quick link/extra chain link, a patch kit for fixing flats, an extra tube (or two, depending on the route), a tire boot for repairing a sidewall cut on tire, a small pump. a set of extra brake pads, a tire lever, and extra batteries for the GPS unit.
To treat the small scrapes and aches, Kershaw packs an antibiotic ointment, several large Band-Aids or 2-inch bandages, cloth tape, and ibuprofen. He also never leaves home without a bug net, headlamp, sunscreen, and lots of Voile straps ($4 at Voile Straps). These brilliant orange, perforated polyurethane strips with clips were originally designed to haul skis, but they work perfectly for holding a tent tight to the handlebars.