Scientist, writer, environmentalist, cyclist and red-bearded philosopher Aidan Kempster is Riding For the Great Forest, Victoria’s next great national park. He knows a thing or two about bikepacking and how you should go about planning your first overnight bike trip…
Going camping on bikes is just about the greatest thing ever. It’s amazing to travel through nature on a bike, with all the time in the world and everything you need to be comfortable along for the ride. It can be daunting to embark for the first time, but it is so rewarding that if you’ve been thinking about it, I reckon you should definitely try it.
I created this step-by-step guide to convince you that virtually anyone can do this. I recommend taking a friend or two for your first trip so that you can learn together and share the load.
Step One: Get A Bike
Have you got a bike? Yes? Onto step two. No? That’s okay! Read through the following regardless and it might help you develop a picture of the sort of bike that is right for you. You need to be relatively comfortable for days at a time, you’ll want gears that’ll get you up hills without needing to push your bike, and I’d suggest tires that are comfortable on and off the tarmac.
Step Two: Service Your Bike
There’s nothing worse than having a bike fail on you. That will pretty much only happen if you mistreat it, push it beyond its limits or have an accident. Knowing the limits and maintenance requirements of your bike is important, a road bike won’t really handle rocks or mud but can probably do a little bit of gravel.
If you don’t know how to service your own bike that’s okay, taking it to a professional can give you peace of mind. Just make sure you tell them you’re planning to take it out for a few nights and don’t want any surprises, if they’re good mechanics they’ll take care of you.
This being said, while you don’t need to know how to completely service your bike you will need to know how to replace a tube and patch a flat. Knowing how to set the position of disc brakes is also useful. If you don’t know how to do these things go onto YouTube, or ask a friend or your mechanic to show you.
Beyond that the more you know the more likely you will be able to repair your bike should anything untoward go wrong, which becomes increasingly important the further away from assistance you are riding. For example, when Sam Mitchell rode the Canning Stock Route, he was carrying welding supplies in case he needed to repair his trailer because there was nobody else around who was going to do it for him.
Step Three: Plan Out Your Gear List
Will you be gone one night or ten? Will you sleep in a motel and eat at the pub or cook your own meals and camp in the bush? For the sake of my own sanity, I’m not going to explain how to stay in a motel and will continue under the assumption you’re planning to do the latter. In which case, the following items will be required.
1. Sleeping System
The easiest option is a sleeping bag, mat and tent. You may already have these items for camping or hiking. For your first trip just make sure you are warm and dry, don’t stress about shaving kilogrammes. There’s no need to buy a camping hammock or lightweight bivvy until you are sure you’ll make the most of it.
2. Cooking System
Cooking by campfire is great, although it can be enormously time-consuming, and when you are hungry after a long day riding and it’s raining, forget about it. Firing up a stove and having hot soup within five minutes is way more my cup of tea. Though many great meals have been eaten from the lids of trangias it’s also important to think about how you are going to eat/drink. Bringing a cup is always a good idea.
3. Spare Clothes
At a minimum you want one set of clothes for riding, and one for when you’re not. Pack for the weather, and be prepared for wet and cold. Beanies, scarves and gloves can make a big difference to warmth while taking up little room. If you’re planning to jump in a river and go swimming, or are expecting heavy rain then don’t forget to bring a towel.
4. Bike Repair Kit
Walking a bike thirty kilometres out of the forest because you got a flat tire is not anyone’s idea of a good day. If you have a serviced bike with reliable components, taking a spare tube, patch kit, tire levers, a pump and a set of alum keys is probably all you will need to do. There are all sorts of other tools you could take with you, but think about weight and how likely it is that you are actually going to need them. If you are travelling in a group it is important that every bike has its own repair kit, even if everything else is distributed.
Step Four: Trial Pack Your Bike
There are many ways to attach gear to a bicycle. People have been doing it for a hundred years or more. You don’t need fancy matching bags (except for being a legend on Instagram) and you don’t need panniers although both work. The goal is to make sure your sleeping gear and spare clothes stay dry, the bike is reasonably aerodynamic and your stuff is securely attached.
You can get creative with this, straps and racks and frame bags are all good options. I use an overnight bag for my cooking system which was salvaged from hard rubbish and my sleeping system is packed into a large lightweight compressible drybag. Once you have packed your bike once, you’ll be ready to go when you get the urge, rather than coming up with excuses.
Step Five: Imagine Yourself On The Open Road, Camping, Free…
This is an important and underrated step many guides overlook. Where do you want to be? Do you want to be riding up hills all day or sitting by a lake drinking tea and reading a book? Do you want to be rolling in a pack or grooving solo? You will only get out what you put in, and that also counts for snacks at the end of the day. You are allowed to pack fancy cheese, fairy lights and/or whisky. Keep in mind riding with a hangover is awful, I don’t encourage binge drinking but I do support hammock hanging.
Step Six: Choose A Route
I could write tonnes about this. Keep it simple. If you haven’t done this sort of thing before you’re probably not used to how difficult it can be to manoeuvre and pedal a loaded bike. You’re not going to be smashing land speed records. Don’t plan anything too tough for your bike, or anyone else in your party.
A winning choice for new riders is rail trails, they are reasonably flat, smooth, well connected with settlements and absent of cars. They also often link to train lines, so they are easy to meet at.
The route I took for ‘Road Bikes Off Road‘ is mostly sealed and otherwise good gravel. It will take a normal person a few days to ride, though a Mamil would knock it off in a day. If you don’t like traffic I would recommend taking a left off the Marysville Road just before you get to Narbethong and taking the Acheron Way back to Warburton, it’s then possible to backtrack the way you came to Lilydale.
Hot tip: Ride With GPS is a great online tool you can use to design your own route.
Step Seven: Plan Multiple Camp Options
This will help you adapt to circumstances. If it starts raining you might want to stop ASAP, or you might be having a cracker of a day and want to keep rolling past your planned site. Or it might all just be too hard and you’re ready to sleep after 10 kms…
That’s okay. If you have a few different sites in mind you can adapt as the day wears on. You might be like me, and okay to sleep pretty much anywhere when you’re tired. Or you might want to find that perfect spot by the river with the trees to hang your hammock. Try not to get stuck out riding into the night with no idea where you’re going to camp.
Step Eight: Food And Water
By now you’re probably hungry from reading 1000 words. You’re going to be a lot hungrier after cycling 50km in the sun. I primarily carry lightweight dried or tinned food, so I can avoid worrying about refrigeration and what doesn’t get eaten on one trip can stay in my bag until the next one. Like nearly everything else on this list, this is all based on personal preference.
- Snacks – Trail mix, dried fruit, chocolate, muesli bars etc. for during the day.
- Meals – Pasta, rice, lentils, soup, cous cous, etc. for the night.
- Breakfast – Cereal, bread, coffee etc. for the morning. But you’re on holidays, so you can have breakfast for dinner if you want too, I’m not the boss of you!
Things to think about are size, weight, energy content, the time something takes to cook, and how much water it will use up. Rice crackers are great, except for their size to energy ratio. Precooked dehydrated meals (with a DIY dehydrator) are an excellent way to eat lovingly prepared cuisine at camp. If you’re only going for one or two nights then making a meal with fresh ingredients is totally doable. Plan to eat a larger volume than you normally would, you’ll want it after a whole day riding.
My favourite lightweight easy meal for bike trips is pesto pasta. Pesto is super concentrated flavour, and angel hair pasta cooks with latent heat in a pot of boiled water. Stir in a tin of tuna or lentils and you’ve got a delicious balanced meal in under ten minutes.
Water is important. Water is life.
You need to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. You will also need water for cooking dinner and probably breakfast. That’s why it’s usually good to camp near water. I recommend carrying a minimum capacity of 3L and knowing where you’ll be able to top up. I have found there are ample fresh streams in the forest but make sure you have marked out a couple of places you’ll be able to top up on your route.
It is exceptionally useful to camp near water, so you have ample for cooking dinner, breakfast and then having a full supply when you start your day.
Keep in mind, you don’t need 5L of water to cook pasta, despite what the packet says. Not only will it use all of your fuel to bring it up to boiling but it’s an enormous expenditure of your most crucial resource and will likely reduce the amount available for coffee in the morning.
If you aren’t going to camp near water or you are unsure, definitely take this into account and consider increasing your capacity. You will be working hard, if you regularly drink 2-3L of water a day without exercising, you will be drinking more. Don’t underestimate your thirst. I said it before, I’ll say it again. Water is important. Water is life.
Step Nine: Repack Your Bike
You’re just about ready to go. You’ve got a route, you know where you’ll probably be camping, you’ve sorted your food and you’re pumped. Now it’s time to repack your bike and take careful note that you have everything you need. It’s also really important to know where you’re packing everything, so you can access it with ease.
Good ideas are to keep snacks accessible from the riding position and not to pack your spare tube at the bottom of your tent bag. Add in any last minute luxuries from your imagination session (e.g. I like Bluetooth speakers for blasting tunes) and tell a friend or loved one where you’re going.
Step Ten: Have Fun!
Every trip is different and there’s only so much you can plan for. You might want to upgrade to a slick lightweight kit after your ride, or you might want to put the bike in the shed and not use it for a while. You might want to write an epic tale of your adventure, or decide to ditch the city and live on your bike for a year!
If your adventure is in the Great Forest National Park we’d love to hear about it!
These kinds of trips aren’t to be taken lightly. Shit can get real. Check out these articles for more info on how to ensure you are adequately prepared. As always, if you’ve never done this before, go with someone who has or get in contact with your local National Parks authority.
This article was originally published on ridingforthegreatforest.com.
Feature photo by @mattiejgould