Always wanted to give bikepacking a crack? Michael turned his hiking prowess towards his two-wheeled steed and learnt heaps right away.
I’ve been rolling around on two wheels for the majority of my life, but it wasn’t until recently that I finally strapped sleeping equipment to my bike and entered the world of bikepacking.
For the last few years I’ve had the multi-day hiking bug, so I was interested to see how the experience of bikepacking would compare.
Choosing a route was easy, with the nearby Brisbane Valley Rail Trail (BVRT) offering 161km of uninterrupted gravel bliss.
Over two days I learned a lot about bikepacking (with an enormous amount still to learn), including these 12 lessons that will hopefully help you if you’re setting out on a trip soon.
1. You Don’t Need Bikepacking Bags
I love the look of a bike fully laden with bikepacking specific bags. But after checking a few online stores, I quickly found out that these bags are expensive. Like upwards of $500 for a complete setup of a bar, frame and seat post bag from a reputable brand like Topeak, Restrap, Blackburn or a local Aussie company.
After reading about Tom Connell’s bikepacking setup, I took his advice to heart and realised I just needed to use straps to get whatever I had wherever I could on the bike.
I bought a few of these $5 voile-type straps from Bunnings and they worked a treat. I used two to secure my tent to the handlebar, and another one to strap my sleeping mat to the top tube. The straps held everything firm, even over rough terrain, and were easy to adjust.
If I really wanted to I could have also strapped my sleeping bag on the frame somewhere, but I had enough space in my backpack for that. About that…
2. Riding With a Backpack Isn’t the Worst
It isn’t the worst thing in the world if you have to go bikepacking with a backpack.
Really, it isn’t. Even if every online blog will try and talk you out of it.
Sure, it’s better to have as much weight as possible on the bike, but if needed, a backpack works just fine. It will get you on the trail and that’s the important thing.
I used my 45L hiking backpack for the trip and inside I had my sleeping bag, some food, warm clothes and my camera. It was nowhere near full, so for my next trip I’ll look to secure some more gear on my bike and move to a lighter backpack.
Read more: Essential Gear for Bikepacking Adventures
3. Any Bike Will Do (Almost)
Have a look at almost any cycling website nowadays and you’ll notice a ridiculous amount of gravel marketing. From gravel-specific bike pumps, to bar tape with added cushion for the bumps, you could easily be misled into thinking it takes a $10,000 setup just to ride your bike on well-groomed dirt.
But forget the marketing, because you can survive and enjoy a bikepacking trip on practically any sort of bike.
Apart from a few rough patches and one long climb, the BVRT is smooth and flat. I was on my Giant XTC hardtail but I could have easily completed the ride on my flat bar city clunker. Sure it would’ve been a bit less comfortable, but it would’ve got the job done.
Not every route is going to be as nice as the BVRT, but if you pick a pleasant route, there’s no reason you can’t have a bikepacking adventure with any type of bike.
4. Protect Thy Bottom
I remember prior to my first long multi-day hike, I’d never been troubled by blisters. Then in the first 5km of that hike both my feet ignored that precedent and ended up causing me more problems than an undercooked dagwood dog at the Ekka. I was using the same socks and shoes I’d used previously, I have no idea why it happened. Of course, I didn’t have bandaids or anti-blister cream with me, so I had to grind it out.
Prior to this bikepacking trip, I thought my bottom was all ready for the extended time in the saddle. I cycled regularly in the lead up and I had decent knicks with a chamois pad.
Maybe it was the added weight of the backpack, or maybe it was because I didn’t have gravel specific bar tape. Whatever it was, my derrière ended up awfully chafed very early on in the proceedings. It meant I had to spend a lot of time riding standing up to take the pressure off.
Big lesson learned, your bottom during bikepacking is like your feet during hiking, look after it. For next time I’ll invest in some chamois cream or worst (cheapest) case scenario, lather up in petroleum jelly.
5. And Protect Thy Bike
While doing some research on the campsites of the BVRT, I came across a story of a bloke who’d his bike stolen during the night. He had it lying beside his tent and two guys came out of the darkness, grabbed the bike, chucked it in the back of their ute and were gone before he knew what was happening.
Huh, I hadn’t even thought about what to do with my bike during the night. My little tent can barely fit myself and a backpack, let alone a burly 29er.
My solution was to bring along a D-lock and cable which I looped through my bike and the tent poles. If someone tried to snatch my bike, they were going to end up dragging my tent along behind them.
The campsites of the BVRT are in small towns, very visible from main roads. Bike thiefs are less likely to be encountered in the true wilderness, but it still pays to think about bringing along a lock or something you can use to secure your bike for peace of mind at night.
The lock also came in handy when I was rolling through small towns and stopping for food. More on those alluring small town bakeries later.
6. Cover Your Seat Overnight
As I was riding during Queensland’s one week of actual winter, with overnight temperatures close to zero, I wrapped my tent footprint over my bike to ward off dew overnight.
This strategy worked a treat and my bike was nice and dry in the morning, except for the one area the footprint didn’t reach; my seat.
Next time I’ll make sure my seat is covered. Starting off the morning with a soggy, damp bottom was a tad unpleasant.
7. Don’t Go Full Wilderness Straight Away
I probably sound like a nagging parent writing this point but stick with me.
Unlike hiking where you’re in control of one major variable (your body), bikepacking adds another, sometimes mechanically unreliable variable (the bike).
Plus, there’s the other unknown element of not knowing how far you will be able to go in a day fully loaded down. I initially had plans to do a much longer ride than the BVRT for my first trip which I luckily shelved, as I would have struggled immensely.
So until you’re completely confident in your bike and your ability to knock out the kilometres, start with a manageable route not too far away from civilisation and work your way up.
8. Bakeries Are Easier To Come By
You cover more distance bikepacking in comparison to hiking, which means you’re more likely to stumble across small towns and bakeries.
Over its 161km length, the BVRT cruises through a dozen towns, which means every 20km or so is another opportunity to top up the energy supplies with a delicious baked good.
It’s for sure more satisfying than squishy bananas and dehydrated meals.
9. Taking Photos Can Be a Pain
Apart from a few quick phone snaps, I have never tried taking cycling photos. I took my camera along on the BVRT to grab some pics and quickly discovered how much of a mission it is to get cycling photos.
I was riding solo so to get photos with my bike in it, I would strategically place my camera in the bush, set the interval timer to take 20 shots at a 3 second interval, and head off riding.
Most of the results were pretty, uh, awful. I would either be way out of frame, or in my rush to set up the camera, the tripod would move around and I would get an artistic shot of the sky.
There’s definitely an art to taking photos while riding solo. Next time, unless I was in spectacular terrain, I would leave the camera at home and enjoy the weight and frustration savings.
If you’re planning on taking photos to capture your ride, bring a tripod, plenty of patience and make sure you know how interval timer shooting works on your camera.
10. It’s Easy to Overpack Spares
My bike has tubeless tyres but I still took along two spare tubes because…well, just in case I ran into an issue.
I also took along a CO2 inflator and a mini pump because…well, it can’t hurt to have a backup inflation method, right?
Bikes can be high maintenance princesses which means it can be easy to overpack thinking about every worse case scenario that could occur.
There’s no golden rule about what you should and shouldn’t take, but for my next trip I’ll be paring back the spares. Apart from the essentials, like a multi-tool and a patch kit, if I didn’t use it on the first trip I won’t be taking it on the next trip.
11. Downhills Are a joy
Hiking downhill can sometimes be more strenuous and painful than going uphill. While your lungs and heart may enjoy a brief respite, your legs are punished on particularly steep descents.
Thankfully on a bike the downhills provide a chance to roll along and recover. It sure does feel great to finally be able to enjoy the fruits of an uphill labour.
12. Bikepacking Opens Up New Frontiers
That heading sounds super cliché but it’s true!
On a normal multi-day hike you can cover anywhere in the vicinity of 10-30km depending on the terrain.
With pedal power you can easily double or triple that figure,
Instead of needing a week to traverse a route or explore a national park, you can now boost around and explore the area in a weekend. Oh, and you can go places 4WDs can’t go. You just need the trail to be rideable.
If that has you convinced to give bikepacking a crack, check out more routes around Australia and get pedalling!