How to Plan a Bikepacking Route
If you haven’t heard the term “gravel” getting thrown around like wildfire already in the cycling scene, I’m sure you will soon. Even though folks have been riding bikes on rougher roads since the creation of bikes, it has now come to the forefront of the public eye. Gravel events, races, and campouts are becoming more and more popular, and now bikes are being engineered with these activities in mind to provide the most comfort, agility, and functionality. The Liv Devote is the ultimate companion for these adventures. With this bike, I have the ability and confidence to take on all of my bucket-list rides. All I have to do is plan the trip for us.
Caption: View of the Green River from Mineral Canyon, Grand County, Utah
Planning a bikepacking trip is a lot like planning a backpacking trip for two. The only real difference is that your partner is a bike, its means of survival is just tools and spare parts, and it can carry your gear for you! There are just three simple rules I like to follow to aim for a successful bikepacking career:
- Start small & simple and know your limits.
- Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.
- Be one with your bike: know how it works and how to make it fit.
Keeping these three guidelines in mind in all your planning will make for a safer ride which will reduce your stress of the uncertainty of riding on the roads less traveled.
Choosing a Route
The first major step to planning a bikepacking trip is figuring out the route. The logistics of your route will dictate what gear you will need, how much resource you need to carry versus how much you can resupply, and where you will sleep. Therefore, it is important to know your limits. How much riding do you want to do? How many days would you like to be out there? Are you happy with “backcountry” meals you must make yourself, or are you a gas station and café fanatic? Do you need a comfy bed and four walls to sleep in, or would you rather sleep under the stars?
For my trips, I tend to prefer complete self-reliance in the wilderness for at least 3-4 days. I love the idea of the ultimate social distancing by immersing myself in the expanses of the quiet, open backcountry. It is restorative and challenging all the same. So, I typically plan routes that involve packing everything I need to survive on my own without resupplying until returning to my car, or home, at the end of the trip. In order to find a route ideal for these circumstances, I use a combination of apps including Google Maps, RidewithGPS, Komoot, and Strava.
The beauty of apps like these is the library of routes provided by folks who have already rode in any given area. Of course, the ideal route for your interests aren't always readily available but usually one can at least piece together some segments made by others to form a longer route. If you can’t find a route or segment in the area, you can use Komoot to set up a route for you. All you have to do is choose your points of interest—where you want to start, sites you want to see—and it will plot a route to connect them. Not only that, you can set up a multi-day planner for the route and it will tell you what percentage of the route is going to be road, cycleway, gravel, singletrack, etc.
Caption: Screenshots of the ‘Explore Routes’ function of the greater Moab, Utah, area on the Strava application.
Strava has a “global heatmap” that reveals how trafficked a road is by their users globally, and it's safe to assume that the bolder highlighted roads are popular enough to trust riding. As you can see in the image above, even the wild desert of Southern Utah has some frequently traveled roads. Using the aerial satellite imagery on Google Maps, I am able to get a good look at the terrain I would be riding through. I can find a reasonably safe place to park off the highway near a facility like a park-and-ride or gas station, stretches of road where I would have access to naturally running water, areas that look best for setting up camp, short detours for scenic sites, and what major intersecting roads could take me into civilization in case of emergency.
Once I am confident in the route I want to take, I use Strava to draw out the route, save it to my phone for offline use, and also export it to my bike computer for routing while on the bike to save my phone battery. I like to make an assessment of the projected elevation profile of the entire route to make sure that there will be plenty of variety in long straights, steep switchbacks, and rolling hills. It keeps the riding interesting but I can admit I like flat routes too! I can be a lady of leisure. It really depends on how much riding I've done leading up to the trip. Although, the benefit of planning for 3-4 days, and leaving room for the unexpected or needed rest, is having the freedom to pace myself however I please.
Following my second guideline of “hoping for the best and planning for the worst”, I make sure to pack a waterproof map with all of this information just in case my devices die on me or my solar charger won’t function due to inclement weather. It’s especially important in these remote areas to have maps that will help you determine what kind of restrictions there are for use and recreation (i.e. parks maps, national forest maps, BLM maps, etc.). You may be required to have a recreation pass/permit or make a reservation. Some popular areas may even have entire booklets with maps, guidelines, and information about all the local sites, nature, history, and activities. It’s always helpful to check online bookstores, sporting goods stores, and travel sites, for resources. I also never start a route until I have thoroughly checked for road and facility closures. Even leading right up to the day of your ride, anything could have happened to wash out a road, close off a campground, or close a road for construction. It’s best to avoid having to turn around or detour mid-ride without a back-up plan.
What to Pack
Knowing the logistics of my route makes it easy to figure what to pack. If I'm packing for the dry desert and a whole lot of sun exposure, I'll take plenty of water to start with, a water filter for replenishing, sunscreen, and sandals to let my feet breathe off the bike. I always pack my first aid kit, cooking kit, and enough food to fuel the whole ride (and more), keeping in mind that I would be burning way more calories than I would be if I were hiking for 3-4 days, and I could end up being out there longer than planned. If I can replenish water for cooking en route, I will stick to packing more dehydrated foods that will pack lighter and tighter in my bike packs but would still be edible if I didn’t have enough water for some reason. For sleeping in warm weather, I can manage with just a pad and quilt, but I like to have the option of privacy with a tent in case I have neighbors at camp, and it fits perfectly in my handlebar pack. With a river to rinse my sweaty clothes, I don’t really need to take much extra clothing besides a rain jacket, and warmer layers for sleeping.
Colder climates require more warm layers for on and off the bike, a denser sleeping system, and maybe even more spare clothing in a dry bag in case it gets wet and difficult to keep things dry.
Know Your Bike
Last but not least at all, I followed the third rule of knowing my bike. To be successful, one must be comfortable on their bike for these longer rides and know how to fix the most common problems like flat tires, broken spokes, dropped chains, and loose derailleurs. Most bike shops can help advise you on how to fit your bike properly by seat height/angle, handlebar reach/angle, and more. They can also give you tips on how to fix things and what you’ll need to do it. Your toolkit may vary based on the kind of bike you’re riding and what types of wheels you have. I packed all of the essential tools and spare parts for my Devote including lights, a multitool, a small bottle of sealant, CO2 cartridges, tire plugs, tire levers, spare tubes, bike pump, and a small roll of heavy-duty tape.
I am sure this all sounds like a lot to pack but it’s all a part of the fun to get creative about how you can pack your bike packs. Every trip is different and requires more, or less, depending on the circumstances. You can make it what you want in order to stay within your limits. Pedal assured that preparing for every bikepacking trip only gets easier as you get more acquainted with your bike and your needs on the road. I felt overly prepared for my first trip and I still learned many hard lessons like realizing that I should have brought electrolyte tablets because water alone doesn’t do enough for hydration when I am burning so much energy on the bike.
I consider myself simply an adventure cyclist. Whether I’m riding a road bike or a gravel bike, my intent for pedaling is to explore at a higher heart rate, faster than I would on foot, and much slower than I would in a car. I have come a long way from commuting to college classes on a beach cruiser 8 years ago. If I could go from cycling only a few miles in a day on flat pavement to riding dozens of miles over rough roads in the middle of nowhere for multiple days, I truly believe that anyone can. There is great reward in facing the challenges of self-sufficiency in the wild. Even in our failures, lessons are learned, and we feel empowered to try again.
You are welcome to watch my ongoing journey with adventure on Instagram (@rockcognoscente) and with The Black Foxes (@the_blackfoxes) at www.theblackfoxes.com.