Bikepacking, a growing adventure sport, combines the exhilaration of bicycling with the freedom of backpacking. Here’s everything you need to know before giving it a spin.
My legs moved in a slow, steady rhythm as I pedaled up the dirt road to the top of a red-rock mesa. A friend was a dozen yards ahead, setting her own pace. When we reached the crest of the hill we stopped, hearts racing, to take in the view. Forty-five miles into our journey, the sandstone pinnacles of Zion National Park extended all the way to the horizon. There were no other people or buildings in sight, and everything we needed for three self-guided days of adventuring was loaded onto our bikes.
Cinematic moments like this are among the reasons bikepacking — a cycling-meets-backpacking adventure sport — is gaining popularity. “The term can refer to any multiday, off-pavement bike trip — from self-sufficient to fully supported and anything in between,” says Mark Sevenoff, co-owner of Utah based outfitter Western Spirit Cycling Adventures.
For biking enthusiasts or eager beginners who’ve previously stuck to day trips, bikepacking opens up opportunities for longer routes that require overnight stops. But before setting out, you’ll need to choose your gear, route, and accommodation carefully.
Your bike is your most important piece of equipment, since you’ll be spending dozens of miles in the saddle. Gravel bikes are ideal for trips with a variety of road surfaces, since they excel on both dirt and pavement; experienced riders can even tackle some single track, where the trail is about the width of a bike’s tires. Mountain bikes, which have better suspension and, often, larger tires, are superior for routes on which riders have to navigate obstacles and rougher terrain.
In traditional bike touring, riders use panniers (or side bags) to tote their belongings. These are great for smooth rides, but purpose-built bikepacking bags are lighter and don’t affect the handling of the bike on rough terrain. If you’re camping, you’ll also need a tent, a sleeping bag and pad, a stove, water bottles, navigation supplies, a first-aid kit, and a filtration device.
When choosing your route, it’s worth consulting bikepacking.com. This comprehensive database is searchable by destination, bike type, and length of trip, and each route gets a dedicated page with key stats (distance, difficulty, and so on), plus a write-up and photos.
Travelers who want to explore restaurants and taprooms might find Vermont’s Green Mountain Gravel Growler Trail particularly appealing. The five-day, 255-mile ride combines bucolic gravel riding with stops at some of the state’s best breweries. An advanced option is the Aquarius Trail Hut System. Traversing 190 miles in Utah, from the pine forests near Bryce Canyon to the sandstone domes by Escalante, the route connects five backcountry huts made from shipping containers that are equipped with beds and showers — and refrigerators stocked with fresh food.
As bikepacking becomes more popular, more operators are offering trips for a variety of skill levels. The five-day Pedal to Backcountry Hot Springs option from Western Spirit (from $1,495) immerses travelers in the back roads of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. A support vehicle carries the gear, and at evening campsites riders are rewarded with hot meals and cold beers.
High elevation makes biking more strenuous, so it helps that the High Altitude Bikepacking trip from Four Corners Guides (from $730) can be customized according to riders’ fitness and experience levels. Expert guides share insights about the area — along with their best tricks — as groups rip around single-track mountain bike trails in Colorado’s San Juan National Forest.
Another relaxed option: the inn-to-inn Katy Trail Tour from the Adventure Cycling Association (from $2,199), an eight-day gravel ride through Missouri farmlands. During stops in towns like Rocheport, riders can stretch their legs and eat lunch at local cafés.
A version of this story originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline A Wild Ride.