Cycling across Europe to the Middle East in 2007 gave me thousands of miles of on-road cycle touring experience. But in 2009 I quickly discovered that riding the dirt tracks of Africa was a whole different ball-game to the smooth, well-maintained asphalt of Europe I’d grown used to. A two-month off-road ride across Outer Mongolia in 2012 – where even African roads seemed luxurious by comparison – took it to another level altogether.
Since then, bikepacking has come of age, and more and more people are ditching panniers and trailers and setting off on dirt road adventures on nimble bikes with knobbly tyres and ultralight gear packed into frame bags, seat packs and handlebar rolls alone – including me.
Here, then, are ten handy tips from an old-timer if you’re in the planning stages of your own dirt-road bikepacking trip.
1. Choose The Right Bike For The Job
Off-road bikepacking comes with an entirely different set of requirements to classic road touring. So take a leaf out of the mountain-biking book and think of your bikepacking rig as a robust, trail-devouring machine that happens to carry some luggage.
Durable hand-built wheels with fat, knobbly tyres will stand up to the rigours of rough road riding and rightly prioritise traction over speed. Larger-diameter wheels will provide greater comfort and roll more easily over bumps (many of the bikepacking community’s favourite framesets will take 27.5- or even 29-inch wheels). Wide-range gearing and a comfortable and manoeuvrable handlebar position will serve you well in technical terrain. The modulation and control afforded by disc brakes makes them far more appropriate here than for road touring. Bar-ends (or drop bars) offer a greater variety of hand positions, and a good saddle – or even a suspension seatpost – further takes the edge off the bumps.
Suspension might improve handling and comfort, but at the expense of weight and mechanical simplicity. It also reduces frame space for luggage and removes several extra mounting options up front. In most cases it’s better to run bigger tyres at a lower pressure, wear padded shorts, and HTFU.
2. Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS)
Your bike’s capabilities and resilience will be pushed far more on the demanding terrain away from roads. So when looking at parts and components, it makes sense to get the most durable you can – just as with building a world touring bike.
However, ‘most durable’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘most expensive’. Above a certain level, the benefits of upgrading generally become about performance in competitive scenarios. That’s why a lot of adventure and touring bike builders would choose a Shimano Deore 9-speed drivetrain over a 12-speed XTR equivalent costing five times as much.
It’s wise to do this while avoiding over-complicated and untested technology where possible. In the developing world in particular, flashy new gizmos are likely to prove irreparable, so common wisdom advises you to stick to what’s widely available and easy to fix.
3. Be At One With Your Inner Bike Mechanic
Your super-reliable high-performance bikepacking rig is likely – somewhere, somehow – to break. Murphy’s Law dictates that this will happen several days’ ride from the nearest bike shop. Best, then, to accept the inevitable and plan for it.
It’s impossible to cater for every possible failure, of course, but you can at least pack a lightweight but comprehensive toolkit. This should include standard touring essentials, plus tools specific to any unusual components your bike may be using – and don’t forget Gaffa Tape, cable ties and a hose-clamp or two.
The easiest and best way to learn how to use that toolkit is to dismantle your entire bike and put it back together before you begin your trip. I promise you that this will pay off in spades on the road. (Don’t be afraid; a bicycle really is a very simple machine!)
Then, even if you can’t fix a problem yourself, you know that you’ll be able to remove the part in question and either install a spare or hand the broken one over in order to a local mechanic with a blowtorch and a monkey wrench to work his or her particular brand of ‘magic’.
4. Travel Light – But Strike A Balance
It’s possible to take a well-packed bikepacking rig along forest singletrack, across open steppe, up gravel tracks, down river-beds, and through deep Saharan sand – but it’s not always easy!
Tough terrain can be tackled far more easily with a little consideration for balancing your luggage: both in terms of what you bring and what you leave at home, and how you distribute what you bring throughout the bike. The standard road touring setup – 2 front and 2 rear panniers – doesn’t work at all well off-road. You need far more manoeuvrability; you need precision in your steering rather than brute force of weight; and you want to even out the stress and strain on your bike in a way that doesn’t compromise handling. This is why bikepacking luggage has evolved so quickly in recent years.
If you’re on a long expedition, frame luggage alone might not be enough. In this case, a cargo trailer can potentially take 50–80% of your kit, relieving the bike of much of the weight. Extrawheel Voyager and BOB Ibex trailers are superb performers off-road; before bikepacking bags and ultralight camping gear reached their current zenith, these were the go-to luggage solutions for any self-respecting dirt road bicycle traveller. (It is sensible, however, to ensure that your bike isn’t so light that the trailer doesn’t fishtail or push you along with its own momentum.)
5. Drop Your Mileage Expectations
With the exception of those increasingly popular long-distance unsupported mountain bike races, off-road bikepacking doesn’t usually focus on speed or distance. If you’re used to the regular 100km+ days of road touring, expect to slash your daily average in half if you’re spending time on unpaved roads.
This can vary dramatically with conditions and the type of terrain you’re tackling. On one particularly memorable day (for all the wrong reasons) in Mongolia, I managed only 12km, compared with 210km another day on paved roads (yes, on the same bike and with the same amount of luggage).
If it’s your first off-road ride, you’ll find you use different muscle groups to road touring. Expect your upper body to get a good workout if you’re not used to technical riding, and expect your whole body to feel the effect of the minor muscles being used for constant balance correction. Plan, therefore, for plenty of rest days if you’re not conditioned to this kind of exercise.
6. Be Flexible And Keep Your Ear To The Ground
Don’t always expect to be able to plan an exact daily itinerary for a bikepacking trip in remote terrain. There’s no need to do so anyway – part of what makes adventure exciting is the process of discovery. So allow a realistic margin for error when planning distances and schedules, no matter how detailed your map appears to be.
Never underestimate the value of local knowledge when it comes to getting directions and gathering information about the conditions ahead – but likewise, never underestimate the role that pride can play in locals delivering totally unsubtantiated ‘information’ with disarming confidence, rather than admitting ignorance!
Learn who to approach: truck & 4×4 drivers, farmers, elderly villagers and others who have spent real time on the land itself are a good bet. Get three opinions and go with the two who agree. But treat all locals’ distance estimates with suspicion, as people in general are notoriously bad at guessing distances – better to rely on your map or app.
7. Aim For Maximum Self-Sufficiency
The logistics of a bike trip need a little more planning when you’re facing several days at a time without access to food supplies, clean drinking water, electricity or human contact. Get a book such as the SAS Survival Handbook* (or pocket-sized version*) and read up on basic health and hygiene in the field, including firelighting and water purification.
Water is critical; cover all bases by bringing a stove to boil water (or at least a metal pot or mug to put over a fire), a water filter for when you run out of fuel, and iodine drops as a backup (and as part of your first aid kit). Boiling water is preferable, as most filters don’t work at the viral level.
Consider a folding USB solar charger* – I use a RAVPower 24W panel* – and ensure all your gadgets charge from USB ports. Generator hubs and associated power solutions are maturing well, and the capacity and size of power banks* continues to improve.
Finally, if you’re going alone, know what keeps you sane during prolonged periods of solitude. (I get on well with a lot of reading and a little meditation.)
8. Eat well
In certain circumstances, bringing dehydrated expedition food (such as Firepot meals) might be the best choice for feeding yourself in the wild. In most places, however, you’ll be able to make do with what you find in local markets and stores. You’re looking for the highest density calories available, so you can pack maximum fuel into minimal luggage. Make sure you’ve planned to carry any waste food packaging with you. (You can never have too many plastic bags on a bike trip.)
Breakfast well to avoid running out of juice mid-morning; munch biscuits or dried fruit and nuts throughout the day; and consider instant noodles the basis for a universally available and quick-cooking hot meal at the end of the day. If you can, throw in a tin of whatever protein is available too.
When settlements are around, workers’ eateries are usually a good source of fat and carbohydrate-rich food at lunchtime. You’ll start to crave fruit and vegetables after a few days without, so, on rest days, give your body what it’s asking for.
9. Remember The Importance Of Communication
Just because you’re off-road doesn’t mean you aren’t going to meet people. So if you’re going somewhere where you don’t speak the language and don’t expect your native tongue to be in widespread use, consider spending some time learning the basics before you arrive. A few words and phrases can go a long way.
Cycle travellers have a specialised core vocabulary consisting of words like ‘water’, ‘food’, ‘sleep’, ‘tent’, ‘yesterday’, ‘tomorrow’, ‘morning’, ‘evening’, ‘to’, ‘from’, ‘days’, ‘weeks’, ‘months’ (if travelling long term), and such like. Learning these beforehand can help a great deal in explaining your trip. Language courses are available as audiobooks or apps for your smartphone.
Non-verbal communication also benefits from a little advance planning. Keep photos of family to hand as universal ice-breakers. Show local people a map of your route. Maybe bring postcards from home to give away.
10. Enjoy It!
It’s not a race; nobody’s handing out medals, so slow down, respect and revere the landscapes you pass through, accept invitations with grace, and don’t outstay your welcome. Cycle travel is often a cultural experience more than anything else, and this can still be the case if you’re riding off-road.
It’s really worth building enough flexibility into your plans to engage with the opportunities that will present themselves, as these are the memories that you will treasure the most in days to come.
What’s your top tip for someone planning their first off-road bikepacking trip? Add your thoughts in the comments below…