Meaghan Hackinen: Developing Your Bikepacking Toolkit
Meaghan Hackinen is an accomplished ultra-cyclist, writer and adventure seeker who competes in as many disciplines of cycling as possible, from time trialling to mountain biking. She is a firm believer that a cross-discipline approach is not only more enjoyable but makes you a better cyclist and is the perfect way to train for bikepacking. Here, she explores how to develop your bikepacking toolkit through a cross-discipline approach to training.
I discovered bikepacking in 2017 after years of touring and commuting around western Canadian cities. The idea that one could forgo heavy panniers to chase fast miles intrigued me. Without any deliberation, I signed up for the Trans Am Bike Race – one of the longest events in the books – and plunged headfirst into the unknown arena of aerodynamic setups, electronic navigation, and gas station cuisine.
Looking back, I could have done a few things differently. But like any first attempt, my experience was chock full of learning opportunities: lessons that have formed the basis of what has now become my Bikepacking Toolkit. Over the years, I’ve continued to amass valuable experience and insight, building an inventory of skills that is more robust, though by no means exhaustive. I’ve also come to realize that it’s not just mastering one proficiency, but rather accumulating a diverse range of skills that leads to being a competent, self-sufficient bikepacker.
Whether your preference is road, gravel, or dirt—or some combination of the three!—here are four key areas to focus on to accelerate the growth of your own Bikepacking Toolkit, and venture confidently down the unknown road (or trail).
Develop a Training Plan
There are so many ways to train, but the most important thing is to find what works best for you—given time and budget constraints—and then do it fairly consistently. The basis of my training is made up of short, hard efforts and longer endurance rides—I love intervals because they keep things interesting. Outdoors, this can look like hill repeats up a punchy climb, timed hard efforts on a longer slope, or riding tempo on flat or rolling stretches.
If dedicated training isn’t your jam, then I challenge you to look for ways to incorporate hard efforts into your everyday rides: sprint to a hilltop, between lights, or the final mile home. It’ll make a difference – I promise.
What to do in winter? Simply staying active, whether on a bike or not, is a huge step in ensuring your fitness doesn’t take a nosedive. For instance, to prepare for a solo tour across Canada in 2010, I commuted 80 miles weekly by bike (in rainy Vancouver) and added in some short bursts of intensity by skipping rope to maintain my cardiovascular system; before embarking on the Trans Am, I trained at an indoor spin studio and participated in my local brevet series once the snow cleared. Nowadays, I prefer structured workouts on my smart trainer during winter months, and target endurance through hiking or snowshoeing—but for someone who isn’t keen on riding indoors, I reckon fat biking or Nordic skiing provide similar benefits. Experiment to discover what works for you.
Targeted Skill Development
When I first dipped my toes into bikepacking, I stuck to the pavement. Though similar to touring, this style of riding necessitated a distinct skillset: before embarking on the Trans Am, I had to learn how to load my bike with less carrying capacity, follow a GPX track, and ride safely at night.
As I’ve branched out into mixed surface and gravel adventures, I continue to develop course-specific skills. For instance, before the BC Epic 1000 (a mixed surface event composed of rail trail, gravel road, and paved highway), I completed long solo rides on forest service roads to get comfortable being alone in remote bear country; when I signed up for two gravel races that incorporated single track this fall, I levelled up my bike handling skills by attending a mountain bike clinic. To prepare for the long days and big passes on the Transcontinental Race this summer, I made elevation and distance priorities in my spring and summer training.
Every adventure calls for slightly different strengths and tools, and I encourage you to utilize this as an opportunity to learn something new, and improve your riding overall. Instead of shying away – or setting out unprepared – discover how best to tackle a new challenge, and adjust your riding style, equipment choices, and event plan accordingly.
In addition to skill development, I also encourage you to acknowledge your successes. For instance, I can now descend safely on trails that I had to dismount and walk a year ago – that’s a huge win! Take note of where you’re improving and use those achievements to help buoy your confidence.
Off the Bike
What you do off the bike can dramatically impact your ride. I learned this the hard way when, in preparation for the Transcontinental Race, I procrastinated on route planning and ended up on several time-consuming detours, and then unknowingly routed through Serbia on unpaved farm tracks instead of pavement. From pre-ride planning to whole-body fitness to working on mindset and mental grit—these aspects all come into play in bikepacking. And don’t forget about recovery!
This set of tools is, by nature, highly individualized. A lot of it boils down to personal history. For instance: I’ve had three ACL tears and two knee surgeries, so it’s crucial to focus on lower body prehab, strength, and proprioception. Someone without my set of injuries might allocate their time elsewhere.
Whatever your background, it’s useful to take a self-inventory, and then focus on potential problem areas. If you can’t touch your toes, consider yoga or dynamic stretching; if you’re bouncing around in the saddle, you might want to work on core strength. To develop mindset, I find podcasts featuring other athletes and books to be helpful: Matt Fitzgerald’s How Bad Do You Want It?: Mastering the Psychology of Mind over Muscle and Alex Hutchinson’s Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance are two I enjoy. I also use positive affirmations like “You’ve got this,” and “This is so much better than a day at the office,” to keep my spirits lifted.
There are plenty of fun opportunities to develop your toolkit in daily life. For instance, mapping out a new way to work is an easy step to improve your routing skills, and avoid getting lost or sidetracked (as I did in Serbia). To take this one step further, consider leading group rides—then you’ll really need to dial in your navigation skills!
Building a toolkit necessitates playful, experiential learning. Would I rely on jump rope or spin classes to prepare me for a cross-continental ride these days? Probably not. However, I gleaned things from these experiences that I can now incorporate into my current approach.
But it doesn’t stop there: whether your goal is to ride a century, back-to-back double centuries, or twenty miles in the snow, remaining open to new ideas and perspectives can help you get there. Every year, there are advancements in tech, training methodology, and equipment. On top of that, as athletes we are continually evolving: we branch out, grow families, and adjust our goals. What may have worked in my early 20s might not work for me now. There are so many ways to travel by bike: from snowbound adventures to bikerafting expeditions to accompanying a friend or family member on their first overnighter. Despite our busy lives, it’s important to cultivate an open mind and attentive ears: keep reading, listening, and talking to others with far-ranging experiences. Don’t hesitate to ask questions or switch things up.
My Bikepacking Toolkit has been in the works for years: I’ve incorporated warmups from team sports, and takeaways from grad school about committing to a goal. I seek out opportunities to talk to interesting people with experiences different from my own. In assembling your toolkit, think broad. And don’t forget to have fun.