Starting Somewhere: Breaking Down the Barriers to Bikepacking

Four experienced riders from the Apidura community tell us how they started out in the world of bikepacking, and lend their advice on how to approach your first trip.

10/09/2018
Adventure Syndicate Riding Downhill in France. Bikepacking Apidura

Starting out in the world of bikepacking can be an intimidating prospect: How do you do it? Where do you do it? What do you need to do it? They’re all valid questions, relating to real worries, and in our series of How-to guides, we’re doing our best to gradually answer all of them.

However, the truth is that the only real way to learn about bikepacking is to experience it for yourself – to get out there, start making decisions, learning from your mistakes, and discovering what bikepacking is all about.

Even the most experienced bikepackers started out somewhere, and we’ve called upon four of them to remind us that the most important thing is to just have the courage to start. The rest will fall into place.

Patrick Martin Scroeder. Where to start in Bikepacking | Apidura

Patrick Martin Scroeder

Patrick is an Apidura Ambassador who has bike toured in over 140 countries. He is currently riding between each of the highest mountains in Europe (one for every country), and paragliding off the top of each. Seriously. 

Lee Craigie. Where to start in Bikepacking | Apidura

Lee Craigie

Lee is a former national mountain bike champion, and a Tour Divide veteran. She’s also director of the Adventure Syndicate,  most recently found adventuring her way around Kyrgyzstan at the Silk Road Mountain Race. 

Harriet Pike. Where to start in Bikepacking | Apidura

Harriet Pike

Harriet is the the co-author of the Adventure Cycle Touring Handbook, and with her history of riding and hiking in some of the most remote places on earth, is undoubtedly one of the most experienced bicycle tourists on the planet. 

Rickie Cotter. Where to start in Bikepacking | Apidura

Rickie Cotter

Rickie is a member of the Adventure Syndicate, and has a wealth of experience in the world of ultra-distance bikepacking races: She’s done the Transcontinental Race, the Highland Trail 550, Tour Aotearoa, and the Tour Divide – as well as a host of 24 hour mountain bike races. 

How did you start bikepacking, or adventure cycling?

Harriet: I’m not a ‘cyclist’, and I never have been. I was trekking all over the world and backpacking with my husband for 2 years, but we grew increasingly frustrated with having to rely on public transport and not being able to get as deep into the mountains as we could, so we bought bikes, lashed our kit to a rear rack, and cycled 5000km home from Istanbul. We have since used bikes on all our trips, to access remote mountains, climb them, and to reach the corners of the planet that fascinate us most.

Rickie: My first overnight cycling trip was more a case of being out for a long ride, and then realising I wasn’t going to make it home that day. I went into a shop, bought a lilo and a fleece blanket to sleep on, and loved it. Slightly terrified, but also invigorated, I decided that I might quite like to do it again on purpose, so I bought a sleeping bag, a dry bag, some bungee cords, and a map from a petrol station; my first bikepacking kitlist. I haven’t stopped since.

I went into a shop, bought a lilo and a fleece blanket to sleep on, and loved it - Rickie Cotter

Patrick: I’ve never carried a lot of gear when touring, so when I started noticing the setups of ultra-racing cyclists like Mike Hall, I decided to have a look at bikepacking setups, which were still quite new back then. My first bikepacking trip was through Western Africa, the Sahara and Southern Europe. I wasn’t carrying enough food, and totally underestimated the remoteness of a few places, but I made it through all the same. 

Lee: I first made the transition from cyclist to bikepacker when I rashly decided I wanted to ride back to the UK after a cross country mountain bike event in Andorra. The rest of the squad thought I was mad, but it’s was exactly what I needed to renew my love of riding. I’d been staring at a heart rate monitor, training, and going round fast in circles for too long, so I strapped a sleeping bag and tent to my bike and off I went.

Where to sleep on a bikepacking trip | Apidura

Do you remember any of the nerves and anxiety associated with those first experiences?

Lee: I was most anxious about where I would sleep on that first trip, but every single morning I would wake up and feel silly for having been stressed the night before. Darkness does funny things to your fear factor.

Patrick: You have to remember that there isn’t much that can go wrong on a bikepacking trip, and when it does, you learn that there is always an alternative solution: If you’re running out of time, then re-route, hitchhike, or get public transport. If you run out of packing space, then send home some unnecessary gear. If you get lost, then enjoy the unexpected detour.

To avoid stress, it’s best to either set a time limit, or a destination – not both. Don’t force yourself to reach point X in duration Y. If you have a week off, just go for a week and see how far you get, or if you have a specific destination or route in mind, be prepared that it might take longer than anticipated and keep some time free. That approach keeps worries to a minimum.

If you're running out of time, then re-route, hitchhike, or get public transport. If you run out of packing space, then send home some unnecessary gear. If you get lost, then enjoy the unexpected detour - Patrick Martin Schroeder

Harriet: Not being able to cycle up hills or repair our bikes was a big worry before our first tour. We took it one puncture at a time though, and were able to fix most repairs with basic mechanics guidance from Stephen Lord’s Adventure Cycle Touring Handbook [the earlier version of the book Harriet would go on to republish], which we scrutinized at great length – often watched by a gang of local children. At first we stopped every 500 metres on the hills, then every 1km, then we didn’t need to stop at all, and quickly started averaging 100km every day.

Rickie: I think society had made me afraid of the dark, and strange people of the night, but I soon discovered what a load of rubbish that was when I started doing overnight cycling adventures. People are mostly warm and kind, and there is nothing to fear in the darkness other than our own imaginations. I was afraid at first, but forced myself through it, and now its not even a thing anymore. 

Bikepacking and Wild Camping | Apidura

Camping on the beach while Bikepacking | Apidura

Is attitude as important as having all the right gear?

Patrick: Absolutely.  I often meet cyclists on their first tour that have a beat-up old bike, with maybe a backpack or similar strapped to it. They might not be as fast or efficient as the best equipped rider, but they’ll have just the same amount of fun. The biggest improvement that comes with quality, lightweight gear is that you can ride farther in a day, or ride the same distance as before, but with less effort.

Harriet: Sort of. It is the understanding that a bike can take you places that a car can’t, while also enabling you to interact with your surroundings and the desire to travel faster than you can on foot. Some gear does help if you plan on going a long way but you can get away with very basic gear.

Rickie: The way I look at it is this: The more time I spend working – to earn money for fancy gear – the less time I spend actually bikepacking. I think attitude has far more value.

What advice would you give to a newbie bikepacker?

Patrick: If it’s your first trip, try and talk to someone who has made a similar tour, maybe even in the same area. There will always be a local bike head, travel blogger, or some anonymous, helpful soul in an online forum, that knows exactly what’s needed for specific tours. (Try crazyguyonabike.org, Warmshowers, or the Bicycle Touring & Bikepacking Facebook Group). 

Or you skip the preparation, and just go out and enjoy your ride, being ready to improvise.

Lee: The one piece of advice to a new bikepacker I would offer is the same advice I apply to almost every challenge I am faced with in life: To remember that there’s no such thing as perfect.

Rickie: Find solutions to the things that are stopping you from going. It’s often the fear, rather than reality, that stops people. Just get out there and do it – it’s the only way to show yourself that bikepacking is not as scary as you think!

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