Cycle the world with these bikepacking tips


Mark and I have been bikepacking in New Zealand and overseas for years. In mid-2016 we set off on our most challenging adventure to date: to cycle the length of the Americas, from the top of Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina, following the mountain ranges of the American Cordillera. In two years we covered 45,000km and have discovered incredible cultures and locations. Learn more about our bikepacking adventure here. 



 

Along our journey, we’ve eschewed convenience in favour of mountain ranges, deserts, jungles, and everything in between.

We’ve tested our limits — and our gear — to breaking point. We’ve learned a lot, and if you’re curious to kickstart your own cycling adventure, here’s our advice.

Cirios trees and cardon cactus are the signature landscape of the Baja Peninsula.
Cirios trees and cardon cactus are the signature landscape of the Baja Peninsula.

Why bikepack at all?

Whether you're planning a weekend getaway close to home, or an expedition that takes you halfway around the world, travelling on a mountain bike gives you maximum flexibility to explore.

A ‘lightweight’ bikepacking setup can open up a new realm of possibilities for bike exploration, taking you away from pavement and cars and allowing you to ride dirt roads, single tracks and to connect the dots of the backcountry — away from the classic tourist routes.

For us, bikepacking enables a much richer travel experience. We’ve discovered unique landscapes, interesting wildlife, remote communities, the hospitality of strangers and of course, some incredibly fun riding. More than anything, it gives you time to see the people and places you encounter on your travels and experience things nobody else experiences because they are stuck on a bus or a train on their way from city to city.

Where to go bikepacking

Both New Zealand and Australia have many possible bikepacking adventures. A couple of our favourite short rides in NZ are the Old Ghost Road and the Heaphy Track, with many more options in the New Zealand Cycle Trail network.

A bigger challenge is the 3000km Tour Aotearoa. This route traverses the length of the country and incorporates a variety of single tracks, bike trails, gravel and paved roads and is an excellent introduction to long distance bikepacking.

Two of Australia's classic rides include the scenic Tasmanian Trail and the more challenging Hunt 1000 Australian Alps Trail, with plenty more to choose from via Cycle Trails Australia.

The Americas are popular for their variety and the multitude of well-documented longer rides. The USA is well known for a wide variety of rides, from the non-technical but mountainous Great Divide which travels border-to-border along the length of the USA, through to the technical single track of the Colorado Trail.

We chose our Alaska to Argentina route for its consistency as a line (the Darian Gap is the only interruption) and for the fact that it traverses such a huge diversity in terrain and culture. Our favourite resource for all things bikepacking is www.bikepacking.com.

The Sierra Madre, Mexico, which abruptly changed to a humid jungle environment at Southern Oaxaca
The Sierra Madre, Mexico, which abruptly changed to a humid jungle environment at Southern Oaxaca

Preparing physically

We are constantly asked, “How do you ride so far every day?" and “Doesn't your bum hurt?"

Conditioning your body over a period of time is essential for long-distance bike touring, however this may not be feasible before setting out on a journey as long as ours!

We highly recommend you start with weekend rides close to home to test and refine your gear. You can also determine whether or not your saddle is comfortable. Getting a professional bike fit will also save you from developing any potential injuries that could ruin your trip.

Once you are underway, take a few weeks to build up your daily distances, and be sure to take frequent rest days for your body to recover. As much as it is about cycling, we also love to explore and photograph the ever-changing landscapes around us and to enjoy the food and culture wherever we are.

One of the best aspects of cycling in Mexico and Central America so far has been the opportunity to meet indigenous people who still uphold traditional culture – we obviously tend to be a subject of curiosity too.
One of the best aspects of cycling in Mexico and Central America so far has been the opportunity to meet indigenous people who still uphold traditional culture – we obviously tend to be a subject of curiosity too.

How to choose the right bike

For longer distance cycling adventures, steel is still the frame material of choice. A good steel frame provides a much more comfortable ride on bumpy roads than aluminium — and unlike aluminium or carbon fibre — can be repaired by a competent welder. We don’t ride with suspension forks (to avoid failure in remote places and expensive maintenance) but for shorter tours on rough roads they can be great. Flat handlebars, comfortable grips and a saddle you're accustomed to will keep you happy on the bike.

29-inch wheels are the most popular size for long-distance touring, but 27.5 inch is the wheel size of choice for domestic bikepacking adventures or tours of up to a few months. Bear in mind that in developing countries tyres and other parts can be scarce; it’s essential to have some bike maintenance knowledge and to carry some spare parts, such as cables. Running your inner tyres with sealant reduces punctures and ensures your bike handles well on a variety of terrain. Don't skimp on your tyres, as nothing will sap your energy and enthusiasm like regular punctures.

Mechanical disc brakes are superior to rim brakes; you can still ride on a buckled wheel, won't destroy your rims over time, and they work better in wet conditions. It’s near impossible to insure a bike on a long overseas tour, so don’t go overboard with titanium and top-end components. Keep it practical and durable. We generally aim for Shimano SLX or XT components for their replacement availability, and the only titanium parts on our bikes are the handlebars — for absorbing the road bumps.

This will all depend on how and where you choose to go bikepacking: research a setup that suits the style of riding you want to do.

One of the best (and worst!) aspects of bikepacking adventures is the places you lay your head at night: the Great Divide route through Canada and the USA has some exceptional campsites.
One of the best (and worst!) aspects of bikepacking adventures is the places you lay your head at night: the Great Divide route through Canada and the USA has some exceptional campsites.

Selecting your gear

As with our choice of bike setup, lightweight, durable and versatile gear is key. Each piece has been carefully chosen with consideration to materials, size and weight.

For sleeping bags, we chose DriFill Down Pathfinder Water Resistant Sleeping Bags, and XT Ultralight Down Jackets for the colder conditions. They both pack down small into the limited space we have, and we never have to worry about them getting wet and not functioning well.

Our Zeolite Active Jackets take up minimal space in their pack away pockets. They’re worth their weight in gold when the weather turns nasty or we need protection from the wind and rain. Merino garments like the Saddle Hoody double as warm layers and casual outerwear and save on laundry, as they don't get smelly!

One item that has proven to be invaluable is our LuminAid solar light — it’s clipped onto the bike during the day to charge and night after night has illuminated our many campsites.

One of the bigger obstacles of our route through Mexico was Volcan de Toluca. We rode right over this 4600 metre volcano, spending a night camped in the crater.
One of the bigger obstacles of our route through Mexico was Volcan de Toluca. We rode right over this 4600 metre volcano, spending a night camped in the crater.

Navigation on the road less travelled

For cycling navigation, handheld or smartphone-based GPS is the norm rather than the exception these days. The adoption of digital mapping by adventure cyclists has opened up a new world of cycling opportunity beyond that presented by traditional maps.

With an app such as Gaia GPS or OsmAnd, map tiles can be downloaded for offline use. Used in conjunction with a GPX track uploaded to your device, it’s hard to take a wrong turn. Many cyclists prefer to use a smartphone over a dedicated device for the ease of operation and the larger screen; just be sure to use flight mode and dim your screen to preserve battery life.

Mounting the phone on your bars with a QuadLock or similar device means you can navigate on the roll. Typically, ride preparation begins at home with tools such as Ride with GPS and Google My Maps which allow cycling routes to be planned, downloaded or shared.

Cycling the Great Divide route (USA) through the Rocky Mountains in autumn meant dealing with a couple of snowstorms.
Cycling the Great Divide route (USA) through the Rocky Mountains in autumn meant dealing with a couple of snowstorms.