Bikepacking with Huw Oliver: How to Pack Your Bike
Photos & story by Huw Oliver
Multi-day bike travel is great, and the adventure really gets going when you measure your ride in days. But you already know that. Before the fun starts, there’s the tricky business of working out what gear you need and where on earth to put it all. Here’s a primer on how to pack your bike.
I vividly remember spending at least half a day just attaching my gear to my bike the first time I used dedicated bikepacking bags. I took some convincing that everything I needed could even fit in the tiny, odd-shaped bags that I’d been loaned.
The result: I ditched some things that I later regretted. I took some other things that I also later regretted. And I finally ended up with some very saggy spots while sharp corners poked out elsewhere. I had thought that the hard work started out on the trail, not in my living room!
Smooth Out Your Ride
What you take out on the trail is personal to you. We all have different priorities, bikes and gear. But a few general rules can make your first time bikepacking run a little smoother, or perhaps enable you to shake up your current system with a more streamlined solution.
In this blog I’ll share a few of the things that I’ve learned from various mistakes, mishaps and happy accidents. I also take a look at what changes and what stays the same when I switch between different bikes and different modes of travel.
Scotland is an interesting place to bikepack. In some ways our climate and terrain never get too extreme. But it also throws up a few unique challenges, too. A “typical” bikepacking setup for a 1-3 night ride looks a little something like this:
I typically pack this bag first since it has a lot of ‘non-negotiable’ items like sleeping bag and warm jacket. The photo shows a synthetic quilt, synthetic puffy jacket and trousers, fleece top and hat, and synthetic
puffy socks. You can probably tell that I like to be warm in camp!
Whatever works for you, the handlebar bag is where we want to place compressible, lightweight things. In winter I might use a larger size of drybag to account for a big winter sleeping bag and jacket. But the items I pack in here basically remain the same year-round, so it’s an easy tick-list in my head.
Using a harness system with a removable dry bag means I can keep that crucial insulation gear dry as I take it inside the tent. Keeping weight off the front of the bike drastically improves handling. And on technical Scottish trails I avoid the use of fork bags, preferring to take a larger backpack instead to preserve a fun ride.
The seat bag tends to contain the same essential items wherever I’m going, which keeps things simple. We rarely go without packing a tent here in Scotland. Usually rain falls, midges are biting, or we have to contend with both!
Some folks are a fan of bivy bags and/or tarps. However, a lightweight tent is essentially the same weight, but comes with guaranteed comfort. Even when staying in a bothy, a tent is essential in case the bothy is full or can’t be reached. I also tend to keep a sleeping mat in this bag, along with ‘tent food’ that I won’t need to access during the day. Make sure your seat bag is evenly filled when packing it. I use small items like a spare pair of socks or a bag of food to pad out any voids left by awkward items. That means a snug fit in the harness, a super stable bag and no sagging or swaying.
I’m lucky enough to have a big frame bag on my Salsa Spearfish, unlike a lot of full-suspension frames that have limited frame space. I use it to store heavy items. This method keeps the bike’s center of gravity nice and low, which hugely improves the way it handles.
I pack my tools and spares (lots of metal) in my frame bag, along with a jetboil stove and the majority of my food. My food stays in baggies so water doesn’t pose a problem. Sometimes a water bottle or bladder goes here, too. Nothing that can’t get wet lives here!
Always remember, stuff in this bag gets shaken to hell, even on mellow trails. I’ve ruined a few dry bags this way, so I think carefully about the effects of constant rattling on what goes in here. Case in point: a tin of fish can easily be punctured by a rattling stove pot, leading to a stinky fish mess. Just saying…
Snacks & Backpack
Snacks are the cornerstone of any successful backpacking trip. And as the saying goes: “keep your friends close, but your enemies and snacks closer.” I can fit around a day’s worth of calories right in front of my face in a top-tube bag, so nothing gets in the way of me and those sweet, sweet calories. Contents optional.
I generally ride without a backpack, but different trips demand different gear. A lightweight running vest offers useful storage space, as well as the ability to use a couple of soft water flasks in the chest pockets. I like the number of small pockets, as it means there’s usually a forgotten snack to be discovered somewhere. In this instance, the vest contains waterproof jacket and trousers, waterproof socks (yes, really, it’s wet here) and awkward items like a bowl/cup or electronics that don’t fit well elsewhere. It’s also a great way to transport fresh fruit and veggies to ward off the scurvy.
How to Pack a Bike: Gravel & Fatbikes
Variety is the spice of life, and this is just one bike with once specific set of gear. However, having established what works for me, I use a very similar system to pack different bikes.
I pack my gravel bike (above) almost identically to my mountain bike, putting clothes and sleep gear in a handlebar bag and a tent/mat in the seat bag. Tools/spares go in the frame bag. And since gravel routes often pass resupplies more often than a remote mountain bike route, the full frame bag can be sacrificed to allow for two water bottles.
On the other end of the scale, I packed this fatbike for a bikerafting trip. A packraft replaces the dry bag in the harness. The displaced gear lives in a dry bag on top of the rack, while a set of nano panniers add some extra capacity for a longer, remote trip with little resupply. A pretty different setup, but I groups the same sorts of things together because I know they will play nicely with each other as well as make my mental packing list simpler.
Other top how to pack your bike tips
Shorter trips closer to home are a great time to experiment with different setups, as they’re less committing. Try taking that lighter sleeping bag and sleeping in your jacket to save some weight on a singletrack-heavy ride. Or ditch the rucksack to try a packless setup. If we never experiment, we never unlock different ways of doing things!
Different size people have different needs. A lot of shorter riders really struggle with seat bag clearance, especially with higher volume tires. In this case a rear rack might be the best answer. Small panniers don’t need to be unwieldy but open up a lot of volume. And they are super easy to pack.
Equality and equity aren’t quite the same thing. Whereas equality would mean two riders splitting a load evenly, equity would mean that the load is split to reflect the strength/fitness of the two riders. Sure, it means that one rider takes more load, but the end result is a more evenly matched pace and a better chance of success and fun for the team as a whole. This is an easy one to overlook, but can be just as important as anything else discussed here.
Happy Trails from Scotland!