Biggest Similarities (and Differences) Between Backpacking and Bike Packing

Last summer I gave bike packing a try for the first time. I had no specific gear for the sport, but I had backpacking gear and a full-suspension mountain bike. Despite having no experience with extended bike travel, I wanted to get some serious miles in without a huge time commitment, and knew I could go farther on a bike.

It ended up being really fun to start from the ground up in an activity. I watched YouTube videos, read up on gear, packing strategies, the shortcuts you could take regarding the specific gear. My adventure buddy, Hailey, and I combined a few different strategies for packing our bikes, and gave the packing a few trial-and-error runs before deeming it worthy and stable enough for the long haul.

Before my last few trips, I had biking experience and backpacking experience, but not smushed together. And I still have several thousand more miles of backpacking experience than I do bike packing, but with the miles I do have, there are some real differences (and real similarities) between both long-distance adventures.

Biggest Similarities Between Backpacking and Bike Packing

maggie slepian bike packing

You can do anything from overnights to multi-month adventures

Much like finding a backpacking route, finding a bike packing route can be based on your fitness, time frame, or region. Just add some extra miles on there—a weekend backpacking trip can be 18-25 miles, where a weekend bike trip can be 50-100 miles pretty easily.

It’s a chance to see new terrain and explore a new region

Who among the backpacking crowd hasn’t dreamed of a vacation, then decided the vacation and backpacking trip could be the same thing? We all love traveling (though we aren’t getting a ton of it now) and traveling by bike is an engaging, immersive way to see a new place… just like planning your travel around a backpacking route you wanted to do.

If you have packable camping gear, you can use it for bike packing

maggie slepian bike packing

Sure, you can get a bike-packing- specific tent, and having legit frame bags is a real luxury, but if you already have a backpacking setup, you’re pretty well keyed into the bike packing realm. I’ve had the good fortune of testing gear for the past five years, so I have some super light, packable items. I used my backpacking gear, including my EE Quilt, Therm-a-Rest NeoAir, packable layers, and split my Big Agnes Tiger Wall between my bike and Hailey’s bike.

You can have fancy gear, or make do with what you have

One of my favorite things about backpacking is how you can hit the trail with pretty much anything within reason and still have a good time. Obviously there are exceptions to this, including knowing your own limits and avoiding hazardous conditions, but backpacking is not a technical sport. It’s the same with bike packing. If you have a bike and you have relatively packable camping gear, you can make it work. You might not be hitting the road for a 10-day, 800-mile ride, but you can do an overnight or weekend trip by packing your existing bike with your existing gear. Some of the most fun we had was simply figuring it out how to make it work, and the pride that came with our goofy setups working out.

Biggest Differences Between Backpacking and Bike Packing

maggie slepian bike packing

When it’s hard, it’s really hard. When it’s easy, it’s really easy

This was the biggest surprise for me. When you’re on your feet, you can be working hard going up a hill, and sure, it’s difficult. When you descend the other side, it feels easier. But when you’re on your feet carrying a pack, you’re still feeling every step whether you’re going up or down. On a fully loaded bike, you’re working so hard going up a steep climb you feel like your heart is going to explode. And then maybe you cry, and get off the bike, and push it for a while. Additionally, slowing down while ascending on a bike is quite challenging. If you slow down too much, you’re just going to tip off the side. But on a bike, when you come down the other side of the climb, you’re basically sitting on the seat, flying downhill at 20 miles per hour. It’s incredible. The variation in steep ups versus descents is mind-blowing.

You can effectively double the miles you’d backpack

You know that whole flying downhill thing? It makes the miles go by fast. Even on mellow terrain, you can be going 12 miles per hour without much difficulty. On our first day, packing mountain bikes, we made it 50 miles. Were we in agony by the end? Yes, for sure. Did we bike 105 miles in two days after not really training? Also yes.

Weight doesn’t matter as much as packability

maggie slepian bike packing

I notice the weight more on my back than on a bike—you can throw a hell of a lot of weight on a bike and still pedal it. What really matters on a bike is the storage space, especially if you aren’t using panniers. Getting real bike packing bags can mitigate this, but for those of you using stuff sacks and ratchet straps (like we do), you might have a total of 35 liters or so. I used one stuff sack on a seat post rack, one strapped to my handlebars, and a small cockpit / tube bag for my phone. I carried a small hydration pack as well. All of my gear fit in those stuff sacks, but I’d recommend a frame bag if you’re going to commit to bike packing. For anything over a week, panniers are a good bet.

You need more than duct tape if something breaks

Duct tape and dental floss can fix a lot of broken backpacking items. While you don’t have to be a bike mechanic to go on a bike packing trip, it is helpful to know your way around a flat or a broken chain. Understanding the basic components to bike maintenance, and taking a bike maintenance course at a local gear shop can do wonders for your confidence and capabilities on the road. We each carried a mini pump, patch kit, spare tube, tire levers, a bike-specific wrench and multi-tool, which could work with most parts of the bike and fix a broken chain.

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