The Great Bikepacking Debate

Cover photo courtesy Phil Godley


Bikepacking is a method of recreation that entails riding your bicycle loaded with all of your camp gear across potentially wild terrain to get to and from a predetermined campsite. “The Packfiller Podcast” host and creator Pat Bulger went on his first bikepacking trip last summer, and he did not fall in love. Pat’s “against bikepacking” argument has been met with a spirited rebuttal from Out There’s “Everyday Cyclist” columnist, Justin Short. Read on for a “pro backpacking” argument from cyclist and regular contributor Carol Corbin, who ultimately would choose bikepacking again and again. Carefully review these arguments and make an educated decision on whether bikepacking should be your next great summer adventure. 

Courtesy Carol Corbin

AGAINST ARGUMENT: A Cyclist’s first Bikepacking Trip 

By Pat Bulger 

Freedom to explore. At one with nature. Off the grid. Simple. These are just a few of the comments I regularly hear from cyclists who have entered the world of bikepacking. Long gone are the days of “tourists” who would load pound after pound of camping gear, clothing, and personal items onto their bike to slowly, arduously, pedal to some chosen destination to sleep on the ground and painfully do so again the next day. Bikes are lighter. Camping gear is packable and efficient. Bike bags are waterproof, rugged, and creatively designed. Bikepacking is here to stay.  

Then why do I dislike it the way a school librarian dislikes childhood joy? Last summer, I assigned myself the task of an overnight bikepacking trip. I had already purchased most of the equipment needed on, well, let’s be honest here, some random evenings with a glass of adult beverage and an open shopping web browser. The destination was decided upon as a “medium” distance to test everything out, stay the night, experience the “joy,” and pedal home the next day. The destination, beautiful Lake Benewah, was just outside of St. Maries, Idaho, about 45-50 miles each way depending on the route loaded into my GPS.  

Fast forward two days later, in 98-degree heat, on a rear flat tire that I had no energy to change for the last three miles, massive heat exhaustion, a sore back and neck from the “sleeping pad” I endured, GPS mistakes, and, I have to say that bikepacking can, well, take a hike.  

Here are my reasons why I’ll take a pass on bikepacking.  

1. I ride my bike for the feeling that I experienced as a child. The feeling of flying. The wind in my face. The speed. Bikepacking, as a close friend once said to me, is “like you’re a bird who’s had their wings clipped.” A fully-loaded bike with all of my gear was over 50 pounds. Fifty! Why not just give me a classic Schwinn Varsity with rubbing brakes?! Getting out of the saddle to climb, accelerate, or even relieve sit bone pressure was impossible, and maintaining any type of momentum was akin to pedaling with flat tires in tapioca pudding.  

    2. Camping is great. Heck, even tent camping is great. But, after four hours in the saddle maintaining a scant 14 mph, I would have happily traded for a subpar hotel and a pizza place. Every time I moved the next morning I emitted verbal sounds that could only be described as “old man grunts.” This being said, I do have to attest to the great food and coffee options that have been made available to those adventuring out into the woods. Give me a proper RV and day trips from a campsite instead, please.  

    3. Once arriving at your destination, there is little chance of obtaining any extra provisions. My wonderful camp host informed me that, should I want to grab some cold beverages or additional snacks, my closest option was a “short 17-mile drive” away. Yeah, I wasn’t about to add 34 miles to my adventure.  

      I now fully understand why many bikepacking social media groups I follow tend to have a multitude of equipment for sale. Anyone want to buy some bike bags? 

      Courtesy Phil Godley

      AGAINST REBUTTLE:Hold Your Horses, Pat” 

      By Justin Short  

      Don’t go selling your bikepacking gear just yet—we haven’t even been on an overnight adventure together. But before we go, we’ve got to talk about your route. I think you learned the hard way why you should never ever under any circumstances go bikepacking in the Palouse during the dog days of summer. There’s no amount of water you can carry that won’t be instantly vaporized along with all of the moisture in your body in that treeless hellscape.  

      Heyburn State Park is a lovely destination, though, and there’s a much better way to get there when the Palouse has reached the temperature of the sun. Ride out the Centennial Trail to Coeur d’Alene; you’ll probably carry enough speed coasting from the South Hill to get halfway there. Get a good cup of coffee and a devastating pastry at the Bakery by the Lake, then make your way over the saddle to the far side of the lake for a delightfully scenic pedal to Beauty Bay Campground, where you’ll refill water bottles from the crusty old cast iron pump with the most delicious and refreshing water sipped by anyone ever.  

      Okay, the climb over Caribou Ridge is a ball-buster, but it’s a cool, shady ball-buster. Ride the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes down to Harrison, jump in the lake, get some ice cream, and then stock up on the much longed-for provisions, such as fizzy beverages and snacks for the return trip. You’re 11 miles from camp.  

      And that brings me to my next point: never take directions from the camp host. I’ve listened to a well-intentioned camp host pour over my map for a half hour about some scenic route I needed to take; the map was upside down. Your host obviously wanted you killed if they recommended the 17-mile ride into St. Maries. Never mind the bike, that road is terrifying to drive in a semi. If you’re needing the services of a major metro area, Plummer, Idaho, is much closer, and the entire ride is on the bike trail.   

      “Crunchy old man back” is a thing with which I am well acquainted. All I can say is, experiment with air pressure. My wife carries an inflatable body pillow and a feather pillow with her now, and I hear far less grumbling from her side of the tent these days.  

      Finally, 14 mph is slow?!! That is literally flying by bikepacking standards. If I ever hit a double-digit average speed, it’s like 10 or 11 mph, tops. And I don’t even want to know how much my bike weighs when it’s loaded, but it’s a lot closer to ALL THE POUNDS than 50 pounds.  

      So, let’s set a date during the fair weather for a fun and easy overnighter with the Gravel Braintrustees. I promise, there won’t be much bushwhacking, but one of us will definitely make you laugh so hard you’ll shoot fizzy electrolyte water out of your nostrils. 

      FOR ARGUMENT:People and Puffy Pants” 

      By Carol Corbin 

      It was only 37 miles, and mostly flat, but after only four “base-building” rides in the last three months, it was a relief to be out of the saddle. My tent, pad, and sleeping bag were set up for the night with clean, warm socks and a cozy base layer. As my travel companions gathered deadfall for a campfire, I wriggled into my puffy pants and was engulfed in warmth. But not just physical warmth. A soul warmth. A warmth that comes from a physically demanding day fading into a magical, starlit night. 

      When I discovered bikepacking half a dozen years ago, it combined two things I love the most about being outside. Pedaling a bicycle and having everything I need to survive–and sometimes even be comfortable–in whatever level of wilderness in which I might find myself. Since that first ride with my five-year-old on the Palouse to Cascades Trail, I’ve spent many nights in tents, my faithful gravel bike outside, my dusty Revelate bags crowding around me, and another day in the saddle awaiting when I wake up. 

      Over the years, I’ve come to know intimately that bikepacking is hard. Really hard. Throw-my-bike-off-the-side-of-a-mountain hard. On nearly every trip, there is at least one moment when I cry out in anguish, “Why can’t I be indoorsy?!” And yet, I still go. This particular trip, my puffy pants accompanied me on my fifth annual “Fishtrap Shakedown,” where a few intrepid bikepackers pedal from our front doors in Spokane to the “wilderness” of Fishtrap Recreation Area in the channeled scablands for an overnight review of just what this activity requires. 

      “Why are you doing this?” For every time I’ve been asked this question by others, I’ve probably asked it of myself at least twice. And it’s hard to put into words. The meditative process of making a packing list, and then assembling dusty, trail-worn and intimately familiar gear, is blissful! As I press sleeping bag and tent into compression bags, zip headlamp and powerbank into a frame pack, and carefully tuck a fuel canister into my steel cup, cushioning it with a wool beanie, I picture myself reveling in the simplicities of life away from . . . everything. Everything but my tent, my bike, my people, and, ultimately myself. 

      Through the years, my most memorable and empowering experiences have been bike-based. As have many of my closest friendships, and most memorable transient ones. From Melinda and Sue, my ride-or-dies for years, to Jean, who shared a Canadian campsite with us one night in July on her way to Mexico, these are friends whom I can suffer with, laugh with, cry in front of, and maybe even share a freeze-dried pasta meal with at the end of even the roughest trail days. 

      Bikepacking strips away everything that isn’t essential. Not just things like furniture and climate-control, but personal insecurities, body image issues, work and family stressors. When I’m making camp after a long day in the saddle, it’s when I feel the most alive, the most connected, and the most, well, me. 

      One doesn’t have to look far to find the cons of bikepacking. There is very little comfort and ease. The trail rarely ends in a cold beverage and a hot meal. There’s cold and wet, hot and dry. Mechanical failures, forgotten niceties and necessities, and no easy outs. Sunburns, bug bites, bear encounters, blocked trails, wet feet, cold fingers, cramped legs . . . the list goes on. There are a thousand reasons not to load up your bike and pedal into the wilds. 

      But that warmth of the puffy pants and the friends who are the same kind of crazy as me? I’ll pedal a helluva lot farther than 37 miles for that. 

      FOR ARGUMENT: “Bikepacking Magic 

      By Eric Deady 

      Bikepacking can mean many things to many people, but for me, the best way to describe it is “transformative.” I have seen magic happen on bikepacking trips. The kind of magic that gives you a warm-fuzzy feeling and forces you to look within for its cause. I have seen nervous wrecks transformed into the kind of peaceful pedalers that we all wish we could be. I have seen bodies and minds transformed in ways that beg the question, why can’t I always feel this good?  

      You could chalk it up to endorphins, dopamine, and a soup of brain chemicals, and you would be right to credit our biology for some of it. But not all. There is a magic that I have only been able to see and feel on bike trips that can sustain me for months or even years with its power, and it always leaves me yearning for more.  

      So, you want some of that magic, eh? All you need to do is go take it! It’s there waiting for you on the top of mountains after a grueling climb. It’s there when your fingers threaten to stop working from the cold of a long, wet descent. It’s there whispering to you from the trees and rivers and clouds and dirt. It’s there when you least expect it and will always leave you a better person.  

      You don’t need much to start bikepacking. Bikepacking, in its most basic form, is a person on a bicycle carrying their own camping gear, food and personal items, usually off of paved roads. How that happens, and with whom, is up to you. Of course, there are some things that can make your journey more comfortable, or less traumatic, but it’s all on a scale, and if we wanted easy, we would get in our cars and drive.  

      Get the bike that’s comfortable to ride, and make sure it’s tuned, lubed, and loved. Plan a route that sounds fun, or challenging, or beautiful, and get that route onto your phone or GPS. Pack a backpack, or panniers, stuff sacks, or even burlap sacks full of whatever you might need for the time you’ll be out and start pedaling. Keep your senses alert, and your body in tune.  Be safe and smile. No matter what happens, you will find magic.  

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