Sometime around 3 a.m. I woke up shivering. Hours earlier, just after sunset, I opted to forego my bivy sack in hopes of watching the stars as I fell asleep. But here in the Utah desert, temps drop sharply during the night. I scrambled around half-awake in my long underwear, found my headlamp, set up my small nylon abode, and crawled inside. Although I never fully warmed up that night, I did manage a few more hours of sleep.
This was our third night of four on a bikepacking trip around Escalante, Utah. Leading up to the trip I’d watched the forecast diligently, but only in the three towns we planned to pass through, which are all in low valleys. Wanting to pack as lean as possible, I had made strategic cuts to my kit—ditching a bulky midlayer I thought was duplicative, a camp chair, and a coffee press, and swapping my normal sleeping bag for a lighter one—in hopes the pedaling portion of the trip would be more enjoyable. That freezing night in the high desert, though, I learned that some gear is always worth the weight.
That’s not to say you need to bring your entire closet to be happy and comfortable on a bikepacking trip. But there are a handful of important items that will drastically improve your morale. The gear below is, in my opinion, worth carrying no matter where you bikepack.
Tires: WTB Riddler
One of the first, easiest, and cheapest upgrades to any bikepacking kit is better tires. As the only contact point between your bike and the ground, the importance of your tires can’t be overstated. The exact size and design of the tread will vary based on a number of factors– compatibility with your wheels, size of your fork, and the type of bikepacking trips you plan to take. Generally speaking, a wider tire (37 to 45 millimeters) will help soften your ride over rough roads, provide more traction on technical or loose ground, and puncture less frequently.
While a tire this thick—nearly double the width of some road tires—will slow you down some, that tradeoff is more than worth it. The WTB Riddler is our top choice because it has a durable design thanks to a nylon insert that runs tread to tread, comes tubeless-ready, and hits the sweet spot between rolling speed and size of tread, enabling a variety of adventures on dirt paths that range from your local forest road to flowy singletrack. While you may lose a few mph on smooth tarmac, the added stability on rough and rocky surfaces is worth the tradeoff. $66
Gearing: SRAM XG 1299 Eagle
When you’re pedaling up a steep grade with additional weight, it’s advantageous to have a super-low gear to crawl upward without needlessly wasting energy. The SRAM XG 1299 Eagle does just that, using a 12-speed rear cassette with a 520 percent gear range (equal to or more than more bikes with two or three chainrings up front) and a “dinner plate” lowest gear to help even the heaviest bikes make their way to the top of big passes. The Eagle is designed for versatility, compatible with large front chainrings that provide faster top speeds and also with smaller chainrings in the front that enable an easier effort on the climbs. I’ve been using the Eagle for over a year on bikepacking trips in Utah, Montana, and Idaho, and almost universally have an easier time than my fellow bikepackers on the steepest climbs because of it. $458
Storage: Voile straps
There is a ton of existing literature on the best bikepacking bags, but it often misses an important question: do you really need them? While some bikepacking bags are quite helpful–for instance, a full-frame bag, which utilizes the open space on the inside of the triangle–you can often hack together your carry system with stuff you often have. I do a lot of bikepacking by organizing my gear in basic stuff sacks, then using Voile straps to secure them to the bike. I still use bike bags for specific purposes, but have found that stuff sacks, if secured well, offer a lot more versatility. For example, I often attach a sleeping bag and shelter to my handlebars with Voile straps and put clothes in small sacks attached to my forks.
This strategy will save you a lot of money, but does have downsides if you’re not savvy with how to attach them or comfortable jerry-rigging if necessary. For new bikepackers, I always suggest starting with stuff they already own; as you get into the sport you’ll discover what system works best for you. $6.50
Shelter: MSR Pro Bivy
I could have avoided that frigid night in southern Utah with a few small changes, one of which was spending the thirty seconds it took to set up an MSR Pro Bivy. A simple design with a breathable yet waterproof fabric is the best of both worlds–it keeps you dry in the mist and rain, without making you feel like you are suffocating in your own breath. I pack a bivy on nearly all of my trips, but they aren’t without flaws, the big, obvious one being they are hard to sleep in, especially if you get claustrophobic. If that’s the case for you, the MSR Carbon Reflex 1 is a great option as a featherweight tent that packs down almost as small as the Pro Bivy. $200
Navigation: Wahoo ELEMNT Roam
Perhaps the hardest part of bikepacking for newcomers is off-grid navigation, especially when you’re away from cell service. Planning ahead is crucial, as is knowing how to create, download, and manage your route offline. My favorite tool for this is the Wahoo ELEMNT Roam, a bike computer that’s both easy to use and quite powerful, with an intuitive UI, large buttons that I can easily work with my gloves on, and built in mapping and routing options. It has integrated GPS, turn-by-turn navigation, auto route generation, a large 2.7-inch screen, and a long-lasting battery that I’ve been able to use for multiple days in a row without charging, totaling around 15 hours of riding. When I get turned around on remote dirt roads, the Roam is always there to help get me out of trouble, using offline maps to suggest the best possible way back to my car or campsite. $380
Bike: Specialized Diverge Base Carbon
Ready to go all-in? If you want to buy a dedicated bikepacking rig, our recommendation is the Specialized Diverge Base Carbon, a lightweight steed that has ample attachment points for a variety of bags and water bottle holders, quality components that will stand the test of time in dirt and sand, and Future Shock technology, a 20-millimeter damper in the front fork that makes rough roads much more enjoyable. The bike’s geometry is a balance of stability and responsiveness, and the Diverge can run either 700 or 650cc wheels with 47-millimeter clearance on both front and rear, enabling you to personalize the bike to a high degree. As you progress further and further into the sport, the bike is easy to upgrade with large tires, electronic shifters, a better drivetrain, and various other components to add even more to your backroads experience. $2,800