Backcountry bikepacking gear

This post outlines what gear and packing systems I currently use for unsupported bikepacking in shoulder-season alpine conditions. Temperatures can range from +20 Celcius to -15 Celcius in the space of a few hours. I’ve been taking on more difficult trips, frequently requiring extensive hike-a-bike, numerous alpine stream crossings and long pushes through deep snow. These systems have evolved to both cover highly variable weather conditions, AND allow for relatively comfortable and rapid transitions between cycling and hiking/carrying the bike.

Searching for a location to safely ford a river while crossing an active scree slope. This glacier fed river is more than waist deep. Photo by K. Wirtanen
Trying to hold the bike high enough to keep water out of the framebag. The DIY rear panniers are waterproof and welded from TPU backed nylon. There were almost 100 water crossings on this 3-day trip, so fatigue was always a factor to be managed. Photo K. Wirtanen.
One of the last challenging water crossings of the day. Kevin is using the overhand/underhand carry to reduce fatigue. A few moments later we were working together to lift each of our rigs up and over the 3 metre vertical slope of the water crossing exit.

The bikepacking configurations outlined here have three primary objectives; a narrow and balanced load (suitable for tight technical riding), rapid packing and unloading (preferably while staying dry and warm), and very resilient to difficult travel conditions. Due to my age and a number of reconstructive surgeries, I’m always looking for setups that minimize or eliminate further repetitive injuries. This equipment-disposition and pack-list reflects the often conflicting choices to be made around such objectives. A few ideas around extreme cold weather gear can be found in this plog.

Yet another water crossing (super-easy) followed by more tight single track. Photo K. Wirtanen

There are three main packing areas; rear rack and panniers, handlebars, and frame. Each area will be outlined in sequence as that’s the order that the bike gets packed in the morning. Bulky and lighter items go on the handlebars and rear rack, while heavier items such water and food are carried in the frame area.

1 – Rear Rack and Panniers custom DIY rack with prototype Bikepackers Foundry Compression Panniers (each ~10 litres). The dry-bag and backpack are loaded inside the tent when breaking camp.

Sleeping systems: I use Western Mountaineering’s and ThermaRest’s listing of sleeping bag specifications as reasonableness checks for the amount of down fill in the various items worn as camp wear and used for sleeping. I generally try to carry at least a kilo of down in the various components of the sleeping system and camp clothing where the low temperature can reach -40. The 900 FP hydrophobic down in Thermarest products continues to perform very well. Utilizing both their mid-range sleeping bag and quilt together greatly extends the range of this system. I’ve also been using a Hot Sac VBL for a number of years both standalone for fast and light summer bikepacking, and to extend the temperature range of my sleeping systems. The 160 gram VBL is highly recommended!

2- Handlebars – I can typically keep the handlebar load to a maximum of 2 kilograms (preferably under 1kg). MSR Hubba NX tent, NeoAir Xtherm (large) (R 6.9) and two sections of a regular Z Lite SOL mat (R 2), and a VBL, all inside a Bikepackers Foundry custom double-ended (110 gram) roll top bag.

3 – Frame – Custom frame bag, custom full-length top tube bag, and a pair of XL StraddleBags. The frame area is used to carry all heavier items such as stove, food, water, and electronics. The custom framebag has internal features that separate spares and tools from the main compartment. I use a Sea to Summit ultra light roll top backpack to hold all food and stove. This bag is then taken to a separate cooking/eating area, and also used for the bear-hang.

Fully loaded for a 3-4 day trip. While I prefer to carry the tent in a FenderBag (lower center of gravity) it wasn’t practical due to the anticipated number of water crossings. The drybag backpack on the rear rack is a Seal Line Skylake.

Top left (red) contents of left XL Straddle Bag, Top right (green) contents of right XL Straddle Bag, Lower right (blue) contents of custom top-tube bag with the 500 ml Thermos drink-through-the-lid flask used for below freezing conditions. Everything else goes into the frame bag.

All the Bikepackers Foundry custom luggage (frame bag and full-length top tube bag) that I use has been developed and tested for the bike to lay with the drive side down. (left side up) Without restricting tent access or egress, this allows the bike to be mostly unpacked and packed from inside the vestibule of the MSR tents that I carry for shelter.

Fatbike in the vestibule of a MSR Carbon Reflex 1 tent. I typically only use this tent in summer conditions, switching to a Hubba NX for the rest of the year. A prototype RacklessPannier (left) is mostly empty, closed, and compressed flat by the attachment/compression system
A little late-May bike pushing. I was grateful that I’d been able to pack the bike from inside the tent. It was colder than I anticipated and the nozzle of the Aquabot froze.