Gravel Culture: Your first gravel bikepacking trip (Part1)

Posted By Gravel Union On 2 April 2021

Our resident expert gravelly bikepacker Emma gives us the low down on what to think about if you would like to try gravel bikepacking for the first time.

As the clocks spring forward and the evenings begin to grow longer, adventures on a gravel bike begin to appeal, well at least to me! I love adventure, but I also love being comfortable, and yes, I think the two are possible.

This year, it’s all a bit different and with the ever-changing Covid19 situation, this guide should be used as inspira-tion rather than rigid rules to follow. I’ve included quite a few of my travel tips for when we are allowed to travel abroad again, I’m aware that all of that is on hold for now. It’s good to dream though.

I thought that others might find it useful to read the questions I often get asked. This is just a guide, there is no definitive answer, it’s all personal.

For pure gravel events I take my Kinesis Tripster ATR. A titanium mile muncher, it’s good for anything from a day out to weeks away. We’ve been all over the place together. I keep the gearing low as I often have luggage on. I try where possible to know every part of my bike and how it works. The same goes for packing, I like to know ex-actly what’s in each bag at any given time. Better to faff before the event than whilst you’re doing it.

Q. How do we get to the start?

  • When flying in to a bikepacking event you have a few options with how you pack your bike. If you’re flying in & out of the same airport then it’s worth checking if the airport has luggage lockers, then you can build your bike in the airport and stash the bike bag ready for your return journey. If you’re flying out of a different air-port then it’s cardboard bike box time. Finding a skip to “lose” the box after you’ve built your bike can be a challenge, but once that’s done you can just ride off. Some airports, although rare, sell carboard bike boxes at the airport for your return journey. Failing that, you’ll need to find a friendly bike shop nearby and ask them for an old box that you can re-use.
  • Another option is to take the train - it can save the faff of having to rebuild a bike in the airport. Worth check-ing the train operator’s policy for bikes, they vary wildly.
  • For some events you might be able to drive to the start. Just make sure you remember where you left your car and that it’s not going to decorated with a pile of parking tickets when you come back to it 
  • Ride!

Q. What should I wear on the train/plane / in the evening when I’m not riding?

  • This one is tricky, it could be freezing at home but sunny and warm where you’re headed and you don’t want a great pile of kit with you. A few options here - if you can find a luggage locker when you arrive, you can stash your travel clothes there and then they’re reasonably fresh for your return flight/journey.
  • Another option is to post them to your end location or ask kindly and post them to a bike shop at end. This only works if your trip is long enough for the post to safely arrive of course! The other option is you travel in your evening wear and a mix of your cycle kit. You do risk being a bit stinky for your return flight. I’ve done all of the above, however I’ve also been slightly caught out by posting my kit and not having evening wear - fine if you’re going to sit in your cycle shorts to eat dinner but if you’re riding with company, it’s best to throw in some light overshorts for modesty’s sake [and to avoid being arrested by the fashion police – Ed]

Q. Where am I going to sleep? Bivvy? Tent? 5* hotel?

  • This one really is personal! My preference is a mix of tiny tent and hotels/B&B’s/AirBnB. There is a reasoning behind this - insects love me, like really love me - if it has teeth, it will bite me and I react badly. The thought of a bivvy and getting eaten alive fills me with fear. For a couple of nights, I don’t mind using just the tent, but for longer I will mix it up with alternate nights in ‘real’ accommodation. As much as anything, it’s nice to have a shower and do some laundry.
  • As for what tent to buy? Don’t spend a fortune for your first trip - there’s some great deals about for kit to get you going. If you equate the purchase to the cost of “x nights in a hotel”, just get something to start that costs the same as one night, then if you hate it you’ve not really lost out on much.
  • The other thing to consider is where you will be staying, if you’re out in the wilds then finding a place to pitch a tiny tent is quite easy, however if you’re passing through a city then you might find bricks and mortar a bit easier.

Q. Do I need to take a stove and cooking equipment?

  • Again, it depends how much you want to rough it! I know I’m not a morning person, and even less so with no coffee. With that in mind I think a tiny stove is essential. I use a tiny pellet burning stove - one pellet makes two mugs of coffee. I measure the coffee, filter papers (then add an emergency brew’s worth) and just carry what I will use. I prefer to use shops and cafés/bars for food, so I’m not worried about carrying more sub-stantial cooking kit. I know some people don’t bother with carrying a stove and just rely on finding an early cafe. I’ve tried that, I was very grumpy! Should the weather take a turn for the worse and you get cold and wet then taking shelter and making a hot drink can really make a difference.

Q. What food should I carry and how and what meals should I plan or buy whilst I’m riding?

  • This often comes down to where you’re planning to ride and how remote it is. Carefully planning or examining the route you’re following and working out how far you will travel each day is the key. Pushing on when it’s late and leaving civilisation is lovely, unless you don’t have dinner with you or have not packed some break-fast! Often, you’ll pass though plenty of towns, however with Covid19 causing the closure of many shops and bars, it can be a good idea to carry dried meals.
  • Things like Firepot expedition foods just require adding boiling water, so it’s easy to use that pellet stove to make food. I prefer to carry a little extra food - I’ve been caught out with no food before and it makes for poor judgment and can make everyone grumpy. When I’m riding big distances, I prefer real food over sugary snacks and sports foods. Having said that, it’s good to get your body used to riding using energy foods, as you can’t always guarantee what you will find. It’s worth thinking about calorie and fat dense foods which don’t take up much space. If you can tolerate drinking milk then remember, it’s both food and drink in one. Also, don’t forget to eat fruit and vegetables - your digestion will thank you. Carrying a musette for food storage for longer durations without shops is handy, they fold small when not in use too.

Q. How many pairs of cycle shorts do I take? How do I wash my kit?

  • I travel with two sets of kit, one to wear, one to carry. I have tried going for a weekend with one pair but if I’m honest, I can’t cope with feeling grubby and I really like clean shorts every day. If I stop in a hotel I wash everything - this is where that extra pair of evening wear shorts comes in. It’s either that or go to dinner in your long sleeve base layer and a hotel towel  I spent a long time considering soap - essentially a bar of soap is a bar of soap, you can wash your body and your kit with the same bar of soap. If you have the misfor-tune to fall off, that same bar of soap can be used to clean up a wound to stop infection. One of those little mini soaps goes a long way. I also carry a tiny micro towel. Half a bottle’s worth of water and some soap and you can feel almost clean and the towel will dry overnight. A mini towel is much better than wet wipes, both for your skin and for the environment.

Q. How should I navigate? Maps or GPS?

  • I am a self-confessed map geek - I love nothing better than “thinking” with paper maps spread out all over the floor. I often use a highlighter pen to mark them up and then make notes on the sides, however this isn’t practical for long distance bike packing trips. Here I rely on carrying my Lezyne GPS - it’s one of the new ones with the crazy long battery life. I also like to have all the routes loaded into komoot (if they’re not routes that I’ve ridden already) so that I can use the bigger screen on my phone from time to time to check where I am in relation to other places, for example if I needed to come off the route to find a shop or a garage. This may sound a bit repetitive, but that’s exactly the point, the more times in my head I go over the route, the more familiar I become with it.

Q. How do I charge my phone and GPS?

  • I’m not lucky enough to have a fancy dynamo set up on my gravel bike so I carry an Anker power pack - even with a meaty battery in my phone and GPS unit, it gives me three days’ worth of power. That includes taking plenty of pictures and video along the way and makes another fine excuse for that night in the hotel to do your laundry and charge everything up. It’s also worth having a good scan of every cafe and bar that you stop at for plug sockets and plug in at every opportunity.

Q. What happens at the end of the ride? How do I get my bike safely home?

  • Again, planning here helps. If you’re flying and you’re lucky enough to be travelling to somewhere where you already know people then you can ask them for a help with finding a cardboard box, but if not then remember most bike shops have them and are usually happy to part with them (sometimes for a small fee). It’s worth contacting a bike shop in advance of your trip to save any last minute panicking. If you’ve made contact early then they may let you post your clean clothes to meet you at the end and if you’re really lucky the shop has a shower too. If not then you’ll have to spray some nice perfume testers in duty-free to save your plane com-panions the joy of festering bikepacker pong!
  • Another option if you’re not on a circular route is to get to the nearest train station. Worth doing a bit of re-search into which train operator runs that line and what their bike policy is. You can also get lightweight stretchy bike socks which magically stretch over your bike and it becomes luggage. Clever eh!

Hopefully this article has inspired you to plan your first gravelly bikepacking trip. Watch this space for Part 2 – Emma’s essential packing list – coming soon to GravelUnion.cc

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