From Backpacking to Bikepacking

  • 4 min read

Written by: Eric Hanson,

Life in a pandemic is weird. But at least it gave me a window of time to try new things. I built a greenhouse, began converting a van to live in, and went on my first bikepacking trip.

I’m normally a hiker and a backpacker. I like to get places by walkin’. So it was a bit of a wild card for me to try bikepacking.

Bikepacking seemed like a daunting task. The gear required seemed highly specialized and complicated. I believed it wasn’t for me. That is, until I actually tried it.

Back in December, my girlfriend and I went on our first bikepacking trip together. She’s been a willing and enthusiastic participant in building the greenhouse and converting our van. So why not try one more new thing together?

Some bikepackers choose elaborate setups for hauling their gear: saddles, seat packs, frame bags, top tube bags, handlebar packs, all of which strap gear directly to the frame of your bike. I elected to try a much simpler approach, hauling a trailer.

I chose the Burley Coho XC, a single wheel trailer that took all the complications out of bikepacking. It made sense to me. Take everything I’d load into a backpack, pile it onto a trailer, and go for a ride. Simple as can be.

The simplicity of bikepacking is what really surprised me. I already owned a capable mountain bike, helmet, gloves, bike pump, and a small kit for fixing flats. I already owned a tent, a couple sleeping bags, and the camping equipment to make an overnight enjoyable. The only extra gear my girlfriend and I needed was the Coho XC trailer and the appropriate thru-axle to fit my Santa Cruz.

Because mountain bikes are all unique, and depending on components, fork size, etc., the thru-axle that the whole system hinges upon varies from bike to bike. It’s very important to get an exact fit; both in the length of the thru-axle and the proper thread. But once you have the thru-axle installed, something that requires no skills as a bike mechanic, clipping and unclipping the bike trailer is extremely easy and intuitive.

Once my bike was ready to rock the Coho XC, I just had to gather the gear I’d normally fit into a backpack for a backpacking trip. The packing was very easy, I put the heaviest items, such as water, a tent, food, stove and fuel, on the bottom of the trailer so as to help keep the trailer well balanced and not top heavy. From there I built up with lighter gear, sleeping bags and pads, extra clothes, headlamps, and cookware.

The trailer provided plenty of room for two people’s gear and enough food and water for an overnight. It could have easily hauled more if I was doing a more extended trip. But this was our first bikepacking trip and my girlfriend and I were being conservative.

The only thing that was left was to pick the proper trail for an adventure. I had just the place in mind.

Living in Northern Arizona means that I have amazing trails and wilderness right out my back door. There are rugged mountains, canyons, and vast forests in the high country of the Colorado Plateau. One of my favorite spots in Arizona is an overlook where the 7,000 foot ponderosa forests suddenly drop off a cliff, offering a stunning view of Sedona and red rock country below.

My girlfriend and I set off on a gray December day. Our goal was to ride the twenty miles to the overlook and spend the night. It seemed like a solid adventure, but not so intimidating and difficult that we might be setting ourselves up for a brutal mission.

It turns out, you can go really far while bikepacking. The miles that crawl by while backpacking, roll by with ease and joy while bikepacking. Twenty miles of bikepacking is practically a leisure cruise. The stress your body accumulates is significantly less too. No more aching back and shoulders or blistered feet.

The single-wheel trailer was surprisingly nimble and easy to use. I was thrilled at how much it felt like just riding a bike. I often forgot the trailer, loaded with two people’s overnight gear, food, and water, was even behind me. On flat ground, the trailer offers no resistance at all. On uphills, I certainly felt the effects of hauling the 40-ish pounds, but not as much as I expected. I was still able to navigate tricky uphills, even technical sections of ledges and rocks.

Downhills were much more in control than I expected too. I thought I’d feel like an out of control 18-wheeler. But a good braking system handled the extra weight, and I could easily make my way down fairly steep terrain. I wasn’t treating bikepacking as the same experience as mountain biking. I wouldn’t choose the gnarliest expert trails. But the trailer can handle some, ahem, burley terrain. Much more so than I anticipated.

After twenty miles of gray weather and pine tree forest, we emerged from the trees and saw a spectacular and invigorating scene, sunset over the cliffs and red rocks of Arizona. It was truly special to be able to share the experience with my girlfriend. Making it to camp, I couldn’t believe how far we’d come in a single day. With elated spirits, we started dreaming up our next adventure.