Bikepacking | Where the Trip Taken is the Destination
Part 1 Thoughts on Bikepacking in Arkansas
Arkansas is full of backcountry camping opportunities including over 50 State Parks and two National Forests. Due to the remoteness of these land conservation’s, many of the roads leading in, around, and through these iconic areas are scenic themselves. Thousands of miles of unpaved roads (gravel) cover the state in the Ozarks, Ouachitas and Delta weaving through some of the most beautiful areas of Arkansas. With bike packing, the trip taken is the destination. Those highways and byways typically traveled by car become an intimate part of a bike packing journey. From cresting gravel road climbs canopied by trees to fresh water springs trickling out from the mountain sides, the Natural State was made for bikepacking.
Like backpacking, bikepacking in Arkansas offers experiences that can only be found by bicycle while using similar gear one would pack for a self-supported hiking trip. Similar or in the same family as road tour riding, bike packing tends to favor a slightly more aggressive bicycle like a mountain, gravel, or cyclocross bike that can handle a path less beaten like gravel roads, creek crossings, and even single-track trails.
The bike industry has taken note and many companies are starting to offer versatile bikes purpose built for bikepacking, but most any bike that can fit a 38mm gravel tire or larger mountain bike tire will suffice. If you are an avid cyclist, chances are you already own a bike suitable to bike packing. That aluminum frame cyclocross bike you bought 5 years ago will do. That steel frame, fully rigid mountain bike you replaced with a squishy bike just needs dusted off. Flat bars, drop bars, rigid or suspension forks, disc or cantilever brakes… the beauty is there is enough gear, racks, packs, and sacks on the market to accommodate any setup. Your local bike shop typically has options in stock or can order more bike specific bags but bring your bike and any existing packs or racks. When shopping for additional gear it is important to see how the various items fit, or don’t fit, together. For bike packing, keeping gear dry is important and most of the bike specific bags you’ll find are basically dry bags affixed to a mounting system made for a bicycle.
Depending on your pain tolerance (looking at you single-speeders), maybe more important than the bike is the drive train itself. While that 50-tooth chainring may let you smash out the flats on a Tuesday night group ride, you’ll find less use for it ascending thousands of feet through the Ozarks or Ouachita mountains with 30+ extra pounds of gear strapped to the bicycle. While everyone’s physical abilities vary, on average (as in your average cyclist) I’ve found having something close to a 0.70 to 1 (0.70:1) gear ratio available will keep you pedaling up most loose surfaced sustained grades even when loaded down with a tent, cookware, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, dresser drawer worth of clothes (Arkansas weather is volatile), necessities, food, multiple liters of water, lights, electronics, and the kitchen sink. (Full disclosure: I’m currently running a 32-tooth chainring with an 11/46 rear cassette for bikepacking and find even the more aggressive climbs can be pedaled, although at that pace I’ve seen Garmin’s pause because they thought the rider was stopped so don’t plan on setting any KOM’s.)
Bikepacking is typically “self-supported”, meaning you are responsible for you. You know your own hydration and nutrition needs. On bigger trips it’s not uncommon to burn over 4000 calories in a single day. To put that in perspective an average man needs around 2500 calories a day to maintain his weight. A snickers bar has 215 calories. I’m not saying you need to pack 18 snickers bars per day (although you’ll find new friends if you do), but you need to be prepared. Knowing the route and available stops for refueling will help you know how much nutrition to pack with you. There’s a reason there’s a market for purchasing designed bikepacking and touring routes as most of the companies have done this homework for you. Typically carrying a days worth of rations regardless of available stops will ensure you won’t get hangry.
For hydration I opt to carry water on the bike and not on my back. While it seems easy to strap on your 3-liter hydration pack and take off on a 50-mile adventure, moving those liquid pounds (they move around) off your body will save your back muscles and lower your center of gravity by carrying the weight of the water on the bike. Several frame bags are designed to carry a bladder, but for me I hydrate better with traditional bottles (personal choice here) and carry two easily accessible 24oz bottles at handlebar height and then an additional 64oz canteen strapped low to one of the forks. I offset this with gear strapped to the other fork as the “balance” of all your loaded gear is important. With water stops an amenity on some routes, investing in a $20 personal water filtration system like a Sawyer is essential.
Some of the best advice I was given early on was to keep to your normal schedule. When its lunch time eat lunch, not a handful of raisins (lesson learned). Your body is conditioned to absorb larger amounts of calories at certain times so feed the beast. Bonking in the middle of a National Forest can take you to some dark places and while you can overcome it, it can be avoided by keeping up with your hydration and nutrition needs before, during, and after a long day in the saddle.
Once you have a bike and bags its time to start putting stuff in them. With its similarities to backpacking, you can find a multitude of gear list online or at most outdoor retailers suitable for bike packing. If you’ve spent any time outdoors chances are you already have a good portion of the list collecting webs in the garage. From headlamps to first aid kits most of the items will be familiar. Most backpacking gear can be measured by 3 variables: weight, pack-ability, and durability. Rarely will you find an item that meets all three. There is almost always a compromise. Lighter weight items are typically less durable but can pack down smaller.
A couple areas to focus on are your shelter and sleep system as these can be some of the bulkier items. While that $35 dollar 35-degree bag you purchased to go car camping with buddies will do, there are several options available that will pack down much smaller and be more apt to carrying on a bicycle without becoming overly cumbersome. These items are referred to as “ultralight” and while I don’t typically count grams, the reality is that the lighter items will more easily pack down to a size optimal for bikepacking.
For sleep systems there are again a plethora of options from sleeping quilts to sleeping bags, but I found a 35-degree synthetic sleeping bag that weighs around the same as my tent and packs down to the size of a football to fit my needs. Down-filled materials are going to be of higher quality (and more money), but for bike packing most folks recommend a synthetic sleep system. If down filling gets wet it no longer works as an insulate, where synthetics can get wet and still hold in your body heat. Pretty important for when the weatherman inevitably blows his “best guess” for the weekend forecast.
In addition to a sleeping bag or quilt an inflatable pad (completing the sleep system) will go a long way towards a better night’s rest AND holding in heat. Several of the pads you’ll find are designed around heat retention and most inflatable pads will pack down surprising small. With a sleeping pad in mind make sure you have a ground cover with your tent setup. Ground covers provide an extra layer between your pad and that sharp object you missed when setting up your tent in the dark.
For clothing I recommend an on the bike and off the bike approach with light weight layers making up the most of your kit. Pack versatile bike gear like arm and leg warmers that are easily removed and shy away from full length bibs (again personal choice, but if nature calls in the middle of nowhere you are basically getting naked in the woods at that point). A vented lightweight rain jacket doubles as a wind breaker in most cases, and the same kit can be worn several days with an extra under short tossed in for good reasons. Off the bike gear depends on the season, but a set of clothes for living the camp life will be a welcome change and a lightweight synthetic “puffy” jacket packs down small and will keep you warm on cool nights around that campfire in the fall or spring.
That’s the basics of bikepacking. Any recommendations I’ve made are based on experiences I’ve had while exploring a few hundred miles of backcountry roads in Arkansas. You can find people more knowledgeable than me waiting to help at your local bike shops and outdoor retailers. What I didn’t learn on the bike I most likely learned from them. With a backyard full of mountains, some of the most scenic highways in the country, and gravel roads are ready to take you to lands lost to time, you don’t have to look farther than your own driveway to take a bikepacking trip in Arkansas. Chances are you already own the bike and half the gear.
Part 2 of this post will detail a few routes (with GPS files) for two and three day trips here in the Arkansas Ozarks and accounts of experiences had while bikepacking in the region.
About the author: Brannon Pack serves as the Executive Director of the Ozark Off Road Cyclists, a regional nonprofit that advocates for, builds, maintains and preserves sustainable multi-use trails for hikers, mountain bikers, trail runners, and dog walkers. Additionally, he is a brand ambassador for Arkansas State Tourism and volunteers his time to highlight the cycling opportunities in the state. Currently he is developing a bike packing route across the northern part of Arkansas from NWA to Memphis which he and a motley crew plan to ride this April.