Mark and I have been travelling by bike at home in New Zealand and overseas for years. And last year, we set off on our most challenging bikepacking adventure to date: to cycle the length of the Americas along the mountain ranges of the American Cordillera.
We've completed more than 19,000 kilometres on our journey, but we’re only halfway through to our finishing point in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. Along the way, we’ve eschewed convenience in favour of mountain ranges, deserts, jungles, and everything in between.
We’ve tested our limits — and our gear — to breaking point. We’ve learnt a lot, and if you’re curious to kickstart your own cycling adventure, here’s our advice:
Why bikepack at all?
Whether you're planning a weekend getaway close to home, or an expedition that takes you halfway around the world, travelling on a mountain bike gives you maximum flexibility to explore.
A ‘lightweight’ bikepacking setup can open up a new realm of possibility for bike exploration, taking you away from pavement and cars and allowing you to ride dirt roads, single track and to connect the dots of the back country — away from the classic tourist routes.
For us, bikepacking enables a much richer travel experience. We’ve discovered unique landscapes, interesting wildlife, remote communities, the hospitality of strangers and of course, some incredibly fun riding.
Where to go bikepacking
Both New Zealand and Australia have many possible bikepacking adventures. A couple of our favourite short rides in NZ are the Old Ghost Road and the Heaphy Track, with many more options in the New Zealand Cycle Trail network.
A bigger challenge is the 3000km Tour Aotearoa. This route traverses the length of the country and incorporates a variety of single tracks, bike trails, gravel and paved roads and is an excellent introduction to long distance bikepacking.
Two of Australia's classic rides include the scenic Tasmanian Trail and the more challenging Hunt 1000 Australian Alps Trail, with plenty more to choose from via Cycle Trails Australia.
The Americas are popular for their variety and the multitude of well documented longer rides that are available. The USA is well known for a wide variety of rides — from the non-technical but mountainous Great Divide which travels border to border the length of the USA — through to the technical single track of the Colorado Trail.
We chose our Alaska to Argentina route for its consistency as a line (the Darian Gap is the only interruption) and for the fact that it traverses such a huge diversity in terrain and culture. Our favourite resource for all things bikepacking is www.bikepacking.com.
We are constantly asked “how do you ride so far every day" and “doesn't your bum hurt"? Conditioning your body over a period of time is essential for long distance touring, however this may not be feasible before setting out on a journey as long as ours!
We highly recommend your start out with weekend rides close to home to test and refine your gear. You can also determine whether or not your saddle is comfortable. Getting a professional bike fit will also save you from developing any potential injuries that could ruin your trip.
Once you are underway, take a few weeks to build up your daily distances, and be sure to take frequent rest days for your body to recover. As much as it is about the riding, we also love to explore and photograph the ever changing landscapes around us, and to enjoy the food and culture wherever we are.
How to choose the right bike
For longer distance cycling adventures, steel is still the frame material of choice. A good steel frame provides a much more comfortable ride on bumpy roads than aluminium — and unlike aluminium or carbon fibre — can be repaired by a competent welder. We don’t ride with suspension forks (to avoid failure in remote places and expensive maintenance) but for shorter tours on rough roads they can be great. Flat handlebars, comfortable grips and a saddle you're accustomed to will keep you happy on the bike.
29 inch wheels are the most popular size for long distance touring, but 27.5 inch is the wheel size of choice for domestic bikepacking adventures or tours of up to a few months. Bear in mind that in developing countries tyres and other parts can be scarce; it’s essential to have some bike maintenance knowledge and to carry some spare parts, such as cables. Running your tyres tubeless (with sealant) reduces punctures and ensures your bike handles well on a variety of terrain.
Mechanical disc brakes are superior to rim brakes; you can still ride on a buckled wheel, won't destroy your rims over time, and work better in wet conditions. It’s near impossible to insure a bike on a long overseas tour, so don’t go overboard with titanium and top end components. Keep it practical and durable. We generally aim for Shimano SLX or XT components for their replacement availability, and the only titanium parts on our bikes are the handlebars — for absorbing the road bumps.
This will all depend on how and where you choose to bikepack: research a setup that suits the style of riding you want to do.
Selecting your gear
As with our choice of bike setup, lightweight, durable and versatile gear is key. Each piece has been carefully chosen with consideration to materials, size and weight.
For sleeping bags we chose DriFill Down Pathfinder Water Resistant Sleeping Bags, and XT Ultralight Down Jackets for the colder conditions. They both pack down small into the limited space we have, and we never have to worry about them getting wet and not functioning well.
Our Zeolite Active Jackets take up minimal space in their pack away pockets. They’re worth their weight in gold when the weather turns nasty or we need protection from the wind and rain. Merino garments like the Saddle Hoody double as warm layers and casual outerwear and save on laundry, as they don't get smelly!
One item that has proven to be invaluable is our LuminAid solar light — it’s clipped onto the bike during the day to charge and night after night has illuminated our many campsites.
Navigation on the road less travelled
For cycling navigation, handheld or smartphone-based GPS is the norm rather than the exception these days. The adoption of digital mapping by adventure cyclists has opened up a new world of cycling opportunity beyond that presented by traditional maps.
With an app such as Gaia GPS or OsmAnd, map tiles can be downloaded for offline use. Used in conjunction with a GPX track uploaded to your device, it’s hard to take a wrong turn. Many cyclists prefer to use a smartphone over a dedicated device for the ease of operation and the larger screen; just be sure to use flight mode and dim your screen to preserve battery life.
Mounting the phone on your bars with a QuadLock or similar device means you can navigate on the roll. Typically ride preparation begins at home with tools such as Ride with GPS and Google My Maps which allow cycling routes to be planned, downloaded or shared.
Long-haul adventures need the right gear. And thanks to adventurers like Hana and Mark, we've evolved our gear to be even more adaptable — so you can do more, with less.