Bike Camping & Touring: Gear Guide

Photo by Dan Murphy

For those looking to up the ante in their biking, “bikepacking” takes road biking and backpacking to a whole new level. But in order to be successful, it’s essential that you’ve got all the right gear. Here, we’ve got everything you need from bikes to bags to shelters, plus a handy directory to all the best community bike shops to hit up before you head out. 

The Bike

In an ideal world, you’ll be bike-camping on a purpose-built touring bicycle. Touring bikes come in two main flavors: on-road and off-road, the latter being a relatively recent development as mountain bike touring has become increasingly popular. 

On-road touring bikes are generally based around steel road bike frames that sport stouter than average tubing for carrying extra weight, and extra-long wheelbases for additional cargo space and straight-line stability. Compared to your average sporty aluminum or carbon fiber road bike, touring road bikes offer a more relaxed, upright riding position suited to long days in the saddle. Steel frames also flex slightly, which allows them to dampen some of the vibrations caused by the choppy road surfaces you’ll often find outside of the city limits. Tires, too, will tend to run much wider than the skinny, slick ones you see on speed-oriented bikes to further smoothen the ride. Manufacturers also tend to equip their touring bikes with shifting and braking components that emphasize reliability and repairability.

Off-road touring bikes apply nearly all of the concepts listed above to a mountain bike platform. These sturdy dirt-road tanks will generally not feature front or rear suspension (known as “rigid” frames) as those technologies tend to greatly compromise a bike’s cargo capacity. Due to MTB riders’ increased need for mud-shedding and stopping power, you’re more likely to find disc brakes on an off-road touring bike.

Whatever you’re riding, consider having your bike professionally fit to your body before you depart, as even small ergonomic issues can result in severe discomfort as the miles stack up. Lower back pain, hand numbness, knee issues and more can all result from a poorly fit bicycle. 

Photo by Dan Murphy

Racks and Bags

Don’t get it twisted, you don’t need to invest thousands of dollars into a touring bike in order to try out bike camping. Many bikes can be fashioned into tourers, provided they have space for racks and/or bags. Check your seat-stays and rear frame dropout for braze-on eyelets and mounting points. These should give you a good idea of whether your bike will be able to mount a rear rack. It’s also important to consult your bicycle’s warranty or owner’s manual, as many companies will list a max cargo weight that you don’t want to risk exceeding. 

The classic on-road touring setup involves a rear rack that supports two large panniers (saddlebags) with a 40-liter capacity. Riders carrying a lot of cargo for a multi-day tour will often add a front rack that mounts via the bicycle’s fork with two additional, slightly smaller panniers.

Off-road touring (sometimes called Bikepacking) is usually accomplished with large handlebar packs, frame bags, and seat packs strapped to your dirt machine. If your shoulders can handle it, there’s no shame in supplementing with a backpack as well. Waterproof helps in all areas here. 

Photo by Dan Murphy

Shelter and Supplies

Bike campers favor lightweight, compact gear, so if you’ve already got a backpacking setup, you’re in great shape. The truly hardcore will opt for ultralight bivy tents here, and hammock setups can also be a great way to save weight. Stoves, fuel, utensils, and the like should all be light and pack down nicely. Dry rations and ready-made camper meals might be a little monotonous, but they’ll save on weight, and when exhausted, time. Still, don’t forget to have fun. We often find a bottle of whiskey is worth the extra ounces. 

Clothing

If you don’t already own and use a padded bike short while riding, swallow your pride and get to it, you’ll thank us later. Make sure to use chamois cream to prevent irritation. Foot retention systems such as clipless pedals and cycling shoes help spread the workload to the muscles on the back of your legs and are especially helpful for rides that involve a lot of uphill climbing. 

Dress in layers, with moisture-wicking fabric closest to your body in the summer, and wool for the shoulder seasons and at night. Breathable wind-stopping gear can be nice on the blustery plains. A good packable rain jacket and set of rain pants can save you a lot of misery. Bring enough clothing that you always have a dry set of gear. Embrace the smells, they’re part of the fun.

For a brand new ride, a quick tune-up, advice on cycling routes, gear, or really anything else,  head to one of the Twin Cities’ many community bike shops. Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list to get you started. 

Community Bike Shop Directory

Angry Catfish Bicycle Shop + Coffee Bar

4208 S 28th Ave, Mpls
612-722-1538
angrycatfishbicycle.com

Behind Bars Bicycle Shop

208 13th Ave NE, Mpls
612-436-0255
behind-bars.com

Express Bike Shop

1158 Selby Ave, St. Paul
651-644-9660
exbike.com

The Alt Bike & Board Shop

3013 Lyndale Ave S, Mpls
612-374-3635
altbikeboard.com

Flanders Bros Cycle

2707 Lyndale Ave S, Mpls
612-872-6994
flandersbros.com

Freewheel Bike

Multiple locations
freewheelbike.com

Grand Performance

1938 Grand Ave, St. Paul
651-699-2640
gpbicycles.com

The Hub Bicycle Co-op

Multiple locations
thehubbikecoop.org

Lowertown Bike Shop

214 East 4th St, Suite 160, St. Paul
651-222-0775
lowertownbikeshop.com

One on One Bicycle Studio

4461 Minnehaha Ave S, Mpls
612-371-9565
oneononebike.com

Perennial Cycle

3342 Hennepin Ave S, Mpls
612-827-8000
perennialcycle.com

Recovery Bike Shop

2504 Central Ave NE, Mpls
612-876-5356
recovery.bike

Seven Spokes Bike Shop

1044 Cleveland Ave S, St. Paul
651-698-2453
sevenspokesbikeshop.com

The Smallest Cog Bicycle Shop

484 Robert St N, St. Paul
651-493-8862
thesmallestcog.com

Tangletown Bike Shop

816 West 50th St, Mpls
612-259-8180
tangletownbikeshop.com

Venture North

1830 Glenwood Ave, Mpls
612-377-3029
venturenorthbwc.org