What do you get when you combine the flowy singletrack thrills of mountain biking with the borderline masochistic, type 2 fun of backpacking? Bikepacking, of course! Bikepacking is the trendy portmanteau taking over the outdoor world, and it’s conveniently a great way to explore Utah’s incredible landscapes.
If blending those two activities sounds like an intimidating logistical hurdle, fear not, for we’re here with this introduction to Utah bikepacking. We have some tips about gear, bike setup, best practices and some recommended routes to try out. This should help you get started without getting into the granular details, because as we all know it’s not nearly as fun to read about being on the trails as it is to actually be out there. Read on and get rolling. It’s bikepacking time.
Get ready to pony up several thousand dollars for a handcrafted, titanium hardtail with an elevated top tube for maximum front triangle storage space and numerous bosses, braze-ons and pannier racks. Nah, I’m joking. The best mountain bike for bikepacking is the one you already have. Yup, that mid spec, dented aluminum trail bike with the bushing play in the fork and a bald rear tire is perfect.
Frame bags, seat packs and handlebar rolls, oh my. Taste in bikepacking bags gets about as personal as one’s preference for cilantro—I find it delicious—but there are a couple principles that are helpful when sorting your gear storage. The first is to keep your handlebar roll load relatively light when packing it. A heavy load mounted to your steering axis will make for some wonky handling characteristics on trail. The second is to make the most of your seat pack as they’re far less cumbersome than pannier racks during an inevitable hike a bike section. Some seat packs play better than others with dropper posts, such as the Revelate Vole, which is well worth the investment. Lastly, a top tube bag is an ideal spot for items you might need to grab quickly like a headlamp or light rain layer.
If you want to really optimize your carrying capacity, it’s worth looking into custom bags to suit your ride. Local Utah experts at Broad Fork Bags can help dial your bag game, and they’re happy to give some helpful suggestions on what will work for you. If custom bags seem a bit spendy, just remember they’re far cheaper than a new frame. An economical solution to help manage your gear is a mid-sized daypack, which you probably already have laying around.
If you’re heading out into the wilderness, there’s a good chance you’ll end up outside of cell service and far from roads or outside support. In these instances, it’s never a bad idea to have a lifeline to get a message out in case there’s an emergency. BivyStick sells a satellite communicator accessory that works with your cellphone. The Utah-based company doesn’t require long-term contracts, instead allowing you to purchase messaging capabilities for a short time like the duration of your trip. It also never hurts to carry a few Voile ski straps and more robust set of tools and spares (a patch kit for your tires, an extra chain link, a spare derailleur hanger and a shift cable for a start) than you would on a post-work hot lap.
Let’s not get too into the weeds here, because you’re a mountain biker so you don’t need a long-winded laundry list from some random person on the internet. That said, a fully-loaded bikepacking rig puts increased stress on the suspension and wheelset, so adding a few PSI to your fork, shock and tires is never a bad idea. A couple other factors worth pondering are handlebar height and sweep. Often using a handlebar with a slightly higher rise and additional sweep will be more comfortable for longer days in the saddle than the cockpit setup you've chosen for maximum shreddage in the corners. Lastly, consider changing your contact points like grips and saddle to make sure you have components that aren't making you regret your life decisions on hour seven atop the bike.
You don’t need to be a top-flight race mechanic to be useful on trail and get yourself out of a pinch. Sign up for a bike maintenance class or head down the YouTube rabbit hole to learn the basics of changing flat tires, adjusting a derailleur and remedying annoying brake rubbing.
Here are a few incredible bikepacking routes in Utah. They range from short and manageable to enormous and daunting. Start small. Those miles are tougher to cover than you’d think with a full assortment of backpacking gear strapped on board.
The Strawberry Narrows Trail is a great starting point for the burgeoning bikepacker. The trail runs along the stretch of water connecting the Strawberry Reservoir to the Soldier Creek Reservoir for about nine miles over rolling, buff singletrack. It’s friendly terrain for a maiden voyage on a loaded bike, and there are comfortable, shaded campsites in the forest along the way. The moderate distance and elevation change should provide plenty of time to set up camp and enjoy the evening before you bike back to your starting point on day two.
This 74-mile loop in the San Rafael Swell is an ideal three-day trip once you have a bit of experience. The Swell is a stunning geologic formation on the Colorado Plateau not far from Moab, and the incredible scenery will help the miles pass pleasantly. Though the distance is a serious step up from Strawberry Narrows, the elevation gain isn’t severe and a good portion of the trail is over unpaved road rather than technical singletrack. With essentially no hike-a-bike sections and highlights like ancient petroglyphs, pioneer ruins and dramatic sandstone buttresses, the San Rafael Swell loop is enjoyable for beginners and experienced bikepackers alike.
This one certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. The Bears Ears Loops route covers 700 miles of trail through the Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. The remarkable landscape is remote, dramatic and incredibly culturally rich. The ride through the monument, which was created in 2016, was recently cataloged in meticulous detail by the nonprofit group Bikepacking Roots, which has compiled a 100-page guidebook for the route. Bears Ears is a treasure, and there’s no better way to immerse yourself in it than to bikepack through it. If you have the endurance and the experience, this is the bikepacking route in Utah you’ve been looking for.