Bikepacking for beginners: The overnighter

Kurt Stafki

Kurt Stafki

Bikepacking is like backpacking. Except that instead of walking to campsites with everything on your back, you carry everything on your bike. Super basic stuff!

Some folks like to spend weeks, months, or years on the saddle, riding across the country or a network of backcountry trails and spending every night at a different campsite. Others would rather load up a bike, ride 30 miles to a campground, spend the night, pack up in the morning, and ride back home the next day. Both are bikepacking. And despite the suggestions of autocorrect, bikepacking is a word.

Spending one night camping by bike is what’s called an overnighter. That’s the easiest way to get into it, because you only need a limited amount of gear. You’ll still need a sleeping bag, tent, change of clothes, bike tools, water, snacks, and gear to prepare for changing weather, but not as much as you’d need with multiple nights.

Packing your gear in panniers or frame bags makes for an easier ride, but you can also wear a backpack with your essentials inside. (The latter isn’t quite as easy on the back or shoulders, though it’ll get the job done.) Map your route properly and you can even plan in a restaurant or bar stop so you won’t need to ride with cooking gear. Biking and bar food do go hand in hand, after all.

If you’re brave and seek a vision quest, go it alone. If you’re brave and prefer to have a rolling party, ride with a group of friends and find a group campsite. If you’re up for a true character-building activity, bikepack on a school night. There’s no right or wrong way to camp by bike, and it can be as challenging or as simple as you want it to be.

While it’s easy to fall victim to wanderlust and dream about spending a month camping by bike along the Pacific Coast Highway, most of us just don’t have the PTO or ability to get away for that long. Take it easy to start. Find a couple friends, select a weekend, plan your route, then ride to a local park for a night in the woods before packing up your bags and riding home the next day. You’ll be a pedaling Jack Kerouac before you know it.

Processed with VSCOcam with lv01 preset

Processed with VSCOcam with lv01 preset Kurt Stafki

Minneapolis is lucky to have several great bikepacking options for overnighters. It’s easy to find a place to camp in just about any direction from the city; some campgrounds even have campsites reserved for bikepackers and bikepackers only. Here, try these:

Baker Park Reserve

Let’s begin this short list with the easiest option. The route is about 30 miles west from Bull’s Horn bar in south Minneapolis — no matter how far behind schedule I inevitably fall, it’s important to make time for a beer before leaving on an overnighter — on a crushed limestone trail that’s built on an old railroad bed. (Read: no hills.) My first time bikepacking was here. You’ll ride paved bike trails to Hopkins, then hop on a gravel trail that’ll take you along Lake Minnetonka before getting to the park. We stopped in Excelsior for dinner on the way out and stopped in Victoria for liquor and breakfast food on the way back, which allowed us to ride without cooking gear. It’s pretty much the perfect place to bikepack if you’re just getting started.

Whitetail Woods Regional Park

If sleeping in a tent isn’t your thing (yet), you’ll like the cabins at Whitetail Woods. This would be what’s known in “the biz” as bikeglamping. The cabins were built about five years ago and are still trendy AF. It’s tough to get a reservation, so you’ll need to book this trip several months in advance, or save it for a weeknight when it’s easier to find an opening. The route follows suburban roads through Rosemount before escaping the sprawl and finding the park. This option isn’t 100 percent bikepacking-friendly yet — you need to pick up the key at Lebanon Hills the day of your reservation and there isn’t any firewood at the park, which means you’ll have to pick it up on the way and ride with it. Not entirely ideal, but the destination is absolutely worth it.

Afton State Park

With Bull’s Horn as a starting point, you’ll head almost due east. It’s a 70ish-mile round trip that’ll take you along the Mississippi River with a climb out of the river valley before a nice ride over rolling hills that’ll take you to the park. Drinking water is available and you can pay a small fee for firewood at the campground. Pick a summer weekend and meet up to ride after lunch. It’ll take you a few hours on a fully loaded bike. Then pitch your tent, build a fire, and relax in a hardwood forest before riding back home the next day.

Sand Dunes State Forest

Sounds like a magical, far-flung place, doesn’t it? While Sand Dunes is indeed magical, far-flung is not quite accurate.Of the four bikepacking destinations on our abbreviated list, this one requires the most riding. You’ll ride up the Mississippi River through Champlin, Elk River, and Big Lake before riding north from the river to the park. It’s about 50 miles each way. We stopped at Lupulin Brewing to wait out a storm and order pizza and still made it in time for a swim at the beach before dark. That night involved a substantial quantity of adult beverages, which then forced us to take the North Star Rail back to Minneapolis instead of riding another 50 miles. But in some cases, such as ours, that’s actually the best part: You can take the train home instead of getting back on your bike!

(It’s important to note that all of these campgrounds require reservations, so be sure to check availability in advance.)

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