The cadre of savvy bikepackers known as the experts will always say, “Drink before you’re thirsty and eat before you’re hungry.” That’s sound advice, but they sure skimped on the details, didn’t they? What to drink isn’t a big mystery; water is always a safe bet. What to eat on a bikepacking trip is where people usually go afoul.
Hydration and the ugly alternative
Dehydration is a nasty bit of business and can spoil your fun in a few short hours. The onset of a nagging headache, cramps, and a feeling of weakness are all signs you’ve botched staying hydrated. It’s tough to turn that situation around, so staying on top of your fluid intake requires constant awareness. The basic fundamentals of proper hydration are simple enough. For optimal results it’s always best to drink small amounts with more frequency than resort to chugging sessions a few times a day. How much to drink is relative to how your body performs within the scope of heat and intense efforts. As a general rule, a hot day can require as much as a liter an hour––or more.
With a high volume of water passing through your system, it’s important to maintain electrolyte levels. I’ll give you an example why this is so important. Even as an experienced rider, I once goofed and completely neglected to maintain my electrolyte levels. On a training ride 25 miles from home, my heart went into atrial fibrillation and needless to say, I thought I was toast. The three days spent in the hospital serve as a reminder to keep my potassium and magnesium levels up to snuff. So, don’t ever do that because it really sucked. These days, there are a number of excellent electrolyte options available. The best in my opinion was designed by world renowned sports scientist, Dr. Allen Lim under the Skratch Labs brand. In the opinion of many of the world’s leading cyclists, Skratch is as good as it gets.
Fueling your adventure
If you feel a need to melt a few pounds off your carcass, might I suggest a multi-day bikepack trip? Even at a slow mosey, bikepacking can burn anywhere from 400 to 500 calories per hour. Stretch that effort over a full day and you could be burning anywhere from 5,000 to 8,000 calories. Failure to consume enough calories can invite a horrible physical sensation cyclists refer to as a “bonk.” Right now our readers in Old Blighty are having a good laugh. To the Brits, the word “bonk” carries with it an entirely different meaning. Without getting all technical, bonking is the buzzword for common hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. Simply put, it means your body has burned all the stored glycogen it had to offer, and can’t produce enough glycogen from carbohydrates in your system to keep your body going. A proper bonk is an awful experience. Bonk on a ride with no food and you’ll seriously contemplate eating a handlebar grip. The challenge is to find calorie dense foods that are small, light, and travel well. Your food must also contain the normal balance of carbs and proteins needed to recover day after day.
There are common bikepacking foods and there are some real weird ones. Let’s attack the oddities first. My buddy Kurt as an example, relies on high calorie foods like Oreos, jelly beans, cheap trail mix, gas station burritos, candy bars, and any other junk within arm’s reach. He also won the 2700 mile Tour Divide race on those fuels. He’s not the only rider to burn junkfood on protracted epics, but a more sensible menu might include food bars like those from ProBar, Kate’s, Clif, or homemade bars. Trail mix is incredibly high in calories as are some drink mixes like Hammer Perpetuem. I find it helpful to have a balance of sweet and savory foods as too much sweetness wrecks my stomach and messes with my blood sugar. Standard backpacking meals like those from Backpacker Pantry and Mountain House are excellent options but will require the addition of a small stove and pot to your kit. Those meals pack big calories with minimal weight. Other foods like cous-cous and oatmeal can be rehydrated with cold water and offer much needed carbohydrates. I’ve become a big fan of the tortilla, peanut butter, and fig recovery wrap. It’s a nice balance of carbohydrates and protein and travels well. Speaking of figs, Fig Newtons rival a PowerBar for quality fuel. Just be sure to read food labels and most importantly, experiment before you ride off into the hinterlands.
An easy solution, pre-packaged backpacking meals are a great source of fuel for protracted trips. They taste better than you’d think.
I like to keep my quick fuels within easy reach. My Bedrock Wingate Stem Bags work great for that purpose.
When selecting foods, be on the lookout for empty calories. Jerky is a popular trail food, but it has the nutritional value of tree bark. Crackers seem to be another popular pack snack, but they’re little more than crunchy air. Even the ubiquitous GU pack seems to find it’s way into many food bags. Those are great sources of fuel for a quick bump, but keep in mind a standard gel pack contains a meager 100-125 calories. Suck down a dozen of those in a day and tell my you don’t want to barf. The last bit of food advice to give is this: If it doesn’t appeal to you at home, it won’t be appetizing in the middle of nowhere. That’s important because even for those of us who genuinely love to eat, cramming 8,000 calories down the hatch becomes a real struggle after a day or two.
For such an arduous effort, bikepacking is a ton of fun. So much fun, you can easily forget to stay on top of hydration and fueling. Keep your fluids and vittles close at hand and keep stoking the furnace. Drink before you’re thirsty. Eat before you’re hungry.
Tips learned the hard way:
Because it’s such a challenge to carry more than 5-6 liters of water on a bike, never leave a water source without filling your belly first. Drink your fill then move on.
If you find yourself yelling at a squirrel because it cut you off, chances are your blood sugar could use some attention. When things get rough, eat and drink.
Don’t forget smart backcountry skills and keep your food out of the reach of hungry critters.
Always take more food than you think you’ll need. It’s far better to come home with extra than run out.