instagram icon
open nav

A Guide to Getting Started as a Bikepack Racer

Have you ever considered racing but didn't know where or how to start? Our detailed guide from Meaghan Hackinen is everything you need including expert advice and strategies to go from zero to race hero. Featuring photos by Megan Dunn from the 2022 AR700. Read, ready, race!

A Guide to Getting Started as a Bikepack Racer

Whether you’re new to adventure cycling or have been packing off on backcountry excursions since Millennials were in diapers, it’s likely that at some point—perhaps inspired by a cinematic race documentary or a particularly obsessive bout of dotwatching—you’ve felt the call of competition; the desire to test your skill and stamina in a bikepacking race.

By way of example, my call arrived in the summer of 2016 when Lael Wilcox won the Trans Am Bike Race. I’d recently taken up randonneur cycling (a non-competitive form of endurance cycling with self-supported rides, known as brevets, between 200-1,200 km) as a way to explore my new surroundings after a move to the Canadian Prairies for grad school. A long-time bike commuter with several cross-continental tours under my belt, I was already accustomed to life on the road, including aspects of maintenance, stealth camping, and perhaps most importantly, the emotional ups and downs that accompany big days in the saddle. Randonneur cycling opened my eyes to the capacity for seemingly normal humans to endure extraordinary distances and seeing Lael—a young woman who mirrored myself in many ways—attain such an incredible win sparked my heart’s own competitive desire.

Since then, I have competed in bikepacking races between 380 and 7,200 kilometres in North America and Europe, with several outright wins and many more first-place female finishes. My track record also includes a handful of DNS’s (Did Not Start), and one DNF (Did Not Finish). I am excited to incorporate my first-hand experience in this “How to Get Started as a Bikepack Racer'' article, and help you avoid some of my frustrating, time-consuming missteps. Now, let’s get rolling!

Pick an Event

Your rig, skillset, preferred surface (for instance: road, gravel, or trail) plus ability to travel all factor in when choosing an event. Bikepacking races can be found in nearly every corner of the globe, spanning distances between 200 km (winter fatbike ultras) to 12,500 km (the TransCanada Bike Race). For a first race, the general recommendation is to choose something on the lighter side and use it as a stepping stone. This sounds sane and logical, right? Also, definitely advice I did not follow when I set out on my first competitive event: the Wilcox-inspired 6,800-kilometre-long coast-to-coast Trans Am Bike Race.

My advice: pick an event that inspires you, regardless of terrain or distance. What beckons you to venture into the unknown; what will motivate your efforts in the weeks and months of preparation to come? This is your time to embark on a path of self-discovery. And, as my successful finish of the Trans Am has proven, with proper preparations, even amateur racers can succeed in grueling, king-sized events.

Need some inspiration? Check out Dotwatcher’s searchable map, Bikepack Canada’s bucket list events in Canada (stay tuned for 2024 updates), or Grand Fondo Guide and event calendars, which both includes non-competitive ramblers and group rides for those who might not quite be ready to take the plunge into racing—or simply enjoy camaraderie.

Know the Rules

Self-supported bikepack racing is a whole different beast from triathlon, gravel, or road racing—the competitive disciplines where many cyclists start out. Though specifics vary from event to event, a general ethos of self-sufficiency governs the sport, including:

  • No drafting
  • Remain self-sufficient
  • Adhere to the course exactly
  • Carry a GPS tracking device and have it turned on when moving
  • Ride equipped with your own lighting, tools, and basic first aid supplies
  • Only resupply at commercially available sources or neutral support
  • Don’t be a dick

Most events will also have a rule book: READ IT. If your selected event doesn’t supply one, find a comparable event and review their rulebook, then follow up with your race director for clarification. Interpretation of self-sufficiency can vary among organizers around activities like riding with others, accepting gifts from trail angels, and asking for directions, so it’s important to understand what’s acceptable in relation to your specific event.

Since bikepacking races tend to be more grassroots in nature, you are unlikely to encounter any sort of official presence on course—perhaps a media car. Careful adherence to the principles of self-sufficiency is thus critical to the integrity and longevity of the sport. Know the rules and follow them.

Seek Out Community

I didn’t know a single bikepacker or competitive ultra-cyclist when I signed up for the Trans Am Bike Race in early 2017—the fact that my grad school cohort preferred poetry and cigarettes to physical endeavours may have also contributed to my athletic isolation.

So, I scoured the internet for relevant information and leaned on the support of the Prairie Randonneurs, who helped me dial in my setup over coffee chats and early season brevets. And while the insights I gleaned from online blogs and gear reviews—plus the help of my long-distance cycling club—proved sufficient to get me to the start line of the Trans Am, what got me across the finish was the guidance and support of the bikepacking community I connected with during the race itself. Truthfully: I could not have made it to Yorktown, Virginia, without the knowledgeable intervention of more experienced racers. The camaraderie among competitors—as well as my willingness to sponge up every breadcrumb of information—was crucial to my success.

Nowadays, I seek out community online and in person. Whether it’s meeting to swap stories or head out on a big ride, I find it incredibly valuable to connect with other bikepackers and racers for event recommendations, gear advice, plus those extended discussions on packing schemes and cockpit setups that our loved ones will quickly tire of. For instance, when I signed up for the Transcontinental Race in 2022—a self-navigating race across Europe where participants draft their own routes through mandatory checkpoints—I reached out to participants from previous editions to learn about their experiences, and wrap my head around the route building process. I still faced navigational difficulties, but I can’t even begin to imagine how much worse I would have fared without any direction at all.

Preparation is Key

“Just wing it” is a romantic notion that many of us in the planning averse camp cling to: the dream of tossing a few essentials into our bags and setting off into the valley of little-used roads and adventure untold; where tailwinds abound, and around every corner lies another pristine swimming hole.

And for logistically simple excursions with no rankings at stake, sometimes flying on a whim is the most freeing, satisfying thing in the world. However, in the realm of bikepack racing—where small mistakes can snowball into race-stopping avalanches—I would not recommend it.

For instance, imagine you forget to bring a spare tube for your tubeless setup. Fifty kilometres from anywhere, you get a flat that can’t be fixed. On a normal day, you could borrow one from a friend, or call for a lift (if you have cell phone service). During a race, however, both options are out of the question, and the remaining alternatives (hiking out, riding out on a thrashed rim, or hitching a lift to the nearest bike shop) will cost you serious time.

The best course of action is obviously to avoid situations like this in the first place: consider what might go awry and prepare for it. Choose terrain appropriate tires and pack that spare tube—plus whatever else you might need along the way. Below are some broad preparation considerations:

  • Body: How is my fitness? Are there any injuries I need to account for? Does everything fit properly (shoes, bib shorts, hydration vest) and still feel comfortable after a day in the saddle?
  • Bicycle: Is my bike tuned up? Have I replaced worn components? Do I have spare parts (including chain links and various bolts) for things that may break or need to be replaced? Am I competent in the most common forms of maintenance? Do I have all the tools I might need?
  • Gear & electronics: Do I have space for everything in my bags? Do I have adequate charging capacity for my devices? Do I have appropriate clothing, lighting, and sleep kit for worst case conditions? Have I tested my equipment and packed the right cables? Did I charge everything, replace all batteries, and pack spare batteries?
  • Route & navigation: Have I studied the route? Have I prepared a cue sheet with the resupply points, water sources, big climbs, and potential sleep options? Have I downloaded the most recent version of the route? Do I have a backup? Am I confident in navigating?
  • Event logistics: How will I get to the start/finish? What time do I need to set my alarm for on the morning of the race? Have I budgeted sufficient time off work? Have I wrapped up all my personal responsibilities? What are the communication expectations from my loved ones?

Race Strategy

Even if you’re not a planner, tackling race strategy at the most basic level can increase your chances of success and clear up headspace. Thinking about how you will address resupply, sleep, and pacing can go a long way. Additionally, it’s critically important to consider what you’d like to accomplish—this often goes back to understanding your own unique why.

Perhaps, with some reflection, you realize that what you’re actually interested in is connecting with other like-minded people as you explore remote and beautiful places—awesome! Grand depart-style events are great places to meet people, and there’s no rule against riding at your own pace. However, someone with a less competitive mindset will need to adjust their race plan accordingly. If your internal priorities conflict—for instance, if your goal is to set a Fastest Known Time (FKT) and savour the landscape at an unhurried pace—you might run into trouble. Better to set your intentions before you line up at the start than rush in without an understanding of what you’re hoping to achieve. Once you’re out there, you can adjust accordingly.

Schedule a Shakedown Ride

If you can swing it, undertaking a race-simulating shakedown ride is a great way to test your kit and gain other valuable insights.

For instance, three weeks before competing in the 2021 BC Epic 1000, I tackled the shorter Buckshot route. Other than building in a longer sleep break (and packing the associated kit), I prepared and rode as if I were competing in my upcoming event. From that experience, I made important changes to my bag setup and came away with a better understanding of how challenging it is to move at a consistent pace in the less controlled backcountry environment. Perhaps most significantly, I gained the confidence to ride through the gauntlet of challenges the BC Epic 1000 would later throw my way.

Other Tips for Success

  • Efficiency always trumps speed. In addition to training your muscles, practice taking care of your body and gear to ensure that you’re not bleeding time unnecessarily.
  • Patterns and consistency pay off. With so many things outside of a bikepack racer’s control (the terrain, weather, and speed of other competitors, to name a few) it’s important to dial it in where we can. Having systems to deal with gear and electronic storage, camp setup and teardown, and resupply will help you avoid silly mistakes like misplacing a charging cable.
  • Prepare for the worst because there’s nothing worse than being caught off-guard. Instead of shrugging off a bad weather forecast or rumours of a heinous hike-a-bike, for instance, assess what positive actions you can take to prepare—whether that’s increasing your water capacity, hitting the gym to build upper body strength, or finding creative ways to portage your rig.
  • Anticipate the rollercoaster: every race will have its ups and downs. When you’re flying high, enjoy it. When you’re riding low, know that you’re moving toward another (hopefully better) place. Nothing remains constant for long.
  • Have fun! Get to know other riders, enjoy the views, and savour this time away from daily responsibilities. Remember: you chose to do this. Additionally, having fun lowers Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)—and who doesn’t want a competitive advantage?
Visit Tailfin
Visit Tailfin