5 Easy Steps to Successful Bikepacking Navigation
Navigating in the outdoors is not rocket science. Here are a five bikepacking navigation tips on how to stay on track while getting lost but not being lost.
1. Know Your Route
If you are going to get yourself exposed in the outdoors while bikepacking, you better know where you are heading. Planning and preparation are key to a successful trip. It doesn’t matter if you are going on an overnighter just 50 km away from your house or biking across the continent, you need to familiarize yourself with the route you are taking and the terrain around you. Doing the planning beforehand and not second guessing yourself in-route will make your trip a lot more enjoyable.
Take note of major landmarks along the route, long climbs, steep descents, and long stretches without resupply. Mentalizing the route will help you navigate the terrain.
I usually spend months analyzing topo maps and researching local trails when planning a multi-day bikepacking trip in a foreign country. There’s no substitute to actually being there and maps and aerial photos only tell half the story, meaning planning a trip never gets old.
2. Know Your Location
Now that you are familiar with your route, you need to know where you stand. Even though I think traditional paper maps are an underrated art form, I haven’t carried a paper map in my backpack in years. GPS has made paper maps obsolete.
Knowing where you are will help you make decisions like: Should I keep pushing or should I just call it a day and setup camp for the night? There’s no way to answer this question if you don’t know where on earth you stand. Your bikepacking navigation skills should correspond to the remoteness of your route. The more remote you are, more planning you’ll have to do.
There are many ways to know your location. You can use a compass, your phone, or a dedicated GPS unit. Pick your tool of choice depending on your route requirements and your skills. If I’m navigating around somewhat familiar terrain, and I know I’ll be able to find outlets along the way, I just carry my smartphone. I prefer to take a dedicated GPS with replaceable batteries when taking off on a multi-day trip without access to a reliable source of electricity though.
3. Be Flexible
Planning is great. Planning makes bikepaking navigation easier, but following a line on the map is not the end goal of a bikepacking trip. Don’t feel like you have to follow your route by all means. Accept that somewhere along the line you’ll have to take a detour. Be it because of trail conditions, a washed out bridge or deteriorating weather. Also, be ready to bow down and turn around when the trail requires a technical level that surpasses your riding skills.
I’m not ashamed to admit that, a couple times, while traversing Spain along the Camino de Santiago route, the night was falling and we were several miles away from our destination for the day. We made the decision to get on paved roads so we could roll a little bit faster and get to town in time for dinner and have the opportunity to rest for the following day. I’m pretty sure no one will be judging you if you take a 20 km detour on a 14 day trip across Spain. If they do judge you… who cares?
4. Keep Track of Sunrise and Sunset
Navigating at night is way harder than during daylight hours. At night, you lose the ability to “look ahead” and you can only see as far as your lights can reach. If you have the science behind bikepacking navigation down and you are comfortable riding at night, by all means, go for it. But if you are like me and biking in the wild at night scares the hell out of you, make sure you keep track of Sunrise and Sunset times.
If you have cellphone and data signal, all it takes is to type “sunset” into Google and you’ll find current local sunset times. If you don’t have cell signal (I hope you don’t), many GPS devices will display that information. Even my wrist watch is capable of displaying sunrise and sunset times.
5. Have Fun!
Don’t worry. After a couple of trips, you’ll be proficient in bikepacking navigation. Like I said at the beginning, it’s really not rocket science.