Bikepacking in Minnesota: Getting Lost & Finding Adventure

By Brian Fanelli

Bikepacking in the Superior National Forest

It’s not hard to see why bikepacking—like minimalist backpacking, but on your bike—has exploded in popularity over the last couple of years. It’s overnight, self-supported bike camping, riding primarily on low-maintenance forest roads, logging trails, gravel and singletrack—everything you love about backpacking, plus the extra speed, distance and thrill of a bike trip. Bikepacking offers an unbeatable mix of breathtaking scenery and backcountry exploration.

For beginners trying to plan a bikepacking trip, there’s a conspicuous lack of Minnesota routes available online. According to Josh Klauck, owner of Angry Catfish Bicycle Shop + Coffee Bar in Minneapolis, that’s because publishing your routes runs counter to the bikepacking spirit. “There’s not a ton published, and that’s the best part of bikepacking to me,” he says. “One of the great joys of bikepacking is that you can get virtually everywhere; just jump on and ride.”

With more than a third of Minnesota’s land area classified as forest, the countless low-maintenance forest roads and logging trails that crisscross our state forests are perfect for getting off the grid. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which manages our state forest land, is on board, too: “Mountain biking is permitted on all state forest roads and trails unless posted closed, with the exception of Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest, where mountain bikes are permitted only on designated trails.”

Josh Kowaleski, avid bikepacker and sales manager at Spokengear Cyclery in Two Harbors, recommends that you “just look at the state forest map, pick a few campgrounds and figure out how to connect them. It’s about that sense of exploration.”

You might get lost—in fact, you almost certainly will—but sometimes getting lost is the best way to find adventure.

What to Ride

Bikepacking in the Superior National ForestIn typical bike industry fashion, there’s a seemingly endless variety of bikepacking bikes on the market, so it’s easy to feel like bikepacking is impossible without the perfect bike. But don’t let the marketing fool you, because chances are good that you’re already the proud owner of a perfectly capable bikepacking rig.

Hardtail and rigid mountain bikes both make excellent bikepacking steeds, and in many cases, even a cyclocross or touring bike will suffice. Just look for these three qualities and you should be good to go:

  • Comfort, because this isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. Bikepacking adventures are often multi-day affairs, with long hours in the saddle each day of the trip, so make sure your handlebars, pedals and saddle are all comfortable enough for the long haul. Nothing ruins a trip like an uncomfortable bike.
  • Wide tires, because where we’re going, we don’t need roads. Dirt, mud, gravel, snow—these are the essential ingredients of a good bikepacking trip, so you’ll want a bike with tires wide enough to handle them. What that means is up for debate, but generally speaking, anything wider than 40 millimeters is good enough to get started.
  • Low gearing, because spinning up hills is a lot easier than walking.

How to Pack

Unlike the rack-and-pannier setup popular with on-road bike tourists, bikepacking luggage is defined by lightweight, rackless bags that attach directly to your bike, the most recognizable of which are the seat pack, handlebar roll and frame bag.

Standard bikepacking setup with Cedaero bags
Minimalist bikepacking setup / Cedaero, Two Harbors

The seat pack is a waterproof, oval-shaped bundle mounted beneath your saddle and over your rear wheel—ideal for lightweight essentials, but nothing too heavy (some seat packs are prone to sway when loaded down).

Your handlebar pack is typically used for bulky, lightweight items like a sleeping bag and clothing. Most bikes aren’t meant to carry a heavy front load, so don’t get too enthusiastic when loading your handlebar pack; that’s what your framebag is for.

The framebag fits inside of your bike’s main triangle, offering lots of storage room, central weight distribution and a great place to stash your heaviest items.

If that doesn’t seem like a lot of space, that’s because it’s not. Remember: Less is more when it comes to your bikepacking supply list. According to bikepacking.com, your primary supplies should include sleeping gear, kitchen/food, tools, first aid kit, cell phone and, last but not least, a reliable navigation system.

Traditional paper maps are available for all 59 state forests, while interactive geoPDF maps and new paper maps are being rolled out over the next few years as part of a DNR effort to update all of the Minnesota state forest maps. The geoPDF option lets users download maps onto a mobile device using a variety of map apps, tracking your location as a blue dot on the screen. Paper maps are available for free at a local DNR office, by email and phone (888-646-6367), and geoPDF maps are available online.

Bikepacking Destinations in Minnesota

Bikepacking in the Superior National ForestThe Superior National Forest, found in the Arrowhead region of northeast Minnesota, is an unrivaled bikepacking destination. Over 3 million acres of land, water, rock and trees are within the Superior National Forest, including the massive and remote Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Known for its vast, isolated setting and a thriving boreal forest ecosystem, the extensive forest roads of Superior National Forest are ideal for a Minnesota bikepacking escape.

It’s also home to one of the few documented Minnesota bikepacking routes, Straddle and Paddle, first published by Peter Pascale on bikepacking.com. The 180-mile trip is expected to take between three and four days, with 81% of the trip on unpaved gravel and dirt roads. “This route travels relatively flat national forest double-track and gravel roads, and includes easy logistics for camping, water and food re-supply,” says Pascale. “If you’re hungry for singletrack, you can always check out one of two great trail systems along the route.”

Day two consists of an optional but highly recommended canoe tour of the Boundary Waters’ Kelso loop. Bicycle riding is not permitted in the Boundary Waters, but canoe rentals and maps are available from Sawbill Canoe Outfitters (they'll even watch your bike while you're paddling). Day-use permits are required to enter the Boundary Waters, but good news: They’re free and don’t require a reservation.

Canoeing in the Boundary Waters
Canoeing in the Boundary Waters / Peter De-sibour
 

 “The forest holds many surprises, including waterfalls, hidden inns, classic outfitters, the highest point in Minnesota and an abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps camp,” says Pascale. “Celebrate the end of the ride at any of several great breweries on the Superior shore, enjoy the World’s Best Donuts (seriously), and know that any one of several local bike shops in the region can support your adventure.”

But like we said, following the published routes isn’t really what bikepacking is about. It’s about exploring the wilderness for yourself. Both of Minnesota's national forests (Chippewa and Superior), along with all 59 Minnesota state forests are brimming with incredible bikepacking routes—you just have to find them.

Salsa Cycles Presents: Touching The Sun from Salsa Cycles on Vimeo.