A hybrid of camping and mountain biking, bikepacking has become a popular way to explore the outdoors. It provides the freedom of backcountry camping while allowing you to cover ground faster than you would while hiking.
While Alabama is well known for traditional mountain biking at Oak Mountain State Park and thru-hiking the Pinhoti Trail, the state also has a trail that is part of the East Coast’s first long-distance bikepacking route. Known as the Alabama Skyway, the trail cuts through the Talladega National Forest and serves as the final section of the Southern Highlands Traverse. Its terrain and accessibility make it the perfect trail for first-time bikepackers. To help you get started, we’ve put together a few bikepacking tips, plus essential info on the Alabama Skyway.
Where to Begin
If you already have a mountain bike, chances are it can be modified for bikepacking. If you don’t, scour the used market before heavily investing in a new bike. The most important thing is that the bike is properly fit, comfortable to ride, and designed to handle the terrain you will travel. For those that must have new gear, head to your local bike shop and test ride a few.
Outfitting Your Bike
Gone are the days of needing a rack or bulky panniers to carry gear on a bike. You can attach bikepacking-specific bags to the seat, handlebars, and frame for efficient packing. A seat bag is excellent for carrying a sleeping bag, extra clothes, or anything else that’s bulky but lightweight and doesn’t need to be accessed while you’re riding.
Some riders use a handlebar bag to carry a sleeping pad or a tent. You can also attach frame bags to the bike to haul water, food, tools, and other heavier items. It’s a good idea to attach a bento box or a bag to the top tube to carry things that you need to access quickly, such as snacks, a camera, or a GPS unit.
You can also ride with a small backpack—somewhere between 10 and 30 liters—but it’s not recommended for highly technical rides. Avoid carrying a large backpack because it could throw off your balance on twisting trails or difficult terrain.
Like any extended camping trip, there’s a tendency to go overboard on the gear. Remember, the goal is to keep it light. Bikepacking essentials are basically the same as what you’d take on a multi-day camping trip. You’ll need a lightweight shelter, plus a sleeping bag and pad if you use a tent. You’ll also need a heat source, gear for cooking, utensils, water, a first-aid kit, bike tools, and a repair kit for flat tires.
If you’re going to splurge on gear, pick the items that are directly related to your comfort. If you invest in a proper bike seat, good shoes, the right clothing, and a high-quality sleeping bag and pad, it will make all the difference. A new tent may also be needed if you currently own an older one that’s heavier than necessary for bikepacking.
Taking a Test Ride
It might take some time to get accustomed to riding with gear, so take a test run before you head out for an overnight trip. This will help you adjust to the added weight and allow you to adjust your set-up. You may need to secure a bag or change the weight distribution.
It’s also smart to test your weighted ride while gaining elevation. The Alabama Skyway, while not a technical ride, does have challenging climbs. If you’re new to long-distance rides, you should take some day trips to build up your strength stamina before you embark on an overnight outing.
Biking The Alabama Skyway
Formerly called the Talladega Traverse, the Alabama Skyway is the last leg of the Southern Highlands Traverse, which is the combination of the Virginia MTB Trail, the Trans Western North Carolina Trail, the Trans North Georgia, and the Alabama Skyway. The Skyway is more than 120 miles long and stretches from the Georgia-Alabama state line on the Chief Ladiga Trail to Flagg Mountain.
It’s possible to ride the Alabama Skyway in two to three days, and you won’t have to hike-a-bike unless you come across fallen trees. Little of the trail is singletrack, and for the most part, you will travel on forest service roads, gravel paths, and paved roads.
The most challenging part of the Skyway is the elevation gain, as there are many prolonged climbs on steep grades. But the effort is worth it. The Skyway takes you up Duggar Mountain and into the Talladega National Forest, where you’ll ride through forests of longleaf pines and old-growth oak trees. You’ll summit the highest point in Alabama at Cheaha State Park and enjoy stunning views of the Pinhoti Trail before finishing up at Flagg Mountain.
Camping on the Skyway
There are plenty of primitive camping sites in the Talladega National Forest, plus other designated sites along the Skyway. You don’t need a permit in the National Forest to camp, but it’s a good idea to use a hanging bag to keep wildlife away while staying in primitive sites.
When to Go
Hunting is allowed in the National Forest from November to January, so avoid riding during this time. Like most Alabama outdoor activities, the best time to go is spring and early fall. The summer heat and humidity can make a long ride difficult and dangerous.
Taking a Detour
After you’ve ridden nearly 100 miles on service and paved roads, you might crave some singletrack. Right before you exit the Talladega National Forest, you can get your fix by riding the Sylaward trail system, which is located near the end of the last forest service road close to Lake Howard. Some of the best singletrack in Alabama can be found here, and it’s a refreshing way to start the final leg of the ride.
Written by Hap Pruitt for Matcha in partnership with BCBS of AL and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.