Bikepacking From Chicago to the Beach

I’ve always been a biker – commuting from place to place throughout the city of Chicago to both move my body and get from point A to point B. Okay, maybe I love weaving through cars in traffic too, because who likes sitting in traffic during rush hour?.  But in the past few years, I’ve wanted to step it up and mix in the joys of outdoors, biking, and camping. While Chicago isn’t really known for its large swaths of nature, it does have a solid trail system that serves as a gateway to many nature oases.

Case in point: just a mere 50 miles away is Illinois Beach State Park – right on the border of Illinois and Wisconsin! The 50 mile ride is a nice quick jaunt for a weekend and can include fun breaks to explore and fuel up.

TIP: It’s always nice to check out the elevation profile of your bike ride. Some rides might seem quick and easy distance wise, but taking into account hills definitely can add some…oomph.

What to Pack for a Bikepacking Microadventure

The best part is that there are not a lot of extra costs associated with the ride. Through a lot of thrifting and REI garage sales (and borrowing a few things from friends), bikepacking can be really accessible. What I brought was loosely based off of the ten essentials of backpacking.  But really, what you bring is different from the next person! Know what works for you, and sometimes knowing at least the bare minimum for new bikepackers is a nice place to start. I also get asked, a decent amount “is there a specific bikepacking bike?” Nope. The bike you have is a perfect one.

  1. Navigation – my phone, mainly with an extra battery pack
  2. Headlamp – light sources, I have my bike lights and a headlamp for camping times. My luxury item was a LuminAID, which is lovely inflatable solar-powered lantern!
  3. Sun protection/bug spray – even if it’s cloudy, UV rays can still get through. Protect yourself from the sun and bugs.
  4. First Aid – for yourself AND your bike – this includes spare tire, pump, levers, and bike tools.
  5. Knife – including a gear repair kit. Nothing sours a camping trip like a deflated sleeping pad or holes. I brought along a multitool for this and a bit of duct tape and zip ties.
  6. Fire – lighter and my lint from the dryer packed in the cardboard toilet paper roll, flattened in a zip lock bag! It’s an excellent fire starter.
  7. Shelter – Tent! Sleeping bag! Pillow! Sleeping pad!
  8. Extra food – I basically use snacks to fill in extra space in my bags, this includes my cooking kit – backpacking stove, small kettle, and my mug. I always bring packs of instant oatmeal. They’re small, cheap, and pack a lot of energy in a pinch.
  9. Extra water – water bottle and a water bladder reservoir. The extra bottle lets me drop in a Nuun tablet so my reservoir doesn’t taste fruity forever.
  10. Extra clothes – basically extra layers. Do you research with the weather, but I always bring a rain jacket even if it looks dry! Know or be comfy with wearing the same clothes for a few days! It’s the outdoors! Relish in campfire smells! (Or hope that that campfire covers your natural aroma).
  11. A garbage bag of some sort – It’s absolutely necessary to make sure you’re taking care of the spaces around you for future visitors. Whether you use it, I always bring an extra bag to pick up trash – leave it better than you found it!

For specific bikepacking things – I stuffed everything into a small triangle bag (first aid, bike stuff, multitool), saddle bag, goodie bag on my handle bar, a front handlebar bag, and a small backpack. You can see what I had in my cockpit here (handlebar bag and goodie bag).

TIP: try to keep the heaviest things in your frame/under your seat so the center of gravity of your bike remains centered. It certainly makes it easier for turning and so things like your saddle bag don’t swing as much. I kept my backpack as light as possible because sitting in a saddle that long still makes my sit bones a teensy bit sore, even with cushioned bike shorts!

The Route

With everything planned and all my stuff ready to go, it was time to set off on a nice weekend getaway! The trip up north mainly follows one of the Metra train lines. All it took was an afternoon filled with urban, paved, and gravel paths surrounded by secluded forest preserves and views of Lake Michigan.

The Bahá’í House of Worship! It’s the oldest surviving Bahá’í House of Worship in the world, and the only one in the United States

Thankfully we’re in the Midwest, which is notoriously flat. My friends from mountains joke that what I consider “hills” aren’t actually hills at all. Regardless, it makes for a leisurely party pace so that when I get to the campsite, I still have the energy to celebrate!

There’s something about the white noise of the tires turning on pavement, and then on gravel that puts you in a space of peace and chill. You find a pace that’s comfortable, regulate your breaths, and it starts becoming meditative. It’s literally a hike on wheels. One foot in front of the other, and every once in a while you can lift your head, take a deep breath, and enjoy the world and peace around you.

Sometimes I’ll get to see another human, (in which case, a big ol’ “HAPPY FRIDAY!” jumps from my mouth) but like backpacking it’s a mobile place to find solace and break from that din of the city.

And when you reach your destination, with all your friends, it makes it all worth it. Because the biking’s done, now the camping and (birthday celebration) begins!

Bike and a tent at a campsite near Chicago

Friends, outdoors, bonfires, sunrises, good food and good libations. What more could you ask for?

Bikepacking can be a day or less away, or it can be days, weeks, or even months away. Whatever works for you. Any time outdoors is time well spent. Sometimes it goes as planned, and sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s ok! Welcome to adventuring!

Matt Moy
Matt Moy
Matt Moy hails from Chicago, but really their home is where the outdoors is. A climber, runner, acroyogi, yogi, bike(pack)er, and all around nature-y human who loves all things. His non-outdoor-ish life revolves around healthcare, public health, and activism. You can follow Matt's adventures through instagram.

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