Going on escapades by bicycle is nothing new. Still, with renewed interest in getting back to nature, wild camping, and outdoor swimming, bikepacking is having something of a moment. This has not escaped manufacturers, leading to a booming market for adventure-ready bikes and kit. But what exactly is bikepacking? And what do you need to give it a go?
What is bikepacking?
Bikepacking is lightweight, multi-day touring, with an emphasis on travelling quickly across varied terrain. Bikepackers differ from the tradition socks-and-sandals touring brigade both in the bikes they use and the luggage they carry.
Largely forsaking racks in the quest for lower weight, instead the bags used by bikepackers strap directly to the bike. With less carrying capacity, bikepackers prize minimalism in their kit choices. While this can result in an ascetic disregard for luxury, it also helps keep their laden bikes light enough to remain fun to ride.
On road or off, as a tribe bikepackers consciously seek out remote and challenging terrain. While events like the self-supported Transcontinental and Tour Divide can be competitive, as a movement bikepacking puts an emphasis on experiences and camaraderie rather than results. Sound like fun? Here’s what you need to know before you get started.
Wild Atlantic Way
Any bike with wide enough tyres to comfortably convey the rider and their kit across a range of surfaces could be a potential bikepacking mule. However, cycling loves specialisation, so there’s a whole new and amorphous genre of bikepacking bicycles out there to pry you from your cash.
"Bikepacking, all-road, gravel, adventure touring, gnar-road. There are lots of labels, some sillier than others. What unites all of the bikes behind them is the ability to tackle mixed terrain"
Bikepacking, all-road, gravel, adventure touring, gnar-road. There are lots of labels, some sillier than others. What unites all of the bikes behind them is the ability to tackle mixed terrain, while potentially carrying the gear to support your ride, either via panniers or more characteristically, and as we’ve already alluded to, in dedicated, lightweight bikepacking bags. You can read our full buyer’s guide to gravel bikes here, otherwise here’s a quick overview.
With cheaper bikepacking bikes likely to be made of aluminium or steel, posher machines might be titanium or carbon. And while many have fittings for traditional racks, mudguards, or even dynamos, others are far more stripped back.
Typical of the breed are knobbly tyres of at least 35c wide, with maximum clearance generally up to around 40c - although some brands are experimenting with smaller 650b wheels and monstrously fat tyres. Whatever the wheel diameter, pressures are kept low for grip and comfort. Many makers will also attempt to build a degree of compliance into the frame to insulate the rider from the terrain.
In keeping with their off-road capabilities, geometries tend to be long and slack for stability. At the front high head tubes and wide, flared bars make covering the brakes easy and take some of the sting out of spending all day in the saddle. Gearing is wide and easy for lugging yourself and kit up tricky climbs, while for safety disc brakes are near universal. Similarly, tubeless tyres cut down on punctures caused by rocks and craters.
Although there’s some cross-over with standard touring, what makes bikepacking unique is the luggage. Bikepacking bags are light, easy to fit and remove, and most don’t require racks.
"What makes bikepacking unique is the luggage. Bikepacking bags are light, easy to fit and remove, and most don’t require racks"
Strapped under the saddle, a rear bag is where most people start. A good place to carry significant weight, once it’s full you can move packing duties to the front of the bike. More prone to affecting the steering, handlebar bags are good for carrying light but bulky items such as sleeping bags and mats, or puffer jackets.
Many riders will also utilise the space inside their frame, by filling it with additional storage in the form of a frame bag. Then there’s the option of fork-mounted holsters, top-tube snack boxes, extra water bottle mounts, and a whole raft of other oddities to consider.
While you might just about be able to lug around your old army surplus gear, getting some decent lightweight kit is a prerequisite for an enjoyable bikepacking trip. A hierarchy of items to try and shrink might run as follows, depending on the demands of your trip: tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, cooking gear, warm jacket, waterproofs, riding kit. Many riders will even rough it by swapping a tent for a bivvy bag (waterproof sleeping sack) and tarpaulin. Don’t worry, not everything needs to be miniature, but a huge sleeping bag and tent won’t fit in most bikepacking bags.
Devising your own preferred kit-list is the work of a lifetime, and will alter with each mission depending on conditions, duration, budget and your willingness to slum in. However, here are a few pointers.
Sleeping and shelter
Get a light tent, or ditch the inner fly from your existing one to reduce weight. Alternatively, toughen up and use a bivvy bag and tarp. Down sleeping bags are expensive but lighter and more compact than synthetic alternatives. An inflatable sleeping mat saves space over a basic foam mat.
Cooking and provisions
A single cooking pot can be packed to contain both gas and a small stove. Go for titanium or plastic cutlery to save weight and design yourself meals that can be cooked in a single pot. Freeze dried food in pouches can be good for extended trips but taste like utter garbage.
Clothing and kit
Take versatile items that can be used in multiple situations. A good packable insulated jacket can keep you cosy sitting out after sundown, and be worn in your sleeping bag for additional warmth. Take a compact waterproof shell too unless you’re sure the weather will be dry. Wool kit can be worn for several days without stinking. Get some merino socks as a minimum.
A GPS can help with navigation. Basic hiking models will trump bike-specific when they run on replaceable AA batteries (if you won’t have the opportunity to charge a bike computer). Neither should replace a map. A powerful light is not only good for riding at night but can illuminate your camp too. A well-stocked repair kit for both you and your bike is also essential. Remembering midge spray and sunscreen can be the difference between heaven and hell.
Gary Crawford / Creative Commons
Where to go bikepacking
You can go for a micro-adventure just about anywhere, even within riding distance of a major city. However, because of the right to wild camp Scotland leads the way when it comes to venues in the UK to go bikepacking. Elsewhere you’ll need to book a campsite, or go poaching. The Lakes in England or the Cambrian Mountains in Wales are just as wild and don’t want for little-driven access roads or remote campsites.
Heading further afield, with less severe weather than the high Alps, the Maritime Alps region which spans southern-eastern France and north-western Italy is fast becoming a bikepacking hotspot. Elsewhere in Europe, the little explored Caucasus Mountains in Georgia are both stunning, and surprisingly accessible.
Need more inspiration? Here are seven of the best bikepacking adventures - in the UK, Europe and beyond.
Tips for your first bikepacking trip
1) Pack light
The main reasons to go bikepacking over traditional bicycle touring are to allow you to travel quicker, cover more varied terrain, and have greater fun doing so. Carrying too much gear is the surest way to sandbag these aspirations. Pack only the essentials and invest in some light and minimalist camping equipment. Plenty of items, like pumps or stoves, can be shared between groups. Plan with your friends so as not to double-up.
2) Be prepared
In conflict to our first tip, always ride prepared. Heading away from civilisation, and possibly phone signal, means you need to be able to keep both yourself and your bike rolling. This means bringing appropriate tools, spares and the knowledge of how to use them. The same goes for first-aid. Take a course, and bring a compact kit to patch yourself up.
3) Plan for the terrain, not the mileage
While hills and headwinds can slow up a ride on the tarmac, add in a loose surface and your speed will suffer even more. Loose gravel or muddy ground can cause your average speed to drop, while roads not regularly traversed by car can be extremely steep. Try and look up accounts from riders who’ve gone before and be conservative in your estimated daily distances.
4) Learn to read a map and do your research
A GPS is a great tool, but you should also learn to read a map. If you need to change your plan for whatever reason it’ll be your first port of call. Work out a sensible itinerary, with a contingency plan. Crucially be sure of where you can top-up on water, and carry more than enough food. From midges to bears, know what the region holds in store. If you’re wild camping make sure you do so legally and leave no trace.
5) Bring one comfort item
Bikepacking is fun, but it can also be tough. Take one item that’s sure to perk you up. It could be chocolate, a mini chess set, or a hip flask of whiskey. Mine is Tabasco sauce. And remember, always have fun. If there’s a lake, swim in it. At night build a fire. Breakfast should be porridge, not energy bars. Leave your Strava turned off, and stop to take pictures.