Seven awe-inspiring bikepacking routes
Whether planning an adventure in the UK, Europe or further afield, these routes are all great starting points
Bikepacking is booming. You can tell just by the number of super-sized seatpacks appearing on commuter bikes all over the UK’s cities, in place of the good old saggy pannier of yore. But what are you supposed to do once you’ve got all the gear? Go out exploring and actually use it, of course.
Bikepacking is a tough one to get into. The amazing adventures of others all over Instagram can act as a spur, but the actual practicality of going on a trip are still tricky to pin down. Particularly if you’ve never done a trip on a gravel bike before.
If you need more advice on how to get started in bikepacking, check out our complete guide, but once you’ve committed to planning a trip, where should you go?
“Whether it's an around-the-world epic, or a local overnighter, the fundamentals of bikepacking adventure are the same,” says Josh Cunningham, author of Escape by Bike.
“I'd always advise biting off a bit more than you think you can chew, because you'll probably have a bigger adventure for it"
“I'd always advise biting off a bit more than you think you can chew, because you'll probably have a bigger adventure for it. Of course, be careful; spend time making sure you have the right equipment for the ride, and a good idea of what to expect in terms of terrain, climate, and resupply points. But, sort of by definition, you have to be adventurous to have an adventure, so choose a ride to reflect that.”
With that in mind, we’ve selected seven of the best bikepacking routes, at home in the UK, in Europe and further afield – with rides for complete bikepacking beginners to experienced gravel grinders. Of course, the list is by no means exhaustive and the best adventures are the ones you discover by yourself, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use the below to fuel your bike stoke.
Best bikepacking routes in the UK
The South Downs Way, England
Not every bikepacking trip has to be a round-the-world epic and we’re starting close to home with our first route. The South Downs Way is the perfect intro to bikepacking, with 160 glorious kilometers (or 100 miles in old money) of challenging terrain along a brilliantly signposted route. The standard approach is to do the route over three days, breaking the century up into manageable chunks – however, the wonderful thing about bikepacking is it’s so flexible, so there’s no reason you couldn’t do it in two days, four days, or do the double (there and back again) across a long weekend.
Between the end towns of Winchester and Eastbourne, you’ll find little flat road – in fact, little road at all. In 100 miles, you’ll pack in 3,810m of ascent on a mixture of chalk, flint, grass and gravel. The path has long been a favourite among off-road riders because it manages to feel incredibly remote, while never really being that far from civilisation. It’s like discovering an alternate dimension or a hidden world, just a short train ride from London.
Whether you’re after a test route on which to trial your equipment setup ahead of one of the more epic routes on this list, or you simply want to give bikepacking a go over a single weekend, the South Downs Way is a brilliant mini-option.
Argyll Trail, Scotland
Ah, Bonnie Scotland; where better to continue our list than what is the most rugged but also generally agreed to be the best looking of the nations that make up the UK?
The Argyll Trail combines buttery-smooth, brand new on-road sections with singletrack, forest roads and some truly challenging off-road sections, creating a joyous mixture of the epic and the enjoyable. Rumour has it, there are even some bits of bog to be traversed. Lucky you.
The route, which starts and finishes in Helensburgh, takes in the towns of Portavadie, Tarbert, Oban, Lismore and Port Appin. Expect stunning seaside vistas, plenty of distilleries at which to stop for a wee dram along the way, plus the unavoidable hordes of midges if you choose to make your trip in peak summer.
Highlights include the rugged Ardgartan Peninsula, steep coastal roads of East Kintyre, and sprawling views from the Allt Dearg Community Wind Farm, with a grin-inducing descent to Achahoish to follow. While the Argyll Trail is 655km in total, you can break it down into bite-size chunks, all a relatively short drive away from Glasgow.
Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland
The Wild Atlantic Way claims to be the world’s largest coastal trail, connecting the towns of Kinsale in the Republic of Ireland with Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland. The route is a bit of an epic, but compensates the intrepid rider with spectacular coastal scenery along almost every metre.
Hugging the coast as it does, there’s very little straight, flat road along the entire route, meaning lots and lots of up and down. There is less gravel and unmade road on the Wild Atlantic Way than you’ll find on the other routes we discuss in this piece, but that’s not to say it’s an easy ride. Expect to be buffeted by strong Atlantic winds and have your breath taken away frequently by the beauty of the raw, untouched landscapes.
The official guide suggests a whopping 53 days to do the entire length, but that’s based on a rather sedate 42km per day. With a well-balanced bikepacking rig, you should be able to manage double that a day, if not triple.
Best bikepacking routes in Europe
Camino Santiago by the Via de la Plata, Spain
Distance: From Sevilla, 1,068km
Perhaps better known as a route of pilgrimage by foot, a surprising number of the people arriving at Santiago de Compostela actually do so by bike. The number of pedal-powered pilgrims on el camino is as many as 25,000 in a given year, more than demonstrating its viability as a cycle route. That being said, there are actually five different ‘official’ start points on the Iberian peninsula from which to approach Compostela, some offering pristine road surfaces and relatively short total distances, which we might not call ‘proper’ bikepacking routes.
For those who like their adventuring a little bit lumpier and bumpier, there’s really only one choice: the Via de la Plata. Beginning in Sevilla, the route constitutes more than 1,000km of backwoods tracks, gravel and some paved road too, taking the rider on an incredible odyssey from the southern extreme of Spain to its northerly tip.
Along the way you’ll pass through the regions of Andalucia, Extremadura and Castile & Leon before arriving in Galicia. And if that’s not enough for you, there are actually plans afoot to connect Mont Saint-Michel in France with Santiago de Compostela, potentially allowing riders to join the two in a truly epic endeavour over 1,400+ kilometres.
The Torino-Nice Rally route, Italy & France
Distance: 600-700km; total ascent: 15-20,000m
A challenging, high-altitude escapade from Turin in Italy, across the Alps and into France, the Torino-Nice Rally is an organised, self-supported bikepacking event that happens every year in September. The rally itself has no fixed route, allowing participants to choose their own path, adding in extra loops, climbs and manifold other types of suffering should they wish to. Just because it’s an organised event, however, doesn’t mean you can’t tackle it – or something very similar– completely under your own steam.
Oh, and did we mention the climbing? You better really dial in your setup for this route, with absolutely no unnecessary weight, because there’s a staggering 15-20,000m of elevation packed into this route’s 700-ish kilometres. Highlights include the big names like the Colle delle Finestre and Col d’Izoard, as well as the lesser-known but infamous-among-those-who-do ‘Little Peru’ section.
Otherwise, the Alpes-Maritimes region of France has become something of a hotbed for bikepacking. It’s easy to understand why, with a combination of high mountain passes and jaw-dropping coastal roads, a favourable climate, and an endless network of marked off-road trails.
Best bikepacking routes around the world
Trans Atlas, Morocco
Distance: 565km; total ascent: 7,100m
You won’t be surprised to hear that the Trans Atlas in Morocco goes across the Atlas mountains. Morocco is tantalisingly close to Europe, yet definitely different enough in both climate and culture as to represent a real and challenging bikepacking adventure.
This truly epic mountain crossing begins to the north of the range in Ait Adel, and winds up 565 kilometres later in Mhamid. You’ll be in for some serious rough stuff from the very start, with off-road trails all the way along the route. The route totals 7,100m of vertical gain, with most of that front-loaded and the final stretches being either downhill (still taxing, given the surface) or flat on the way to the finish.
High heat during the day adds an extra layer of difficulty to this route, and you’ll want to keep sources of water at the front of mind all the time. Highlights are the Saghro Mountains, the Oases of the Draa Valley and the sand dunes of Erg Chegaga.
Carretera Austral, Chile
Distance: While the Carretera itself is 1,200km long, you may well find your distance exceeds that as you wind your way along the spine of the continent.
Cycling the length of South America, or indeed all of the Americas, is a dream of many, and few of those dreams would be achieved without spending at least some time on the Carretera Austral.
Connecting the stunning vistas of Patagonia in the south with Puerto Montt, about halfway up the length of Chile, the Carretera takes riders through some of the most beautiful and desolate terrain on the planet. With most riders choosing to go north-to-south on this route because of the prevailing winds, the further you go, the more wild and untamed the landscape becomes.
Being Chile, there’s plenty of Andean action along the route, with lots and lots of testing gravel climbs to keep your average pace well below 15kph most of the time. There are also a fair few fjords and ferry crossings that will eat into your overall time – something to factor in when planning the adventure of a lifetime.