Bikepacking is all about adventure - like traditional touring, but off-road - and typically with as little strapped to the bike as possible
What is bikepacking?
Bikepacking, in essence, is a multi-day tour by bike, completed on mixed terrain or entirely off-road with the rider carrying their equipment about themselves and their bike.
Bikepacking is “the ultimate freedom”, according to Lee Craigie, a former GB XC mountain biker and founding member of the Adventure Syndicate – a group of women actively challenging riders to seek out new adventures and question their limits.
James Olsen is the founder of the Torino-Nice Rally that covers 700km of the France-Italy border, and also the designer behind Pinnacle bikes. He first loaded up a mountain bike with bags for ‘lightweight off-road touring’ in 2003, moving on to riding with a bivvy bag and wild sleeping in 2010.
“[Bikepacking] has always existed, but lately companies have started to share a lot more inspiring imagery, and now people are interested. I think it is an outlet for cycling that isn’t focused on racing,” he says, adding that greater availability of equipment that makes bikepacking easier has aided its growing popularity.
Where do you ‘go bikepacking’?
The essence of bikepacking is one of freedom – of exploring any road, path, or expanse, that you like – provided you leave it in the same condition as you found it. Therefore, you can go bikepacking pretty much anywhere.
However, there are specific events designed to bring bikepackers together, as well as larger scale endurance races (like the Transcontinental) where most competitors will carry all they need aboard the bike.
Offering advice to beginners, Craigie said: “If you’re the sort of person who needs other people to try new things then an overnight event like The Capital Trail [which starts and finishes at Portobello Beach in Scotland] is a good start. Personally, I’d be tempted to head off on my own so I can get my head around things at my own pace.”
“Do whatever makes you feel most comfortable,” Olsen says: “solo 24 hour adventures are a good place to start – it doesn’t need to be epic or as part of an endurance event.”
Do I need to worry about safety?
It’s a common question.
“In general, don’t worry so much. People and wild animals aren’t usually out to get you, despite what your imagination likes to tell you when it’s dark and you’re all alone, and bike thieves exist but they’re not round every corner,” says Craigie.
Olsen offers a similar appraisal: “[How much you worry about safety] depends on who you are. Probably to anybody passing early in the morning, I’m the weirdo or potential druggie. I think it’s natural for people to be aware of their surroundings, but the scariest thing I’ve ever had was being woken up by police in Spain wanting to check I wasn’t some sort of down-and-out vagrant. As soon as they realised I wasn’t trouble it was fine.”
He adds, in his opinion “you’re safer camping out in the wild than you are riding on the average road on a Sunday morning or walking round town on a Saturday night.”
If you are worried, organising a ride with friends is a very good way to get started.
Bikepacking bike frames
Whilst luggage, tents, and other equipment might all be light, when combined the mass is likely to be notable and the frame needs to carry all of this across bumpy terrain. A slightly heavier frame is better than a cracked frame.
The best bike frame style will depend upon your aims and the routes you plan to take. A mountain bike will handle more demanding trails, but those aiming for speed and confident that the bike won’t hold them back on their chosen trails may look down the route of an adventure road bike, gravel bike or cyclocross bike or even a road bike if the route permits it.
More important considerations for a bikepacker planning to take most of their ride into the wild are the off-road ready elements of the frame – higher bottom brackets, wide tyres, perhaps disc brakes and mud clearance.
Craigie says it doesn’t need to be complicated: “[You need] nothing specific. That’s the beauty of these [luggage] systems. No bosses required. If you want to fit a framebag in there you might need to shop around a bit to find something to fit – or get one custom made – but I wouldn’t compromise my ride geometry for the sake of luggage.”
“I use my steel hardtail for everything and run a slick-ish tyre so I just have to play about with the pressure depending on whether I’m on- or off-road,” she says, adding that she prefers carbon wheels and Jones bars.
Olsen – who designs road, adventure, hybrid and mountain bikes for Evans Cycles’ Pinnacle brand also reckons a mountain bike is your best bet: “It’s better to be riding a mountain bike on the road for half of your trip than riding a lightweight cross bike and trying to ride that off road.”
“[The best bike for you] depends on your ride – if you want to do Transcontinental – get a road bike. If you just want to explore off-road, a mountain bike is best. Adventure road seems to be a massive category and is really popular but I don’t think they make great bike packing bikes.
“Drop handlebars, narrow tyres, they’re great bikes for a day trip – but as soon as you start loading the bike down with 5-6kg of luggage bigger tyres are really important. Look for bigger tyres than you expect you’ll need; 650b wheels are good as all of a sudden the bike becomes so much more off-road capable under load.”
In cycle touring, panniers are the order of the day for most riders – but the way they alter weight distribution means they’re not ideal for off-road bikepacking, and they widen the overall load so that narrow trails can become an issue.
More popular choices are frame bags, which sit in the triangle below the top tube. Seatbags attach to the seatpost, effectively like a very large saddlebag, and handlebar bags offer easy access to items you’ll want to access frequently.
“Part of the reason [bikepacking is] so popular is that really all you should need is the bike you’ve currently got, some bags, and an idea where you want to go. The idea that you can just strap these bags to your bike rather than worry about having a bike with eyelets and so on, is really why it’s got so popular,” Olsen says.
What you use is up to you, but Craigie advises: “durability of attachment points [is important]. Durability in general. Buy cheap, buy twice. Simplicity. A well thought through piece if equipment should be easy to mount and use.”
Bikepacking tents and equipment
So you’ve got your luggage options sorted – but what to pack? And how to carry it?
When it comes to sleeping, you can take a lightweight tent, or you could save weight with a bivvy bag.
“Different situations require different sleeping solutions. Fast and light, bivvy. Midges, long evenings, bad weather, I’ll take the weight penalty and carry a tent,” Craigie says.
Olsen has a lightweight tent but rarely uses it: “It depends on the conditions, there’s no answer to what’s best – but for me part of the pleasure of the experience is just appreciating being outside in a sleeping bag in a sheltered spot – and being able to wake up and see the stars.
“Being shut up in a tent wouldn’t be a part of what I enjoy. But if I was going out in bad weather with midges, there’s no way I’d do that without a tent – though a bivvy bag and a lightweight tarp might be easier.”
Whilst we’re on sleeping arrangements: It’s worth being aware that technically wild camping is not legal in the UK (except in Scotland) – all land is owned and you’re meant to ask permission from the land owner. However, many bike packers go by the ‘leave everything as you found it’ rule. It goes without saying, but leaving any destruction or rubbish is not cool.
Olsen’s bonus advice, which isn’t fun to learn first hand, is that “most cycle kit is designed for a few hours, maybe a day – outdoor dedicated kit can be best.”
What you’re going to cook food with matters, too.
Craigie varies the approach depending upon her trip: “I use a pocket rocket on a solo titanium mug and a tiny gas canister for overnights but if I’m going further afield a multi fuel stove is essential because disposable gas canisters have a hard impact on the environment and aren’t always available. They also don’t perform that well in cold conditions and I hate having to sleep with mine in my sleeping bag.”
Though you’ll be able to ride to a bike shop should you experience major problems, you’ll need to carry tools to maintain and care for your bike.
There are quite a lot of ‘pack lists’ available online – which can help provide inspiration – though she adds “[on my first trip] I didn’t need as much [equipment] as I brought with me.”
Enjoy it. It’s about freedom, exploration, adventure. You’re probably not racing.
“The only thing I wish I’d known when I started was how much I was going to enjoy it,” Olsen says, “because I probably would have done a lot more of it earlier on, it might have changed what I did on my bike when I had more time to do long trips.”