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 on 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.
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James Olsen is the founder of the Torino-Nice Rally that covers 700km of mountainous gravel roads 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 camping 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, following the Leave No Trace principles. Therefore, you can go bikepacking pretty much anywhere. There are plenty of set routes available online too, which almost guarantee great riding if you don’t fancy putting a route together yourself.
However, there are specific events designed to bring bikepackers together, as well as larger scale endurance races (like the Tour Divide) 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 Edinburgh] 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, more robust frame is always 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 – wide tyres, luggage mounting options, disc brake compatibility 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 bikepacking 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.”
When it comes to componentry, you might want to choose lower gearing to cater for long distances and the added weight of your equipment and choices like flared handlebars on drop-bar bikes can make a considerable difference to how much you can store in a handlebar bag. Of course for multi-day riding, a comfortable saddle is a must.
When cycle touring, panniers are the order of the day for most riders – but the way they alter weight distribution can mean they’re not ideal for off-road bikepacking, and as they widen the overall load so that narrow trails can become an issue. This also means you’ll need a rack or set of racks to attach them too.
More popular choices are strap-on bikepacking bags, including frame bags, which sit in the front triangle, seatpost bags which attach to the seatpost, effectively like a very large saddlebag, and handlebar bags at the front. Then additional bags like top tube bags, snack pouches and fork-mounted bags can all give additional storage options.
“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 sleeping systems
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, a bivvy bag or a hammock, plus a tarp for the latter two in worse weather.
“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 and on Dartmoor) – 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.”
Kit for cooking up
What you’re going to cook food with matters, too.
Craigie varies the approach depending upon her trip: “I use an Optimus Cruz 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.”
Other bikepacking essentials
Though you may be able to ride to a bike shop should you experience major problems, you’ll need to carry tools and spares to maintain and care for your bike, especially if you’re heading into more remote areas. Some spares to remember include inner tubes (whether you’re set up tubeless or not), a puncture repair kit, chain quick link, a spare mech hanger for your bike plus extra chain lube, some electrical tape and a few cableties always help!
Bike lights, a GPS computer, and a charging system such as a battery pack or even low speed specific dynamo hubs are other things to consider too, though Craigie’s key items are “spare lights and single malt.”
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.”