Our kit picks for two weeks bikepacking around Central Europe: how to cater for wild camping to city wandering

From camping gear to clothing suitable for seven hours straight riding and blending into the crowds of Budapest - plus everything for carrying it all on a bike!

Image shows Anna on a bikepacking trip in Central Europe.
(Image credit: Stefan Abram)

With this bikepacking trip across Hungary and Slovakia we wanted to do something a little different. 

As Cycling Weekly's Tech and Fitness Features Editors, we (Stefan and Anna) have both done long-distance, multi-day, ultra-riding type epics before: bringing only the absolute necessities and minimising time off the bike for maximum mile-munching efficiency. 

Now, this might be a slightly controversial way of putting things, but you can think of it this way: if your only goal is completing a feat of physical endurance – with the roads, cultures and communities just being a backdrop to your effort – then you might as well just put in those hours and those watts back home on Zwift, rather than travelling anywhere specific. 

Image shows Stefan and Anna in Bratislava during their two week bikepacking trip around Central Europe.

(Image credit: Stefan Abram)

Obviously that's being a little hyperbolic! There's plenty of nuance that we love to explore and discuss in an evening round a fire... But the point still remains that if you're travelling to experience the history, cuisine and topography of a country, then the kit you’ll be wanting to bring a long is going to be a quite different to the extreme minimalism of ultra-distance riding. 

If you want to read about all the adventures, mishaps and biblical downpours; the castles, ice caves and gravel, then just hop over to our full write up of our bikepacking trip from Budapest to the mountains of Slovakia. If you've never considered flat pedals for bikepacking, our opinion piece on the pros and cons of flat shoes and pedals for bikepacking and gravel riding is just over here. And finally, for the full review of the Fara F/All-Road Series 2 Anna was lucky enough to be riding, as it's certainly one of the best bikes for bikepacking

Otherwise, let's get stuck into the kit we brought, what was great, and what wasn't quite so good...

BAG SYSTEMS

Image shows the Tailfin bag set up on the Fara F/All-Road Series 2 Anna was riding.

The Fara F/All-Road Series 2 against the Happy Bull Hostel we stayed in for a night in Košice

(Image credit: Anna and Stefan Abram)

We went two very different routes with our chosen modes for carrying our kit: from a pure bikepacking AeroPack and cargo cage combo to the more traditional touring silhouette of a rack and pannier backpacks. 

Starting with Anna’s set up, she had the Ortlieb Handlebar Pack QR upfront, Tailfin’s strap-on roll-top dry bags (known as the V-Mount Pack and Cargo Straps) up front on the fork legs, and the Tailfin AeroPack Alloy out back on the rear – with accompanying 'Cage Packs' strapped on for good measure.

Just as an overview before getting into the details, using cargo cages and dry bags in this way – along with the AeroPack and the handlebar bag – actually makes a seriously noticeable difference to the aerodynamics of the bike, compared to that of a pannier set up.

Image shows Stefan riding towards Esztergom Basilica in Hungary

(Image credit: Anna Abram)

Cargo cages and all the rest also makes for a lighter system weight, but it’s really the air resistance where the difference is most significant. 

With a set of wind-catching bike panniers, Stefan would barely reach above 50kph – even on the long mountain descents – due to the exponential way that aerodynamic drag works with increasing speed. 

On the one hand, this did save save his brake pads a lot of work. But on the other, it does mean that headwinds are much, much tougher to ride through. An AeroPack and cargo cage system, by contrast, is much faster and more efficient in both cases! 

Anna's kit

Ortlieb Handlebar pack QR

Image shows Anna cycling away from St Elizabeth's Cathedral in Košice

(Image credit: Stefan Abram)

We’ll be quite brief because we have a full review already up on the site, but the Ortlieb Handlebar Pack QR was just as great for this trip as it is in general use.

The purpose we gave it was mainly for storing our food (always make sure to factor space in for that!) and the 13L capacity was excellent for being able to just load it right up at times when we expected a long gap between when we’d next be able to resupply. 

The mesh side pockets also proved useful for stashing used wrappers on one side, and keeping a smartphone on the other (when it wasn’t pouring down with rain). 

Tailfin V-Mount packs

Image shows Anna riding the Fara F/All-Road Series 2 with Tailfin V-Mount packs attached.

Anna riding from the Hungarian/Slovakian border to Košice

(Image credit: Anna and Stefan Abram)

This was our first time using these bags for a long distance ride. Ironically, the Fara F/All-Road Series 2 didn’t actually need them, as it does have triple bosses on the fork legs for a more standard standard cargo cage and dry pack combination. 

But given the usefulness of the Tailfin V-Mount Packs on so many other bikes (it’s incredible how many of the best gravel bikes don’t have triple mounts), we strapped them on and put them to the test anyway.

And the V-Mount Packs did prove to be utterly brilliant. First off, it’s very useful being able to weight the front of the bike a little more and balance out the weight distribution. It can be easy to go quite rear heavy when bikepacking and end up with unpleasantly light steering. These packs really help with that, which makes them even more useful beyond just their extra storage capacity.

Image shows the bike set up on the Fara F/All-Road Series 2 Anna was riding

(Image credit: Stefan Abram)

And despite being loaded to be brim, the V-Mount Packs stayed rock solidly in place, thanks to Tailfin’s cargo straps – which deserve a similar portion of the credit. These might look a lot like a Voile strap, but whereas those are actually designed primarily for skis rather than riding, and the Tailfin ones have many bike-specific elements to their design. A key one being the plastic buckle that doesn’t (and didn’t) damage your bike, yet is also incredibly robust – you can even step on them!

The waterproofness was flawless – and we rode through downpours that soaked us faster and more thoroughly than a hosepipe would manage, so we can fully attest to this. 

You can take the V-Mount Packs on and off, but it is a bit fiddly – like mounting a transponder to your fork for a race, but multiplied by four. So we just left them on the bike at all times and that worked pretty much fine.

View Tailfin V-Mount Packs on tailfin.cc

Tailfin AeroPack and Cage Packs

Image shows Anna packing the Tailfin AeroPack.

(Image credit: Anna and Stefan Abram)

The Tailfin AeroPack has been around for a while now and we already have a review of the AeroPack S Rigid Seat Pack model. But just to cover the same ground briefly – it’s an excellent design for carrying much more kit than you could manage with even the best saddle bags – the AeroPack is also much more stable as well. It’s a plus in both aspects. 

The universal thru axle for mounting the pack has to be up there with the neatest design solutions. You can swap in different thread pitches to suit the overwhelming majority of bikes out there, and removing the pack is as simple as unpopping three quick release fasteners.

So, the AeroPack holds more than a saddle bag, it's more stable and (once you have the thru axle in) it's faster to mount and dismount. You couldn’t really ask for more. Plus the thru axle itself is no more difficult to remove when cleaning the bike than a standard thru axle anyway.

The alloy frame version we had is cheaper than the carbon and reassuringly robust. We attached a pair of cargo cages and ran it with a set of Tailfin’s Cage Pack dry bags. These were easier to remove than the front bags, but the long straps needed to hold them in place did prove a bit of a faff at time. 

That said, the Cage Pack bags performed their job perfectly and we wouldn’t swap them out for anything else were we to go round again – so that tells you something.

View Cage Pack on tailfin.cc

View Cargo Cage on tailfin.cc

Stefan's kit

Ortlieb Vario PS pannier backpacks

Image shows the Ortlieb Vario PS pannier bags on the bike Stefan was riding.

(Image credit: Anna and Stefan Abram)

Panniers? Why!? 

Yes, in a few ways panniers aren’t ideal for this length of trip – they are very bulky, and this particular model is one of the heavier options. But there is a very good reason why we wouldn’t have gone with any other system.

Ortlieb’s Vario PS pannier backpacks are reversible and can be converted into a backpack in a matter of seconds. For all our walks around cathedrals, castles and museums on the way, being able to keep our valuables (a laptop, camera and money), some layers and some food, with us at all times was a really massive help. 

Image shows Anna wearing the Ortlieb Vario PS pannier backpack while sightseeing in Kosice.

Anna walking towards the St Elisabeth Cathedral in Košice, Slovakia wearing the Ortlieb Vario PS pannier backpack

(Image credit: Anna and Stefan Abram)

Simply put, we wouldn’t have been able to see the things that we did without the versatility of these bags. 

Finally, as with all the other kit, the Ortlieb Vario PS panniers had their waterproofing very thoroughly tested and passed without a problem.

Tailfin Mini Panniers

Image shows Stefan riding with the Tailfin Mini Panniers.

(Image credit: Anna and Stefan Abram)

Up front, to boost the carrying capacity and balance out the weight distribution a bit, I was using a set of Tailfin’s mini panniers. 

Now these are really neat. They have a quick release mechanism for easy removal – a matter of seconds, just like the Ortlieb Vario PS panniers – but where they outperform Ortlieb panniers is that Tailfin's Mini Panniers actually clamp onto the rack and stay steadfastly in place. Although Ortlieb bags don't auto-eject, they are prone to rattle about, which is a little annoying.

The profile of these mini panniers is nice and low. Although on Stefan’s bike the aerodynamic damage was already done by the larger panniers at the rear. In other set ups, the Mini Panniers would be – relatively – streamlined. Bigger options are available if you want to cram in more kit, though. 

View Mini Panniers on tailfin.cc

Restrap Bar Pack

Image shows Stefan packing the Restrap Bar Pack.

(Image credit: Anna and Stefan Abram)

Again, another previously reviewed item. Restrap’s Bar Pack is nice and easy to use with its roll-top entry system. That said, we did under-use this bag for this trip – it’s where we kept one of the sleeping bags and, as such, only ever opened it once per day. It did that job excellently though! 

Old Man Mountain Divide Rack

Image shows Stefan attaching the Ortlieb Vario PS pannier backpacks to the Old Man Mountain Divide Rack.

(Image credit: Anna and Stefan Abram)

The foundation for carrying all this was the Divide Rack from Old Man Mountain. 

This rack can be mounted on either the front or the rear of your bike (Stefan used one for each) – and even has the option to be mounted using the thru axles, for bikes without the necessary mounts. 

With a significant number of modern gravel bikes eschewing traditional mounts, this is a feature that is really very useful.

As the Sonder Colibri Stefan was riding did have the necessary mounts, we didn’t bother with the thru axles. On the rear, this was fine. But on the front, the rack ended up being rather higher than it needed to be and meant there wasn’t much space for putting anything else on it. The Restrap handlebar bag was even getting propped up by it!

Not an issue with the rack, though, just a warning that you’ll almost definitely want to go with the thru axle mounting on the front, if you decide to go down that route.

View Divide Rack on oldmanmountain.com (opens in new tab)

CAMPING

MSR Hubba Hubba tent

Image shows the MSR Hubba Hubba tent.

(Image credit: Anna and Stefan Abram)

For this trip we were using the MSR Hubba Hubba tent. It’s not the lightest option, using metal poles rather than the carbon fibre that some models come with. But it’s a very good balance of robustness, packability and general ease of use. 

On the packability, it’s really great that the bag it comes in (as with all MSR tents we’ve previously used) is generously sized and has compression straps. Getting the tent in it is a breeze and it doesn’t take up much space. In fact, it fitted pretty much perfectly on the Old Man Mountain rear pannier rack.

The rainfly, which got some extremely heavy use over the course of the trip, did a highly commendable job. The water beaded well on the outside of the fabric and, although not quite like a Gore Shakedry jacket, it was possible to get much of the dew (and rain) off in the morning with just a firm shake. 

Image shows the MSR Hubba Hubba tent on a misty morning.

(Image credit: Stefan Abram)

Given how wet we often were at the end of the evening – and the reasonably warm temperatures – we really pushed the limits of what the rainfly could handle in terms of the humidity and the speed at which it could move water vapour from the inside to the outside of the fabric.

Despite the testing conditions, Hubba Hubba rose to the challenge. We never felt too  clammy and – although the inside of the rain fly would sometimes bead with the condensing water vapour – this was held separate from the inside part of the tent.

That is to say, we stayed dry and comfortable, even though the rainfly was having to deal with water droplets both outside and in!

Rab and Therm-a-Rest sleeping bags

Image shows Anna packing away the Rab Solar Eco 1 sleeping bag into the Tailfin AeroPack.

(Image credit: Anna and Stefan Abram)

We took two quite different options here, Stefan going for the Therm-a-Rest Space Cowboy sleeping bag and Anna going for the Rab Solar Eco 1 sleeping bag.

In terms of what was the same, we both opted for models that used synthetic insulation. We weren’t planning on getting our sleeping bags wet (thankfully we did succeed in avoiding that). But on the off chance we did, we wanted bags that we would be able to dry out without  the worry of clumping down and loss of insulation – which a perennial issue with natural down.

For us, we’d only use natural down in cases where we knew the temperature was going to stay below freezing point. Any time when there's a chance of rain (rather than snow), we prefer synthetic insulation, just for its resilience and ability to retain warmth once wet. Other people prefer the pack size of natural down sleeping bags and will use them year round – it depends on your priorities, really.

For us, a ‘comfort’ temperature range of down to around 8°C / 46°F was the right balance between warmth and bulk. Even in the mountains with some mornings dipping down to 6°C / 43°F, we didn’t get too cold in our sleeping bags – although we were supplementing things by wearing extra layers. 

Where the two bags differed most was that the Therm-a-Rest was much more tapered around the legs – saving weight and bulk – and the straps which allow you to attach it to your sleeping mat, so as not to lose it in the night. 

Image shows Stefan packing the Therm-a-Rest Space Cowboy sleeping bag into the Ortlieb Vario PS pannier backpack.

(Image credit: Anna and Stefan Abram)

Also the bag for the sleeping bag itself is very neat, being half built from a mesh fabric, giving ventilation and not compressing the insulation too much in storage. A double drawstring means you can also cram it down into a much smaller size for when travelling.

By contrast, the Rab bag had a ‘straight cut’, didn’t have the sleeping mat straps and came in a bag with traditional compression straps – which meant that it could be compressed a little smaller than the Therm-a-Rest .

We each thought we had the better option: Stefan very much liked the straps and Anna preferred having more leg room, so again, this really depends on your priorities.

ANNA'S CLOTHING

Image shows Anna cycling across the Old Bridge in Slovakia

Anna looking out at Bratislava castle and the UFO tower while crossing the city's Old Bridge 

(Image credit: Anna and Stefan Abram)

As we mentioned in our full write up of our trip, clothing was a bit of a sticking point for us. We had a lot of very different demands to make from the kit!

First off, the basic, more fundamental aspects. Riding comfort was (naturally) a big consideration when riding up to seven hours every day over a nine day period. Then there was temperature regulation: there were highs of over 30 degrees, but also mornings where it would dip below double digits – plus lots and lots of rain. We wanted kit that was both cool and warm, and could dry very quickly. 

But we also didn’t want to go down the route of 'pure cycling kit', with skin tight shorts, jerseys, arm warmers, gilets and all the rest. We were going to be spending at least an equal portion of our time exploring cathedrals, castles, museums and – in the case of our stay in Košice, in the far east of Slovakia – fancy restaurants in ex-luxury hotels (that’s a city we’d definitely come back to!)

So the bar was set very high and there were plenty (plenty!) of clothing lines that were never going to make the cut. But what we did eventually decide upon did hit the spot dead on, so well worth the hours spent searching!

Tops

Image shows Anna wearing the Café du Cycliste Magalie Women’s Gravel Cycling Jersey.

(Image credit: Anna and Stefan Abram)

Whereas Stefan opted to split things between heavyweight and lightweight in his top choice, I preferred to go as airy as possible, with a view to guaranteeing comfort in the heat. As a consequence, it meant that I relied on my outer layers a bit more than Stefan did, but that was a trade off I was totally happy in making.

There was still some delineation between my two choices: the Café du Cycliste Magalie Women’s Gravel Cycling Jersey was essentially a lightweight mesh jersey and was just fantastic in the heat. By casting its shadow, the jersey helped to keep the sun off and even kept me cooler than I would have been without it (although despite the shade, it’s sensible to still wear suncream with it!)