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An introduction to bikepacking

Prepare to load up your bike for an adventure and ride off into the sunset

Cyclist magazine
8 Feb 2022

Bikepacking is like backpacking but with a bike rather than a pair of hiking boots. Because you’re on two wheels rather than two feet you can go further, and with the right bike you can get off the road and onto gravel paths, bridleways and dirt tracks to really explore the countryside.

You can go on your own, but it’s also ideal with mates, as a couple or even with the whole family.

In recent years, the advent of lighter built-for-purpose bikes and gear means bikepacking has become much more accessible. Also, while it has a reputation for being tough, there’s really no need to worry about fitness. Just because some riders choose to cycle 100km a day, doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with electing to simply ride a few hours between stopping points.

If you plan your routes to suit your abilities, you’ll end up enjoying a fun trek, not grinding away on a never-ending slog.

While heading off to Iceland or getting yourself lost in the Highlands are both wonderful options, it’s also possible to find adventure closer to home.

Micro-adventures, where you head off for one or two nights, provide a great escape from the 9-to-5 grind, and can easily be squeezed into the average weekend.

Pick a campsite or hostel not too far from home, stay the night, then pedal home the next morning. A mini-adventure is a superb, low-cost way to get the most from your weekend.

Styles of bikepacking

Bikepacking is a broad church. At one end of the scale, you get fully supported tours, which involve cycling a pre-arranged route, usually with a guide and perhaps even an accompanying vehicle bringing your luggage to the next overnight stop.

The scaled-down version of this is called lightweight touring – or credit-card touring – when you take a minimum of kit, buy what you need on the way round and stay overnight in B&Bs or hostels.

Then there’s fully loaded touring, or self-supported bikepacking, which is when you carry everything you need, including food, spare clothes and a sleeping bag.

This gets called expedition touring if your route happens to take you through remote areas or developing countries.

Finally, there’s mixed-terrain bikepacking – aka rough riding – which combines self-sufficiency on the bike with a go-anywhere attitude that’ll lead you to bits of the map where you’re unlikely to run into anyone you know. Or indeed anyone at all.

What sort of bike should I use?

Just about any bike can be fitted with racks or more modern strap-on style bikepacking bags. But the type of bike you use can end up limiting where your travels take you.

A road bike, for example, isn’t going to serve you too well if you want to go off the beaten track. Mountain bikes will fare better off-road but can be heavy and slow.

A better option is a purpose-built touring bike, which will be lighter but also designed to be comfortable over long distances and on all types of road.

For off-road riding, a dedicated gravel or bikepacking bike is a perfect choice.

What should I take with me?

It depends on how self-sufficient you want to be, but if you’re planning on sleeping out overnight, you should pack everything you’d need for a regular backpacking camping trip, plus extras for your bike – such as spare parts, tools and tubes.

However, you want to avoid carrying that weight on your back if possible, instead distributing as much clothing and equipment as you can around the bike itself using any number of purpose-built bike bags.

What gear do I need?

Well, that depends on what kit you already own, and what kind of riding you’re interested in doing. Obviously the more epic your planned adventure the more gear you’re going to need.

While panniers will usually swallow up a campsite’s worth of equipment, smaller bikepacking bags require you to be more selective.

Basically, you’ll likely struggle to carry a cheap tent, sleeping mat and sleeping bag because of their increased size. Lighter and more compact camping gear is therefore something of a prerequisite.

Luckily, much of it has recently come down in price, meaning you can get yourself all three items for £200-300 if you shop smart.

The market for bikepacking bags has exploded, and now there are a wealth of brilliant bags on offer. What sort of bags you use will depend on your bike setup. 

If your bike allows for a pannier rack, the obvious choice is to go for panniers. For those which don't, saddlebags are a great option, as well as handlebar bags and/or tube bags. Essentially, your bikepacking setup is entirely up to you. 

For sleeping, a bivvy bag is a popular option in summer – essentially it is a bag which goes over your sleeping bag. You can also add a ‘tarp’ (tarpaulin) over the top to keep off the worst of the dew. 

You will need some tools, some spare parts and a head for adventure. 

Where can I go?

If you’ve got the right bike and the right gear then you can go literally anywhere. That’s the beauty of it, it’s entirely up to you – it’s your adventure.

There are plenty of great bikepacking destinations in Britain, as well as some spectacular easy-to-reach locations abroad. What about King Alfred’s Way, or maybe you want to try the hardest bikepacking destination in the world?

If you’re not sure what type of bikepacking or touring would suit you, ask yourself the following:

  • Where would you like to go?
  • How many miles do you want to cycle in a day?
  • How much gear are you prepared to carry?
  • How long do you want to go for?
  • How far do you want to cycle in total?
  • How much are you prepared to spend?

Scribble down your answers to these questions on a bit of paper and then use them to start planning your next great escape.

Where should I stay?

A key consideration is where to stay. While many people consider wild camping a vital part of bikepacking, it’s not actually legal in most parts of the UK without the land owner’s permission.

Scotland is an obvious exception to this, where greater rights mean you’ve far more options of place to pitch up without paying for the privilege. Just make sure you don’t damage the environment or annoy any locals.

Dartmoor National Park also permits wild camping in certain areas for a few nights. Make sure you check out the permitted locations before you go. 

Staying in a dedicated campsite is also another option, and depending on the season this may require slightly more planning and booking ahead, so it just depends on where you are cycling and how spontaneous you are feeling. 

Ultimately, bikepacking is all about enjoying the freedom of the outdoors. So, wherever you go, be safe, leave no trace and enjoy it. 

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