Bikepacking might be the adventure cycle touring trend of the moment but it’s not actually quite as new a pastime as you might think.
Matt Lamy looks at the details behind the buzzword and reveals that bikepacking is an experience that many cyclists can enjoy relatively easily and inexpensively.
What is bikepacking, then?
The simple explanation of bikepacking would be to say it’s backpacking with a bike. However, as with most things cycling, it’s a little more detailed than that. Bikepacking involves taking your bike on self-supported, multi-terrain, multi-day adventures with the focus on using off-road routes. It’s about truly exploring the wilderness, days at a time, by bike.
Where did bikepacking originate?
Although the term ‘bikepacking’ might have only been relatively recently coined, cyclists have been bikepacking for decades. However, the phenomenon progressed to a whole new level with the invention of the mountain bike in the late 1970s/early 1980s. For example, adventuring cousins Richard and Nick Crane effectively bikepacked to the summit of Kilimanjaro on Saracen mountain bikes back in 1985.
How is it any different from cycle touring?
You could say that cycle touring allows you to explore the world tamed by man — the areas where roads or at least decent tracks are found. Bikepacking takes you away from those regularly frequented thoroughfares and puts you much more in the middle of nowhere. Because of that, bikepacking needs different equipment, better navigation and self-sufficiency skills, and — being less able to rely on regularly meeting civilisation — a slightly different mindset.
Suppose I need a special bike for it, do I?
Well, yes and no. A fairly sturdy and well-maintained mountain bike would be a fine starting point and certainly a good a way for you to get a first taste of bikepacking. Something like a hardtail 29er with a good cruising ability would be particularly suitable. In recent times, the growing popularity of adventure road or gravel bikes — drop bar bikes with enhanced off-road ability — have made faster, more efficient bikepacking possible.
What about other kit?
One of the big differences between cycle touring and bikepacking is the lack of racks and pannier bags. Bikepackers tend to prefer using frame bags, seat packs, bar bags or bar rolls, and backpacks (although don’t carry too much weight on your back as you’ll develop backache very quickly on a bike). Some bikepackers use trailers to carry their kit too, although most bikepackers place a great emphasis on travelling very light.
What special kit other than clothes and food do you need to carry? Obviously, if you’re planning to spend at least one night out under the stars you’ll need a sleeping bag and a lightweight tent or bivvy bag. You’ll also need good maps, a compass, and probably a phone and/or a GPS system. You’ll need some way to charge your electrical kit, too, such as a solar charger or — much more effectively — a dynamo hub charger. And because you’ll be riding on rough trails, good quality wheels are important, as is a good supply of replacement inner tubes and puncture repair patches.
Depending on how far from civilisation you’re venturing, water purification kits and specific safety equipment, such animal threat deterrents should also be on the list.
That all sounds a bit hairy! I just want to get started.
To begin with, make bikepacking as easy as you like. One suggestion is to pick an area you know relatively well, which is never far from a road or village, and plan a two-day off-road route with one night spent under canvas (or rather, ripstop nylon). Across the Welsh mountains or the Scottish Highlands is an obvious choice. Go when the weather is mild, and tell people your planned route and when you expect to be back. Have your phone with you for emergencies, along with a power bank in case it runs out of charge.
As you become more adept at exploring the wilds by bike, you can build up your distances and days. Then perhaps eventually you’ll take on the Great Divide, the legendary mountain bike trail route between Canada and Mexico.
What if I fancy doing something a bit more competitive?
If the Great Divide alone isn’t enough for you, you could always compete in the Tour Divide that takes places each June. Participants begin with a mass start then have just 25 days for men, or 29.5 days for women, to complete the 2,745-mile off-road course. Failing that, there is an increasing selection of ultra-endurance events. Although these are not necessarily off-road, they do share many similarities with bikepacking, albeit against the clock and/or other riders.
>> Check out our interview with Adventure Syndicate’s Jenny Graham, who took on LEJOG in just 4 days <<
How much fun is it?
Even here in Britain, bikepacking can take you to places rarely visited by other human beings and allow you to see sights that would be otherwise almost impossible to view. In a day and age where many people will go to increasing lengths to get away from the hurly-burly of daily life, bikepacking is an incredibly inexpensive and effective option. The idea of pitting man or woman and machine against nature and winning is also fantastically satisfying. Who needs roads to explore the world by bike?