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Bikepacking Guide | Everything You Need To Know

Want to go bikepacking? Here’s our essential guide to getting out there on two wheels

Exploring the great outdoors by bike is nothing new, but the popularity of bikepacking has exploded in recent years. It’s easy to understand why. Bikepacking combines the freedom of multi-day hiking with the speed of cycling. But it also offers a pace of travel that allows riders to fully embrace – and appreciate – the surrounding environment. Put simply, it entails a multi-day ride with the rider carrying their equipment in bags on the bike. Intrigued? Then read on, as our bikepacking guide will explain everything.

“Bikepacking gives you the opportunity to head deep into the wild, far beyond the confines of traditional cycle touring.”

A bikepacking route might involve bridleways, forest trails and alpine gravel tracks. This variety has captured the imaginations of road cyclists, mountain bikers and outdoor enthusiasts. But what do you need to know before you start poring over maps to plan your first two-wheeled adventure? Here’s our essential bikepacking guide.

Photo: Mason Cycles

A Bikepacking Guide

Cycle touring has existed almost as long as the bicycle itself, but bikepacking puts a different spin on the multi-day ride. Although there are no hard-and-fast rules for bikepacking, a typical ride is self-supported and takes place at least partially away from surfaced roads. You carry your gear in bikepacking bags and camp overnight in a bivvy bag or lightweight tent.

“Bikepacking focuses on a rider being lightweight and nimble,” says Joshua Cunningham, author of Escape by Bike: Adventure Cycling, Bikepacking and Touring Off-Road. “It’s about taking the trails less ridden and enjoying the thrill of the ride, while also carrying the essentials needed to remain self-sufficient.”

Adventure is an essential part of the bikepacking experience. But that needn’t require pedaling to the far-flung corners of the Earth, says Callum Nicklin, brand manager of Mason Cycles. “It doesn’t need to be anywhere exotic, rides close to home can be as exciting as anywhere else,” he says.

Bikepacking is perfect for midweek or weekend micro-adventures. These are short, simple and local overnight excursions that allow riders an escape from everyday life.

Carrying Your Kit

Unlike cycle touring, which usually means carrying a pannier rack, bikepackers use bags attached directly to the bike.

“Bikepacking bags have less impact on bike handling and are more lightweight,” says Cunningham, who cycled 22,000km through 26 countries from London to Hong Kong in 2015. They can also be attached to any type of bike, he adds, and force riders to travel light.

“By its very nature, bikepacking is minimalist,” says Cunningham. “Commit to the ethos; otherwise, use panniers. Don’t try and cram too much stuff into bikepacking bags or dangle kilograms of stuff off them. It will make you less organised and reduce the benefits of using bikepacking gear in the first place.”

Bikepacking bags can be attached to the handlebar, fork, frame (on the toptube or inside the main triangle) and seatpost. This arrangement spreads weight across the entire bike.

What Kind Of Bike Do You Need?

By removing the need for a rack and a pannier-compatible bike, a bikepacking adventure can be undertaken on just about any two-wheeled machine.

“That’s the joy of bikepacking,” says Cunningham. “You can attach the bags to any kind of bike. Just use the one you have and choose a route and terrain that’s suitable. If you’re feeling adventurous then take the bike to places it’s not designed to go to as well.”

A road, cyclo-cross, gravel or mountain bike can all be used for bikepacking. Ultimately, the best bike for your first bikepacking adventure is the one you already have, according to Nicklin.

“Make sure your bike is in good working order and just go,” says Nicklin. “Your attitude is way more important than the kit you have.”

Of course, the bike you ride – and, most significantly, its tyres and gearing – will play a big part in your ride and the terrain you’re able to tackle. Embarking on an overnight road ride with the odd hard-packed bridleway or gravel track thrown in? A road bike is your friend (ideally with 28mm tyres). Heading out into the wildest corners of the planet? You’ll need something a lot more rugged.

Gravel Bikes

Ultimately, what many riders crave from their bikepacking machine is versatility. This means the ability to cover ground quickly, while still being able to venture off the beaten track. With that in mind, the fast-growing popularity of bikepacking has gone hand-in-hand with the rapid rise of the gravel bike (sometimes referred to as an adventure bike). These machines are specifically designed to offer that versatility.

“Things like geometry, gearing, handlebar style and wheel/tyre dimensions make gravel bikes a more suitable option for more kinds of terrain,” says Cunningham. “Unless you’re going to be off-road on challenging terrain for the majority of the ride, go for a gravel or cyclo-cross bike.”

We’ve covered the intricacies of the gravel bike and why it’s the perfect bikepacking machine, along with our recommendation of the best bikes on the market, in our full bikepacking guide for buyers.

Sleeping Under The Stars

Bikepacking gives you a unique sense of freedom and that extends to wild camping. First-time bikepackers may prefer to book into a designated campsite, while bothies and mountain huts offer a roof over your head for the night. Wild camping, on the other hand, gives you the opportunity to strike out away from civilisation.

“Wild camping is almost like the ‘final level’,” says Nicklin. “It takes you to some weird and (potentially) beautiful places and it can make even a local overnighter that much more interesting.”

Wild camping can be an intimidating prospect for the uninitiated. Comfort, sustenance, security and the law are legitimate reasons to be cautious. Having said that, sleeping under the stars casts a new light on any bikepacking trip. However, finding the ideal place to make camp is an art that develops with practice.

“Take your time to find a spot that feels right: private, quiet and out of sight,” says Nicklin. “The more you do it the easier it gets and you’ll find you soon become highly proficient at finding these spots.”

Wild Camping Options

Bikepackers who want to sleep wild have three main options as to their camping setup. These are a lightweight tent, bivvy bag, or bivvy and tarp. Your preferred setup will depend on how light you want to travel, how comfortable you want to be, where you’re riding and who you’re travelling with.

“If I’m on a trip with my girlfriend, we usually sleep better in a tent,” says Nicklin. “Good sleep goes a long way to maintaining good terms, which is super-important when you’re traveling together.

“On the other hand, I recently did a ride that started in an awkward place to get to from home, so I rode there on Friday night and bivvied in some woods nearby. Bivvying is perfect for this sort of mini-adventure because it keeps luggage to a minimum and in England and Wales wild camping is usually clandestine.”

For more on camping while bikepacking, we’d recommend taking a look at this bikepacking tents buyer’s guide.

Planning Your First Ride

The beauty of bikepacking is in its simplicity and scope. You can head out for a midweek micro-adventure from your front door or set off for a 12-month round-the-world ride. You can go just about anywhere, whether that’s exploring local trails or the raw, wild expanses of Patagonia. And if you’re wild camping, no two trips – or nights – are the same.

Even if you are daydreaming of far-flung adventures, we’d recommend a local overnight ride for first-time bikepackers. Perhaps consider linking together existing routes.

“Just do whatever you’re comfortable with,” says Nicklin. “If that means riding between hotels, that’s awesome. If you’re happy to bivvy in the wild, that’s cool too.”

Route Planning Resources

Ready to ride further afield? Once you’re set on a general location, Google Maps can provide an overview of the area: do you want to ride from A-to-B or on a circular route? Satellite imagery is also effective for picking out tracks and trails, while Street View is useful for checking out the suitability of roads – or just how beautiful an area is.

A screenshot from Komoot’s route planning and following website.

Bing, on the other hand, allows you to view Ordnance Survey maps online (don’t neglect paper maps either). Sustrans is also an excellent resource for cycle-friendly routes in the UK. Then it’s time to get down to the finer details using route-mapping apps like Strava, Komoot and RidewithGPS. All three allow you to download a route onto a GPS unit. However, don’t rely solely on electronic devices for navigation, Nicklin warns.

“If your GPS breaks or runs out of battery then you’ll need a paper map,” he says. “Also keep a note of key locations to help advise locals if you’re stuck in a foreign country with no navigation.”

Finally, be prepared to venture into the unknown. Planning your bikepacking trip is vital to ensure a fun and fulfilling ride, but being adaptable and seizing the moment will help you get the most out of the experience, says Cunningham.

“If you have a set amount of time, don’t plan an exact route for it, and if you have a set route you want to do, don’t plan to do it in an exact time frame,” he says. “To make the most of the trip, one of those two things has to be flexible.

“Be bold, take risks and be comfortable in not having a clear plan. Don’t plan out the excitement, but do plan in the ability to overcome obstacles.”

Words: George Scott
Main photo: Camille McMillan

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