Why Bikepacking differs from Backpacking and Cycle Touring

An introduction to Bikepacking

If I tell you that bikepacking is the cycling equivalent of backpacking you might be forgiven for thinking that what I’m really talking about is cycle touring, but as you’ll see, while there are some similarities, it really isn’t comparable.

What all these activities generally have in common is the desire to travel, to varying degrees be self-sufficient, and enjoy a sense of freedom whether that in the backcountry, along quiet lanes, or taking on epic adventures for days even weeks on end.

Garycycles - Bikepacking in LaosCredit: Garycycles

Bicycle Camping

People have travelled and toured by bike for over a century, from staying in hotels, hostels and bed and breakfasts to camping and bivouacking, it’s nothing new, however, the growth in Mountain Biking over the last thirty years has seen as steady increase in interest in this form of bicycle travel.

The main difference between bikepacking and traditional cycle touring is that bike packing generally involves off road riding, something most of us know as all-terrain biking or mountain biking, and as you can imagine this gives rise to additional challenges that those who stick to roads, cycle paths and smooth fire roads don’t have to contend with.

The main thing that most bike packers are worried about, just like their pedestrian cousins, is weight, and off-road this becomes even more of an issue. Climbing those mountain passes is hard enough without having to haul an additional 30lbs of equipment and food up there too, however, with careful consideration and occasionally deep pockets the enthusiast can quite easily get pack weights down to below the 20lb mark.

Careful consideration as to exactly what equipment and the type of food to carry will also yield weight benefits, with the bikepacker often having the advantage over walkers and hikers by having more resupply options due to the distances they can cover.

Something that bikepacking shares with touring is a general desire to carry as much of your kit on the bike itself, it’s simply a matter of comfort and enjoyment, however, again the bikepacker will need to think things through before rushing in. It’s not much good having huge panniers as they will encourage you to take more equipment than you need and on narrow trails can become cumbersome and even dangerous.

To answer this problem many bikepackers will either buy or make their own gear (often abbreviated to MYOG) that better meets their specific needs.

  • Bike frame pack

  • custom made frame bags, which completely fill the front triangle of the bike frame can accommodate a surprising amount of gear

  • Your sleeping bag, protected in a dry bag, can be lashed to your bars or held in a more adjustable and stable handlebar harness.
  • Bike Rack Pack

  • If your frame has rack mounts you can of course use one, with further equipment, bedding or clothing contained in another bag or bike rack pack attached securely with bungee to the top. That said many riders opt for large, often expandable specific bike seat packs, especially if they are riding a full suspension bike. 
  • For smaller items such as cameras, tools and snacks, many riders also fit a “gas-tank” bag just behind the front stem on the top tube.

The main aim is to spread the load about the bike, keeping it off your back, while ensuring that the handling and rideability is as unaffected as possible. With care, lightweight kit and some ingenuity, it’s more than possible to carry enough equipment, clothing and food for several days, with locating water suitable for drinking the only constraint.

Any kind of bicycle is potentially suitable, with many opting for the simplicity of a hardtail or even rigid machine; that said, with the plethora of load carrying options available there is no reason to feel constrained in any way.

Of course as with any sport its participants can often find themselves looking for the latest and highest performing equipment and cycle manufactures such as Salsa Cycles are even producing bicycles designed to maximise load carrying ability while ensuring they can cope with challenging and enjoyable riding conditions.