Bikepacking: Where to Start, What You Need & How to Carry It
June 20th, 2017
June 20th, 2017
With faded 90's fluro yellow panniers and a Raleigh shopping bike I started out cycle touring 17 years ago. Ever since that first trip around East Anglia, I've always looked at what kit I could improve for next time, not to race the clock but to go further and easier. Overtime I upgraded heavy items, buying smaller lighter kit but one thing remained - those bulky panniers and rack. They flapped around off road, often broke and limited what I could do. For me bikepacking is the evolution of a long and winding road.
About 6 years ago I saw the first of the current generation of bike packing bags. I was instantly excited by the new possibilities they opened up. Combined with my now lighter, smaller camping gear my mind wandered, contemplating just how little I could get away with and what kind of bike I could now use with these bags. Faster and lighter to me meant exploring further and deeper. To celebrate I rode to India on a mix of dirt and tarmac roads and I've not looked back.
The freedom of Bikepacking
Bikepacking really is ace. The current marketing hype around this 'genre' might be disenchanting to some but it's all about the freedom and getting away for it all. You can ride as far or little as you like, there's no rules here. If the weather turns you can set up camp and go to sleep because in those small bags lies everything you need to survive.
You can stick on roads, take a gravel bike to mix it up or a full on mountain bike. It's all an adventure and it's all bikepacking. In 2013 I rode from the Alps to England with just a small bar bag and a credit card. I averaged over 200 fairly relaxed kilometres a day, it was a real eye opener as to what distances I could achieve going ultra light.
Bikepacking can be hotel to glamping, or ditch to bothy; the pleasure comes from exploring and knowing that at the end of the day you'll be somewhere new; sleeping under 5 stars or a million. Don't let the fear of not having "all the kit" stop you from exploring.
Bikepacking to me has become my escapism and a way to forget work or the constant social media and connectivity we're addicted to. After work on a Friday I feel like Super Ted (I don't have the torso for superman) as I strip off my shirt, change into riding kit and head directly into the hills of the Scottish Borders. With bike packing kit safely stowed I don't always take a map, if I get lost it might take longer but I'll find my way home eventually. If that's not freedom I don't know what is!
What equipment to start with
You need a bike, any bike will do. Next you need to find a way of strapping on your kit. Like many things in life the set up is very much about how much you want to spend and where you want to go. If you'll be doing a fair bit of bike packing then invest in some good quality bags. Apidura and Revelate bags are at the top of the game but aren't the budget option. Wildcat and Alpkit are also popular options here in the UK. A lot of the traditionally larger bike companies haven't quite perfected bike packing bags yet, so do a bit of research first.
Unfortunately for shorter people a larger frame is much better at fitting bags onto it, so measure up the dimensions before you buy a frame bag. Saddle packs need decent clearance between saddle and rear wheel, so check the clearance, and consider what will happen if you're using a full-suspension mountain bike. Bar bags also need a reasonable space between bars and wheels, so a long head tube is an advantage. Newer bikepacking-friendly designed bikes use taller head tubes and re-jig the geometry to help accommodate bags. Otherwise it is about being clever with the space available and straping extra bags on where there is space.
The budget option to get you out there is a dry bag and some straps. With a little creativity you can attach this to saddles and/or bars securely. Having spare Voile straps are a great investment and they let you attach extra bags on the bars, the seat post or on the frame. You can then buy different dry bag sizes to suit you. How much capacity you need depends on where you plan to sleep. Sleeping kit, like sleeping bags and mats, take the most room, but it is the best place to spend more cash when starting out. When camping you'll likely need a 14 litre bar bag and a 14l saddle pack and probably a frame bag as a minimum. When using mountain huts and bothys you can obviously get away without tents and shelter, perhaps just using a bivvy bag and sleeping bag, but you'll need even less if you're using B&Bs.Remember, it's all about the adventure, not just the sleeping rough, so work with what you've got first.
Frame bags vs. traditional panniers
All my bikepacking bags weigh less than one classic waterproof pannier. Weight is not everything, but if you multiply that by four panniers and add racks it's about 8 full cans of beer. Leaving the panniers behind means less weight and reduces drag. Apparently tests have shown there's as much as 8% more drag from panniers at an average speed of 30kph. That's quite a difference, and if you end up riding all day into a head wind, or up big mountains, it'll feel like way more than 8%.
Bike-packing bags are not only more streamlined, but they also have a far less noticeable impact on a bikes handling. The weight is strapped tight to the frame and evenly distributed. Anyone who has ridden off-road with panniers will know that racks can be delicate things, if the bolts don't shear, loosen or snap then the pannier hooks and the inevitable flapping is likely to annoy you! Over the years I've tried using many types and brands of panniers on rough terrain tours but none work anything like as well compared to bikepacking bags.
5 tips to carry all you need
You need to minimise the kit you take and reducing bulk is just as important as reducing weight. Here are some tips to give you a head start when packing:
- Everything packed needs to be a necessity and ideally with more than one use. For example a buff is a neck warmer, hat and camera/phone protector. A pan is your cooking pot, coffee cup and porridge bowl. The lid is your frying pan and coffee cup for a friend.
- If you're taking a tent, the poles probably won't fit in the saddle bag or bar bag so take them out, wrap them in your ground sheet and stow them under the top tube or across the bars with a voile or velcro strap. The rest of the tent should fit in the saddle bag fine. Alternatively, a bivvy bag is a waterproof cover that will allow you to sleep outside in a sleeping bag if your travels are warm at night, or under some shelter.
- Water bottles might not fit in your normal bottle cages if you choose to use a frame bag. The other options you have are attaching bottle cages to the rear seat stays (if you're frame allows) or onto the front forks. There are a few bottle cages out there that don't need to be bolted to the frame, like specially adapted clips or bar-mounted holders, if your frame isn't that bike-packing friendly. I use SKS branded adaptors or just zip ties and plenty of tape to protect the frame and prevent slipping.
- Don't take spare shoes, take flip flops! Or, be like me and just accept wet feet and use one pair of shoes! Use old-school toe clips and flats if you don't like SPDs for walking around, but mountain bike shoes are a good cycling/walking compromise.
- Squeeze waterproofs and spare clothes into the furthest end of the saddle pack, this stops the bag sagging or swinging but also uses the space efficiently.
Finally, get out and explore!
The online world can engulf us with too much information about what we "need" and fill us full of cynicism at times. It's important to look on this information and wealth of products more as inspiration than a need. Don't get bogged down with having all the gear first; start with a small journey and let it build from there. Work with what you've got first and let each ride be a learning curve; that's part of the fun. Even if your first journey is out to a B&B and back. We all started somewhere.
We have a perfectly good reality on our doorsteps and bikepacking is the best way to explore it. Grab some bags, take some spare clothes, strap them to your bike anyway you can and start an adventure. It's easier than ever to find good routes to ride and to plan trips by simply reading reviews or blogs or joining a local social media route sharing group. Or, why not get the train somewhere and let your Garmin and map help you ride back home?
The hardest part really is taking those first steps out of the door, whether it's for a long weekend, booking a week to ride the Highland 550 Trail, a coast to coast route, or even to quit your job and ride to China. It's all bikepacking and I've certainly never regretted those first turns of the pedals that started a new trip!