Bikepacking During a Pandemic

Let’s start with a riddle: what’s invisible, arrived in 2020, caused global chaos, and begins with the letter ‘C’? Ah yes, Covid. It has been a rather strange episode here on Earth, and there aren’t many of us who’ve not been affected. It’s all too easy to curl up on the sofa, grab a tub of ice-cream, and watch series on repeat until this has all blown over. Consequently, there’s a risk with the pandemic to batten down the hatches and generally neglect your well-being. Well, fear not, bikepacking is here to kick down the door, prise the remote from your hands, and offer you something a million times better than reality TV.

Covid may have restricted our ability to travel, yet it has also helped many of us rediscover the beauty of home. It’s understandably disheartening during these strange times, but it’s also an opportunity for self-improvement, to learn new skills, and finally plan your dream adventure. Bikepacking is not defined merely by huge overland trips, rather two-wheeled adventures in the great outdoors, whether overseas or around your nearest woodland. It’s an excellent form of physical exercise, a great way to experience nature, reduces screen-time, is a fun family activity, doesn’t cost money (besides initially buying the bicycle), and can be tailored to suit all abilities. This is the ideal chance to get cycling fit and dial in your setup in a familiar/undaunting environment. Times are tough, but so are you, and bikepacking might just be the accessible form of adventure you need. The first step is the hardest, so I wanted to share five ideas to kick the Covid blues and get you on your bike.

1. Ride – Just ride. It doesn’t matter the time or distance; all that counts is you’re getting outside and riding. One of the greatest aspects of cycling is it serves so many purposes, whether commuting, socialising, fitness, travel, or simply (and arguably most importantly) getting back to nature. I know the days are shorter this time of the year so consider grabbing some good lights (Moon Sports or Knog are a great option) and replacing one TV episode with a bike ride after work.

I’m not suggesting you train for the Tour de France each day, although consider a couple of gentle 30-minute rides on weekday mornings/evenings around work (consider riding to work if commutable by bike). I promise that feeling the fresh breeze and taking in your surroundings will work wonders for your physical and mental well-being. Moreover, meaningful adventures can be found on our doorsteps with a little imagination. If anything, it’s a good time to recognise our privilege and appreciate that for many people around the world travel/adventure has never been a possibility. So, the next time TV sucks, grab the bike and head out for a ride (take a camera if you want to add a creative element). I recognise that riding the same miles gets monotonous, and that moves us onto our next point, researching local routes.

2. Local Trails – Okay, so you’re getting out on regular rides and feeling better already. Still, after a few weeks, your default circuit is getting a bit stale, and consequently, your motivation begins to wane. That’s the time to get online and check out the network of cycle paths in your area. One of the most satisfying aspects of riding locally is discovering new trails and then integrating them into your current ride. In the last year of being back in my hometown, I’ve probably doubled the number of cycleways I was previously aware of and have been able to really diversify my options. Admittedly, some of these tracks may only be a couple of miles; nevertheless, they’re often the perfect connection between two others. I went from hiking mountain ranges, bikepacking internationally, and kayaking with orcas to riding in my hometown, and subsequently, didn’t bother taking my camera. Initially, I figured there wouldn’t be anything particularly notable worth shooting. I soon realised these feelings reflected my lack of vision/imagination as a photographer. I now take great pleasure in finding little artefacts, interesting architecture, places of historical interest, and less grandiose but more intimate aspects of nature to photograph. I owe a big part of my newfound creative energy to the various trails/paths/country lanes that I’ve identified, scouring over maps or by discovering a trailhead and thinking, ‘Huh, I wonder where this goes’. Give your local area a chance; it might just surprise you.

So you’re now riding regularly, your physical/mental health is glowing, and you’ve created a collection of diverse mixed terrain rides that have become the talk of the town. Local adventures have become an addiction, and you don’t even recognise there are lands beyond a 10-mile radius—you’d never leave the Shire! So, the question is, what next? Surely there’s no way to build on this complete feeling of elation. Did someone say campout?!

3. Campout – Yes. Who knew local adventures were so awesome?! Now, this could be solo, with your immediate household, or with a friend if your regional Covid restrictions allow (consider asking someone who lives alone or has been particularly isolated during the pandemic). One of the great aspects of camping locally is you can make the whole experience as luxurious and indulgent as you want. Forget an early night, homemade muesli, a wafer-thin sleeping pad, and a gruelling climb to your camp spot. Instead, we’re talking about a selection of cheeses from the local delicatessen (because supporting local business is especially important at this time), a delightful bottle of Barolo, more chocolate than Willy Wonka, camping chairs, board games, and whatever else your heart desires. In other words, you’re not on a huge expedition but a fun weekend getaway. Thus, you don’t need half the gear necessary for a serious ride. Instead, can stuff your panniers with luxury items to enjoy under the stars (whilst still gaining valuable experience for bigger trips).

Oh man, so you’re saying I can do local rides to be in great physical/mental health, discover a network of diverse bike routes, and spend the weekend camping under the stars with a glass of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Why the hell did I ever leave?

4. Build your Bike – Damn, you’re looking good! I don’t want to assume, but it could have something to do with all those highly diversified local rides and campouts you’ve been doing. As you rack up the miles, it’s good practice to assess your setup and perhaps make some upgrades to your steel-framed steed. The pandemic gives us the opportunity to take care of housekeeping, service the bikes, make upgrades, or potentially even invest in something new (or secondhand). There’s simply no better way to dial in your bikepacking rig than getting on the trails and riding. It doesn’t matter whether that’s in Africa or your closest woods, but the latter allows you to make improvements from the comfort of your home.

Consider how you feel after each ride. Were there any mechanical issues? What sort of bikepacking bag setup best suits your requirements? Why not invest some of the money you’d spend on things restricted by Covid, such as travel or eating out, on your bike? This could be as simple as replacing your saddle, tires, grip tape—or if you’re feeling lavish—a complete rebuild. Alternatively, if local rides have demonstrated the limitations of your current bicycle, it could be the occasion to purchase something new. It’s not advisable to take a bike you’ve barely ridden on a massive expedition, and the pandemic gives you the time to dial in your perfect ride.

Organise a rough assortment of gear you’d take on a more serious trip, and think about how you’d prefer to carry it on your rig. It’s more than likely that one rider’s perfect configuration will not be yours, and it’s sensible to experiment with different arrangements. I remember seeing a lot of ultra-lightweight, streamlined bikes when I got into the sport and assumed they would be great for me. After investing in this approach and hitting the road, I quickly realised they weren’t optimum for my objectives.

I have a considerable amount of photography/videography equipment on the bike, and it was a total nightmare digging around in super-compressed bags to find my camera, etc. Thus, I choose to always have at least one easy-access bag that allows me to effortlesslygrab my photography gear when required (my choice generally being a Carradice saddlebag). These outings allow you to identify the limitations or benefits of any given setup before committing to a bigger adventure. Consequently, when you finally hit the road, you can completely indulge in the experience, rather than being distracted by an arrangement that makes every day more arduous. You’re riding frequently, have a diverse selection of routes, camping out on the weekend, and now have a fine-tuned steed—perfection.

Local adventures can be just as valuableas the big ones with a little effort. Nevertheless, I recognise, as a committed traveller myself, there are limitations. The hard reality for all of us right now is that overseas travel is uncertain, and it’s impossible to know exactly when we’ll enjoy the same freedoms as pre-covid. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean we can’t plan for the future and design an epic bikepacking odyssey.

5. Plan – I’m the worst for booking a flight, boxing the bike, hitting foreign trails, and taking each day as it comes. This approach can be fun, yet I sometimes realise halfway through the ride that I could’ve taken a better route or missed something epic entirely. Utilise this hiatus to research bikepacking trips thoroughly and plan the best route that ultimately maximises ‘smiles per miles’. Regional trips also help you identify the things you love about cycling and the aspectsyou’d rather avoid. In other words, if you dislike bad weather, consider a warmer climate for your expedition. Hate gruelling climbs? Choose somewhere relatively flat. Feel nervous about wild camping? Ride in a location with plenty of campsites. You get the idea. Regional outings, therefore, forge our identity as a bikepacker and allow us to distinguish what we want to explore once international travel returns to some normality.

I’ll leave you with this. How many times have you heard a local say they’ve not visited a famous landmark in their area that tourists travel miles to see? I’ve heard it countless times. It’s funny, we’ll travel across the world to see a historical monument in another country but haven’t made time to visit one another 30 minutes from our home. There’s a tendency to think, ‘I’ll get round to it someday’. Well, that day has arrived, so get stuck in and really discover the history of your area, enjoy new trails, support local businesses, camp out, ride with someone isolated by the pandemic, be creative with your photography, bring along the family/household, and do it all from the saddle.

*Before heading out, please ensure the activities listed in this article are permitted under the latest Covid regulations in your area.

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