Are you tired of the nine-to-five? Is the work printer still being uncooperative despite the latest firmware? Want to travel but mislaid the keys to the superyacht? Desperate to see the world but living on a shoestring? (I’ve told you to stop eating those, ugh). Well, amigo, it might be time to take a seat, grab yourself one of those double-chocolate whipped cream Frappuccinos, and listen up. We’re going to carefully plan your escape from the corporate world, that stupid printer, and that awful highway contraflow system that should’ve been finished months ago. I give you…dun, dun, dunnnnn…bikepacking, aka your one-way ticket to affordable long-term adventure.
Bicycle touring has always been one of the cheapest and most accessible gateways to travel. Moreover, it’s arguably one of the most intimate and rewarding ways to experience the world. Bikepacking takes this well-established mode of transport but throws in a couple of Carolina Reaper chilis (which I have on good authority are way worse the morning after). Bicycle touring evolved from generic hybrids with four identical panniers to an intergalactic steel-framed steed with 3-inch tyres, bespoke bags, Black Sabbath’s entire discography, and a Clint Eastwood squint. These bikes are high plain drifters with a disdain for tarmac and a lust for technical trails that would leave Frodo begging for Mordor. Bikepacking takes something that was already cool and kicks it up to a Spinal Tap 11. This approach to long-distance cycling actively avoids the most direct route and instead demands the rider climbs the alternative and often gruelling scenic trail. It’s through gritted teeth, sore legs, and profanities that you’ll finally summit the pass. At that moment, you’ll stop—breathless, lips dry, and sweat beading on your brow. Your eyes will be transfixed on a view so beautiful that the frustrations of the climb will pass like sand through your fingers. Bikepacking puts emphasis on the journey, not the destination, and honestly, I think we could all be reminded of that from time-to-time (can you tell I was listening to Pink Floyd when I wrote those last few sentences? Damn you, Gilmour and your ethereal solos). So, what exactly differentiates a bikepacker from a traditional bicycle tourer?
Bikepacking refers to someone who carries no more than a backpack, hence a bikepacker. This means that all non-essential items are removed, gear chosen is lightweight/functional (at the extreme end, toothbrushes are cut in half to save weight), bags/racks are frequently bespoke, and the bikes themselves are highly customised to suit their riders. The result of all this weight saving/streamlining means a better centre of gravity for technical trails and ease of carrying when riding is no longer an option (also known as hike-a-biking). I’m not here to discredit traditional bicycle touring because it remains relevant, and there are still plenty of arguments for this approach. But I think most people would agree that for unpaved touring, this minimalist style is more practical.
The popularity of bikepacking is, in part, due to the way it has opened up a world of scenic trails previously considered too challenging for pedal-driven exploration. There’s something about adventure that ignites a fire inside us (much like the Carolina Reaper chili from what I’ve been told), and to know that there’s additional remote mountain trails that could be traversed on a fat-tyred monster bike is unquestionably exciting. Moreover, these rigs are so unique to the rider that the sport has been given a whole new lease of personality, and with that, a wave of eccentric explorers as wild and diverse as their steeds. It’s the individuals, communities, and heartwarming stories that really make this movement so special. It’s not about dismissing traditional bicycle touring but instead introducing an exciting new evolution of the sport that encourages more people to travel by bike. Bikepacking is also one of the most accessible gateways into overlanding (or ‘bikerlanding’, sorry, couldn’t resist), and I’m not sure I’d own an expedition vehicle if it weren’t for adventure cycling. It was during bikepacking expeditions (namely, in Germany’s Schwarzwald or ‘Black Forest’) that I realised all I needed to be truly happy were the items stored neatly in a few panniers. Consequently, the logical next step was to live/travel in a vehicle.
The similarities between bicycle-driven and vehicle-powered overlanding are unquestionable. I think sometimes we get caught up assuming that overlanding is inseparable from internal combustion when in reality, it more broadly refers to self-reliant travel to remote destinations. Bikepacking values many of the same objectives as vehicle overlanding but at a more accessible price point, and with a lesser impact on the environment. Moreover, there’s something truly gratifying about human-powered adventure and the satisfaction of successfully reaching your destination through your own endurance. I’ll try my best not to go all David Gilmour again, but there are simply no words to describe the sense of achievement when you complete a bikepacking trip (whether that’s cycling around the world or an overnight campout with the kids). As a committed full-time traveller, I have learnt so much from both forms of travel, and believe these pursuits combined contribute towards becoming a more experienced and well-rounded adventurer.
In the coming months, we’re going to share some of the most incredible stories from the world of bikepacking, review some of the coolest bikes/gear, meet some of the sport’s pioneers, and hopefully inspire you to dust off that MTB and hit the trails. In the next instalment, we will take a look at 11 top tips for your first bikepacking trip.
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