Bikepacking: the complete guide

By Mark Roberts

Bikepacking is the act of riding your bike for more than one day with all the kit you need strapped to your bike. Well, that’s the simple answer anyway. The answer with all the route-planning and rig-tinkering, excitement and adventure left out. In reality, there are as many different ways of going bikepacking as there are different types of bikepackers.

Two mountain bikers bikepacking in Shropshire

What is Bikepacking?

Bikepacking is a combination of multi-day cycling and lightweight backpacking. Rather than using racks or carrying everything in a rucksack, your kit is strapped onto your bike itself, usually in multiple specifically-designed bikepacking bags.

Bikepacking has been around in various forms for almost as long as there have been bikes. But modern bikepacking evolved largely to meet the demands of cyclists wanting to ride for multiple days off-road without too much compromise to bike handling. Have you ever asked yourself: “how can I make this ride last even longer?" Well, that's bikepacking.

Bivvying under a tarp on a bikepacking trip

Bikepacking can encompass everything from overnight bike bivvies, to multi-day off-road rides and serious expeditions across remote areas. Most bikepackers will use mountain bikes or gravel bikes (also known as adventure road bikes) to enable them to ride on a wide variety of terrains. But some bikepackers will strap bags to their road bikes for ultralight long-distance tours and audaxes. There’s no wrong way to go bikepacking!

The length of trip, location, type of bike, route choice and speed at which you want to ride will all determine your own particular brand of bikepacking. And you’ll probably spend every trip after that trying to maximise your experience.

Bikepacking on a fat bike in the Yukon

What’s the Difference Between Bikepacking and Cycle Touring?

Cycle touring usually involves carrying a large amount of luggage in pannier bags which are attached to special racks bolted to your bike. Most cycle tourists use a specific cycle touring bike with attachments for racks above the front and back wheel. Because of the weight of the rack, bags and luggage, (and the compromises to handling), cycle tourists usually ride exclusively on roads.

Bikepacking, by contrast, involves taking minimalist camping kit (as little as possible) which is packed into bags that strap to your bike frame, bars, forks, seatpost – anywhere you can! The aim is to keep the bike as light and manoeuvrable as possible, usually with off-road riding in mind. It can be tricky choosing the right tent and kit to take, but anywhere you can save weight will lead to a better ride.

Some would argue that the differences between cycling touring and bikepacking are minimal – particularly when it comes to long-distance adventure cycling. The terms often get mixed up and used interchangeably for this reason.

The major difference seems to come down to ethos. Cycle tourists use their bikes as a means to travel and experience new places; bikepackers want to get as much enjoyment from riding their bike over multiple days as possible.

Bikepacking on a mountain bike in the Peak District

How to Choose the Right Bikepacking Set-Up

Deciding on the type of bikepacking you want to do will make a big difference to the type of set-up – or ‘rig’ – you go for. There’s a big difference between how you’d pack for a 20 mile school night bivvy, a long-distance bikepacking race and a cross-continental expedition. We all have our preferences but bikepacking set-ups generally fit into three broad categories:

A close to home overnighter or a multi-day route covering hundreds of miles. Typically 25 to 50 miles a day in length, in a loop or as an A to B ride. The aim is to carry the minimum needed for the trip, whether out in the wilderness or with refuelling stops built in to your route. The Sonder Frontier is well suited to this type of bikepacking with plenty of frame space and a rigid forks option.

Multi-day bikepacking events include:

This is the set-up for self-supported long-distance endurance races like the Transcontinental and the Tour Divide. New races are springing up every year, along with routes to challenge yourself on in your own time. Innovative ultra lightweight set-ups means you can ride further faster, covering incredible distances. The Sonder Camino and Sonder Colibri make great bikes for gravel and endurance road racing respectively.

Endurance events include:

Setting off and travelling the world by bike certainly captures our imaginations but you need an extensive set-up for riding long distances in remote areas. Although you would certainly pack more for extreme cold than for extreme heat. Every available inch of the bike is packed with kit, food and water. The Sonder Broken Road and the Sonder Vir Fortis are race-proven bikes for wilderness, racing and world travel.

Expeditions include:

Fording a river while bikepacking in Galloway Forest

6 Tips For Beginner Bikepackers

Ruthless packers are happy bikepackers

It’s always tempting to squeeze some home comforts into a few extra bags. But bikepacking often involves energy-sapping off-road riding and you may even need to carry your bike over obstacles. All those little bits soon add up and the lighter your bike is, the more enjoyable the riding will be.

Eliminate Redundancy

Do you really need to carry a down jacket and a four-season sleeping bag? Or could you get away with a three-season sleeping bag and wear your jacket in bed? Can you use some items of clothes for multiple uses? Don’t get too carried away though – spare lights and food might be essential!

Rummaging through bikepacking bags in Galloway Forest

Keep Things Handy

You’re going to want to rummage in your bags for food, water, tools and cameras throughout the day. Try to choose a system that allows you to keep these items as handy as possible. Pack items you want to keep dry or won’t use until the evening at the bottom.

Get the balance right.

Try different configurations of weight and luggage distribution to see how it affects the handling and carrying of your bike. A good tip is to pack heavy items on your frame or as close to your bike’s centre of gravity as possible.

Bikepacking hike-a-bike

Go for a test ride

If you’re embarking on a long or challenging trip, it’s always a good idea to test your set-up on a short overnighter (a microadventure) first. This allows you to check that you’ve got everything you need and aren’t carrying any unnecessary kit.

Carry spare straps, duct tape and cable ties

Riding over rough terrain can be hard on your bags, no matter how well made or tightly strapped down they are. We back our UK Made bikepacking bags with a 25-year Alpine Bond but we’d still recommend taking some spare straps or tape just in case. You’d be kicking yourself if a bag fell off miles from civilisation with no way of re-attaching it!  

Credit: Luke Douglas Bikepacking on the Torino-Nice Rally

1 comment

  • Well done alpkit , some great ideas and kit to buy/ use

    Simon wintet

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