The rise of Bikepacking

What is it?

What does it mean? It’s a word that only sprang into the collective consciousness of bike-riding people in the last few years. Old schoolers may argue it’s just fancy marketing-speak for cycle touring, a pursuit as old as the bicycle itself, but there are definite differences between the two. You could almost think of bikepacking as a sub-genre of touring, like punk music’s relationship to classic rock. Different, but the same. I’ve done both bikepacking and touring trips, although I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on either. The main differences to me are of comfort level and philosophical approach.

Bikepacking is geared towards speed, and there’s an ever-present ticking clock in the back of your mind; a small voice saying ‘go!’ While with touring, it’s the inverse. Almost a competition with myself to see how few kilometres I can actually cover in a ‘whole day’ of riding.

What you need

The defining aspect of bikepacking is the lightness of equipment. Most bikepackers eschew tents, in favour of lightweight and smaller ‘bivvy bags’ – large, waterproof plastic bags that fit one person inside. It’s basic, less comfortable, but allows you to ride faster and cover more ground. Similarly, a bikepacker will tend to splurge a bit more on their kit to ensure it’s light, packs down small and can be quickly, easily packed away.

The luggage is different too. While a traditional tourer would typically have at least one pair of panniers on a front or rear rack, the bikepacker favours the streamlined pairing of a seat post pack and handlebar bag. This setup is more aerodynamic, lighter, but less capacious. Sometimes they’ll add a frame bag, which hangs from the underside of the top tube for extra carrying capacity. And that is roughly where the hard-and-fast distinctions end.

Tourers would be more likely to carry cooking equipment than bikepackers, with the latter tending to eat at ‘petrol station buffets’ more often than not – but then you could easily retort that an old-school travelling cyclist is just as fond of a can of coke, bag of Haribo and sausage roll for lunch as the next rider.

What about a bike?

Bikepacking is closely associated with ultra-endurance races like the Transcontinental, but there’s nothing to stop a rider with panniers on his bicycle entering such a race, nor any reason why someone with a bikepacking ‘setup’ can’t bimble along blithely at their own pace.

The touring bicycle is a codified and classic design. Steel frame, upright riding position, drop handlebars, forgiving saddle and 700c wheels. The bikepacker’s riding rig is far more open to interpretation. The winners of races like the Transcontinental tend to ride racing bikes, with fatter tyres the only real concession to comfort. Bikepacker’s more generally seem to gravitate towards a mid-point between outright speed and long-distance comfort. The Spengle wheel could almost be tailor-made for bikepacking, given its simplicity and reliability.