What is Cycle Touring or Bikepacking?

Many people come to cycle touring or bikepacking from backpacking and it is perhaps the easiest path, with lots of knowledge overlap. Keen cyclists arriving from a pure love of the bike have a whole new discipline to learn. Either way, you are all most likely to be looking for a way of extending your range using self powered travel that still allows you to experience the landscape and meet the locals without the barrier of a wheeled metal box getting in the way.


Within reason any bike will do. Add the backpack, and you may find that you already own everything you need for that first tour. Take a train to get you out into the countryside and away you go. If you can, start out on that first trip from your door and camp for the night. Day one and already you can call yourself a cycle tourist or perhaps you like the term 'bikepacking', and already you are part of an outdoor trend thanks to the lightweight kit you already own. To be honest, if you want to get out onto rough tracks that only a mountain bike will manage, you may never want to look any further than strapping a bag to your back or part of your frame and embracing bikepacking. Click here to learn more essential tips for bikepacking.

If you are looking to ride on surfaces that are not going to shake you and the bike too much, then you have the possibly more comfortable route of bolting pannier racks to your bike and hooking panniers to them to hold your stuff. Chances are, if you're eyeing up the mountain bike you already own, it will have front suspension and the bike may weigh rather more than you would like, but lets just see if you like cycle touring first. For the first few years we did everything by bolting a rack to the back of a mountain bike and getting everything into just two panniers. Looking back I have no idea how I managed, but once again the lightweight kit you already own or are thinking of getting makes this an option and not feeling too self concise sitting down to a meal in a restaurant in the stuff you have been biking in all day helps.


If you have the confidence to set off into the hills with a base weight of 9Kg, there is every chance that you may never need any more than two panniers slung off a rack on the back of your bike. As a happy result of this low weight, a few other good things will come your way. The bike can be lighter and more race specked, the rack could be thinner and lighter and the tyres thinner. You have stumbled into the world of Ultra light cycle touring and 100 mile days with camping are a possibility. Throw in a credit card, pop on a handlebar bag and Lands End to John O'Groats or a European tour taking in the Cols of Le Tour is possible. You really do not need the same bike as Mark Beaumont who used to ride around the world. It may be rough, but it is going to be tarmac almost all of the time.

Ultralight Bikepacking

So, now to get you out of the door and down the road. You can do 'Credit Card Touring '. A bag, possibly slung under the saddle with your very basic essentials of clothing and tool kit. One of my big heroes of distance cycling is Nick Sanders. He has now turned his attention to motor cycle records but back in the day he held the the world record: 170 miles per day for 80 days. He put the record out of the reach of mortals to the point where they had to change the rules. Sanders only has 2 small front panniers. I have tried this and it works very well indeed. For ultralight bikepacking or 'credit card touring', 2 bags at the front or back will suffice. 

Ultralight bikepacking marks the opportunity to purchase some amazing bits of equipment. You can probably live off sandwiches and discard the need for a stove at all! Dehydrated meals and water boiled on spirit stoves would be the trade up from this, and the bonus would be the hot drinks. I have toured using this method and an ultralight wood stove.


Tents and sleeping mats for this sort of enterprise would probably be from the NeoAir or Exped ultralight range. Tents by Big Agnes fall very near the ultralight category, particularly for two people sharing the load. Durston tents would be ideal, particularly if you want the wind stability for northern UK tours.

Waterproof panniers are a must. With no problems with airflow over your sweaty back, the materials are quite literally 100% water-proof. The best are Ortlieb, with Vaude being a close second ( My front panniers are Vaude and have done 35,000 miles ), and I know that you can get panniers slightly lighter but lets not start worrying about wet kit. Up there on the handlebars is a good place for stuff. Both Ortlieb and Vaude offer handlebar bags with built in map holders. This is almost a must-have as it puts things to hand allows the stuffing all your ' mission-critical documents'  in here. Which means that you can grab this one item and sit with coffee in hand without worrying too much about the security of your bike outside the cafe.

Ultralight Bikepacking for Longer Tours 

Going on a longer tour, or widening the temperature range that you can travel in, may require you to start looking at hooking four panniers from your bike. Getting the weight off that back wheel has got to be a good idea. Unless you are riding an internal hub machine, your back wheel is actually weaker than the front because of the way it has to be built. Spread the weight out if you can. Get front racks and try to resist the urge to utilise a top bag. Once again, I guarantee you will fill it with stuff, so don't give yourself the option.

If you are going for a longer tour then the equipment had better make it to the end - a bit more robust is what we are looking at here. Alongside your mat and sleeping bag, pack a silk or cotton-silk liner and you can sleep cosy over a wide range of temperatures, with the liner doubling on duties by keeping you from contact with questionable bedding in exotic locations!

Most people on multi-month tours cook with the Primus Omni fuel stove. Even in Scotland there are panicky moments and cold meals ahead if the gas canister does not have quite as much fuel left in it as it sounds last time you shook it. Petrol stoves are the answer most of the time for the more remote tours. Beyond about five days to a week the dehydrated ready meals do not work and it is back to good old camp-craft and pans.

Again, in Scotland, do not expect a dinner, grill, or restaurant to come along, you really must have a plan. Snacks in that front box on your handle bars are going to play a big part in stopping you from suffering 'the bonk '. Grazing as you pedal along from trail-mix or some such gloop will help you to avoid hitting the wall.

Bikepacking does tend to hit you with this more than walking. You are just half a snickers away from going from pedalling with a feeling so close to that of flight, to grovelling wretch who cannot remember ones mother's maiden name nor pin code.

Much of your equipment choices will be governed by the choice of route and climate expected. Do not cover every possibility or you will take too much. If you do not mind being slightly uncomfortable 1 day in 7 then you can pack lighter. Within the first week of every major tour there will be a package going home. 

The UK has an amazing network of routes. If you have ever bought a lottery ticket, quite a bit of that money has paid for them. Germany has a spiders web of paths, many of which are away from traffic and take you from places to buy cake and coffee to places to buy beer, and through stunning scenery. France is wonderful and they let you get away with mangling the language if you arrive by bike. Portugal is perhaps the undiscovered gem of Europe and camping under Olive Trees with a bottle of their amazingly fine wine has to be a good touring destination.

Try doing weekends from home before you set off around the coast of the UK, from early April to November. For that first big tour try to devise a circular route - one you can stretch or shrink as appropriate. Be flexible. There is a system called Warm Showers that provides free hosting for touring cyclists all over the world. This may help to stretch your budget and you will certainly meet some good folks along the way. Do not panic about not knowing things. You can find out how to do most stuff from YouTube and booking into a hotel to sort it out is possible.

Now you have your touring bike, you will want to keep it ready for touring - which will lead you to getting a second bike or possibly a better bike just for touring and a second bike for what you will start to call 'Training '. Before you know it you will be moving house or getting a bigger shed. Most cyclists, which is what you will be calling yourself quite soon, never stop at just one bike. 

Written with great thanks, by Warren and Esther Sanders with experience gained from a 4 year world ride.