Escape the masses by taking the road less-travelled with bike packing.
Turn off of the tarmac to find out what adventure cycling really is.
Slowing down and taking in the scenery by cycle touring is a singular — if not popular — way to see the world. Instead of crowding onto the tarmac with every other cycle tourist who answered the call of the open road, why not escape the masses by taking the road less-travelled with bike packing?
Unlike road cycle touring, bike packing takes you off the beaten path (sometimes way off), usually onto dirt roads or sometimes trails, where you’re more likely to see and experience things that won’t turn up in any guidebook or tourism website. If you’ve ever loaded up your backpack with a change of clothes, your toothbrush, extra food, a spare tube, and some tools, and set off on your bike toward a remote destination, then “bike packing” is how you’d define your so-called lunacy for the uninitiated. But bike packing is more than a DIY miscellany of things you may need for a bike ride and an overnight stay. Lately bike packing has gained traction as a trend thanks to evolving rider tastes for off-road, traffic-free adventure. If you want to embrace this trend right away (or are at least a little curious), here’s what you need to know about bike packing.
In addition to miles of tranquil riding on vacant, rural dirt roads, another bonus to bike packing is that it doesn’t demand a high level of skill. Riding on loose sand or gravel, or negotiating mud and puddles may take a some practice but beyond that, being alert and aware of your surroundings will come in handy.
Simply put, the answer is in the name since “bike packing” is basically a bike that you pack your gear onto for an overnight trip or a multiday tour. Most of the time you can make a few minor adjustments to your existing road or mountain bike, like swapping in wider tyres or adding cogs to your cassette for more gears. However if you want to go all in, then a dedicated bike packing bike can be your all-purpose bike for riding just about anywhere.
Also called a “gravel”, “adventure”, “multi-surface”, or “beyond road” bike, a bike packing bike will start with a durable, purpose-built frame for carrying heavy loads. The bike will likely feature lower gears to account for hauling those heavy loads, and wider tyre clearance that can fit up to 2” width tyres. Bike packing handlebars tend to be wider than normal for greater stability; handlebar design (drop, flat, or loop) depends on rider preference. Disc brakes — while standard on most bikes these days — are essential to bike packing because of their greater stopping power both under load and in wet weather.
Another difference from road cycle touring is in the manner for hauling your gear. Road cycle tourists most often ride with front and rear panniers (or just rear panniers) attached to racks installed on their bike frames. This style broadens weight distribution, making the bike more challenging to handle. Bike packers will mount their gear directly to the bike’s frame, fork, and handlebars to help maintain stability. Dedicated bike packing bikes feature multiple mounting points to carry gear in a compact, centred manner.
Bike packing’s soaring popularity has created a demand for soft luggage, which can be strapped directly to the bike. In response, many bike pack and bag makers have sprinted to meet that demand. For trips of 24 hours or less, you can probably get by with a large seat pack to carry a change of clothes (including an extra layer), and perhaps a pair of lightweight shoes. A handlebar bag would also be useful to store quick access items, like mobile phone, sunblock, and snacks.
Longer, multiday trips require a more thoughtful packing strategy. Frame bags mean business because they must fit inside the bike’s main triangle, which varies a lot in size from bike to bike. As a solution, many bike manufacturers will supply frame bags made-to-fit their frame designs. Frame bags also help keep weight centred, which will make bike handling easier as well. Accessory bags, like top tube bags, provide additional storage in an easily accessible spot.
GPS data has become a sort of global currency that gets traded between off-road riders worldwide via user-generated trail websites like Trailforks and Wikiloc. Not only can you find your next bike packing adventure, feedback from other riders will help you assess route quality. A huge range of GPS devices and smartphone apps specifically for cycling ease the frustration of navigation with visual route tracking in real time where you can either follow a downloaded route or trace your route via the device’s map.
What you’re after in terms of gear is a way to haul the essentials, a navigation system to show you where to go, plus items that are specifically suited to your trip destination, length, and environment. In addition to bike packs and bags, what follows is a checklist of suggested gear and equipment to help make your bike packing adventure safe and successful.