(The Gear Loop) - What is bike-packing? There’s no set rule, but to put it simply, it’s back-packing on a bike. Being self-sufficient on two wheels with enough kit to survive an overnight jaunt or multi-day adventure.
But unlike back-packing, you can travel so much further, and carry more gear in comfort, and with the latest in bike tech in tow, you can happily head off-road taking on mountain bike trails, or mix and match between towpaths, farm tracks and the open road on the latest gravel bike.
Gravel riding has sky-rocketed in popularity in the past few years, offering road riders a chance to get muddy without compromising on their streamlined aesthetic, and with the bikes just as happy to zip along smooth stuff and uneven terrain, it appeals to a wide range of people.
Add in the expense of foreign travel and those of us looking for a new camping adventure (without the hoards at the family campsites) are starting to explore the countryside and enjoy packing light and travelling as far as possible.
With the right kit, you'll be amazed just how far you can travel in just a few days, how much the landscape and terrain can change in just a few short miles, and just how easily (and comfortably) you'll fall asleep in a bush after nine hours in the saddle.
Can I use any old bike?
In reality, if you can strap a bag or two to your bike, you're ready for a bike-packing adventure, but the type of terrain, how much you can carry and how far you'll get will vary greatly.
Traditional cycle touring generally involves loaded panniers and miles of easy cycling on tarmac roads. Where bike-packing differs is that it tends to be across varied, often off-road terrain, meaning your bike needs to cope with mud, gravel and uneven surfaces, as well as be the donkey for your kit.
A more relaxed and upright bike geometry (the shape and layout of the tubes), combined with the ability to use wider tyres, helps to make a long day in the saddle a lot more comfortable, while lower gear options can be the difference between heaving your lungs up and embracing the hill climbs.
As a general rule, the wider the tyre, the more mud it can handle, and the more off-road you'll get to enjoy (although that does mean harder work on the roads). Many people bikepack using a flat handlebar hardtail mountain bike, with extra wide types for tackling steep descents, mud and dirt.
But increasingly, riders are choosing hybrid gravel bikes - essentially a lighter weight road bike with extra wheel arch clearance to run bigger tyres, and drop handlebars - which can be super fun, and fast on most surfaces. Aside from room for more rubber, these bikes tend to have multiple mounts for attaching bags and other things making it easier to bring all you need.
But whatever your chosen steed, make sure you've got a comfy saddle, double-wrap your bar tape to avoid blisters, fit ergonomic grips and perhaps consider a more upright riding position. Getting bitten by the bug and you'll be riding all day, for several days.
Where can I go bike-packing?
Cycles paths, towpaths, bridleways, footpaths, roads, tracks, highways and byways are all up for grabs on a bike (so long as it doesn't have an engine), and essentially, if you can pedal (or push, or carry ... and you will) along it you can bike-pack it.
The beauty of bike-packing is the freedom it affords. Many seasoned bike-packers cover entire countries and continents, cycling until they're tired before pitching a tent. The Dragon's Spine bike-packing route in South Africa, for example, covers 2,500 miles with 47,000m of ascent and will take more than 50 days.
Back in the UK, you can hop on most trains with your bike and be in the most beautiful areas in just a few hours, and if you're up for a spot of wild camping there's no stopping you. Oh, so long as it's legal (see below), that is.
Do remember, once your bike is fully loaded you may not be able to cover the distances you usually would, so start with a short overnight trip before planning further. Obviously, if you're bike-packing with little more than a credit card and the Travelodge app, you'll be able to get a whole lot further.
There are countless bike-packing websites and forums nerding out about the best routes available and how to shave 1/16th of a gram from your luggage weight, but as a starting point with GPS routes and guides-a-plenty we recommend checking out the official website for Cycling UK.
bike-packing Bucket Lists (UK)
- King Alfred’s Way - A new 350km circular off-road adventure route through 10,000 years of history, taking in Stonehenge, Winchester, Farnham, Salisbury and (ahem!) Reading, making train access from London easy.
- Great North Trail - Award-winning 800-mile Great North Trail links the Pennine Bridleway with the northern tips of mainland Scotland, through some of Britain's most stunning upland areas and four National Parks.
- Trans-Cambrian Way - A 175km route from the English border to the Irish Sea across the remote hills and moorland of central Wales. Staggeringly beautiful.
Is wild camping legal?
Technically, wild camping is illegal in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and while we'd never condone lawlessness, there are exceptions and loopholes. Read ou full guide here.
Firstly, head for Scotland where wild camping is legal, and you can happily camp in the National Parks. Some areas require permits in peak season, so check before you travel.
Some English National Parks such as Dartmoor, do have designated areas in which wild camping is okay, as long as you're arriving on foot or bike. They've even got an interactive map revealing locations.
If however, you don’t overstay your welcome, and leave no trace of your stay behind, most National Parks are tolerant of wild camping, especially in more remote areas. Not getting caught is another great way of wild camping just about anywhere, but in truth, making a wild camping pitch legal is as simple as asking a landowner whether they mind you staying. If you find a great spot to camp and there's a house nearby, do the sensible thing and ask if they mind you staying. Alternatively, some rural private land owners will happily rent out a pitch for a small fee without really advertising, so always ask.
But with close to 6,000 campsites in the UK, the chances are you'll be able to plan a route that skirts past at least a few official pitches, which, while not free, at least gives you a chance to make the most of the shower block. If you're planning a multi-day trip, one night at a campsite will feel like luxury.
Will my commuter panniers work?
Panniers are exceptionally good at carrying large loads, and remain the most practical option for cycle touring on roads, but with bike-packing, we're trying to get off the beaten path, and as a result soft bags that fit directly to the bike frame are the way to go.
Frame bags don't give you a vast amount of space, but that simply encourages a lightweight approach, which has the double benefit of not ruining your bike's handling on tricky terrain. What's more, bikes without panniers are a whole lot easier to push - which, as you'll soon discover, is all part of the "fun" of most off-road trips.
Most essential bike-packing gear will divide between a handlebar bag, a seat pack and a frame pack. You don't want the steering to feel too heavy, so keep lighter weight items like a sleeping bag at the front, clothes and food in the seat pack, and distribute heavier items - like tool kit and pump - in the framepack, as this has a lower centre of gravity. Mix and match depending on the trip.
You can also add on a top tube bag for extra kit you might need when riding, while stem bags can be fitted near the handlebars for easy access to items on the go. Oh, and don't forget bottle mounts, two if you can find space, because you'll need to stay hydrated and/or wash the filth off your face.
We'd recommend not riding any significant distance with a backpack to avoid unnecessary strain on your upper body. Some people ride with a hydration pack though, which has the benefit of saving storage space on the frame. A lightweight packable backpack is worth finding space for though, especially if you want to stock up on supplies before pitching a tent for the night.
Now get the gear
Whether you choose a mountain bike and strap your gear to it with bungee cords, a touring bike with more fixing points than a climbing centre or one of the latest hybrid gravel bikes, if it can handle the terrain you’re riding on, and carry your kit, it’s a bikepacking bike.
Specialized Crux Comp
It sits at the top of the budget tree but Specialized makes bikes that win major competitions, and this is one lightweight and rapid machine for serious riders.
Boardman ADV 8.6
Very much in the old-school definition of gravel bike, the Boardman ADV 8.6 might be an alloy-framed, Shimano Sora-geared bike, but at £775 it’s got value firmly on its side.
Triban GRVL 520 SRAM APEX 1
Decathlon might be best known for their pop-up tents, but they also have a superb range of touring and gravel bikes at superb prices. The GRVL 520 runs 650 wheels and 47 Tubeless Ready tyres, has a well respected SRAM APEX1 40T 11/42 groupset, flared drop handlebars for all-day comfort and disc brakes for control.
Spread the weight evenly around the bike, and pack light, or you'll soon be scuppered on the hills and technical terrain. Weight on the handlebars can slow your steering and too much weight out back can cause your front wheel to lose traction on steep climbs, so strip out your kit list and pack smart with compressible items where possible.
Restrap 14 litre Seat Post Bag
Handmade in Leeds, Restrap makes exceptional bike luggage including five different frame pack designs, five handlebar bags, top tubes, feed bags and panniers. Their 14-litre seat post bag is exceptional, weighing just 630g but offering a hassle free, velcro mounting system with dry bag stuffed inside, making it easy to remove without taking the mount off the bike.
Jack Wolfskin Takeoff Bag
The Takeoff Bag boasts velcro loops that easily fix to the crossbar of most bikes. It’s especially easy to attach to gravel and road machines.
There is a clever asymmetrical zip design, one on each side, to make access to essential items easy on the move. Each of the zips has a toughened nylon loop with protective plastic grab handle that makes it easy to get in and out.
Everything you need for a comfortable overnight stay in the wilderness needs to pack down small and attach to your bike without compromising handling and stability. The items featured here are all diminutive, lightweight and can magically fold down into an easily transportable size, so you can enjoy a few creature comforts when out on the trails.
Nemo Dragonfly Bikepack 2 person Tent
At just 1.3kg, this tent is a piece of pure bikepacking brilliance. The ultralight design with aluminium DAC Featherlite poles have shorter folding segments than most, allowing for a more compact carry bag that, combined with the use of straps and fasteners, makes it easy to attach to your bike. The dull colour's no accident either, making it ideal for stealth camping in the wild.
Therm-a-rest Hyperion 20
One of the lightest and warmest sleeping bags available, this 594g effort packs not much larger than a water bottle, but boasts three season warmth thanks to 345g of 900 fill Nikwax Hydrophobic Down.
Helinox Chair Zero
Diehard bikepackers will sit on the floor after nine hours in the saddle, but we're happy to find room for a bit of comfort, and with the Helinox, you get a bum-loving sling seat that packs down to the size of the drinks holder in your bottle cage and weighs just 488g.
Jetboil Flash Carbon
An essential for any camping kit, let alone lightweight bikepacking, this small, light rocket-powered gas stove can boil 1-litre of water in 100 seconds, meaning you’re only ever moments away from a cuppa or a rehydrated macaroni cheese supper. Pack a spork and it's all the cooking gear you'll ever need.
Rab Ridge Raider Bivi
At 890g with a packed size of just 32 x 15cm, this single pole shelter offers more comfort and protection than a standard bivi, and is an ideal compromise if you want to bike without the bulk or the baggage of a tent.
Just because you are packing light for an epic cycling advenutre doesn't mean you have to leave all mod cons at home. In fact, it pays to have some kind of GPS device with you (as well as a traditional paper map), while portable battery packs help power lights, recharge phones and top up any other devices you've got.
Anker PowerCore Essential 20000
If you're camping by car, topping up phone batteries is easy, but heading off-grid on a bike, even for 24-hours, means battery packs are essential. This beast will charge an iPhone X five times, so it's big enough to share with your mates. Plus, you can plug it in at a cafe or pub en route, to keep things charged for the next leg of the tour.
Hammerhead Karoo 2
We're packing the Karoo 2 before clean pants. Why? Because it represents 132g of serious GPS navigation that won't let you down. It isn't beholden to a phone signal, and can navigate even the most convoluted of routes. If you're a cycle data nerd it plays nice with Strava and ANT+ Bluetooth bike sensors too.
Garmin Edge 1040 Solar
A particular talking point for Bike-packers is the solar charging, which uses that massive screen (88.9mm or 3.5in diagonal) real estate to boost the battery life to industry-beating levels.
Garmin claims 45 hours in stock, with battery saver mode winding that up to 100 hours, which destroys everything else available - multiple day rides without faffing around with cables are no problem here.
Clever tricks like popularity routing - where you get bike-friendly routes - are well-tested and solid. The Garmin Edge 1040 will also list climbs on your route, as well as provide advice on how demanding the route is and its likely anaerobic and aerobic requirements.