|Call it whatever you like, bikepacking, off road touring or cycle camping. It all really comes down to the same thing, loading up your bike and heading off on a self propelled, 2 wheeled adventure. It could be argued (as I have in the past) that there are subtle differences between the 3 things above but if you're planning to wild camp and ride off road, then what we call it doesn't matter … most aspects will remain the same. The whole bikepacking scene is growing quite rapidly but for the newcomer it can be a bit of a minefield. It can also appear to be a potentially very expensive minefield.
Hopefully this page will help dispel a few myths and give you a clearer picture of what it's all about. This isn't designed to be a "buy this bag or use this tarp affair", that's what the reviews page is for. Instead, consider it to be an introduction to the thought processes of kit selection and the mindset of light weight and dual purpose kit.
The bike in the picture is loaded with everything required for a two night trip. The dry bag below the handlebars contains a sleeping bag, bivvy bag and sleeping mat. One of the bags on the forks has cooking/eating kit in it, stove, windshield, water filter, mug, etc. The other fork mounted bag contains spare clothes and food. The half height frame bag is split lengthways. In one side is a tarp pole with pegs and in the other is the tarp plus mobile phone, first aid kit, toothbrush, etc stored in a separate lightweight dry bag.
The one aspect of bikepacking that seems to get most attention is kit. If you're a gear geek then bikepacking really is for you. Not only do you get to satisfy your cycling/bike desires, you also get to obsess over piles or maybe even mountains of outdoor kit … and that's before you get to the bikepacking specific equipment. Now, some people might not like me letting you into this secret but - IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE LIKE THAT. You don't have to spend a fortune, obviously certain pieces of equipment are required but not always as much as people might think.
If you break your gear requirements down and prioritise them, number 1 on your list is likely to be stuff to keep you warm and dry at night, so we'll use these as an example. Straight away you've got numerous options available, tents, bivvy bags and tarps to keep you dry. To help keep you warm there's sleeping bags, duvets (not the one on your bed), jackets and sleeping mats, then you've got to decide on the secondary choices, do you want to go to the expense of down or are you happy with synthetic insulation, etc … choices, choices. Possibly the first and most important question you need to ask yourself before you make any kit choices is, what are you planning on doing? In basic terms what is bikepacking to you? Your answer to that question should have a massive bearing on all your kit and gear choices. If you think that all your trips are going to 1 nighters and will happen over 3 months during the summer then your requirements and financial outlay are going to be quite different to someone planning mid winter, multi-day trips.
It's surprising just how much stuff you can carry as long as you pack well!
photo © Stuart Beardow
A poly tarp made from a dust sheet
It's easy to buy a £30 synthetic bag that will keep you warm on a July night when the temperature doesn't drop below 12 degrees. Now use that same bag at 600 meters in January with temperatures of minus 12, if you do manage to get to sleep, you might never wake up. The same factors will help determine what type of shelter (if any) you're going to favour. There's not much that can match the feeling of falling to sleep watching shooting stars with only the sky for a roof. That joyous experience is impossible to capture while laid in a tent, however, a stormy night with high winds and heavy rain will be much more pleasurable from within the confines of a tent. Unless you're very lucky, sooner or later you are going to require some kind of shelter besides your bivvy bag. The simplest form of shelter is a tarp. Strung between 2 trees to form an A frame for example, it'll keep any rain that's falling straight down at bay. If you take the time to practice pitching it in some of the more complicated configurations then there's no reason why it won't offer similar levels of wind and rain protection to that of a tent. As with all equipment, tarps can vary dramatically in price but basic tarps are readily available from around £25, or less if you use a polythene tarp. Your £25 tarp won't be the lightest, it probably won't pack down the smallest but invest some time with it and it will work fine. If you flip the coin, then it's quite possible to spend £200 on a tarp. It's designed to do the same job as the £25 one but it will be MUCH lighter, will pack MUCH smaller and it may have a few refinements incorporated that'll make life under it a far nicer experience, especially on multi day trips. Once again the choice hinges on what you're wanting to do … what is bikepacking to you? A single summer evening 5 miles from home or a 500 mile ultra race where weight and performance are critical?
photo © Stuart Beardow
If you are going to use a tarp then the chances are you'll be using a bivvy bag of some sort with it. Although a bivvy bag isn't mandatory it will stop / help prevent your sleeping bag from getting wet, without the bivvy your sleeping bag will soak up any moisture in the ground like a sponge. As has already been mentioned, price differences between the cheap and functional and the high end can be dramatic … bivvy bags are no different. Besides being waterproof or at least water repellent, the thing your bivvy bag really needs to be is breathable. Spending the night inside a non breathable bag will result in so much condensation building up, that you might as well have just slept out in the rain without a bivvy bag at all. Breathable, waterproof bivvy bags start at around £30. At this price you can expect a simple 'sleeping bag cover' style bivvy with a drawcord hood and not much else. This type of bivvy will work without any problems, it will keep you and your sleeping bag dry and breath adequately to prevent much condensation forming inside. As the price rises, then generally so does the quality of the material the bag's made from. Materials such as Gore-Tex and eVent start to appear once you begin to spend over £100. The great benefit of these expensive fabrics is their high breathability, it enables the manufacturers to produce bags that are fully enclosed so in theory are fully waterproof as there's no hole where you face is … you could consider them to be a flat, mini tent. The more expensive fully enclosed bags sound fantastic and in certain conditions they really are great. However, you must always bear in mind that any item of kit will come with compromises and in the case of fully enclosed bags this usually comes in the form of added weight. Your basic waterproof, breathable bag might weigh around 400g and pack down to the size of a 1L bottle, your enclosed bag on the other hand is likely to weigh something nearer to 800g and pack to double the size. So here we are again, you're back to asking yourself what do you want your equipment to do and what compromises are you willing to make?
These decisions need to be made about every piece of equipment you buy and use. Stoves, luggage, clothing, etc will all require you to make choices based on your own criteria and expectations. The whole process can be a little bewildering at first. If you ask yourself a few questions before you spend any money then things will become far simpler, hopefully you'll also save yourself the grief of buying unsuitable kit and having to buy twice.