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Bespoken Word: The Zen of bikepacking

Bespoken Word Bikepacking
(Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

First things first, in the same way that ‘gravel biking’ is what used to be called ‘rough stuff riding’, ‘bikepacking’ is basically what used to be called ‘cycle touring’. Except that cycle touring sounds really dull and elderly, like the bike equivalent of caravanning (even the Cyclists Touring Club recently abandoned the name after over a century) while bikepacking is as hip, young and fashionable as converting a normal van into a camper. 

Luckily there are some relatively simple ground rules to keep you a fashionable bikepacker and not a cycle tourist loser. 

  • Bikepacking: everything you need to know in one place 

Most importantly panniers are for donkeys and pensioners, and saddlebags must be in line with your saddle, not stuck out sideways. The practical reasoning for this is because panniers and racks tend to rattle off as soon as you hit rough ground with any sort of gusto, while frame bags can be lashed on tight. Apart from frame bag sizing which can be a bit of a pain, the best bikepacking bags can be strapped to any sort of bike from full suspension mountain bike to time trial machine depending on what terrain you’re planning on riding or what you have in the garage. 

On that note, inline bags are also more aero and if they’re mounted high you can push through rivers for epic pictures without getting your keto snacks soggy or your dangle mug damp.  You will need to overlook the fact that - compared to panniers - putting all your bags as high as possible can make bikes handle really badly, especially out of the saddle, but fork bags are good for steering stability. Interestingly despite also being a staple of cycle touring, handlebar bags are actively encouraged, even if you’re riding an aero bike with an integrated bar where your chosen packed lunch box-style bag will instantly negate years of wind tunnel work. 

After one of those conversations with Mrs K this morning where you realize something you’ve said is perfectly easy to misunderstand, bikepacking is not the art of putting your bike in a box to put on a plane. Well, it is -but that’s not what we’re talking about here because few of us are likely to be flying anywhere anytime soon.

And that’s certainly one reason why bikepacking has exploded in popularity, because it offers you the chance to get away from all the hassles of your normal life and into the wild in a really accessible, affordable (presuming you already have some sort of functioning bike) way. While some riders will vanish for months or even years on end, even a weekday micro adventure to the local woods can feel like a wonderful escape. 

It can be as involved or easy as you want, and as social or anti-social as you want too. Some riders will spend months joining the dots of water taps, food sources, camping spots or points of interest and set off solo. Others will happily tag along with these organizers or pick a pre-planned route like the King Alfred’s Way loop that I was lucky enough to ride and write up for Cycling UK (the ones who used to be The Cyclists Touring Club) last year. And as cynical as I might sound about the fashionable status of bikepacking or bar bag couture, that trip really brought home how wonderful bikepacking can be, especially in a country as diverse as the UK.

Bespoken Word Bikepacking

Bikepacking is possible with all kinds of setup options (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

Just knowing that you have all day to trundle along lanes and trails taking diversions to interesting spots or short cutting if you’re tired, is a massive release from a regular clock watching ride. The self-sufficiency of carrying plenty of food, water and the clothes to cope with any likely weather is amazingly liberating, and the sense of being out there in the ‘wild’ kicks in remarkably quickly. 

Even the planning and packing makes you feel rugged, and while there aren’t many lions or rogue elephants on the Ridgeway near Swindon, knowing that you’re heading somewhere totally new and not coming back home that night is a real primal thrill. Even if you’re actually heading to a very warm welcome and awesome BBQ at a friend’s house in the Surrey Hills. It significantly expands how far you can explore, which can be an incredibly eye-opening experience. 

Bikepacking has taken me scuttling conspiratorially down back alleys and under canal bridges past midnight in Keighley and Rochdale, linking between barren moors to meet staging riders with sausage rolls and ‘never tasted better' brews. I’ve ploughed bagged bikes through deep sand across stunning wildflower-coated heathlands where you’d never know motorways and the heart of London were just a few miles away. 

I’ve laughed and wobbled with mates along the ruts of ten thousand year-old trails between hill forts and machine gun turret-guarded towpaths. I’ve got euphorically, tearfully poetic surfing singletrack between stone circles and tripped out in clouds of butterflies with a skylark soundtrack on my own. Once, several hundred km into a multi day ride I swear I even got saved from some savage headwinds by Jesus on a full suspension gravel e-bike.

Bespoken Word Bikepacking

Guy's Jesus on an e-bike (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

And that’s another thing, while it’s obviously more pleasant in good weather, fighting against grim conditions, bodging mechanicals, wondering if you’ll ever find a cup of tea or getting a bit lost and then found again is all part of the adventure of bikepacking, and generally generates the best anecdotes to share with everyone later.

The whole sense of release is even more heightened after months of lockdown too, with people bursting back out of their personal prisons valuing that freedom more than ever. As I’ve talked about before that sense of mental cleansing and freedom just feels better on a bike too. While you can obviously escape on foot, by canoe or even in your converted camper van, a bike has a unique ability to take you further and faster but still keep that totally personal engagement with the environment. Its silence and stealth connects you with the sounds and the smells. The visceral connection with the ground through its rattle and roll and the rise and fall of hills. The sense of an experience rightfully earned through solid effort and skilful riding. 

Not only is having an adventure right from your front door much more realistic on a bike than running or walking, your trusty steed can carry your gear for you as well. So while there’s obviously some added weight and bulk, it’s not digging into your hips, burning your shoulders or crushing your knees as you trudge along like an upright tortoise. Because bikepacking bags mean you can load your luggage onto any sort of bike, the choice of terrain is totally yours too. There’s no one best bikepacking bike for all occasions. Ride the rads between overnight stops on an enduro bike. Grab your tri bars and rack up hundreds of miles between sleeps. Or mix it up and go wherever the mood takes you on one of the best gravel bikes that’s happy on the road or off. 

Bespoken Word Bikepacking

Guy sets up camp in an old drainage pipe (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

While it’s very easy to spend a bike's worth of cash on bikepacking bags before you even start on camping stoves, ultralight tents, sleeping bags and self-inflating mats, you don’t ‘need’ any of that to try out the vibe. Bikepacking on a budget is very easy. Wrap your clothes/overnight gear etc. in a plastic rubble sack (bin bags are too thin and rip easily) and strap it to your bars. Then stick stuff you need more regularly (food, phone, essential spares) in your back pockets, a small backpack or under your saddle as normal. Here’s a list of bikepacking essentials so you always pack what you need.

Bikepacking can be as easy or as epic as you want, so if you’re not sure about sleeping under the stars then - as soon as Covid allows - book yourself into a B&B, camping pod or hotel where you can get a shower and breakfast. If you want to go feral then scope out places which naturally offer shelter so you don’t need to drag along a family tent. I’ve had five-star nights in discarded drainage pipes, and even did the Rat Race coast-to-coast event sleeping in a kid’s pop-up play tent shaped like a dog one particularly fine summer. Never totally trust the forecast and be prepared to sleep with ALL your clothes on as temperatures always drop off a lot at night. If you’re camping in summer be double careful to check for ticks too.

We also need to point out though that while bikepacking goes hand in hand with wild camping for many people it’s actually illegal to just bed down anywhere in England, Wales or Ireland (Scotland is mostly OK) without asking permission from the landowner first. Given the lack of foreign escape options, official campsites are likely to be very busy too, so you’ll need to plan ahead. If you’re prepared to risk a 12 bore alarm call though then stealth is your friend. Tuck yourself in well away from any buildings or livestock, arrive late, leave early (like ‘farmer’ early) and leave no trace in terms of litter or scorch marks, and bury anything you can’t bag well away from streams or springs.

Bespoken Word Bikepacking

A five-star view from the drainage pipe (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

However or wherever you travel and sleep though, it’s not only very easy to try bikepacking for yourself, but also to see why so many people are falling in love with the adventure and escape of loading up their bikes and leaving normal life behind for a bit. Just don’t call it ‘cycle touring’ or you’ll be cancelled immediately. 

Guy Kesteven
Guy has been riding mountain bikes since before they were mountain bikes and is right handy on an offroad tandem (of course he is).