You may have heard the word Bikepacking bandied about and wondered exactly what it means and how it differs from bicycle touring. Today we're going to explore the key differences between traditional bicycle touring and bikepacking. Then we'll ask ourselve the tough question: which system is better, bicycle touring or bikepacking?
What is bikepacking?
Bikepacking is a self-supported style of lightly-loaded bicycle touring. Bikepackers typically ride on dirt roads in remote places. A typical bikepacking set-up includes a frame bag, handlebar roll, seat pack and backpack. Bikepackers ride on wide tires and usually have suspension on their bicycles.
The first time we encountered a bikepacker was in 2016 when we met Wesley on the Steens Mountain Route in Eastern Oregon
We met many more bikepackers on the Great Divide Route (GDMBR).
What are the advantages of bikepacking vs. traditional bicycle touring?
Bikepackers typically carry much lighter loads, so touring in mountainous areas is physically less demanding. Navigating rough terrain such as sand, rocks, steep inclines, and river crossings is easier with a bikepacking set-up.
Of course, riders can tackle all sorts of off-pavement surfaces on a touring bike equipped with racks and panniers, but it’s clearly going to be a bit harder with the additional weight and bulkier set-up.
Bikepacking bags are better for aerodynamics, so you’ll be faster than someone with a pannier set-up carrying the same weight.
Being narrower and having their gear up higher off the ground, bikepackers avoid bag strike and are better equipped for singletrack.
Racks and panniers tend to rattle and shake on rough roads, but bikepacking set-ups are smoother and less noisy.
Some cyclists also believe bikepacking set-ups look a little cooler and more rugged than panniers.
When did the bikepacking movement begin?
Adventurous folks have always ridden their bicycles on rough roads in remote places. Cyclists used to do it fully- loaded with panniers and now they have a choice between panniers and bikepacking gear.
In 2007, bikepacking pioneer Eric Parsons of Alaska-based Revelate Designs designed the first lightweight and functional frame bags. Early adopters to the bikepacking style of touring include Cass Gilbert, Pikes on Bikes, Lael Wilcox, and Joe Cruz.
Are there any disadvantages of bikepacking?
A cut in comfort.
Bikepackers can not carry as much gear as cyclists with panniers. If you switch to a bikepacking set-up, you will have to carefully streamline your gear and cut out a few of the extra comforts. This can be a good thing because minimalist touring means you have less stuff to worry about.
May spend more en route.
Since bikepackers have less carrying capacity, they tend to spend more money on food and lodging. When we biked the Great Divide Route in 2016 with full-loaded panniers, we were able to carry food for up to a week and did not need to shop at pricey general stores in small towns or eat meals in restaurants along the way. Most bikepackers we encountered along the GDMBR regularly re-supplied at convenience stores and ate meals in restaurants along the way.
Packing is trickier.
It’s very easy to stuff your gear in panniers and forget about it. With a bikepacking set-up, good organization is essential. Bikepackers tend to have stuff strapped on their bikes in all sorts of ways and this could be a problem if you encounter rain. Easily accessible and visible gear might also tempt unsavory sorts to snatch stuff off your bike.
With a little experience, most bikepackers soon work out an efficient packing system.
What is the price difference between purchasing bikepacking gear and panniers?
A set of four panniers and bar bag will cost about the same as purchasing a bar bag, saddle pack and frame bag for bikepacking (around $450).
Since bikepackers have less storage space and are usually highly concerned about weight, they often purchase more high-tech gear which generally costs more.
What are the best bikepacking destinations?
Bikepacking is fairly developed in the United States and the American West has many well-documented bikepacking routes.
The Baja Divide Route, carved out by Lael Wilcox and Nicolas Carmen, is becoming popular with riders on their way from Alaska to Ushuaia.
There are also many excellent bikepacking routes through the Andes.
What is better for a long-distance or round the world bicycle tour, panniers or bikepacking bags?
There is no clear cut answer to this and it really depends on how you like to tour.
Most round the world cyclists still opt for a traditional four pannier set-up. Their fully-loaded bikes are able to take them to remote places and they are able to ride on a variety of surfaces from paved highways to steep dirt roads up mountain passes.
A few long-distance cyclists including Tales on Tyres, Riding Wild, Powered by Adobo and the PushBikeGirl have switched to a pure bikepacking set-up. They all report being very happy with their gear arrangements and ability to tackle the roughest of roads.
A hybrid approach may be the best option of all. Check out Mark Watson and Hana Black for their combo of bikepacking gear and panniers.
Based on the blogs I've read, bikepackers tend to incorporate riding over adventurous terrain with bussing-it over the ‘boring bits.’
Many traditional bicycle travelers put a greater value on riding every inch of the way (better known as EFI riders).
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for how to travel by bicycle. They great thing is that today's bicycle adventurers have more options than ever.