Bikepacking, or backpacking by bike, is a fun new way to enjoy cycling and traveling, and it also can be a great workout.
“What if the roads 20 percent farther than you normally ride were 80 percent better?”
There’s a debate in cycling about ultralight bikepacking, mostly to do with what it actually means. In North America, bikepacking, for most people, means leaving your front door and riding until you’ve had enough — exploring new roads, enjoying some ales on the tail-end and riding home for the work week. Simple. Easy. Elsewhere, ultralight bikepacking is called something different: a Brevet. It’s the same idea, but over bigger mountains and bigger distances, indulged in by enthusiasts with the legs and lungs to participate in this style of rides.
However you define it, bikepacking, ultralight or otherwise, is having a moment. Packs are being designed to appeal to more riders; apparel-makers are marketing the romanticism of losing yourself on a bike for a weekend (or longer), organizing cross-country bikepacking events that entice participants to dip their toes, after riding from East to West coast, in the Pacific and experience the sensation of the open road.
But is it for you, or just a bunch a middle-aged men in lycra?
What’s the appeal?
“Think of bike packing like a Swiss Army knife,” says Premton Batku, Alpha Velo co-founder and himself an experienced bikepacker. “Everything you need to get out, get lost, and explore new roads —bike, food, clothes, Garmin —is compact and ultralight, packed neatly and tied to your bike. It gives you the freedom to push and explore yourself.”
Batku made several small trips into the Alps last year, bikepacking while living in Geneva, Switzerland. An avid cyclist — the kind who will give you an education about the sport’s history before dropping you on a group ride—made painstaking efforts to find the right kit and equipment for his extended trips. The effort prepared him for Instagram pics and cold descents one and the same. He says it offered him more freedom and an element of change from the daily grind, made all the more satisfying by achieving it through his own means.
So, maybe it’s the search. Maybe it’s the journey. Maybe it’s the personal experience you have when you’re out there traveling day-to-day, says another in the industry. Devin O’Brien is the owner of Search and State and organizer of the Search Brigade. When weather, terrain and route finding are all factors, the appeal of cycling longer distances over new roads, exploring your surroundings and being self-sufficient becomes more clear. “You can’t see the world, as promised land, without doing the work,” he says. “There’s no truer way to see this country and to understand the landscape than by riding a bicycle.”
The appeal of bikepacking also lies heavily in the idea of just having a fun weekend with your buddies, versus a triumph over death, says Derrick Lewis, an employee at Rapha, tastemakers in cycling style, who this summer released their own packs and distinct Rapha-esque marketing to inspire more people to get out for longer distances.
“Rapha’s introduction to many in North America was a series of films, stories and photos intended to be an anecdote to the clinical aspects of road racing,” he explains. “It didn’t confine itself to training and racing. It gave many riders permission to call themselves serious cyclists and reminded everyone that there are lots of great places to be reached via roads,” requiring more than a day to get to—part of the reason for bikepacking’s increasing appeal. “For new riders, the long distances might be a challenge, but your only time cut is the sunlight.”
Assuming you've got the bike—something lightweight, properly fitted for your size and the fitness to do some big miles—what you take with you for a weekender is up to you. Ultralight bike packers, people who debate cutting their toothbrushes to save a couple grams (for the hills, of course) will definitely tell you that less is more.
First thing’s first: you’re going to need some good kit (and probably only one)—something durable and able to handle varied weather. We like the Signature Jersey from Isadore Apparel for its pro peloton pedigree (company owners Martin and Peter Velits are both professional cyclists). It dried quickly during testing, which is important if this is all you’ll be riding in for a couple days.
“I knew I would want to give the cycling shoes a break at the other end, but the shoes I packed to kick around afterwards took up the most space,” says Derrick Lewis, about a recent ride through Portland. For footwear he suggests that you keep it to flip flops, assuming you need to bring a second pair of shoes at all. A bathing suit, a PackTowl, fenders (depending on the season) and a flask are also ride essentials.
No matter how you pack or define it, try to remember that every ride has different requirements. Most of us aren’t packing to ride to the edge of the earth. Take a couple creature comforts along for the ride. Just remember you’ll be moving it all yourself with every pedal stroke.