What is bikepacking?

Jim Sutherland explains what bikepacking is: the combination of lightweight backpacking with mountain biking, or touring on a mixture of roads, gravel tracks, single track and sometimes walking paths for multiple days with an overnight stop.

My first experience of bikepacking was a remote trip into the glen running from Strathcarron to Strathconnon with a friend of mine in 2014. We carried everything we needed for the two days using a mixture of our own or borrowed seatpost harnesses and very heavy rucksacks. Although John and I had a lot of fun with all the kit performing as expected, it did seem like hard work at the time!

By the following summer I was carrying all my bike kit, personal kit and overnight gear on my bike – not ideal while traversing the Scottish Highlands from Deeside, through Lochaber to the Beauly Firth, Inverness.

In 2018 the choice of available bikepacking luggage is almost overwhelming. So, like a lot of outdoor gear, it is very helpful to try things out first or seek advice from others.

Over the past two or three years I have found Wildcat Gear to be very well designed and long lasting. They are a British company and very friendly to deal with. Another option is to choose from the ever-expanding range of bikepacking luggage from alpkit.

Most bikes can take a simple harness, which is fitted to the rails of your seat as well as the seat post. A dry bag is then placed inside the harness before being filled with a sleeping bag, a lightweight tent and sleeping/spare clothes.

Next, a double-ended dry bag can be strapped to the handlebars. In here I keep stuff that I need during the day such as a waterproof jacket or a duvet jacket for stops. Heavier items affect how your bike handles so choose carefully what goes in here.

These two locations for your bike luggage might just be enough to allow you to try out a simple overnight trip with some extras in a small backpack if needed. This inexpensive system is what we recommend to our clients with nineonesix-guiding on our bikepacking trips on the Moray Trail.

As your experience and needs develop you can add a frame bag, which usually attaches with velcro within the main triangle of your bike frame and is a great place to store heavier items such as a bike repair kit, first aid kit and perhaps a small stove. The theory being that the extra weight here will have less effect on the handling of your bike as it is close to the bike’s centre of gravity.

What you choose to take with you when bikepacking depends on how often you plan to do it, how much you want to spend on kit and what you might already have from your existing camping and sleeping kit.

There are no hard and fast rules: stay where you want, where you are comfortable. Tarp, tent, bothy, hostel/bunkhouse or even a B&B are all possible options.

Since that first bikepacking trip in 2014 I have used a 26-inch rigid steel bike, a full suspension 27.5-inch bike and more recently a rigid, steel 29er that I built up myself. I believe that for most folk the bike you currently ride is the best one for your next bikepacking adventure! Only once you begin to understand where and what you want to do can more informed choices be made about which bike to use. The key points for your bike are ease of maintenance, comfort and an ability to fit bike luggage.

Perhaps you are not quite ready to commit completely to soft bike luggage? Choose a frame that has bosses or lugs that allow pannier racks to be fitted.

The frame I chose for my bike is a steel 29-inch frame with a rigid fork produced by Brother Cycles in London. This was after watching their beautiful and inspirational film about a bikepacking trip from Lairg to Cape Wrath.

My routes tend to have a lot of climbing so I have a 2x11 transmission, which is pretty affordable and standard these days. There is the option of fitting other kinds of transmission, such as single speed or internal gear hubs, but I do not have such specific needs as these. If this has given you an interest in this fantastic way of engaging with the outdoors check out bikepacking.com

In summary, don’t get hung up about the bike or the kit. Remember you are only riding your bike with some camping and sleeping gear for a fun time away from home.

Some ideas for bikepacking trips:

  • Take your first trip in The New Forest of southern England or Glenmore Forest in The Cairngorm National Park, Scotland. The trails are friendly and easy to follow so that you can relax and enjoy your first overnight camp or hostel trip. Daily distances and climbing can be kept to whatever you are comfortable with for an introduction.
  • Ride from one coast to the other of Scotland – starting in Ardgay, Sutherland, and finishing in Ullapool, Wester Ross. Check the weather and be ready to plan detours if the rivers are too high on this route, which climbs 3000ft and travels nearly 40 miles.
  • A recent addition to the huge variety of bikepacking routes in the UK is The Capital Trail. This is a step up at 146 miles and close to 20,00ft of ascent, which starts and finishes in Edinburgh. Ride it as part of a weekend group start or take your time and do it at your own pace.
  • Fancy bikepacking across a country? The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route starts north of the Canadian/US border in Banff and crisscrosses The Rockies all the way down to Mexico – 2768 miles and 200,000ft of ascent!

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