How To Go Ultralight Bikepacking (A Fully Loaded Cycle Tourist’s Perspective)

Ultralight cycle touring – a.k.a. bikepacking – is something I’ve been asked repeatedly to cover on this blog.

As luck would have it, lightweight bikepacking is also something I’m getting more and more interested in, especially now I’m based in a place with endless potential for dirt road adventures in the mountains. Exciting plans are brewing for this style of adventure cycling. But a trial run is always a good idea…

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Luckily, a couple of weeks back, I found myself with the unexpected luxury of an empty week in my calendar, a touring bike in need of a workout, and an appointment to keep on the other side of England. With an unbroken run of fabulous weather on the forecasters’ cards, it was the perfect opportunity to experiment with bikepacking.

Here’s the rig I used to follow a rough route from London, along the south coast of England as far as the New Forest, and cut across to Bristol:

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It’s pretty much the lightest I’ve travelled by bicycle for more than a couple of days. The feeling of being unburdened yet self-sufficient was a fantastic luxury.

I made a few mistakes, and learned a lot, as you tend to do when trying something new.

But before I go into any more detail on what I did discover about bikepacking, let’s tackle the fundamental question of ‘why’ you might go ultralight with your two-wheeled travels. After all, when the classic pannier-laden rig has been tried and tested for decards, what’s the point of changing it?

Good question. Given good roads, flat terrain and merciful weather, and all else being equal (fitness, patience, navigation skills, etc), the only thing you’re gaining by losing weight is pure speed, and therefore the range of distances you can cover.

But as we all should know, smiles are not a function of miles. So this is only an advantage if speed and distance are truly important, which in my experience describes only a fraction of cycle tourists, generally those from a road-racing background, or with a particularly masochistic streak.

No. The big draw for me was, instead, the range of terrain I could cover, not the quantity. Given a sufficiently versatile touring bike (and Tom’s Expedition Bike was built for versatility), the potential for taking an ultralight touring rig off the beaten track – and (gasp) having fun with it – is massively increased.

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When I think back to the significant swathes of the planet I’ve crossed on dirt roads – or no roads at all – in Africa and Mongolia primarily, but also in Europe and the USA, I find that my strongest and most treasured memories are inevitably from these times.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise, for mountain biking was how I came across cycle touring in the first place. Indeed, the first touring bike I built was a Frankenstein’s monster of a mountain bike, adapted to carry loads of luggage (thus ironically rendering it deeply unsuited for off-road riding).

In many ways, then, going ultralight on an all-terrain bike is an optimisation of all the things that originally attracted me to the bicycle as a mode of transport, combined with a rectifying of the mistakes I made when touring off-road over the last few years.

And I’m not alone on this – in fact, I’m rather late to the party, as a quick search for ‘bikepacking’ will reveal.

(For those in search of vicarious dirt-road bikepacking adventures, Cass Gilbert’s blog is an unbeatable place to start.)

So much for the ‘why’. Let’s look at the ‘how’ of bikepacking.

Now, a week of it hardly makes me an expert. But I’ve been watching the bikepacking scene from the sidelines for years. And as with so many things adventurous, there seems to be an enormous emphasis on gear when discussing how to go ultralight with cycling adventures.

Yes, the advances in gear technology have been startling and impressive. Without these innovations, I certainly would not have been able to cram the following list of items into the luggage you see in the picture below:

  • Bag4Bike saddle pack: Exped Hyperlite M camping mat, Exped AirPillow UL, Alpkit Pipedream 250 sleeping bag, Alpkit Hunka bivvy bag (should have got the XL), waterproof jacket, fleece, thermal Buff, 2x underwear, 2x socks, off-bike shirt & trousers
  • Biologic Tour bar bag: Digital camera (Sony NEX-7 + 18-200mm Tamron lens), Zoom H1 voice recorder, smartphone & charger, head torch, personal valuables, Kindle, knife, wash kit & medical kit, snacks
  • Small backpack (not pictured): Laptop & charger
  • b’Twin frame bag: Pump, chain lube and touring toolkit

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(I could have done away with all the gadgets and halved my quota yet again, or added more warm clothes, but I had work to do en route.)

The brilliant thing about what’s listed above is that I could travel in more or less temperate climes pretty much indefinitely with it. And it’d be a luxuriously light and nimble way to ride.

“But what about a tent and stove, among other essential items of cycle touring gear?” I hear you ask, in an impressive display of literary English.

This, I feel, is where the other half of the equation comes in.

Ultralight bikepacking doesn’t just mean buying ultralight bikepacking luggage, like the Bag4Bike saddle pack I used on this trip. And it doesn’t just mean buying ultralight camping and cooking gear to stuff inside it.

It means fundamentally reassessing what you need versus what you simply want.

If you want the guaranteed shelter of a two-person freestanding tent… if you want to cook your own elaborate meals every night… if you want to change your clothes every day… if you want to bring your entire digital world along with you…

…then I am sorry, but no amount of money spent on the lightest and most packable example of each item of gear will change the fact that you simply have too much stuff in the first place.

It seems to me that ultralight bikepacking is, for the most part, the art of leaving things behind. Stripping things down to their barest essentials. Not buying gear.

I only went half way – as mentioned before, I could have ditched all the gadgets and devices and used a smartphone in place of all of them.

The problem is that in doing so, most of us will need to break our habits and do things differently, and if there’s one thing humans are good at, it’s resisting change.

This manifests in all sorts of comical ways. Fear of bivvying out in the open is understandable (though curable with practice or with company).

But getting wound up about the prospect of cold food for dinner? No tea or coffee in the morning? Wearing the same clothes every day? Or, quite simply, feeling uncomfortable because you’ve never carried so little stuff before – surely something must be missing?

These are psychological obstacles to overcome; aspects of going ultralight that gear manufacturers will never be able to invent a solution for.

Luckily, overcoming these obstacles is a simple case of going out and doing it, in spite of any misgivings.

New Forest trails delivering some sun-speckled spectacles this afternoon #tw

A photo posted by Tom Allen (@tom_r_allen) on

Tomorrow's going to be another good one… #tw

A photo posted by Tom Allen (@tom_r_allen) on

…on the other hand, I haven't had a good #nightride in ages #tw #fb

A photo posted by Tom Allen (@tom_r_allen) on

Crossing Southern England isn’t the obvious place to try out ultralight bikepacking.

But why not? The South Downs Way runs for a hundred miles along ridgelines overlooking the coast. The New Forest is riddled with endless shared-use trails. Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset can be crossed almost entirely on ‘trailways’ – old railway cuttings converted into off-road cycle routes by Sustrans, finishing up with the UK National Cycle Network’s first ever route, the Bristol-Bath Railway Path.

And the odd country road to link it all up – well, this is England, where, outside of rush hour, the country roads tend to be a joy to ride.

If that isn’t a candidate for the perfect application of ultralight bikepacking, I’m not sure what is.

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29 Responses to “How To Go Ultralight Bikepacking (A Fully Loaded Cycle Tourist’s Perspective)”

  1. Martin Holland

    Brilliant. Now you just need to have a look at using cyclo-cross bikes for touring in order to make me feel completely relaxed about my recent purchasing choices!

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      🙂

      Reply
      • mike

        Not sure if it is blasphemy, but I sure would want a front shock. Have tried without on one trip and that was enough.

        Reply
        • Tom Allen

          Definitely a divisive one – high volume tyres at a low pressure and a well designed steel fork (plus your elbow joints) can do a surprisingly good job. Having said that, my old expedition bike had front suspension and I certainly reaped the benefits in certain places. Mongolia springs to mind…

          Reply
  2. Graham Wilson

    Not sure I could overcome the psychological hurdle of not having a decent shelter, spare pants and a loo roll. But you’ve at least got me thinking…

    Reply
  3. Mara

    Love the idea, but still not sure how you get about with no water or food? We’ve been cycling Thailand and guzzle about 4lts of water each, minimum, a day…

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Water bottles plus a Camelbak, then stop and buy food when you’re hungry…

      Reply
    • mike

      I live and cycle extensively in Thailand- there is food and drinking water everywhere. I’ve also cycled in Tibet where it is much more an issue, so it is important to get good info beforehand. One thing that seems to be sure is that drinking water is getting easier to find in almost all locales.

      Reply
  4. John Cripps

    Did a three day light packed folding bike trip from Southampton to Barnstable and have to say Dorset and Somerset are great biking counties. The Bridgwater to Taunton canal is fantastic.

    Reply
  5. Logan

    That’s quite a lightweight setup! In the UK, check out Apidura and Wildcat Gear for more light weight ‘soft’ bikepacking bag options.

    “the potential for taking a rig off the beaten track and having fun with it,” … That’s the key to bikepacking, or at least how we across the pond define it. A lot of Americans might even argue that bikepacking is a term that should be reserved only for routes that involve a hearty chunk of singletrack. However, we’ve expanded that definition a bit and I think that it’s more about using ultralight packing techniques for ‘off the beaten path’ riding, be it on singletrack, gravel, or mixed terrain.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Cheers Logan! Everyone reading in this article should check out bikepacking.com, which is a gorgeous goldmine of info and inspiration…

      Reply
    • Shaun

      And Alpkit!

      All their bikepacking kit is made in the UK and good value for money. I did the Pennine Bridleway a couple of weekends back with a 13l Alpkit Airlock bag strapped to a Kanga front handlebar harness and a Koala seatpack. Also had a Camelbak Blowfish rucksack and two ‘bartender’ bags from Randy Jo Fabrications in Oregon. Alpkit do something similar, and much cheaper, but not in Cotton Duck, which matches my Carradice Super C bags better when I’m in full touring bike mode on the bike with the racks.

      In the Alpkit bags were a Goretex Phoenix bivvy-tent (which I didn’t use as I found a palatial hut to sleep in), Alpkit Airo mattress, Alpkit Pipedream 400 sleeping bag, food for a night’s meal and coffee, Trangia stove in an old Camping Gaz Globetrotter cookset, down jacket, kneewarmers, hat, waterproof.

      I bought pie and chips in Settle also. 😉

      Picture of bike setup at https://www.flickr.com/gp/[email protected]/EBJC13

      Alpkit stuff at http://alpkit.com and Randy Jo is at http://randijofab.com

      Reply
      • Tom Allen

        I can second Alpkit’s gear – their Pipedream 250 sleeping bag and Hunka bivvy bag were among the bits and bobs in my saddle bag.

        Reply
  6. Peter

    Great post Tom!

    I love short trips bike packing. My family life at the moment doesn’t give me the time for the longer trips & I love the quick couple of nights away. Not having all the creature comforts for a couple of nights doesn’t bother me. Sleeping wise, I’m thinking of getting a hammock. I do use the bivvy sometimes, but they still scare me 🙂

    Great tip on the bikepacking.com site. Not only great content, but looks fantastic!

    cheers Pete.

    Reply
  7. Donna

    Great reading; this is something I’m really keen to try…although maybe with a bed in a hostel rather than tent 😉 I guess that’s not really bikepacking is it!

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Of course it is – I stayed in a great rural hostel in the New Forest on this trip and found it surprisingly enjoyable for a dyed-in-the-wool wild camper and skinflint…

      Reply
  8. Michael

    Good to see you heading this way Tom and your comments on perspective and attitude are spot on, as always. That said, I’d not have set up the frame triangle and rear luggage that way. Given you still have a rack you would probably have more stable offroad performance by just putting the gear in a dry bag on the rack. Or remove the rack and keep the rear setup as is. To me the triangle is the biggest area of inefficiency. Riding in the Rockies these days I tend to use RandiJo’s bartender bags (or climbers chalk bags) for handy bottle, bear spray and snack holding (either side of the stem, behind the bar). That and fork mounts allow me to use a full frame bag and put the weight in there (or your laptop). If you don’t want to go full frame but still make use of both those bottle cages then something like a full top tube length Revelate Tangle (you can get them stock from QBP/Surly over here or the ACA) would still give you more efficiency than the way you set up IMO – room for 2 bottles for sure. I agree a front harness and roll would help on longer trips but I get why on the South Coast you would not need it, that’s the last thing I try and load especially if heading for anything technical.

    Reply
  9. Mike Gibsons

    HI Tom! Love the site! Quick question about your “Bag4Bike saddle pack” … How much seat post needs to be visible for the saddle bag to mount correctly?

    Thanks!

    Reply
  10. Truman Hopper

    I am going to be touring from Paris to Athens in two years time and was wondering if it would be possible to do this in a bikepacking fashion without packing food. I have looked on Google Maps and seen that there is a village just about every five miles in all the countries that I am going to be going to, but do those villages all have places to buy food for cheap? Or do even they have to go into the towns to get their groceries?

    Reply
  11. Mark Collins

    Hi Tom – thank you for a fantastic ‘warts and all’ guide to something I’m itching to try. I have a very busy family and work life so am looking to start small such as a single overnight on the Viking Way or something similar with a view to progressing as my confidence grows. I’ve spent a bit of time purchasing bits of kit (I’m probably now a shareholder in Alpkit – totally agree, fantastic kit) in readiness for getting out of the door. Any suggestions on routes would be greatly appreciated. Good luck with your future exploits!

    Reply

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