Now is obviously not the time to be setting off on a globetrotting bike trip.
But as we’ve all been discovering over the last few weeks, disruptions create space for thinking… differently.
Amid much uncertainty and, yes, real hardship and trauma, we also have a priceless opportunity to reimagine the path we’ve been travelling through life, and to redirect those parts of our futures we can control towards newly-reconsidered destinations.
That’s why – even if our departure dates remain to-be-confirmed, and even if the places we’re thinking of going are closer to home – I would argue that there is no better time to be planning a dream bicycle-mounted adventure.
If you’ve been sitting on such a dream for some time, it’s likely it and others have recently resurfaced with a new sense of urgency.
So why not start laying the groundwork? Why not get some of those big decisions made, those big questions answered, those big obstacles overcome?
I am willing to bet that you have, over the last few weeks, overcome a challenge you never imagined you’d have to face, or solved a problem you previously considered unsolvable. Whether financial, existential, philosophical, or spiritual; the details don’t matter. What matters is that you have experienced the necessity of thinking in a way you’ve never had to think before.
Your mind is primed for doing it again – but this time for something you’ve chosen to do.
What is happening right now should be a source of empowerment; a reminder – if you needed it – that we are all more resourceful and adaptable than the routines of just a couple of months ago might have suggested.
It should be a lesson that whatever rationalisations or excuses or pain points have been standing in the way of that dream can be overcome, so long as you make doing so a condition of necessity.
The easiest way to achieve that necessity is to commit. Make a promise to yourself. Ignore those tropes about publicising your goals and having an audience hold you to account. Social media parted ways with reality a long time ago. This should be a deal you make quietly with your soul.
There has never been a better time to do so.
Because you’ve finally remembered that the best time is always now.
Every morning during the last six weeks of lockdown I have got up at 6am and spent several hours rewriting and updating my newcomers’ guide to cycling adventures.
Spring is usually the time to be planning summer travels, but this year we’re suddenly thinking further ahead. I decided it was more important than ever I do all I can to help the adventure cycling community – and most of all those who’ve just discovered it – to travel the long road towards realising their ambitious dreams.
How To Hit The Road is now available as a Kindle ebook on all Amazon platforms. (A much-requested paperback edition will follow shortly.)
You can head straight to the Kindle store to download the free sample, or check out this page for more information about what you’ll find inside – and I’d be more than happy to answer any questions about the book in the comments below!
Header photo by Carl-David Granbäck. Used with permission.
For the last few weeks I’ve been putting the finishing touches to a project I’ve been working on for many years – and with so many of us in isolation and looking for things to do, the timing could not be better!
Yes, that’s right – the story of my award-winning documentary Janapar: Love on a Bike has finally been adapted for video game format!
Mixing both role-playing and action genres, Janapar: The Game will take you on a failed journey around the world by bicycle, teaching you tough lessons about life and love in the process.
You’ll start Level 1 by riding your bicycle around the rolling country lanes of the English Midlands, in search of the answers to a series of existential questions. Every answer you find scores you valuable Enlightenment Points, depending on how well it supports your conviction that you should just burn all your bridges and hit the road forever.
Once you’ve collected enough Enlightenment Points, you’ll be able to upgrade your bicycle and advance to Level 2! Your objective will be to pedal across Europe to Istanbul before winter arrives. But life on the road isn’t that simple – you’ll face a series of obstacles, including fixing mechanical problems on the roadside against the clock, being distracted by beautiful women in every city you pass through, and winning childish arguments with your riding partners via a series of Monkey Island-style multiple-choice questions.
The difficulty really ramps up in Level 3, where you will be fighting to keep your Morale-O-Meter above zero in the face of rain and snow, steep hills, vicious dogs, and the complete breakdown of your relationship with your riding partner. Every Turkish tea shop you reach will replenish your Morale-O-Meter to 100% – but you can get up to 200% in bonus morale by convincing the tea-shop owner that you’re too poor to pay your bill!
In Level 4, you’ll be presented with your biggest challenge yet – overcoming lifelong social awkwardness in order to persuade a beautiful Armenian girl to join you on your big life-changing bicycle adventure. Don’t say the wrong thing, or else she’ll leave the bar and the game will be over!
Level 5 is another race against time to reach your girlfriend’s hometown of Tehran on your bicycle before your her Morale-O-Meter reaches zero and she goes back to the perfectly decent life she had before she met you. As every aspect of life on the road is revealed to be utterly shit, you’ll have to come up with ever-more-ingenious things to say to keep her going, before facing up against the first big boss of Janapar: The Game – the Angry Father-In-Law.
In Level 6 you’ll be back on your own, having lost your fight against the boss of Level 5. Your mission is to pedal into a constant sandy headwind for six months as you cross the Middle East and the Sahara Desert. As you do, you’ll have to negotiate corrupt traffic police, undercover Syrian intelligence agents, and a hellish wild-goose-chase from embassy to embassy to apply for visas, all the while accompanied by a voice in your head repeatedly asking ‘what the actual fuck are you doing here?’.
Level 7 is an action-packed rollercoaster of a ride across the highlands of Ethiopia. In each mountain village, you’ll get a special speed boost power-up if you find a way through without being seen – a tough challenge for a white bloke on a bicycle. But if you don’t, you’ll get pelted with rocks by huge gangs of barefooted children. Don’t get brain damage!
Level 8 is a mystery-solving level, in which you have to find a way to cross the Gulf of Aden without simply getting on a short-haul flight like everyone else. Which Arabian dhow captain will take you across these pirated waters for the least amount of money? How will you survive the nights when you’re too tight-fisted to pay for a hotel room? Only one way to find out!
In Level 9, your mission is simple: cross the entire southern Arabian peninsular in high summer while avoiding the outbreak of civil war in Yemen, dying of dehydration in the Empty Quarter, or your bicycle breaking catastrophically in the middle of the Omani desert. Replenish your Morale-O-Meter by finding air-conditioned petrol stations with fridges full of ice-cold orange Mirinda. Earn bonus points for convincing the owner to let you stay the whole day!
In the final level of Janapar: The Game you’ll face your toughest adversary yet – the Iranian secret police! You’ve arrived in the middle of a massive political demonstration and they’re convinced you’re a British spy. Answer one question incorrectly and both you and your father-in-law will be thrown in jail and the game will be over – but get through the interrogation successfully and they’ll give you a cup of tea and send you off to be reunited with your girlfriend, with whom you’ll live happily ever after. You win!
The end credits feature loveable scenes of you and your girlfriend cycling back across Europe to your parents’ house in England, before those existential questions show up once more – and the whole game starts all over again.
It’s time to deep-dive into another frequently-asked question about equipment for cycle touring and bikepacking – the thorny topic of how to choose a camping mattress (as we call them in the UK) or sleeping pad (as our American friends prefer).
We’ll be looking specifically at which camping mattresses or sleeping pads are ‘best’ for cycle touring and bikepacking trips – and how the definition of ‘best’ might differ depending on personal preferences and the details of your planned ride.
I’ll guide you through this topic by combining advice from my 14 years of bicycle travel experience with a list of currently recommended camping mattresses for cycle touring and bikepacking.
What I won’t do is bore you with spreadsheets and tables comparing R‑values, cm² of floor space covered, decibels of noise emitted when you turn over in the night, etc. The advice here is based on real reports and recommendations from real riders in the real world, not scientists in laboratories.
I also won’t be recommending anything new and unproven. Only tried-and-tested camping mattresses will be making it onto this list, because on a cycle tour or bike trip, reliability matters.
Are you sitting (or lying) comfortably? Then I’ll begin…
Camping Mattresses for Cycle Touring & Bikepacking – The Basics
Far from being an unnecessary luxury, a camping mattress is at least as important as a sleeping bag when camping on a bike trip.
This is because – as you’ll know if you’ve tried sleeping on bare ground – it’s where your warm body touches the cold ground that heat is most quickly lost.
Why doesn’t a sleeping bag stop this happening? Well, it’s the trapped air in the lining of a sleeping bag that keeps your body heat in. But a sleeping bag has the air squashed out when you lie down in it. A camping mattress solves this by providing a structure for the trapped air needed to insulate your body from the ground.
In other words, the main purpose of a camping mattress is to keep you warm.
Although comfort is often the first thing people think about when choosing a camping mattress, this is a secondary concern. No matter how soft and comfortable your sleeping surface feels, cold spots will wake you up if you’re not properly insulated – and then you won’t be able to sleep at all.
The 3 Types Of Camping Mattress You Need To Know About
Camping mattresses suitable for cycle touring and bikepacking are split into three categories: closed-cell foam (ie: a ‘roll-mat’), inflatable, and self-inflating.
Within each category you’ll find a range of options and styles of interest to the cyclist, from a simple slice of foam costing £5 all the way up to to luxurious padded air mattresses costing hundreds of pounds.
Most of the camping mattresses we’ll be looking at come from the hiking, trekking and backpacking departments of outdoor stores, which is where the needs of bicycle travellers overlap with those of more lucrative markets.
How much luggage space you have will be big a deciding factor in what category of mattress you choose.
For bikepackers trying to reduce gear volume, ultralight inflatable mats or minimalist self-inflating mattresses will stow in a seat pack or handlebar roll.
If you’re off on a fully-loaded tour, however, a bulky closed-cell foam mat or thick self-inflating mattress will sit happily on top of your rear rack.
The other big deciding factor in what category of mattress you choose is which type is most comfortable for your specific sleeping habits.
Some people can unroll a thin piece of foam on rocky ground and sleep the whole night through. Others need a thick layer of of air cushioning beneath them to get the same good night’s sleep. And yet others sleep better on a thinner ‘self-inflating’ mat with a foam structure (I’m in this latter category).
If you want to get a good night’s sleep, night after night, you need to know which of the three categories of camping mattress will best give it to you.
Think about the last time you went mattress shopping for your home. Did you search the web for reviews and then order one online? Of course not! You probably went to a mattress store and spent some time lying down on a few different products in your budget range to see if they suited your preferences for softness, size, etc.
If you take one piece of advice from this article, make it this one: if you’re buying a camping mattress for the first time, head on down to your nearest camping store and actually lie down on some demonstration models before you spend a penny.
Once you’ve understood which type of camping mattress feels right for you, then you can start thinking about things like your budget, luggage space, the climate you’re riding in, and all the other factors, before scouring the web for the best deal on your preferred option.
A Note On The Limited Usefulness Of R‑Values & Temperature Ratings
Camping mattress and sleeping pad manufacturers will almost always quote something called the “R‑value”. This is a measure of insulating power taken from the construction industry, and has mostly replaced the temperature rating as the standard measure of insulation for a camping mattress. A higher number means more insulating power. You’ll find recommended temperatures for “comfort” are often quoted too.
There are three important things you need to know about these numbers.
The first thing is that they are calculated in highly controlled laboratory campsites in which brand new high-quality tents have been perfectly pitched in perfect conditions.
This campsite does not exist in the real world.
The second thing is that temperature ratings will be based on a user of average size, weight and metabolism, wearing a full set of thermal underwear, who is sleeping in the above-mentioned laboratory campsite.
This user also does not exist in the real world.
The third thing to know is that because, physiologically speaking, males tend to sleep warmer than females, manufacturers often base temperature figures on a male user to make them sound more generous (you’ll usually find this stated explicitly if you dig deep enough into the small print).
We all know that both males and females go camping.
How, then, to interpret R‑values and temperature ratings when choosing a camping mattress for a cycle tour or bikepacking trip?
Firstly, know what R‑values mean in the context of a bike trip. For much of the temperate zone, appropriate seasonal ranges are roughly the same as the actual R‑value ratings. In other words, a mattress with an R‑value of 1 would be appropriate most 1‑season uses, ie: summer, whereas a mattress with an R‑value of 4 would see you through most 4‑season uses, ie: temperate-zone winters.
This is your starting point.
Next, think about your own sleeping habits. Do you sleep hot or cold? Are you the one who wakes up sweating and throws off the blankets in the middle of the night, or the one who’s still shivering even when snuggled up with woolly hat and a hot water bottle?
Thinking about this will help you decide whether to interpret a recommended temperature rating generously or conservatively, and whether to go for a higher or lower R‑value than the average for your intended use.
If you happen to be biologically female in the unfortunately male-dominated world of outdoor pursuits, consider that manufacturers such as Therm-a-Rest who make “women’s specific” models tend to increase R‑values by roughly 30% over the “regular” models.
Unless you know you sleep hot, I’d therefore advise female riders to consider mattresses with a minimum R‑value of 2 for summer, 4 for 3‑season, and 5 for all-season use.
Finally, consider the worst-case scenario for your upcoming trip, given where you’re planning to go and when. If, on the coldest possible night at the highest possible altitude on your route, you followed every tip in this article about staying warmer when camping in winter, would you probably survive on a camping mattress with the R‑value you’re considering?
Thinking about this will do two things. It will help you avoid “overkill” – in other words, buying a mattress far more highly insulated (and expensive) than you actually need. It will also help you identify possible situations in which a mattress with a higher rating might actually be a good idea.
So What Are The Best Camping Mattresses For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking In Each Category?
Let’s get stuck in to the specific products that come highly recommended for cycle touring and bikepacking by people who are actually out there riding.
I’ll cover each of the three main types – closed-cell foam, inflatable, and self-inflating – in separate sections.
For each model, if there are multiple versions available (eg: different sizes, with or without extra insulation, ‘ultralight’ or ‘luxe’ versions, etc), I will describe the standard, medium-sized, regular thickness, non-ultralight model. You may then adjust your final buying decision based on whether you need any of the additional options.
As will all my gear round-up articles, I’ve included manufacturer and retailer links for the UK and USA where I can find them.
Some of these are affiliate links and are marked with an asterisk (*) for transparency. I’ll earn a small commission if you buy through them, which helps me keep articles like this one free-to-read and ad-free.
The Best Closed-Cell Foam Camping Mats For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
Simple, cheap, and usually preferred by riders on a tight budget, generic closed-cell foam mattresses, aka: roll-mats, satisfy the one essential criteria – insulation from the ground – and nothing else.
With nothing to puncture or break, they’re actually a durable choice – as long as you keep them away from over-tightened bungee straps, corrosive substances, and the teeth of wild dogs.
Do not expect much luxury from most of these mats, but do expect to avoid being woken up by cold spots in all but winter conditions (in which case you can use two).
As well as at mainstream outdoor and camping stores such as Decathlon*; you can find these at supermarkets, gas stations, hardware stores, and so on, where they’re cheap and abundant.
If you’re on a tight budget, what’s ‘best’ is of course the same as what’s cheapest. Before buying anything new, look at charity shops, household recycling centres, skips, campsites’ lost-and-found departments, or find a fellow biker at the end of their trip using Warmshowers and swap their unwanted mattress for a night or two of hosting.
Check out this article for more advice on getting free or cheap equipment for a bike trip.
Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest (RRP $20/£20) & Z Lite (RRP $40)
If you’ve got a little more money and are looking for a specific model of closed-cell foam mat with a good reputation, the camping mattresses from Seattle-based Therm-a-Rest (part of Cascade Designs) are the ubiquitous choice.
The 400g RidgeRest (rolling) and 410g Z Lite (folding) closed-cell foam mattresses having proven their durability over decades – and they’re a lot more comfortable than they look. Many experienced riders still swear by them over anything inflatable.
There’s little to choose between the RidgeRest and Z Lite in terms of weight and insulation; the Z Lite is more compact when packed as there’s no “hole” through the middle (though it still won’t fit in a pannier), costs a little more, and is far more popular.
Both models have SOL or SOLite versions with a reflective coating on one side, which increases the amount of body heat reflected back up from the surface. Therm-a-Rest claim this increases its overall insulating power by 15%; extra warmth for no extra money makes it a popular upgrade. Riders do, however, report that this coating eventually starts to wear off over time (albeit a lot of time).
You’ll sometimes see bikepackers rolling up other camping items inside a RidgeRest and then harnessing the whole roll to their handlebars – a neat way to get around the limited space available with frame luggage.
Buy the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol in Canada from MEC.
The Best Inflatable Camping Mattresses For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
While there’s only so much you can do with a slice of foam, there’s a variety of styles, thicknesses and insulation types available among inflatable mattresses to accommodate differing sleeping preferences, body sizes, temperature ranges, and other needs.
Manufacturers have exploited these marginal differences to produce a bewildering array of options. At the time of writing, for example, popular Swiss brand Exped had no fewer than 116 different models in their range.
Why bother with anything inflatable other than your bike tyres? It’s one more thing to puncture. All inflatable and self-inflating camping mattresses are vulnerable to being pierced by thorns on that one night you’re not concentrating when pitching your tent. That’s why they’re all supplied with patch kits and glue (yes, you absolutely must bring it with you on your bike trip).
They’re also less durable than closed-cell foam mats due to the internal structure needed to turn pressurised air into a flat mattress shape, rather than a balloon. Use it every day and even the best inflatable mattress will eventually fail internally, resulting in that dreaded muffled ripping noise – always just as you’re getting ready to go to bed – and your mattress suddenly growing a giant balloon-like tumour.
A good reason many people do choose them is because they feel more comfortable to sleep on than closed-cell foam mats – indeed, for some, this might be the difference between a good night’s sleep and not being able to sleep at all.
Let’s look at the most popular inflatable camping mattresses and sleeping pads for cycle touring and bikepacking. All come recommended by riders with many years of real-world experience.
Alpkit Cloud Base (RRP £42)
The 415g Cloud Base from Alpkit is a lightweight, non-insulated mat designed to minimise pack space for a low price. Although the tapered foot end won’t please everyone, riders have positive things to say about the comfort provided by its 5cm of air cushioning.
Despite the 3‑year guarantee, durability can never be a priority for an ultralight mat at this price point, so consider it for casual and undemanding purposes such as short bikepacking trips rather than long-term expeditions.
Alpkit don’t provide an R‑value, but given the mat’s specifications you should consider it appropriate for 2–3‑season use, depending on how cold you sleep.
At 531g packed and with an R‑value of 1.3, Utah-based Klymit’s basic Static V model is heavier than other mattresses in this section, but it has a generous 6.4cm of loft, and a full-width foot end, making it a good choice for side-sleepers.
Riders are particularly complimentary about the comfort provided by the V‑shaped air cells.
Durability is another strong point of this mat, as attested to by user reviews and also by the lifetime warranty, which few other mats in this category can boast.
It isn’t the lightest or most packable mattress in this section, but if you’re looking for a durable and comfortable summer inflatable sleeping pad, the Klymit Static V is a good choice.
The 680g Insulated Static V doubles the price and triples the insulating power, increasing the R‑value to 4.4 for all-season use.
Options include large, short, “lite”, “luxe”, double, hammock-specific; even “armoured” versions. Craziness.
Originally launched as the Exped HyperLite, the 365g SynMat HL from Exped was even lighter than the early versions of the XLite (see above) on its release, with none of the noise issues associated with the NeoAir range. Exped currently claim that this is ‘the world’s lightest mat at its warmth and comfort levels’.
With a generous 8cm of thickness and an insulated inner lining, riders rate this mat highly for comfort. Like other ultralight mats in this section, the heavily tapered design sacrifices versatility in favour of minimising weight and bulk: this mat is amazingly small and light when packed up.
The R‑value of 3.3 is a little lower than the XLite, its closest competitor, but still generous for 3‑season use. A few frosty nights would be perfectly tolerable on this for most.
Exped supply a carry sack and patch kit, and are following the trend for inflation sacks, which help combat the problems associated with moisture build-up inside inflatable camping mattresses.
The 430g Winter version increases the R‑value to 5.2, which Exped claim makes it ‘the lightest 4‑season sleeping mat on the planet’.
Size options include wide and long-wide versions. If you’re camping as a couple, there’s a Duo version of both the regular and winter models, which is twice the width and a little heaver than two individual mats.
Ever the pioneers, Therm-a-Rest launched the NeoAir XLite as the lightest and most packable sleeping pad ever in its class. I used one on my 2012 ride down the U.S. Pacific Coast and wrote a detailed review (read it here).
This 340g ultralight mattress is still lighter, more packable and better insulated than most of the competition in this category, with 6.4cm of thickness and an R‑value of 4.2 – and the high price reflects this level of performance.
The tapered foot end saves weight but limits sleeping space; this isn’t a great choice for side-sleepers or those who toss and turn.
One criticism levelled at the XLite is its long-term durability. Several veteran riders have reported delamination after a few years. Though Therm-a-Rest are known for honouring their lifetime warranty, it’s possible unrealistic expectations are in play here, as inflatable mats will always eventually delaminate under prolonged and intensive use.
Also of concern is the now-infamous noise the XLite makes when you lie on it! Some have described it as like lying on a packet of crisps (that’s British for ‘potato chips’, dear Americans). Whether or not this will bother you or your neighbours in the night is something only you can know.
As well as the regular pad, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite comes in short, large, wide, and women’s specific (ie: warmer and shorter) versions. The current version includes an inflation sack as well as a carry sack and patch kit.
Buy the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite in Canada from MEC.
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm (RRP £205/$215)
The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm has the same form as the XLite (see above) but with upgraded insulation for camping on snow while climbing mountains, a slight weight increase, and a whopping price tag.
Weighing 430g and with an R‑value of 6.9, the XTherm has become popular with riders expecting all-season conditions who want to keep things as fast and light as possible – and who have loads of money to spend.
The same crunchy-sounding criticism applies as the XLite, but you can always wear earplugs if this starts to disturb you.
There are fewer sizing options for the XTherm than the XLite; regular and large versions only.
Side-sleepers and others who prefer space to spread out will appreciate the popular, rectangular MAX version, which also comes in large and wide sizes.
For the ultimate in all-season camping luxury, the 895g Exped DownMat 9 is a 9cm thick, down-filled, inflatable mattress with an astronomical R‑value of 7.8. Exped say this translates into comfort at ‑38ºC for an average user.
(I used a thinner DownMat 7 at ‑33ºC on a winter ride through Norway and Sweden – watch the short film here – and can personally attest that they’re bloody warm.)
It’s far heavier than the rest of the mats in this category, but still relatively light for its amazing insulating power.
The updated version includes an inflation sack, which is particularly welcome in winter when drawing deep lungfuls of frozen air before bedtime is the last thing you should be doing.
If you’re looking for uncompromising comfort on a journey involving deep winter conditions, there’s little better in this niche than the DownMat.
With a 5‑year warranty, you can expect to get many years of use out of this (and for Exped to honour their guarantee).
Options include thinner 5cm and 7cm versions with lower R‑values, long and wide sizes, and UL (ultralight) editions.
The Best Self-Inflating Camping Mattresses For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
Self-inflating camping mattresses combine an inflatable shell with an open-cell foam filling to give you a mattress with a firm internal structure plus pressurised air for added comfort and insulation.
You squash the air out when you roll it up for storage, and when you unroll it and open the valve the foam will expand to its original shape – hence, ‘self-inflating’, usually to around 60–80% of its capacity, after which you top it up manually.
Many riders find these mats more closely resemble the feel of a ‘real’ mattress, which is probably the most common reason to choose one. They also take a little less effort to set up, and retain some insulating properties if punctured.
Because the filling adds a little weight and a lot of extra volume when packed, they generally aren’t for the ultra-minimalists.
Let’s take a look at the most highly-recommended self-inflating camping mattresses for bike trips. For riders neither on a super-tight budget nor needing to absolutely minimise pack space, this is probably the most popular type of camping mattress for cycle touring.
Forclaz Trek 500 (RRP £25)
Europe-based riders on a tight budget could do a lot worse than Decathlon’s take on the classic self-inflating hikers’ camping mattress, the Forclaz Trek 500.
At less than half the price of the big-brand competition below, it’s unrealistic to expect too much. At 820g it’s relatively heavy, and the 2.5cm of thickness may be on the thin side for some people, but the R‑value of 2.3 will give a good measure of 3‑season insulation.
There’s an XL version available for £5 extra. Decathlon provide a 2‑year guarantee and are very good at refunding or replacing faulty items in-store with no questions asked.
Riders starting out from Canada and looking for a no-nonsense self inflating mat at an accessible price could do far worse than MEC’s in-house offering.
At 690g, and with 3.8mm of padding and an R‑value of 3.4, it’s the most packable mat in the Reactor range, similar on paper to the ProLite Plus (see below) – a great all-rounder for all kinds of adventures, from summer through mild winter conditions.
It’s lightweight and small enough to pack away in the pannier, and if you do get a puncture, MEC throw in a patch kit too. Women’s-specific and ‘junior’ versions are also available.
Buy the MEC Reactor 3.8 from the MEC website or from any of their stores across Canada.
Therm-A-Rest ProLite (RRP $95/£105) & ProLite Plus (RRP $105/£100)
Another long-time classic from Therm-a-Rest, the ProLite has been on the market for literally decades. In fact, Therm-a-Rest claim to have singlehandedly invented the self-inflating camping mattress with this product.
The ProLite has an earned a cult following of veteran users who claim to still be using the same mattress they bought in the ‘90s. Durability and reliability is one of the key selling points here. If you want a lightweight 3‑season self-inflating mat that you just know will work, get the ProLite (and the lifetime guarantee that comes with it).
Over the years, Therm-a-Rest have refined the design to make it ever more lightweight and packable, and now claim the current 510g version to be the lightest and most compact camping mattress in its class.
With an R‑value of 2.4, 2.5cm of thickness and a gently tapered design, this is a streamlined yet high-performance self-inflating pad which will occupy minimal pack space for a mattress in this category.
The 650g ProLite Plus increases insulation and comfort for 140g of extra weight, with 3.8cm of thickness and an R‑value of 3.2. If you’re planning a long-term ride in varying temperatures and you’ve got the pack space for a little more comfort, the tiny extra amount spent on the Plus will very likely pay off.
As with other Therm-a-Rest mats, short, regular, large sizes and women’s specific versions of the ProLite and ProLite Plus are available.
Buy the Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus in Canada from MEC.
Exped SIM Lite 3.8 M (RRP £97/$109)
Out of Exped’s bewildering range of camping mattresses, the 740g SIM Lite 3.8 M represents the classic, durable, lightweight, tour-friendly, self-inflating sleeping pad.
With 3.8cm of thickness and a generous 3‑season R‑value of 3.2, it’s comparable in performance and comfort to the ProLite Plus. The 90g of extra weight gets you a rectangular (as opposed to tapered) shape; better for side sleepers and those who have luggage space for a little more luxury.
If you’re looking for a high-quality, comfortably-sized, medium-thickness, self-inflating mattress suitable for everything but deep winter conditions, this is well worth considering.
The UL (ultralight) version costs more, weighs less (580g), and is otherwise the same. Both come in LW (long-wide) and regular sizes.
Exped’s reputation for build quality and reliability is up there with Therm-a-Rest; their mats all come with a 5‑year guarantee.
Finally, I’ve included the 970g Comfort Plus S.I. from Australian gear manufacturer Sea To Summit as an example of a camping mattress on the luxurious end of the scale which is still light and packable enough to consider for a bike trip.
The whopping 8cm of thickness will fool you into thinking you’re in a real bed. The R‑value of 4.1 means you’ll stay warm even on frosty nights. Get the large rectangular version to spread out even more. Or get the 128cm-wide double version and bathe in luxury. Even if you’re alone.
The Comfort Plus S.I. (and comparable mattresses from other manufacturers) is for riders who seriously value a comfortable night’s sleep, and don’t mind carrying a little extra weight to get it.
Buy the Sea To Summit Comfort Plus S.I. in the UK from Alpine Trek.
Buy the Sea To Summit Comfort Plus S.I. in Canada from MEC.
Bonus: 14 Pro Tips For Getting The Most Out Of Your Camping Mattress
Once you’ve chosen your mat, there are a few clever ways to get the most out of it while cycle touring or bikepacking.
These are tips that take most people time and experience to discover, but I’ve listed a few here so you can leapfrog the learning process:
If strapping a closed-cell foam mat to your bike, protect it from damage by using flat straps rather than regular bungee cords.
Before setting up camp, lie down on top of your inner tent in the space you’re planning to put your mattress. If there are any rocks or other uncomfortable lumps underneath, now’s the time to find them.
Always inspect your pitch closely for thorns to protect your inflatable or self-inflating camping mattress from punctures – particularly small ones, which are more difficult to find and repair.
Particularly on long rides, you can protect an inflatable or self-inflating camping mattress by buying or making an additional protective groundsheet (aka: footprint) to go under your tent. Most tent manufacturers offer these as optional extras.
If you’re using a self-inflating mat, unpack it and open the air intake valve upon arriving at camp. By the time you’ve finished pitching your tent, it will already be at 60–80% capacity.
To get optimal comfort out of an inflatable or self-inflating camping mattress, inflate it fully, lie down on it in your usual sleeping position, then very slowly deflate it to your preferred softness.
If you’re planning a very long trip with an inflatable or self-inflating mat, consider an inflation sack, which will prevent moisture from your breath building up inside the mattress, causing mould and mildew in the short term, and possible structural failure in the long term.
Never fully inflate a mattress and then leave it in direct sunlight, as the heated air will expand and possibly damage the internal structure of your mat.
If you find an inflatable mattress slowly deflating over the course of the night, you may have a slow puncture. Find it by inflating the mat, immersing it in a bathtub of water and looking for bubbles of escaping air.
If no bathtub is available, drench it with a bucket of water mixed with washing-up liquid and look (and listen) for foaming bubbles.
If you can’t find any punctures, check if a faulty valve is the cause of the air leak, using the same methods.
If you’re stuck with a punctured inflatable mattress, gather dry grass, leaves, ferns and any other soft foliage into a big pile and pitch your tent on top of your “natural mattress”. You’ll need more than you think!
As an additional measure, dig out that foil emergency blanket you packed and spread it out underneath your punctured mattress where your torso is going to be.
Closed-cell foam mats make good protective under-layers for inflatables if you’re worried about punctures (and if you have the space), as well as adding extra insulation in cold weather.
Wow – that was a seriously long post! I think I need to go and lie down…
While I firmly believe that your first bicycle adventure should be free from modern electronic devices, there are plenty of cycle tourists and bikepackers who pack a smartphone or tablet alongside their tent, stove and toolkit, and for good reason: they can come in bloody useful.
Smartphone technology moving as fast as it does, the app scene is constantly changing. This is my 2020 update of an article first published in 2012, detailing what in my opinion are the most useful free smartphone apps for the cycle tourist or bikepacker right now.
This is not another list of cycling navigation apps aiming to replace a GPS unit or a cycle computer. That list would be hundreds of entries long, and all the major cycling websites have published such articles in the competition for search engine traffic anyway. Where routing and navigation are concerned, I’ve chosen what I consider the top few apps right now, and the rest of the list is about apps for other aspects of life on two wheels than actually cycling.
I’ve included links to Android and iOS (iPhone/iPad) versions of each app wherever they exist, and broken the list down into eight handy categories covering navigation, weather, accommodation, transport, communication, photography, finance, and everything else.
There’s no single best app for cycle touring or bikepacking where mapping and navigation is concerned – and in any case, you may prefer paper maps, road signs, or just following your nose.
But if you do intend to use digital maps and possibly the navigation features that come with these apps, and you don’t already have a favourite that works for you, I would suggest trying a multi-pronged approach, playing to the strengths of each of the following apps and the coverage of the data that supports them, which tends to differ worldwide.
Unlike all those spam blog articles about cycling apps, I’ve actually used all of these apps on my own bike trips. Here’s my current pick of the bunch…
1. Google Maps (Android/iOS)
Google Maps is getting really good. Most of the world now features excellent mapping coverage, and the new vector maps are fast, detailed and attractive. If you’re hooked up with a data SIM card and you get good service throughout your ride, Google Maps may well do everything you need. In many places, bicycle-friendly routing is offered alongside directions for cars, and where it isn’t, using the walking directions will often offer you a low-traffic route between two places.
Many places allow you to download maps in the default style for offline use. But that’s about the limit of its offline functionality. It won’t cache the terrain view, which makes it difficult or impossible to estimate a route’s elevation profile if you don’t have a data connection. Nor can it store anything offline about points of interest other than their name. Routing also depends on being online – so while the base map may be cached, you’ll have to do your own navigation.
Pair Google Maps up with Street View if you want to explore places in VR before you get there. I only use this if I’m heading for a specific spot in a city, such as a Warmshowers host’s house, and want to visualise the location in advance.
In the last couple of years, Maps.Me seems to have fought off masses of competition to become the go-to Google Maps alternative, and it’s easy to see why. It’s been focused specifically to fill the gaps left by Google in terms of offline mapping and routing, as well as representing the open data movement, and this is marketed as one of the app’s key features.
When you first start the app, you are prompted to download parts of the world region by region, starting with your current location. All of the app’s main functionality will then work offline, including bicycle-optimised routing. On my 2018 trip in Thailand, I used this feature daily and cross-referenced it with Google’s walking directions to plan most of my riding and find quiet, backroad routes across the country. You can also search offline for nearby points of interest such as cafes, grocery stores and lodgings.
It isn’t without its flaws. It depends on the OpenStreetMap (OSM) database to generate its maps, which makes it susceptible to coverage issues in less-visited regions, although not necessarily any more so than Google (and the same is true for other OSM-dependent apps).
My biggest gripe is that the map does not display any topographical data (contours, hillshading, elevation colour coding). This is partly compensated by a elevation profile generated along with the cycling and walking routes, without which I would struggle to recommend it.
I’d also keep BackCountry Navigator installed if there are going to be any significant hills along the way. BCN features no routing or sat-nav style navigation features, being more oriented towards GPS users on foot in the backcountry, but the ability to download a variety of basemaps, including the OpenCycleMap and Thunderforest Outdoor styles, makes it invaluable for remote or mountainous rides.
Backcountry Navigator will also allow you to load in GPS tracks in various formats and overlay them on the basemap, as well as keeping a tracklog of your movements if you so desire.
A previous version of this article recommended Wikitude as a very early example of an augmented reality (AR) app, in which you could point a compatible device’s camera at the landscape around you and the app put labels on what you were looking at. I would suggest ViewRanger as a more up-to-date alternative; specifically its Skyline feature which, as the name suggests, will attempt to label features of the landscape such as mountain peaks and lakes, place names, and other prominent waypoints.
Viewranger provides similar mapping functionality to Backcountry Navigator but for iOS too, and with the addition of a community feature that allows you to see what routes other users have uploaded in a given area. In popular regions, this might unearth some attractive routes that you may not otherwise have spotted when planning your ride.
Premium map packs that you can’t get for free (such as digital versions of the UK Ordnance Survey series) are available too at additional cost.
In places where OSM, Google and paper map coverage is sketchy, my fallback for many years has been the good old Soviet military maps, which, yes, were last updated during the Cold War, but cover the entire world at the 1:100–200K scales and offer a fantastic level of topographical detail. The paid version allows you to download them for offline use.
In some really off-grid parts of the world, these are still the best maps you can get. (I wish I’d known about these before I went to Mongolia…)
Ride with GPS is perhaps the most cycle computer-esque of all the apps listed in this section, finding favour in the long distance cycling community, particularly bikepackers – indeed, Bikepacking.com use it as their preferred platform for delivering routes.
If you’re keen to track, analyse and share your rides, Ride with GPS is as good a place as any to do so. (See also Komoot below.)
komoot (with a small ‘k’) has one of the most powerful routing algorithms of any of the apps in this list. Rather than hosting a database of user-submitted routes, komoot uses OpenStreetMap data to calculate an optimal route (via any number of points) for road cycling, touring, or mountain biking.
It has some nice social features, too, which encourage you to record and share the best of your discoveries. Users can submit highlights that show up on future route plans if the community rates them highly enough. Read my full write-up of komoot here. This is my personal favourite of all the apps in this category when I’m exploring new places.
It’s good practice to check the weather outlook before setting off on a ride. In circumstances when a change of weather would bring about greater risks, it’s critical for a safe and enjoyable ride. These apps will help with that:
8. Windy (Android/iOS)
I’ve tuned into the finer details of the weather in recent years as a result of spending too much time in the mountains, and this has spilled over into cycle touring. In terms of sheer quantity and range of data, nothing I’m aware of beats Windy, which visualises almost every weather factor you could ask for on an interactive map.
If you’re into making your own forecasts or want an in-depth perspective on what you’re seeing and experiencing, give Windy a data connection and it will give you pretty much all the information you could wish for.
When you’re ready for a night off, here’s a few apps that might make finding a bed (or campsite) that much easier:
10. iOverlander (Android/iOS)
Mainly aimed at motorised travellers, iOverlander’s app is still of relevance to the cyclist, mainly because it’s the closest thing to a ‘wild camping app’ in existence. It’s a user-generated global database of points of interest – including vehicle- and bike-friendly hostels, campsites and wild camping sites (as well as Land Rover mechanics!) – with a very active community behind it. It’s volunteer-run, so consider a donation if you find it useful.
Booking.com* features the widest range of hotels and guesthouses in many parts of the world. Be aware, however, of the tactics this app will use to make you feel like you have to book right now or the universe will implode.
Know also that they charge accommodation providers a lot – if you want to support small businesses over massive corporations, it might be better to do your research here but then walk in and pay cash.
They aren’t always the cheapest: in South East Asia, for example, the Singapore-based Agoda is often a better bet.
Low-budget hostels are underrepresented at Booking.com (perhaps because they can’t afford the fees), but Hostelworld steps in to fill this niche. Especially in the West, you’ll find way more cheap beds here than through the usual booking sites.
(I previously recommended HostelBookers, but with the app not updated for over two years and with ratings sliding down the charts, I can feel a shutdown coming soon.)
Though it’s by no means the quirky and inexpensive alternative it used to be, AirBnb is still worth checking out, particularly if you want your own self-catering apartment for a few days off, or if you like the B&B experience as it used to be (i.e. an actual person hosts you in their home and cooks you breakfast).
Sign up through this referral link* to get £25 in credit towards your first stay, then install the app to search for options and make your bookings.
The original cycle touring hospitality exchange platform might not have taken off quite like Couchsurfing did post-buyout, but it didn’t really need to (and many would argue it was for the best anyway). The much-improved current version of the WarmShowers app makes searching for willing hosts that much easier, with an interface that’s arguably better and more user-friendly than the website itself. The map search function is particularly useful.
While the distribution of hosts is not exactly even in a global sense, it’s always worth looking at the map to see who’s about on any given route. I’ll continue flying the flag for WarmShowers for as long as it exists and I’m still riding my bicycle, just because I love the spirit of it.
Where WarmShowers hosts have not yet reached, Couchsurfing is still there with its however-many-million users, and if you can be bothered to wade through the oceans of inactive profiles and unresponsive hosts you might still find someone cool to stay with. The lack of a map search is a woeful omission, but most other aspects of the app interface are fine.
Personally, I use CS more now to meet travellers and locals for a drink and a wander in a new city than to find a host, for which I either use WarmShowers (see above) or – now I’ve been on the road a few years – ask around my networks and usually end up finding a friend of a friend to stay with.
If you do use it to find a host, make sure they know you’re showing up on a rather expensive bicycle and that you probably won’t want to leave it locked to the fence outside!
Sometimes – oftentimes – you need to take a plane, train or bus to get yourself and your bike from A to B before or after you ride it. That’s where the following apps may come in handy.
16. Kayak (Android/iOS)
When it comes to searching for and booking flights, I tend to default to Kayak, mainly for its extensive filtering capabilities, as well as because it usually turns up the cheapest tickets, especially if your dates are flexible.
Of particular interest to the cycle tourist is the ability to filter by airline, which as we all know can make a huge difference at the check-in desk depending on the baggage policy of the carrier in question (a topic for another article, perhaps).
Kayak is mainly just a search aggregator – you have to click through and book elsewhere, though they have started selling tickets direct now too.
Allow TripIt access to your inbox and it will pull in confirmation emails for flights, hotels and what have you and spit out a simplified, offline-accessible itinerary with all the details you’re likely to need while you’re in transit.
You’ll be wanting to communicate while you’re on the road, both to the people you meet and to the people back home. Guess what? There’s an app for that…
18. Signal / WhatsApp / Viber / Telegram (Android/iOS)
I’ve listed four phone number-based instant messaging apps here because, at the time of writing, three of them predominate depending on what country you’re in, and one of them won’t sell your data (Signal).
If you’re heading round the world on a bike and you plan to communicate with locals as you go, as well as friends and family back home, best install all of them.
Such is the competitive nature of this market that other apps are likely to replace those listed in future years.
Yes, I’m listing Google Translate as a communications app, but for real-life face to face communication with people who don’t speak your language.
It won’t be long before you’re both wearing earpieces and receiving simultaneous translations as you converse freely in your native tongues, but while we’re waiting for that to happen, Translate does allow you to download offline translation dictionaries for a huge number of languages, and the accuracy is only improving.
Rotate your phone to landscape orientation and the word or phrase you’ve translated will be enlarged to fullscreen, allowing you to brandish it at a roadside noodle stand while trying to order a stir-fry with ‘no onions’ in it.
Here are a few selections on the financial end of things, which may ease your pedal-powered wheelings (sorry, couldn’t resist) and dealings:
19. XE Currency (Android/iOS)
Based on the highly popular xe.com currency exchange website, the XE Currency app will allow you to choose a handful of currencies and convert between them all at the latest mid-market rates.
I mainly find this useful to ensure I’m not getting ripped off by money-changers, but also to watch for spikes in conversion rates that may affect my travel budget (other Brits abroad may remember 23rd June 2016 particularly well).
My travels of late have tended to involve a slightly more complicated financial picture than the ‘spend as little as possible, preferably nothing’ approach of my earlier cycle tours. To track and visualise what I’m spending, I use an expense tracking app called Toshl, into which I spend a few minutes each day putting my expenses.
For someone who was more or less financially illiterate, this has shed a remarkable amount of light on the actual flow of funds through my travel activities and, in turn, helped me adapt my ways to better fit my means.
If keeping track of travel money is a source of stress for you, I would highly recommend starting to use a simple tracking app such as Toshl as the first step towards a remedy. It can also simply produce an interesting summary of the financial aspect of your journeys, which I’m planning to demonstrate in a future article.
The UK’s newest fee-free overseas spending debit card provider, Starling Bank, relies on this app to communicate with its customers. Though technically not just an app but also a bank account, I’m including it here because of its particular relevance to the bicycle traveller looking to keep their overseas card withdrawal and spending fees down.
Download the Starling app and sign up for an account here.
Photography Apps For Cycle Touring
Most new smartphones come with absurdly good cameras, sensors, processing algorithms and editing software built-in, so I no longer consider any third party app truly essential in the photography department. Keeping your photos backed up is another story, however…
22. Google Photos (Android/iOS)
My main reason for including Google Photos here is for its automatic backup feature, which upon detecting a WiFi connection will upload in the background all the photos you’ve taken since the last backup, storing them in your combined Google Drive / Photos account.
In its free incarnation, this will store 15GB of your original resolution photos and an unlimited number of compressed but nevertheless high quality versions of the same (you can choose which in the app settings). You can pay to upgrade to a 100GB or 1TB capacity account if you need it.
Plug a card reader into your phone or otherwise connect with a compatible ‘proper’ camera, copy the images over, and it’ll do the same thing. Really this is about safeguarding your images, rather than photography per se (and you do care about having backups, don’t you?).
If everything being Google-oriented isn’t your bag, the Dropbox app will perform exactly the same backup function via its Camera Uploads feature, though I find Google’s web interface and in-app editing features more appealing. Again, free and paid options differ mainly in terms of the amount of storage you get.
Finally, I’ve come across many other useful apps that just don’t quite fit into any of the other categories. Here are a few:
24. AccuBattery (Android)
AccuBattery will give you detailed stats on your phone’s power consumption, including estimates of how long it’ll currently last with the current fleet of running apps; useful when you don’t know where the next charging opportunity is going to be. It’ll also prompt you to disconnect your charger at a level that’ll reduce battery wear and help prolong its life.
I’ll probably never learn the constellations unless I actually need to navigate by them, but the Sky Map app is great fun when you’re lying out under a starry sky and you want to identify what you’re looking at. It’s also great for picking out other celestial bodies when they’re visible to the naked eye.
The apps accompanying the open-source flashcard platform Anki allow you to memorise things effectively on the go via the proven learning technique of spaced repetition. I find it particularly useful for language learning, memorising words, phrases, alphabets, and the like. The open platform gives you access to shared, community-created ‘decks’ of cards covering most such topics.
The Android app is free; the iOS equivalent is paid and the revenue supports the broader Anki project.
Ride for long enough and you’ll inevitably reach a country where some website or app or service you rely on has been blocked by the government. Pre-empt this by installing a VPN (virtual private network) app and setting it up in advance.
What these services essentially do is make it look like you’re accessing the internet from somewhere else, encrypting your data in such a way that your actual whereabouts is untraceable.
There are thousands of free VPN apps out there, most of which are full of malware and security holes and whose developers are out to sell your browsing data to the highest bidder. Avoid those and choose one of the recommendations audited by a trusted site with a reputation worth losing. I haven’t included any specific recommendations here as they change so frequently, but TechRadar have an updated list for 2019.
That’s it for 2020’s cycle touring and bikepacking app selections! Any I’ve missed that you’d consider particularly useful to the adventurous rider?
One day in 1884, Thomas Stevens left California on a penny farthing and became the first man in recorded history to cycle round the world. He was carrying little more than a bag of gold and a pistol rolled up in a blanket.
Today, us bicycle travellers tend to leave precious metals and firearms at home, instead packing half our own bodyweight in other equipment.
That’s because we expect to enjoy seeing the world by bike, rather than bribing and bullying our way around as Stevens often did. The lightweight equipment available today – tents, stoves, tools and more – makes life on the road not just tolerable but even sometimes fun!
To carry our gear, many of us will ride a touring bike fitted with front and rear carrier racks on which to mount a set of panniers – the traditional luggage setup for cycle touring for more than a century.
This article is all about how to choose a set of panniers that’ll fit your budget, your style of touring, and your personal preferences.
I’ll include links to manufacturers’ webpages wherever possible, and you’ll also find buying links for retailers in the UK, USA, and Canada. (Full disclosure: affiliate links are identified with an asterisk*, and I may earn small commission if you buy online as a result of following the link, which helps me keep this blog free to read.)
I don’t want to assume anything about your prior knowledge about panniers or bike luggage in general, so let’s start by laying out a few basic facts about bicycle panniers for cycle touring, before we get into the details.
What Exactly Are Bicycle Panniers?
Panniers are purpose-made bags designed to be hung off the sides of a bicycle or motorbike (or, originally, slung over a pack animal). They almost always come in pairs, for what I hope are fairly obvious reasons of balance and stability.
Do I Need Two Or Four Panniers (Or Something Else)?
The traditional setup for long-distance cycle touring is four panniers – a small pair at the front and a larger pair at the rear – plus a handlebar bag and a few other bits.
This is simply because, when you make a list of everything you’d need for a transcontinental or round-the-world ride, buy it all, and try to fit it onto a bike – it usually fills four panniers.
Two rear panniers can easily suffice for undemanding trips, such a summer ride in the developed world with bike shops and campsites aplenty.
You might also make two rear panniers work in the longer term with a more minimal approach to packing, especially as camping equipment grows ever lighter and more packable. You’ll often see more experienced riders taking this approach, because they’ve spent a long time learning what they don’t need.
Increasingly you’ll also see a hybrid approach, with panniers supplemented by bikepacking luggage. The panniers can be removed and stored temporarily for shorter side trips on dirt roads, allowing more flexibility over the traditional setup.
In any case, you’ll rarely see panniers used exclusively as a means of storing belongings and supplies. They’re almost always used alongside rack-top drybags, baskets, bar-bags, backpacks, or other more easily accessible bags which don’t require dismounting and unpacking everything just to find one commonly-used item.
Sometimes, in very special cases such as deep winter, desert crossings, or other extremely remote rides, or just because you want to bring your guitar and jewellery-making kit, you might consider a cargo trailer instead of (or as well as) panniers, which is a topic I’ve covered elsewhere.
How Do Cycle Touring Panniers Vary In Design?
Bicycle panniers for cycle touring (as opposed to panniers for grocery shopping) come in a variety of sizes, colours andmaterials, and are generally labelled as ‘front’ or ‘rear’. They usually (though not always) are sold in pairs, sometimes with differences between left and right, and sometimes without.
Front panniers tend to be smaller, and for good reason: whatever weight you’re carrying on the front wheel will feed directly into the steering and handling of your bike. Lighter is therefore better, particularly on rough roads.
A typical front pannier might have a 10–15 litre capacity (ie: 20–30 litres per pair). Larger panniers at the front would also be at risk of hitting the down-tube of the bike (or even the ground) when turning sharply, or interfering with disc brakes.
Rear panniers tend to have about twice the capacity; anything from 20–30 litres each (ie: 40–60 litres per pair). Tandem panniers can be even bigger.
As mentioned above, a single pair of rear panniers might suffice for even the longest trips if packed thoughtfully with lightweight gear.
What Kind Of Pannier Rack Attachment Systems Are There?
A variety of attachment systems exist, but they almost all make use of a pair of hooked clips attached the back of each pannier, allowing them to be hung from the rack tubing, plus some kind of adjustable retainer clip lower down on the back of each pannier to stop them swinging about.
Although pairs of panniers can be identical out of the box, setting up the attachments to fit your racks will usually result in them being configured as ‘left’ and a ‘right’ panniers from that point forward.
You’ll occasionally see a pair of panniers attached together with a strip of fabric between them, the whole of which is then slung over the rack.
As a general rule, don’t buy these unless it’s the only thing you can get, as this style is far less durable and versatile than individual panniers and rack mounts.
What Materials Are Panniers Made From?
In terms of construction and material, there are two main categories: fully waterproof and semi- or non-waterproof.
Fully waterproof panniers are usually made of laminated fabric with sealed seams, often using the same ‘roll-top’ closure system found in drybags for paddlesports. As with any waterproof gear, you should always pack a simple repair kit – a length of Gaffa Tape at the very least, or perhaps a roll of Tenacious Tape.
Non-waterproof panniers are usually made of canvas and have backpack-style lids with zips or buckles, and have some degree of water resistance and/or a waterproof plate on the rear to protect against road spray. The repair kit you should pack for this type of pannier is a heavy-duty needle and thread.
(As for which type is better, we’ll come to that later on, as it’s not a simple question.)
Some people get hung up on the colour of the material. There’s an argument that black waterproof panniers in sunny climates will heat your belongings more than white ones. Similarly, some people think high-visibility panniers are better for safety.
Personally, I don’t believe there’s much practical difference: If it’s hot, it’s hot, and you – the rider – should always be more visible than your panniers. So from my point of view, feel free to choose whatever colour or design you like.
In short, there’s a lot of variety out there. There are, however, a few specific makes and models of bicycle pannier that have proven themselves over many decades on very long and demanding tours.
We’ll start, however, by looking at basic, budget-friendly panniers, and work our way up to durable and hard-wearing panniers capable of withstanding years of constant daily use.
No-Budget Panniers For Cycle Touring
For the most ultra-low-budget of trips, you are very welcome to stop reading this article, take whatever cheap/free second-hand panniers you can find on eBay*, Freecycle, Gumtree, etc, add a basic sewing kit, a roll of Gaffa Tape, some cable ties and a few plastic carrier bags, and leave.
Rectangular plastic buckets with lids are available from hardware stores and pet shops and can be converted into panniers with a few commonly available fixings. Cool-boxes have travelled across Europe attached to bicycle racks (see photo above).
When it comes to cheap panniers at the bottom end of the market, a trip to any mainstream bike shop or outdoor retailer (eg: Go Outdoors* or Decathlon* in the UK, REI in the USA, or MEC in Canada) will demonstrate the endless options in this category.
None can really be said to be better or worse than any other, due to the lack of substantial documentary evidence besides customer reviews (which should always be taken with a pinch of salt).
To help you choose reasonably durable cheap panniers, and keep them on the road as long as possible, here are a few tips:
Cheap panniers are often aimed at commuters and shoppers, rather than cycle tourists, so see if you can find something that at least claims to be designed for touring use.
Avoid anything that relies on zips for closure of the main compartment, as cheap zips are liable to break. Go for something with straps and buckles/clips instead.
Avoid cheap and flimsy ‘waterproof’ material in favour of real fabric, then waterproof everything inside the panniers with carrier bags or drybags if and when it rains.
Consider pannier covers, which are essentially giant shower-caps for panniers; they’ll get you to the next bus shelter when paired with an effective mudguard to stop road-spray soaking the bags from behind.
Finally, pack a sewing kit, Gaffa Tape, and cable ties. (I know I’m repeating myself, the point being that you can save a lot of money and solve a lot of problems with a pragmatic attitude.)
Recognisable brands at the budget level include Altura, Topeak, and B’Twin (Decathlon’s in-house cycling brand).
What you’re looking for at this end of the spectrum is a capacity that matches your packing needs, compatibility with your racks, and as little to go wrong as possible.
Of course, if it’s a simple question of what you can beg, borrow or steal, anything is better than nothing!
Mid-Range Panniers For Cycle Touring
There are a few mid-range models of pannier that don’t quite meet the criteria for high-end expedition panniers but have nevertheless been shown to cope well with some very long and arduous bicycle journeys. Here I’ll list a few of the best known examples, as well as introducing a couple of lesser known brands that show promise in this category.
Crosso Dry (£55/£60 front/rear)
Crosso are a Polish company who have been manufacturing panniers commercially since 2006 (including making panniers for the second generation Extrawheel trailer for many years).
If you’re based in Europe and can find them, they make for a good option in the mid range, being considerably cheaper than the big-brand panniers. They’re quite basic in terms of design and materials – don’t expect the durability of Ortliebs – but will nevertheless serve you well if you look after them. (I’ve had a pair for 9 years which I’m still happily using after a couple of repairs.)
The waterproof Dry panniers come in front/universal and rear pairs with a capacity of 30 and 60 litres respectively, with roll-top closures and welded seams, and a choice of 10 colours.
The standard attachment system features two fixed steel hooks at the top, with an inverted hook on an elasticated strap at the bottom to secure the pannier in place. Once you get used to the system it is very easy to mount and dismount the panniers, and it’s surprisingly stable.
Not all racks have a lower horizontal rail to attach the bottom hook, so there is also the more expensive Click option, using traditional-style fixtures from German company Rixen+Kaul (who make the popular and widespread KlickFix system). These might be a better choice for extremely long journeys as the fixtures are replaceable.
Carradice’s CarraDry panniers are waterproof, feature a generous capacity (58 litres per pair at the rear) and are very good value for money. They share a mounting system with the heavy duty Super C expedition panniers (below).
Though they can’t be described as 100% watertight, with a lidded drawstring closure system rather than a roll-top drybag-style closure, they’re made of a similar laminated synthetic waterproof fabric as the other panniers in this section, with welded seams and waterproof zips, which will still keep out the heaviest rain. Like other Carradice products, they feature outer pockets as well as the main compartment.
The CarraDry might be a good choice if you’re looking for a high quality pair of waterproof panniers (and you don’t plan on floating them across deep rivers), but your budget can’t quite stretch to the top-end Ortliebs.
Ortlieb Sport-Roller/Back-Roller City (€85/€95 front/rear)
The City series of Ortlieb panniers is a budget version of the Classic/Plus series usually chosen for touring (see below). The City is marketed to commuters, but in reality they are more or less the same as the higher end Ortliebs in terms of shape, capacity, waterproofing and construction materials, made slightly lighter and quite a bit cheaper by a couple of missing features.
So what do you lose by saving some cash? Aside from the limited choice of colours, the main downgrade is to the full roll-top closure. Instead, the buckles attach to clips on the sides of the pannier, and there’s no extra cinch strap over the top. This is a less flexible setup with a variable sized load, one less element of security for the contents.
There is also no shoulder strap or inner pocket, though neither of those are hugely important for touring. The rack attachment system is the slightly older QuickLock1 mechanism, previously used on Classic/Plus panniers which are still going strong after decades – again, not a huge issue.
On the plus side, all of this reduces the overall weight; 760g per pannier for the City as opposed to 950g for the Classic. And, as mentioned, it reduces the price too.
In my opinion, the extra versatility and feature set of the Classic/Plus panniers is probably worth the extra money if you’re already looking at panniers of this kind of quality. If you’re commuting with a pair of City panniers already and thinking about a tour, however, you’ll get on absolutely fine with them.
Relatively new on the UK scene is the waterproof Tolari pannier range from direct retailer Alpkit. If the quality of the rest of their products is anything to go by, they’ll prove durable and well-made, which is why I’ve included them here, but it’s important to say that they are as-yet untested on multi-year expeditions.
Available in three sizes (12/20/30 litres per pannier) in a single graphite colour and sold individually, they’ll probably be of most interest to brand loyalists, being about the same price as the Ortlieb City panniers whose reputation will likely win more buyers.
Canadian outdoor equipment retail cooperative MEC has been outfitting adventurers since 1971. Their World Tour bicycle panniers, available in 20- and 30-litre capacities for front and rear use, are a solid and reasonably-priced mid-range option.
Simply designed with one main compartment plus a small front pocket, the panniers are water-resistant, although not fully waterproof – MEC does offer optional rain covers if you want more protection from the elements, as well as a wide selection of dry bags for the contents.
The widely-used Rixen and Kaul hook mounting system is easy to work with and compatible with almost all racks and carriers, and the designers have also incorporated extra gear loops on top of the pannier – useful for strapping on extra bits that you might pick up on the road.
If you’re based in or starting a tour from Canada, the MEC World Tour pannier is a decent option if you want something simple, durable and very functional without putting a huge dent in your bank balance.
Buy the MEC World Tour 20L or 30L panniers online from the MEC website or at any of their stores in Canada.
The All-Time Best Expedition Panniers For Cycle Touring
Here we’re going to look in detail at panniers that have at least a decade (often two or more) of proven and documented reputation as being suitable for long-haul rides. I’m talking multi-year, round-the-world odysseys with a single set of bags. That kind of ‘long-haul’.
As you might expect, the biggest concern at this end of the market is durability.
Panniers take a lot of abuse, and not just the bag material – it’s also where fabric and rack mountings meet that forces will be concentrated over thousands of miles of bumpy roads.
Holes in canvas can be repaired with a sewing kit, and waterproof material can be patched with Aquaseal, Tenacious Tape, Gaffa Tape, even puncture patches, all of which are part of a more general gear first-aid kit. Broken attachment systems are harder problems to solve. Buying top-quality panniers from a tried-and-tested brand will largely – though never entirely – negate this risk.
The same pannier-buying considerations apply to expedition panniers as they do to budget ones. Are they compatible with the racks on your bike? And are they appropriately sized for the gear you’ll be carrying, plus food space?
As mentioned at the start of this article, many of today’s bicycle travellers could get away with two large rear panniers, a varying rack-top bundle and a bar-bag. Packing for a round-the-world ride traditionally calls for four panniers – a smaller pair of panniers at the front and a larger pair at the rear – because any trip years in length will inevitably require flexibility.
You’re unlikely to know exactly what your capacity requirements are until you’ve got your gear laid out in front of you, but as a rule it’s better to distribute weight evenly and have a little extra space than to be overloading your bags and having an unbalanced bike.
Remember that – regardless of ‘official’ capacity rating – most roll-top or buckle-lidded panniers will cinch down or expand a certain amount to accommodate what’s inside.
OK! Let’s look at the all-time best expedition panniers available today that have accumulated the most miles around the world on tours of every length, location and level of challenge. (All the RRPs I’ve listed below are per pair.)
Let’s get this out of the way first: the single most interesting thing about Ortlieb’s range of roll-top waterproof panniers is that they’re the most popular of all the panniers being used on world-ranging tours.
Indeed, in a highly unscientific Twitter survey I conducted while first researching this article, about ⅔ of respondents used Ortliebs.
Seeing everyone using them attracts more people to buy them, and then claim that they’re the “only choice” despite never having used anything else. And so the inertia continues.
Of course, about ⅓ of respondents didn’t use Ortliebs, yet somehow were still perfectly happy.
So: do you really need Ortliebs?
Well, there’s no doubt that they make very good panniers. They’re about the right size. They’re available in a choice of colours. They’re compatible with most touring racks. They’re durable (which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bring a repair kit), and come with a 5‑year warranty. And they’re in the same price range as most of the other expedition panniers in this list.
In short: they work, the price is competitive, and loads of people use them. You certainly don’t need them, but they’re highly unlikely to disappoint you.
(By the way, the popularity of Ortlieb panniers makes them prime for being snapped up second-hand and hardly used – especially in early spring. This is because they’re the kind of thing people will buy (or get bought) in January when resolving to start cycling to work or do more exercise. A few months later they’ll get round to selling the barely-used panniers on eBay. Take advantage*.)
Ortlieb panniers come in several varieties. Let’s look at those of most interest to bicycle travellers.
Ortlieb Sport-Roller/Back-Roller Plus (RRP €125/€145)
If there was a Standard Issue Cycle-Round-The-World Kit (now there’s an idea), it would probably include a pair of Ortlieb Sport-Roller Plus (formerly known as Front-Roller Plus) panniers at the front and a pair of Ortlieb Back-Roller Plus at the rear of the bike – and an Ultimate 6 handlebar bag – all in matching his-and-hers colours.
At 25 litres per pair for the Sport-Rollers and 40 litres per pair for the Back-Rollers, they’re slightly smaller in rated capacity than other panniers in this list. As with all roll-top panniers, however, you can make fewer rolls when closing (3 is normal; perhaps 4 if you’re going swimming with them) to create more space.
The buckles at the top can either be clipped together, as with a regular drybag, or clipped into a carry strap which then secures to the front of the pannier via a retaining tab near the bottom edge. For additional peace of mind when overloaded, another short strap can be fastened over the top of the closed pannier.
Other useful features include a small handle attached to the rack mounting points for easy attachment and removal of the pannier to the rack, and a removable pouch attached to the backing plate on the inside of the pannier for flat items such as travel documents and diaries.
The current version of the Plus panniers makes use of the QuickLock2.1 attachment system, which is an updated version of Ortlieb’s original system with broader compatibility with the range of racks on the market today (this includes the popular Tubus racks, if you’re wondering). With this system, the hooks are locked in place by sprung retainers, which are released when you pull up on the grab handle for easy removal. Inserts are supplied for different rack tubing diameters to ensure a secure, rattle-free fit.
What distinguishes the Plus series from the Classic series (see below) is the fabric used in their construction: a high-grade Cordura-branded nylon weave which is laminated on the inside. This makes the outer surface almost as abrasion-resistant as a canvas pannier, while remaining waterproof due to the laminated inner. As weave is less dense than laminate, the Plus is therefore slightly lighter than the Classic; 840g per rear pannier as compared to 950g.
Slightly heavier, cheaper and less abrasion-resistant, going for the wipe-clean Ortlieb Sport-Roller Classic and Back-Roller Classic will save you a few days’ food budget whilst still giving you the sleep-easy feeling of ‘having Ortliebs’. As noted above, the fabric used in construction is a lighter and slightly more basic double-laminated polyester. Besides this, every other aspect is the same.
(It’s worth noting that I have never heard of anyone buying the Classics and then later wishing they’d bought the Pluses. Apart from that guy in the comments section below. There’s always one.)
The Ortlieb Sport-Roller and Back-Roller Plus/Classic panniers above are available in a further variation: ‘Pro’.
The difference? They’re bigger. Instead of 40 litres per pair, you get a whopping 70 litres of capacity.
Can your rack handle that amount of weight? Does your bike have enough heel clearance? Do you need an extra 30 litres of pannier space?
Truth is, the people who’d benefit most from these panniers would be tandem riders (which is who they’re made for), and perhaps people biking in deep winter. The rest of us can just strap an extra 30-litre drybag to the rear rack.
Carradice Super C (RRP £95/£120 front/rear)
Carradice’s Super C range is a classic line of British hand-made bags and panniers, the designs changing little in decades. (I’ve had a pair of the rear panniers hanging off my own touring bike for 12 years and counting.)
Stitched from heavy-duty waxed ‘cotton duck’ canvas of the type used for military kit and old-school tents, they’re far more resistant to abrasion than waterproof panniers with laminated fabrics or even synthetic canvas. You’ll hear stories of pairs of Super Cs being used for upwards of 30 years, by which time Ortliebs will be straining your tea, so if it’s pure longevity you’re after, they’re some of the best panniers going.
The front (or ‘universal’) panniers have a capacity of 28 litres per pair and, aside from the removable fixtures, are symmetrical in design, with one large main compartment and a small outside pocket in which I might be tempted to store a few snacks. The rear panniers have a capacity of 54 litres per pair, with an outside pocket at the rear. Both sizes have buckled lids with adjustable straps, in addition to a drawstring for the main compartment.
Carradice’s attachment system, based on two self-locking hooks along the top inside edge of the bag and with a retaining tab on the rear, has proven its durability on many a round-the-world tour. The fixtures are very adjustable, making them compatible with a wide variety of racks (adapters are available for rack tubing thicker than 13mm), and enabling them to be shifted back a long way for heel clearance. These fixtures are removable – always a good idea when transporting the panniers on planes, trains and buses.
What they are not is 100% watertight. Although the waxed canvas will keep any amount of rain out, it will eventually absorb water if fully immersed, and the lidded closure system will never be as watertight as a roll-top pannier, as discussed above.
Despite this, they are supremely durable receptacles for the (drybagged) gear you’ll keep inside, and I’ve never come across anyone who regretted buying them.
As an example of an ultra-durable canvas pannier, the Carradice Super Cs are certainly the best in the UK, with one of the longest heritages of any pannier on the market.
Part of a bigger line of commuter and messenger bags, German manufacturer Vaude make the very nice 100% waterproof Aqua touring panniers in front and rear variants.
These are strikingly similar to the Ortlieb Classics (see above), and not just superficially: they are also made in Germany, also come with a 5‑year guarantee, also have a versatile one-handed attachment system, also have inside pockets and shoulder straps, and also have a (smaller) following of satisfied users who’ve taken them round the world by bicycle.
The biggest difference is that they’re slightly larger (despite being about the same weight), with a rated capacity of 28/48 litres front/rear compared to 25/40 for the Ortliebs.
If you’re concerned about your environmental impact (and obviously you should be), you might be interested in the fact that the Aqua panniers are ‘climate neutrally manufactured’, ie: all manufacturing and shipping emissions have been carbon offset, and are fully PVC and PFC free. Indeed, Vaude have put a great deal of emphasis on their green credentials in recent years.
Why don’t more people don’t buy them, then? Simple: they’re not Ortliebs.
Buy the Vaude Aqua front and rear panniers online direct from Vaude.de
Buy the Vaude Aqua Back panniers online from Amazon* / Wiggle*
Buy the Vaude Aqua Front panniers online from Amazon* / Wiggle*
Arkel GT-54 (RRP CAD$470 rear)
Arkel are a small Canadian outfit established in 1988 whose panniers’ reputation (and price) exceeds even that of Ortliebs. Their top-end GT-54 classic touring panniers come from an entirely different line of thinking, full of pockets and sections and zips and straps and other finery – consider them the Rolls Royce to Ortlieb’s Land Rover.
There are plenty of riders out there who would claim that these panniers are, in fact, the very best in the world.
Slightly more affordable – and perhaps easier to get hold of if you’re based in Canada or the USA – is their Orca line of waterproof panniers, which are of the simpler roll-top design.
Buy Arkel panniers online direct from Arkel (with worldwide delivery)
A Side Note On The Great Pannier Waterproofing Debate
There are lots of noisy opinions on the internet about pannier waterproofing. Discovering this ‘debate’ tends to worry people who are looking at spending two or three hundred pounds/euros/dollars on a full set of panniers, and planning to put a lot of stuff inside them that they really don’t want getting wet.
The question boils down to whether you should buy fully waterproof, roll-top, seam-sealed, drybag-style panniers and never worry about rain or river crossings ever again, or whether there’s any other type of pannier worth considering.
Although the 100%-waterproof option looks appealing, I haven’t met a long-term rider (ie: who’s spent years on the road) whose 100% waterproof panniers have stayed 100% waterproof.
This is nothing to do with quality. It’s because no piece of fabric can survive an unlimited amount being bashed into things, falling off the bike, being trodden on, tripped over, tied to sharp metal roof racks on buses and taxes, thrown into aircraft holds and pickup trucks, or ripped apart by hungry bears hunting for the smell of toothpaste (true story).
Some riders anticipate this and prepare for it by bringing a repair kit. Some don’t, and then criticise their expensive panniers for not being 100% waterproof. A lucky few somehow manage to avoid getting a single hole in their panniers, and claim this as evidence that they’ll be ‘bomb-proof’ for everyone else. They won’t.
If very heavy rain and wading through rivers is likely to be a regular feature of your trip, then drybag-style panniers and a patch kit is probably the better option.
If you don’t mind a little extra ‘pannier admin’, however, there is another legitimate approach: waterproof what’s inside the pannier as and when you need to.
For a little extra effort, this approach will allow you to exploit the many advantages of breathable, canvas panniers:
Wet gear (and smelly gear) can be isolated from the remaining contents and allowed to dry during a day’s riding,
Fuel bottles and other potentially messy items can be prevented from contaminating other contents,
In hot weather, perishable food can be kept longer in a breathable pannier than inside a sealed drybag,
Canvas panniers are easier to repair with a needle and thread or by giving them to a local tailor or cobbler,
Top quality cotton canvas is, all else being equal, more abrasion-resistant than laminated synthetic fabric, and on a long tour this will bear the brunt of the punishment while the drybags inside remain protected.
Canvas looks cooler. The odd hole here and there will simply add to a pannier’s character.
The extra ‘pannier admin’ involves putting your gear into drybagsinside the pannier (good ones are made by Seal Line, Exped, Sea to Summit, Alpkit and many other brands); either one large drybag used as a pannier liner, or lots of smaller ones for organisation and selective waterproofing (or a combination of the two).
Either approach will carry your gear and keep it dry if you know the strengths and weaknesses of each and have a packing routine to match.
I’ve used both types myself on long-term rides in all conditions, from a free pair of shopping panniers for a rainy spring ride through England to heavy-duty canvas bags across the Middle East and Africa to roll-top waterproof panniers and canvas bags together in Mongolia. Analysing which of these systems is ‘best’ is not something I feel the need to spend any more time discussing, because all of them can be made to work.
The truth is that most long-term riders use roll-top waterproof panniers – in particular, the Ortlieb-branded ones mentioned below – because everyone else does. It’s a conformity thing. Non-conformists might prefer the tramp-like image engendered by dusty canvas. If you can’t decide, flip a coin.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m just about burned out from discussing the minutiae of bags with hooks attached to them. Time to grab whatever’s lying around and hit the road, no?