What’s Really The Difference Between Bikepacking & Cycle Touring?

Over the last few years we have seen the rise of a new sub-discipline of bicycle travel.

It’s called ‘bikepacking’, and it’s become such a hit that almost every mainstream bike manufacturer now produces at least one ‘adventure bike’ or ‘bikepacking rig’, or includes the word in their marketing spiel for bikes that might fit the bill.

Specialised bikepacking luggage, too, has proliferated, from a few cottage industries turning out bespoke, hand-stitched frame bags to pannier giant Ortlieb launching a line.

Someone I know who helps run a bikepacking website told me they get over one million hits per month. (For comparison, this blog has been getting a steady 50,000 monthly pageviews for the last several years, or about 5% of that.)

So today, unlike in days gone by, I think it’s a fair bet that when a newcomer happens upon the idea of going on a bike trip, one of the first things they find is a dichotomy between ‘cycle touring’ and ‘bikepacking’.

In this piece I want to explore the difference, as I see it, between these two different versions of the same basic idea. Because while the difference seems to be portrayed mainly in terms of equipment, I don’t think it actually has anything to do with bikes or luggage at all. And I want to help those newcomers who get sucked into all that stuff about bikes and gear to understand what’s actually going on beneath it all.

(At 2,866 words, you might want to get a cup of tea for this.)

Some context.

I’m a mountain biker first and foremost. Back in 2006, when I was 22, me and my mates bought 1-berth ultralight tents from Lidl, threw them in army-surplus backpacks and set off on full-suspension mountain bikes to ride across the Scottish Highlands.

After a couple of days we strapped our luggage to the bike frames to lighten the load. So we were mountain biking with stuff strapped to our bikes. But we weren’t bikepacking. That hadn’t been invented yet.

(It’s funny how similar this photo from 12 years ago looks to what bikepackers are doing today. Check out the Gaffa Tape seat-pack.)

I was inspired. And a year later I set out to cycle round the world. By now I had come across ‘cycle touring’. People had, I discovered, been going cycle touring for years. Decades. That’s why it sounds slightly old-fashioned. ‘Touring’. So Victorian.

At this point it is customary to mention Thomas Stevens’ bicycle odyssey across America and Eurasia of 1896. But preceding that by some 18 years was the founding in 1878 of the Bicycle Touring Club of Great Britain (now Cycling UK).

That point is that ‘cycle touring’ – the phrase, and the activity it described – has been established for at the very least 140 years.

How long has ‘bikepacking’ been around?

To take a crude measurement I looked at Google Trends. This tool uses the entire history of Google’s indexing of the contents of the internet to calculate the relative interest in any given phrase over time.

It gives the term ‘bikepacking’ a rating of zero as recently as April 2010.

From that starting point, the data shows an exponential upward curve, from 15% in June 2013, to 49% in 2016, to 71% this time last year, all the way up to the benchmark of 100% it has today (June 2018).

In other words, bikepacking has never been more popular than it is right now, yet less than a decade ago, basically nobody knew what it was.

It gets more interesting when you overlay the popularity ratings for ‘cycle touring’. Taking again April 2010 as the starting point, when bikepacking could be argued to have begun its rise to popularity, the same dataset shows cycle touring’s popularity as a linear line, maintaining more or less steady popularity throughout the decade or so. Bikepacking seems to have surpassed cycle touring some time in the middle of 2015.

(If anything, cycle touring has seen an ever-so-slight decline. I think I know why that is, and I’ll come back to it later on.)

The data would seem to support anecdotal evidence.

Today, my social media feeds are awash with images of happy, tired, mud-splattered faces astride lightly-loaded off-road bikes with big, knobbly tyres, with yearning mountain vistas or forest singletrack in the (slightly out of focus) distance.

They drown out the images I used to see a lot more of – tanned, weathered people astride heavily loaded touring bikes in places entirely unrecognisable – or more often, images that were not of the riders at all but of the people they’d been hanging out with and the curiosities they’d encountered on the roadside.

There is something telling in this, too, which feeds directly into what I think the difference between cycle touring and bikepacking really is. But more groundwork still needs to be done.

Superficially, the difference is obvious. Bikepacking looks different. The bikes look different. The stuff people strap to them look different. The places they ride them often look different.

Bikepacking looks like a different kind of experience.

“Simply put,” says Bikepacking.com’s introductory paragraph under the heading ‘What is Bikepacking?’, “bikepacking is the synthesis of mountain biking and minimalist camping; it evokes the freedom of multi-day backcountry hiking, with the range and thrill of riding a mountain bike.”

Cycle touring is a bit more abstract.

“Cycle touring is whatever you want it to be,” I wrote in the first chapter of my beginners’ guide. (I can quote myself, can’t I? Is that OK these days? Just the literary equivalent of posting a selfie, right?) “And you can call it whatever you like – cycle touring, adventure cycling, bikepacking, even simply travelling by bicycle; these are all nuanced terms for the act of getting on a bike and going on a journey with it.”

There’s a formula for how the regular form of cycle touring looks, too. Again, a photo or two makes the difference obvious. On the surface, I mean.

Two nomads on a cycling adventure (Explored)

(OK, extreme example. But you know what I mean).

But the popularity graphs – the changing social media trends – even the nuances of the language used in the descriptions above – all of these are pointers, in my opinion, to a deeper motivation for what is essentially the splitting of the adventure cycling community into two distinct camps.

One camp really just wants to go travelling.

The other camp really just wants go biking.

To me, this is what defines the split.

And of course, there is a middle ground between the two, and loads of overlap, and exceptions that prove the rule, because we’re talking about generalisations here, and life’s not really that simple. And I’m not suggesting that the emergence of two camps suggests any rivalry or conflict, and certainly not any mutual exclusivity. The people who inhabit this scene generally aren’t like that.

But this is the internet, and so before anyone starts to formulate an emotionally charged disagreement to post in the comments, let me explain the reasons why I think this is generally true.

Grinding up the last few switchbacks

The running theme I have seen over more than a decade of being involved in all this stuff is that people who choose the bicycle as a means of seeing the world tend to do so because of the many advantages it confers upon the traveller. It is a tool, and a very good one at that. It is a mode of transport. And the world these people imagine travelling through tends to be that of people and the roads that connect them and the cultures that spring forth when they meet, settle and grow into that thing we call human civilisation.

Cycle touring is about enabling one to practice the art of travel, to live life on the road.

It consequently tends to attract those who see travel itself as the end, to which getting on a bike is the means.

That’s also, in my view, why their social media feeds are not of themselves or their bikes but of what they saw and who they met along the way.

Bikepacking, too, absolutely involves a big element of travel, adventure, exploration, or whatever you wish to call it.

But bikepacking is primarily a way of going on a longer bike ride.

Bikepacking is for bikers – bikers who want to get away from busy roads and the man-made world and ride their bikes in nature, or something approximating it. They always have wanted this. Now they can ride further, for longer and with less fuss. The community’s prime obsessions are bikes, gear to attach to bikes, and riding bikes.

And there is a point to all this obsessiveness. It is to tailor and to optimise the ‘rig’ to deliver the best possible ride under conditions often far more challenging than those encountered on a regular cycle tour. Off-road biking requires skill, and just as in other specialist discipline requiring skill, the tools involved must be designed and honed to allow those skills to be maximised.

This emphasis on bikes and gear has made bikepacking the lucrative niche for the bicycle industry that cycle touring never was. Trek doesn’t noisily launch a 2,500-dollar “bikepacker’s dream” unless the executives think it’s going to sell. And check out the top posts on Instagram for #bikepacking. At the time of writing, the subject of each of the nine featured photos was a either a bike or someone riding one. Manicured. Artistic. Posed. Paid-for.

Touring bikes, on the other hand, tend to stay the same year after year after year; always there, rarely noticed, usually buried under some other ill-fitting category, and probably not making much money.

There is nothing particularly wrong with any of this. Mass consumption funds research & development which in turn makes products more tuned to the priorities of their buyers. And this matches the bikepacking ideal just perfectly. The holy grail is a bikepacking bike with so little baggage that it has basically reverted back to being a mountain bike.

The industry will eventually help deliver something approaching this ideal if people keep pumping money into the machine. This will, in turn, benefit enormously the members of the bikepacking community who spend more time riding bikes than talking about it on the internet.

Cycle tourists, on the other hand, start out in the knowledge they’ll just have to lug a big bunch of stuff around with them, probably in a set of Ortliebs. It’s just as inevitable a compromise of travel as a suitcase or a backpack. And while some may occasionally curse the weight on the way up a big mountain pass, I’ll bet the only people who actually switch to bikepacking for this reason are those who, all along, really just wanted to ride their bike.

Please don’t get the impression I’m pro-cycle touring and anti-bikepacking or taking any kind of partisan stance.

I love bikepacking. Not because I’m also jumping the bandwagon, but because I was a mountain biker long before I was a traveller. I spent years hucking bikes off-road through woods and muddy fields before I did anything more interesting on a bike. But, as noted above, bikepacking didn’t exist back then.

In the meantime I went cycle touring, fell in love with the act of travel and consequently missed the bikepacking boat while I was mucking around in far-off lands and making films.

And today I am discovering the joys of bikepacking retroactively (though I can’t afford the posh gear). It’s not a replacement for cycle touring. It just ticks a different set of boxes which were there waiting to be ticked. I wish it had been invented earlier…

Wading through yet more marshland

I’m hardly alone on this. Look hard enough and you’ll find plentiful examples from back in the day of mountain bikers trying to wrestle cycle touring to fit their priorities.

In fact, one of my inspirations to take cycle touring to places like Mongolia was Cass Gilbert, whose evocative photos of trailer-laden mountain bikes in the Himalaya I remember distinctly from the first edition of the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook, which I read back in 2006. He went on to become one of bikepacking’s progenitors, doing the same thing before it was even a word, all in pursuit of being able to go mountain biking for longer. (Do they even make the Bob Yak any more?)

Logan Watts, whose travel blog Pedalling Nowhere later became Bikepacking.com, also played an instrumental part in developing bikepacking into a ‘thing’. He too was a mountain biker forced into the cycle touring mould until he started tinkering with options that better suited his preferences. Now he runs what is probably bikepacking’s most successful community website and has written a full-length manifesto on the topic.

And I will never forget reading about Janne Corax’s mountain bike crossing of the Changtang plateau in northwest Tibet, which remains the single most extreme-sounding wilderness bicycle journey about which I have ever read. That was 15 years ago and I can’t find the article any more. (I wonder how such an expedition would look today?)

These and many other bikepacking pioneers are doubtless somewhat baffled at the explosion of bikepacking’s popularity. They probably can’t help questioning whether or not it’s a good thing, and probably come back to the conclusion that it is – a sentiment I would share, because it ultimately means more humans falling in love with Earth again at a time when we’re collectively screwing it up.

I think I can offer some thoughts, too, on why bikepacking’s sudden popularity.

Sure, there is today an element of corporate hijacking. (Trek, for god’s sake.) But the wagon was already rolling, and I think at least some of it – at least in the UK – can be attributed to the rise of the microadventure (thanks Al) in combination with that of cycling in general. Bikepacking neatly merges both.

These two trends express the yearning of an overworked, overstressed society (with plenty of cash) not to think, say or post on Facebook but to do something to disconnect from so-called ‘reality’ and rediscover what had always been there: a world we can see, hear, taste and smell, and a body that can sweat and strain in order to change its environment from one of dull, nagging discomfort to one which at least satisfies our romantic vision of being at one with nature, however misguided, and if not on the daily commute then at least on a big escape at the weekend.

The focus on gear makes bikepacking a hobby that can be practiced online during lunch breaks and through tinkering in the garage after work. This can be fun.

And the extremely active community – not just discussing gear ad infinitum but proactively developing and sharing new routes – imparts the sense of tribal belonging that so often underscores people’s life choices.

In short, bikepacking ticks a lot of topical boxes past which traditional cycle touring tends to swerve around.

The 4 cyclists

Cycle touring will always be there.

There will always be people who want to travel the world, and who figure the bike would be the least worst way of doing so. Some will be seduced by bikepacking’s shiny trinkets and end up wishing they had more space for home comforts and noticing none of the advantages they never needed in the first place. But others will figure that there’s no need to change the tried and tested formula and set off to explore the world on a bog standard touring bike with panniers and a bar bag, rarely thinking again about their bike or gear because their journey was never about that anyway.

And bikepacking is unlikely to be just a passing trend.

Beyond the commercialisation and the rabble of noisy opinion that comes with anything new and popular, the ability to ride a bike off-road deep into the wilderness with ever fewer compromises holds a deep attraction for a great many people, including me.

Does all of this fully explain the bikepacking boom? Not quite. A final suggestion, then. I think the bikepacking obsession with whittling the experience ever closer back towards ‘pure’ biking is also what pushes cyclists over to bikepacking – people who would never have considered cycle touring because of the many ways in which they feel it compromises the act of cycling itself.

In other words, I would wager that many of those swelling the ranks are in fact cyclists already. Bikepacking is a natural step forward from what they already do into something slightly more adventure-tinged. And I think more people starting from a cyclists’ perspective are choosing bikepacking over cycle touring – which might explain why cycle touring’s popularity has dropped slightly.

It’ll be interesting to see where it all leads. Perhaps one day every bike will be sold with a tinny bell, a crap saddle, cheap reflectors and an emergency overnight seat-pack. Just in case.

Personally?

Heck, if I’m moving, I’m learning, and if I’m learning, I can make myself useful in the world. The rest is secondary. Cycle touring? Love it. Bikepacking? Love it too. I’m lucky enough to spend much of my time trying out new ways of exploring. I don’t need to be defined by any one discipline. (Check out that ill-advised packrafting expedition or that snazzy Land Rover I borrowed.)

So what’s really the difference between bikepacking and cycle touring?

I think people ask this question to understand where they fit into this rapidly diversifying collection of adventure cycling subcultures.

But I think a better question is – do you really just want to go travelling, or do you really just want to go biking?

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