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Equipment Planning & Logistics

Do I Really Need Ortliebs? A Buyer’s Guide To Panniers For Cycle Tours & Expeditions

Last updated in March 2020.

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 don’t want to assume anything about your prior knowledge, 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 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 and materials, 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.

I did this in 2013, wrote a detailed article about it, then cycled the length of England to prove it worked.

Conclusion: you’ll be fine, and you’ll save a month or two’s food budget in the process.

Have fun!

If you’re good at DIY, consider making your own panniers.

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). REI have a good article on this topic.


Cheap Panniers For Cycle Touring

When it comes to cheap panniers at the bottom end of the market, a trip to any mainstream bike shop or sports retailer (eg: Halfords, Go Outdoors*, Decathlon*, etc) or a quick search on Amazon* or eBay* 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 own brand). There are plenty of people who’ve been happily touring with Altura panniers for 20+ years. (You won’t necessarily find their cheapest models on their websites, by the way.)

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 (RRP £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 CarraDry (RRP £55/£85 front/rear)

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 (RRP €85/€95)

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.

Alpkit Tolari (RRP £70/£80/£90 24/40/60-litre pairs)

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.

  • Buy Tolari panniers direct from Alpkit

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.)


Ortlieb

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 commuting 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.

Ortlieb Sport-Roller/Back-Roller Classic (RRP €110/€130)

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.)

Ortlieb ‘Pro’ Variants

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.


Vaude Aqua (RRP £110/£120 front/rear)

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.


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 drybags inside 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?

Categories
Budgeting & Finance Planning & Logistics

Cycle Touring & Bikepacking Insurance: What You Need To Know (& Recommended Insurers)

Travel insurance is a genius idea for a business. You buy it hoping you will never use it. When you do need to use it, something in the small print usually means you can’t. Then you find out it would be cheaper to pay the costs yourself anyway. Brilliant!

Anyway. What I want to talk about in this article is insurance for cycle touring and bikepacking, both short-term and long-term. I get lots of questions on the topic, and so this article will attempt to answer all of them in one big dose of financial-services-related advice.

I will also make some specific recommendations for the best insurers for cycle touring and bikepacking. There’s a bias towards UK based companies, as this is where most of my readers start out from, but many of them will insure residents of any country, so keep reading.

The Two Different Things People Mean When They Talk About Cycle Touring & Bikepacking Insurance

Cyclists going cycle touring or bikepacking tend to think about policies that’ll insure their bicycles while they’re on the road.

Travellers going cycle touring or bikepacking tend to think about policies that’ll cover travel and medical expenses while they’re riding a bike.

These are two totally different insurance products.

One is a special type of bicycle insurance. The other is a special type of travel insurance.

There are few bicycle insurance policies that’ll insure a rider for overseas medical expenses, and there are few travel insurance policies that’ll insure an expensive bicycle being damaged or stolen.

But in general, if you want to be covered for accidents and emergencies and your expensive bike covered for damage or theft at the same time, you’ll likely end up taking out two separate policies.

And for riders looking for this kind of insurance cover for long-term, multi-year worldwide bike trips, the unfortunate truth is that such policies are extremely hard to find.

Hard, but not impossible. Read on…

Bicycle Insurance Covering Overseas Travel

If you’re looking to get your bicycle itself insured against theft or damage abroad, what you will quickly find is that some such policies do exist — but that:

  • they are limited to trips of a couple of months at most,
  • they depend upon you using the same kind of security precautions as you would at home (namely locking the bike with a certified lock to an immovable object), and
  • they’re expensive.

Given that, if you are looking for bicycle insurance for overseas tours of up to two or three months in duration, there are a couple of such options available to UK residents.

1. ETA offer an annual cycle insurance* policy that covers bikes and accessories for up to 90 days abroad, up to a value of £5,000, including a new-for-old replacement policy and emergency cycle hire, leaving you free to arrange your personal travel insurance separately. In Europe, personal accident cover is also included (but not liability). A quick quote for a touring bike worth £1,500 came to ~£137 for the year. Read the full details on their website*.

2. Cycling UK offers the Cyclecover specialist travel insurance policy for overseas bike trips of up to 100 days, covering loss, theft and damage of bicycles, luggage and accessories for up to £3000, in addition to medical cover. Unlike ETA, depreciation and wear and tear is factored into any claims when it comes to replacing a bike. I fetched a quote of ~£191 for a 3‑month Europe trip. You can get your own quote on the Cyclecover travel insurance page. (Cycling UK members get a 10% discount on online quotes and access to long-term policies not available online.)

Travel Insurance Covering Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

If you’re looking to travel for longer than a couple of months, you’re willing to rely on your wits to keep your expensive bike safe, or your bike is worthless and not worth insuring anyway, you’ll be looking primarily at travel insurance policies that cover cycle touring (aka: bikepacking).

At which point you must understand that (in insurance-policy-style bullet points):

  • most so-called ‘annual’ travel insurance policies actually only cover individual trips of up to 90 days within that year,
  • most long-term travel insurance policies (aka: ‘backpacker’ policies) do not cover cycle touring and bikepacking — only cycling that is ‘incidental’ to the trip,
  • most long-term travel insurance policies that do cover cycle touring and bikepacking still exclude intercontinental trips, and
  • even the best and most comprehensive of these are unlikely to cover the loss, theft or damage of an expensive touring bike or bikepacking rig.

Cycle touring and bikepacking is considered by many insurers to be a ‘hazardous activity’ or ‘extreme sport’, involving increased risk and thus either incurring an additional premium or being excluded from the list of activities covered. Expensive touring bicycles and bikepacking bikes are also considered to be extremely steal-able things. Which they are.

Yes. This sucks. But at least it narrows the field when it comes to choosing from the few travel insurance policies that explicitly do cover cycle touring and bikepacking.

Recommended Cycle Touring & Bikepacking Insurance Providers

The following insurance providers I’ve either used myself or been recommended by veteran cyclists on all manner of global bicycle journeys. Each cover cycle touring (whose definition includes bikepacking) as an activity or will do so on request, but won’t insure the bicycle itself unless I’ve mentioned otherwise.

For each provider, at the time of writing I retrieved the lowest possible quote for a UK resident going on a 3‑month trip in Europe and a 12-month trip around the world, then listed them in ascending order of price. You should of course request your own quotes before making a decision.

1. Insure And Go have grown into one of the UK’s biggest ‘basic’ travel insurance providers, and all of their policies (including backpacker policies) explicitly cover cycle touring, though it’s worth mentioning that personal accident and personal liability are excluded. Which, in simple English, means that there’s no financial compensation for getting hurt or hurting someone else while on your bike. Cover is basic, but aspects (including valuables cover) can be upgraded. 3 months in Europe was £63, and 12 months worldwide was £342. Visit insureandgo.com.

2. Adventures Insurance specialise in — you’ve guessed it — bespoke insurance for more adventurous pursuits, and cycle touring can be specified as an activity. They’ll allow for individual items of equipment up to £600 in value to be covered. 3 months in Europe was £163, and 12 months worldwide (requiring a phone call for the quote) was a very reasonable £479. Visit adventuresinsurance.co.uk*.

3. WorldNomads’ flexible, backpacker-oriented policy offers many advantages. It’s available to residents of 130+ countries, it can be taken out when you’re already abroad, it can be extended online indefinitely, and it covers casual work and a vast range of activities. You’ll need to add Level 2 activities cover for independent cycle touring, for which personal liability cover is excluded. ‘Intercontinental’ touring is also not covered, but it does make WorldNomads a good choice for a tour of any length that’ll be taking place on a single continent. 3 months in Europe was £133, and 12 months worldwide was £714. Visit worldnomads.com*.

4. Campbell Irvine are often recommended for professional expeditions. They specialise in adventure travel, covering a vast range of activities, with the ability to extend a long-term single trip policy over the phone. It covers volunteering but not employment. While ‘cycling’ is covered, the policy wording is not explicit about cycle touring; however a quick phone call confirmed that it is indeed covered in a leisure capacity. 3 months in Europe was £213, and 12 months worldwide £747. Visit campbellirvinedirect.com*.

5. SafetyWing, based in the US but available worldwide, specialises in travel and medical insurance for full-time travellers. You can buy and renew your policy while already travelling, and – unusually – you can visit your home country without your trip being considered ‘finished’. All forms of cycle touring and bikepacking are covered in a non-professional or non-competitive capacity. Due to US sanctions, they can’t insure you in Iran, Cuba or North Korea. I was quoted a reasonable USD$119 for 3 months in Europe and USD$881 for 12 months worldwide. Visit safetywing.com*.

6. The BMC (British Mountaineering Council), who I used for some of my first trips, offer cycle touring cover for up to 12 months at a time. You’ll need the ‘Trek’ policy for cycle touring to be covered as an activity, and while you get plenty of mountain activities and BMC membership benefits thrown in, the cover isn’t cheap. 3 months in Europe came back at £228, and 12 months worldwide came to £2,372. Visit thebmc.com.

Don’t Forget These Key Things About Buying Cycle Touring Insurance

Remember that these companies are operating in a highly competitive and lucrative field, and that negotiation over what’s covered and for how much is perfectly possible over the phone. That’s my top tip to make sure you get what you need at a decent price.

It’s also worth mentioning that, in the event of a medical emergency abroad, the claims agent’s job is to minimise the cost to the insurer. If you’re not incapacitated, the best strategy to achieve this is often to deliver your immediately to your home country in economy class on a scheduled airline, at which point your insurance cover is terminated as you’ve ‘gone home’ and it’s up to the local health service to look after you.

This is something to take into consideration when deciding to buy travel insurance. If medical care is cheaper than the insurance premium – as it may be in vast areas of the world – it’s no wonder that some riders choose to travel long-term without insurance and simply accept that in travel, as in life, bad things happen sometimes. Then they pack an emergency credit card in case they suddenly need to fly home.

Finally, whether or not you insure your trip, it’s common sense to ensure your safety in the first place by cultivating a healthy attitude to travel, which will have a much greater effect on whether or not you still have your body and belongings intact at the end of your trip.

And that, I think, is a topic for a future article.

Categories
Country Guides

Tom’s Guide To Cycle Touring In… The Netherlands

As a student at the University of Exeter I once joined an annual fundraising event known as the Amsterdam Hitch. Travelling in pairs or groups, participants would have 24 hours to hitchhike from southwest England to the Dutch capital, spend a couple of nights ‘recovering’, then take a prearranged bus ride home.

This, one of my first overseas adventures, did not gave me a particularly broad or revealing insight into modern Dutch culture.

For one thing, I and my hitching partner Natalia only got as far as a truck-stop on the outskirts of Ghent, Belgium, before giving up and jumping on the train.

But mainly it was because I wasn’t travelling by bicycle.

Cycle route signposting in the Netherlands

Because the Netherlands only really makes sense when you’re on two wheels. During the later decades of the twentieth century, this former imperial maritime power literally rebuilt itself around cycling. Entire city blocks were bulldozed to make way for new cycling infrastructure. There’s a fascinating short film on Youtube of how this all came to pass. (If you don’t have time to watch it, it can be summarised as the outcome of prioritising quality of life over economic efficiency.)

Today, there exist in the Netherlands more kilometres of cycleway than motorised carriageway, more bicycles than cars, and in many towns and cities a higher proportion of journeys by bike than any other means. Where a bike path crosses a road, the cyclist always – always – has the right of way. Many Dutch only consider driving (or other motorised transport) if cycling is impractical, which is rarely.

You hear about this a lot – it’s what the Netherlands is famous for – but it doesn’t hit home until you’ve been there. And it was four years after the Amsterdam Hitch that this unemployed graduate with dreams of cycling around the world discovered that the Dutch experience went much further than almost being hit by a tram while staggering along a canal in search of a hostel whose name he couldn’t remember.

I had cycled across England to Harwich and taken the overnight ferry to the Hook of Holland, rolling off the boat and onto the LF1 Dutch long-distance cycle route (also part of the EuroVelo 12 North Sea Cycle Route), riding through dunes and beaches and seaside towns on traffic-free paths – a luxurious change from sharing English country lanes with impatient van drivers.

I remember wondering when the cycle paths would run out, as they inevitably always did, and the tedium of road riding would begin.

Ninety kilometres later I arrived in Amsterdam. And I hadn’t left a cycle path.

Amsterdam wasn’t the obvious routing. My two friends and I were ultimately heading for Spain, where we planned to ride the Camino de Santiago before looping east and reaching Istanbul before winter.

There were, however, two good reasons for us going there.

The first was that I’d hitchhiked to Amsterdam four years ago and dimly remembered it being fun.

The second was that Mark had ordered a new saddlebag from the UK to be delivered poste restante, and we had to go and pick it up.

Now, if I’d bothered to read an article with a title like “Tom’s Guide To Cycle Touring In The Netherlands” before we’d done this, I might have learned that there was no shortage of very well-stocked bike shops in Amsterdam, and that one of them would probably have a saddlebag.

Given such a revelation, ordering bike parts to the Netherlands would have felt a bit like ordering tea to India.

I knew the visa requirements for crossing Central Asia, the options for passing the Darién Gap, and which border points between China and Mongolia were open to foreigners. Yet at no point while planning my round-the-world bike trip had I realised that the gear to do it could be bought along the way.

The relevance of this anecdote, dear reader, is simply to restate that the Netherlands is a country in which you can simply turn up and spontaneously begin a cycle tour. It is, by all accounts, one of the most convenient nations – if not the most convenient nation – in the world to explore on a bicycle, or tricycle, or tandem, or any other pedal powered machine you can imagine.

In fact, if you’re planning a long ride starting in Europe, you could do worse than begin from the Netherlands. Some of the most reputable expedition bike brands – Koga and Santos perhaps the best known – have Dutch origins, and their bikes can be found widespread. And because the Dutch are not just a nation of cyclists but of cycle tourists, you’ll find all the standard touring gear here too.

Hanging out with our Dutch host

Gaining momentum across the country, we three young British lads on overloaded mountain bikes seemed to ignite a certain compassion in the hearts of the rural Dutch.

(This was in spite of having ceremoniously shaved our heads and inadvertently taken on an appearance normally associated with members of an outlawed brand of militant fascism.)

Friendly locals welcomed us to camp in the gardens of their family homes, to sleep on narrowboats, and to eat dinner with them, sharing with us – in perfect English – the simple stuff of life.

On one memorable occasion, a couple invited us to sleep on their garage floor, seeing as it was raining outside. The wife later revealed that her husband was a professional plumber and that he had installed the mother of all showers in their en-suite bathroom. Would we like to use it?

Pulling back the cubicle door revealed an extravagant control panel which not only allowed one to specify the water temperature to a tenth of a degree but also activated an array of coloured lights, music, horizontal water jets from multiple angles, and great blasts of steam from hidden orifices. I have been searching for a showering experience to match it ever since.

The rain continued, and we quickly realised that the Nederlanders’ love of cycling was not dependent upon perfect riding conditions. Yes, the thing about the country being completely flat is more or less true; the highest point on the mainland is a lowly 322m above sea level, and our biggest climbs were generally to the top of a dike or out of a subway tunnel.

But the wind – the wind was sometimes so relentless that simply inching forward felt like pedalling uphill in granny gear. And it was usually, of course, a headwind. Add horizontal rain to the mix and we quickly discarded the notion that cycling across the Netherlands wouldn’t be tough. As for sidewinds? Wearing ponchos? Forget it! Better to stop in a café and wait it out.

When it was nice, though, the Netherlands was really nice, with a lot more protected areas, forests and nature reserves than we’d expected, reachable only by off-highway cycle paths. And in general, the Netherlands was familiar enough that we could ease into the groove of long-term travel. Yet I was soon yearning to press eastward into less familiar territory – which of course says more about my 23-year-old self than it does about cycle touring in the Netherlands.

Six years later and no longer fixated on leaving the West behind, I returned to the Netherlands, this time to collect a recumbent bike from a kindly reader and ride it home to England. After many years of life-changing travel in places where bicycle infrastructure was unheard of, I was struck even more strongly by the sheer luxury of travelling through a country designed so ubiquitously for the bicycle rider.

I resurrected my wild-camping routine, this time with a hammock, though I never did find any of the Paalkamperen, a little-known but apparently wonderful network of designated free camping sites.

And if I’d stayed longer, I would doubtless have called upon one of the thousands of registered Warmshowers hosts in the country. (Armenia, by comparison, has three.)

But all too soon I was riding down that very same LF route to the Hook of Holland and boarding that very same ferry to Harwich – this time able to afford the occasional coffee along the way.

Yes, it’s a trope often trotted out in travel literature, but the Netherlands really is a cycle touring utopia. And – as I discovered at both ends of a rambling world tour – that goes for total newbies and a hardened adventurers alike.

Landelijk Fietsplatform, the official Dutch organisation for recreational cycling, maintains a very informative website (in English) all about cycle touring in the Netherlands.

Categories
Equipment

What’s The Best Tent For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking? (2020 Edition)

Last updated in January 2020.

Choosing the best tent for your cycle tour or bikepacking expedtion is difficult because there’s a huge amount of choice out there. Ultralight tents, freestanding tents, 3‑season or 4‑season tents, double wall or single wall, with or without awnings or footprints – and at a whole range of prices from next to nothing up to hundreds (even thousands) of pounds or dollars. Which of these tents is right for you?

When you’re a newcomer, it’s natural to look for other people’s recommendations when choosing a tent for cycle touring or bikepacking. But before you get bogged down with what other people think is the best tent (which always seems to be the one they bought or were given by a sponsor), here’s one important thing to remember:

The word ‘best’ only has meaning within the context of your bike trip. Every ride is different.

So ask yourself:

  • Are you looking to for a long-lasting tent for a transcontinental trip, or something cheap for a few weeks of summer adventuring?
  • Are you a couple who like plenty of living space, or a minimal solo rider?
  • Do you have racks and panniers to take heavy loads, or are you bikepacking with ultralight gear?
  • Do you plan on staying at nice campsites, or wild camping in the woods after dark?
  • Will it be fair weather only, or will all-season and/or winter use be required?

Sure, there are a few tried-and-tested tents for cycling adventures that have proven themselves on a massive range of journeys.

But if you want to delve any deeper, you’ll find there’s no real ‘best tent for cycle touring and bikepacking’ until you know the answers to the basic questions above. If you haven’t asked them of yourself, now’s the time to do so. Then come back to this article.

Know what kind of bike trip you’re going on now? Great! Read on…

What Types Of Tents Are Good For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking?

I’ve spent a long time (too long) looking at the trends over the years, so I can tell you that the ideal cycle touring tent for one person is a freestanding, double-walled, 2‑berth, 3‑season tent in an inconspicuous shade of green, weighing 1.5–2.5kg, fitting nicely on the rear rack of a touring bike, with room inside for the rider and some of their luggage (but not their bike).

For a couple, it’s generally the 3‑berth model of the same tent.

And for a solo bikepacker, it’s generally the 1‑berth model.

If you were short of time and you asked me to pick just one tent that ticks all of these boxes, it would be the MSR Hubba Hubba NX (click to scroll).

I’ve used and abused many MSR tents on my trips over the years, including a 2014 two-berth Hubba Hubba, a 2012 one-berth Hubba, and a 2010 three-berth Mutha Hubba HP.

If you don’t have any seriously specialised requirements, and you just want to grab a tent and go, the Hubba range is what I’d recommend to you above all others.

How Do Tents For Cyclists Differ From Tents For Hikers & Backpackers?

Before we get into cycle touring and bikepacking tent listings, for the benefit of readers coming from a hiking/backpacking background I feel it’s important to explain how the priorities for cyclists differ slightly from walkers.

The biggest difference is that packed weight and volume is (usually) less of an issue for cyclists.

On a bike tour, you have a vehicle to carry your gear, rather than shouldering the burden yourself. This means – generally speaking – that you can safely consider slightly bigger, heavier tents that will allow you to live more comfortably, fare better in bad weather, last longer, and probably be cheaper to buy.

Long-distance thru-hikers in particular are concerned with minimising their loads. Unless you’re an ultralight bikepacker, you probably won’t be sharing that concern. (But in case you are, there are several suggestions below for ultralight tents for bikepacking too.)

A second difference is that cyclists tend to camp close to roads, not on backcountry trails. This brings with it totally different priorities when it comes to visibility.

Many hikers prefer to be as visible as possible in a mountain landscape in case of needing assistance. Cyclists, on the other hand, typically want the opposite: to be able to wild camp undetected, close to civilisation.


A List Of The Best Cycle Touring Tents In 2020

OK, theory lessons over – let’s get down to business!

The following listings represent a collection of tents specifically recommended for travelling by bicycle by a wide range of experienced riders, fully updated to reflect the latest updates and prices for 2020.

We’ll start with low-budget tents for short and simple trips, visit some of the most popular all-rounder tents in the mid-range, and work our way up to uber-tents for people on worldwide bike tours of many months or years.

We’ll also look at a few specialist tents suited to the weight and pack size restrictions faced by off-road bikepackers with frame luggage alone.

For each tent, you’ll find links to manufacturer’s websites where you can get detailed, up-to-date specifications. I’ve also included links to online retailers in the UK and USA I’ve found offering the best deals (full disclosure: affiliate links are marked with an asterisk*).

These are not the only tents that’ll do the job. But I can tell you from 13 years of worldwide bike-tripping experience that they are representative of what riders are using out there today.


Gelert Track 1 (UK, RRP £70)

If you’re riding alone, looking for a low-budget lightweight tent that can be pitched in temperate climates, and you’re not expecting much in the way of living space, the Gelert Track 1 tent (previously known as the Gelert Solo) is well worth a look.

Coming highly rated by bushcrafters and hikers, it’s small, inconspicuous, waterproof, and relatively lightweight at 1.8kg.

gelert-solo

Until recently you could find them on UK high streets at Sports Direct, which acquired Gelert a couple of years ago, but the link to their website* appears to be dead. Let’s hope it comes back soon!

In the meantime, your best bet to find one right now is eBay*, Gumtree, etc. Also look out for several suspiciously similar tents with different logos on them, eg: the Outdoor Gear Backpacker Pro 1* on Amazon and the OEX Phoxx 1* from Go Outdoors.


Vango Banshee Pro (UK, RRP £155–185)

Vango’s Banshee Pro range of 3‑season tents is a step up in quality and features, coming in a good shade of green for wild-camping and providing ample living and storage space while remaining on the lightweight side of things. Two- and three-berth versions are available under the 200 and 300 model names. The 200 is ideal for a soloist at 2.39kg, and the 300 at 2.82kg is good for a couple.

(The same naming scheme is used for other tents in Vango’s range, of which the Soul is also recommended as a budget option and the Mirage at the higher end.)

Being a British brand, Vango is very well represented in the UK, both on the high street and online, though their tents my be harder to find elsewhere.

The RRP for the Banshee Pro 200 is £155, and you’ll be able to find them cheaper online from outlets such as Go Outdoors* and Amazon*. The 300, with an RRP of £185, can also be found at Amazon* and Go Outdoors*.

As an alternative, the Coshee range by Wild Country (see below) is similar in design, name and price point.


Wild Country Zephyros 2 (UK, RRP £200)

Wild Country is the budget marque of the premium British manufacturer Terra Nova. The 1.85kg Zephyros 2 takes more than a little inspiration from Hilleberg’s Akto, a favourite high-end tent for minimalists since it was popularised by TV outdoorsman Ray Mears. It requires staking out at each end, but you get a lot of space for a reasonably low weight and with a single pole supporting a single-pitch structure. Not a lot of awning space, though.

You can get the Zephyros direct from the Terra Nova website at the RRP of £200. Amazon*, Snow + Rock* and Cotswold Outdoor* have it cheaper at the time of writing.


Alpkit Ordos 2/3 (UK, RRP £270–310)

Britain’s favourite direct outdoor gear retailer Alpkit has made a splash in the bikepacking and cycle touring scene as well as with the mountaineers and climbers, with the Ordos 2 and Ordos 3 tents now almost as popular as MSR’s Hubba series (see below). I’ve been using one myself on recent multi-day backcountry hikes.

With 2- and 3‑berth models available and a choice of a red or green fly, these ultralight tents – just 1.3kg for the complete 2‑berth model and 1.6kg for the 3‑berth – are roomy, practical, well-ventilated, easy to pitch, and reasonably priced, with the wedge design echoing the long-standing Vaude Hogan (see below) and Big Agnes Seedhouse. Not quite freestanding but close enough for almost all real-world purposes, they do well in warmer weather.

As with all ultralight tents, longevity is not a design priority, and I would be surprised to see these last more than a season without noticeable wear and tear.

Order the Ordos 2 (RRP £270) or Ordos 3 (RRP £310) direct from Alpkit in the UK – as with all their gear, buying direct from their website or one of their stores is the only way to get it.


REI Quarter Dome (USA, RRP $299–399)

If your tour is beginning in the States and you need a new set of camping gear, you’d do well to head to the nearest branch of REI when you arrive. This outdoor co-op manufactures a range of top-rated gear and sells it without the third-party mark-up, so you get a lot for your money.

Their freestanding Quarter Dome range, available in 1‑berth (1.3kg), 2‑berth (1.7kg) and 3‑berth (2kg) versions, is the most popular cycle touring tent range among Stateside riders, with the Half Dome range recommended as a heavier, lower-budget alternative.

The one-berth Quarter Dome 1* (RRP $299) is available from REI.com* or from any of their 132 retail stores in the USA, as is the two-berth Quarter Dome 2* (RRP $349) and the three-berth Quarter Dome 3* (RRP $399).


MSR Hubba NX series (Worldwide, RRP £425–650 / $380–550)

The MSR Hubba Hubba NX (EU/USA*) is undisputably one of the all-time most popular tents among global cycle tourers and bike packers, as mentioned in the introduction.

The complete Hubba range, which features 1‑, 2‑, 3- and 4‑berth models, has been updated several times over the last couple of decades, and today strikes a balance between weight and durability. The US models come with a grey outer tent, but in Europe, green versions are also available (I’d prefer green for wild camping purposes).

Many solo fully-loaded cycle tourers and lightweight bikepacking pairs/couples go for the 1.7kg two-berth Hubba Hubba NX (EU/USA*) for ample living space and a double entrance awning.

Couples with a full luggage setup tend to prefer the spacious 2.3kg three-berth Mutha Hubba NX (EU/USA*).

Ultralight solo bikepackers usually go for the 1‑berth Hubba NX (EU/USA*) with a minimum packed weight of 1.1kg.

Expect MSR tents to last many years, with top-quality weatherproofing and ventilation, superb build quality, and super-easy setup, with a variety of pitching options for different climates.

msr_hubbahubbahp_fly_door_open_eu_l

The UK RRP for the 2‑berth MSR Hubba Hubba NX is £445. The cheapest I can find it is from Amazon*, Go Outdoors* or Elite Mountain Supplies.

If you’re in the USA, you can order them direct from the MSR website – click for the 1P Hubba*, 2P Hubba Hubba* and 3P Mutha Hubba*. The better value option is REI, who stock the full range in-store and online, including the Hubba*, Hubba Hubba* and Mutha Hubba* – adding a $20 lifetime membership will get you 10% of the tent price back as a dividend later on.

The heavier, cheaper and slightly more spacious MSR Elixir range (EU/USA*) has a similar freestanding dome design and range of sizes. If weight is not of primary importance I would actually choose these over the Hubba equivalents for the heavier, more durable materials used in their construction.


Vaude Hogan UL (Germany, RRP £430)

Another tent that has stood the test of time, German brand Vaude’s classic Hogan UL 2‑berth tent was, back in 2007, my first decent tent of any kind. I rode across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Mongolia with it for four years, so I guess you could say I’ve put it through its paces (read my original review here). Then my brother inherited it and subjected it to another few years of abuse. It’s still standing 13 years on.

It’s not the lightest, nor is it truly freestanding, but it is extremely durable, waterproof, and stable in bad weather, with a decent-sized porch and a nice natural shade of green available for the fly, and it’s pretty portable at 1.9kg.

The RRP is £430 and it’s available direct from Vaude, though you can find it cheaper from Amazon* in the UK, or Bergzeit.de in its native Germany.


Terra Nova Voyager (UK, RRP £600)

A British design that’s been doing the rounds for decades, the freestanding classic Voyager is likely the long-term favourite among round-the-world tourers from the UK, in part because Terra Nova don’t feel the need to change the design of or discontinue perfectly good tents at random (like certain other manufacturers seem to do), allowing the tent to build up a second-to-none reputation.

Weighing in at 2.2kg, top-class construction, weatherproofing, liveability and extreme durability is the order of the day here.

terra-nova-voyager

They’re expensive – £600 direct from Terra Nova, or a bit less from Amazon*, Cotswold Outdoor* or UltralightOutdoorGear.co.uk* – but you get what you pay for.


Hilleberg Nallo 2/3/GT (Sweden, RRP £765–970)

The most lusted after (and expensive) tents for long-haul trips for which durability is the key consideration are undoubtedly those in the Nallo range from Swedish tentmakers Hilleberg.

They’re not the most lightweight, nor the best choice for hot climates, but they do have an unmatched reputation for quality and longevity. Hilleberg have long resisted following the trend for ever lighter and more flimsy materials: these tents are among the most tried and tested in the world and will last – literally – for decades.

The Nallo 2 (2.4kg) is recommended for solo tourers, with the Nallo 3 GT (3.1kg) delivering luxury on-the-road living for couples and their luggage.

Other Hilleberg tents often seen on the road include the minimalist 1.7kg Akto for soloists and bikepackers (see the Wild Country Zephyros above) and, for couples, the freestanding and spacious 3.3kg Allak 2. The Swedish brand predictably makes excellent winter tents, with the 2.4kg Soulo standing out.

hilleberg-nallo-2

In the UK, the Hilleberg Nallo 2 is available from many of the high-street chains, including Ellis Brigham* and Cotswold Outdoor*. Online they’re hard to find and rarely discounted, though I’ve found them recently on UltralightOutdoorGear.co.uk and AlpineTrek.co.uk*.

In the USA, Moosejaw.com* sell all of Hilleberg’s tents, including the Nallo 2*.


Best Ultralight Bikepacking Tents For 2020

The following tents are included in this list as examples of shelters that have either been developed with bikepacking in mind or crossed over from backpacking and thru-hiking circles – in any case, tents that have found favour in the bikepacking community.

You’ll also find some of the lighter tents from the list above – such as the Gelert Track 1, the Alpkit Ordos, the MSR Hubba NX, and the Hilleberg Akto – making their way onto bikepacking kit lists, possibly in stripped-down form.


Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo (USA, RRP $200)

Weighing just 680g (that’s the same as a full, standard-sized cycling water bottle), the single-pole, single-wall Lunar Solo relies on being staked out and requires you to supply your own pole (it’s designed to be used with a trekking pole). It’s never going to be as comfortable as a double-wall tent with a geodesic structure – but if you’re OK with that, it’s difficult to imagine a more minimal shelter that isn’t a bivvy bag.

It is by no means the only such shelter on offer – check out MSR’s Thru-Hiker Mesh House 1 to see a big-brand attempt at the same kind of thing (although without the flysheet).

Get the Lunar Solo direct from Six Moon Designs in the USA, or from Ultralight Outdoor Gear in the UK.


Terra Nova Starlite (UK, RRP £595)

New in 2018, the Terra Nova Starlite series, available in 1‑, 2- and 3‑berth options, was one of the first British tent ranges designed specifically for bikepacking. Aside from striking a great combination of weight and weather-resistance, the 2‑berth Starlite 2 weighs just 1.5kg and has a packed length of 29cm, meaning it’ll fit easily into a pannier or strap to your handlebars using the stuff-sack’s integrated webbing loops.

Some might consider its non-freestanding design a negative, but in the type of climate and terrain it’s designed for, staking it out really shouldn’t be a problem if you choose your pitch accordingly. Once up, it’s as roomy as you’d expect from a tunnel tent and very stable. That the optional footprint extends to cover the awning floor is a nice bonus. Not cheap, though.

Read my full long-term review of the Starlite 2 here. As with all of Terra Nova’s tents, you can order it direct (RRP £595). It’s well-distributed in the UK; online stockists include Wiggle*, Amazon* and AlpineTrek.co.uk*.


More Tents For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

If that’s not enough of a selection, try the following, which have also been recommended by readers of this blog:

I have also happily toured with a free Tesco Value tent I rescued from the local household recycling centre, because remember: you don’t actually need any of this stuff.


Bonus: The 12 Qualities Of The Bicycle Traveller’s Perfect Tent

If you’re still interested in learning more about the reasons why bike travellers tend to go for certain types of tent, let’s explore the criteria in detail from a cycle tourer’s perspective. The perfect tent would:

1. Weigh as little as possible

The less weight you’re carrying, the nimbler and more enjoyable to ride your bike will be while you’re on it, and the more manageable it’ll be while you’re off it. Tents of yore were built of heavy canvas, wood and steel, and weighed a ton. Modern tents, by contrast, are now absurdly light. The ideal touring tent would, therefore, weigh as little as possible when packed – particularly key for bikepackers.

2. Last as long as possible

The importance of durability increases in parallel with the length of your journey. Modern tents do have a limited lifespan and on an ultra-long tour can almost be considered a consumable item, most multi-year journeys involving a series of tents. Common points of failure include zip sliders wearing out, floors losing waterproofness, poles fatiguing and snapping under stress, and flysheets shrinking through prolonged UV exposure. Long-term riders especially therefore tend to choose tents whose durability has proven itself over time.

3. Pitch anywhere

Especially when wild-camping, perfect pitching conditions can never be guaranteed. As well as this, a long tour may well incorporate a variety of environments. The ideal tent would go up anywhere, regardless of the availability of flat, level ground, and with or without the ability to use pegs/stakes. That is, rather simplistically, why cyclists tend to choose freestanding tents, in which the poles support the whole structure, or tents requiring minimal staking out.

4. Blend into the background

Successful wild-camping is largely about avoiding detection. Part of this is having a tent that does not stick out like a sore thumb in a landscape. The ideal tent, therefore, would exhibit chameleon-like properties, blending perfectly into the surroundings. Tents with green or neutral-coloured flysheets are therefore a good bet, while bright orange or yellow mountaineering tents are less than preferable in this regard.

5. Go up quickly

Once a suitable pitch has been found, the last thing a cycle traveller wants is to waste time pitching or tweaking an overly complicated tent, particularly in bad weather or when stealth-camping under cover of darkness. This, again, is one of the reasons why cyclists tend to prefer freestanding tents with simple, ideally one-piece, pole structures, which are technically pitched in a few seconds, all stakes and guy lines being optional.

6. Keep you dry in a monsoon

Any tent worth its salt will keep its occupants dry. The best tents will do so in a torrential downpour and on waterlogged ground, and many riders will have to anticipate such conditions. In practice, this means choosing a tent with an additional footprint to provide extra waterproofing to the floor, an adjustable fly sheet that can be cinched down closer to the ground to avoid splashback, and a good level of protection around the edges of the inner tent as well. It might also mean a footprint that extends to cover the space beneath the awning where your gear is being stowed.

7. Stand up in a hurricane

Extreme weather, by definition, is the exception rather than the norm. But the longer the trip, the higher the chances of being exposed to it. The ideal tent would take stormy weather in its stride, remaining firmly planted even whilst houses, pets and automobiles are being blown clean away. So-called ‘geodesic’ and tunnel tents tend to do well in strong winds when properly pitched and oriented, while wedge-shaped tents are among the worst performers in this sense.

8. Ventilate in all climates

Climate control is a perpetual concern for the camper. Condensation in particular can contribute far more to a soggy night’s sleep than rainfall itself. The ideal tent would feature adjustable ventilation options for all circumstances, including plentiful mesh panels on the inner so it can be pitched alone in hot weather and allow a good breeze to come through.

9. Provide a view when you want it

Tents are enclosed and often claustrophobic spaces designed to isolate and protect from the elements. But when the elements are at their most desirable, the ideal tent will provide a viewing platform from which to drink all that natural beauty up. This usually means choosing a tent with an awning that can be tied right back and a mesh panel on the inner door to look through, if not a full mesh inner tent.

10. Give you privacy when you need it

Sometimes, after a long day on the road, all you’ll want to do is retreat to a save haven. The ideal tent will feel as secure, safe and impermeable as a padded cell. If you think it’ll be warm and dry enough to pitch only the inner tent without the rainfly, a full mesh inner will afford no privacy whatsoever. A tent with a combination of mesh and fabric panels, on the other hand, may strike a better balance.

11. Allow room for all your luggage

Tents being necessarily restricted in size for practical reasons, it’s usually possible to bring some of your belongings inside, but often it’ll be necessary to leave at the very least your bicycle to brave the elements overnight. The ideal tent provides space for everything to be brought inside or stowed in the awning.

12. Provide space to live

In a similar vein to the above, tents are more or less well designed for doing anything other than sleeping. The ideal tent will exhibit Tardis-like qualities, providing space to unpack, rearrange, work, play, get changed, entertain guests, repair bicycles and more, in addition to simply sleeping.

Which tent(s) have you successfully used on tours or bikepacking trips? Which would you recommend to a friend planning a trip? Let us know in the comments.

Categories
Equipment

What’s The Best Camping Stove For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking? (2020 Edition)

Last updated in March 2020.

Every cyclist loves food. In fact, one of the pleasures of bicycle travel is the ability to eat whatever you like, and as much as you like. Your body becomes a calorie-burning machine, and it’s very vocal about what it wants!

When it comes to cycle touring and bikepacking trips, a stove is not essential. There are other ways to fuel your body than cooking your own food. (Bakeries! Supermarkets! Cafes!)

But many adventurous cyclists find it convenient to have the ability to cook, or at least to boil water for hot drinks. I’ve always carried a stove on my bike trips for these reasons, from multi-fuel expedition stoves in Outer Mongolia, to cheap and cheerful canister gas stoves in Europe, and alcohol stoves in the Middle East and former Soviet Union.

In this detailed article, I’ll help you figure out how to choose between the many different types, makes and models of stove on offer.

To do that, we’ll look at the main categories of camping stove preferred by cycle tourists and bikepackers, discuss how to choose between different basic types of stoves, and look at the best tried-and-tested camping stoves circling the globe as I type.

I’ll include buying links to UK and USA retailers, but many of the stoves mentioned in this article are available globally.

Ready? Cup of tea to hand? OK – let’s begin.


3 Basic Questions To Help You Choose A Camping Stove For Cycle Touring

As with all equipment choices, clarifying a few simple facts about your cycle tour or bikepacking trip will make your decision easier.

So I want to start by asking three basic questions that will help you identify which type of camping stove will suit you best on your cycle tour or bikepacking adventure.

Question 1: Where Are You Going, And For How Long?

This question is partly about continent, country and region, but it’s also about how far from the beaten track you’re planning to ride.

It’s important for camping stove choice because you’ll buy a stove once, but you’ll buy fuel for it over and over again – every few days if you use the stove regularly.

Fuel availability is the biggest factor in choosing a stove – so knowing where you’ll be riding is critical.

If you are riding through parts of the world with a strong camping culture and therefore plenty of outdoor shops and campsites – eg: Europe, North America or New Zealand – you’ll easily be able to find butane/propane gas canisters for camping stoves.

If you’re heading further afield and/or off the tourist trail for longer periods of time, denatured alcohol (eg: methylated spirit or surgical spirit) and liquid fuel (eg: white gas, kerosene, petrol/benzine and diesel) are likely to be easier fuels to find – and to carry in bigger quantities.

We’ll cover fuel types in detail later, as they also define the main categories of camping stove for cycle touring and bikepacking.

But for now, just take a moment to think about where you’re going, and how easily and frequently available these different types of fuel are likely to be – remembering also that you cannot bring compressed gas canisters with you when flying, either in checked baggage or in the cabin.

Where you’re going will also affect how often you cook.

Good, fresh food is so cheap and abundant in some regions (South-East Asia being a good example) that cooking your own food will cost more and taste worse!

Question 2: What Do You Mean By ‘Cooking’?

When you say ‘cooking’, do you really mean ‘boiling water for coffee and noodles’?

Just boiling water can be accomplished with minimal gear or with an integrated system like the Jetboil (on which more later).

But if you do want to do proper cookery (see Tara Alan’s excellent Bike. Camp. Cook* ebook to see what I mean by this), you’ll need a versatile, adjustable stove or stoves; lots more pots, pans and utensils; and perhaps even a folding sink!

So think about what’s going to be important to you on your cycle tour or bikepacking trip: quick and simple fuel; or slow, tasty and varied meals.

Equipment for proper cookery also affects your luggage setup. Fully-loaded riders with big panniers and lots of rack space will have more options than ultralight bikepackers.

Question 3: How Many Mouths Are You Feeding?

It might sound obvious, but more people means more food, bigger pots, and a more powerful stove to heat them.

Just as domestic stoves have burners of different sizes, camping stoves are available with a range of different pot supports, flame spreaders and heat output ratings, from soloists boiling a mug of water to gourmet couples and groups spending hours preparing three-course meals with frying pans and steamers.

It’s important to answer this question well, because it might not be possible to change your setup on the road. It’s also crucial to match your stove to the rest of your kitchen setup – a big pot on a wobbly top-mounted canister burner will not just be precarious: with lightweight tents or dry tinder around, it could be dangerous.

So consider how much food you’ll be cooking on an average night, and how much flexibility you’d like when it comes to using pots and pans of different shapes and sizes.


All done with the three starter questions above?

Great! Let’s look in detail at the different types of camping stove for cycle tourers and bikepackers.

What Types Of Camping Stove Are Best For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking?

I’ve mentioned camping stove fuel a couple of times already. In fact, there are three main types of camping stove suited to cycle touring and bikepacking, and they’re categorised by the three types of fuel they are designed to burn.

Each type of stove (and fuel) has its own strengths and weaknesses, so let’s look at each in turn.

1. Canister Gas Stoves

Gas is the ideal fuel for cooking, which is why most professional kitchens use it. It burns cleanly and efficiently, the flames are highly adjustable, and the use of pressurised canisters means that getting the fuel moving is easy and stove design therefore simple.

Stoves of the type we’re interested in come from the backpacking and hiking departments of outdoor stores, as they tend to be the lightest and most compact. They can be further subdivided into top-mounted burners, such as MSR’s classic Pocket Rocket*; remote burners (aka: ‘spider’ stoves) with short hoses to connect to an external canister, such as Alpkit’s Koro; and all-in-one integrated stove systems such as the Jetboil series.

There are two main types of canister. The most common type worldwide is the Universal Threaded Canister (UTC) type (using an EN417 standard 7/16-inch Lindal B188 screw valve, in case you were wondering). You screw the burner or hose onto the top of the canister and it automatically seals when you disconnect it. You’ll find these widespread in the USA and Europe in particular.

Another common type of canister you’ll often see in Western Europe is the blue, unthreaded, valve-sealed CV system by long-running camping stove brand Campingaz, to which the burner clips on, rather than being screwed on. (These are not to be confused with the old-fashioned pierceable cartridges that are still made for older stoves).

Most stoves fit only one type of canister. Which type is quite likely to reflect where you bought it. A few stoves are compatible with both. (We’ll look at examples later.)

Regardless of valve type, it’s stoves for the the smallest sized canisters you’ll be interested in, which are designed for backpackers rather than caravans or car-campers.

UTC canisters are made by lots of manufacturers including Coleman, MSR and Primus and typically have a capacity of 110/230g/450g (4/8/16oz) and a diameter of 110mm (4.33″). Some have a narrower diameter of 90mm/3.5″ and are usually designed for integrated stove systems such as the Jetboil (see below). These smaller canisters tend not to be as widely available as the larger-diameter ones.

CV cartridges made by Campingaz come in 240g (90mm diameter) and 450g (110mm diameter) sizes.

Much marketing noise is made by canister manufacturers over the specific blend of propane and butane and thus how efficient their fuel is. I can promise you right now that unless you are camping in winter conditions, timing each boil to the second and weighing your canister between uses, you will not notice the slightest difference. The best brand to choose is the one that’s available when you need it.

Importantly for riders flying to their starting points, pressurised gas canisters cannot be transported by air, either in the hold or in cabin baggage. If you’re flying to your starting point, you’ll need to make sure suitable canisters can be bought on arrival.

2. Alcohol Stoves

Alcohol stoves are designed to burn high-strength liquid alcohol, of which methylated spirit and surgical spirit (aka: medical alcohol or rubbing alcohol) are probably the most common, though it’s also available in other forms.

The key is a very high alcohol content – at least 90%, preferably 95% or higher. Even the strongest homemade vodka will not work. Because of the many and varied uses of alcohol, some form will be available pretty much anywhere you find civilisation – even in ‘dry’ countries such as Iran. (There’s a very detailed list of stove-compatible fuels at Zenstoves.net.)

Alcohol is slower to cook over than gas or liquid fuel, but its wide availability and relative cleanliness is what makes it viable. Because the fuel does not need to be pressurised, these stoves tend to be even simpler and lightweight, making alcohol stoves a favourite with ultralight bikepackers. They don’t do well in very cold temperatures, however, and the unpressurised flame can be vulnerable to wind – hence why many alcohol stoves have integrated windshields.

The classic example of this type of stove is the Swedish-made Trangia, which is often referred to simply by the brand name. As 3.5 million viewers have so far discovered, it’s also possible to quickly and easily make your own alcohol stove from an empty drinks can. We’ll look at other models later on.

Consisting of little more than a fuel pot with a few holes in it, alcohol stoves burn simply, cleanly and efficiently, needing no complicated mechanisms for pressurising the less volatile fuel. The fact that there are no moving parts to worry about makes them the most simple and durable stove you can get for a cycle tour or bikepacking trip – not to mention the lightest.

Some people are put off by the thought of having to find fuel in remote areas, and/or figure out what it’s called in the local language. But this is largely a hangover from when Google Translate didn’t exist and information on locally-available fuels wasn’t as easily available. In reality, alcohol stoves have happily taken people round the world and into the back of beyond, and will no doubt continue to do so.

3. Multi-Fuel (Liquid Fuel) Stoves

Multi-fuel or liquid fuel stoves are the most complicated and expensive type, designed to pressurise and vaporise many types of liquid hydrocarbon including paraffin (or kerosene), jet fuel (kerosene with additives), diesel, unleaded petrol (aka: benzine), and white gas (aka: Coleman fuel, which is a highly refined kind of petrol).

Two of these fuels are, of course, extremely common on the roadside – petrol and diesel – and it’s this that makes the multi-fuel stove a common choice for long-haul expeditions across many countries or continents.

The liquid fuels are ‘hacked’ into a cooking flame using a pressurised fuel bottle and pump, a remote burner with a hose, and a complicated delivery system that vaporises the fuel by heating it within the fuel line using the stove’s own heat – which is why they need to be primed before use.

This has the side effect of making multi-fuel stoves the best choice for extreme cold, which is why high-altitude mountaineering expeditions always use them – but also means the learning curve for priming and lighting them is a little steeper.

The result is sometimes a bit smelly and messy, but for many decades the multi-fuel stove has been single most reliable way of producing a cooking flame on a round-the-world expedition in all conditions.

The classic example of a multi-fuel camping stove for cycle touring is the MSR WhisperLite International*, which has a whopping 35-year heritage.


Now we’ve looked at the three main types of camping stove for cycle touring and bikepacking, let’s look at specific examples in each category, and see how they can be further subdivided by budget, size & weight, and type of use.

By the way, this is a very comprehensive list. It includes more or less every commonly-used stove I’ve come across in 13 years of riding.

In other words, it is practically impossible that the stove you need for your trip is not in the list below.


Canister Gas Stoves For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

This section highlights a range of tried-and-tested canister gas camping stoves throughout the price spectrum. All of the stoves in this section work on extremely simplistic principles: take in pressurised gas via one hole, and then blast it out of another hole, on fire.

Many of these stoves come in two versions – with or without ‘auto-ignition’, which is basically a built-in spark generator button that eliminates the need for matches or a lighter. Neat idea, but they do have a reputation for being somewhat unreliable, so for long and/or remote trips in the wilderness my advice is to avoid these ‘upgrades’ and pack matches, several lighters and perhaps even a fire steel* instead, so in the worst case scenario you can always light a fire. (If you’re purifying drinking water by boiling, as I once was in Outer Mongolia, this could be critical.)


Cheap & Compact Canister Gas Camping Stoves For Solo Travellers

Small, simple top-mounted burners are a good choice for the solo cyclist on a budget. They work best with smaller pans and coffee pots.

If your tour is confined to Western Europe, you’ll easily find canisters for the cheap and cheerful Campingaz Twister Plus (RRP £25 / Amazon* / GoOutdoors* / eBay*), pictured above. At 263g it’s relatively heavy, but it will support slightly larger pots than the competition. For comparison with the stoves below, it has an output of 2900W.

For UTC canisters, Coleman’s 77g/3600W FyreLite (RRP £25 / Amazon* / GoOutdoors* / eBay*) is a basic and relatively powerful burner that does the same thing as stoves three times the price. It’ll last just as long if properly looked-after. Similar is the 3000W Vango Compact (RRP £20 / Amazon* / eBay*), which I occasionally throw into my own bag for short, solo trips.

Of interest to bikepackers looking to minimise weight is the very affordable titanium Alpkit Kraku (RRP £27), which at 45g is the lightest stove in this section, though less powerful at 2600W.


Cheap & Powerful Canister Gas Camping Stoves For Couples/Groups

Bigger pots are best paired with stoves that have broader supports, wider flame spreaders, and a higher heat output. I’d advise you to find or make a stand to stabilise the base of the canister as well.

Powerful top-mounted stoves do exist, but if size and weight are not critical I would consider a remote burner which attaches to the canister by a hose and sits on the ground for maximum stability.

A good choice in the top-mounted category is the Coleman FyrePower (RRP £39 / Amazon* / GoOutdoors* / eBay*) pictured above, with a big burner and pot stand and a massive 7000W of heat output for rapid boiling.

Another good option here is the Primus Mimer (RRP €28 / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / Ellis Brigham* / eBay*), big and stable but with a significantly lower heat output at 2800W. The Duo version burns both UTC and CV canisters and is a versatile option for tours including Western Europe.

Among remote burners in the budget category, the 2600W/200g Vango Folding gas stove (RRP £30 / Amazon* / Blacks* / Millets* / eBay*) is a solid option and comes officially recommended for Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, though it’s not particularly powerful. You might also try the relatively new but favourably reviewed 3800W/314g Coleman FyrePower Alpine (RRP £50 / Amazon* / GoOutdoors* / eBay*).

Among affordable ultralight remote burners, the 124g/2800W titanium Alpkit Koro is incredibly compact and light, but also much smaller overall than the stoves above – a good choice for two bikepackers sharing gear, though I’ve also used it solo with a MyTiMug and windshield.


Compact Premium Canister Gas Camping Stoves For Solo Cyclists

An expensive stove will not improve your cooking skills, nor decrease the boiling point of water. But the peace of mind that comes with the manufacturer’s reputation (and warranty) may perhaps justify the additional expense, especially if you see this purchase as a long-term investment.

A classic among premium top-mounted gas burners for cycle touring and bikepacking is the 73g MSR Pocket Rocket 2 (RRP £35/$45 / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / GoOutdoors* / eBay* / REI*). It fits UTC canisters, and the burner is best suited to fast boils in narrow-diameter mugs and small pots. The Pocket Rocket is among the most dependable and trusted minimal top-mounted canister burners ever made, particularly among backpackers and thru-hikers, and it’s often favoured by ultralight bikepackers.

Alternatively, the 75g Snow Peak GigaPower 2.0 (RRP $50 / eBay* / REI*) is also recommended for its light weight, build quality and durability. Like the Pocket Rocket 2, it’s on the minimal end of things, suiting smaller pots with a narrower flame diameter; again on UTC canisters only. It’s not so easy to find in the UK, but if you’re in the USA it’s a good bet.


Powerful Premium Canister Gas Camping Stoves For Couples/Groups

As I mentioned earlier, the best stoves for bigger pots and frying pans are remote burners, which are more stable and can put out more power without overheating the canister. These are ideal for feeding more people (or cooking more complicated meals).

What differentiates these premium stoves from the basic models listed above is typically power output, weight, cold-weather performance, and of course brand assurance.

From Primus, the remote-burning 3000W/346g Easy Fuel (RRP £90/€100 / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / eBay*) with auto-ignition is good value for money, designed for cooking for up to four people (or a couple of hungry cyclists).

For a little extra money, the 385g Easy Fuel Duo (RRP £100/€100 / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / eBay*) has a multi-purpose valve attachment for both UTC and CV canisters, which you’ll want if you’re riding in Western Europe.

A similar stove from the USA is the 290g MSR WindPro II (RRP £100/$100 / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / Trekitt* / eBay*), which loses CV compatibility but gains a canister inverter stand and a windshield – two useful features in winter conditions. It’s also a fair bit lighter than the Easy Fuel. As usual with MSR, it can be found cheaper in its native USA than elsewhere.

My final suggestion is the 3700W/178g Optimus Vega (RRP £80/$95 / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / Trekitt* / REI* / eBay*), pictured above, which is the most powerful of the stoves in this list, and also has a built-in canister inverter and windshield, as well as a pre-heated fuel line, pointing again to suitability for cold conditions. It’s smaller than the alternatives, however, and for more than two people a bigger stove might be a better choice.

Lastly, consider that some multi-fuel stoves (see below) can also burn canister fuel, don’t cost that much more, and may prove more versatile in the long term.


Integrated (All-In-One) Canister Gas Stove Systems

Integrated stove systems, aka: all-in-one stoves, have been popularised in recent years by Jetboil, whose Flash (pictured above) is the classic example.

These systems combine canister, burner, windshield and pot, maximising efficiency and convenience of use at the expense of versatility: you can only use the supplied pot or mug, and only specific sizes of canister will fit (usually 90mm-diameter ones, which are not always as easily available as the larger sizes)

As Jetboil’s name suggests, they are mainly designed for rapid boiling rather than cooking, prioritising the needs of hikers in the mountainous backcountry. Just pour in the water, press the ignition button and you’ve got a hot, insulated mug of tea or coffee (or a dehydrated meal) within a couple of minutes. These systems deconstruct and pack into their own pots/mugs, so they’re relatively compact and simple to store, too.

If all of that appeals to you and you’re sure you’ll be able to find canisters – go for it. Remember, however, that many riders grow to appreciate the versatility of a traditional cooking setup in the long run. If you’re bikepacking with frame luggage, their shape and size when stowed also need careful consideration and testing.

The original Jetboil Flash (RRP £110/$110 / Amazon* / GoOutdoors* / Cotswold Outdoor* / Snow + Rock* / REI* / eBay*) has a mug capacity of 1 litre, no flame regulator (it’s either on or off), and claims to boil 500ml of water in 100 seconds. The packed diameter of 104mm is just about bikepacking framebag-friendly, and as with most of these systems it takes 90mm-diameter UTC canisters, the 100g capacity of which fits in the mug for packing. Assuming you can get the fuel, it’d be good for a short solo trip in which you just want to boil water and be done with it.

Also from Jetboil, the MiniMo (RRP £145/$150 / Amazon* / Cotswold Outdoor* / REI* / eBay*) has a shorter, wider pot and a flame regulator for simmering – good, perhaps, for cyclists who want a little more versatility, but to me it seems overpriced considering the competition, and its packed shape won’t suit bikepackers with frame bags.

MSR Windburner components laid out on the ground for display

Other manufacturers have, of course, launched competing integrated / all-in-one stove systems.

MSR’s 1l-capacity WindBurner* (RRP £135/$150 / Amazon* / GoOutdoors* / Alpine Trek* / REI* / eBay*), pictured above, is roughly the equivalent to the Jetboil MicroMo, but can be used with the larger sizes of UTC canister, and it’s cheaper (though still not cheap). Beyond the basic model, you can choose from a variety of upgrade kits* with different sizes and shapes of cooking pot and pan.

(By the way, MSR’s very expensive Reactor* series is oriented towards mountaineering groups and I can see little logic to considering it for a bike trip.)

The Primus Lite+ (Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / eBay*) is the minimalist’s option, with the smallest packed size and weight but only 500ml of water capacity.

At the budget end is Alpkit’s BruKit, which is heavier and bigger when packed, but then it does cost half the price of even the cheapest ‘premium’ integrated stove system – plus you can use the bigger 110mm-diameter UTC canisters. (It doesn’t come with a canister support.)

You can spend a long time ploughing through the specifications to find that these integrated stoves all do more or less the same thing. The differences to watch out for are capacity (ie: how many people you can feed in one go), canister size compatibility, and, if you’re using bikepacking frame luggage, packed dimensions.


Alcohol-Burning Camping Stoves For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

Alcohol stoves aka: spirit burners run on methylated spirit, medical alcohol, and other forms of high-strength (90%+) liquid alcohol, which is widely and cheaply available worldwide from pharmacies and hardware stores.

The classic Trangia is, for many, synonymous with spirit-burning stoves, but let’s look at the range of camping stoves in this category you might consider for a cycle tour or bikepacking trip.

The D.I.Y. Beer Can Alcohol-Burning Stove

One of the best gifts I ever received on the road was a stove made from a single empty Gin & Tonic can. More than ten years later I am still using the same stove, having taken it on bike tours, overnight trips closer to home, festivals, and even used it in city parks while waiting for trains in order to save money on hot beverages.

In 2013 I tracked down the creator of the stove and filmed a short ‘how-to’ video in which he demonstrated in detail how to make it, far better than I’m able to do in words here. It’s had an amazing 3.5 million views, and will probably be the most successful film I’ll ever make.

Making the stove will take you about 10 minutes and requires nothing more than a pocket knife and one empty drinks can. You also get that priceless smug feeling that comes with having a) pulled off a really cool DIY project and b) saved yourself a hundred quid on a WhisperLite.

Other home-made stove designs exist, but this one is the quickest and simplest to build in a pinch. ZenStoves.net is a goldmine of stove information online.

More than one of you? Get a bigger pot, then make three burners and arrange them in a triangle. Windy? Use your cheap foam roll-mat or a couple of panniers as a windbreak.

Compact Alcohol Camping Stoves For Ultralight Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

Alpkit have recently entered the alcohol stove market with the 150g Bruler (RRP £30). As with all Alpkit’s gear, it’s simple, lightweight and very good value, and pairs up nicely with (and fits inside) their 120g MyTiPot 900, resulting in a frame bag-friendly packed diameter of 123mm and a total weight of 270g. The main advantage over the DIY option is the addition of a windshield and a flame regulator. This is a great option for a solo rider looking to save weight and pack size.

Almost as light and slightly cheaper is the 330g Mini Trangia (RRP £30 / Amazon* / Go Outdoors* Alpine Trek* / eBay*) (more on Trangia below), in which a 0.8l pot and a small nonstick frying pan are included. Designed for mountain marathon competitions, it also prioritises light weight and small pack size, occupying just 67mm of width in your frame bag.

Full-Featured Alcohol Camping Stove Systems For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

Trangia have made their name from alcohol-burning stove sets, supplying them for military as well as civilian use – a sure mark of durability. The brand is now synonymous with this type of stove, and there are few alternatives worth mentioning in this category.

Trangia stoves are modular systems, in which you choose the most appropriate size and combination of pots and pans, plus a choice of bare aluminium, hard-anodised or non-stick finishes, to suit your budget and cookery ambitions (you can also buy all the components separately and assemble your own system). They’re far from the smallest and lightest cooking systems, making them a better bet for fully loaded cycle touring than ultralight bikepacking, but they are extremely reliable and time-tested.

Each system includes the burner itself, a windshield and pot stand, and the cookware, and it all fits together for packing in a rather pleasing fashion. Basic systems include two 1‑litre aluminium pots and a frying pan. The most comprehensive packages include 2 hard-anodised pans, a non-stick frying pan and a kettle.

The Trangia 27 series sets (RRP from £60 / Amazon* / Go Outdoors* / Alpine Trek* / eBay*) are advertised for solo or couple travellers in terms of capacity. Given the size of the cyclist’s appetite, however, I’d recommend this series for solo travellers only.

The Trangia 25 series sets (RRP from £70 / Amazon* / Go Outdoors* Alpine Trek* / eBay*) are more or less the same except that everything is upsized for more people. This is a better bet for couples; you could also feed three in a pinch.

A final point about the Trangia systems is that you can swap out the alcohol burner for an optional gas or multi-fuel burner – perfect for those looking to cover all fuel types with a single stove kit.


Multi-Fuel (Liquid Fuel) Stoves For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

The MSR DragonFly on breakfast duty in Swedish Lapland, February 2011.

Multi-fuel stoves are usually considered expedition-grade equipment, made by companies specialising in mountaineering and polar gear. They are expensive but extremely durable and versatile, the default choice for journeys involving extreme conditions (particularly the cold), and can be considered once-in-a-lifetime purchases. It is not uncommon to hear of multi-fuel stoves lasting decades, their owners taking the same trusty old stoves on trip after trip after trip.

Of course, most bicycle journeys are not expeditions. Food and water is globally available on the roadside, and many tours take place in countries where canister gas is widely available.

Usually, then, it’s long-term journeys on the road less travelled – when cooking is more important and fuel is restricted to petrol and diesel – that makes these stoves attractive to the cycle tourer or bikepacker.

Like anything with lots of moving parts, multi-fuel stoves need maintenance to keep them performing well in the long term. This could mean anything from unblocking the fuel jet to cleaning soot from the burner, lubricating the pump cup, or replacing seals and O‑rings.

Although they are simple to disassemble and come with the basic tools and instructions, it is well worth practising routine maintenance before embarking upon a trip of any length.

Fuel bottles are generally not included with stove purchases, the idea being that you’ll choose the size(s) that meet your needs.

As a rough guide, a 600ml bottle will give one person about a week’s worth of evening meals and morning brews. For a pair, the same bottle might last 3–4 days. If you plan on hot breakfasts, more brews, or more elaborate meals, your fuel consumption will increase.

It’s important to note that you’ll need a special fuel bottle designed to be pressurised and fitted with a fuel pump – it’s best to go with one from the same manufacturer as the stove, or to buy a ‘combo’ kit in which stove and bottle are included. Plastic soda bottles can work well as spare fuel bottles, but you’ll still need the pressurised bottle to actually run the stove.

You’ll find plenty of complaints on the internet – always from newcomers to multi-fuel stoves – that the flame is tiny or spluttering, that they singed their eyebrows in a massive fireball, or that they cover everything in soot. Around 90% of the time this is user error; the other 10% is poor quality fuel. Faulty or badly-designed stoves probably account for around 0% of such anecdotes.

This is explained by the fact that there is a steeper learning curve using them (especially priming and lighting them and purging the fuel line after use) than there is for other types of stove. Watch a few Youtube tutorials to save yourself from future embarrassment, fuel leaks, singed eyebrows, and obnoxious rants on the internet.

How Do Multi-Fuel Camping Stoves Differ From Each Other?

Multi-fuel camping stoves diversify into two broad subcategories: those designed to boil water rapidly, and those designed to provide an adjustable flame for actual cookery.

The latter are generally heavier, involve more components, don’t produce quite as much heat, and take longer to learn how to use.

Another difference is the availability of spare parts. On ultra-long-term, round-the-world rides, MSR is probably your best bet in this regard, and your choice is between the WhisperLite International (boil) and the DragonFly (simmer).

What Types Of Liquid Fuel Can Multi-Fuel Camping Stoves Burn?

Most of the stoves in the list below can burn petrol, diesel, kerosene (liquid paraffin), jet fuel, white gas (aka: Coleman fuel), and perhaps more. But the best fuel for your multi-fuel stove is the one you can most easily find on the road.

Being a cyclist, as opposed to a hiker, you will come across far more petrol stations than camping equipment suppliers. And so, globally speaking, the two fuels most easily available to you are going to be unleaded petrol (aka: benzine) and diesel.

Of these, petrol is the cleaner-burning and easier to light. It’ll feel odd the first time you cycle up to a fuel pump, especially if you have aspirations towards zero-carbon travel, but you’ll soon get over it. Diesel and kerosene should be considered your slightly dirtier-burning fall-backs. In remote places where agricultural vehicles and machinery predominate, diesel might be your only option.

Fuel will vary in quality and fragrance the world over, but the only meaningful difference it’ll make will be how often your stove needs cleaning.


The Best Multi-Fuel Camping Stoves For Boiling Water

The following stoves have limited or no flame adjustment features, though you can ‘hack’ them in all sorts of clever ways. (My favourite is to bend the windshield around the pot supports and place the pot on top, as pictured above.)

The simplest in design of all multi-fuel stoves, they are highly versatile, designed to burn almost any liquid fuel, and will boil water in the most demanding conditions.


MSR WhisperLite International

The MSR WhisperLite International* (RRP £105/$100 / eBay* / Amazon* / Go Outdoors* / Alpine Trek* / REI*) is the flagship model in MSR’s multi-fuel stove range, with an incredible track record of more than 35 years, and can be found on the kit-list of many a world cyclist.

Why is it called the WhisperLite? Because, unlike most other multi-fuel stoves, it burns really quietly.

The design is easy to take apart and clean, and while basic tools and spares are included, MSR make an expedition service kit for the stove, which if you’re likely to be on the road for more than a few months is a worthwhile investment.

The flame spreader of the WhisperLite International is large in comparison to some of the other stoves in this list. This makes it better for wider-diameter cooking pots. For the smallest solo cooking pots it’ll spill heat around the edges, burning fingers and melting handles in the process.

If you want to cook simple meals anywhere in the world, to invest in a stove that’ll last a lifetime, and if ultra-minimalism is not your goal, look no further than the WhisperLite International.

If you want to cook anything complicated, however, keep reading…

Important note: Do not confuse this stove with the regular WhisperLite (ie: non-International), which looks the same but burns only white gas, a highly refined type of petrol with a different name in every country and which almost nobody has ever heard of. It’s designed primarily for backpackers in North America.


MSR WhisperLite Universal

The WhisperLite Universal* (RRP £160/$140 / eBay* / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / Cotswold Outdoor* / REI*), also from MSR, is a WhisperLite International (see above) that burns canister gas with a change of fuel jet and hose valve attachment, and doesn’t burn diesel.

In gas canister mode, it allows more flame adjustment than when running on liquid fuel, and could be categorised as a ‘cooking’ stove.

If you’ll be travelling where UTC gas canisters are available (see above), and you don’t mind the extra upfront cost, the only reason to get the International instead is if you’ll be going where diesel is the only available fuel. The Universal is a few grams heavier, but hey, you’re buying a multi-fuel stove, which means you probably have plenty of luggage space, so it probably doesn’t matter.

(I reviewed this stove back in 2012 after using it on a two-month group ride down the West Coast of the USA. The design hasn’t changed since then, so it’s as relevant now as when I first wrote it.)


MSR XGK-EX

The MSR XGK-EX* (RRP £160/$160 / eBay* / Amazon* / REI*) takes the functionality of the WhisperLite International, focuses the heat into a smaller area, and turns up the power to eleven. The result is what for 35 years has been the undisputed king of mountaineering stoves.

The sole purpose of the XGK-EX is to incinerate your noodles as fast as possible in any conceivable weather and circumstances.

While MSR describe it as “the number one choice on expeditions worldwide”, let’s not forget that you’re riding a bicycle, not climbing K2. It’s a somewhat blunt tool, leaving room for little else than noisy, rapid boiling, but it’s included it here in case you’re planning a minimalist bike trip in remote, mountainous, high-altitude backcountry where only low-grade diesel is available. (Which does occasionally happen.)


The Best Multi-Fuel Camping Stoves For Real Cookery (Simmering)

The longer your ride, the more you’ll crave variety in your diet. The following stoves all feature flame adjustment, allowing you to cook an omelette, simmer some vegetables or rice, reheat a takeaway, or do something far more clever and elaborate*.

(In the photo above, we were cooking a chicken curry with sautéed vegetables on the side, using both a WhisperLite Universal and a DragonFly side by side.)

Similar in packed weight and size, multi-fuel camping stoves designed for simmering are slightly more expensive than the stoves above, and they tend to have slightly longer boiling times, though this is unlikely to bother most bicycle travellers.

It is worth noting that liquid fuel (in particular diesel) is not well suited to delicate cookery, and so there is a physical limit to how low a flame you can achieve. Below a certain temperature, the vapourising mechanism will stop working and the fuel will be emitted as liquid, resulting in yellow flames which will cover your gear in soot and make your clothes stink of exhaust fumes even more than they already do.


MSR DragonFly

The MSR DragonFly* (RRP £140/$140 / eBay* / Amazon* / Go Outdoors* / Alpine Trek* / REI*) is a noisier, slightly more expensive stove than the WhisperLite International above, with the same fuel compatibility plus the all-important ability to simmer via an additional flame adjuster control between the fuel hose and the burner.

It functions identically to the Optimus Nova below, and it’s a tiny bit cheaper and significantly more popular worldwide. It’s similar in packed size and weight to all the stoves in this list.

Although it has a slightly narrower flame spreader and a slightly longer boil time than the WhisperLite, it’s built to support a bigger range of pots (up to 10″/25cm diameter, according to MSR).

In other words, the DragonFly gives you options.

Amongst world cyclists in it for the long haul, the MSR DragonFly is one of the most popular stoves of all. I started out with a DragonFly myself back in 2007, and if I was touring alone and out of range of gas canisters, I’d still pack it in my kitchen pannier today.


Optimus Nova

The Optimus Nova (RRP £145/$150 / eBay* / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / Moosejaw*) does the same thing as the MSR DragonFly, except that it looks slightly cooler, is slightly more expensive, and some people will shout on the internet about how much better it is (it isn’t).

Optimus bill their flagship multi-fuel stove as ‘legendary’, which I personally think is more about what its users have achieved than anything about the stove itself, but – like the DragonFly – it does come with the peace of mind of a long-standing reputation.

Why you’d buy the Nova instead the DragonFly comes down to availability, whim, and whether or not you can find a good discount online.

(If you’re craving some specification sheets to look at and compare, you’re wasting valuable time you could be using to brush up on omelette-cooking skills or to teach yourself to tell the difference between diesel and petrol by fragrance alone.)


Optimus Polaris Optifuel

The Optimus Polaris Optifuel (RRP £150/$180 / eBay* / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / Moosejaw*), on the other hand, does manage to squeeze in a meaningful extra feature: the ability to simmer both on liquid fuel and on UTC gas canisters with the same fuel jet – like a more intelligent and better-looking mashup of the MSR WhisperLite Universal and the Dragonfly.

Of course, you’ll pay handsomely for these features, and it doesn’t have MSR’s 35-year reputation for faultless long-term reliability – or that of the original Optimus Nova, for that matter.

I’d choose this over the time-proven alternatives only if you’re comfortable with having a relatively untested piece of gear at the centre of your cook kit, and/or the stakes really aren’t high enough for it to matter.

Otherwise, if you’re buying a stove-for-life, perhaps best to go for a tried-and-tested one rather than something this new.


Primus OmniFuel

The Primus OmniFuel (RRP £190/$170 / eBay* / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / Primus USA / Backcountry.com*) does exactly the same clever new thing as the Optimus Polaris Optifuel: it simmers on both liquid fuel and UTC canister gas. It costs a bit more, weighs a bit less, puts out a bit less heat, and is slightly more readily available.

The OmniFuel is of sufficient renown to have become the staple expedition stove for British Exploring (formerly B.S.E.S.) excursions, winning the OmniFuel a plus point for proven reliability.

If you want the simmering functionality and assured reliability of the DragonFly plus the ability to burn canister fuel and money is no object, this is probably your stove.

Otherwise, save money by getting a DragonFly plus a cheap top-mounted canister burner (see above).

Bonus: How To Get An Expensive Multi-Fuel Camping Stove For Cheap

Multi-fuel camping stoves are a great example of expensive pieces of equipment that people convince themselves they need when they actually don’t.

It doesn’t take long for some buyers to realise that canister gas is much more pleasant to cook with, and that they’re not really going on a massive round-the-world expedition anyway.

The result is that barely-used multi-fuel stoves turn up pretty regularly on eBay, Gumtree, Craigslist, climbing and outdoor forums, Facebook gear exchange groups, etc.

If you do actually need one of these beasts, and you want to save as much money as possible, you’ve little to lose by buying second hand. Even a relatively well-used stove, if it’s been looked after, will keep going for years.


Suggested High-Street Retailers For Camping Stoves

As with most things, camping stoves are usually found cheaper online than in stores. The lowest prices are usually found at eBay* or Amazon (.co.uk* / .com*).

Visiting a physical retail store can, however, be a good way to understand the physical differences between stove types and the options available in each category, even if you then make your purchase online.

In the UK, the basic stoves listed above (from Campingaz, Coleman, Vango, etc) can be found in high-street outdoor shops such as Blacks*, Millets*, Go Outdoors* and Decathlon* in the backpacking/hiking/trekking stoves section. For brands such as MSR, Primus and Optimus, check out the upscale chains like Cotswold Outdoor*, Snow + Rock* or Ellis Brigham*.

In the USA, you probably already know that REI* sells almost everything outdoor-related, usually at the lowest prices, at 100+ locations nationwide, and that becoming a member gets you cashback in the form of a dividend. What you might not know is that they have an outlet for factory seconds and an online used gear store, both of which will save you yet more cash towards your trip.

In Canada, the equivalent to REI is, of course, MEC.

Considered Going Stoveless?

This seems like a good opportunity to remind you that the simplest way to feed yourself on tour is to buy food from supermarkets and bakeries, eat street food and restaurant meals, and skip cookery altogether, losing about half a pannier’s worth of gear in the process.

It’s often a more expensive way to feed yourself – but just for good measure, here are a few simple ways of keeping costs down in the no-stove scenario:

  • Subsist entirely on cold picnic food. It’s all calories at the end of the day.
  • Make extensive use of Couchsurfing or Warmshowers: your host(s) will almost certainly let you use their kitchen, and may well even feed you (though you shouldn’t take this for granted).
  • Most budget hostels have cooking facilities, as do many campsites. Rustic campgrounds in the USA provide fire braziers and might sell firewood.
  • Take a single pan or mug and get good at lighting cooking fires. If this immediately makes you concerned about your environmental impact, know that it’s possible to leave no trace if you know how.
  • As a compromise, consider a Kelly Kettle or similar wood-burning camp stove.

So here you are, 7,480 words later, at the end of my guide to buying a stove for a bike trip. Well done. Give yourself a pat on the back.

Now grab whatever’s closest and go cycling already!