Travel insurance is a genius idea for a business. You buy it hoping you will never use it. When you do need to claim, something in the small print often means you can’t. Then you find out it would be cheaper to pay the costs yourself anyway. Brilliant!
Anyway – enough of my cynicism. 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 up-to-date, thoroughly researched blast of insurance-related advice and recommendations.
I will also make specific recommendations for the best insurers for cycle touring and bikepacking. There’s a slight bias towards UK based companies, as this is where many of my readers are based, 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
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.)
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.
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. For the Nomad Insurance policy I was quoted a reasonable USD$119 for 3 months in Europe and USD$881 for 12 months worldwide. Their Remote Health policy also covers treatment in your home country and does not exclude pandemics such as COVID-19. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 scattered across the country.
And if I’d stayed longer, I would doubtless have called upon one of the thousands of registered Warmshowers hosts in the country.
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.
Every cycle tourer and bikepacker loves to eat. In fact, one of the pleasures of bicycle travel is being able to eat whatever you want, and as much as you like. Ride a bike for a living and your body becomes a calorie-burning machine – one that needs regular feeding!
While a camping stove and cookset isn’t an essential part of a cycle touring or bikepacking kit list, many adventurous cyclists find it convenient and morale-boosting to cook hot meals at camp at the end of a long day, or at least to boil water for hot drinks.
That’s why I’ve always carried a camping stove on my own bike trips, from multi-fuel expedition stoves in Outer Mongolia, to simple canister gas stoves in Europe, and alcohol camp-stoves in the Middle East and former Soviet Union – even a wood-burning kettle on some occasions.
In this detailed article, I’ll help you figure out how to choose between the many different types, makes and models of camping stove for your next cycle tour or bikepacking trip.
To achieve that, we’ll break down the subject into the three main categories of camping stove preferred by cycle tourists and bikepackers, discuss which is most appropriate for you, and look at the most tried-and-tested camping stoves from each category, as attested to by other riders over many years of road-testing.
I’ll include buying links to retailers in the UK & Europe, North America, and Australia (affiliate links are marked with an asterisk; full policy here). Many of the stoves mentioned in this article are available globally from other suppliers.
Ready? Cup of tea to hand? OK – let’s begin.
3 Critical Questions To Answer Before You Choose A Camping Stove For A Bike Trip
As with all equipment choices, clarifying a few simple facts about your cycle tour or bikepacking trip will make your buying decisions 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.
1. Where Are You Going, And For How Long?
The single biggest variable when choosing a camping stove for a cycle tour or bikepacking trip is fuel availability.
For this reason, knowing where you’ll be riding is critical.
This 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 because you’ll buy a camping stove once, but you’ll buy fuel for it over and over again – every few days if you use the stove regularly.
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, Australia 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/or liquid fuel (eg: white gas, kerosene, petrol/benzine and diesel) are likely to be easier to find.
So 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.
Remember also that you cannot bring compressed gas canisters with you when flying, either in checked baggage or in the cabin. You’ll need to buy them on arrival.
2. What Do You Mean By ‘Cooking’?
When you say ‘cooking’, do you really mean ‘boiling water for coffee or instant noodles’?
I ask because simply boiling water can be accomplished with minimal extra equipment or an all-in-one integrated stove like the Jetboil (on which more later).
But if you do want to do proper cookery (see Tara Alan’s excellent Bike. Camp. Cook* to see what I mean by this), you’ll need a versatile and adjustable stove; 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 tasty and varied meals.
3. How Many Mouths Are You Feeding?
It might sound obvious, but cooking more food means bigger pots and a appropriately larger and more powerful stove.
Just as domestic stoves have burners of different sizes, camping stoves are available with a range of pot supports, flame spreaders and heat output ratings, suitable for everyone from soloists boiling a mug of water to couples and groups spending hours preparing gourmet three-course meals with frying pans and steamers.
It’s crucial to match your cookset to your stove, too. A big pot on a minimal top-mounted canister burner will not just be precarious – with 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 need when it comes to using pots and pans of different shapes and sizes.
All done with the three questions above?
Great! Let’s look in detail at the different types of camping stove for cycle tourers and bikepackers.
Canister Gas Camping Stoves For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
Natural gas is the ideal fuel for cooking, which is why most professional kitchens use it. It burns (relatively) cleanly and efficiently, the flame is adjustable, and the pressurised canisters that deliver the fuel make stove design simple.
Light and compact canister gas camping stoves suitable for bike trips can be found in the backpacking and hiking departments of outdoor stores and online retailers, rather than the car-camping or caravanning sections.
They can be subdivided into top-mounted burners, in which the burner is threaded directly onto the canister and placed on a flat surface; remote burners (aka: ‘spider’ stoves) with a flexible hose connecting a gas canister to an external, self-supported burner; and all-in-one integrated stove systems with canister, burner and cookset in a single assembly. We’ll look at each subcategory separately in the listings below.
There are two main types of disposable (ie: non-refillable) canister for camping stove gas – and a third type you should know about if you’re doing a lot of riding in the developing world.
The most common type of stove canister worldwide is the UTC (Universal Threaded Canister, which has an EN417 standard 7/16-inch Lindal B188 self-sealing screw valve. You’ll find UTC canister gas widespread in North America and Europe, as well as in specialist outdoor stores worldwide. They have a capacity range of 110/230g/450g (4/8/16oz) and a diameter of 110mm (4.33″). Some have a narrower diameter of 90mm (3.5″); these are designed for integrated stove systems such as the Jetboil (see below) and tend not to be as widely available.
Another common type of canister, which you’ll often see in Western Europe, is the blue, unthreaded, valve-sealed CV type made by long-running camping stove brand Campingaz, onto which the burner clips, rather than screws (not to be confused with the old-fashioned pierceable cartridges that are still made for older stoves). CV canisters come in 240g (90mm diameter) and 450g (110mm diameter) sizes.
Most stoves fit only one type of canister. Which type is likely to reflect where you bought the stove and therefore what type of canister predominates. A few stoves are compatible with both UTC and CV canisters, and I’ve indicated them in the listings below.
Much noise is made by canister manufacturers about the efficiency of their particular propane/butane fuel blend. I can promise you right now that unless you are camping in deep winter conditions, timing each boil to the second and weighing your canister between uses, you will not notice the slightest difference. The best brand of canister is the one that’s available when you need it.
I sometimes get asked if you can actually refill these so-called non-refillable canisters to reduce waste. The official answer from the manufacturers is no, both for safety reasons and because they want you to continue buying their disposable canisters. The unofficial answer, as a quick YouTube search will show you, is yes. Whether you are comfortable with the risks inherent in playing with pressurised gas is something only you can know.
The third type of camping gas canister is the disposable pure-butane cartridge, about the size and shape of a cycling water bottle. These are mainly sold by hardware stores for refilling lighters or for use with compact blowtorches, as well as for certain larger models of camping stoves more often used by car-campers. The valve is a clip-on, self-sealing type, which can be converted to work with the stoves listed below with a cheap valve adapter from eBay or Amazon*. Globally, these cartridges are a lot easier to find outside of the ‘outdoor gear zone’ (and much cheaper), so if you’re planning a world-ranging trip and you want to maximise your stove’s canister compatibility, it may be worth throwing such an adapter into the bottom of a bag. Make sure you read up on how to use such a setup safely, ie: without accidentally turning your stove into a flamethrower.
Compact Canister Gas Camping Stoves For Solo Bicycle Travellers
Small, top-mounted canister gas burners are a good choice for the solo cyclist. They work best with smaller pans, mugs and coffee pots which won’t make the setup too top-heavy.
The price of the stove will change neither your cooking skills nor the boiling point of water, but if saving weight and space is key, spending a little more will get you an extremely light and minimal top-mounted burner. The peace of mind (and warranty) that comes with a big-name manufacturer may also justify spending more, especially if you see this purchase as a long-term investment.
If your tour is confined to Western Europe, you’ll easily find CV canisters for the classic 180g/1300W Campingaz Bleuet Micro Plus(£25, Amazon / eBay) or the even plainer Bleuet (£15, Decathlon), the entry-level camping stove of choice for decades, widely available on the high street in non-specialist stores. It has a relatively low power output, being mainly aimed at families on holiday and festival-goers who want something cheap, simple and timeless.
UK-based bikepackers looking to minimise weight might favour the titanium AlpkitKraku(£28, direct), which at 45g is the lightest stove at the lower end of the budget scale, though less powerful than the competition at 2600W.
Originating from North America, a classic among premium top-mounted gas burners for cycle touring and bikepacking is the 73g MSRPocketRocket 2(£35/$45, Amazon / Alpine Trek / REI / MEC / eBay). Fitting UTC canisters only, the burner is best suited to fast boils in narrow-diameter mugs and small pots. An evolution of the original Pocket Rocket, this remains among the most respected top-mounted canister burners ever made, favoured by users who need a dependable stove for intensive, long-term daily use. Combo kits including mugs, pots and pans also exist, and it’s widely available in the UK and Europe too.
Another favourite top-mounted premium burner in the USA, the 75g Snow PeakGigaPower 2.0($50, Amazon / eBay / REI) is similarly recommended for its build quality and durability. Like the Pocket Rocket 2, it’s on the minimal end of things, with a narrower flame diameter suiting smaller pots and mugs; again on UTC canisters only.
Large & Powerful Canister Gas Camping Stoves For Couples/Groups On Bikes
Bigger pots are best paired with stoves that have broader supports, wider flame spreaders, and a higher heat output.
Top-mounted canister gas camping stoves of this type do exist, and a couple are listed below, but if size and weight are not critical I would suggest a remote burner which attaches to the canister with a hose and rests directly on the ground for stability.
Aside from price, what differentiates premium stoves from the basic models listed below is typically durability, power output, cold-weather performance, and of course brand assurance and warranty.
A good choice in the top-mounted burner category for cooking bigger portions is the 146g ColemanFyrePower(£39, Amazon/AU / Go Outdoors / Millets / eBay), with a broad burner and pot stand and a massive 7000W of heat output for rapid boiling or bigger volumes. It takes UTC threaded canisters only and is primarily aimed at the UK/European market.
Among affordable ultralight remote burners, the 124g/2800W titanium AlpkitKoro(£48, direct) is incredibly compact and light for its price, but also much smaller than other stoves in this list – perhaps a good choice for two bikepackers sharing minimal gear. I use it solo with a MyTiMug and windshield, as pictured above.
At the top end of the premium remote gas burner scale, the 3000W/346g Easy Fuel from Primus(£90/€100, Amazon / Alpine Trek / eBay) is a popular option in Europe, designed for cooking for up to four people (ie: two hungry cyclists). Like many other premium remote burners, it features a pre-heated fuel line for better performance in the cold.
A similar stove from the USA is the 290g MSRWindPro II(£100/$100, Amazon / Alpine Trek / REI / MEC / eBay), which loses CV compatibility but gains a canister inverter stand, a pre-heated fuel line and a heat reflector – three useful features in winter conditions. As usual with MSR, it can be found cheaper and more readily in its native USA than elsewhere.
My final suggestion for premium remote burning canister gas camping stoves is the 3700W/178g OptimusVega(£80/$95, Amazon/AU / All Outdoor / Alpine Trek / REI / eBay), the most powerful of the remote burners in this list. Like the MSR, it has a built-in canister inverter and windshield, as well as a pre-heated fuel line, pointing again to suitability for cold conditions. It has a smaller flame spreader than the alternatives, however, and for more than two people a broader burner might be a better choice.
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 (see below) 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 often only use the supplied pot or mug, and a limited range of canister sizes.
As the name suggests, they are mainly designed for 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 that appeals to you and 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, shape and size also need careful consideration.
At the budget end is Alpkit’s 1500W BruKit(£45, direct), which is heavier and bigger than the competition 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 comes with a pot stand for use with other cooksets, as well as a canister support for stability.
The 2600W/371g JetboilFlash(£110/$110 / Amazon* / GoOutdoors* / Cotswold Outdoor* / Snow + Rock* / REI* / MEC / 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 framebag-friendly, and as with many of these systems it’s designed for 100g/90mm-diameter UTC canisters, which fit in the mug for packing. These are good on short solo trips on which you just want to boil water and be done with it.
Also from Jetboil, the 1750W/415g MiniMo(£145/$150 / Amazon* / Cotswold Outdoor* / REI* / MEC / 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. Its packed shape likely won’t suit bikepackers with frame bags.
MSR’s 1l-capacity, 430g WindBurner(£135/$150 / Amazon* / GoOutdoors* / Alpine Trek* / REI* / MEC / eBay*) has a flame adjuster, can be used with the larger sizes of UTC canister, and is slightly cheaper than the equivalent Jetboil (the MicroMo). Beyond the basic model, you can choose from a variety of upgrade kits* with different sizes and shapes of cooking pot and pan.
Finally, the 1500W PrimusLite+(€130 / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / eBay*) is the minimalist’s option, with the smallest packed size and weight but only 500ml of capacity in the supplied mug, although supports are provided for other pots and pans.
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, canister compatibility, and, for bikepackers, packed shape and size.
Alcohol-Burning Camping Stoves For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
Alcohol stoves are designed to burn high-strength liquid alcohol. Methylated spirit and surgical spirit (aka: medical alcohol or rubbing alcohol) are the most commonly available, though it’s also found in other forms.
The key is a very high alcohol content – at least 90%, preferably 95% or higher. 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 alcohol-based 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. 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.
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.
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 Solo Ultralight Bikepacking & Cycle Touring
Alpkit have recently entered the alcohol stove market with the 150g Bruler(£30, direct). 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 350g Mini Trangia(£30/€35 / Amazon* / Go Outdoors* Alpine Trek* / eBay*), 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 Groups/Couples
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.
A final point about the Trangia systems is that you can swap out the alcohol burner for an optional gas, gel or multi-fuel burner – perfect for those looking to cover all fuel types with a single stove kit.
Multi-fuel or liquid fuel stoves are designed to pressurise and vaporise many types of liquid hydrocarbons. Two of these are 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.
These liquid fuels are ‘hacked’ into a cooking flame using a fuel bottle with a presurrising hand pump, coupled with a delivery system that vaporises the fuel using the stove’s own heat. Unlike any other type of stove, this is why they need to be primed before use.
Multi-fuel stoves are made by companies who usually specialise in mountaineering and expedition gear. They are expensive but extremely durable and versatile, and the best can be considered once-in-a-lifetime purchases.
Like anything with moving parts, multi-fuel stoves need occasional maintenance to keep them performing well. 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. All come with a basic maintenance kit included; spare parts and more extensive kits are available separately.
Although they are simple to disassemble, it is worth practising at home before embarking upon a trip of any length.
Fuel bottles are not included as standard with multi-fuel stoves, the idea being that you’ll choose the size(s) that meets your needs. You’ll need one special fuel bottle designed to be fitted with the fuel pump and pressurised. It’s recommended to buy one from the same manufacturer as the stove, or buy a ‘combo’ kit in which stove and bottle are included.
As a rough guide to real-world fuel consumption, one 600ml bottle will give a solo rider about a week’s worth of simple evening meals and morning brews. For a pair, the same bottle might last 3–4 days.
Many riders stow fuel bottles outside their luggage for safety and in case of spillage, often in a frame-mounted cage. The BikeBuddy used to be ubiquitous, but the proliferation of bikepacking means many other solutions are now available.
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 not alcohol. As a cyclist, you will probably come across roadside filling stations more often than camping equipment suppliers, so your two most accessible fuels will likely be unleaded petrol (aka: benzine) and diesel. Of these, petrol is the cleaner-burning and easier to prime, but more volatile. Diesel produces more particulates and achieving a simmer is more difficult, but it might be your only option in places where agricultural vehicles dominate.
Dig around and you’ll find complaints from people who claim that the flame is tiny or spluttering, that they singed their eyebrows in a massive fireball, or that their stove cakes everything in black soot. Around 90% of the time this will be user error; the other 10% will be poor quality fuel. Watch a few Youtube tutorials to save yourself from future embarrassment, fuel leaks, singed eyebrows, and obnoxious rants on internet forums.
Simple Multi-Fuel Camping Stoves For Boiling Water On Bike Trips
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.
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 and mugs 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 good-value stove that’ll last a lifetime, and if ultra-minimalism is not your goal, look no further than the WhisperLite International.
Note: Do not confuse this with the regular WhisperLite (ie: non-International), which looks the same but burns only white gas, a highly refined type of petrol. It’s designed primarily for backpackers in North America, where this fuel is most readily available.
All other physical characteristics are the same as the International. In canister mode, the Universal allows more flame adjustment than when running on liquid fuel, and in this mode could be categorised as a proper ‘cookery’ stove, rather than just a stove for water-boiling.
If you’ll be travelling where UTC gas canisters are available, and you don’t mind the extra cost, the only reason to stick with the plain International is if you’ll be going where diesel is the only available fuel.
The MSRXGK-EX(Amazon / REI / Moosejaw / MEC / eBay*) 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 almost 40 years has been the undisputed king of mountaineering stoves, boiling water rapidly 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 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.)
Full-Featured Multi-Fuel Camping Stoves For Proper Cookery (ie: Simmering) On The Road
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*.
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, 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 (£140/$140)
The MSRDragonFly(Amazon / Go Outdoors / Alpine Trek / REI / Outdoorplay / eBay*) 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.
Among 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 (£145/$150)
The OptimusNova(Amazon UK / Alpine Trek / Moosejaw / eBay*) does the same thing as the MSR DragonFly, except that it looks slightly cooler, is slightly more expensive, and some people will make a lot of noise 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.
(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 (£150/$180)
The OptimusPolaris Optifuel(Amazon / Alpine Trek / Cotswold Outdoor / Moosejaw / eBay*), 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).
I’d choose this over the time-proven alternatives only if you really need to burn both diesel and canister gas with the same stove and you’re comfortable with having a relatively new piece of gear at the centre of your cooking setup.
Primus OmniFuel (£190/€215/$170) / OmniLite Ti (€240/$200)
The 375g PrimusOmniFuel(Amazon / All Outdoor / Alpine Trek / Cotswold Outdoor / Primus USA / MEC / eBay*) does exactly the same thing as the Optimus Polaris Optifuel: it simmers on both liquid fuel (including diesel) and UTC canister gas. It costs a bit more, weighs a bit less, puts out a bit less heat, and is slightly more widely available than the Optimus, especially in North America.
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, the OmniFuel is probably your stove.
Otherwise, you can save loads of money on the ability to burn both gas and liquid fuel by buying a DragonFly and a cheap top-mounted canister burner to go with it.
Still struggling to choose?
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Bonus #1: 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.
Bonus #2: How To Go Cycle Touring Or Bikepacking Without A Stove
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 traceif 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 stove is closest to hand and go cycling already!
Over the last decade or so, I’ve become known as someone who cycles alone on unknown roads for vast amounts of time. This year, however, I broke the habit of a lifetime and went on a very different kind of ride.
The biggest difference wasn’t that I’d pre-designed the route, or that it was entirely off the paved roads. No – it was that I would be joined by a team of bikepackers from around the world. As the route designer and resident expert on Armenia, I would – for the very first time – be playing the role of a guide.
In this edition of my retrospective series on the ride, I want to talk about the unexpected lessons I gleaned from taking on this role.
Because doing something for the first time is always challenging. And it’s when you’re challenged that you find the best opportunities to learn. Right?
Lesson 1: I actually like riding with other people
By most measures I score pretty highly on the introvert scale. So while I do enjoy the company of other people (because introvert ≠ misanthrope), it quickly drains my energy, and if I don’t adequately manage my energy levels I bottom out. The result is a burning compulsion to run away and hide.
This is especially true when I have to ‘keep up’, so to speak, with extrovert personality types. So I was apprehensive about spending two weeks with a bunch of total strangers. I would have to be present and available at all times to deal with any situation that might arise, as well as being hopefully decent enough company. A daunting prospect, then, and perhaps one reason I’d never been particularly keen to guide a trip before.
Of course, it wasn’t that bad at all. Cycling is still an independent activity, even when you’re doing it with other people. It was pretty rare that all eight of us were within sight of each other. And, this being Armenia, we spent vast amounts of time huffing and puffing over yet another steep and unforgiving mountain pass – ample time in which to rest our social muscles and give our bodies a good workout. The ride quickly organised itself into a slightly stop-start series of mini rides. We’d regroup every hour or so but otherwise do as much or as little interacting as we wanted.
A couple of pre-emptive measures helped. In the first place, I figured I wouldn’t be the only one in the group who’d prefer a bit of space when they needed it. So I set the ride up as more as a loose tribe of companions than a tight-knit peloton following a leader. Everyone had the route on GPS units and phones, and could stay with the group as little or as much as they wanted, as long as we regrouped at overnight stopping points. The average experience level of the riders was high, so this approach worked well.
The second factor was that I only advertised the ride to my followers. After 13 years of blogging, I’ve noticed that my style of writing retains the attention of like-minded readers who resonate not just with what I say but how I say it. So I was pretty sure that the people who signed up for the ride would naturally include a fair proportion of quiet introverts, and that if I took measures to manage my own energy levels, it’d probably suit them pretty well too.
Finally, I didn’t involve anyone else in organising the logistics of the trip. Route planning was entirely on me, as was organising accommodation and planning resupplies. I did this in what I think was a more or less invisible manner, planning long for a variety of scenarios and having my fixer on the end of the phone to finalise arrangements. I love the idea of collective decision-making as much as any other lefty liberal, but I knew this aspect of the trip would work best if I did it on my own – which is generally how I prefer to operate in any case.
The group turned out to be a real mixed bag of personalities, but the one thing we all had in common was the ability to operate independently. This meant that the routine aspects of the trip – riding, navigating, camp-craft, bike maintenance – just happened. In the meantime we could all enjoy each other’s company – or, if we wanted, fall back and ride alone.
And what that meant for me was that – in spite of my misgivings and worries – I really enjoyed riding with the group. For a long time I’d seen bike trips as a way to maximise my independence, unshackled from the demands and differing opinions of others, able to craft my direction precisely as I wanted it.
Turns out there’s another way to do it, involving a lot more camaraderie – especially as the trip matured and we all got to know each other a bit better – yet retaining the sense of freedom that makes travelling by bicycle such a beautiful thing in the first place.
And a big part of that is, of course, having a well-developed route like the Transcaucasian Trail to follow.
Lesson 2: Riding with others provides (much-needed) motivation
Now. I will confess. Another of the reasons I love to ride solo – or with one very close companion – is that I can get away with being really lazy.
For quite a long time I found myself in the top five slowest cyclists in Tim Moss’s Long Distance Cycle Journeys database. This is because I tend to view the bicycle as a means to an end. And if that end is spending long mornings over coffee, or snoozing under a tree after an epic lunch, or taking three weeks off to go Couchsurfing in a new city, then so be it.
Though I could easily blame other commitments, the reason I didn’t ride the route sooner was a lack of urgency and motivation. Don’t forget that I’ve been actively designing it since the RGS and Land Rover-sponsored Transcaucasian Expedition of 2016, in which I mapped out large chunks of what I one day hoped to ride. But it was always something I would do in the future. It took seven other people coming to Armenia to actually get me out the door.
The itinerary I’d set for the ride also wasn’t an easy one. Sure, the statistics pale into insignificance compared to adventure races and the achievements of those who win them. But it kept the team very busy – particularly before the unconditioned (me) had begun to catch up with the seasoned athletes.
So thank you, fellow riders, for giving me a reason not just to organise this ride for you, but to ride it myself. Because it’s no joke to say that you gave me the motivation to ride the trans-Armenia mountain bike route I’d spent literally years imagining.
Lesson 3: Off-road biking is way more demanding on gear than I realised
I knew this style of riding would place a lot more stress on my bike and gear than a road tour. However, as I wrote in my previous post, I was entirely unprepared for the extent to which this would be true.
This wasn’t just my hilarious string of bike-based tribulations. Oh, no.
Rich’s lustworthy Prospector, which drew admiration on a daily basis, suffered a broken Rohloff shifter mount that had to be fixed with zip ties and Gaffa Tape.
Chris’s beautiful Dragonslayer developed a worrisome amount of play in the sliding dropouts (which later necessitated a warranty replacement), and also lost its rear braking power altogether.
Pete’s tubeless Transmitter suffered a large number of messy punctures which eventually had him reaching for the emergency innertubes.
And Ed’s old-school 456 got well and truly taco’d on a thumping rocky descent, for which I had to dust off my wheel-building skills and get all twangy on the spokes.
The bike that suffered least was, in fact, Nick’s Oxford Bike Works Expedition, which suffered nothing more than a damaged sidewall when the tyre was scraped too closely past a rock, easily booted with a square of toothpaste tube (classic fix).
Lesson 4: Even the most independently minded travellers sometimes like guidance
Back when riding (and writing about riding) was my full-time occupation, I’d often be asked if I’d consider becoming a guide.
And the answer was always ‘no’, because one of the inherent attractions of travelling by bike – at least from my perspective – was venturing blindly into the unknown and… not just surviving, but experiencing a journey unclouded either by your own preconceptions or by other people’s interpretations of what you experienced.
After a few years of this, I learned that you always carry your preconceptions with you, by bike or otherwise, and that they run a lot deeper than the superficial, sensory impressions most people mean when they talk about preconceptions.
And in the absence of other people’s interpretations of your experience, you often invent your own hopelessly naive explanations to fill the void. These rarely tend to be exposed for what they are until you spend quality time with someone with a lot more knowledge and a much broader perspective – after which you feel enlightened, and perhaps find yourself wishing that person were there more often to help you make sense of things. In other words, you wish you had a guide.
What this trip helped me realise is that the best kind of guide is the one who might as well be another member of the group, but with the crucial difference that they can – when appropriate – help others interpret and understand their experiences.
This is a world apart from that more visible and widespread kind of tour guiding (about which I find it far too easy to be cynical) in which tourists are herded around like livestock between a series of sights, experiences, buses and hotels, with zero autonomy and with most explanatory spiel recited from a script.
Indeed, there seems to be a generous amount of space between guided tourism and independent travel – a space I can see the value in exploring.
Because – trip logistics aside, and while I don’t want to put words into anyone’s mouth – there seemed little doubt that my presence enhanced the experiences of everyone who participated because I could help them make sense of it.
It seems that living on and off for more than a decade in Armenia, speaking the language, and literally writing the book about the country made me quite well qualified to play this role.
This could even become a skill with which I could – gasp! – actually earn some money.
Lesson 5: The hard work paid off
Some tweaks are still required, but I can say in all truthfulness that this route – while tough – is in fact an absolute blinder.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Logan at Bikepacking.com for providing the proof of concept and for allowing me to input on his plans. The route he recce’d overlaps in several places with what we eventually rode.
While I’d eventually like this to be part of a mountain bike-friendly version of the full Transcaucasian Trail, I’m also hopeful that the Bikepacking.com page can be updated with the improvements we tested and grow into the classic trans-Armenia route.
Whichever way it goes, look out over the winter for the resources needed to replicate the ride. If you’ve even the slightest inkling to ride out here next year (perhaps because Ryanair will finally be flying to Armenia?) and you’ve got 2–3 weeks to spare, I really can’t recommend it enough.
On a related note, many readers have asked if I’ll be running the same trip again next year.
I would love to reply with a resounding ‘yes’, but the truth is I cannot. You see, I’m drawn to experimentation, rather than repetition, as I feel this is how progress is made in the world, at every level from the personal to the global. I rally against doing the same thing again on principle. So it’s time for others to take the route we’ve created and do what they will with it. And I’m more than happy to help facilitate that.
What I’d really love to ride next year is something similar but in southern Georgia, following the Lesser Caucasus Mountains from Batumi to the Armenia–Georgia border and resulting in a true Transcaucasian Trail mountain-bike route being along the whole range. That is something that well and truly passes the ‘hell, yeah!’ test.
Decisions, decisions. I’ll let you know in the New Year…
These bikes all fitted the current vogue for adventure bikes – all-terrain geometry, tubeless fatties on big wheels, mounts and braze-ons aplenty. They were all damn fun to ride. And deliciously tempting. Because, as every cyclist knows, the number of bikes you need is always n + 1, where n is the number of bikes you already have.
Then something happened.
A friend of mine, who happens to be an environmental campaigner as well as a long-distance cyclist, collared me after my talk about the time I’d rescued a bike from a scrapyard and pedalled the length of England on it for £0.25. My friend thought it was a great example of minimising wastefulness by reusing discarded products, and how the world didn’t need any more new stuff; that our hobbies and passions shouldn’t be exempted from the principle of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’.
Yes, everyone who doesn’t own a bicycle should probably get one, as the world needs more people riding bikes, she said. But people like us would do well to ask ourselves – whenever the moment comes – “do I actually need another new bike?”
I found myself nodding in agreement as we wandered back over to the Ghyllside Cycles gazebo to drool once more over the Karate Monkey. And then I saw my own hypocrisy.
No, I did not actually need another new bike.
Four months later, in September this year, I rode the length of Armenia off-road on the 2007-vintage Kona Explosif steel hardtail I’d originally built for my first big bike trip, way back before this whole bikepacking thing blew up.
So this article is going to be a bit of a nerdy one.
Because I’ll be going into a vast amount of detail about how I rebuilt this old Explosif for a tough bikepacking expedition, and how it actually fared on the ride itself (spoiler alert: a lot of things broke), with the goal of answering the question – how far can you push an old bike like this before it really does need replacing?
Assessing The Original Bike: Which Bits Still Work?
As you might imagine after so much fully-loaded world touring over so many years, the bike wasn’t exactly in mint condition.
The chromoly frame had accumulated a good share of dents and chips, including a big dent in the head tube from a memorable over-the-bars moment in eastern Turkey.
I also found a crack in the rear drive-side dropout, probably from jack-knifing my trailer too many times. But because it was a steel frame, I could get it repaired and resprayed (by Argos Racing Cycles in Bristol, if you’re wondering, who did a very professional job).
The bike suffered big crash a couple of years back when I broke my own unbreakable rule of never letting anyone ride my bike. It came back with the gear hanger bent and the derailleur smashed into several pieces. Oops.
It was then that I discovered – unsurprisingly – that Kona had stopped making spare gear hangers for this frame… ooh, about seven years ago?
Cue a lot of hunting around on internet forums, whereby I found a fabricator in Israel who specialised in one-off replacement gear hangers for old MTB frames. It wasn’t cheap, but that CNC-machined piece of metal meant I had a frameset which was was once again ready to ride Earth.
What I Changed, And What Stayed The Same
I was impressed by how many of the bike’s original components still seemed serviceable after 13 years – testament to choosing durable parts in the first place when building an expedition bike.
The wheels were almost entirely original: Sun Rhyno disc rims on Shimano XT disc hubs using 36 plain-gauge DT Swiss spokes per wheel, hand-built by Leisure Lakes Bikes in Coventry.
I do remember replacing the rear freehub body on a roadside somewhere in Turkey, and the loose ball bearings have been replaced many times. Unfortunately the rear hub races were pitted and rumbling, but I figured the hub would still make it from one end of Armenia to the other.
The only thing I replaced on the rear wheel was the rim tape, which had become misaligned and warped over time: I found some heavily discounted Nukeproof stuff at good old Chain Reaction Cycles that did the job.
And the front wheel was as good as new; it didn’t even need truing.
Sure, the wheels were way heavier than they needed to be for a ride like this. But did I really need a new wheelset? No, not really: they still went round when I pedalled.
I took off the old Marathon XRs – may they rest in peace – and fitted Schwalbe Hans Dampf 26x2.35” tyres – not because they were the perfect bikepacking tyre but because they were the fattest compatible knobblies at the biggest discount I could find at the time.
Really, these were enduro tyres, prioritising traction and puncture protection over weight and longevity, but I figured they’d actually be pretty appropriate for the kind of terrain we’d be covering.
Almost unbelievably, much of the original drivetrain was still going strong.
The Shimano 8‑speed trigger shifters hadn’t been touched since the day I installed them – the rear one skipped a shift occasionally when it was cold, probably because the grease was old and gummy, but no big deal (and I couldn’t find replacements anyway).
The ISIS crankset and two of the chainrings had now done tens of thousands of miles, as has the front mech, but seemed to be in good nick. The middle chainring – by far the most used of the three – had worn too much to play nicely with a new chain. With the ISIS system dead and buried, I had to very carefully file down the inside edges of a new Shimano 32-tooth chainring to make it fit the crank bolt mounts.
At the rear end of the drivetrain, the XTR derailleur had been running as smoothly as day one; I think I may have once replaced a bushing in one of the jocky wheels. The cassette – an 8‑speed titanium XTR model that cost a fortune but proved incredibly durable – had a little play in the rivets yet barely any discernible wear.
But the crash had not only smashed the derailleur but snapped off several sprocket teeth. Game over for the cassette.
Off it all came. Onto the freehub went a Shimano 8‑speed Megarange cassette with a 34-tooth big sprocket and a long-cage Alivio derailleur. Re-cabling was necessary, so I fitted full-length Jagwire outer sheaths, and finally got the opportunity to fit the Alligator inner gear cables I was given in 2013 while on a press trip in Taiwan.
I’d removed the original Chris King headset to install on Tom’s Expedition Bike, putting in a generic cage-bearing replacement to tide me over. Big mistake. When I removed the fork, fragments of the bearing cage literally fell out of the head tube.
In went a brand new FSA cartridge bearing headset, with a little help from a DIY headset press. The FSA was considerably more expensive than a generic headset, but would last years longer than a throwaway model.
The fork was the only really expensive new component on the bike.
For years I’d been running a Magura Odur 100mm coil-sprung fork, heavy but bombproof – it had helped considerably with comfort and control off-trail in places like Mongolia. In retrospect I should never have sold them on eBay, but I needed the money (I was living in London, riding the frame as a city single-speed while failing to make a living as a travel writer out of the RGS Members’ Room).
In any case, I found the perfect replacement: an end-of-line Fox Float 32 L. This used to be a top-end cross-country fork with a price tag to match. I was lucky to pick up a new 2015 model at a massive discount, the industry having moved on to wider-diameter bolt-through axles and tapered steerer tubes and other such new-fangled gubbins. It was lighter and plusher than the Odur, and (being air-sprung) easy to adjust the sag for different loads – all the better for bikepacking.
I’d attempted to bleed the front brake once, more out of curiosity than necessity, and only succeeded in making it more spongy by the time I gave up. I’d replaced the rotors once, and the brake pads perhaps two or three times, but aside from that they’d been running for over a decade and survived all the touring I’d done without issue. The pads looked like they had plenty of life in them, and the Fox fork was a disc-only model, so I kept them as they were.
The handlebars, stem and pedals had been changed so many times over the years I’d lost count. I never seemed to get it quite right, and was beginning to suspect that my body may have been mutated in some unreconcilable way.
For this trip I mounted some generic XC riser bars on a short-ish stem atop a stack of spacers, raising the handlebars for comfort and making space for a decent sized cockpit bag. I borrowed the Ergon GP‑1 Biokork grips off the expedition bike – they’re expensive, and I’m too stingy to buy two pairs when I can swap one pair of lock-on grips between bikes.
Build complete, I took it out on a few test-rides in Armenia in the weeks before the expedition, adding a full suite of Alpkit bikepacking bags and tweaking the rig as close to perfection as I could.
And you know what? Despite being more than a decade old and composed mainly from obsolete parts, that wizened old Explosif was as much of a joy to ride as it had ever been. Loaded up, it felt light and nimble yet reassuringly sure-footed on the challenging trails of the Lesser Caucasus. And I can honestly say that it was far more satisfying to recycle this sentimental old hardtail than to splash out on a swanky new one. Cheaper, too. Bonus!
When the time comes to ride, of course, a bike like this needs to do its job and stay out of the way while the adventure unfolds.
In the case of Bikepacking Armenia, that isn’t what happened at all.
I knew from experience that off-road riding increases wear and tear on a bicycle by orders of magnitude. Shocks and vibrations dislodge bolts and fixtures and expose weak points in any luggage setup; abrasive mud and dust eat away at exposed mechanical parts; technical riding introduces forces of a type and strength entirely unlike road touring.
But I was still unprepared for the extent to which this ride would completely trash my bike.
What Happened When I Actually Rode It
The expedition began pretty well. All of our bikes made it to the start line by Lake Arpi National Park, undamaged by transit. And though the early-September weather was unseasonably crap, with wintry winds bringing sleet and hypothermia and the team wearing every available layer beneath their waterproofs, my newly rebuilt bike took it all in its stride.
Until Day 4, that is.
I’d been spinning uphill for a few hours along a wet gravel road when we reached a junction. Beyond the junction, the road dipped for a hundred metres or so before continuing its climb. I let go of the brakes to freewheel, enjoying the sudden momentum. Then came a loud metallic crunch, followed by an ominous clockwork clattering. I braked hard and adjusted my pedal position in order to stop – or at least I tried to, but the cranks were locked in place. And I knew immediately what had happened.
A twisted tangle of metal greeted me as I squatted. Bits of my new Alivio derailleur were distributed between the spokes of the rear wheel in an attractive and unusually symmetrical pattern.
Three thoughts flashed through my mind at this point.
The first was mystification: how could this have happened while freewheeling on such an unremarkable stretch of road?
The second was a quick calculation: we were too deep into the mountains to turn back; it was just as well to continue over the pass and down to the next town, even if that meant pushing uphill for a few hours.
And the third was the memory of imagining this precise scenario when I’d very deliberately selected, for my original round-the-world adventure, a frame with sliding dropouts.
Within an hour of the incident, I’d got a singlespeed bike, a few spare chain links, and a mangled rear mech as a souvenir. And we packed our tea-making equipment away continued to ride.
Of course, the bit between the junction and the pass was by far the steepest section of the climb, and I did indeed end up walking most of it. But descending slip-and-slide down the rain-sodden valley on the other side, through ‘the most mud I’ve ever seen’ (as one rider put it), endless cattle wades and multiple river crossings, my low-torque singlespeeder – ironically – fared better than the fancy 1x drivetrains and Rohloffs the other riders were running.
And in the next town, my man-behind-the-scenes Ashot met us with a brand new 8‑speed derailleur he’d picked up in Yerevan for $25, along with the crate of workshop tools and spares we’d prepared earlier.
My second serious mechanical issue reared its head as we climbed out of the Aghstev valley and traversed the ridgeline towards Lake Sevan, topping out at a respectable 2,700m.
As the altitude increased, so, it seemed, the performance of my front brake decreased. It took a little while for me to make the connection between braking power and elevation. But over the course of the day, this inverse correlation became obvious.
I am sure someone will offer an explanation of what happens inside a poorly maintained hydraulic brake line as outside air pressure changes. As a layperson, my best guess is that my previous attempts to bleed the brake had in fact put more air in the system, and somehow this was causing a loss of power at altitude. Pumping the lever eventually became second nature, and longer stints of braking seemed to bring back a little bite, perhaps due to heat causing the hydraulic fluid to expand. But in any case, I ended up tackling many of the highest and most remote sections of the route on the rear brake alone.
(When I was eventually reunited with the tools and spares, I did put a new set of pads in, and this seemed to help a little as the pistons pushed back and forced out a little of the excess air.)
The third mechanical was the really catastrophic one.
In retrospect, it was long overdue. I mentioned that I’d last replaced the freehub body in Turkey with a generic Shimano-compatible unit. That had been 12 years ago. Since then, I’d flushed the internal grease out with petrol to avoid it solidifying on a winter ride through Arctic Lapland – after which, these units not being user-serviceable, I’d forced some light oil through it and left it at that.
I guess you could say I’d got my money’s worth out of that freehub body when, on the morning of Day 8, the internal ratchet system gave up and ceased to engage altogether, causing my pedals to spin fruitlessly on the driveway outside the Sevan Writers’ Residence where we’d been staying.
Now, there is a roadside fix for this. It involves tying the cassette to the spokes with cable ties or wire, losing your bottom gear, and riding fixed-gear until you get to a bike shop. But we were about to embark on a four-day backcountry traverse of the Geghama Mountains, which would be by far the most remote and high-altitude stretch of the route. And I really didn’t fancy doing it on a fixie.
Luckily, I’d arranged a resupply that night at the mountain lake where we planned to camp. Off went the riders, with Pete taking over guiding duties, while I strapped my broken bike to the roof of a passing Volga and took a lift to Yerevan with a single mission: find a new rear hub – or, failing that, a new rear wheel – and be back with the group by nightfall.
While the picture has changed since then in that high-end bikes and parts are now more widespread, the same rule still applies: the cheapest and thus most commonly found bicycles in places like Armenia are still the same Chinese ‘spam bikes’ with 26-inch wheels, because what’s new doesn’t reflect what people in poorer countries still ride.
The first shop I went to, MyBike, is actually one of the best in Armenia for high-end bikes and parts. Of course, they still had a few generic 26-inch rear wheels lying around in the back of the workshop, because people still want them. In the time it took for me to go and get a pizza for lunch (sorry team!), they’d disassembled my broken rear wheel, rebuilt the rim onto a Shimano-compatible 8‑speed rear freehub, re-indexed the derailleur, repositioned the brake caliper, and put it all back together – all for the equivalent of about $40.
Which is exactly why I’d specified a 26-inch mountain bike wheel with mid-range Shimano hubs in the first place.
The final unexpected mechanical issue I experienced on this ride came down to a simple error of judgement on my part. I’d underestimated how much extra work the brakes would have to do on this challenging off-road route. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I began to hear that dreaded scouring-scraping sound from my rear brake caliper on the descents. Now I was riding with a flaky front brake and a rear brake that would destroy itself in minutes if I used it!
In the end, I settled for the technique of deliberately overheating my front brake to bring back a little of its failing power and control the final descent of the trip – but then, with an elevation drop of over 2,000 metres as we plummeted down to the Iranian border, my front brake had magically returned to service by the time we reached the valley floor, pedalled along the river, and found the guesthouse in Meghri that signified the end of Bikepacking Armenia.
So what did I learn from all of this? More pertinently, was my decision to upcycle an old, obsolete mountain bike for such a tough endeavour a wise one?
In the end – and I’ve written about this before – it’s about your wit, not your kit. By definition, on an adventure, your circle of control is limited: you can do all the planning and preparation you like, but in the end you have to submit to the whims of the world and deal with what’s thrown at you.
There is a spectrum of preparedness, I think, on which different individuals feel comfortable at different points. And where you fall tends to be related to the level of confidence which will allow you to begin the endeavour in question – the point at which you accept that you’ve done all you reasonably can and just go.
Over the years, I feel I’ve traversed much of this spectrum, from excessive over-planning on my early trips to somewhere near the other end, where I am more or less happy to grab what’s lying around, walk out the door, and see what happens.
What happened on this trip illustrated that gradual change in attitude quite neatly. On one hand, my obsessive attention to detail when building the original bike paid off when, over a decade later, so many things went wrong, as I was able to fix the problems on the roadside or with a quick dash to the nearest bike shop.
On the other hand, it was making peace with uncertainty later on that allowed me to reappropriate this trusty old bike for a task that was – quite honestly – way beyond its designed capabilities, and ultimately to complete the expedition alongside riders on much ‘better’ bikes.
So now, in retrospect, and with more bikepacking trips coming up – do I actually need another new bike?
Honestly? I still don’t know…
Huge thanks to Chris Goodman for the fantastic additional photos. (Which ones exactly? Well, if I’m in it, he probably took it…)