When you’re in the market for a new touring bike, it’s important not to dive too deep until you’re clear about what kind of cycle tour you actually want to go on.
Especially with the current industry trends towards ultralight bikepacking, gravel bikes, touring e‑bikes, etc, manufacturers will work extremely hard to sell you something you never knew you needed.
They’ll even give top-of-the-range touring bikes to professional bloggers so they can pedal across continents while promoting a product that for 99% of people is overkill at best and a waste of travel funds at worst.
If you’re not careful, before you know it you’ll have bought all the gear for a tour that looks little or nothing like the one you originally dreamed of.
So let’s take a break from that and pose three critical questions about your plans and circumstances – where you’re at right now, and what you imagine life on the road will look and feel like for you.
You can do this by talking to yourself, grabbing a pen and paper, jotting down notes on your smartphone, meditating on each question, or whatever form of self-reflection works for you.
Just try not to rush it – this is one buying decision you really don’t want to get wrong.
1. What type(s) of riding are you planning to do?
It’s often said that no two cycle tours are ever the same. But I’ll bet they can all be placed somewhere on the following spectrums:
Will you ride fast or take it slow?
Are you touring short-term or exploring long-term?
Will you be cycling ultralight or going fully-loaded?
Is your route mostly on-road or off-road?
If you’re not clear on where your planned bike tour falls on these spectrums, it might be time to stop reading blogs about bike touring and write down a few thoughts about what kind of experience you actually want to have.
These are the kind of questions that will help determine your choice of touring bike, because the answers will point to different priorities for your purchase – and being clear on your buying priorities is the best way to shine a light through the fog of marketing spiel and the (usually undisclosed) commercial interests of social media influencers.
Back to the original question, the law of averages dictates that most cycle tours are somewhere in the middle of these spectrums.
That’s why the major bicycle manufacturers – Trek, Kona, Cube, Fuji, etc – tend to offer one do-everything touring bike.
The only specialisation of these bikes is that they are generalists, catering for a wide range of bicycle travel scenarios, as manufacturers strive to sell enough bikes to break even in the small and not-very-fashionable niche of cycle touring.
Cycle touring is a traditional and conservative niche, with touring bike specifications changing little year on year. This is good, because it means many touring bikes have a strong tried, tested, and relatively undiluted heritage.
The next basic question is a financial one. Because you have already budgeted for your bike trip, right?
So you already know what the on-the-ground costs of your trip are likely to be, and how much money you’re putting aside for the big equipment binge before you hit the road.
If you’re in the early stages of planning a bike trip, I’m guessing there’s a good chance you haven’t got this far. You may still be wondering just how much you’ll need to spend on the single most important piece of gear of all, so you know what kind of number to put in that budget you’ve been meaning to make.
Well, the good news is that – as with so many aspects of touring – your new touring bike can be as cheap or expensive as you want it it be.
Let’s take a quick look at what you might expect from touring bikes at the range of price points, from next to nothing up to thousands of pounds or dollars.
No-budget or low-budget bicycles for touring & travel
Short of cash? No problem. It’s possible to use almost any bike for touring, as long as it’s about the right size. You will (eventually) get from A to B on the rusty heap that’s been sat in the garage for the last decade. All it needs to do is carry you – and your luggage.
This example is extreme to make a point: you do not actually need to buy an expensive touring bike to go bike touring. A lack of funds should never be a reason not to hit the road.
Entry-level touring bikes for newcomers to cycle touring
Got a bit of cash but still on a budget? Capable touring bikes can still be bought new for well under £1,000 (USD$1,200 or CAD$1,500).
Touring bikes at this price point are considered entry-level. These bikes usually differ from premium models by having cost-saving aluminium frames, cheaper drivetrain components (ie: gearing systems), rim brakes aka: V‑brakes rather than disc brakes (though this is changing), and often only a basic rear rack to carry a pair of panniers.
They are nevertheless designed and built specifically for light touring (sometimes called ‘trekking’ in parts of Europe), often sharing a frameset with models at the higher end of the budget spectrum.
Entry-level touring bikes are often prime for future upgrades for longer and more demanding tours – perhaps after you’ve tried your hand at a short cycle tour a little closer to home.
Premium touring bikes for exploring almost anywhere
Got serious funds for a serious new touring bike? Accepted wisdom is to get the best bike you can afford – without compromising your overall trip budget.
This is the domain of the premium touring bike. The top design priority here is long-term durability, using higher-specification components, framesets built specifically to the rigorous demands of long-term touring, and the highest quality touring-specific accessories (racks, lights, etc) available.
There’s a rich selection of bikes at this price point, and almost all cycle tourists could conduct their travels successfully on any of them. It’s a mature niche filled with capable, tried-and-tested machines, with sensible price-tags and in need of nothing more than some tough panniers and perhaps a nicely broken-in Brooks saddle – and, of course, an intrepid rider.
Expect to spend between £1,500–2,000 (US$1,600–2,200 / CA$2,000–2,800) on an off-the-peg premium touring bike. It will last a lifetime if well cared-for and handle most touring scenarios very well.
Expedition touring bikes for the toughest rides on Earth
Shortly beyond mainstream touring bikes, we find ourselves entering expedition touring bike territory.
This is an obscure and daunting place most commonly visited by riders planning transcontinental or round-the world rides. It is also, however, where riders come to find the holy grail: a unique bike for which every single aspect of the design, build and fit will have been tailored to your exact needs.
Likely prices might start from £2,000 (US$2,200 / CA2,800) for a custom build on a stock frame up to double that or more if bespoke framebuilding is involved. If you’re planning the ride of a lifetime or a lifelong touring career, and you have the necessary funds, it’ll almost definitely be worth the investment.
And I’ve also partnered with Richard Delacour at Oxford Bike Works to offer the Expedition – a line of custom-built touring bikes produced to order in Oxfordshire, England, and designed with exactly this kind of ride in mind.
This bike, in fact, was the prototype that led to the above-mentioned Expedition being launched.
3. Where are you buying your new touring bike?
Don’t forget that not all touring bikes are available everywhere.
Many of the big bike manufacturers have global distribution networks – but their one-size-fits-all touring bikes, by definition, don’t always cater for everyone’s needs.
Smaller, more specialised bike retailers (such as these in the UK) can offer far more in the way of individual tailoring – but they typically operate on a local or regional level, limiting their potential customer base.
This means that the touring bike-buying decision will change with where you’re looking.
Last updated on February 2, 2023, revising the descriptions of some of the apps in this list as they’ve evolved.
While I will always encourage you to make your first cycle tour as low-tech as possible, almost every rider today is packing a smartphone by default. But what exactly are the best apps for cycle touring and bikepacking?
It’s a tricky question. To my knowledge there is no single app that provides a comprehensive range of features for someone travelling by bicycle long-term.
And that’s probably because the cycle touring or bikepacking lifestyle is a complex, multi-faceted thing, taking in an incredibly diverse range of activities and needs. No one app can (or should) serve all of them.
My list therefore represents a suite of apps for life on the road on two wheels.
In other words, I’ll be listing apps that augment all aspects of cycle touring and bikepacking – for example, accommodation and hospitality exchange apps, weather forecasting apps with an outdoor focus, community-generated maps of safe wild camping spots, apps to help with common travellers’ concerns such as budgeting, communication and translation, apps to monitor and conserve battery usage for big days on the road, and an eclectic selection of other apps I’ve personally found useful on long cycle tours.
This is not a list of cycling navigation apps like the ones you’ll find if you search your preferred app store for “cycle touring apps” or “cycling apps”. That list would be hundreds of entries long, and the mainstream cycling media have published plenty of listicles in the battle for search engine traffic anyway.
Smartphone technology moves fast, and the app scene is constantly changing. That’s why – like all my other ultra-detailed posts about aspects of planning a bike trip – I’ve been updating this post regularly since I first published it way back in 2012. My goal for the original post was to answer the frequently-asked question of what the best apps for cycle touring or bikepacking are. This latest version of that list has been curated with the same goal in mind.
I’ve included links to Android and iOS (iPhone/iPad) versions of each app wherever they exist, and broken the list down into eight handy categories covering navigation, weather, accommodation, transport, communication, photography, finance, and everything else.
Know this for a fact: there’s no single best app for cycle touring or bikepacking where mapping and navigation is concerned.
That’s because the industry is young, the growth trajectory is steep, and there’s a ton of competition for this huge and growing customer base.
In any case, you may prefer to navigate with paper maps, road signs, or just following your nose, because – despite rapid advances in digital mapping – there’s still a multitude of ways to conduct a bike trip.
But if you do intend to use digital mapping apps and the navigation features that come with them, and you don’t already have a favourite app that works for you, I would suggest trying all of the following apps to see which one best matches your riding style. Most have free trials or some way to try them out before upgrading to a paid premium version.
Unlike the robot writers of spam blogs about cycling apps, by the way, I have actually used all of these apps on my own bike trips. Here’s my current pick of the bunch…
1. Google Maps (Android/iOS, free)
Why start with the most obvious mapping and navigation in the known universe? Well, because commercial mapping is often your best friend in places there’s money to be made – ie: urban areas. Most bike trips start in, end in or pass through towns and cities where you commonly need to find specific street addresses. This is where the big platforms like Google Maps excel.
In terms of navigation, bicycle-friendly routing is offered alongside directions for motor vehicles in cities across much of the developed world. Where it isn’t, using the walking directions will often offer you a low-traffic route. You can also bookmark places and categorise these bookmarks into preset and customised lists.
The latest versions of Google Maps have incorporated the Street View functionality that used to be the domain of a separate app. I tend to use this handy 360-degree VR imagery if I’m heading for a specific spot in a city, such as a Warmshowers (see below) host’s house or a local bike shop, and want to visualise the location in advance.
In short, if you’ll have good cell service throughout your ride and you’re sticking to paved roads in developed parts of the world, Google Maps may well do everything you need in terms of navigation.
Using Google Maps on a bike tour becomes more limiting when you switch off mobile data or stray beyond the reach of cell service. The app does allow you to download offline maps in the default style, and your lists of saved places will be accessible, but it won’t cache terrain or satellite basemaps, which makes it difficult to judge a route’s elevation profile and impossible to use aerial imagery for following unmapped routes. Nor can it store anything about saved places other than their name and street address, plus any text notes you may have made about them. Many aspects of route planning and directions also depend on being online.
Finally, map coverage remains poor across much of the developing world, and even in remote regions of developed countries where there’s little or no no commercial activity. This is why it’s often worth pairing Google Maps with one or several of the other mapping apps in this list
Pro tip: In the former Soviet Union and in other countries where Russian is the default second language, you’ll usually find that the Russian equivalent to Google Maps, Yandex Maps, has better map coverage and traffic data. As a bonus, the smartphone app is available with an English-language interface.
In the last few years, Maps.Me seems to have fought off masses of competition to become the most popular Google Maps-style alternative mapping app for travellers. And with a wealth of offline functionality, it’s easy to see why.
When you first open the app, you are prompted to download parts of the world region by region, starting with your current location. All of the app’s main functionality will then work offline within these regions. Usefully for cycle tourers and bikepackers, this includes bicycle-optimised routing and directions. This means you can conserve battery power by activating flight-safe mode while retaining the ability to use your phone as a GPS navigator.
On my 2018 trip in Thailand, I used these features daily. Typically, I planned my route by cross-referenced Maps.Me’s routing suggestions with Google Maps’s walking directions, and then used Maps.Me’s offline maps to follow quiet, back-road routes across the country. This combination worked like a charm.
You can also search offline for nearby points of interest such as cafes, grocery stores, lodgings, drinking water fountains, etc – all of which are downloaded with the offline maps. When you’re online, accommodation searches are supplemented with results from booking platforms like Booking.com – indeed, affiliated links to these platforms are a significant part of the app’s revenue model.
Like most of the other apps in the mapping and navigation section of this list, Maps.Me depends on the OpenStreetMap (OSM) database to generate its basemaps. This can make it vulnerable to coverage issues in less-visited and/or less well-mapped regions, although not necessarily any more so than Google. In some regions, you’ll find the mapping is actually better, more detailed, and more up-to-date than commercial mapping platforms, simply because of the strength of the mapping community contributing to it.
If I have one issue with Maps.Me, it’s that the map does not display any topographical data (contours, hillshading, elevation colour coding, etc). This is partly compensated by the elevation profiles generated along with the cycling and walking routes. If detailed elevation data, tracktypes, and other detailed cycling-specific navigation functionality is important to you, however, you may be better off with one of the other navigation apps in this list.
With its raster maps, dated-looking interface, and lack of route planning or sat-nav style navigation features, it may not be immediately obvious why the Android-only app BackCountry Navigator is still recommended for cycle touring or bikepacking in 2023.
For me, the main reason is its ability to download for offline use a wide variety of specialist basemaps beyond the often simplistic vector maps that come with most other modern mapping apps. Preconfigured basemap styles include OpenCycleMap, which (as its name suggests) is an OpenStreetMap-based map style for cyclists, showing cycle-friendly infrastructure and points of interest; OpenTopoMap, which resembles a modern outdoor-oriented printed topographic map; and high-resolution satellite imagery layers from Esri and Bing.
Offline aerial imagery at this level of detail is a rare feature among apps in this list, and riders going off the beaten track to explore off-road, off-grid routes will find plenty of reassurance in having satellite imagery to refer to while navigating.
There’s plenty of other functionality in BackCountry Navigator that will be more familiar to hikers and outdoorspeople, such as the ability to load in GPS tracks in various formats and overlay them on the basemap, as well as keeping a tracklog of your movements if you so desire.
Really, though, it’s the wealth of offline raster maps at your fingertips that make the Pro version of this niche app worth the $20.99 one-time purchase price.
Download BackCountry Navigator Pro ($20.99) for: Android
4. Russian Topo Maps (Android)
Previously known as Soviet Military Maps, this wonderful app has now been renamed to Russian Topo Maps, but it still offers a fantastic mix of genuinely useful topographic and landcover detail and Cold War nostalgia which may hold particular appeal to map nerds (like me).
Produced during Soviet rule and updated every few years until the late 1970s, the scanned sheet maps offered by this app cover the entire world at the 1:100–200,000 scales. In places where OpenStreetMap, Google/Yandex and paper map coverage is sketchy or non-existent, and particularly in the former USSR, these may still be the best maps you can find without raiding a little-known railway depot on the outskirts of Riga in search of the captured wagons containing vast caches of original printed source maps. I wish I’d known about it before that time I went to Outer Mongolia. (Then again, it was 2010, and this app probably didn’t exist.)
The free version allows you to browse these maps and use all of the GPS features, while the paid version allows you to also download the maps for offline use.
Offering some of the most in-depth navigation and route planning features available, RideWithGPS is also the only mapping and navigation app in this list which is built specifically for cyclists (as opposed to the range of outdoor activities catered for by some of its rivals).
The result of this focus is that RideWithGPS has grown into an established favourite in the long distance cycling community, particularly among off-road bikepackers, who often need to plan extremely detailed routes in remote regions. Indeed, Bikepacking.com use it as their preferred platform for delivering their vast library of community-created routes.
The platform has a web interface with plenty of additional screen real-estate, allowing you to plan routes at your laptop and then seamlessly switch to navigation mode on the smartphone app. Once you’ve planned or recorded a route, you can also use the platform’s social features to share it with friends, followers or fellow riders.
As with many apps of its kind, there’s a free version with basic functionality or a premium subscription version currently priced at $59.99/year. Upgrading unlocks the app’s turn-by-turn navigation mode, offline functionality, and a couple of other features you’ll probably find useful if you decide to make RideWithGPS your primary route planning and navigation app.
In short: if you’re keen to plan, track, analyse and share your daily cycle touring or bikepacking activities, and you prefer extreme detail over simplicity in your route planning, RideWithGPS is currently a hot favourite. If, on the other hand, you’re after a simpler and perhaps more passive way to get directions from A to B, you should probably look elsewhere in this list.
komoot (with a small ‘k’) is a relative newcomer to the smartphone mapping and navigation scene. Its particular strength for the cycle tourer or bikepacker is in its automated route planning features, which will appeal to those who want to spend less time poring over waypoints and more time actually riding.
Using one of the most powerful routing algorithms of any of the apps in this list, komoot draws on the OpenStreetMap database and combines it with third-party elevation data to calculate an optimal route via any number of points. Usefully, it allows you to specify variables such as the type of bike you’re riding (road, mountain, touring, e‑bike, etc) and how fit you think you are, resulting in a variety of generated routes and accompanying information on gradients, road surface types, etc.
It has some nice social features, too, which set it apart from competing platforms. Users can submit highlights of places they’ve visited – either specific points of interest or favourite segments of a route – which are then rated by the community and included in future generated routes based on their favourability.
Like RideWithGPS, komoot has a web-based interface which makes route planning a little easier to manage.
All said, komoot is my personal favourite of all the apps in this category when I’m exploring new places – so much so that I’ve published a full review of the app separately from this post.
Weather Forecasting Apps For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
For multiple reasons including comfort, safety and route planning, it’s good practice to check the weather forecast before setting out on another day of cycle touring or bikepacking, or indeed when looking for a place to wild camp.
While there’s no substitute for learning how to read nature’s signs, the following apps will at least help you confirm what you suspect, or highlight something you’ve overlooked when it comes to upcoming weather conditions.
7. Windy (Android/iOS, free)
I’ve tuned into the finer details of the weather in recent years as a result of spending a ton of time in the mountains, where the effects of weather tend to be multiplied. In terms of sheer quantity and range of data, nothing I’ve found beats Windy, which visualises almost every weather factor you could ask for on a zoomable interactive map, as well as generating 11-day forecasts for specific point locations.
As the name suggests, Windy’s featureset was originally designed for outdoor pursuits in which wind is a major factor, such as sailing and surfing. But it’s easy to switch the map overlay to show cloud cover, cloud base elevation, precipitation, ground temperature, and a wealth of other metrics. You can even see isobars and air pressure across altitude bands if, like me, you’re into that level of nerdy detail. When it comes to forecasting, Windy can draw from a variety of models, including ICON for Europe and ECMWF for global coverate.
There is a premium version (£18.49/year) which enables 1‑hour forecast resolution and higher data precision, but in my opinion the ad-supported free version is more than enough for 99% of cycle touring or bikepacking scenarios.
If you’re into making your own forecasts or want an in-depth perspective on what you’re seeing and experiencing, give Windy a data connection and it will give you all the information you could wish for.
Accommodation Apps For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
When you’re ready to stop for the night, here’s my pick of the currently-available apps to help cycle tourers and bikepackers find a bed for the night – whether that be staying with hospitable local people, checking into a nearby hotel or campground, or wild camping for free under the stars.
9. iOverlander (Android/iOS, free/donation)
Though primarily aimed at overland travellers with motor vehicles, iOverlander’s app is incredibly useful to cycle tourers and bikepackers. Why? Because it’s the closest thing to a ‘wild camping app’ in existence.
With an active community behind it, this user-generated global database of points of interest includes vehicle- and bike-friendly hostels, paid campsites, wild/free camping sites, mechanics’ workshops, water refill points, and more. Other apps do exist that aim to serve the wild camping niche, but none as successfully on a global scale as iOverlander.
As with so many community platforms that rely on user-generated content, iOverlander is free and volunteer-run. You can contribute either by making a donation, adding your own content (including reviews of existing points of interest), or both.
It’s worth mentioning that in some countries you may find that another platform has, for whatever reason, gained preference over iOverlander. For example, when I began planning a ride along the New South Wales coastline and noticed that iOverlander content was lacking, a friend told me that in Australia – a country with a huge bush camping culture – WikiCamps was in fact the ubiquitous platform.
When it comes to paid accommodation in many parts of the world, you’ll often find that the Netherlands-based Booking.com features the widest range of hotels and guesthouses, having grown over the years into a global market leader in the vastly lucrative business of online accommodation bookings.
One of the features I like best about it is that you can often book accommodation at extremely short notice, ie: for the same night, as well as being able to search accommodation based on your current location on the map. Google’s partnership with the platform means you can often click through directly from a Google Maps search results listing to the Booking.com app reservation page for that property, making it possible to source nearby overnight accomodation on the fly and with minimal friction.
Be aware that booking platforms like this charge accommodation providers a lot for the privilege of appearing in their listings – up to 15% of the value of the booking. While big hotel chains can build this into their pricing and negotiate for discounts, the impact on revenue for a small accommodation provider can be substantial. For that reason, if you want to help give small businesses a fairer deal, I recommend you do your research on Booking.com or its local equivalent, find the phone number on Google Maps, and then contact the provider directly to make your booking. You’ll often find that guesthouse owners will thank you for this gesture.
Note that in specific locations you may find another platform has gained prominence. In South East Asia, for example, the Singapore-based Agoda often has a bigger selection and better prices.
Low-budget hostels are underrepresented at Booking.com (perhaps because they can’t afford the fees!), but Hostelworld steps in to fill this niche.
Especially in the developed world, you’ll find way more cheap beds here than through the mainstream booking sites.
There’s little more to say – with Hostelbookers having shut down, Hostelworld now holds the monopoly on hostel bookings, and its free app has all the features you’d expect of any accommodation booking platform.
Though it’s by no means the quirky and inexpensive alternative it used to be, AirBnb is still worth checking out, particularly if you want your own self-catering apartment for a few days off, or if you like the B&B experience as it used to be (ie: an actual person hosts you in their home and cooks you breakfast).
Sign up through this referral link to get £25 in credit towards your first stay, then install the app to search for options and make your bookings.
The original online hospitality exchange platform for cycle tourers and bikepackers was Warmshowers. Starting as a passion project, it is today incorporated as a nonprofit organisation based in Colorado, USA, with nearly 200,000 members worldwide. My own profile page tells me I’ve been a member for over 15 years!
The original Warmshowers app was a noble volunteer-led effort. It was recently replaced by a new professionally-built app, which makes searching for willing hosts much easier and has an interface that’s arguably better and more user-friendly than the website itself. The map search function is particularly useful. The trade-off is that using the app to find hosts now requires a small subscription fee – £2.79/month as of the time of writing, which I personally think is a small price to pay for keeping the app updated. Using the web interface remains free, as does signing up as a host.
The distribution of hosts is not exactly even in a global sense, but it’s always worth looking at the map to see who’s about on any given route. Other hospitality exchange networks do of course exist, but none offer the instant common ground you’ll share with people who’ve signed up specifically to host people on bicycles.
While some in the community have noisly abandoned the platform over the introduction of fees to use the app (£2.79 a month? Seriously?), I’ll continue flying the flag for WarmShowers for as long as it exists and I’m still riding my bicycle. I love the spirit of it, and – having some experience of running a nonprofit – I don’t mind lending a little financial support to those who voluntarily keep this community going.
Where WarmShowers hosts have not yet reached, Couchsurfing is still there with its however-many-million users, and if you can be bothered to wade through the oceans of inactive profiles and unresponsive hosts you might still find someone cool to stay with. The lack of a map search is a woeful omission, but most other aspects of the app interface are fine.
Personally, I use Couchsurfing more now to meet travellers and locals for a drink and a wander in a new city than to find a host, for which I either use WarmShowers (see above) or – now I’ve been on the road a few years – ask around my networks and usually end up finding a friend of a friend to stay with.
If you do use it to find a host, make sure they know you’re showing up on a rather expensive bicycle and that you probably won’t want to leave it locked to the fence outside!
Travel & Transport Apps For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
Sometimes you need to take a plane, train or bus to get yourself and your bike from A to B. This could be at the start of a cycle tour or bikepacking trip, at the end, or even in the middle if you’re taking an open-minded approach to where you travel by bike. That’s where the following apps may come in handy.
15. Kayak (Android/iOS)
When it comes to searching for and booking flights, Kayak is my go-to platform these days. As well as extensive search result filtering capabilities, it also usually turns up the cheapest tickets – especially if your dates are flexible, as it’ll search for the cheapest fares in a given month or in a 7‑day window.
Of particular interest to the cycle tourer or bikepacker is the ability to filter by airline, which can make a huge difference at the check-in desk depending on the baggage policy of the carrier in question (a topic for another article, perhaps).
Kayak is mainly just a search aggregator – you have to click through and book elsewhere, though they have started selling tickets direct now too.
This one is a simple itinerary management tool. Allow TripIt access to your inbox and it will pull in confirmation emails for flights, hotels and what have you and spit out a simplified, offline-accessible itinerary with all the details you’re likely to need while you’re in transit.
Communications Apps For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
You’ll be wanting to communicate while you’re on the road, both to the people you meet and to the people back home. Guess what? There’s an app for that…
17. Signal / WhatsApp / Viber / Telegram (Android/iOS, free)
I’ve listed four phone number-based instant messaging apps here because, at the time of writing, three of them predominate depending on what country you’re in, and one of them won’t sell your data (Signal).
You’ll be likely to use these apps for such common travel tasks as communicating with Warmshowers or Couchsurfing hosts; making enquiries with local businesses such as guesthouses, hostels, bike shops, etc; or joining group communication channels with other riders in the areas you’re passing through. Telegram in particular, with its ability to locate groups and users within your local area, can be a good way to connect with other travellers you’d otherwise struggle to meet.
Don’t forget that you’ll also likely use at least one of these apps for keeping in touch with friends and family back home.
Such is the competitive nature of this market that other apps may one day replace those listed here. But for now, if you’re heading off on a bike and you plan to use your smartphone to communicate, you may find it’s best install all of the following:
I’m listing Google Translate here as an aid to face-to-face communication with people whose native language you, as a foreigner, are unable to speak.
It’s more and more common to find travellers realising they can dictate to the app in their mother tongue and have a translation audibly read out to their conversation partner – then simply reverse the direction of translation for the reply. I’m sure it won’t be long before this evolves into near-simultaneous translation, probably via some kind of futuristic earpiece or neural implant.
Translate also allows you to download offline translation dictionaries for a large (and growing) number of languages.
One tip I recently learned is that if you rotate your phone to landscape orientation, the word or phrase you’ve translated will be enlarged to fullscreen, thus allowing you to brandish it at roadside noodle stands while trying to order a stir-fry with ‘no onions’.
Finance & Budgeting Apps For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
Here are a few selections on the financial end of things, which may ease your pedal-powered wheelings (sorry, couldn’t resist) and dealings:
19. XE Currency (Android/iOS, free)
Based on the highly popular xe.com currency exchange website, the XE Currency app will allow you to choose a handful of currencies and convert between them all at the latest mid-market rates.
I mainly find this useful to ensure I’m not getting ripped off by money-changers, but also to watch for spikes in conversion rates that may affect my travel budget (other Brits abroad may remember 23rd June 2016 particularly well).
My travels of late have tended to involve a slightly more complicated financial picture than the ‘spend as little as possible, preferably nothing’ approach of my earlier cycle tours. To track and visualise what I’m spending, I use an expense tracking app called Toshl, into which I spend a few minutes each day putting my expenses.
For someone who was more or less financially illiterate, this has shed a remarkable amount of light on the actual flow of funds through my travel activities and, in turn, helped me adapt my ways to better fit my means.
If keeping track of travel money is a source of stress for you, I would highly recommend starting to use a simple tracking app such as Toshl as the first step towards a remedy. It can also simply produce an interesting summary of the financial aspect of your journeys, which I’m planning to demonstrate in a future article.
The UK’s newest fee-free overseas spending debit card provider, Starling Bank, relies on this app to communicate with its customers. Though technically not just an app but also a bank account, I’m including it here because of its particular relevance to the bicycle traveller looking to keep their overseas card withdrawal and spending fees down.
Download the Starling app and sign up for an account here.
Photography & Media Management Apps For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
Most new smartphones come with absurdly good cameras, sensors, processing algorithms and editing software built-in, so I no longer consider any third party app truly essential in the photography department. Keeping your photos backed up is another story, however…
22. Google Photos (Android/iOS)
My main reason for including Google Photos here is for its automatic backup feature, which upon detecting a WiFi connection will upload in the background all the photos you’ve taken since the last backup, storing them in your Google Storage account.
In its free incarnation, Google Photos used to allow you to backup an unlimited number of compressed photos a slightly reduced quality in ‘storage saver’ mode. Nowadays, only the owners of Google-branded (ie: Pixel) phones get this perk. You can, however, pay to upgrade to a 100GB or 1TB capacity account if you need it. Connect with a compatible ‘proper’ camera, copy the images over, and it’ll backup these photos too.
Recently-added features I also find useful as a cycle tourer and blogger include the ability to search my image library by location and keyword.
But for me, this app is mainly for backing up my images, rather than photography per se (and you do care about having backups, don’t you?).
If you don’t like everything being Google-oriented, the Dropbox app will perform exactly the same backup function for your photos via its Camera Uploads feature, though I find Google’s web interface and in-app editing features more appealing. Again, free and paid options differ mainly in terms of the amount of storage you get.
Finally, I’ve come across many other useful apps for cycle touring and bikepacking that just don’t quite fit into any of the other categories. Here are a few:
24. AccuBattery (Android, free)
AccuBattery will give you detailed stats on your phone’s power consumption, including estimates of how long it’ll currently last with the current fleet of running apps; useful when you don’t know where the next charging opportunity is going to be.
It’ll also prompt you to disconnect your charger at a level that’ll reduce battery wear and help prolong its life – useful if you’re charging your phone on the go with a power bank or dynamo hub.
I’ll probably never learn the constellations unless I actually need to navigate by them, but the (formerly Google-owned) Sky Map app is great fun when you’re lying out under a starry sky and you want to identify what you’re looking at. It’s also great for picking out other celestial bodies when they’re visible to the naked eye.
The apps accompanying the open-source flashcard platform Anki allow you to memorise things effectively on the go, using the scientifically-proven learning technique of spaced repetition.
I find it particularly useful for language learning, memorising words, phrases, letters of new alphabets, etc. The open platform gives you access to shared, community-created ‘decks’ of cards covering most such topics.
The Android app is free; the iOS equivalent is paid and the revenue supports the broader Anki project.
Ride for long enough and you’ll inevitably reach a country where some website or app or service you rely on has been blocked by the government. Pre-empt this by installing a VPN (virtual private network) app and setting it up in advance.
What these services essentially do is make it look like you’re accessing the internet from somewhere else, encrypting your data in such a way that your actual whereabouts is untraceable.
There are thousands of free VPN apps out there. Choose one that’s been audited by a trusted and impartial source with a reputation worth losing. TechRadar have an updated list for 2023. I personally use ProtonVPN*, which is included with my ProtonMail subscription.
That’s it for 2023’s best cycle touring and bikepacking apps! Any I’ve missed that you’d recommend to another adventurous rider?
Wild camping (or stealth camping, or free camping) is the practice of sleeping outside in a place of your choosing, rather than in an officially-designated campsite. Whether it’s legal depends on where you do it, but it’s never fun if you’re found, disturbed, and asked to move on in the middle of the night!
This post is about learning what makes a good wild camping spot, how to maximise your chances of finding one, and then how to maximise your chances of getting away with it!
The legality of wild camping is a hot topic, especially in the developed world. That’s because many lovers of the outdoors (myself included) believe that sleeping on land that was once owned by nobody is a long-understood right at best and a victimless crime at worst – but ultra-rich landowners often don’t agree.
Join landless majority in our conviction (no pun intended), and you’ll have taken the first step towards finding an incredible wealth of free and inconspicuous places to rest your head. You’ll neither harm anyone nor disrupt their livelihood while doing so. And if you do it right, they’ll never know you were there anyway.
How I (& Many Others) Know Wild Camping Works Everywhere
My introduction to wild camping was back in 2007, when crossing Europe by bicycle on a shoestring budget (just over €5 a day) made sleeping rough a necessity.
Arriving in Istanbul at the end of that summer, I was pretty amazed to calculate that during the four months it took me to cycle from England to Turkey, I’d spent a total of five nights in paid accommodation.
Learning to rely on wild camping was difficult and stressful – at first. But soon, discovering that it was not only possible but relatively easy was a true revelation.
Since then, I’ve spent over a decade relying on the wild camping during my travels on six continents. I would estimate I’ve spent more than a thousand nights sleeping under canvas for free in this way. I was far from the first young traveller to have had this realisation, and I thank the practice of wild camping for helping me cultivate a deeper and more personal connection with the world we live in – as well as allowing me to better use my limited resources to travel further and for longer.
How much money could wild-camping save you?
The initial drive to make wild-camping my primary form of overnight accommodation was financial. I had £3,500 in the bank and 800 euros in cash when I hit the road in 2007, intending to cycle round the world over a period of 3–4 years.
If I’d stayed at the cheapest available hostels in European towns and cities, at the time averaging about £10 a night, my first four months on the road would have cost an extra £1,200. That would have been about 25% of my entire trip budget.
Another way to put this is that one good-quality tent costing £300 had paid for itself within a month of cycle touring across Europe. (These days you can get a decent tent for much cheaper than that.)
That’s not to mention that I was no longer restricted to places where accommodation was available. As a cyclist, I spent 90% of my time in the countryside between settlements – which is where all the best wild-camping opportunities are anyway.
Since that first trip, practice has made perfect, and there’s nowhere I’ve not found a free spot to rest at night when I’ve tried.
Some Tips On How To Wild Camp Successfully
Wild camping is often motivated by practical considerations, rather than aesthetic ones. With that in mind, here are some key strategies I’ve developed for finding a suitable place to wild camp, especially if you’re close to civilization and open country is in short supply.
These tips are written primarily with cycle tourers and bikepackers in mind, but could just as well be applied if you’re on a thru-hike or backpacking trip – just as long as you’re carrying a tent!
1. Talk to local people
If you’re unsure about the safety of your surroundings, or whether wild camping will be tolerated, stop and talk to whoever is around. 99% of the time, the people you meet will be very happy to help you find a suitable spot for your tent, and if you’re near a settlement it’s always best to have the locals’ blessing if possible.
Often you’ll find that this will lead to social encounters and occasionally full-blown hospitality, and this is one of the enviable experiences that few but the independent traveller have the opportunity to enjoy.
(If there’s nobody around, of course – great! Wild camping couldn’t be easier!)
2. Know when to stop
If you’re in open country, allow at least one hour to locate a suitable campsite; more while you’re still learning. If you’re in or approaching a town or city, you need to consider whether you need to stop for anything, and if you’ve got time to make it through and out the other side.
You’ll also need time to check the area and set up your camp before dark. Spending a few minutes absorbing the vibe of the area is usually a good idea. If something feels off, trust your gut and move on.
The amount of time you need will depend on where you are – sometimes you’ll be spoilt for choice, but if you’re not in a particularly remote area, chances are you’ll need to keep going for a while before you find the beach/woodland/pasture you’re looking for.
If you’re in a busy area, scout a spot, have dinner, then sneak off to your campsite after sunset. It’s not ideal, but you’re unlikely to be noticed after dark, unless you wave your head-torch around a lot, which putting up your tent in the twilight is a good way to avoid using it.
This isn’t the ideal situation, but often you’ve just got to sleep. Wild camping rarely results in the best campsites you’ve ever slept in, even if Instagram makes it look that way.
3. Get to know yourself better
Wondering why you’re afraid and panicky on your first attempt at wild camping? You’re not alone. Even people with thousands of nights under canvas feel like this – because we as a species have evolved to see potential threats everywhere and avoid them. Our survival in the past depended on our overactive imaginations, which were (and still are) great at cooking up wild fantasies of savage beasts and hostile tribes hiding behind every rock.
The simple truth is that you have to get over it, and the easiest way to do this is to do more wild camping! (Meditation also helps.)
Once you’ve got over the hump, you’ll start seeing potential camping spots everywhere, and boring your friends by incessantly pointing them out.
Yes, there’s stuff living out there – mostly dogs and ants, in my experience (and, if in England, fluffy little bunnies). And if a dog finds you in your nylon cocoon in the woods, it’ll leave you well alone (after stealing your breakfast if you left it outside).
(If you’re American and you’re about to mention bears, you’re right, and you already know how to camp in bear country.)
And humans don’t roam the fields and forests at night brandishing lethal weapons. Why? Because, like you, they’re afraid of humans roaming the fields and forests at night brandishing lethal weapons!
Once it gets dark, people are uninquisitive of anywhere outside the places they know by daylight. (The exception is border guards and other security forces, so don’t camp near them.)
Now, of course, we’ve slaughtered or contained most of the man-eating wildlife and have got used to living in each other’s company, so it’s safe to chill out. I’ve been hiding my tent just out of sight of roads all over six continents for months on end and have never encountered anything more than an invitation to come and sleep somewhere warmer and/or enjoy a glass or two of the local tipple (except for one black bear in Washington).
Actually, you’ll be surprised where you can get away with putting a tent, sleeping rough or blagging a horizontal surface! Sometimes, in ’emergencies’, it’s been fun seeing what’s possible in this regard. I’ve slept in bus shelters, inner-city parks, building sites, roadside verges, subways, empty garages, petrol stations, fishing boats, tramps’ hovels, hotel gardens, under tables, drainage pipes, storage sheds, abandoned buildings – even about five metres from a busy main road in full view of anyone who cared to stop and take a look!
Sure, the last one wasn’t ideal – the mud was really sticky – but I still got my head down undisturbed for a few hours.
Of course, if you’re out in the Sahara or crossing the Mongolian steppe, you can put a tent anywhere you please. The world is your campsite. Enjoy it!
4. Practice the art of invisibility
Not being seen while wild camping is not just a practical concern – if you’re confident in your own inconspicuousness, you’ll also sleep much better. Luckily, there are a few simple things you can do to make yourself as invisible as possible.
The first is perhaps the most basic: get away from anywhere there are likely to be people. For cycle tourers, that means getting off the road and well away from the beams of passing headlights. For hikers, it means going off-trail. Avoid places that are obviously popular stops. A good rule of thumb is to keep going until the litter and used toilet paper stops, then go a bit further.
If you’re planning on sleeping in a tent, try to get one in a natural shade of green. This will serve you well in a wide variety of environments, because if it’s green, stuff grows there, and if stuff grows there, people probably live there, and people can’t see a green tent in a green field at night. (Other colours will get you by as well, just not as stealthily.)
Unstitch any shiny labels on the outside of you tent. Replace the guy lines for ones that aren’t luminous and ultra-reflective. Remember how useful you thought the reflective bits on your bags & tyres would be at night? Well, now they’re useful for showing passing drivers exactly where you are. Make sure they’re facing away from the road, or cover them with Gaffa Tape.
I often bring a dark-coloured poncho on longer trips, as a waterproof in heavy rain, a picnic blanket when it’s sunny, and finally a cover for my bike and gear to keep it dry and inconspicuous at night.
5. Consider alternative sleeping systems
These days I often travel with a bivvy bag. It’s a lot smaller and lower to the ground than a tent, and I much prefer the feeling of sleeping outdoors than that of being cooped up ‘indoors’.
(For the uninitiated, a bivvy bag is a breathable, protective shell for your sleeping bag, ideally roomy enough to slide your mattress inside as well. I personally use an Alpkit Hunka with thin summer sleeping bags or an army surplus Goretex one if I need more space.)
For added protection from the elements, learn to rig up a poncho or tarp as a shelter (or a ‘basha’ in military-speak) using a bit of light cord and/or a few cargo bungees such as the ones that might be strapping stuff to your bike. Slide under this in your bivvy bag and you’ll stay dry even in a downpour. (Again, Alpkit make a good range, or get a cheap army surplus one.)
For the full military experience, you can leave your boots on inside your sleeping bag as well.
In summary: Relax, it’ll be fine
The main message that I’m trying to get across is that you should prepare as well as possible, and then, when you’re on the road, never give up the belief that there’s a place waiting for you, and all you’ve got to do is find it.
That kind of unshakeable faith is one of the most powerful motivational strategies known to man. (See religion.)
Once you’ve got the hang of it – and it will take a few attempts – you’ve got a dependable tool for getting a good night’s sleep anywhere in the world. For free.
Just imagine the possibilities…!
Perhaps you’re an experienced wild-camper already? Why not share your top tips with us in the comments below?
Last updated on February 6, 2023, removing one insurance provider who no longer cover bicycle travel.
This is a detailed post about understanding and choosing insurance for cycle touring and bikepacking trips, both short-term and long-term.
Because I get a lot of questions on the topic of insurance for cycle tours, this article is my attempt to answer all of them in one thoroughly researched post. I’ve written it for anyone planning a cycle tour or bikepacking trip, whatever length, duration or destination you have in mind, and whether it’s your first ever bike trip or you’re just looking for up-to-date information about insurers who cover cycle touring as an activity while travelling.
Later on I’ll make introductions to some of the insurance providers people are using right now for cycle touring and bikepacking trips. There may be a slight bias towards UK-based insurers, as this is where most of my readers call home, but many of the same companies will insure residents of almost any country, so keep reading.
The 2 Different Things People Mean When They Talk About Cycle Touring & Bikepacking Insurance
We all see cycle touring and bikepacking through slightly different lenses. Which lens usually depends on where we came to cycle touring from – usually either a predominantly cycling background, or a predominantly travelling background. This affects how we think about the intersection of cycling, travel, and insurance.
Cyclists tend to think about policies that’ll cover damage to or theft of their bicycles while they’re travelling with them.
Travellers tend to think about policies that’ll insure a range of travel, medical and personal expenses while they’re riding a bike.
This is relevant because these are two totally different insurance products.
One is a special type of bicycle insurance policy.
The other is a special type of travel insurance policy.
Some bicycle insurance policies will also insure a rider for overseas medical expenses. And some travel insurance policies will also insure an expensive bicycle for damage or theft.
But in general, if you want to be covered for accidents and medical emergencies and your very expensive touring bike covered for damage or theft at the same time, you may have to buy two separate insurance policies.
And if you’re looking to cover a 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). Read the full details on their website.
2. Yellow Jersey is a provider of specialist bicycle and travel insurance, with cycle travel policy options covering loss, theft and damage of bicycles, luggage and accessories, medical costs, and other costs in the context of overseas travel with a bicycle. More details in a new tab.
If you’re looking to travel for longer than a month or so, you’re willing to rely on your wits to keep your expensive bike safe, and/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 30–90 days within that year,
many long-term travel insurance policies (aka: ‘backpacker’ policies) do not explicitly 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
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 bikes 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.
Cycle Touring & Bikepacking Insurance Providers
The following insurance providers cover cycle touring (whose definition includes bikepacking) as an activity or will do so on request. They typically won’t insure the bicycle itself for more than the maximum single item value of the personal belongings cover, which is usually well below the price of a new touring bike.
I’ve listed these providers in ascending order of the prices I was quoted when I last updated this post, but you should of course request your own quotes if you choose to follow up.
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. Starting cover is basic, but aspects (including valuables cover) can be upgraded. Visit insureandgo.com.
2. Adventures Insurance specialise in 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. Quotes for long-term cover may require a phone call. Visit quote.adventurescover.co.uk.
3. WorldNomads’ backpacker-oriented policy is available to residents of 130+ countries, can be taken out when you’re already abroad, can be extended online, and covers a range of activities. You’ll need to add Level 2 activities cover for ‘independent cycle touring’, for which personal liability cover is excluded. Intercontinental cycle touring is also not covered. Altogether, this makes a WorldNomads policy suitable for a tour that’ll be taking place on a single continent. Visit worldnomads.com*.
4. Campbell Irvine are often used by participants of 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. During a previous update to this post, I made a phone call to confirm that cycle touring was indeed covered in a leisure (ie: non-professional) capacity, but you should certainly make your own enquiries if in doubt. Visit campbellirvinedirect.com*.
5. The BMC (British Mountaineering Council), who I used for some of my earliest 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. 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.
Indeed, calling a potential insurer direct is my top tip to make sure you get the cover 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 manage your case in a way that also minimises the cost to the insurer.
Unless you’re too incapacitated to fly, this often means you’ll be advised to return to your country of residence as soon as possible. Why? Because your insurance cover can then be considered terminated: you’ve curtailed your trip, your domestic healthcare system takes over, and the exposure to your insurer is limited to the cost of a one-way economy flight, plus any curtailment benefit you may be due. (Depending on your country of residence, this may have implications regarding domestic health insurance too.)
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 safety and security. My bet is that doing so 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.
Last updated on January 18, 2023 with new pricing for 2023-season products. As with much outdoor and cycling gear, retailers are currently struggling to keep up with demand for cycle touring panniers, so some of the items linked to in this article may temporarily be listed as out of stock.
One day in 1884, Thomas Stevens left California on a bicycle, carrying a bag of gold and a pistol rolled up in a blanket, and became the first person in recorded history to cycle round the world.
Today’s bicycle travellers, of course, pack much more gear than that. That’s because we want to enjoy seeing the world, rather than bribing and bullying our way around as Stevens did.
This article is all about how to choose a set of panniers that’ll fit your budget, your style of touring, and the equipment and supplies you’re carrying with you.
It’s based not just on my own 15 years of cycle touring experience but that of countless veteran riders who I’ve cycled alongside and interrogated about their own gear setups, with the goal of creating the most balanced pannier-buying guide possible (no pun intended).
Within the listings of the best touring panniers on the market right now, I’ll include direct links to manufacturers’ webpages and buying links for retailers in Europe and North America (affiliate links are identified with an asterisk (*); click here to read my full affiliate policy).
But I don’t want to assume anything about your prior knowledge, so let’s start by laying out the basics about panniers for cycle touring before we dive into the details.
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 are almost always designed to be used in pairs, for what I hope are 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 panniers (either front or rear) can be plenty for lightweight trips, such as short summer rides close to home with lots of bike shops, resupply stops and other facilities on your route.
You might also use two panniers in the longer term with a minimal approach to packing, especially as camping equipment grows ever lighter. You’ll often see more experienced riders taking this approach, because they’ve spent a long time learning what they don’t need to pack.
Increasingly you’ll also see a hybrid approach, with a pair of small front or rear panniers supplemented by bikepacking luggage such as frame bags, seat packs and cockpit pouches. Panniers can then be removed and stored temporarily for shorter side trips, 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, handlebar bags, backpacks, or other more easily accessible bags which don’t require you to stop and unpack everything just to find one commonly-used item.
Sometimes, in very special cases such as deep winter, desert crossings, or just because you want to bring your guitar and jewellery-making kit, you might consider a 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, say, grocery shopping) come in a variety of sizes, colours andmaterials, and are generally labelled as ‘front’ or ‘rear’. They usually (though not always) are sold in pairs, sometimes with differences between left and right, and sometimes without.
Front panniers tend to be smaller, and for good reason: whatever weight you’re carrying on the front wheel will feed directly into the steering and handling of your bike. Lighter is therefore better, particularly on rough roads.
A typical front pannier might have a 10–15 litre capacity (ie: 20–30 litres per pair). Larger panniers at the front would also be at risk of hitting the down-tube of the bike (or even the ground) when turning sharply, or interfering with disc brakes.
Rear panniers tend to have about twice the capacity; around 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 today, 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 retaining tab on the back of each pannier to hook around the rack tubing and 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 ‘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 design and construction material, there are two main categories of pannier: fully waterproof and semi- or non-waterproof (often aka: “water resistant”).
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 (or sometimes “water-resistant”) panniers are usually made of heavy canvas, with backpack-style lids with zips or buckles, and have some degree of water resistance and/or a waterproof backing 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.)
Some people get hung up on the colour of the material. There’s an argument that using black waterproof panniers in sunny climates will result in your belongings being well and truly cooked. Conversely, some people think high-visibility panniers are better for safety, although panniers of all colours are adorned with the same reflective patches.
Personally, I don’t believe there’s much practical difference. If it’s really that hot, lighter colours will be of limited benefit, and you – the rider – should always be more visible than your panniers. My advice is to choose whatever colour panniers you like… and make a hi-viz vest the first thing you put in them.
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 or free second-hand panniers you can find on eBay*, Freecycle, Gumtree, or get donated or lent to you; add a basic sewing kit, a roll of Gaffa Tape, some cable ties and a few plastic carrier bags, and leave.
Rectangular 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 continents in the same way (see photo above). The REI blog has a lengthy and useful post on making your own DIY bucket panniers*.
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 outdoor retailer (eg: Go Outdoors or Decathlon in the UK, REI in the USA, or MEC in Canada) will demonstrate the endless options in this category.
None can really be said to be better or worse than any other, due to the lack of substantial documentary evidence besides customer reviews (which should always be taken with a pinch of salt, because who exactly are these customers anyway?).
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 as necessary.
Consider buying or making waterproof pannier covers, which are essentially giant elasticated shower caps; they’ll get you to the next shelter (especially 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 budget brands in the UK and Europe include Altura, Topeak, and Elops (Decathlon’s in-house bike luggage brand, which includes the Ortlieb-esque roll-top waterproof panniers pictured below).
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 few things 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 (Poland, £55/£60 front/rear)
Crosso is a Polish company which has been manufacturing panniers commercially since 2006. If you’re based in Europe and can find a retailer, 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, but in many ways this is a good thing, and they will serve you well if you look after them.
The waterproof Dry panniers come in front/universal and rear pairs with a capacity of 30 and 60 litres per pair respectively, with roll-top closures and welded seams, and a choice of 10 colours. (I’ve had a pair of the rear ones for 12 years, which I’m still happily using after a few repairs.)
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.
UK-based 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 very durable 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, and/or you want to support this long-running British maker.
Ortlieb Sport-Roller/Back-Roller City (Global, €85/€95 front/rear)
The City series of Ortlieb panniers is a cheaper, simplified version of the Classic/Plus series usually chosen for touring (see below).
The Ortlieb City range is marketed to commuters, but in reality they are 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 most significant thing you lose is full roll-top closure. Instead, the top buckles attach to clips on the sides of the pannier, and there’s no extra cinch strap over the top (although you can add one afterwards). This is a less flexible setup with a variable sized load, and less waterproof in the case of a pannier being completely submerged.
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 a rear Ortlieb City as opposed to 950g for a rear Ortlieb Classic. And, as mentioned, it reduces the price too.
In my opinion, the extra versatility and feature set of the Classic/Plus panniers is probably worth the extra money if you’re already looking at panniers of this kind of quality. If you’re commuting with a pair of City panniers already and thinking about a tour, however, you’ll get on absolutely fine with them.
Relatively new on the British pannier scene (whoop!) is the waterproof Toliari pannier range from the certified B‑corporation and 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 relatively untested on really massive multi-year expeditions.
Available in two sizes (12/20 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, especially outside the UK.
Buy Alpkit Toliari panniers direct from Alpkit in the UK, with worldwide shipping also available.
MEC World Tour (CA$240/260 20/30l pairs)
Canadian outdoor equipment retail cooperative MEC has been outfitting adventurers since 1971. Their World Tour bicycle panniers, available in 20- and 30-litre capacities for front and rear use, are a solid and reasonably-priced mid-range option.
Simply designed with one main compartment plus a small front pocket, the panniers are water-resistant, although not fully waterproof – MEC does offer optional rain covers if you want more protection from the elements, as well as a wide selection of dry bags for the contents.
The widely-used Rixen and Kaul hook mounting system is easy to work with and compatible with almost all racks and carriers, and the designers have also incorporated extra gear loops on top of the pannier – useful for strapping on extra bits that you might pick up on the road.
If you’re based in or starting a tour from Canada, the MEC World Tour pannier is a decent option if you want something simple, durable and very functional without putting a huge dent in your bank balance.
Buy the MEC World Tour20L or 30L panniers online from the MEC website or at any of their stores in Canada.
The All-Time Best Expedition Panniers For Cycle Touring
Here we’re going to look in detail at panniers that have at least a decade (often two or more) of proven and documented reputation as being suitable for long-haul rides. I’m talking multi-year, round-the-world odysseys with a single set of bags. That kind of ‘long-haul’.
As you might expect, the biggest concern at this end of the market is durability. Panniers take a lot of abuse, and not just the bag material – it’s also where fabric and rack mounts 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 of many 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 Cycle Touring Panniers
Let’s get this out of the way: 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 for most users. 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: the price is competitive and they’re proven to work. You certainly don’t need them, but they’re highly unlikely to disappoint you.
(By the way, second-hand Ortlieb panniers are prime for being snapped up for cheap in early spring, because they’re the kind of thing people buy in January when resolving to start cycling to work and a few weeks later sell barely-used 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 (Global, €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 panniers at the rear of the bike, all in matching his-and-hers / his-and-his / hers-and-hers / theirs-and-theirs 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 them to create more space.
The buckles at the top can either be clipped together, as with a regular drybag, or clipped into a carry strap which then secures to the front of the pannier via a retaining tab near the bottom edge. For additional peace of mind when overloaded, another short strap can be fastened over the top of the closed pannier.
Other useful features include a small handle attached to the rack mounting points for easy attachment and removal of the pannier to the rack, and a removable pouch attached to the backing plate on the inside of the pannier for flat items such as travel documents and diaries.
The current version of the Plus panniers makes use of the QuickLock2.1 attachment system, which is an updated version of Ortlieb’s original system with broader compatibility with the range of racks on the market today (this includes the popular Tubus racks, if you’re wondering). With this system, the hooks are locked in place by sprung retainers, which are released when you pull up on the grab handle for easy removal. Inserts are supplied for different rack tubing diameters to ensure a secure, rattle-free fit.
What distinguishes the Plus series from the Classic series (see below) is the fabric used in their construction: a high-grade Cordura-branded nylon weave which is laminated on the inside. This makes the outer surface almost as abrasion-resistant as a canvas pannier, while remaining waterproof due to the laminated inner. As weave is less dense than laminate, the Plus is therefore slightly lighter than the Classic; 840g per rear pannier as compared to 950g.
Slightly heavier, cheaper and less abrasion-resistant, going for the wipe-clean Ortlieb Sport-Roller Classic and Back-Roller Classic will save you a few days’ food budget whilst still giving you the sleep-easy feeling of ‘having Ortliebs’. As noted above, the fabric used in construction is a lighter and slightly more basic double-laminated polyester. Besides this, every other aspect is the same.
(It’s worth noting that I have never heard of anyone buying the Classics and then later wishing they’d bought the Pluses. Apart from that guy in the comments. There’s always one.)
Buy Ortlieb Sport-Roller Classic panniers online in Canada from MEC (also in-store) or Amazon
Ortlieb ‘Pro’ Variants
The Ortlieb Sport-Roller and Back-Roller Plus/Classic panniers above are available in a further variation: Pro.
What makes them “pro”? 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 a big drybag to the rear rack and only fill it when necessary.
Carradice Super C (UK, £99/£130 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 various touring bikes for 15 years and counting.)
Stitched from heavy-duty waxed ‘cotton duck’ canvas of the type used for military kit and old-school tents, they’re far more resistant to abrasion than waterproof panniers with laminated fabrics or even synthetic canvas. You’ll hear stories of pairs of Super Cs being used for upwards of 30 years, by which time Ortliebs will be straining your tea, so if it’s pure longevity you’re after, they’re some of the best panniers going.
The front (or ‘universal’) panniers have a capacity of 28 litres per pair and, aside from the removable fixtures, are symmetrical in design, with one large main compartment and a small outside pocket in which I might be tempted to store a few snacks. The rear panniers have a capacity of 54 litres per pair, with an outside pocket at the rear. Both sizes have buckled lids with adjustable straps, in addition to a drawstring for the main compartment.
Carradice’s attachment system, based on two self-locking hooks along the top inside edge of the bag and with a retaining tab on the rear, has proven its durability on many a round-the-world tour. The fixtures are very adjustable, making them compatible with a wide variety of racks (adapters are available for rack tubing thicker than 13mm), and enabling them to be shifted back a long way for heel clearance. These fixtures are removable – always a good idea when transporting the panniers on planes, trains and buses.
What they are not is 100% watertight. Although the waxed canvas will keep any amount of rain out, it will eventually absorb water if fully immersed, and the lidded closure system will never be as watertight as a roll-top pannier, as discussed above.
Despite this, they are supremely durable receptacles for the (drybagged) gear you’ll keep inside, and I’ve never come across anyone who regretted buying them.
As an example of an ultra-durable canvas pannier, the Carradice Super Cs are certainly the best in the UK, with one of the longest heritages of any pannier on the market.
Part of a bigger line of commuter and messenger bags, German manufacturer Vaude make the very nice 100% waterproof Aqua touring panniers in front and rear variants.
These are strikingly similar to the Ortlieb Classics (see above), and not just superficially: they are also made in Germany, also come with a 5‑year guarantee, also have a versatile one-handed attachment system, also have inside pockets and shoulder straps, and also have a (smaller) following of satisfied users who’ve taken them round the world by bicycle.
The biggest difference is that they’re slightly larger (despite being about the same weight), with a rated capacity of 28/48 litres front/rear compared to 25/40 for the Ortliebs.
If you’re concerned about your environmental impact (and obviously you should be), you might be interested in the fact that the Aqua panniers are ‘climate neutrally manufactured’, ie: all manufacturing and shipping emissions have been carbon offset, and are fully PVC and PFC free. Indeed, Vaude have put a great deal of emphasis on their green credentials in recent years.
Why don’t more people don’t buy them, then? Simple: they’re not Ortliebs.
Buy Vaude Aqua Front/Back panniers online in the EU from Vaude.com or Amazon
Buy Vaude Aqua Front/Back panniers online in the USA from Amazon
Buy Vaude Aqua Front/Back panniers online in Canada from Vaude.ca or Amazon
Arkel GT-54 (Canada, CA$525 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 range of waterproof panniers, which are of the simpler roll-top design and come in three different sizes. More like Ortliebs, basically.
Buy Arkel panniers online globally direct from Arkel (with worldwide delivery)
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Bonus: The Great Cycle Touring Pannier Waterproofing Debate
There are lots of noisy opinions on the internet about pannier waterproofing. Discovering this ‘debate’ can be worrying for people who are spending several 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 debate 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.
Here’s my take.
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, thus getting you more likes on Instagram.
The extra ‘pannier admin’ involves putting your gear into drybagsinside the pannier (good ones are made by SealLine, 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 ones mentioned above – 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 pretty burned out from discussing the minutiae of bags with hooks on them. Time to grab a bike, tent, stove and cooking pot and hit the road!
Bogged down in research for your next big bicycle adventure?
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