As a student at the University of Exeter I once joined an annual fundraising event known as the Amsterdam Hitch. Travelling in pairs or groups, participants would have 24 hours to hitchhike from southwest England to the Dutch capital, spend a couple of nights ‘recovering’, then take a prearranged bus ride home.
This, one of my first overseas adventures, did not gave me a particularly broad or revealing insight into modern Dutch culture.
For one thing, I and my hitching partner Natalia only got as far as a truck-stop on the outskirts of Ghent, Belgium, before giving up and jumping on the train.
But mainly it was because I wasn’t travelling by bicycle.
Because the Netherlands only really makes sense when you’re on two wheels. During the later decades of the twentieth century, this former imperial maritime power literally rebuilt itself around cycling. Entire city blocks were bulldozed to make way for new cycling infrastructure. There’s a fascinating short film on Youtube of how this all came to pass. (If you don’t have time to watch it, it can be summarised as the outcome of prioritising quality of life over economic efficiency.)
Today, there exist in the Netherlands more kilometres of cycleway than motorised carriageway, more bicycles than cars, and in many towns and cities a higher proportion of journeys by bike than any other means. Where a bike path crosses a road, the cyclist always – always – has the right of way. Many Dutch only consider driving (or other motorised transport) if cycling is impractical, which is rarely.
You hear about this a lot – it’s what the Netherlands is famous for – but it doesn’t hit home until you’ve been there. And it was four years after the Amsterdam Hitch that this unemployed graduate with dreams of cycling around the world discovered that the Dutch experience went much further than almost being hit by a tram while staggering along a canal in search of a hostel whose name he couldn’t remember.
I had cycled across England to Harwich and taken the overnight ferry to the Hook of Holland, rolling off the boat and onto the LF1 Dutch long-distance cycle route (also part of the EuroVelo 12 North Sea Cycle Route), riding through dunes and beaches and seaside towns on traffic-free paths – a luxurious change from sharing English country lanes with impatient van drivers.
I remember wondering when the cycle paths would run out, as they inevitably always did, and the tedium of road riding would begin.
Ninety kilometres later I arrived in Amsterdam. And I hadn’t left a cycle path.
Amsterdam wasn’t the obvious routing. My two friends and I were ultimately heading for Spain, where we planned to ride the Camino de Santiago before looping east and reaching Istanbul before winter.
There were, however, two good reasons for us going there.
The first was that I’d hitchhiked to Amsterdam four years ago and dimly remembered it being fun.
The second was that Mark had ordered a new saddlebag from the UK to be delivered poste restante, and we had to go and pick it up.
Now, if I’d bothered to read an article with a title like “Tom’s Guide To Cycle Touring In The Netherlands” before we’d done this, I might have learned that there was no shortage of very well-stocked bike shops in Amsterdam, and that one of them would probably have a saddlebag.
Given such a revelation, ordering bike parts to the Netherlands would have felt a bit like ordering tea to India.
I knew the visa requirements for crossing Central Asia, the options for passing the Darién Gap, and which border points between China and Mongolia were open to foreigners. Yet at no point while planning my round-the-world bike trip had I realised that the gear to do it could be bought along the way.
The relevance of this anecdote, dear reader, is simply to restate that the Netherlands is a country in which you can simply turn up and spontaneously begin a cycle tour. It is, by all accounts, one of the most convenient nations – if not the most convenient nation – in the world to explore on a bicycle, or tricycle, or tandem, or any other pedal powered machine you can imagine.
In fact, if you’re planning a long ride starting in Europe, you could do worse than begin from the Netherlands. Some of the most reputable expedition bike brands – Koga and Santos perhaps the best known – have Dutch origins, and their bikes can be found widespread. And because the Dutch are not just a nation of cyclists but of cycle tourists, you’ll find all the standard touring gear here too.
Gaining momentum across the country, we three young British lads on overloaded mountain bikes seemed to ignite a certain compassion in the hearts of the rural Dutch.
(This was in spite of having ceremoniously shaved our heads and inadvertently taken on an appearance normally associated with members of an outlawed brand of militant fascism.)
Friendly locals welcomed us to camp in the gardens of their family homes, to sleep on narrowboats, and to eat dinner with them, sharing with us – in perfect English – the simple stuff of life.
On one memorable occasion, a couple invited us to sleep on their garage floor, seeing as it was raining outside. The wife later revealed that her husband was a professional plumber and that he had installed the mother of all showers in their en-suite bathroom. Would we like to use it?
Pulling back the cubicle door revealed an extravagant control panel which not only allowed one to specify the water temperature to a tenth of a degree but also activated an array of coloured lights, music, horizontal water jets from multiple angles, and great blasts of steam from hidden orifices. I have been searching for a showering experience to match it ever since.
The rain continued, and we quickly realised that the Nederlanders’ love of cycling was not dependent upon perfect riding conditions. Yes, the thing about the country being completely flat is more or less true; the highest point on the mainland is a lowly 322m above sea level, and our biggest climbs were generally to the top of a dike or out of a subway tunnel.
But the wind – the wind was sometimes so relentless that simply inching forward felt like pedalling uphill in granny gear. And it was usually, of course, a headwind. Add horizontal rain to the mix and we quickly discarded the notion that cycling across the Netherlands wouldn’t be tough. As for sidewinds? Wearing ponchos? Forget it! Better to stop in a café and wait it out.
When it was nice, though, the Netherlands was really nice, with a lot more protected areas, forests and nature reserves than we’d expected, reachable only by off-highway cycle paths. And in general, the Netherlands was familiar enough that we could ease into the groove of long-term travel. Yet I was soon yearning to press eastward into less familiar territory – which of course says more about my 23-year-old self than it does about cycle touring in the Netherlands.
I resurrected my wild-camping routine, this time with a hammock, though I never did find any of the Paalkamperen, a little-known but apparently wonderful network of designated free camping sites scattered across the country.
And if I’d stayed longer, I would doubtless have called upon one of the thousands of registered Warmshowers hosts in the country.
But all too soon I was riding down that very same LF route to the Hook of Holland and boarding that very same ferry to Harwich – this time able to afford the occasional coffee along the way.
Yes, it’s a trope often trotted out in travel literature, but the Netherlands really is a cycle touring utopia. And – as I discovered at both ends of a rambling world tour – that goes for total newbies and a hardened adventurers alike.
Landelijk Fietsplatform, the official Dutch organisation for recreational cycling, maintains a very informative website (in English) all about cycle touring in the Netherlands.
Choosing the best tent for your cycle tour or bikepacking expedition is difficult because there’s so much choice! Ultralight tents, freestanding tents, 3‑season or 4‑season tents, double wall or single wall, with or without awnings or footprints – and at prices from next to nothing up to hundreds (even thousands) of pounds or dollars. Which of these tents is right for you?
When you’re a newcomer, it’s natural to look for recommendations when choosing a tent for cycle touring or bikepacking. But before you get bogged down with what other people think is the best tent (which always seems to be the one they bought or were given by a sponsor), here’s one important thing to remember:
‘Best’ means nothing outside the context of your bike trip. Every ride is different.
So ask yourself:
Are you looking for a long-lasting tent for a transcontinental trip, or something cheap for a few weeks of summer adventuring?
Are you a couple who like plenty of living space and room for your luggage, or a minimal solo rider?
Do you have racks and panniers to take bulky and heavy loads, or are you bikepacking with ultralight gear?
Do you plan on staying at nice campsites, or wild camping in the woods after dark?
Will it be a fair-weather ride, or will all-season and/or winter use be involved?
There are a few tried-and-tested tents for cycling adventures that have proven themselves on a massive range of journeys.
But if you want to delve any deeper, you’ll find there’s no real ‘best tent for cycle touring or bikepacking’ until you know the answers to the basic questions above.
If you haven’t asked them of yourself, now’s the time to do so. Perhaps read my posts on the what, where, when, who and how of cycle touring. Then come back to this article.
Know what kind of bike trip you’re going on now? Great! Read on…
What Types Of Tents Are Good For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking?
I’ve spent a long time – too long, probably – looking at the trends over the years.
And I can tell you that the most popular kind of cycle touring or bikepacking tent for one rider is generally a freestanding, double-walled, 2‑berth, 3‑season tent in an inconspicuous shade of green, weighing 1–2.5kg (2–6 pounds), and strapping nicely to a rear rack or a handlebar harness, with room inside for the rider and the most important bits of their luggage.
For a couple, it’s generally the 3‑berth model of the same tent.
And for a solo bikepacker, it’s generally the 1‑berth model.
If you were short of time and you asked me to pick just one tent that ticks all of these boxes, it would be the 2‑berth MSR Hubba Hubba NX. (Click here to scroll down to the details).
I’ve used and abused many tents in the MSR Hubba range over the years, including a 2014 two-berth Hubba Hubba NX, a 2012 one-berth Hubba, and a 2010 three-berth Mutha Hubba HP. (I still own and use all of them.)
If you don’t have any super-specialised requirements and you’re looking for a top-quality tent you can simply grab and ride out the door with, the Hubba NX range is what I’d recommend.
How Do Tents For Cyclists Differ From Tents For Hikers & Backpackers?
Before we get into cycle touring and bikepacking tent listings, for the benefit of readers coming from a hiking/backpacking background I feel it’s important to explain how the priorities for cyclists differ slightly from walkers.
The biggest difference is that packed weight and volume is (usually) less of an issue for cyclists.
On a bike tour, you have a vehicle to carry your gear, rather than shouldering the burden yourself. This means – generally speaking – that you can safely consider slightly bigger, heavier tents that will allow you to live more comfortably, fare better in bad weather, last longer, and probably be cheaper to buy.
Long-distance thru-hikers in particular are concerned with minimising their loads. Unless you’re an ultralight bikepacker, you probably won’t be sharing that concern. (But in case you are, there are several suggestions below for ultralight tents for bikepacking too.)
A second difference is that cyclists tend to camp close to roads, not on backcountry trails. This brings with it totally different priorities when it comes to visibility.
Many hikers prefer to be as visible as possible in a mountain landscape in case of needing assistance. Cyclists, on the other hand, typically want the opposite: to be able to wild camp undetected, close to civilisation.
A List Of The Best Cycle Touring Tents In 2020
OK, theory lessons over – let’s get down to business!
The following listings represent a collection of tents specifically recommended for travelling by bicycle by experienced riders, fully updated to reflect the latest models and prices for 2020.
We’ll start with low-budget tents for short and simple trips, visit some of the most popular all-rounder tents in the mid-range, and work our way up to uber-tents for people on worldwide bike tours of many months or years.
We’ll also look at a few specialist tents suited to the weight and pack size restrictions faced by off-road bikepackers with frame luggage alone.
For each tent, you’ll find links to manufacturer’s websites where you can get detailed, up-to-date specifications. I’ve also included links to online retailers in the UK and USA I’ve found offering the best deals (full disclosure: affiliate links are marked with an asterisk*).
These are not the only tents that’ll do the job. But I can tell you from 13 years of worldwide bike-tripping experience that they are representative of what riders are using out there today.
Vango Banshee Pro 200/300 (UK, RRP £155/185)
Vango’s Banshee Pro range of 3‑season tents is a step up in quality and features, coming in a good shade of green for wild-camping and providing ample living and storage space while remaining on the lightweight side of things. Two- and three-berth versions are available under the 200 and 300 model names. The 200 is ideal for a soloist at 2.39kg, and the 300 at 2.82kg is good for a couple.
(The same naming scheme is used for other tents in Vango’s range, of which the Soul is also recommended as a budget option and the Mirage at the higher end.)
Being a British brand, Vango is very well represented in the UK, both on the high street and online, though their tents my be harder to find elsewhere.
The RRP for the Banshee Pro 200 is £155, and you’ll be able to find them cheaper online from outlets such as Go Outdoors and Amazon*. The 300, with an RRP of £185, can also be found at Amazon* and Go Outdoors.
As an alternative, the Coshee range by Wild Country (see below) is similar in design, name and price point.
Wild Country Zephyros 2 (UK, RRP £200)
Wild Country is the budget marque of the premium British manufacturer Terra Nova. The 1.85kg Zephyros 2 takes more than a little inspiration from Hilleberg’s Akto, a favourite high-end tent for minimalists since it was popularised by TV outdoorsman Ray Mears. It requires staking out at each end, but you get a lot of space for a reasonably low weight and with a single pole supporting a single-pitch structure. Not a lot of awning space, though.
Britain’s favourite direct outdoor gear retailer Alpkit has made a splash in the bikepacking and cycle touring scene as well as with the mountaineers and climbers, with the Ordos 2 and Ordos 3 tents now almost as popular as MSR’s Hubba series (see below). I used one myself on a traverse of the central highlands of Armenia.
With 2- and 3‑berth models available and a choice of a red or green fly, these ultralight tents – just 1.3kg for the 2‑berth and 1.6kg for the 3‑berth – are roomy, practical, well-ventilated, easy to pitch, and reasonably priced, with the wedge design echoing the long-standing Vaude Hogan (see below) and Big Agnes Seedhouse. Not quite freestanding but close enough for almost all real-world purposes, they do well in warmer weather.
As with all ultralight tents, longevity is not a design priority, and I would be surprised to see these last more than a season without noticeable wear and tear.
Order the Ordos 2 (RRP £270) or Ordos 3 (RRP £310) direct from Alpkit in the UK. As with all their gear, buying direct from their website or one of their stores is the only way to get it.
REI Quarter Dome 1/2 (USA, RRP $299/349)
If your tour is beginning in the States and you need a new set of camping gear, you’d do well to head to the nearest branch of REI when you arrive. This well-known outdoor co-op manufactures a range of top-rated gear and sells it without the third-party mark-up, so you get a lot for your money.
Their freestanding Quarter Dome SL range, available in 1‑berth (1.3kg) and 2‑berth (1.7kg) versions, was the most popular cycle touring tent range among Stateside riders in my latest community poll.
If you’re on a tight budget, don’t mind a little extra weight, and still want the REI brand assurance and warranty, check out the heavier yet significantly cheaper Half Dome 2 Plus.
MEC Spark 2.0 1/2 (Canada, RRP CAD$ 320/420)
Looking for a suitable tent for a bike trip originating in Canada? Look no further than the Spark 2.0 dome tent from Canadian gear co-operative MEC.
The 1.75kg 2‑berth version of the Spark will house you and your partner, or just you if you want a bit of space, at a very reasonable weight for the price. A 1‑berth model is also available for minimal soloists, and a 3‑berth model for couples who like plenty of space.
With two doors and two vestibules for easy access and extra storage, the 3000mm waterproof, 30D polyester ripstop fly will protect you from the most obnoxious of North American springtime downpours. And because the Spark 2.0 is designed in-house by Canada’s largest gear co-op, it also works out considerably cheaper than similar-looking tents from better-known brands, and is covered by MEC’s famous ‘rock solid’ guarantee.
The MSR Hubba NX series (click for the EU/USA* versions of MSR’s site) is indisputably one of the all-time most popular series of tents among global cycle tourers and bikepackers, as mentioned in the introduction.
The range, which features 1‑, 2‑, 3- and 4‑berth models, has been updated several times over the last couple of decades, and today strikes a delicate balance between weight and durability. The US models come with a grey outer tent, but in Europe, green versions are also available (I’d recommend the green for better wild camping).
Many solo fully-loaded cycle tourers and lightweight bikepacking pairs/couples go for the 1.7kg two-berth Hubba Hubba NX for ample living space and a double entrance awning.
Couples with a full luggage setup tend to prefer the spacious 2.3kg three-berth Mutha Hubba NX.
Ultralight solo bikepackers usually go for the 1‑berth Hubba NX with a minimum packed weight of 1.1kg.
Expect MSR tents to last many years if well looked-after, with top-quality weatherproofing, well-designed ventilation, superb build quality, and super-easy setup, with a variety of pitching options for different climates. Riders love the generous headroom, the inner mesh pockets, the vast luggage awnings, and the low packed volume and weight.
If you’re in the USA you can order them direct from the MSR website, but a better value option is REI, who stock the full Hubba NX range in-store and online, including the 1P Hubba*, 2P Hubba Hubba* and 3P Mutha Hubba*. Adding a $20 lifetime membership to your cart will get you 10% of the tent price back as a dividend later on.
In Canada, you can find the full MSR Hubba range in-store and online at MEC, and of course on Amazon.
If weight is not of utmost importance, and you’re looking to save money, but you still want a quality tent from a reputable brand, the heavier and slightly more spacious MSR Elixir range (EU/USA* webpage) has a very similar freestanding dome design and range of sizes, including 1‑, 2- and 3‑berth models, for significantly lower prices compared to the Hubba equivalents. While more basic, you can expect these tents to last at least as long as their more expensive brethren.
In Canada, MEC carry most models in the Elixir range, as do Amazon.
Vaude Hogan UL (Germany, RRP £430)
Another tent that has stood the test of time, German brand Vaude’s classic Hogan UL 2‑berth tent was, back in 2007, my first decent tent of any kind. I rode across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Mongolia with it for four years, so I guess you could say I’ve put it through its paces (read my original review here). Then my brother inherited it and subjected it to another few years of abuse. It’s still standing 13 years on.
It’s not the lightest, nor is it truly freestanding, but it is extremely durable, waterproof, and stable in bad weather, with a decent-sized porch and a nice natural shade of green available for the fly, and it’s pretty portable at 1.9kg.
A British design that’s been doing the rounds for decades, the freestanding classic Voyager is likely the long-term favourite among round-the-world tourers from the UK, in part because Terra Nova don’t feel the need to change the design of or discontinue perfectly good tents at random (like certain other manufacturers seem to do), allowing the tent to build up a second-to-none reputation.
Weighing in at 2.2kg, top-class construction, weatherproofing, liveability and extreme durability is the order of the day here.
The most lusted after (and expensive) tents for long-haul trips for which durability is the key consideration are undoubtedly those in the Nallo range from Swedish tentmakers Hilleberg.
They’re not the most lightweight, nor the best choice for hot climates, but they do have an unmatched reputation for quality and longevity. Hilleberg have long resisted following the trend for ever lighter and more flimsy materials: these tents are among the most tried and tested in the world and will last – literally – for decades.
The Nallo 2 (2.4kg) is recommended for solo tourers, with the Nallo 3 GT (3.1kg) delivering luxury on-the-road living for couples and their luggage.
Other Hilleberg tents often seen on the road include the minimalist 1.7kg Akto for soloists and bikepackers (see the Wild Country Zephyros above) and, for couples, the freestanding and spacious 3.3kg Allak 2. The Swedish brand predictably makes excellent winter tents, with the 2.4kg Soulo standing out.
The following tents are included in this list as examples of shelters that have either been developed with bikepacking in mind or crossed over from backpacking and thru-hiking circles – in any case, tents that have found favour in the bikepacking community.
You’ll also find some of the lighter tents from the list above – such as the Gelert Track 1, the Alpkit Ordos, the MSR Hubba NX, and the Hilleberg Akto – making their way onto bikepacking kit lists, possibly in stripped-down form.
Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo (USA, RRP $200)
Weighing just 680g (that’s the same as a full, standard-sized cycling water bottle), the single-pole, single-wall Lunar Solo relies on being staked out and requires you to supply your own pole (it’s designed to be used with a trekking pole). It’s never going to be as comfortable as a double-wall tent with a geodesic structure – but if you’re OK with that, it’s difficult to imagine a more minimal shelter that isn’t a bivvy bag.
It is by no means the only such shelter on offer – check out MSR’s Thru-Hiker Mesh House 1 to see a big-brand attempt at the same kind of thing (although without the flysheet).
New in 2018, the Terra Nova Starlite series, available in 1‑, 2- and 3‑berth options, was one of the first British tent ranges designed specifically for bikepacking. Aside from striking a great combination of weight and weather-resistance, the 2‑berth Starlite 2 weighs just 1.5kg and has a packed length of 29cm, meaning it’ll fit easily into a pannier or strap to your handlebars using the stuff-sack’s integrated webbing loops.
Some might consider its non-freestanding design a negative, but in the type of climate and terrain it’s designed for, staking it out really shouldn’t be a problem if you choose your pitch accordingly. Once up, it’s as roomy as you’d expect from a tunnel tent and very stable. That the optional footprint extends to cover the awning floor is a nice bonus. Not cheap, though.
Bonus: The 12 Qualities Of The Bicycle Traveller’s Perfect Tent
If you’re still interested in learning more about the reasons why bike travellers tend to go for certain types of tent, let’s explore the criteria in detail from a cycle tourer’s perspective. The perfect tent would:
1. Weigh as little as possible
The less weight you’re carrying, the nimbler and more enjoyable to ride your bike will be while you’re on it, and the more manageable it’ll be while you’re off it. Tents of yore were built of heavy canvas, wood and steel, and weighed a ton. Modern tents, by contrast, are now absurdly light. The ideal touring tent would, therefore, weigh as little as possible when packed – particularly key for bikepackers.
2. Last as long as possible
The importance of durability increases in parallel with the length of your journey. Modern tents do have a limited lifespan and on an ultra-long tour can almost be considered a consumable item, most multi-year journeys involving a series of tents. Common points of failure include zip sliders wearing out, floors losing waterproofness, poles fatiguing and snapping under stress, and flysheets shrinking through prolonged UV exposure. Long-term riders especially therefore tend to choose tents whose durability has proven itself over time.
3. Pitch anywhere
Especially when wild-camping, perfect pitching conditions can never be guaranteed. As well as this, a long tour may well incorporate a variety of environments. The ideal tent would go up anywhere, regardless of the availability of flat, level ground, and with or without the ability to use pegs/stakes. That is, rather simplistically, why cyclists tend to choose freestanding tents, in which the poles support the whole structure, or tents requiring minimal staking out.
4. Blend into the background
Successful wild-camping is largely about avoiding detection. Part of this is having a tent that does not stick out like a sore thumb in a landscape. The ideal tent, therefore, would exhibit chameleon-like properties, blending perfectly into the surroundings. Tents with green or neutral-coloured flysheets are therefore a good bet, while bright orange or yellow mountaineering tents are less than preferable in this regard.
5. Go up quickly
Once a suitable pitch has been found, the last thing a cycle traveller wants is to waste time pitching or tweaking an overly complicated tent, particularly in bad weather or when stealth-camping under cover of darkness. This, again, is one of the reasons why cyclists tend to prefer freestanding tents with simple, ideally one-piece, pole structures, which are technically pitched in a few seconds, all stakes and guy lines being optional.
6. Keep you dry in a monsoon
Any tent worth its salt will keep its occupants dry. The best tents will do so in a torrential downpour and on waterlogged ground, and many riders will have to anticipate such conditions. In practice, this means choosing a tent with an additional footprint to provide extra waterproofing to the floor, an adjustable fly sheet that can be cinched down closer to the ground to avoid splashback, and a good level of protection around the edges of the inner tent as well. It might also mean a footprint that extends to cover the space beneath the awning where your gear is being stowed.
7. Stand up in a hurricane
Extreme weather, by definition, is the exception rather than the norm. But the longer the trip, the higher the chances of being exposed to it. The ideal tent would take stormy weather in its stride, remaining firmly planted even whilst houses, pets and automobiles are being blown clean away. So-called ‘geodesic’ and tunnel tents tend to do well in strong winds when properly pitched and oriented, while wedge-shaped tents are among the worst performers in this sense.
8. Ventilate in all climates
Climate control is a perpetual concern for the camper. Condensation in particular can contribute far more to a soggy night’s sleep than rainfall itself. The ideal tent would feature adjustable ventilation options for all circumstances, including plentiful mesh panels on the inner so it can be pitched alone in hot weather and allow a good breeze to come through.
9. Provide a view when you want it
Tents are enclosed and often claustrophobic spaces designed to isolate and protect from the elements. But when the elements are at their most desirable, the ideal tent will provide a viewing platform from which to drink all that natural beauty up. This usually means choosing a tent with an awning that can be tied right back and a mesh panel on the inner door to look through, if not a full mesh inner tent.
10. Give you privacy when you need it
Sometimes, after a long day on the road, all you’ll want to do is retreat to a save haven. The ideal tent will feel as secure, safe and impermeable as a padded cell. If you think it’ll be warm and dry enough to pitch only the inner tent without the rainfly, a full mesh inner will afford no privacy whatsoever. A tent with a combination of mesh and fabric panels, on the other hand, may strike a better balance.
11. Allow room for all your luggage
Tents being necessarily restricted in size for practical reasons, it’s usually possible to bring some of your belongings inside, but often it’ll be necessary to leave at the very least your bicycle to brave the elements overnight. The ideal tent provides space for everything to be brought inside or stowed in the awning.
12. Provide space to live
In a similar vein to the above, tents are more or less well designed for doing anything other than sleeping. The ideal tent will exhibit Tardis-like qualities, providing space to unpack, rearrange, work, play, get changed, entertain guests, repair bicycles and more, in addition to simply sleeping.
Which tent(s) have you successfully used on tours or bikepacking trips? Which would you recommend to a friend planning a trip? Let us know in the comments.
Every cyclist loves food. In fact, one of the pleasures of bicycle travel is the ability to eat whatever you like, and as much as you like. Your body becomes a calorie-burning machine, and it’s very vocal about what it wants!
When it comes to cycle touring and bikepacking trips, a stove is not essential. There are other ways to fuel your body than cooking your own food. (Bakeries! Supermarkets! Cafes!)
But many adventurous cyclists find it convenient to have the ability to cook, or at least to boil water for hot drinks. I’ve always carried a stove on my bike trips for these reasons, from multi-fuel expedition stoves in Outer Mongolia, to cheap and cheerful canister gas stoves in Europe, and alcohol stoves in the Middle East and former Soviet Union.
In this detailed article, I’ll help you figure out how to choose between the many different types, makes and models of stove on offer.
To do that, we’ll look at the main categories of camping stove preferred by cycle tourists and bikepackers, discuss how to choose between different basic types of stoves, and look at the best tried-and-tested camping stoves circling the globe as I type.
I’ll include buying links to UK and USA retailers, but many of the stoves mentioned in this article are available globally.
Ready? Cup of tea to hand? OK – let’s begin.
3 Basic Questions To Help You Choose A Camping Stove For Cycle Touring
As with all equipment choices, clarifying a few simple facts about your cycle tour or bikepacking trip will make your decision easier.
So I want to start by asking three basic questions that will help you identify which type of camping stove will suit you best on your cycle tour or bikepacking adventure.
Question 1: Where Are You Going, And For How Long?
Fuel availability is the biggest factor in choosing a camping stove – so knowing where you’ll be riding is critical.
This is partly about continent, country and region, but it’s also about how far from the beaten track you’re planning to ride.
It’s important because you’ll buy a camping stove once, but you’ll buy fuel for it over and over again – every few days if you use the stove regularly.
If you are riding through parts of the world with a strong camping culture and therefore plenty of outdoor shops and campsites – eg: Europe, North America, Australia or New Zealand – you’ll easily be able to find butane/propane gas canisters for camping stoves.
If you’re heading further afield and/or off the tourist trail for longer periods of time, denatured alcohol (eg: methylated spirit or surgical spirit) and/or liquid fuel (eg: white gas, kerosene, petrol/benzine and diesel) are likely to be easier to find.
We’ll cover fuel types in detail later, as they also define the main categories of camping stove for cycle touring and bikepacking.
But for now, just take a moment to think about where you’re going, and how easily and frequently available these different types of fuel are likely to be. Remember also that you cannot bring compressed gas canisters with you when flying, either in checked baggage or in the cabin.
Where you’re going will also affect how often you cook. Good, fresh food is so cheap and abundant in some regions (South-East Asia being a good example) that cooking your own food will cost more and taste worse!
Question 2: What Do You Mean By ‘Cooking’?
When you say ‘cooking’, do you really mean ‘boiling water for coffee and noodles’?
I ask because boiling water alone can be accomplished with minimal gear or with an integrated system like the Jetboil (on which more later).
But if you do want to do proper cookery (see Tara Alan’s excellent Bike. Camp. Cook* ebook to see what I mean by this), you’ll need a versatile and adjustable stove; lots more pots, pans and utensils; and perhaps even a folding sink!
So think about what’s going to be important to you on your cycle tour or bikepacking trip: quick and simple fuel; or slow, tasty and varied meals.
Equipment for proper cookery also affects your luggage setup. Fully-loaded riders with big panniers and lots of rack space will have more options than ultralight bikepackers.
Question 3: How Many Mouths Are You Feeding?
It might sound obvious, but more people means more food, bigger pots, and a more powerful stove to heat them.
Just as domestic stoves have burners of different sizes, camping stoves are available with a range of different pot supports, flame spreaders and heat output ratings, from soloists boiling a mug of water to gourmet couples and groups spending hours preparing three-course meals with frying pans and steamers.
It’s important to answer this question well, because it might not be possible to change your setup on the road. It’s also crucial to match your stove to the rest of your kitchen setup. A big pot on a wobbly top-mounted canister burner will not just be precarious: with lightweight tents or dry tinder around, it could be dangerous.
So consider how much food you’ll be cooking on an average night, and how much flexibility you’d like when it comes to using pots and pans of different shapes and sizes.
All done with the three starter questions above?
Great! Let’s look in detail at the different types of camping stove for cycle tourers and bikepackers.
What Types Of Camping Stove Are Best For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking?
I’ve mentioned camping stove fuel a couple of times already. In fact, there are three main types of camping stove suited to cycle touring and bikepacking, and they’re categorised by the three types of fuel they are designed to burn.
Each type of stove (and fuel) has its own strengths and weaknesses, so let’s look at each in turn.
1. Canister Gas Stoves
Gas is the ideal fuel for cooking, which is why most professional kitchens use it. It burns cleanly and efficiently, the flames are highly adjustable, and the use of pressurised canisters means that getting the fuel moving is easy and stove design therefore simple.
Stoves of the type we’re interested in come from the backpacking and hiking departments of outdoor stores, as they tend to be the lightest and most compact. They can be further subdivided into top-mounted burners, such as MSR’s classic Pocket Rocket*; remote burners (aka: ‘spider’ stoves) with short hoses to connect to an external canister, such as Alpkit’s Koro; and all-in-one integrated stove systems such as the Jetboil series.
There are two main types of canister. The most common type worldwide is the Universal Threaded Canister (UTC) type (using an EN417 standard 7/16-inch Lindal B188 screw valve, in case you were wondering). You screw the burner or hose onto the top of the canister and it automatically seals when you disconnect it. You’ll find these widespread in the USA and Europe, and in specialist outdoor stores worldwide.
Another common type of canister you’ll often see in Western Europe is the blue, unthreaded, valve-sealed CV system by long-running camping stove brand Campingaz, onto which the burner clips, rather than screws. (These are not to be confused with the old-fashioned pierceable cartridges that are still made for older stoves).
Most stoves fit only one type of canister. Which type is quite likely to reflect where you bought it. A few stoves are compatible with both. (We’ll look at examples later.)
Regardless of valve type, it’s stoves for the the smallest sized canisters you’ll be interested in, which are designed for backpackers rather than caravans or car-campers.
UTC canisters are made by lots of manufacturers including Coleman, MSR and Primus and typically have a capacity of 110/230g/450g (4/8/16oz) and a diameter of 110mm (4.33″). Some have a narrower diameter of 90mm/3.5″ and are usually designed for integrated stove systems such as the Jetboil (see below). These smaller canisters tend not to be as widely available as the larger-diameter ones.
CV cartridges made by Campingaz come in 240g (90mm diameter) and 450g (110mm diameter) sizes.
Much marketing noise is made by canister manufacturers over the specific blend of propane and butane and thus how efficient their fuel is. I can promise you right now that unless you are camping in winter conditions, timing each boil to the second and weighing your canister between uses, you will not notice the slightest difference. The best brand to choose is the one that’s available when you need it.
Importantly for riders flying to their starting points, pressurised gas canisters cannot be transported by air, either in the hold or in cabin baggage. If you’re flying to your starting point, you’ll need to make sure suitable canisters can be bought on arrival.
2. Alcohol Stoves
Alcohol stoves are designed to burn high-strength liquid alcohol, of which methylated spirit and surgical spirit (aka: medical alcohol or rubbing alcohol) are probably the most common, though it’s also available in other forms.
The key is a very high alcohol content – at least 90%, preferably 95% or higher. Even the strongest homemade vodka will not work. Because of the many and varied uses of alcohol, some form will be available pretty much anywhere you find civilisation – even in ‘dry’ countries such as Iran. (There’s a very detailed list of stove-compatible fuels at Zenstoves.net.)
Alcohol is slower to cook over than gas or liquid fuel, but its wide availability and relative cleanliness is what makes it viable. Because the fuel does not need to be pressurised, these stoves tend to be even simpler and lightweight, making alcohol stoves a favourite with ultralight bikepackers. They don’t do well in very cold temperatures, however, and the unpressurised flame can be vulnerable to wind – hence why many alcohol stoves have integrated windshields.
The classic example of this type of stove is the Swedish-made Trangia, which is often referred to simply by the brand name. As 3.5 million Vimeo viewers have so far discovered, it’s also possible to quickly and easily make your own alcohol stove from an empty drinks can. We’ll look at other models later on.
Consisting of little more than a fuel pot with a few holes in it, alcohol stoves burn simply, cleanly and efficiently, needing no complicated mechanisms for pressurising the less volatile fuel. The fact that there are no moving parts to worry about makes them the most simple and durable stove you can get for a cycle tour or bikepacking trip – not to mention the lightest.
Some people are put off by the thought of having to find fuel in remote areas, and/or figure out what it’s called in the local language. But this is largely a hangover from when Google Translate didn’t exist and information on locally-available fuels wasn’t as easily available. In reality, alcohol stoves have happily taken people round the world and into the back of beyond, and will no doubt continue to do so.
3. Multi-Fuel (Liquid Fuel) Stoves
Multi-fuel or liquid fuel stoves are the most complicated and expensive type, designed to pressurise and vaporise many types of liquid hydrocarbon including paraffin (or kerosene), jet fuel (kerosene with additives), diesel, unleaded petrol (aka: benzine), and white gas (aka: Coleman fuel, which is a highly refined kind of petrol).
Two of these fuels are, of course, extremely common on the roadside – petrol and diesel – and it’s this that makes the multi-fuel stove a common choice for long-haul expeditions across many countries or continents.
The liquid fuels are ‘hacked’ into a cooking flame using a pressurised fuel bottle and pump, a remote burner with a hose, and a complicated delivery system that vaporises the fuel by heating it within the fuel line using the stove’s own heat – which is why they need to be primed before use.
This has the side effect of making multi-fuel stoves the best choice for extreme cold, which is why high-altitude mountaineering expeditions always use them – but also means the learning curve for priming and lighting them is a little steeper.
The result is sometimes a bit smelly and messy, but for many decades the multi-fuel stove has been single most reliable way of producing a cooking flame on a round-the-world expedition in all conditions.
The classic example of a multi-fuel camping stove for cycle touring is the MSR WhisperLite International*, which has a whopping 35-year heritage.
Now we’ve looked at the three main types of camping stove for cycle touring and bikepacking, let’s look at specific examples in each category, and see how they can be further subdivided by budget, size & weight, and type of use.
By the way, this is a very comprehensive list. It includes more or less every commonly-used stove I’ve come across in 13 years of riding.
In other words, it is practically impossible that the stove you need for your trip is not in the list below.
Canister Gas Stoves For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
This section highlights a range of tried-and-tested canister gas camping stoves throughout the price spectrum. All of the stoves in this section work on extremely simplistic principles: take in pressurised gas via one hole, and then blast it out of another hole, on fire.
Many of these stoves come in two versions – with or without ‘auto-ignition’, which is basically a built-in spark generator button that eliminates the need for matches or a lighter. Neat idea, but they do have a reputation for being somewhat unreliable, so for long and/or remote trips in the wilderness my advice is to avoid these ‘upgrades’ and pack matches, several lighters and perhaps even a fire steel* instead, so in the worst case scenario you can always light a fire. (If you’re purifying drinking water by boiling, as I once was in Outer Mongolia, this could be critical.)
Cheap & Compact Canister Gas Camping Stoves For Solo Travellers
Small, simple top-mounted burners are a good choice for the solo cyclist on a budget. They work best with smaller pans and coffee pots.
If your tour is confined to Western Europe, you’ll easily find canisters for the cheap and cheerful Campingaz Twister Plus(RRP £25 / Amazon* / GoOutdoors* / eBay*), pictured above. At 263g it’s relatively heavy, but it will support slightly larger pots than the competition. For comparison with the stoves below, it has an output of 2900W.
For UTC canisters, Coleman’s 77g/3600W FyreLite(RRP £25 / Amazon* / GoOutdoors* / eBay*) is a basic and relatively powerful burner that does the same thing as stoves three times the price. It’ll last just as long if properly looked-after. Similar is the 3000W VangoCompact(RRP £20 / Amazon* / eBay*), which I occasionally throw into my own bag for short, solo trips.
Of interest to bikepackers looking to minimise weight is the very affordable titanium AlpkitKraku(RRP £27), which at 45g is the lightest stove in this section, though less powerful at 2600W.
Cheap & Powerful Canister Gas Camping Stoves For Couples/Groups
Bigger pots are best paired with stoves that have broader supports, wider flame spreaders, and a higher heat output. I’d advise you to find or make a stand to stabilise the base of the canister as well.
Powerful top-mounted stoves do exist, but if size and weight are not critical I would consider a remote burner which attaches to the canister by a hose and sits on the ground for maximum stability.
A good choice in the top-mounted category is the ColemanFyrePower(RRP £39 / Amazon* / GoOutdoors* / eBay*) pictured above, with a big burner and pot stand and a massive 7000W of heat output for rapid boiling.
Another good option here is the PrimusMimer(RRP €28 / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / Ellis Brigham* / eBay*), big and stable but with a significantly lower heat output at 2800W. The Duo version burns both UTC and CV canisters and is a versatile option for tours including Western Europe.
Among remote burners in the budget category, the 2600W/200g VangoFolding gas stove (RRP £30 / Amazon* / Blacks* / Millets* / eBay*) is a solid option and comes officially recommended for Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, though it’s not particularly powerful. You might also try the relatively new but favourably reviewed 3800W/314g ColemanFyrePower Alpine(RRP £50 / Amazon* / GoOutdoors* / eBay*).
Among affordable ultralight remote burners, the 124g/2800W titanium AlpkitKoro is incredibly compact and light, but also much smaller overall than the stoves above – a good choice for two bikepackers sharing gear, though I’ve also used it solo with a MyTiMug and windshield.
Compact Premium Canister Gas Camping Stoves For Solo Cyclists
An expensive stove will not improve your cooking skills, nor decrease the boiling point of water. But the peace of mind that comes with the manufacturer’s reputation (and warranty) may perhaps justify the additional expense, especially if you see this purchase as a long-term investment.
A classic among premium top-mounted gas burners for cycle touring and bikepacking is the 73g MSRPocket Rocket 2(RRP £35/$45 / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / GoOutdoors* / eBay* / REI*). It fits UTC canisters, and the burner is best suited to fast boils in narrow-diameter mugs and small pots. The Pocket Rocket is among the most dependable and trusted minimal top-mounted canister burners ever made, particularly among backpackers and thru-hikers, and it’s often favoured by ultralight bikepackers.
Alternatively, the 75g Snow PeakGigaPower 2.0(RRP $50 / eBay* / REI*) is also recommended for its light weight, build quality and durability. Like the Pocket Rocket 2, it’s on the minimal end of things, suiting smaller pots with a narrower flame diameter; again on UTC canisters only. It’s not so easy to find in the UK, but if you’re in the USA it’s a good bet.
Powerful Premium Canister Gas Camping Stoves For Couples/Groups
As I mentioned earlier, the best stoves for bigger pots and frying pans are remote burners, which are more stable and can put out more power without overheating the canister. These are ideal for feeding more people (or cooking more complicated meals).
What differentiates these premium stoves from the basic models listed above is typically power output, weight, cold-weather performance, and of course brand assurance.
From Primus, the remote-burning 3000W/346g Easy Fuel(RRP £90/€100 / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / eBay*) with auto-ignition is good value for money, designed for cooking for up to four people (or a couple of hungry cyclists).
For a little extra money, the 385g Easy Fuel Duo(RRP £100/€100 / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / eBay*) has a multi-purpose valve attachment for both UTC and CV canisters, which you’ll want if you’re riding in Western Europe.
A similar stove from the USA is the 290g MSRWindPro II(RRP £100/$100 / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / Trekitt* / eBay*), which loses CV compatibility but gains a canister inverter stand and a windshield – two useful features in winter conditions. It’s also a fair bit lighter than the Easy Fuel. As usual with MSR, it can be found cheaper in its native USA than elsewhere.
My final suggestion is the 3700W/178g OptimusVega(RRP £80/$95 / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / Trekitt* / REI* / eBay*), pictured above, which is the most powerful of the stoves in this list, and also has a built-in canister inverter and windshield, as well as a pre-heated fuel line, pointing again to suitability for cold conditions. It’s smaller than the alternatives, however, and for more than two people a bigger stove might be a better choice.
Lastly, consider that some multi-fuel stoves (see below) can also burn canister fuel, don’t cost that much more, and may prove more versatile in the long term.
Integrated (All-In-One) Canister Gas Stove Systems
Integrated stove systems, aka: all-in-one stoves, have been popularised in recent years by Jetboil, whose Flash (pictured above) is the classic example.
These systems combine canister, burner, windshield and pot, maximising efficiency and convenience of use at the expense of versatility: you can only use the supplied pot or mug, and only specific sizes of canister will fit (usually 90mm-diameter ones, which are not always as easily available as the larger sizes)
As Jetboil’s name suggests, they are mainly designed for rapid boiling rather than cooking, prioritising the needs of hikers in the mountainous backcountry. Just pour in the water, press the ignition button and you’ve got a hot, insulated mug of tea or coffee (or a dehydrated meal) within a couple of minutes. These systems deconstruct and pack into their own pots/mugs, so they’re relatively compact and simple to store, too.
If all of that appeals to you and you’resure you’ll be able to find canisters – go for it. Remember, however, that many riders grow to appreciate the versatility of a traditional cooking setup in the long run. If you’re bikepacking with frame luggage, their shape and size when stowed also need careful consideration and testing.
The original JetboilFlash(RRP £110/$110 / Amazon* / GoOutdoors* / Cotswold Outdoor* / Snow + Rock* / REI* / eBay*) has a mug capacity of 1 litre, no flame regulator (it’s either on or off), and claims to boil 500ml of water in 100 seconds. The packed diameter of 104mm is just about bikepacking framebag-friendly, and as with most of these systems it takes 90mm-diameter UTC canisters, the 100g capacity of which fits in the mug for packing. Assuming you can get the fuel, it’d be good for a short solo trip in which you just want to boil water and be done with it.
Also from Jetboil, the MiniMo(RRP £145/$150 / Amazon* / Cotswold Outdoor* / REI* / eBay*) has a shorter, wider pot and a flame regulator for simmering – good, perhaps, for cyclists who want a little more versatility, but to me it seems overpriced considering the competition, and its packed shape won’t suit bikepackers with frame bags.
Other manufacturers have, of course, launched competing integrated / all-in-one stove systems.
MSR’s 1l-capacity WindBurner* (RRP £135/$150 / Amazon* / GoOutdoors* / Alpine Trek* / REI* / eBay*), pictured above, is roughly the equivalent to the Jetboil MicroMo, but can be used with the larger sizes of UTC canister, and it’s cheaper (though still not cheap). Beyond the basic model, you can choose from a variety of upgrade kits* with different sizes and shapes of cooking pot and pan.
(By the way, MSR’s very expensive Reactor* series is oriented towards mountaineering groups and I can see little logic to considering it for a bike trip.)
The PrimusLite+ (Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / eBay*) is the minimalist’s option, with the smallest packed size and weight but only 500ml of water capacity.
At the budget end is Alpkit’s BruKit, which is heavier and bigger when packed, but then it does cost half the price of even the cheapest ‘premium’ integrated stove system – plus you can use the bigger 110mm-diameter UTC canisters. (It doesn’t come with a canister support.)
You can spend a long time ploughing through the specifications to find that these integrated stoves all do more or less the same thing. The differences to watch out for are capacity (ie: how many people you can feed in one go), canister size compatibility, and, if you’re using bikepacking frame luggage, packed dimensions.
Alcohol-Burning Camping Stoves For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
Alcohol stoves aka: spirit burners run on methylated spirit, medical alcohol, and other forms of high-strength (90%+) liquid alcohol, which is widely and cheaply available worldwide from pharmacies and hardware stores.
The classic Trangia is, for many, synonymous with spirit-burning stoves, but let’s look at the range of camping stoves in this category you might consider for a cycle tour or bikepacking trip.
The D.I.Y. Beer Can Alcohol-Burning Stove
One of the best gifts I ever received on the road was a stove made from a single empty Gin & Tonic can. More than ten years later I am still using the same stove, having taken it on bike tours, overnight trips closer to home, festivals, and even used it in city parks while waiting for trains in order to save money on hot beverages.
In 2013 I tracked down the creator of the stove and filmed a short ‘how-to’ video in which he demonstrated in detail how to make it, far better than I’m able to do in words here. It’s had an amazing 3.5 million views, and will probably be the most successful film I’ll ever make.
Making the stove will take you about 10 minutes and requires nothing more than a pocket knife and one empty drinks can. You also get that priceless smug feeling that comes with having a) pulled off a really cool DIY project and b) saved yourself a hundred quid on a WhisperLite.
Other home-made stove designs exist, but this one is the quickest and simplest to build in a pinch. ZenStoves.net is a goldmine of stove information online.
More than one of you? Get a bigger pot, then make three burners and arrange them in a triangle. Windy? Use your cheap foam roll-mat or a couple of panniers as a windbreak.
Compact Alcohol Camping Stoves For Ultralight Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
Alpkit have recently entered the alcohol stove market with the 150g Bruler(RRP £30). As with all Alpkit’s gear, it’s simple, lightweight and very good value, and pairs up nicely with (and fits inside) their 120g MyTiPot 900, resulting in a frame bag-friendly packed diameter of 123mm and a total weight of 270g. The main advantage over the DIY option is the addition of a windshield and a flame regulator. This is a great option for a solo rider looking to save weight and pack size.
Almost as light and slightly cheaper is the 330g Mini Trangia(RRP £30 / Amazon* / Go Outdoors* Alpine Trek* / eBay*) (more on Trangia below), in which a 0.8l pot and a small nonstick frying pan are included. Designed for mountain marathon competitions, it also prioritises light weight and small pack size, occupying just 67mm of width in your frame bag.
Full-Featured Alcohol Camping Stove Systems For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
Trangia have made their name from alcohol-burning stove sets, supplying them for military as well as civilian use – a sure mark of durability. The brand is now synonymous with this type of stove, and there are few alternatives worth mentioning in this category.
Trangia stoves are modular systems, in which you choose the most appropriate size and combination of pots and pans, plus a choice of bare aluminium, hard-anodised or non-stick finishes, to suit your budget and cookery ambitions (you can also buy all the components separately and assemble your own system). They’re far from the smallest and lightest cooking systems, making them a better bet for fully loaded cycle touring than ultralight bikepacking, but they are extremely reliable and time-tested.
Each system includes the burner itself, a windshield and pot stand, and the cookware, and it all fits together for packing in a rather pleasing fashion. Basic systems include two 1‑litre aluminium pots and a frying pan. The most comprehensive packages include 2 hard-anodised pans, a non-stick frying pan and a kettle.
A final point about the Trangia systems is that you can swap out the alcohol burner for an optional gas or multi-fuel burner – perfect for those looking to cover all fuel types with a single stove kit.
Multi-Fuel (Liquid Fuel) Stoves For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
Multi-fuel stoves are usually considered expedition-grade equipment, made by companies specialising in mountaineering and polar gear. They are expensive but extremely durable and versatile, the default choice for journeys involving extreme conditions (particularly the cold), and can be considered once-in-a-lifetime purchases. It is not uncommon to hear of multi-fuel stoves lasting decades, their owners taking the same trusty old stoves on trip after trip after trip.
Of course, most bicycle journeys are not expeditions. Food and water is globally available on the roadside, and many tours take place in countries where canister gas is widely available.
Usually, then, it’s long-term journeys on the road less travelled – when cooking is more important and fuel is restricted to petrol and diesel – that makes these stoves attractive to the cycle tourer or bikepacker.
Like anything with lots of moving parts, multi-fuel stoves need maintenance to keep them performing well in the long term. This could mean anything from unblocking the fuel jet to cleaning soot from the burner, lubricating the pump cup, or replacing seals and O‑rings.
Although they are simple to disassemble and come with the basic tools and instructions, it is well worth practising routine maintenance before embarking upon a trip of any length.
Fuel bottles are generally not included with stove purchases, the idea being that you’ll choose the size(s) that meet your needs.
As a rough guide, a 600ml bottle will give one person about a week’s worth of evening meals and morning brews. For a pair, the same bottle might last 3–4 days. If you plan on hot breakfasts, more brews, or more elaborate meals, your fuel consumption will increase.
It’s important to note that you’ll need a special fuel bottle designed to be pressurised and fitted with a fuel pump – it’s best to go with one from the same manufacturer as the stove, or to buy a ‘combo’ kit in which stove and bottle are included. Plastic soda bottles can work well as spare fuel bottles, but you’ll still need the pressurised bottle to actually run the stove.
You’ll find plenty of complaints on the internet – always from newcomers to multi-fuel stoves – that the flame is tiny or spluttering, that they singed their eyebrows in a massive fireball, or that they cover everything in soot. Around 90% of the time this is user error; the other 10% is poor quality fuel. Faulty or badly-designed stoves probably account for around 0% of such anecdotes.
This is explained by the fact that there is a steeper learning curve using them (especially priming and lighting them and purging the fuel line after use) than there is for other types of stove. Watch a few Youtube tutorials to save yourself from future embarrassment, fuel leaks, singed eyebrows, and obnoxious rants on the internet.
How Do Multi-Fuel Camping Stoves Differ From Each Other?
Multi-fuel camping stoves diversify into two broad subcategories: those designed to boil water rapidly, and those designed to provide an adjustable flame for actual cookery.
The latter are generally heavier, involve more components, don’t produce quite as much heat, and take longer to learn how to use.
Another difference is the availability of spare parts. On ultra-long-term, round-the-world rides, MSR is probably your best bet in this regard, and your choice is between the WhisperLite International (boil) and the DragonFly (simmer).
What Types Of Liquid Fuel Can Multi-Fuel Camping Stoves Burn?
Most of the stoves in the list below can burn petrol, diesel, kerosene (liquid paraffin), jet fuel, white gas (aka: Coleman fuel), and perhaps more. But the best fuel for your multi-fuel stove is the one you can most easily find on the road.
Being a cyclist, as opposed to a hiker, you will come across far more petrol stations than camping equipment suppliers. And so, globally speaking, the two fuels most easily available to you are going to be unleaded petrol (aka: benzine) and diesel.
Of these, petrol is the cleaner-burning and easier to light. It’ll feel odd the first time you cycle up to a fuel pump, especially if you have aspirations towards zero-carbon travel, but you’ll soon get over it. Diesel and kerosene should be considered your slightly dirtier-burning fall-backs. In remote places where agricultural vehicles and machinery predominate, diesel might be your only option.
Fuel will vary in quality and fragrance the world over, but the only meaningful difference it’ll make will be how often your stove needs cleaning.
The Best Multi-Fuel Camping Stoves For Boiling Water
The following stoves have limited or no flame adjustment features, though you can ‘hack’ them in all sorts of clever ways. (My favourite is to bend the windshield around the pot supports and place the pot on top, as pictured above.)
The simplest in design of all multi-fuel stoves, they are highly versatile, designed to burn almost any liquid fuel, and will boil water in the most demanding conditions.
Why is it called the WhisperLite? Because, unlike most other multi-fuel stoves, it burns really quietly.
The design is easy to take apart and clean, and while basic tools and spares are included, MSR make an expedition service kit for the stove, which if you’re likely to be on the road for more than a few months is a worthwhile investment.
The flame spreader of the WhisperLite International is large in comparison to some of the other stoves in this list. This makes it better for wider-diameter cooking pots. For the smallest solo cooking pots it’ll spill heat around the edges, burning fingers and melting handles in the process.
If you want to cook simple meals anywhere in the world, to invest in a stove that’ll last a lifetime, and if ultra-minimalism is not your goal, look no further than the WhisperLite International.
If you want to cook anything complicated, however, keep reading…
Important note: Do not confuse this stove with the regular WhisperLite (ie: non-International), which looks the same but burns only white gas, a highly refined type of petrol with a different name in every country and which almost nobody has ever heard of. It’s designed primarily for backpackers in North America.
In gas canister mode, it allows more flame adjustment than when running on liquid fuel, and could be categorised as a ‘cooking’ stove.
If you’ll be travelling where UTC gas canisters are available (see above), and you don’t mind the extra upfront cost, the only reason to get the International instead is if you’ll be going where diesel is the only available fuel. The Universal is a few grams heavier, but hey, you’re buying a multi-fuel stove, which means you probably have plenty of luggage space, so it probably doesn’t matter.
(I reviewed this stove back in 2012 after using it on a two-month group ride down the West Coast of the USA. The design hasn’t changed since then, so it’s as relevant now as when I first wrote it.)
The MSRXGK-EX* (RRP £160/$160 / eBay* / Amazon* / REI*) takes the functionality of the WhisperLite International, focuses the heat into a smaller area, and turns up the power to eleven. The result is what for 35 years has been the undisputed king of mountaineering stoves.
The sole purpose of the XGK-EX is to incinerate your noodles as fast as possible in any conceivable weather and circumstances.
While MSR describe it as “the number one choice on expeditions worldwide”, let’s not forget that you’re riding a bicycle, not climbing K2. It’s a somewhat blunt tool, leaving room for little else than noisy, rapid boiling, but it’s included it here in case you’re planning a minimalist bike trip in remote, mountainous, high-altitude backcountry where only low-grade diesel is available. (Which does occasionally happen.)
The Best Multi-Fuel Camping Stoves For Real Cookery (Simmering)
The longer your ride, the more you’ll crave variety in your diet. The following stoves all feature flame adjustment, allowing you to cook an omelette, simmer some vegetables or rice, reheat a takeaway, or do something far more clever and elaborate*.
(In the photo above, we were cooking a chicken curry with sautéed vegetables on the side, using both a WhisperLite Universal and a DragonFly side by side.)
Similar in packed weight and size, multi-fuel camping stoves designed for simmering are slightly more expensive than the stoves above, and they tend to have slightly longer boiling times, though this is unlikely to bother most bicycle travellers.
It is worth noting that liquid fuel (in particular diesel) is not well suited to delicate cookery, and so there is a physical limit to how low a flame you can achieve. Below a certain temperature, the vapourising mechanism will stop working and the fuel will be emitted as liquid, resulting in yellow flames which will cover your gear in soot and make your clothes stink of exhaust fumes even more than they already do.
The MSRDragonFly* (RRP £140/$140 / eBay* / Amazon* / Go Outdoors* / Alpine Trek* / REI*) is a noisier, slightly more expensive stove than the WhisperLite International above, with the same fuel compatibility plus the all-important ability to simmer via an additional flame adjuster control between the fuel hose and the burner.
It functions identically to the Optimus Nova below, and it’s a tiny bit cheaper and significantly more popular worldwide. It’s similar in packed size and weight to all the stoves in this list.
Although it has a slightly narrower flame spreader and a slightly longer boil time than the WhisperLite, it’s built to support a bigger range of pots (up to 10″/25cm diameter, according to MSR).
In other words, the DragonFly gives you options.
Amongst world cyclists in it for the long haul, the MSR DragonFly is one of the most popular stoves of all. I started out with a DragonFly myself back in 2007, and if I was touring alone and out of range of gas canisters, I’d still pack it in my kitchen pannier today.
The OptimusNova(RRP £145/$150 / eBay* / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / Moosejaw*) does the same thing as the MSR DragonFly, except that it looks slightly cooler, is slightly more expensive, and some people will shout on the internet about how much better it is (it isn’t).
Optimus bill their flagship multi-fuel stove as ‘legendary’, which I personally think is more about what its users have achieved than anything about the stove itself, but – like the DragonFly – it does come with the peace of mind of a long-standing reputation.
Why you’d buy the Nova instead the DragonFly comes down to availability, whim, and whether or not you can find a good discount online.
(If you’re craving some specification sheets to look at and compare, you’re wasting valuable time you could be using to brush up on omelette-cooking skills or to teach yourself to tell the difference between diesel and petrol by fragrance alone.)
Optimus Polaris Optifuel
The OptimusPolaris Optifuel(RRP £150/$180 / eBay* / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / Moosejaw*), on the other hand, does manage to squeeze in a meaningful extra feature: the ability to simmer both on liquid fuel and on UTC gas canisters with the same fuel jet – like a more intelligent and better-looking mashup of the MSR WhisperLite Universal and the Dragonfly.
Of course, you’ll pay handsomely for these features, and it doesn’t have MSR’s 35-year reputation for faultless long-term reliability – or that of the original Optimus Nova, for that matter.
I’d choose this over the time-proven alternatives only if you’re comfortable with having a relatively untested piece of gear at the centre of your cook kit, and/or the stakes really aren’t high enough for it to matter.
Otherwise, if you’re buying a stove-for-life, perhaps best to go for a tried-and-tested one rather than something this new.
The PrimusOmniFuel(RRP £190/$170 / eBay* / Amazon* / Alpine Trek* / Primus USA / Backcountry.com*) does exactly the same clever new thing as the Optimus Polaris Optifuel: it simmers on both liquid fuel and UTC canister gas. It costs a bit more, weighs a bit less, puts out a bit less heat, and is slightly more readily available.
The OmniFuel is of sufficient renown to have become the staple expedition stove for British Exploring (formerly B.S.E.S.) excursions, winning the OmniFuel a plus point for proven reliability.
If you want the simmering functionality and assured reliability of the DragonFly plus the ability to burn canister fuel and money is no object, this is probably your stove.
Otherwise, save money by getting a DragonFly plus a cheap top-mounted canister burner (see above).
Bonus: How To Get An Expensive Multi-Fuel Camping Stove For Cheap
Multi-fuel camping stoves are a great example of expensive pieces of equipment that people convince themselves they need when they actually don’t.
It doesn’t take long for some buyers to realise that canister gas is much more pleasant to cook with, and that they’re not really going on a massive round-the-world expedition anyway.
The result is that barely-used multi-fuel stoves turn up pretty regularly on eBay, Gumtree, Craigslist, climbing and outdoor forums, Facebook gear exchange groups, etc.
If you do actually need one of these beasts, and you want to save as much money as possible, you’ve little to lose by buying second hand. Even a relatively well-used stove, if it’s been looked after, will keep going for years.
Suggested High-Street Retailers For Camping Stoves
As with most things, camping stoves are usually found cheaper online than in stores. The lowest prices are usually found at eBay* or Amazon (.co.uk* / .com*).
Visiting a physical retail store can, however, be a good way to understand the physical differences between stove types and the options available in each category, even if you then make your purchase online.
In the USA, you probably already know that REI* sells almost everything outdoor-related, usually at the lowest prices, at 100+ locations nationwide, and that becoming a member gets you cashback in the form of a dividend. What you might not know is that they have an outlet for factory seconds and an online used gear store, both of which will save you yet more cash towards your trip.
In Canada, the equivalent to REI is, of course, MEC.
Considered Going Stoveless?
This seems like a good opportunity to remind you that the simplest way to feed yourself on tour is to buy food from supermarkets and bakeries, eat street food and restaurant meals, and skip cookery altogether, losing about half a pannier’s worth of gear in the process.
It’s often a more expensive way to feed yourself – but just for good measure, here are a few simple ways of keeping costs down in the no-stove scenario:
Subsist entirely on cold picnic food. It’s all calories at the end of the day.
Make extensive use of Couchsurfing or Warmshowers: your host(s) will almost certainly let you use their kitchen, and may well even feed you (though you shouldn’t take this for granted).
Most budget hostels have cooking facilities, as do many campsites. Rustic campgrounds in the USA provide fire braziers and might sell firewood.
Take a single pan or mug and get good at lighting cooking fires. If this immediately makes you concerned about your environmental impact, know that it’s possible to leave no traceif you know how.
As a compromise, consider a Kelly Kettle or similar wood-burning camp stove.
So here you are, 7,480 words later, at the end of my guide to buying a stove for a bike trip. Well done. Give yourself a pat on the back.
Now grab whatever’s closest and go cycling already!
(Important note: Late summer tends to be a transitional time in bicycle retail, with current lines often sold out but next season’s stock yet to arrive. Don’t be surprised to find the bikes listed below out of stock!)
The number of touring bikes on the market – that is, bicycles built to serve the specific needs of cycle travellers – can be bewildering. So it’s no surprise that the most frequently-asked question I get asked through this blog is some variation of this:
“Help! Which touring bike should I buy?”
Trouble is, it’s one of those questions which is meaningless without context.
So let’s get that pinned down first.
(Now might be a good time to put the kettle on.)
Two Questions You Should Answer Before Choosing A Touring Bike
1. What kind of bike trip are you actually going on?
The details of the ride you’re planning will dictate your choice of touring bike. Resist the temptation to go deeper until you’ve decided exactly what kind of cycle tour you want to go on.
What different kinds of bike tour are there? Well, styles of cycle touring (aka: bikepacking) vary in several ways:
Do you want to travel fast or slow?
Will you be going ultralight or fully-loaded?
Is your route mostly on-road or off-road?
Are you travelling short-term or long-term?
These are the variables that will feed into your choice of touring bike. If you’re not clear on the answer to each of them, it might be time to stop reading about bikes and go back to first principles.
A lot of bike trips land somewhere in the middle. That’s why mainstream, off-the-peg touring bikes are so popular, as manufacturers want to serve as broad a range of customers as they can. They’re easy to find for a test ride, and with the specifications changing little year on year, many such models are well and truly tried and tested.
A little later on we’ll be looking at the best such touring bikes on the market today.
Got a bit of cash but still on a minimal budget? Good quality entry-level touring bikes can be had for well under £1,000 ($1,200). In the long term, used parts will wear quicker, so expect to more maintenance and repairs than someone making the same journey on a new bicycle.
Got a budget for a serious new bike? Accepted wisdom is to get the best quality bike you can afford, as it’ll pay off in the long term. This is the domain of the premium or expedition-grade touring bike or bikepacking rig.
OK! Let’s have a look at the most tried-and-tested touring bikes throughout the range of budgets and touring styles.
The Best Sub-£1,000 Touring Bikes In 2020
If you’re getting started, there’s a growing range of cheap but good-quality touring bikes, luggage-enabled and ready to roll, that can be had for less than £1,000 (around $1,200). A lot less, in some cases.
These bikes are characterised by having cost-saving aluminium frames, basic but solid drivetrain components (ie: gearing systems), rim brakes, and a basic rear rack to get you started. They are designed and built specifically for touring, often sharing a frameset with models at the higher end of the budget spectrum. Bikes at the entry-level 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.
Here are some of the most highly recommended budget touring bikes that have proven themselves over time and miles:
Adventure Flat White (£440)
With an RRP of £439.99 the cheapest off-the-peg touring bike in the UK, the Adventure Flat White has a lugged steel frame with a full set of touring-specific frame features (bottle cage, rack and mudguard mounts), a basic but solid 14-speed drivetrain, mudguards and a rear rack to get you started with undemanding, lightly-loaded road tours close to home.
The entry-level touring bike in long-running UK firm Dawes’s well-known range is the Galaxy. Previously known as the Galaxy AL (the AL stands for “aluminium”), it’s built on the same design principles as the more expensive models in the range, with a budget 24-speed Shimano Claris drivetrain, 36-spoke wheels and Schwalbe Marathon tyres, which reinforce this bike’s intended use as a heavy-duty, durable road tourer. Since 2019 there’s been a step-through frame option for riders with reduced mobility.
The Dawes Galaxy is one of the most widely available touring bikes in UK high street bike stores. You can find the 2020 model online at Tredz* for £699.
Ridgeback Tour 2020 (£800)
The Tour – the cheapest of Ridgeback’s touring bike range – has much in common with its more expensive siblings, but with a cost-saving aluminium frame and a basic Shimano Claris/Acera 24-speed drivetrain. Ridgeback have improved the specification (and therefore the RRP) of the Tour over the last couple of years, putting it today at the upper end of this low-budget category. The 2020 model is identical in price, appearance and specification to the 2019 model.
Most longer-term cycle tourists are not breaking records, but they do want to feel like they’ve got somewhere at the end of a day. They’ll carry all the essentials but pack a few personal luxuries too. Roads will comprise the majority of their trip, but they might find themselves on a dirt track every now and then. They’ll usually travel for a few weeks, make a few shorter trips closer to home, and occasionally go for a Big Ride of months or more.
This broad space is the domain of the premium touring bike.
Almost all cycle tourists could conduct their travels successfully on any of the following bikes. They’re all mature, capable machines, tried and tested and with sensible price-tags, in need of nothing more than a nicely broken-in Brooks B17 saddle and a rider.
Expect to spend between £1,000–£2,000 ($1,250–$2,500 USD) on a new, fully-featured premium tourer, and for it to last many years (if not a lifetime) and handle most touring scenarios very well.
Kona have long inhabited the left-of-centre in cycling, producing a fascinating range of bikes. The Sutra, too, is progressively-minded, with powerful disc brakes, bolt-through axles, and a nimble and sporty cyclocross-inspired steel frameset (shared with the dirt-oriented Sutra LTD) all pointing to a happy blend of on-road and off-road use. I’ve been riding one since 2012 and I love it; you can still read my original long-term road test review here.
While not as easy to find in the UK as the Dawes or Ridgeback ranges, the Surly Long Haul Trucker is perhaps the most legendary of the bikes in this list. It’s a supremely versatile and well-balanced on- and off-road adventure touring bike at a price affordable to many, also available in a 26″ wheel size for smaller riders or other cases in which that’s preferable. You’re left to choose your own racks and mudguards.
Distributed in the UK by Ison, there’s a list of global retailers on Surly’s dealer locator. The new 2020 model comes with either a blue or black paint job.
Surly Disc Trucker 2020 (£1,600)
Back when the jury was still out regarding disc brakes as a realistic option for touring, Surly went ahead and produced a disc-specific version of the Long Haul Trucker anyway, the cunningly named Disc Trucker. Everything else about it is the same as the LHT — tried, true, and one of the most versatile touring bikes on the planet – and as with the LHT it’s available as a complete bike or a frameset only. In either case, racks and mudguards are for you to retrofit.
The following bikes from have been recommended by my blog readers as also fitting this category. Some of them are on the budget end, some straying into the top end, but I’ve listed them for the sake of completeness:
Side note: How to choose between premium touring bikes
If you’re having trouble choosing between the touring bikes above, the reason is probably that they are pretty much all the same.
They’re all priced within a couple of hundred pounds of each other. They all have steel frames, wide gearing, drop bars, non-aggressive riding positions, pannier racks or at least rack mounts, hybrid drivetrains cut from the middle of Shimano’s mountain-bike and road-bike ranges, and boring saddles (because they know you’ll swap the stock saddle for your favourite). They’re all built primarily for paved roads, but could handle a dirt track or two if need be.
So how to choose? Simple – go down to your local bike shop and take a few of them for a test ride. You’ll feel what’s right for you.
The Best Expedition-Grade World Touring Bikes In 2020
I’d like to draw attention to the existence of ‘expedition’ bikes, as opposed to ‘touring’ bikes. It’s by no means an industry standard term, but it’s a distinction that needs to be made.
The majority of cycle touring takes place relatively close to home, in the developed world, and for limited periods of time (a few weeks at most).
But occasionally a bike will need to survive for months on end in parts of the world where modern Western parts, spares and mechanical help are simply unavailable.
This is the domain of the ‘expedition’ bike. These bikes are usually characterised by having 26-inch wheels for maximum compatibility with the tyres, tubes and wheel parts ubiquitous in the developing world, allowing for much fatter tyres to be fitted for unpaved roads, using old-fashioned standard components such as 8- or 9‑speed drivetrains, square-taper bottom brackets, V‑brakes rather than disc brakes, etc, and having steel frames built for even heavier duty service in the long haul.
They don’t necessarily cost more than a top-end touring bike, but they have a slightly different focus in mind. Does this apply to you?
Ridgeback Expedition 2019 (£1,000)
Launched in 2014, tweaked in the years since and now thoroughly tested on longer trips, the Ridgeback Expedition is a strong contender for best value expedition-ready touring bike on the market. Read my full review here, and do check out the comments for more recent opinions from long-haul riders.
Like the rest of Ridgeback’s range, the Expedition should be available from any good Ridgeback dealer.
Surly have shown their versatility by producing expedition-ready 26-inch versions of the already super-versatile Long Haul Trucker and Disc Trucker models — near-perfect expedition bikes by all accounts. All the same praise goes here as for the 700c versions above. Again, you’ll need to add your own racks and mudguards. (Photo is of the 2017 model.)
Thorn’s 26-inch steel tourer, the Sherpa, starts at well over a grand and depending on specification could be double that, but the Somerset-based company have established themselves as creating ultra-reliable expedition bikes on an individual basis.
To buy one, you’ll need to book an appointment with St John’s Street Cycles in Bridgewater to get yours specified and fitted to your needs.
Oxford Bike Works Expedition (from £2,299)
My expedition bike of choice is an Oxford Bike Works Expedition. Originally a one-off ‘ultimate expedition bike’ built to my own specification, Richard Delacour, the founder of Oxford Bike Works, has been building these bikes individually out of his UK workshop since 2015, and the spec sheet for 2020 has evolved significantly. As standard, each bike features a hand-built Reynolds 525 cromoly steel frame, a choice of 26″ or 700C hand-built wheels, Tubus racks, rim or disc brake options, thumbshifters, and tons of other expedition-specific touches. He’s now moving all frame production to the UK, too, minimising shipping emissions and allowing yet more individual tailoring.
To buy one, request a (free) consultation with Richard, either by phone or at his workshop in person, to determine exactly what your needs and preferences are. All the details are on the Oxford Bike Works website.
You’ve probably got more questions about cycle touring, so do check out my absolutely massive advice & planning page for dozens more articles on every aspect of planning a tour.
If all the free content I’ve published still isn’t enough (or if you’d prefer to read it in some kind of logical order), you’ll be interested to know that I’ve written a total newcomer’s guide to cycle touring, which is available on Amazon as a low-cost Kindle ebook.
Finally, if you’ve reached the end of this article realising that you’d never be able to afford any of the bikes in this list, but you still want to go cycle touring, check this article out to find out how…
These bikes all fitted the current vogue for adventure bikes – all-terrain geometry, tubeless fatties on big wheels, mounts and braze-ons aplenty. They were all damn fun to ride. And deliciously tempting. Because, as every cyclist knows, the number of bikes you need is always n + 1, where n is the number of bikes you already have.
Then something happened.
A friend of mine, who happens to be an environmental campaigner as well as a long-distance cyclist, collared me after my talk about the time I’d rescued a bike from a scrapyard and pedalled the length of England on it for £0.25. My friend thought it was a great example of minimising wastefulness by reusing discarded products, and how the world didn’t need any more new stuff; that our hobbies and passions shouldn’t be exempted from the principle of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’.
Yes, everyone who doesn’t own a bicycle should probably get one, as the world needs more people riding bikes, she said. But people like us would do well to ask ourselves – whenever the moment comes – “do I actually need another new bike?”
I found myself nodding in agreement as we wandered back over to the Ghyllside Cycles gazebo to drool once more over the Karate Monkey. And then I saw my own hypocrisy.
No, I did not actually need another new bike.
Four months later, in September this year, I rode the length of Armenia off-road on the 2007-vintage Kona Explosif steel hardtail I’d originally built for my first big bike trip, way back before this whole bikepacking thing blew up.
So this article is going to be a bit of a nerdy one.
Because I’ll be going into a vast amount of detail about how I rebuilt this old Explosif for a tough bikepacking expedition, and how it actually fared on the ride itself (spoiler alert: a lot of things broke), with the goal of answering the question – how far can you push an old bike like this before it really does need replacing?
Assessing The Original Bike: Which Bits Still Work?
As you might imagine after so much fully-loaded world touring over so many years, the bike wasn’t exactly in mint condition.
The chromoly frame had accumulated a good share of dents and chips, including a big dent in the head tube from a memorable over-the-bars moment in eastern Turkey.
I also found a crack in the rear drive-side dropout, probably from jack-knifing my trailer too many times. But because it was a steel frame, I could get it repaired and resprayed (by Argos Racing Cycles in Bristol, if you’re wondering, who did a very professional job).
The bike suffered big crash a couple of years back when I broke my own unbreakable rule of never letting anyone ride my bike. It came back with the gear hanger bent and the derailleur smashed into several pieces. Oops.
It was then that I discovered – unsurprisingly – that Kona had stopped making spare gear hangers for this frame… ooh, about seven years ago?
Cue a lot of hunting around on internet forums, whereby I found a fabricator in Israel who specialised in one-off replacement gear hangers for old MTB frames. It wasn’t cheap, but that CNC-machined piece of metal meant I had a frameset which was was once again ready to ride Earth.
What I Changed, And What Stayed The Same
I was impressed by how many of the bike’s original components still seemed serviceable after 13 years – testament to choosing durable parts in the first place when building an expedition bike.
The wheels were almost entirely original: Sun Rhyno disc rims on Shimano XT disc hubs using 36 plain-gauge DT Swiss spokes per wheel, hand-built by Leisure Lakes Bikes in Coventry.
I do remember replacing the rear freehub body on a roadside somewhere in Turkey, and the loose ball bearings have been replaced many times. Unfortunately the rear hub races were pitted and rumbling, but I figured the hub would still make it from one end of Armenia to the other.
The only thing I replaced on the rear wheel was the rim tape, which had become misaligned and warped over time: I found some heavily discounted Nukeproof stuff at good old Chain Reaction Cycles that did the job.
And the front wheel was as good as new; it didn’t even need truing.
Sure, the wheels were way heavier than they needed to be for a ride like this. But did I really need a new wheelset? No, not really: they still went round when I pedalled.
I took off the old Marathon XRs – may they rest in peace – and fitted Schwalbe Hans Dampf 26x2.35” tyres – not because they were the perfect bikepacking tyre but because they were the fattest compatible knobblies at the biggest discount I could find at the time.
Really, these were enduro tyres, prioritising traction and puncture protection over weight and longevity, but I figured they’d actually be pretty appropriate for the kind of terrain we’d be covering.
Almost unbelievably, much of the original drivetrain was still going strong.
The Shimano 8‑speed trigger shifters hadn’t been touched since the day I installed them – the rear one skipped a shift occasionally when it was cold, probably because the grease was old and gummy, but no big deal (and I couldn’t find replacements anyway).
The ISIS crankset and two of the chainrings had now done tens of thousands of miles, as has the front mech, but seemed to be in good nick. The middle chainring – by far the most used of the three – had worn too much to play nicely with a new chain. With the ISIS system dead and buried, I had to very carefully file down the inside edges of a new Shimano 32-tooth chainring to make it fit the crank bolt mounts.
At the rear end of the drivetrain, the XTR derailleur had been running as smoothly as day one; I think I may have once replaced a bushing in one of the jocky wheels. The cassette – an 8‑speed titanium XTR model that cost a fortune but proved incredibly durable – had a little play in the rivets yet barely any discernible wear.
But the crash had not only smashed the derailleur but snapped off several sprocket teeth. Game over for the cassette.
Off it all came. Onto the freehub went a Shimano 8‑speed Megarange cassette with a 34-tooth big sprocket and a long-cage Alivio derailleur. Re-cabling was necessary, so I fitted full-length Jagwire outer sheaths, and finally got the opportunity to fit the Alligator inner gear cables I was given in 2013 while on a press trip in Taiwan.
I’d removed the original Chris King headset to install on Tom’s Expedition Bike, putting in a generic cage-bearing replacement to tide me over. Big mistake. When I removed the fork, fragments of the bearing cage literally fell out of the head tube.
In went a brand new FSA cartridge bearing headset, with a little help from a DIY headset press. The FSA was considerably more expensive than a generic headset, but would last years longer than a throwaway model.
The fork was the only really expensive new component on the bike.
For years I’d been running a Magura Odur 100mm coil-sprung fork, heavy but bombproof – it had helped considerably with comfort and control off-trail in places like Mongolia. In retrospect I should never have sold them on eBay, but I needed the money (I was living in London, riding the frame as a city single-speed while failing to make a living as a travel writer out of the RGS Members’ Room).
In any case, I found the perfect replacement: an end-of-line Fox Float 32 L. This used to be a top-end cross-country fork with a price tag to match. I was lucky to pick up a new 2015 model at a massive discount, the industry having moved on to wider-diameter bolt-through axles and tapered steerer tubes and other such new-fangled gubbins. It was lighter and plusher than the Odur, and (being air-sprung) easy to adjust the sag for different loads – all the better for bikepacking.
I’d attempted to bleed the front brake once, more out of curiosity than necessity, and only succeeded in making it more spongy by the time I gave up. I’d replaced the rotors once, and the brake pads perhaps two or three times, but aside from that they’d been running for over a decade and survived all the touring I’d done without issue. The pads looked like they had plenty of life in them, and the Fox fork was a disc-only model, so I kept them as they were.
The handlebars, stem and pedals had been changed so many times over the years I’d lost count. I never seemed to get it quite right, and was beginning to suspect that my body may have been mutated in some unreconcilable way.
For this trip I mounted some generic XC riser bars on a short-ish stem atop a stack of spacers, raising the handlebars for comfort and making space for a decent sized cockpit bag. I borrowed the Ergon GP‑1 Biokork grips off the expedition bike – they’re expensive, and I’m too stingy to buy two pairs when I can swap one pair of lock-on grips between bikes.
Build complete, I took it out on a few test-rides in Armenia in the weeks before the expedition, adding a full suite of Alpkit bikepacking bags and tweaking the rig as close to perfection as I could.
And you know what? Despite being more than a decade old and composed mainly from obsolete parts, that wizened old Explosif was as much of a joy to ride as it had ever been. Loaded up, it felt light and nimble yet reassuringly sure-footed on the challenging trails of the Lesser Caucasus. And I can honestly say that it was far more satisfying to recycle this sentimental old hardtail than to splash out on a swanky new one. Cheaper, too. Bonus!
When the time comes to ride, of course, a bike like this needs to do its job and stay out of the way while the adventure unfolds.
In the case of Bikepacking Armenia, that isn’t what happened at all.
I knew from experience that off-road riding increases wear and tear on a bicycle by orders of magnitude. Shocks and vibrations dislodge bolts and fixtures and expose weak points in any luggage setup; abrasive mud and dust eat away at exposed mechanical parts; technical riding introduces forces of a type and strength entirely unlike road touring.
But I was still unprepared for the extent to which this ride would completely trash my bike.
What Happened When I Actually Rode It
The expedition began pretty well. All of our bikes made it to the start line by Lake Arpi National Park, undamaged by transit. And though the early-September weather was unseasonably crap, with wintry winds bringing sleet and hypothermia and the team wearing every available layer beneath their waterproofs, my newly rebuilt bike took it all in its stride.
Until Day 4, that is.
I’d been spinning uphill for a few hours along a wet gravel road when we reached a junction. Beyond the junction, the road dipped for a hundred metres or so before continuing its climb. I let go of the brakes to freewheel, enjoying the sudden momentum. Then came a loud metallic crunch, followed by an ominous clockwork clattering. I braked hard and adjusted my pedal position in order to stop – or at least I tried to, but the cranks were locked in place. And I knew immediately what had happened.
A twisted tangle of metal greeted me as I squatted. Bits of my new Alivio derailleur were distributed between the spokes of the rear wheel in an attractive and unusually symmetrical pattern.
Three thoughts flashed through my mind at this point.
The first was mystification: how could this have happened while freewheeling on such an unremarkable stretch of road?
The second was a quick calculation: we were too deep into the mountains to turn back; it was just as well to continue over the pass and down to the next town, even if that meant pushing uphill for a few hours.
And the third was the memory of imagining this precise scenario when I’d very deliberately selected, for my original round-the-world adventure, a frame with sliding dropouts.
Within an hour of the incident, I’d got a singlespeed bike, a few spare chain links, and a mangled rear mech as a souvenir. And we packed our tea-making equipment away continued to ride.
Of course, the bit between the junction and the pass was by far the steepest section of the climb, and I did indeed end up walking most of it. But descending slip-and-slide down the rain-sodden valley on the other side, through ‘the most mud I’ve ever seen’ (as one rider put it), endless cattle wades and multiple river crossings, my low-torque singlespeeder – ironically – fared better than the fancy 1x drivetrains and Rohloffs the other riders were running.
And in the next town, my man-behind-the-scenes Ashot met us with a brand new 8‑speed derailleur he’d picked up in Yerevan for $25, along with the crate of workshop tools and spares we’d prepared earlier.
My second serious mechanical issue reared its head as we climbed out of the Aghstev valley and traversed the ridgeline towards Lake Sevan, topping out at a respectable 2,700m.
As the altitude increased, so, it seemed, the performance of my front brake decreased. It took a little while for me to make the connection between braking power and elevation. But over the course of the day, this inverse correlation became obvious.
I am sure someone will offer an explanation of what happens inside a poorly maintained hydraulic brake line as outside air pressure changes. As a layperson, my best guess is that my previous attempts to bleed the brake had in fact put more air in the system, and somehow this was causing a loss of power at altitude. Pumping the lever eventually became second nature, and longer stints of braking seemed to bring back a little bite, perhaps due to heat causing the hydraulic fluid to expand. But in any case, I ended up tackling many of the highest and most remote sections of the route on the rear brake alone.
(When I was eventually reunited with the tools and spares, I did put a new set of pads in, and this seemed to help a little as the pistons pushed back and forced out a little of the excess air.)
The third mechanical was the really catastrophic one.
In retrospect, it was long overdue. I mentioned that I’d last replaced the freehub body in Turkey with a generic Shimano-compatible unit. That had been 12 years ago. Since then, I’d flushed the internal grease out with petrol to avoid it solidifying on a winter ride through Arctic Lapland – after which, these units not being user-serviceable, I’d forced some light oil through it and left it at that.
I guess you could say I’d got my money’s worth out of that freehub body when, on the morning of Day 8, the internal ratchet system gave up and ceased to engage altogether, causing my pedals to spin fruitlessly on the driveway outside the Sevan Writers’ Residence where we’d been staying.
Now, there is a roadside fix for this. It involves tying the cassette to the spokes with cable ties or wire, losing your bottom gear, and riding fixed-gear until you get to a bike shop. But we were about to embark on a four-day backcountry traverse of the Geghama Mountains, which would be by far the most remote and high-altitude stretch of the route. And I really didn’t fancy doing it on a fixie.
Luckily, I’d arranged a resupply that night at the mountain lake where we planned to camp. Off went the riders, with Pete taking over guiding duties, while I strapped my broken bike to the roof of a passing Volga and took a lift to Yerevan with a single mission: find a new rear hub – or, failing that, a new rear wheel – and be back with the group by nightfall.
While the picture has changed since then in that high-end bikes and parts are now more widespread, the same rule still applies: the cheapest and thus most commonly found bicycles in places like Armenia are still the same Chinese ‘spam bikes’ with 26-inch wheels, because what’s new doesn’t reflect what people in poorer countries still ride.
The first shop I went to, MyBike, is actually one of the best in Armenia for high-end bikes and parts. Of course, they still had a few generic 26-inch rear wheels lying around in the back of the workshop, because people still want them. In the time it took for me to go and get a pizza for lunch (sorry team!), they’d disassembled my broken rear wheel, rebuilt the rim onto a Shimano-compatible 8‑speed rear freehub, re-indexed the derailleur, repositioned the brake caliper, and put it all back together – all for the equivalent of about $40.
Which is exactly why I’d specified a 26-inch mountain bike wheel with mid-range Shimano hubs in the first place.
The final unexpected mechanical issue I experienced on this ride came down to a simple error of judgement on my part. I’d underestimated how much extra work the brakes would have to do on this challenging off-road route. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I began to hear that dreaded scouring-scraping sound from my rear brake caliper on the descents. Now I was riding with a flaky front brake and a rear brake that would destroy itself in minutes if I used it!
In the end, I settled for the technique of deliberately overheating my front brake to bring back a little of its failing power and control the final descent of the trip – but then, with an elevation drop of over 2,000 metres as we plummeted down to the Iranian border, my front brake had magically returned to service by the time we reached the valley floor, pedalled along the river, and found the guesthouse in Meghri that signified the end of Bikepacking Armenia.
So what did I learn from all of this? More pertinently, was my decision to upcycle an old, obsolete mountain bike for such a tough endeavour a wise one?
In the end – and I’ve written about this before – it’s about your wit, not your kit. By definition, on an adventure, your circle of control is limited: you can do all the planning and preparation you like, but in the end you have to submit to the whims of the world and deal with what’s thrown at you.
There is a spectrum of preparedness, I think, on which different individuals feel comfortable at different points. And where you fall tends to be related to the level of confidence which will allow you to begin the endeavour in question – the point at which you accept that you’ve done all you reasonably can and just go.
Over the years, I feel I’ve traversed much of this spectrum, from excessive over-planning on my early trips to somewhere near the other end, where I am more or less happy to grab what’s lying around, walk out the door, and see what happens.
What happened on this trip illustrated that gradual change in attitude quite neatly. On one hand, my obsessive attention to detail when building the original bike paid off when, over a decade later, so many things went wrong, as I was able to fix the problems on the roadside or with a quick dash to the nearest bike shop.
On the other hand, it was making peace with uncertainty later on that allowed me to reappropriate this trusty old bike for a task that was – quite honestly – way beyond its designed capabilities, and ultimately to complete the expedition alongside riders on much ‘better’ bikes.
So now, in retrospect, and with more bikepacking trips coming up – do I actually need another new bike?
Honestly? I still don’t know…
Huge thanks to Chris Goodman for the fantastic additional photos. (Which ones exactly? Well, if I’m in it, he probably took it…)