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Equipment Planning & Logistics

What’s The Best Camping Mattress Or Sleeping Pad For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking?

It’s time to deep-dive into another frequently-asked question about equipment for cycle touring and bikepacking – the thorny topic of how to choose a camping mattress (as we call them in the UK) or sleeping pad (as our American friends prefer).

We’ll be looking specifically at which camping mattresses or sleeping pads are ‘best’ for cycle touring and bikepacking trips – and how the definition of ‘best’ might differ depending on personal preferences and the details of your planned ride.

I’ll guide you through this topic by combining advice from my 14 years of bicycle travel experience with a list of currently recommended camping mattresses for cycle touring and bikepacking.

What I won’t do is bore you with spreadsheets and tables comparing R‑values, cm² of floor space covered, decibels of noise emitted when you turn over in the night, etc. My advice is based on real reports and recommendations from real riders in the real world, not scientists in laboratories.

I also won’t be recommending anything new and unproven. Only tried-and-tested camping mattresses will be making it onto this list, because on a cycle tour or bike trip, reliability matters.

Are you sitting (or lying) comfortably? Then I’ll begin…


Camping Mattresses for Cycle Touring & Bikepacking – The Basics

Far from being an unnecessary luxury, a camping mattress is at least as important as a sleeping bag when camping on a bike trip.

This is because – as you’ll know if you’ve tried sleeping on bare ground – it’s where your warm body touches the cold ground that heat is most quickly lost.

Why doesn’t a sleeping bag stop this happening? Well, it’s the trapped air in the lining of a sleeping bag that keeps your body heat in. But a sleeping bag has the air squashed out when you lie down in it. A camping mattress solves this by providing a structure for the trapped air needed to insulate your body from the ground.

In other words, the main purpose of a camping mattress is to keep you warm.

Although comfort is often the first thing people think about when choosing a camping mattress, this is a secondary concern. No matter how soft and comfortable your sleeping surface feels, cold spots will wake you up if you’re not properly insulated – and then you won’t be able to sleep at all.

The 3 Types Of Camping Mattress You Need To Know About

Camping mattresses suitable for cycle touring and bikepacking are split into three categories: closed-cell foam (ie: a ‘roll-mat’), inflatable, and self-inflating.

Within each category you’ll find a range of options and styles of interest to the cyclist, from a simple slice of foam costing £5 all the way up to to luxurious padded air mattresses costing hundreds of pounds.

Most of the camping mattresses we’ll be looking at come from the hiking, trekking and backpacking departments of outdoor stores, which is where the needs of bicycle travellers overlap with those of more lucrative markets.

How much luggage space you have will be big a deciding factor in what category of mattress you choose.

For bikepackers trying to reduce gear volume, ultralight inflatable mats or minimalist self-inflating mattresses will stow in a seat pack or handlebar roll.

If you’re off on a fully-loaded tour, however, a bulky closed-cell foam mat or thick self-inflating mattress will sit happily on top of your rear rack.

The other big deciding factor in what category of mattress you choose is which type is most comfortable for your specific sleeping habits.

Some people can unroll a thin piece of foam on rocky ground and sleep the whole night through. Others need a thick layer of of air cushioning beneath them to get the same good night’s sleep. And yet others sleep better on a thinner ‘self-inflating’ mat with a foam structure (I’m in this latter category).

If you want to get a good night’s sleep, night after night, you need to know which of the three categories of camping mattress will best give it to you.

Think about the last time you went mattress shopping for your home. Did you search the web for reviews and then order one online? Of course not! You probably went to a mattress store and spent some time lying down on a few different products in your budget range to see if they suited your preferences for softness, size, etc.

If you take one piece of advice from this article, make it this one: if you’re buying a camping mattress for the first time, head on down to your nearest camping store and actually lie down on some demonstration models before you spend a penny.

Once you’ve understood which type of camping mattress feels right for you, then you can start thinking about things like your budget, luggage space, the climate you’re riding in, and all the other factors, before scouring the web for the best deal on your preferred option.

A Note On The Limited Usefulness Of R‑Values & Temperature Ratings

Camping mattress and sleeping pad manufacturers will almost always quote something called the “R‑value”. This is a measure of insulating power taken from the construction industry, and has mostly replaced the temperature rating as the standard measure of insulation for a camping mattress. A higher number means more insulating power. You’ll find recommended temperatures for “comfort” are often quoted too.

There are three important things you need to know about these numbers.

The first thing is that they are calculated in highly controlled laboratory campsites in which brand new high-quality tents have been perfectly pitched in perfect conditions.

This campsite does not exist in the real world.

The second thing is that temperature ratings will be based on a user of average size, weight and metabolism, wearing a full set of thermal underwear, who is sleeping in the above-mentioned laboratory campsite.

This user also does not exist in the real world.

The third thing to know is that because, physiologically speaking, males tend to sleep warmer than females, manufacturers often base temperature figures on a male user to make them sound more generous (you’ll usually find this stated explicitly if you dig deep enough into the small print).

We all know that both males and females go camping.

How, then, to interpret R‑values and temperature ratings when choosing a camping mattress for a cycle tour or bikepacking trip?

Firstly, know what R‑values mean in the context of a bike trip. For much of the temperate zone, appropriate seasonal ranges are roughly the same as the actual R‑value ratings. In other words, a mattress with an R‑value of 1 would be appropriate most 1‑season uses, ie: summer, whereas a mattress with an R‑value of 4 would see you through most 4‑season uses, ie: temperate-zone winters.

This is your starting point.

Next, think about your own sleeping habits. Do you sleep hot or cold? Are you the one who wakes up sweating and throws off the blankets in the middle of the night, or the one who’s still shivering even when snuggled up with woolly hat and a hot water bottle?

Thinking about this will help you decide whether to interpret a recommended temperature rating generously or conservatively, and whether to go for a higher or lower R‑value than the average for your intended use.

If you happen to be biologically female in the unfortunately male-dominated world of outdoor pursuits, consider that manufacturers such as Therm-a-Rest who make “women’s specific” models tend to increase R‑values by roughly 30% over the “regular” models.

Unless you know you sleep hot, I’d therefore advise female riders to consider mattresses with a minimum R‑value of 2 for summer, 4 for 3‑season, and 5 for all-season use.

Finally, consider the worst-case scenario for your upcoming trip, given where you’re planning to go and when. If, on the coldest possible night at the highest possible altitude on your route, you followed every tip in this article about staying warmer when camping in winter, would you probably survive on a camping mattress with the R‑value you’re considering?

Thinking about this will do two things. It will help you avoid “overkill” – in other words, buying a mattress far more highly insulated (and expensive) than you actually need. It will also help you identify possible situations in which a mattress with a higher rating might actually be a good idea.

Therm-a-Rest have published a useful blog post explaining R‑values in more detail.


So What Are The Best Camping Mattresses For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking In Each Category?

Let’s get stuck in to the specific products that come highly recommended for cycle touring and bikepacking by people who are actually out there riding.

I’ll cover each of the three main types – closed-cell foam, inflatable, and self-inflating – in separate sections.

For each model, if there are multiple versions available (eg: different sizes, with or without extra insulation, ‘ultralight’ or ‘luxe’ versions, etc), I will describe the standard, medium-sized, regular thickness, non-ultralight model. You may then adjust your final buying decision based on whether you need any of the additional options.

As will all my gear round-up articles, I’ve included manufacturer and retailer links for the UK and USA where I can find them.

Some of these are affiliate links and are marked with an asterisk (*) for transparency. I’ll earn a small commission if you buy through them, which helps me keep articles like this one free-to-read and ad-free.


The Best Closed-Cell Foam Camping Mats For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

Simple, cheap, and usually preferred by riders on a tight budget, generic closed-cell foam mattresses, aka: roll-mats, satisfy the one essential criteria – insulation from the ground – and nothing else.

With nothing to puncture or break, they’re actually a durable choice – as long as you keep them away from over-tightened bungee straps, corrosive substances, and the teeth of wild dogs.

Do not expect much luxury from most of these mats, but do expect to avoid being woken up by cold spots in all but winter conditions (in which case you can use two).

As well as at mainstream outdoor and camping stores such as Decathlon*; you can find these at supermarkets, gas stations, hardware stores, and so on, where they’re cheap and abundant.

If you’re on a tight budget, what’s ‘best’ is of course the same as what’s cheapest. Before buying anything new, look at charity shops, household recycling centres, skips, campsites’ lost-and-found departments, or find a fellow biker at the end of their trip using Warmshowers and swap their unwanted mattress for a night or two of hosting.

Check out this article for more advice on getting free or cheap equipment for a bike trip.

Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest (RRP $20/£20) & Z Lite (RRP $40)

If you’ve got a little more money and are looking for a specific model of closed-cell foam mat with a good reputation, the camping mattresses from Seattle-based Therm-a-Rest (part of Cascade Designs) are the ubiquitous choice.

The 400g RidgeRest (rolling) and 410g Z Lite (folding) closed-cell foam mattresses having proven their durability over decades – and they’re a lot more comfortable than they look. Many experienced riders still swear by them over anything inflatable.

There’s little to choose between the RidgeRest and Z Lite in terms of weight and insulation; the Z Lite is more compact when packed as there’s no “hole” through the middle (though it still won’t fit in a pannier), costs a little more, and is far more popular.

Both models have SOL or SOLite versions with a reflective coating on one side, which increases the amount of body heat reflected back up from the surface. Therm-a-Rest claim this increases its overall insulating power by 15%; extra warmth for no extra money makes it a popular upgrade. Riders do, however, report that this coating eventually starts to wear off over time (albeit a lot of time).

You’ll sometimes see bikepackers rolling up other camping items inside a RidgeRest and then harnessing the whole roll to their handlebars – a neat way to get around the limited space available with frame luggage.


The Best Inflatable Camping Mattresses For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

While there’s only so much you can do with a slice of foam, there’s a variety of styles, thicknesses and insulation types available among inflatable mattresses to accommodate differing sleeping preferences, body sizes, temperature ranges, and other needs.

Manufacturers have exploited these marginal differences to produce a bewildering array of options. At the time of writing, for example, popular Swiss brand Exped had no fewer than 116 different models in their range.

Why bother with anything inflatable other than your bike tyres? It’s one more thing to puncture. All inflatable and self-inflating camping mattresses are vulnerable to being pierced by thorns on that one night you’re not concentrating when pitching your tent. That’s why they’re all supplied with patch kits and glue (yes, you absolutely must bring it with you on your bike trip).

They’re also less durable than closed-cell foam mats due to the internal structure needed to turn pressurised air into a flat mattress shape, rather than a balloon. Use it every day and even the best inflatable mattress will eventually fail internally, resulting in that dreaded muffled ripping noise – always just as you’re getting ready to go to bed – and your mattress suddenly growing a giant balloon-like tumour.

A good reason many people do choose them is because they feel more comfortable to sleep on than closed-cell foam mats – indeed, for some, this might be the difference between a good night’s sleep and not being able to sleep at all.

Let’s look at the most popular inflatable camping mattresses and sleeping pads for cycle touring and bikepacking. All come recommended by riders with many years of real-world experience.

Alpkit Cloud Base (RRP £42)

The 415g Cloud Base from Alpkit is a lightweight, non-insulated mat designed to minimise pack space for a low price. Although the tapered foot end won’t please everyone, riders have positive things to say about the comfort provided by its 5cm of air cushioning.

Despite the 3‑year guarantee, durability can never be a priority for an ultralight mat at this price point, so consider it for casual and undemanding purposes such as short bikepacking trips rather than long-term expeditions.

Alpkit don’t provide an R‑value, but given the mat’s specifications you should consider it appropriate for 2–3‑season use, depending on how cold you sleep.

Klymit Static V (RRP £49/$55)

At 531g packed and with an R‑value of 1.3, Utah-based Klymit’s basic Static V model is heavier than other mattresses in this section, but it has a generous 6.4cm of loft, and a full-width foot end, making it a good choice for side-sleepers.

Riders are particularly complimentary about the comfort provided by the V‑shaped air cells.

Durability is another strong point of this mat, as attested to by user reviews and also by the lifetime warranty, which few other mats in this category can boast.

It isn’t the lightest or most packable mattress in this section, but if you’re looking for a durable and comfortable summer inflatable sleeping pad, the Klymit Static V is a good choice.

The 680g Insulated Static V doubles the price and triples the insulating power, increasing the R‑value to 4.4 for all-season use.

Options include large, short, “lite”, “luxe”, double, hammock-specific; even “armoured” versions. Craziness.

Exped SynMat HL (RRP £150/$179)

Originally launched as the Exped HyperLite, the 365g SynMat HL from Exped was even lighter than the early versions of the XLite (see above) on its release, with none of the noise issues associated with the NeoAir range. Exped currently claim that this is ‘the world’s lightest mat at its warmth and comfort levels’.

With a generous 8cm of thickness and an insulated inner lining, riders rate this mat highly for comfort. Like other ultralight mats in this section, the heavily tapered design sacrifices versatility in favour of minimising weight and bulk: this mat is amazingly small and light when packed up.

The R‑value of 3.3 is a little lower than the XLite, its closest competitor, but still generous for 3‑season use. A few frosty nights would be perfectly tolerable on this for most.

Exped supply a carry sack and patch kit, and are following the trend for inflation sacks, which help combat the problems associated with moisture build-up inside inflatable camping mattresses.

The 430g Winter version increases the R‑value to 5.2, which Exped claim makes it ‘the lightest 4‑season sleeping mat on the planet’.

Size options include wide and long-wide versions. If you’re camping as a couple, there’s a Duo version of both the regular and winter models, which is twice the width and a little heaver than two individual mats.

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite (RRP £170/$185)

Ever the pioneers, Therm-a-Rest launched the NeoAir XLite as the lightest and most packable sleeping pad ever in its class. I used one on my 2012 ride down the U.S. Pacific Coast and wrote a detailed review (read it here).

This 340g ultralight mattress is still lighter, more packable and better insulated than most of the competition in this category, with 6.4cm of thickness and an R‑value of 4.2 – and the high price reflects this level of performance.

The tapered foot end saves weight but limits sleeping space; this isn’t a great choice for side-sleepers or those who toss and turn.

One criticism levelled at the XLite it its long-term durability. Several veteran riders have reported delamination after a few years. Though Therm-a-Rest are known for honouring their lifetime warranty, it’s possible unrealistic expectations are in play here, as inflatable mats will always eventually delaminate under prolonged and intensive use.

Also of concern is the now-infamous noise the XLite makes when you lie on it! Some have described it as like lying on a packet of crisps (that’s British for ‘bag of potato chips’, dear Americans). Whether or not this will bother you or your neighbours in the night is something only you can know.

As well as the regular pad, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite comes in short, large, wide, and women’s specific (ie: warmer and shorter) versions. The current version includes an inflation sack as well as a carry sack and patch kit.

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm (RRP £205/$215)

The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm has the same form as the XLite (see above) but with upgraded insulation for camping on snow while climbing mountains, a slight weight increase, and a whopping price tag.

Weighing 430g and with an R‑value of 6.9, the XTherm has become popular with riders expecting all-season conditions who want to keep things as fast and light as possible – and who have loads of money to spend.

The same crunchy-sounding criticism applies as the XLite, but you can always wear earplugs if this starts to disturb you.

There are fewer sizing options for the XTherm than the XLite; regular and large versions only.

Side-sleepers and others who prefer space to spread out will appreciate the popular, rectangular MAX version, which also comes in large and wide sizes.

Exped DownMat XP 9 (RRP £195/$230)

For the ultimate in all-season camping luxury, the 895g Exped DownMat XP 9 is a 9cm thick, down-filled, inflatable mattress with an astronomical R‑value of 7.8. Exped say this translates into comfort at ‑38ºC for an average user.

(I used a thinner DownMat 7 at ‑33ºC on a winter ride through Norway and Sweden – watch the short film here – and can personally attest that they’re bloody warm.)

It’s far heavier than the rest of the mats in this category, but still relatively light for its amazing insulating power.

The updated XP version includes an inflation sack, which is particularly welcome in winter when drawing deep lungfuls of frozen air before bedtime is the last thing you should be doing.

If you’re looking for uncompromising comfort on a journey involving deep winter conditions, there’s little better in this niche than the DownMat.

With a 5‑year warranty, you can expect to get many years of use out of this (and for Exped to honour their guarantee).

Options include thinner 5cm and 7cm versions with lower R‑values, long and wide sizes, and UL (ultralight) editions.


The Best Self-Inflating Camping Mattresses For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

Self-inflating camping mattresses combine an inflatable shell with an open-cell foam filling to give you a mattress with a firm internal structure plus pressurised air for added comfort and insulation.

You squash the air out when you roll it up for storage, and when you unroll it and open the valve the foam will expand to its original shape – hence, ‘self-inflating’, usually to around 60–80% of its capacity, after which you top it up manually.

Many riders find these mats more closely resemble the feel of a ‘real’ mattress, which is probably the most common reason to choose one. They also take a little less effort to set up, and retain some insulating properties if punctured.

Because the filling adds a little weight and a lot of extra volume when packed, they generally aren’t for the ultra-minimalists.

Let’s take a look at the most highly-recommended self-inflating camping mattresses for bike trips. For riders neither on a super-tight budget nor needing to absolutely minimise pack space, this is probably the most popular type of camping mattress for cycle touring.

Forclaz Trek 500 (RRP £25)

Europe-based riders on a tight budget could do a lot worse than Decathlon’s take on the classic self-inflating hikers’ camping mattress, the Forclaz Trek 500.

At less than half the price of the big-brand competition below, it’s unrealistic to expect too much. At 820g it’s relatively heavy, and the 2.5cm of thickness may be on the thin side for some people, but the R‑value of 2.3 will give a good measure of 3‑season insulation.

There’s an XL version available for £5 extra. Decathlon provide a 2‑year guarantee and are very good at refunding or replacing faulty items in-store with no questions asked.

Therm-A-Rest ProLite (RRP $95/£105) & ProLite Plus (RRP $105/£100)

Another long-time classic from Therm-a-Rest, the ProLite has been on the market for literally decades. In fact, Therm-a-Rest claim to have singlehandedly invented the self-inflating camping mattress with this product.

The ProLite has an earned a cult following of veteran users who claim to still be using the same mattress they bought in the ‘90s. Durability and reliability is one of the key selling points here. If you want a lightweight 3‑season self-inflating mat that you just know will work, get the ProLite (and the lifetime guarantee that comes with it).

Over the years, Therm-a-Rest have refined the design to make it ever more lightweight and packable, and now claim the current 510g version to be the lightest and most compact camping mattress in its class.

With an R‑value of 2.4, 2.5cm of thickness and a gently tapered design, this is a streamlined yet high-performance self-inflating pad which will occupy minimal pack space for a mattress in this category.

The 650g ProLite Plus increases insulation and comfort for 140g of extra weight, with 3.8cm of thickness and an R‑value of 3.2. If you’re planning a long-term ride in varying temperatures and you’ve got the pack space for a little more comfort, the tiny extra amount spent on the Plus will very likely pay off.

As with other Therm-a-Rest mats, short, regular, large sizes and women’s specific versions of the ProLite and ProLite Plus are available.

Exped SIM Lite 3.8 M (RRP £97/$109)

Out of Exped’s bewildering range of camping mattresses, the 740g SIM Lite 3.8 M represents the classic, durable, lightweight, tour-friendly, self-inflating sleeping pad.

With 3.8cm of thickness and a generous 3‑season R‑value of 3.2, it’s comparable in performance and comfort to the ProLite Plus. The 90g of extra weight gets you a rectangular (as opposed to tapered) shape; better for side sleepers and those who have luggage space for a little more luxury.

If you’re looking for a high-quality, comfortably-sized, medium-thickness, self-inflating mattress suitable for everything but deep winter conditions, this is well worth considering.

The UL (ultralight) version costs more, weighs less (580g), and is otherwise the same. Both come in LW (long-wide) and regular sizes.

Exped’s reputation for build quality and reliability is up there with Therm-a-Rest; their mats all come with a 5‑year guarantee.

Sea To Summit Comfort Plus S.I. (RRP £120/$140)

Finally, I’ve included the 970g Comfort Plus S.I. from Australian gear manufacturer Sea To Summit as an example of a camping mattress on the luxurious end of the scale which is still light and packable enough to consider for a bike trip.

The whopping 8cm of thickness will fool you into thinking you’re in a real bed. The R‑value of 4.1 means you’ll stay warm even on frosty nights. Get the large rectangular version to spread out even more. Or get the 128cm-wide double version and bathe in luxury. Even if you’re alone.

The Comfort Plus S.I. (and comparable mattresses from other manufacturers) is for riders who seriously value a comfortable night’s sleep, and don’t mind carrying a little extra weight to get it.


Bonus: 14 Pro Tips For Getting The Most Out Of Your Camping Mattress

Once you’ve chosen your mat, there are a few clever ways to get the most out of it while cycle touring or bikepacking.

These are tips that take most people time and experience to discover, but I’ve listed a few here so you can leapfrog the learning process:

  1. If strapping a closed-cell foam mat to your bike, protect it from damage by using flat straps rather than regular bungee cords.
  2. Before setting up camp, lie down on top of your inner tent in the space you’re planning to put your mattress. If there are any rocks or other uncomfortable lumps underneath, now’s the time to find them.
  3. Always inspect your pitch closely for thorns to protect your inflatable or self-inflating camping mattress from punctures – particularly small ones, which are more difficult to find and repair.
  4. Particularly on long rides, you can protect an inflatable or self-inflating camping mattress by buying or making an additional protective groundsheet (aka: footprint) to go under your tent. Most tent manufacturers offer these as optional extras.
  5. If you’re using a self-inflating mat, unpack it and open the air intake valve upon arriving at camp. By the time you’ve finished pitching your tent, it will already be at 60–80% capacity.
  6. To get optimal comfort out of an inflatable or self-inflating camping mattress, inflate it fully, lie down on it in your usual sleeping position, then very slowly deflate it to your preferred softness.
  7. If you’re planning a very long trip with an inflatable or self-inflating mat, consider an inflation sack, which will prevent moisture from your breath building up inside the mattress, causing mould and mildew in the short term, and possible structural failure in the long term.
  8. Never fully inflate a mattress and then leave it in direct sunlight, as the heated air will expand and possibly damage the internal structure of your mat.
  9. If you find an inflatable mattress slowly deflating over the course of the night, you may have a slow puncture. Find it by inflating the mat, immersing it in a bathtub of water and looking for bubbles of escaping air.
  10. If no bathtub is available, drench it with a bucket of water mixed with washing-up liquid and look (and listen) for foaming bubbles.
  11. If you can’t find any punctures, check if a faulty valve is the cause of the air leak, using the same methods.
  12. If you’re stuck with a punctured inflatable mattress, gather dry grass, leaves, ferns and any other soft foliage into a big pile and pitch your tent on top of your “natural mattress”. You’ll need more than you think!
  13. As an additional measure, dig out that foil emergency blanket you packed and spread it out underneath your punctured mattress where your torso is going to be.
  14. Closed-cell foam mats make good protective under-layers for inflatables if you’re worried about punctures (and if you have the space), as well as adding extra insulation in cold weather.

Wow – that was a seriously long post! I think I need to go and lie down…

Categories
Equipment Planning & Logistics

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

Last updated in March 2020.

One day in 1884, Thomas Stevens left California on a penny farthing and became the first man in recorded history to cycle round the world. He was carrying little more than a bag of gold and a pistol rolled up in a blanket.

Today, us bicycle travellers tend to leave precious metals and firearms at home, instead packing half our own bodyweight in other equipment.

That’s because we expect to enjoy seeing the world by bike, rather than bribing and bullying our way around as Stevens often did. The lightweight equipment available today – tents, stoves, tools and more – makes life on the road not just tolerable but even sometimes fun!

To carry our gear, many of us will ride a touring bike fitted with front and rear carrier racks on which to mount a set of panniers – the traditional luggage setup for cycle touring for more than a century.

This article is all about how to choose a set of panniers that’ll fit your budget, your style of touring, and your personal preferences.

I don’t want to assume anything about your prior knowledge, so let’s start by laying out a few basic facts about bicycle panniers for cycle touring, before we get into the details.

What Exactly Are Bicycle Panniers?

Panniers are purpose-made bags designed to be hung off the sides of a bicycle or motorbike (or, originally, slung over a pack animal). They almost always come in pairs, for what I hope are fairly obvious reasons of balance and stability.

Do I Need Two Or Four Panniers (Or Something Else)?

The traditional setup for long-distance cycle touring is four panniers – a small pair at the front and a larger pair at the rear – plus a handlebar bag and a few other bits.

This is simply because, when you make a list of everything you’d need for a transcontinental or round-the-world ride, buy it all, and try to fit it onto a bike – it usually fills four panniers.

Two rear panniers can easily suffice for undemanding trips, such a summer ride in the developed world with bike shops and campsites aplenty.

You might also make two rear panniers work with a more minimal approach to packing, especially as camping equipment grows ever lighter and more packable. You’ll often see more experienced riders taking this approach, because they’ve spent a long time learning what they don’t need.

Increasingly you’ll also see a hybrid approach, with panniers supplemented by bikepacking luggage. The panniers can be removed and stored temporarily for shorter side trips on dirt roads, allowing more flexibility over the traditional setup.

In any case, you’ll rarely see panniers used exclusively as a means of storing belongings and supplies. They’re almost always used alongside rack-top drybags, baskets, bar-bags, backpacks, or other more easily accessible bags which don’t require dismounting and unpacking everything just to find one commonly-used item.

Sometimes, in very special cases such as deep winter, desert crossings, or other extremely remote rides, or just because you want to bring your guitar and jewellery-making kit, you might consider a cargo trailer instead of (or as well as) panniers, which is a topic I’ve covered elsewhere.

How Do Cycle Touring Panniers Vary In Design?

Bicycle panniers for cycle touring (as opposed to panniers for grocery shopping) come in a variety of sizes, colours and materials, and are generally labelled as ‘front’ or ‘rear’. They usually (though not always) are sold in pairs, sometimes with differences between left and right, and sometimes without.

Front panniers tend to be smaller, and for good reason: whatever weight you’re carrying on the front wheel will feed directly into the steering and handling of your bike. Lighter is therefore better, particularly on rough roads.

A typical front pannier might have a 10–15 litre capacity (ie: 20–30 litres per pair). Larger panniers at the front would also be at risk of hitting the down-tube of the bike (or even the ground) when turning sharply, or interfering with disc brakes.

Rear panniers tend to have about twice the capacity; anything from 20–30 litres each (ie: 40–60 litres per pair). Tandem panniers can be even bigger.

As mentioned above, a single pair of rear panniers might suffice for even the longest trips if packed thoughtfully with lightweight gear.

What Kind Of Pannier Rack Attachment Systems Are There?

A variety of attachment systems exist, but they almost all make use of a pair of hooked clips attached the back of each pannier, allowing them to be hung from the rack tubing, plus some kind of adjustable retainer clip lower down on the back of each pannier to stop them swinging about.

Although pairs of panniers can be identical out of the box, setting up the attachments to fit your racks will usually result in them being configured as ‘left’ and a ‘right’ panniers from that point forward.

You’ll occasionally see a pair of panniers attached together with a strip of fabric between them, the whole of which is then slung over the rack.

As a general rule, don’t buy these unless it’s the only thing you can get, as this style is far less durable and versatile than individual panniers and rack mounts.

What Materials Are Panniers Made From?

In terms of construction and material, there are two main categories: fully waterproof and semi- or non-waterproof.

Fully waterproof panniers are usually made of laminated fabric with sealed seams, often using the same ‘roll-top’ closure system found in drybags for paddlesports. As with any waterproof gear, you should always pack a simple repair kit – a length of Gaffa Tape at the very least, or perhaps a roll of Tenacious Tape.

Non-waterproof panniers are usually made of canvas and have backpack-style lids with zips or buckles, and have some degree of water resistance and/or a waterproof plate on the rear to protect against road spray. The repair kit you should pack for this type of pannier is a heavy-duty needle and thread.

(As for which type is better, we’ll come to that later on, as it’s not a simple question.)

Some people get hung up on the colour of the material. There’s an argument that black waterproof panniers in sunny climates will heat your belongings more than white ones. Similarly, some people think high-visibility panniers are better for safety.

Personally, I don’t believe there’s much practical difference: If it’s hot, it’s hot, and you – the rider – should always be more visible than your panniers. So from my point of view, feel free to choose whatever colour or design you like.

In short, there’s a lot of variety out there. There are, however, a few specific makes and models of bicycle pannier that have proven themselves over many decades on very long and demanding tours.

We’ll start, however, by looking at basic, budget-friendly panniers, and work our way up to durable and hard-wearing panniers capable of withstanding years of constant daily use.


No-Budget Panniers For Cycle Touring

For the most ultra-low-budget of trips, you are very welcome to stop reading this article, take whatever cheap/free second-hand panniers you can find on eBay*, Freecycle, Gumtree, etc, add a basic sewing kit, a roll of Gaffa Tape, some cable ties and a few plastic carrier bags, and leave.

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

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

Have fun!

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

Rectangular plastic buckets with lids are available from hardware stores and pet shops and can be converted into panniers with a few commonly available fixings. Cool-boxes have travelled across Europe attached to bicycle racks (see photo above). REI have a good article on this topic.


Cheap Panniers For Cycle Touring

When it comes to cheap panniers at the bottom end of the market, a trip to any mainstream bike shop or sports retailer (eg: Halfords, Go Outdoors*, Decathlon*, etc) or a quick search on Amazon* or eBay* will demonstrate the endless options in this category.

None can really be said to be better or worse than any other, due to the lack of substantial documentary evidence besides customer reviews (which should always be taken with a pinch of salt).

To help you choose reasonably durable cheap panniers, and keep them on the road as long as possible, here are a few tips:

  • Cheap panniers are often aimed at commuters and shoppers, rather than cycle tourists, so see if you can find something that at least claims to be designed for touring use.
  • Avoid anything that relies on zips for closure of the main compartment, as cheap zips are liable to break. Go for something with straps and buckles/clips instead.
  • Avoid cheap and flimsy ‘waterproof’ material in favour of real fabric, then waterproof everything inside the panniers with carrier bags or drybags if and when it rains.
  • Consider pannier covers, which are essentially giant shower-caps for panniers; they’ll get you to the next bus shelter when paired with an effective mudguard to stop road-spray soaking the bags from behind.
  • Finally, pack a sewing kit, Gaffa Tape, and cable ties. (I know I’m repeating myself, the point being that you can save a lot of money and solve a lot of problems with a pragmatic attitude.)

Recognisable brands at the budget level include Altura, Topeak and B’Twin (Decathlon’s own brand). There are plenty of people who’ve been happily touring with Altura panniers for 20+ years. (You won’t necessarily find their cheapest models on their websites, by the way.)

What you’re looking for at this end of the spectrum is a capacity that matches your packing needs, compatibility with your racks, and as little to go wrong as possible.

Of course, if it’s a simple question of what you can beg, borrow or steal, anything is better than nothing!


Mid-Range Panniers For Cycle Touring

There are a few mid-range models of pannier that don’t quite meet the criteria for high-end expedition panniers but have nevertheless been shown to cope well with some very long and arduous bicycle journeys. Here I’ll list a few of the best-known examples, as well as introducing a couple of lesser known brands that show promise in this category.

Crosso Dry (RRP £55/£60 front/rear)

Crosso are a Polish company who have been manufacturing panniers commercially since 2006 (including making panniers for the second generation Extrawheel trailer for many years).

If you’re based in Europe and can find them, they make for a good option in the mid range, being considerably cheaper than the big-brand panniers. They’re quite basic in terms of design and materials – don’t expect the durability of Ortliebs – but will nevertheless serve you well if you look after them. (I’ve had a pair for 9 years which I’m still happily using after a couple of repairs.)

The waterproof Dry panniers come in front/universal and rear pairs with a capacity of 30 and 60 litres respectively, with roll-top closures and welded seams, and a choice of 10 colours.

The standard attachment system features two fixed steel hooks at the top, with an inverted hook on an elasticated strap at the bottom to secure the pannier in place. Once you get used to the system it is very easy to mount and dismount the panniers, and it’s surprisingly stable.

Not all racks have a lower horizontal rail to attach the bottom hook, so there is also the more expensive Click option, using traditional-style fixtures from German company Rixen+Kaul (who make the popular and widespread KlickFix system). These might be a better choice for extremely long journeys as the fixtures are replaceable.

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

Carradice’s CarraDry panniers are waterproof, feature a generous capacity (58 litres per pair at the rear) and are very good value for money. They share a mounting system with the heavy duty Super C expedition panniers (below).

Though they can’t be described as 100% watertight, with a lidded drawstring closure system rather than a roll-top drybag-style closure, they’re made of a similar laminated synthetic waterproof fabric as the other panniers in this section, with welded seams and waterproof zips, which will still keep out the heaviest rain. Like other Carradice products, they feature outer pockets as well as the main compartment.

The CarraDry might be a good choice if you’re looking for a high quality pair of waterproof panniers (and you don’t plan on floating them across deep rivers), but your budget can’t quite stretch to the top-end Ortliebs.

Ortlieb Sport-Roller/Back-Roller City (RRP €85/€95)

The City series of Ortlieb panniers is a budget version of the Classic/Plus series usually chosen for touring (see below). The City is marketed to commuters, but in reality they are more or less the same as the higher end Ortliebs in terms of shape, capacity, waterproofing and construction materials, made slightly lighter and quite a bit cheaper by a couple of missing features.

So what do you lose by saving some cash? Aside from the limited choice of colours, the main downgrade is to the full roll-top closure. Instead, the buckles attach to clips on the sides of the pannier, and there’s no extra cinch strap over the top. This is a less flexible setup with a variable sized load, one less element of security for the contents.

There is also no shoulder strap or inner pocket, though neither of those are hugely important for touring. The rack attachment system is the slightly older QuickLock1 mechanism, previously used on Classic/Plus panniers which are still going strong after decades – again, not a huge issue.

On the plus side, all of this reduces the overall weight; 760g per pannier for the City as opposed to 950g for the Classic. And, as mentioned, it reduces the price too.

In my opinion, the extra versatility and feature set of the Classic/Plus panniers is probably worth the extra money if you’re already looking at panniers of this kind of quality. If you’re commuting with a pair of City panniers already and thinking about a tour, however, you’ll get on absolutely fine with them.

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

Relatively new on the UK scene is the waterproof Tolari pannier range from direct retailer Alpkit. If the quality of the rest of their products is anything to go by, they’ll prove durable and well-made, which is why I’ve included them here, but it’s important to say that they are as-yet untested on multi-year expeditions.

Available in three sizes (12/20/30 litres per pannier) in a single graphite colour and sold individually, they’ll probably be of most interest to brand loyalists, being about the same price as the Ortlieb City panniers whose reputation will likely win more buyers.

  • Buy Tolari panniers direct from Alpkit

The All-Time Best Expedition Panniers For Cycle Touring

Here we’re going to look in detail at panniers that have at least a decade (often two or more) of proven and documented reputation as being suitable for long-haul rides. I’m talking multi-year, round-the-world odysseys with a single set of bags. That kind of ‘long-haul’.

As you might expect, the biggest concern at this end of the market is durability.

Panniers take a lot of abuse, and not just the bag material – it’s also where fabric and rack mountings meet that forces will be concentrated over thousands of miles of bumpy roads.

Holes in canvas can be repaired with a sewing kit, and waterproof material can be patched with Aquaseal, Tenacious Tape, Gaffa Tape, even puncture patches, all of which are part of a more general gear first-aid kit. Broken attachment systems, are harder problems to solve. Buying top-quality panniers from a tried-and-tested brand will largely – though never entirely – negate this risk.

The same pannier-buying considerations apply to expedition panniers as they do to budget ones. Are they compatible with the racks on your bike? And are they appropriately sized for the gear you’ll be carrying, plus food space?

As mentioned at the start of this article, many of today’s bicycle travellers could get away with two large rear panniers, a varying rack-top bundle and a bar-bag. Packing for a round-the-world ride traditionally calls for four panniers – a smaller pair of panniers at the front and a larger pair at the rear – because any trip years in length will inevitably require flexibility.

You’re unlikely to know exactly what your capacity requirements are until you’ve got your gear laid out in front of you, but as a rule it’s better to distribute weight evenly and have a little extra space than to be overloading your bags and having an unbalanced bike.

Remember that – regardless of ‘official’ capacity rating – most roll-top or buckle-lidded panniers will cinch down or expand a certain amount to accommodate what’s inside.

OK! Let’s look at the all-time best expedition panniers available today that have accumulated the most miles around the world on tours of every length, location and level of challenge. (All the RRPs I’ve listed below are per pair.)


Ortlieb

Let’s get this out of the way first: the single most interesting thing about Ortlieb’s range of roll-top waterproof panniers is that they’re the most popular of all the panniers being used on world-ranging tours.

Indeed, in a highly unscientific Twitter survey I conducted while first researching this article, about ⅔ of respondents used Ortliebs.

Seeing everyone using them attracts more people to buy them, and then claim that they’re the “only choice” despite never having used anything else. And so the inertia continues.

Of course, about ⅓ of respondents didn’t use Ortliebs, yet somehow were still perfectly happy.

So: do you really need Ortliebs?

Well, there’s no doubt that they make very good panniers. They’re about the right size. They’re available in a choice of colours. They’re compatible with most touring racks. They’re durable (which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bring a repair kit), and come with a 5‑year warranty. And they’re in the same price range as most of the other expedition panniers in this list.

In short: they work, the price is competitive, and loads of people use them. You certainly don’t need them, but they’re highly unlikely to disappoint you.

(By the way, the popularity of Ortlieb panniers makes them prime for being snapped up second-hand and hardly used – especially in early spring. This is because they’re the kind of thing people will buy (or get bought) in January when resolving to start commuting to work or do more exercise. A few months later they’ll get round to selling the barely-used panniers on eBay. Take advantage*.)

Ortlieb panniers come in several varieties. Let’s look at those of most interest to bicycle travellers.

Ortlieb Sport-Roller/Back-Roller Plus (RRP €125/€145)

If there was a Standard Issue Cycle-Round-The-World Kit (now there’s an idea), it would probably include a pair of Ortlieb Sport-Roller Plus (formerly known as Front-Roller Plus) panniers at the front and a pair of Ortlieb Back-Roller Plus at the rear of the bike – and an Ultimate 6 handlebar bag – all in matching his-and-hers colours.

At 25 litres per pair for the Sport-Rollers and 40 litres per pair for the Back-Rollers, they’re slightly smaller in rated capacity than other panniers in this list. As with all roll-top panniers, however, you can make fewer rolls when closing (3 is normal; perhaps 4 if you’re going swimming with them) to create more space.

The buckles at the top can either be clipped together, as with a regular drybag, or clipped into a carry strap which then secures to the front of the pannier via a retaining tab near the bottom edge. For additional peace of mind when overloaded, another short strap can be fastened over the top of the closed pannier.

Other useful features include a small handle attached to the rack mounting points for easy attachment and removal of the pannier to the rack, and a removable pouch attached to the backing plate on the inside of the pannier for flat items such as travel documents and diaries.

The current version of the Plus panniers makes use of the QuickLock2.1 attachment system, which is an updated version of Ortlieb’s original system with broader compatibility with the range of racks on the market today (this includes the popular Tubus racks, if you’re wondering). With this system, the hooks are locked in place by sprung retainers, which are released when you pull up on the grab handle for easy removal. Inserts are supplied for different rack tubing diameters to ensure a secure, rattle-free fit.

What distinguishes the Plus series from the Classic series (see below) is the fabric used in their construction: a high-grade Cordura-branded nylon weave which is laminated on the inside. This makes the outer surface almost as abrasion-resistant as a canvas pannier, while remaining waterproof due to the laminated inner. As weave is less dense than laminate, the Plus is therefore slightly lighter than the Classic; 840g per rear pannier as compared to 950g.

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

Slightly heavier, cheaper and less abrasion-resistant, going for the wipe-clean Ortlieb Sport-Roller Classic and Back-Roller Classic will save you a few days’ food budget whilst still giving you the sleep-easy feeling of ‘having Ortliebs’. As noted above, the fabric used in construction is a lighter and slightly more basic double-laminated polyester. Besides this, every other aspect is the same.

(It’s worth noting that I have never heard of anyone buying the Classics and then later wishing they’d bought the Pluses. Apart from that guy in the comments section below. There’s always one.)

Ortlieb ‘Pro’ Variants

The Ortlieb Sport-Roller and Back-Roller Plus/Classic panniers above are available in a further variation: ‘Pro’.

The difference? They’re bigger. Instead of 40 litres per pair, you get a whopping 70 litres of capacity.

Can your rack handle that amount of weight? Does your bike have enough heel clearance? Do you need an extra 30 litres of pannier space?

Truth is, the people who’d benefit most from these panniers would be tandem riders (which is who they’re made for), and perhaps people biking in deep winter. The rest of us can just strap an extra 30-litre drybag to the rear rack.


Carradice Super C (RRP £95/£120 front/rear)

Carradice’s Super C range is a classic line of British hand-made bags and panniers, the designs changing little in decades. (I’ve had a pair of the rear panniers hanging off my own touring bike for 12 years and counting.)

Stitched from heavy-duty waxed ‘cotton duck’ canvas of the type used for military kit and old-school tents, they’re far more resistant to abrasion than waterproof panniers with laminated fabrics or even synthetic canvas. You’ll hear stories of pairs of Super Cs being used for upwards of 30 years, by which time Ortliebs will be straining your tea, so if it’s pure longevity you’re after, they’re some of the best panniers going.

The front (or ‘universal’) panniers have a capacity of 28 litres per pair and, aside from the removable fixtures, are symmetrical in design, with one large main compartment and a small outside pocket in which I might be tempted to store a few snacks. The rear panniers have a capacity of 54 litres per pair, with an outside pocket at the rear. Both sizes have buckled lids with adjustable straps, in addition to a drawstring for the main compartment.

Carradice’s attachment system, based on two self-locking hooks along the top inside edge of the bag and with a retaining tab on the rear, has proven its durability on many a round-the-world tour. The fixtures are very adjustable, making them compatible with a wide variety of racks (adapters are available for rack tubing thicker than 13mm), and enabling them to be shifted back a long way for heel clearance. These fixtures are removable – always a good idea when transporting the panniers on planes, trains and buses.

What they are not is 100% watertight. Although the waxed canvas will keep any amount of rain out, it will eventually absorb water if fully immersed, and the lidded closure system will never be as watertight as a roll-top pannier, as discussed above.

Despite this, they are supremely durable receptacles for the (drybagged) gear you’ll keep inside, and I’ve never come across anyone who regretted buying them.

As an example of an ultra-durable canvas pannier, the Carradice Super Cs are certainly the best in the UK, with one of the longest heritages of any pannier on the market.


Vaude Aqua (RRP £110/£120 front/rear)

Part of a bigger line of commuter and messenger bags, German manufacturer Vaude make the very nice 100% waterproof Aqua touring panniers in front and rear variants.

These are strikingly similar to the Ortlieb Classics (see above), and not just superficially: they are also made in Germany, also come with a 5‑year guarantee, also have a versatile one-handed attachment system, also have inside pockets and shoulder straps, and also have a (smaller) following of satisfied users who’ve taken them round the world by bicycle.

The biggest difference is that they’re slightly larger (despite being about the same weight), with a rated capacity of 28/48 litres front/rear compared to 25/40 for the Ortliebs.

If you’re concerned about your environmental impact (and obviously you should be), you might be interested in the fact that the Aqua panniers are ‘climate neutrally manufactured’, ie: all manufacturing and shipping emissions have been carbon offset, and are fully PVC and PFC free. Indeed, Vaude have put a great deal of emphasis on their green credentials in recent years.

Why don’t more people don’t buy them, then? Simple: they’re not Ortliebs.

  • Buy the Vaude Aqua front and rear panniers online direct from Vaude.de
  • Buy the Vaude Aqua Back panniers online from Amazon* / Wiggle*
  • Buy the Vaude Aqua Front panniers online from Amazon* / Wiggle*

Arkel GT-54 (RRP CAD$470 rear)

Arkel are a small Canadian outfit established in 1988 whose panniers’ reputation (and price) exceeds even that of Ortliebs. Their top-end GT-54 classic touring panniers come from an entirely different line of thinking, full of pockets and sections and zips and straps and other finery – consider them the Rolls Royce to Ortlieb’s Land Rover.

There are plenty of riders out there who would claim that these panniers are, in fact, the very best in the world.

Slightly more affordable – and perhaps easier to get hold of if you’re based in Canada or the USA – is their Orca line of waterproof panniers, which are of the simpler roll-top design.


A Side Note On The Great Pannier Waterproofing Debate

There are lots of noisy opinions on the internet about pannier waterproofing. Discovering this ‘debate’ tends to worry people who are looking at spending two or three hundred pounds/euros/dollars on a full set of panniers, and planning to put a lot of stuff inside them that they really don’t want getting wet.

The question boils down to whether you should buy fully waterproof, roll-top, seam-sealed, drybag-style panniers and never worry about rain or river crossings ever again, or whether there’s any other type of pannier worth considering.

Although the 100%-waterproof option looks appealing, I haven’t met a long-term rider (ie: who’s spent years on the road) whose 100% waterproof panniers have stayed 100% waterproof.

This is nothing to do with quality. It’s because no piece of fabric can survive an unlimited amount being bashed into things, falling off the bike, being trodden on, tripped over, tied to sharp metal roof racks on buses and taxes, thrown into aircraft holds and pickup trucks, or ripped apart by hungry bears hunting for the smell of toothpaste (true story).

Some riders anticipate this and prepare for it by bringing a repair kit. Some don’t, and then criticise their expensive panniers for not being 100% waterproof. A lucky few somehow manage to avoid getting a single hole in their panniers, and claim this as evidence that they’ll be ‘bomb-proof’ for everyone else. They won’t.

If very heavy rain and wading through rivers is likely to be a regular feature of your trip, then drybag-style panniers and a patch kit is probably the better option.

If you don’t mind a little extra ‘pannier admin’, however, there is another legitimate approach: waterproof what’s inside the pannier as and when you need to.

For a little extra effort, this approach will allow you to exploit the many advantages of breathable, canvas panniers:

  • Wet gear (and smelly gear) can be isolated from the remaining contents and allowed to dry during a day’s riding,
  • Fuel bottles and other potentially messy items can be prevented from contaminating other contents,
  • In hot weather, perishable food can be kept longer in a breathable pannier than inside a sealed drybag,
  • Canvas panniers are easier to repair with a needle and thread or by giving them to a local tailor or cobbler,
  • Top quality cotton canvas is, all else being equal, more abrasion-resistant than laminated synthetic fabric, and on a long tour this will bear the brunt of the punishment while the drybags inside remain protected.
  • Canvas looks cooler. The odd hole here and there will simply add to a pannier’s character.

The extra ‘pannier admin’ involves putting your gear into drybags inside the pannier (good ones are made by Seal Line, Exped, Sea to Summit, Alpkit and many other brands); either one large drybag used as a pannier liner, or lots of smaller ones for organisation and selective waterproofing (or a combination of the two).

Either approach will carry your gear and keep it dry if you know the strengths and weaknesses of each and have a packing routine to match.

I’ve used both types myself on long-term rides in all conditions, from a free pair of shopping panniers for a rainy spring ride through England to heavy-duty canvas bags across the Middle East and Africa to roll-top waterproof panniers and canvas bags together in Mongolia. Analysing which of these systems is ‘best’ is not something I feel the need to spend any more time discussing, because all of them can be made to work.

The truth is that most long-term riders use roll-top waterproof panniers – in particular, the Ortlieb-branded ones mentioned below – because everyone else does. It’s a conformity thing. Non-conformists might prefer the tramp-like image engendered by dusty canvas. If you can’t decide, flip a coin.


Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m just about burned out from discussing the minutiae of bags with hooks attached to them. Time to grab whatever’s lying around and hit the road, no?

Categories
Budgeting & Finance Planning & Logistics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are two totally different insurance products.

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

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

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

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

Hard, but not impossible. Read on…

Bicycle Insurance Covering Overseas Travel

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

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

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

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

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

Travel Insurance Covering Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended Cycle Touring & Bikepacking Insurance Providers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Planning & Logistics

10 Tips For Planning Your First Off-Road Bikepacking Expedition

Cycling across Europe to the Middle East in 2007 gave me thousands of miles of on-road cycle touring experience. But in 2009 I quickly discovered that riding the dirt tracks of Africa was a whole different ball-game to the smooth, well-maintained asphalt of Europe I’d grown used to. A two-month off-road ride across Outer Mongolia in 2012 – where even African roads seemed luxurious by comparison – took it to another level altogether.

Since then, bikepacking has come of age, and more and more people are ditching panniers and trailers and setting off on dirt road adventures on nimble bikes with knobbly tyres and ultralight gear packed into frame bags, seat packs and handlebar rolls alone – including me.

Here, then, are ten handy tips from an old-timer if you’re in the planning stages of your own dirt-road bikepacking trip.

Categories
Philosophy Of Travel Planning & Logistics

Как отправиться в кругосветное путешествие на велосипеде: три простых шага

Шаг 1. Раздобудьте велосипед.
Какой именно — не имеет значения. Главное, чтобы он был удобным и исправным. В любом случае, без велосипеда вы далеко не уедете.

Шаг 2. Увольтесь.*
На путешествие потребуется несколько лет, так что напишите своему начальству в заявлении на увольнение о том, что вам, конечно, очень жаль уходить с работы, но у вас есть более важные дела.

* если вы студент, пенсионер или безработный, то этот шаг можно смело пропустить.

Шаг 3. Отправляйтесь в путь.
У вас не получится объехать весь свет, если вы никуда не поедете. Поэтому закрепите на велосипеде палатку и спальный мешок, попросите соседей приглядывать за вашим котом и начинайте крутить педали.

Как только вы пройдете эти три шага, все остальное получится само собой.

Хорошей дороги!

* * *

Необязательные дополнительные шаги

Изучайте.
Вы можете потратить несколько месяцев, изучая информацию о правилах пересечения границ, визах, необходимом оборудовании, временах года, бюджете и прочем. С тем же успехом вы можете отправиться в путь прямо сейчас и день за днем узнать всё, что нужно, по дороге. Поверьте, собственные инициатива и интуиция (и бесплатный Wi-Fi) послужат вам большим подспорьем, нежели энциклопедические познания в международной бюрократии.

Тренируйтесь.
Вы можете записаться в тренажерный зал с персональным тренером или получить членство в местном велоклубе и потратить несколько месяцев, чтобы, как говорится, «прийти в форму». Так делают все настоящие спортсмены. С другой стороны, вы наработаете такую же (или лучшую) форму в первые несколько недель путешествия, если будете ехать на велосипеде каждый день целый день.

Экономьте.
Вы можете сэкономить десятки и сотни тысяч рублей (долларов, фунтов, евро и т. д.) и положить их в банк — это создаст чувство некоторой защищенности. А можете продать все, что вам не нужно, прямо сейчас и ничего больше не покупать. Конечно, иногда придется ночевать в спартанских условиях, питаться хлебом, водой и фруктами с деревьев, заниматься поиском жилья на различных couch-surf сайтах (и принимать любые приглашения). Да, еще придется отказаться от экскурсий по достопримечательностям — займётесь этим, когда выйдете на пенсию.

Когда у вас нет денег — пользуйтесь навыками, о наличии которых у себя вы даже и не подозреваете, чтобы заработать хоть что-то там, куда вас занесло.

Купите крутое снаряжение.
Можно потратить очень много денег на самый совершенный туринг-велосипед, легчайшую палатку, надежнейшую походную печку, самые непромокаемые вещи и т. д. и т. п. С тем же успехом можно найти велосипед на помойке (буквально), взять палатку в дар по объявлению, сделать горелку из пивной банки и купить все что нужно в местном супермаркете (кстати, таким образом вы сэкономите денег на огромное количество хлеба и воды, см. предыдущий пункт).

Спланируйте маршрут.
Потратьте некоторое время на планирование маршрута, штудируя дома карты и атласы. Так вы будете точно знать, куда вам надо ехать каждый день. Или поезжайте куда глаза глядят, ориентируясь только по компасу и примерному направлению — ведь вся прелесть велопутешествия заключается именно в свободе выбора.

Зарегистрируйтесь на фейсбуке, в твиттере и создайте свой сайт.
Вы можете поведать всему миру о своем путешествии в режиме онлайн: на сайтах, в блогах и социальных сетях. Но точно так же вы можете не пользоваться интернетом и наслаждаться своей жизнью на Земле. Свою историю вы всегда можете рассказать, уже вернувшись домой.

Найдите спонсора.
В безрезультатном обзвоне компаний и написании просьб о спонсорстве можно провести несколько месяцев. Те же несколько месяцев можно поработать сверхурочно (или на второй работе — как будет угодно), чтобы заработать те же самые деньги. Вот только без спонсора вы сами вольны принимать решения в дороге: куда ехать, как ехать, ехать ли вообще. Можете даже влюбиться и сыграть свадьбу по дороге — все зависит только от вас.

Озадачьтесь освещением путешествия в прессе.
Подробностями вашего планируемого приключения можно поделиться с местной (а то и национальной) прессой. Но опять же, подумайте о той свободе, которой вы достигаете, когда никто за вами не наблюдает (и когда вам не надо посылать отчеты о поездке из своей палатки, а можно спокойно почитать книгу перед сном).

Сожгите мосты.
Вы можете продать свою квартиру, уволиться со скандалом, развестись, бросить семью и детей и уехать, послав всех и вся далеко и надолго. Но можно попробовать так изменить свою семейную и рабочую жизнь так, чтобы пережить путешествие без потрясений и вернуться к ней когда (если) оно подойдет к концу.

Стремитесь к рекордам.
Никто не запрещает поставить новый мировой рекорд в кругосветном велопутешествии. Еще никто не запрещает вспомнить о том, что вы не спортсмен, а сама суть вашего начинания — независимость и свобода выбора. Возможно, стоит задуматься о том, что в путешествии надо радоваться дороге, а не планировать закончить его как можно быстрее.

Собирайте статистику.
Каждый день можно пытаться записывать сколько вы проехали, какая средняя скорость была достигнута, какое изменение высоты накопилось… Или можно понять, что количество километров в день примерно так же важно для успешного путешествия, как цвет вашей все сильнее и сильнее запотевающей и пылящейся футболки. Без цифр в голове гораздо проще сконцентрироваться на своих ощущениях от проделанного пути.

Назначьте дату возвращения.
Для того, чтобы вернуться домой к определенному времени, стоит обозначить некоторые промежуточные цели на своем пути. А еще стоит осознать: всё, что вы узнаете в дороге, скорее всего как-то повлияет на вас, и все цели, так скрупулезно расставленные, в какой-то момент перестанут иметь смысл. Возможно, даже сам факт возвращения потеряет смысл. Или — какой ужас — вам напрочь надоест крутить педали.

На самом деле совершите кругосветное путешествие.
Вы и вправду можете целенаправленно завершить свое путешествие (так наивно названное «кругосветным» за несколько лет до старта), объехав весь мир. Это будет потрясающим примером торжества идеи над здравым смыслом. А можете позволить дороге заводить вас туда, куда, казалось бы, вам совсем не по пути. И ваш путь по глобусу будет напоминать детские каракули, нежели красивую линию, проходящую через все континенты.

* * *

Существует множество способов сделать долгое путешествие много более сложным, чем оно является в действительности.

Для кого-то все сложности могут быть вполне осязаемыми. Например, мне самому семь лет назад казалась полностью очевидной необходимость завести блог: я хотел писать, блог был тем средством, которое помогало мне бороться с собственной ленью и чувствовать значимость моих заметок.

На данный момент, я пишу именно потому, что мне нравится сам процесс. Я вдохновляюсь путешествиями. Мне полюбилась каждая минута тех двух лет, которые я писал свою первую книгу (и даже когда мне, казалось, надоело всё это, в глубине души я всё равно наслаждался моментом). Наверное, даже если бы интернета не существовало, я все равно писал хотя бы в простой бумажный дневник.

На каждого будущего велопутешественника, которому действительно нужны дополнительные шаги из списка выше, приходится сотня-другая тех, кто шел по простому пути и никогда об этих шагах не думал, тех, у кого нет блогов и аккаунтов в твиттере и инстаграме, тех, кто раз в пару недель пишет своим семьям из интернет-кафе.

Эти незаметные путешественники, идущие по своему пути, в действительности составляют основную массу всех «велодальнобойщиков». О них не узнать в сети. И именно поэтому для каждого будущего путешественника интернет в какой-то мере опасен.

Собственно, основная опасность всех этих дополнительных шагов заключается в том, что они часто упоминаются в сети, тем самым обманчиво усложняя суть приключения и делая каждое конкретное путешествие мечты все менее и менее возможным.

Часть проблемы — сам интернет. Так просто загореться идеей долгой дороги! И точно также просто отказаться от нее, потому что какой-то из именитых велосипедистов очень красочно пишет о том, как же всё это было сложно.

Всё это я имею честь лицезреть воочию каждый ноябрь на неделе, которую я провожу на конференции под названием «Explore», посвященной планированию экспедиций Королевского Географического Общества в Лондоне. Моей неофициальной работой на этой конференции является необходимость рассказывать всем будущим велопутешественникам о том, что для начала путешествия им не стоит посещать эту конференцию. Им надо просто брать велосипед и ехать.

Это кажется несколько фантастическим и даже гротескным, но такая работа приносит свои плоды — я периодически получаю письма благодарности от людей, которые уже несколько месяцев находятся в дороге. Мне говорят спасибо только за то, что я лишний раз повторяю проверенный временем постулат KISS-принципа1.

Также мне сложно не замечать всё большее количество очень серьезно подготовленных и оснащенных велоэкспедиций, которые оказываются провальными (по их собственным критериям успешности). Создаются общества, намечаются великие цели… и сложная концепция всё равно разваливается и оказывается менее жизнеспособной в реальных условиях, чем обычный жизненный опыт и понимание того, что путешествие может быть не сложнее повседневности.

Большая часть успешных путешествий начинается с мечты и ее немедленной реализации: сели на велосипед, поехали — по пути разберемся, что делать дальше. Ненужные усложнения слишком часто не позволяют мечтам сбыться.

В общем, не пытайтесь повторить в своей жизни то, что вы так часто видите в интернете. Если у вас есть мечта, пройдите шаги с первого по третий и радуйтесь дороге. Дополнительными шагами озадачивайтесь только в том случае, если они правда-правда-правда кажутся вам осмысленными.