Ultralight cycle touring – a.k.a. bikepacking – is something I’ve been asked repeatedly to cover on this blog.
As luck would have it, lightweight bikepacking is also something I’m getting more and more interested in, especially now I’m based in a place with endless potential for dirt road adventures in the mountains. Exciting plans are brewing for this style of adventure cycling. But a trial run is always a good idea…
Luckily, a couple of weeks back, I found myself with the unexpected luxury of an empty week in my calendar, a touring bike in need of a workout, and an appointment to keep on the other side of England. With an unbroken run of fabulous weather on the forecasters’ cards, it was the perfect opportunity to experiment with bikepacking.
Here’s the rig I used to follow a rough route from London, along the south coast of England as far as the New Forest, and cut across to Bristol:
It’s pretty much the lightest I’ve travelled by bicycle for more than a couple of days. The feeling of being unburdened yet self-sufficient was a fantastic luxury.
I made a few mistakes, and learned a lot, as you tend to do when trying something new.
But before I go into any more detail on what I did discover about bikepacking, let’s tackle the fundamental question of ‘why’ you might go ultralight with your two-wheeled travels. After all, when the classic pannier-laden rig has been tried and tested for decards, what’s the point of changing it?
Good question. Given good roads, flat terrain and merciful weather, and all else being equal (fitness, patience, navigation skills, etc), the only thing you’re gaining by losing weight is pure speed, and therefore the range of distances you can cover.
But as we all should know, smiles are not a function of miles. So this is only an advantage if speed and distance are truly important, which in my experience describes only a fraction of cycle tourists, generally those from a road-racing background, or with a particularly masochistic streak.
No. The big draw for me was, instead, the range of terrain I could cover, not the quantity. Given a sufficiently versatile touring bike (and Tom’s Expedition Bike was built for versatility), the potential for taking an ultralight touring rig off the beaten track – and (gasp) having fun with it – is massively increased.
When I think back to the significant swathes of the planet I’ve crossed on dirt roads – or no roads at all – in Africa and Mongolia primarily, but also in Europe and the USA, I find that my strongest and most treasured memories are inevitably from these times.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise, for mountain biking was how I came across cycle touring in the first place. Indeed, the first touring bike I built was a Frankenstein’s monster of a mountain bike, adapted to carry loads of luggage (thus ironically rendering it deeply unsuited for off-road riding).
In many ways, then, going ultralight on an all-terrain bike is an optimisation of all the things that originally attracted me to the bicycle as a mode of transport, combined with a rectifying of the mistakes I made when touring off-road over the last few years.
And I’m not alone on this – in fact, I’m rather late to the party, as a quick search for ‘bikepacking’ will reveal.
(For those in search of vicarious dirt-road bikepacking adventures, Cass Gilbert’s blog is an unbeatable place to start.)
So much for the ‘why’. Let’s look at the ‘how’ of bikepacking.
Now, a week of it hardly makes me an expert. But I’ve been watching the bikepacking scene from the sidelines for years. And as with so many things adventurous, there seems to be an enormous emphasis on gear when discussing how to go ultralight with cycling adventures.
Yes, the advances in gear technology have been startling and impressive. Without these innovations, I certainly would not have been able to cram the following list of items into the luggage you see in the picture below:
- Bag4Bike saddle pack: Exped Hyperlite M camping mat, Exped AirPillow UL, Alpkit Pipedream 250 sleeping bag, Alpkit Hunka bivvy bag (should have got the XL), waterproof jacket, fleece, thermal Buff, 2x underwear, 2x socks, off-bike shirt & trousers
- Biologic Tour bar bag: Digital camera (Sony NEX‑7 + 18–200mm Tamron lens), Zoom H1 voice recorder, smartphone & charger, head torch, personal valuables, Kindle, knife, wash kit & medical kit, snacks
- Small backpack (not pictured): Laptop & charger
- b’Twin frame bag: Pump, chain lube and touring toolkit
(I could have done away with all the gadgets and halved my quota yet again, or added more warm clothes, but I had work to do en route.)
The brilliant thing about what’s listed above is that I could travel in more or less temperate climes pretty much indefinitely with it. And it’d be a luxuriously light and nimble way to ride.
“But what about a tent and stove, among other essential items of cycle touring gear?” I hear you ask, in an impressive display of literary English.
This, I feel, is where the other half of the equation comes in.
Ultralight bikepacking doesn’t just mean buying ultralight bikepacking luggage, like the Bag4Bike saddle pack I used on this trip. And it doesn’t just mean buying ultralight camping and cooking gear to stuff inside it.
It means fundamentally reassessing what you need versus what you simply want.
If you want the guaranteed shelter of a two-person freestanding tent… if you want to cook your own elaborate meals every night… if you want to change your clothes every day… if you want to bring your entire digital world along with you…
…then I am sorry, but no amount of money spent on the lightest and most packable example of each item of gear will change the fact that you simply have too much stuff in the first place.
It seems to me that ultralight bikepacking is, for the most part, the art of leaving things behind. Stripping things down to their barest essentials. Not buying gear.
I only went half way – as mentioned before, I could have ditched all the gadgets and devices and used a smartphone in place of all of them.
The problem is that in doing so, most of us will need to break our habits and do things differently, and if there’s one thing humans are good at, it’s resisting change.
This manifests in all sorts of comical ways. Fear of bivvying out in the open is understandable (though curable with practice or with company).
But getting wound up about the prospect of cold food for dinner? No tea or coffee in the morning? Wearing the same clothes every day? Or, quite simply, feeling uncomfortable because you’ve never carried so little stuff before – surely something must be missing?
These are psychological obstacles to overcome; aspects of going ultralight that gear manufacturers will never be able to invent a solution for.
Luckily, overcoming these obstacles is a simple case of going out and doing it, in spite of any misgivings.
Crossing Southern England isn’t the obvious place to try out ultralight bikepacking.
But why not? The South Downs Way runs for a hundred miles along ridgelines overlooking the coast. The New Forest is riddled with endless shared-use trails. Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset can be crossed almost entirely on ‘trailways’ – old railway cuttings converted into off-road cycle routes by Sustrans, finishing up with the UK National Cycle Network’s first ever route, the Bristol-Bath Railway Path.
And the odd country road to link it all up – well, this is England, where, outside of rush hour, the country roads tend to be a joy to ride.
If that isn’t a candidate for the perfect application of ultralight bikepacking, I’m not sure what is.