What Is Cycle Touring (aka: Bikepacking)?

This post is part of a series of inspirational short essays exploring the who, what, when, where and how of cycle touring and bikepacking.

Getting on a bicycle and going somewhere new is one of the most accessible ways to have an adventure.

It doesn’t need to involve quitting your job, spending years planning, or embarking upon an odyssey of self discovery. It doesn’t need to look heroic on Instagram. It doesn’t require “epic” days in the saddle, or energy gels, or a Strava subscription, or lycra. Nor does it have to involve physical hardship, highway traffic, vast mountain ranges, or crossing continents on one dollar a day.

It can involve all of these things – of course it can!

But most of the time it can simply mean going somewhere new, exploring your surroundings for long enough to unwind, and coming home refreshed. 

That could be achieved in a weekend, or over the course of a year or more on the road. It’s totally up to you.

A bicycle adventure can be whatever you want it to be. And you can call it whatever you like – cycle touring, bikepacking, adventure cycling, cyclo-camping, travelling by bicycle; these are all different labels for the act of getting on a bike and seeing what you discover. The rest is detail.

While a short trip is enough for many, some choose to take things further. 

The number of people who have cycled round the world is certainly in the thousands. And there are limitless adaptations you can make to the cycle-round-the-world-in-3-steps formula.

Joff Summerfield has so far made three attempts to circle the planet on a penny farthing. Tom Kevill-Davies based a transcontinental bike trip on sampling and recording local recipes, which he later published as a series of travelogue-cookbooks. Emily Chappell found her adventurous calling by cycling across Alaska in the depths of winter on a fatbike. Ed Pratt spent several years riding round the world on a unicycle, becoming a YouTube sensation in the process.

Dig deeper and you’ll find dudes building custom surfboard carriers and riding coastlines in search of the perfect break. You’ll find people building off-road bikepacking rigs, loading them up with home-made frame luggage and charting the unmapped dirt trails of South America and the former USSR. You’ll find tribes of modern-day hippies forming bands and roaming Europe on busking bike trips. You’ll find families cycling across continents with children of all ages, home-schooling in ultralight family-sized tents and taking them on the best geography field trips imaginable every single day.

You’ll find people recreating cultural rite-of-passage journeys in traditional costume, people earning a living on the road by selling hand-made jewellery on exotic beaches, people riding from farm to farm as they work their way around the world. You’ll find cyclist photographers who spend months exploring on the profits of roadside postcard sales. You’ll hear of people serving bicycle-powered smoothies, not for money but just because they could. You’ll find people who travel money-free, bartering, dumpster-diving and volunteering their way across countries and continents. Whatever kind of eccentricity you might imagine, be sure that someone is out there doing it on a bicycle.

Yes, you’re allowed to have fun on a bike trip. Not Type 2 fun (the type you only later convince yourself you had). Actual, real fun. Sit by the riverside and read your favourite book. Wallow in a state of post-lunch, post-beer tranquillity for hours every afternoon. Cook elaborate banquets over your tiny camping stove. Eat ice cream. Brew coffee. Occasionally, ride your bicycle.

Sleep in wonderful, wild places that only you will ever know. Sleep in terrible, ill-advised places where no-one would dream of looking. Meet new people every day. Ride across deserts in a state of utter solitude. Ignore everything except what’s happening right here, right now. Daydream until you can’t remember where you are.

Leave your phone and laptop at home. I dare you. I double-dare you. Throw out your calendar. Spontaneously change your plans, your flights, your future. Travelling by bicycle can feel like the closest thing to freedom you’ll ever experience. Embrace it!

Header photo courtesy of Jamie Bowlby-Whiting.

This is a modified excerpt from my beginners’ introduction to cycle touring and bikepacking.

How To Hit The Road is a low-priced newcomer’s guide to every aspect of planning and surviving your first bike bike trip. Available as an ebook (Kindle/ePub) or print-on-demand paperback.

Comments (skip to respond)

3 responses to “What Is Cycle Touring (aka: Bikepacking)?”

  1. buttiesayr avatar

    Fantastic advice ! Reawakening my Western Scotland trip from nearly 50 years ago, think I have to get back to it ! Never mind that it will be a bit slower.….

  2. Hi Tom,

    Last year, I found your website and quickly consumed its content only to start dreaming and planning my travelling adventures. At first it was, Europe, Canada (West to East), South America (Maybe Chile, no wait Bolivia) then I started reading about something called the GDMBR. I wasn’t sure what I was thinking but I basically thought, why not? So I took my 1996 mountain bike and configured it into a steel road touring machine. Little did I know, my plan to attack an off-route mountain bike route might prove daunting for a first go at bicycle touring. 

    However, there I was in July with a ticket to fly to Banff, AB (Canada) setting my sights on covering 2600 miles to New Mexico. I bought the tires, the Arkel panniers and the maps for the trip. I searched out the gear and read your blog for advice. It was time to make it happen or so I thought… Upon arriving, all I could see were these monster truck bikes with plus tires and soft bags attached to their frames. I felt out of my element — a rookie amongst experts. The trip lasted a week due to a busted ankle and some really sore knees and a bike setup that felt all wrong for the undertaking. Here I am a year later with all this wealth of knowledge — realizing that bike packing and touring are the same but very different all at once. Which brings me to my question for you Tom, why do you continue to tour with that traditional pannier setup rather than take on the wild places with a more rugged setup? I’m curious…what keeps you going towards those roads rather than the wilderness or the wild?

    Great blog…it inspired me and continues to do so.


    1. The simple answer is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Touring satisfies me mainly because of the cultural/human element, for which the standard setup works fine. I enjoy mountain biking but it’s not my focus and I’m quite happy with day-long offroad rides with no luggage.

      But do take a look at my blog from Iran in January – it’s not that black and white…

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