What’s Really The Difference Between Bikepacking & Cycle Touring?

Over the last few years we have seen the rise of a new sub-discipline of bicycle travel.

It’s called ‘bikepacking’, and it’s become such a hit that almost every mainstream bike manufacturer now produces at least one ‘adventure bike’ or ‘bikepacking rig’, or includes the word in their marketing spiel for bikes that might fit the bill.

Specialised bikepacking luggage, too, has proliferated, from a few cottage industries turning out bespoke, hand-stitched frame bags to pannier giant Ortlieb launching a line.

Someone I know who helps run a bikepacking website told me they get over one million hits per month. (For comparison, this blog has been getting a steady 50,000 monthly pageviews for the last several years, or about 5% of that.)

So today, unlike in days gone by, I think it’s a fair bet that when a newcomer happens upon the idea of going on a bike trip, one of the first things they find is a dichotomy between ‘cycle touring’ and ‘bikepacking’.

In this piece I want to explore the difference, as I see it, between these two different versions of the same basic idea. Because while the difference seems to be portrayed mainly in terms of equipment, I don’t think it actually has anything to do with bikes or luggage at all. And I want to help those newcomers who get sucked into all that stuff about bikes and gear to understand what’s actually going on beneath it all.

(At 2,866 words, you might want to get a cup of tea for this.)

Some context.

I’m a mountain biker first and foremost. Back in 2006, when I was 22, me and my mates bought 1-berth ultralight tents from Lidl, threw them in army-surplus backpacks and set off on full-suspension mountain bikes to ride across the Scottish Highlands.

After a couple of days we strapped our luggage to the bike frames to lighten the load. So we were mountain biking with stuff strapped to our bikes. But we weren’t bikepacking. That hadn’t been invented yet.

(It’s funny how similar this photo from 12 years ago looks to what bikepackers are doing today. Check out the Gaffa Tape seat-pack.)

I was inspired. And a year later I set out to cycle round the world. By now I had come across ‘cycle touring’. People had, I discovered, been going cycle touring for years. Decades. That’s why it sounds slightly old-fashioned. ‘Touring’. So Victorian.

At this point it is customary to mention Thomas Stevens’ bicycle odyssey across America and Eurasia of 1896. But preceding that by some 18 years was the founding in 1878 of the Bicycle Touring Club of Great Britain (now Cycling UK).

That point is that ‘cycle touring’ – the phrase, and the activity it described – has been established for at the very least 140 years.

How long has ‘bikepacking’ been around?

To take a crude measurement I looked at Google Trends. This tool uses the entire history of Google’s indexing of the contents of the internet to calculate the relative interest in any given phrase over time.

It gives the term ‘bikepacking’ a rating of zero as recently as April 2010.

From that starting point, the data shows an exponential upward curve, from 15% in June 2013, to 49% in 2016, to 71% this time last year, all the way up to the benchmark of 100% it has today (June 2018).

In other words, bikepacking has never been more popular than it is right now, yet less than a decade ago, basically nobody knew what it was.

It gets more interesting when you overlay the popularity ratings for ‘cycle touring’. Taking again April 2010 as the starting point, when bikepacking could be argued to have begun its rise to popularity, the same dataset shows cycle touring’s popularity as a linear line, maintaining more or less steady popularity throughout the decade or so. Bikepacking seems to have surpassed cycle touring some time in the middle of 2015.

(If anything, cycle touring has seen an ever-so-slight decline. I think I know why that is, and I’ll come back to it later on.)

The data would seem to support anecdotal evidence.

Today, my social media feeds are awash with images of happy, tired, mud-splattered faces astride lightly-loaded off-road bikes with big, knobbly tyres, with yearning mountain vistas or forest singletrack in the (slightly out of focus) distance.

They drown out the images I used to see a lot more of – tanned, weathered people astride heavily loaded touring bikes in places entirely unrecognisable – or more often, images that were not of the riders at all but of the people they’d been hanging out with and the curiosities they’d encountered on the roadside.

There is something telling in this, too, which feeds directly into what I think the difference between cycle touring and bikepacking really is. But more groundwork still needs to be done.

Superficially, the difference is obvious. Bikepacking looks different. The bikes look different. The stuff people strap to them look different. The places they ride them often look different.

Bikepacking looks like a different kind of experience.

“Simply put,” says Bikepacking.com’s introductory paragraph under the heading ‘What is Bikepacking?’, “bikepacking is the synthesis of mountain biking and minimalist camping; it evokes the freedom of multi-day backcountry hiking, with the range and thrill of riding a mountain bike.”

Cycle touring is a bit more abstract.

“Cycle touring is whatever you want it to be,” I wrote in the first chapter of my beginners’ guide. (I can quote myself, can’t I? Is that OK these days? Just the literary equivalent of posting a selfie, right?) “And you can call it whatever you like – cycle touring, adventure cycling, bikepacking, even simply travelling by bicycle; these are all nuanced terms for the act of getting on a bike and going on a journey with it.”

There’s a formula for how the regular form of cycle touring looks, too. Again, a photo or two makes the difference obvious. On the surface, I mean.

Two nomads on a cycling adventure (Explored)

(OK, extreme example. But you know what I mean).

But the popularity graphs – the changing social media trends – even the nuances of the language used in the descriptions above – all of these are pointers, in my opinion, to a deeper motivation for what is essentially the splitting of the adventure cycling community into two distinct camps.

One camp really just wants to go travelling.

The other camp really just wants go biking.

To me, this is what defines the split.

And of course, there is a middle ground between the two, and loads of overlap, and exceptions that prove the rule, because we’re talking about generalisations here, and life’s not really that simple. And I’m not suggesting that the emergence of two camps suggests any rivalry or conflict, and certainly not any mutual exclusivity. The people who inhabit this scene generally aren’t like that.

But this is the internet, and so before anyone starts to formulate an emotionally charged disagreement to post in the comments, let me explain the reasons why I think this is generally true.

Grinding up the last few switchbacks

The running theme I have seen over more than a decade of being involved in all this stuff is that people who choose the bicycle as a means of seeing the world tend to do so because of the many advantages it confers upon the traveller. It is a tool, and a very good one at that. It is a mode of transport. And the world these people imagine travelling through tends to be that of people and the roads that connect them and the cultures that spring forth when they meet, settle and grow into that thing we call human civilisation.

Cycle touring is about enabling one to practice the art of travel, to live life on the road.

It consequently tends to attract those who see travel itself as the end, to which getting on a bike is the means.

That’s also, in my view, why their social media feeds are not of themselves or their bikes but of what they saw and who they met along the way.

Bikepacking, too, absolutely involves a big element of travel, adventure, exploration, or whatever you wish to call it.

But bikepacking is primarily a way of going on a longer bike ride.

Bikepacking is for bikers – bikers who want to get away from busy roads and the man-made world and ride their bikes in nature, or something approximating it. They always have wanted this. Now they can ride further, for longer and with less fuss. The community’s prime obsessions are bikes, gear to attach to bikes, and riding bikes.

And there is a point to all this obsessiveness. It is to tailor and to optimise the ‘rig’ to deliver the best possible ride under conditions often far more challenging than those encountered on a regular cycle tour. Off-road biking requires skill, and just as in other specialist discipline requiring skill, the tools involved must be designed and honed to allow those skills to be maximised.

This emphasis on bikes and gear has made bikepacking the lucrative niche for the bicycle industry that cycle touring never was. Trek doesn’t noisily launch a 2,500-dollar “bikepacker’s dream” unless the executives think it’s going to sell. And check out the top posts on Instagram for #bikepacking. At the time of writing, the subject of each of the nine featured photos was a either a bike or someone riding one. Manicured. Artistic. Posed. Paid-for.

Touring bikes, on the other hand, tend to stay the same year after year after year; always there, rarely noticed, usually buried under some other ill-fitting category, and probably not making much money.

There is nothing particularly wrong with any of this. Mass consumption funds research & development which in turn makes products more tuned to the priorities of their buyers. And this matches the bikepacking ideal just perfectly. The holy grail is a bikepacking bike with so little baggage that it has basically reverted back to being a mountain bike.

The industry will eventually help deliver something approaching this ideal if people keep pumping money into the machine. This will, in turn, benefit enormously the members of the bikepacking community who spend more time riding bikes than talking about it on the internet.

Cycle tourists, on the other hand, start out in the knowledge they’ll just have to lug a big bunch of stuff around with them, probably in a set of Ortliebs. It’s just as inevitable a compromise of travel as a suitcase or a backpack. And while some may occasionally curse the weight on the way up a big mountain pass, I’ll bet the only people who actually switch to bikepacking for this reason are those who, all along, really just wanted to ride their bike.

Please don’t get the impression I’m pro-cycle touring and anti-bikepacking or taking any kind of partisan stance.

I love bikepacking. Not because I’m also jumping the bandwagon, but because I was a mountain biker long before I was a traveller. I spent years hucking bikes off-road through woods and muddy fields before I did anything more interesting on a bike. But, as noted above, bikepacking didn’t exist back then.

In the meantime I went cycle touring, fell in love with the act of travel and consequently missed the bikepacking boat while I was mucking around in far-off lands and making films.

And today I am discovering the joys of bikepacking retroactively (though I can’t afford the posh gear). It’s not a replacement for cycle touring. It just ticks a different set of boxes which were there waiting to be ticked. I wish it had been invented earlier…

Wading through yet more marshland

I’m hardly alone on this. Look hard enough and you’ll find plentiful examples from back in the day of mountain bikers trying to wrestle cycle touring to fit their priorities.

In fact, one of my inspirations to take cycle touring to places like Mongolia was Cass Gilbert, whose evocative photos of trailer-laden mountain bikes in the Himalaya I remember distinctly from the first edition of the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook, which I read back in 2006. He went on to become one of bikepacking’s progenitors, doing the same thing before it was even a word, all in pursuit of being able to go mountain biking for longer. (Do they even make the Bob Yak any more?)

Logan Watts, whose travel blog Pedalling Nowhere later became Bikepacking.com, also played an instrumental part in developing bikepacking into a ‘thing’. He too was a mountain biker forced into the cycle touring mould until he started tinkering with options that better suited his preferences. Now he runs what is probably bikepacking’s most successful community website and has written a full-length manifesto on the topic.

And I will never forget reading about Janne Corax’s mountain bike crossing of the Changtang plateau in northwest Tibet, which remains the single most extreme-sounding wilderness bicycle journey about which I have ever read. That was 15 years ago and I can’t find the article any more. (I wonder how such an expedition would look today?)

These and many other bikepacking pioneers are doubtless somewhat baffled at the explosion of bikepacking’s popularity. They probably can’t help questioning whether or not it’s a good thing, and probably come back to the conclusion that it is – a sentiment I would share, because it ultimately means more humans falling in love with Earth again at a time when we’re collectively screwing it up.

I think I can offer some thoughts, too, on why bikepacking’s sudden popularity.

Sure, there is today an element of corporate hijacking. (Trek, for god’s sake.) But the wagon was already rolling, and I think at least some of it – at least in the UK – can be attributed to the rise of the microadventure (thanks Al) in combination with that of cycling in general. Bikepacking neatly merges both.

These two trends express the yearning of an overworked, overstressed society (with plenty of cash) not to think, say or post on Facebook but to do something to disconnect from so-called ‘reality’ and rediscover what had always been there: a world we can see, hear, taste and smell, and a body that can sweat and strain in order to change its environment from one of dull, nagging discomfort to one which at least satisfies our romantic vision of being at one with nature, however misguided, and if not on the daily commute then at least on a big escape at the weekend.

The focus on gear makes bikepacking a hobby that can be practiced online during lunch breaks and through tinkering in the garage after work. This can be fun.

And the extremely active community – not just discussing gear ad infinitum but proactively developing and sharing new routes – imparts the sense of tribal belonging that so often underscores people’s life choices.

In short, bikepacking ticks a lot of topical boxes past which traditional cycle touring tends to swerve around.

The 4 cyclists

Cycle touring will always be there.

There will always be people who want to travel the world, and who figure the bike would be the least worst way of doing so. Some will be seduced by bikepacking’s shiny trinkets and end up wishing they had more space for home comforts and noticing none of the advantages they never needed in the first place. But others will figure that there’s no need to change the tried and tested formula and set off to explore the world on a bog standard touring bike with panniers and a bar bag, rarely thinking again about their bike or gear because their journey was never about that anyway.

And bikepacking is unlikely to be just a passing trend.

Beyond the commercialisation and the rabble of noisy opinion that comes with anything new and popular, the ability to ride a bike off-road deep into the wilderness with ever fewer compromises holds a deep attraction for a great many people, including me.

Does all of this fully explain the bikepacking boom? Not quite. A final suggestion, then. I think the bikepacking obsession with whittling the experience ever closer back towards ‘pure’ biking is also what pushes cyclists over to bikepacking – people who would never have considered cycle touring because of the many ways in which they feel it compromises the act of cycling itself.

In other words, I would wager that many of those swelling the ranks are in fact cyclists already. Bikepacking is a natural step forward from what they already do into something slightly more adventure-tinged. And I think more people starting from a cyclists’ perspective are choosing bikepacking over cycle touring – which might explain why cycle touring’s popularity has dropped slightly.

It’ll be interesting to see where it all leads. Perhaps one day every bike will be sold with a tinny bell, a crap saddle, cheap reflectors and an emergency overnight seat-pack. Just in case.

Personally?

Heck, if I’m moving, I’m learning, and if I’m learning, I can make myself useful in the world. The rest is secondary. Cycle touring? Love it. Bikepacking? Love it too. I’m lucky enough to spend much of my time trying out new ways of exploring. I don’t need to be defined by any one discipline. (Check out that ill-advised packrafting expedition or that snazzy Land Rover I borrowed.)

So what’s really the difference between bikepacking and cycle touring?

I think people ask this question to understand where they fit into this rapidly diversifying collection of adventure cycling subcultures.

But I think a better question is – do you really just want to go travelling, or do you really just want to go biking?

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18 Responses to “What’s Really The Difference Between Bikepacking & Cycle Touring?”

  1. Mark

    I think it’s much more simple than that. It comes down to one word: “panniers” 😉

    Reply
  2. A Grant

    Couple of thoughts, based on personal experience (so take it for what it’s worth)

    First, I disagree with the idea that bikepacking is primarily a way of going on a longer mountain bike ride. I don’t mountain bike (much to my friend’s chagrin), but I bikepack. Secondly, for me, bikepacking wasn’t a natural step forward from cyclo-touring “into something slightly more adventure-tinged.”

    Prior to falling into bikepacking, I was a long-distance backpacker. But the closest decent trails could be 4+ hours drive away. And then there was the matter of logistics (getting back to the car, etc.). Bikepacking opened up a new world of ATV trails; forest roads; doubletrack; etc. All of which was relatively nearby and had little appeal to me as a hiker. But for bikepacking, it was perfect.

    So yeah, what is bikepacking? An off-shoot of touring for sure. But with an emphasis on rough dirt roads; wider/plus/fat tires; wilderness camping; and minimal gear (the funny thing is with respect to the latter statement, I carry far more “luxuries” now – a chair! beer! – then I ever did backpacking).

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      You’re right – bikepacking is not restricted to mountain biking (though the majority of it does seem to fall under that description). Interesting to hear that you came to it from backpacking. Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  3. Christopher Culver

    I think your distinction between bikepacking and touring as biking and discovering the world, respectively is an astute one. I have always felt that a lot of vocal bikepackers who have made low-weight and no panniers their utmost priority, have a blind spot when it comes to experiences that other cyclists out there want to have.

    For example, there are some strident bikepackers who scoff at anyone packing books, but I cannot imagine touring in a country without a grammar and dictionary of the local language so that I can communicate with the people I meet everyday. (As much as I would like it to, a mobile phone or Kindle or other ebook reader just won’t do the trick).

    Also, those bikepackers who recommend minimalism fail to understand that a lot of cyclists are aiming to live on the road for months and months. At that span, you don’t want the bike to be your only life. You want to carry along many of the same creature comforts you would enjoy at home, so that you can maintain a semblance of an ordinary life while moving around the world.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      I think you’ve nicely highlighted the points of view at each end of the spectrum. Ultimately there’s no right or wrong, just matching your gear choices to the reasons you’re out here in the first place and understanding that others’ priorities may differ.

      Reply
  4. Alee

    Thanks for the read, Tom.

    As a passionate advocate for bike travel, I’m so excited about this newfound invigoration for the thing that brings me so much joy. Bikepacking is currently inspiring people to be adventurous, getting people out of their comfort zone, reconnecting people with nature and encouraging people to explore the world in what I think is the best way possible.

    I believe there are two other key reasons why bikepacking has become so popular of late:

    1. You don’t need to buy a new bike. Let’s face it, owning a dedicated touring bike that’s used for a short bike tour once per year is pretty hard to justify. Touring bikes + bags are also typically >$1000 which is a rather large hurdle to overcome if you’re not even sure you’ll like bike travel. Compare that with using your existing road, cyclocross, commuter or mountain bike and spending under $100 on bags (a full ensemble from Asia costs peanuts) – and I think it’s quite obvious what’s more appealing to newcomers.

    2. When I was in my teens I associated bicycle touring with the middle-aged and the retired. I found it really hard to relate to a conservatively-styled bike with a whole bunch of square bags attached. So I started out travelling with a backpack. I eventually overcame this perception when another 18 year old in a hostel convinced me that bicycle touring was awesome. I think bikepacking is the re-brand that bike travel has required to attract the younger crowd. If I had my time again, bikepacking would have been incredibly obvious to me as a teen cyclist and traveller.

    All the best from Bolivia!
    Alee

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Hey Alee, thank you for your comment. I appreciate your perspective as I know it’s a very well informed one! I totally agree that ‘cycle touring’ can seem stuffy and old-fashioned and that thinking of bikepacking as a ‘rebrand’ to appeal to the younger generation is spot on. However, I totally disagree with the implication that cycle touring requires a new bike and that that was a barrier to entry, mainly because I’ve been hammering the point that you don’t – ad nauseum – for years! It’s always been possible to go cycle touring (or bikepacking) using whatever gear you have lying around and I don’t think anything substantial has changed in that respect – just as it is possible to spend countless thousands on a specialist touring bike setup or bikepacking rig. Perhaps the point is that cheap bikepacking bags have made that fact more widely known…

      Reply
      • Alee

        Don’t get me wrong, I very much agree with you that you can go for a bicycle tour on any bike! All you have to do is cycle in South America, Eastern Europe, China or India to meet people on epic journeys with old and very basic bikes.

        I don’t think this is a commonly held idea in many western countries, however, and given I spend so much time writing about bike tech, I am partly to blame. But when I meet people who show a keen interest in trying bike travel, this is the first thing I tell them. 😊

        Reply
  5. Lassi

    I have never considered my self as a “cyclist”, but I have always liked to travel by bike. I spent years trying to find a balance between a cyclocrossbike and an actual tourer. Just over a year ago I finally decided to build a 26″ expedition touring bike with traditional four pannier setup. It solved practically ALL the problems I ever had on tour. This is one of the reasons I havent been that interested in bikepacking.

    In the other hand, if I was a sportive cyclist with a fleet of sporty bikes lined up in my garage, the easiest way to make a short trip would be bikepacking. This is propably why its so popular. The industry finally found the people who use alot of money on bikes anyway.

    Its great that also the people who see cycling mainly as sports are now able to tour. And if someone would have suggested ten years ago I shoud by an old mountainbike with a heavy duty wheelset (an expedition bike), I would not have listened. I now prefer traditional touring because no other way of travelling gets even close to the experience, the people, the places, the “life on the road”. You know.

    Reply
  6. Dosh

    Hi Tom,

    Great read. I think your generalisation is a good one.

    I’ve never mountain biked or bikepacked. I have cycle toured a lot and often found myself on a fully loaded traditional touring setup on tracks that would typically be considered bikepacking territory. I enjoyed them immensely, even with all the muddy pushing. At the time I thought how much more fun they’d be with a more appropriate setup. I also realised that I should have given mountain biking a go a long time ago.

    I set out to cycle tour as an agreeable mode of travel, a better more independent form of backpacking. I hoped the bike itself would recede into the background. That remained more or less true cycling across Europe, the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East and Asia. Crucially the focus was on soaking up exotic foreign lands, people and culture. It wasn’t until I started touring in more familiar anglophone countries (Australia, New Zealand and North America) that my journey became more about the landscape and the riding itself. Now I find myself very drawn to bikepacking for that kind of trip, i.e. getting into remote landscapes far away from sealed roads. I’ll probably try it soon. My one apprehension is being able to carry enough food and water on a bikepacking setup to get as far as I’d like.

    In a couple of weeks I’m off to ride the Pamir Highway and spend some time in Kyrgyzstan. I’m riding it on my touring setup mainly because it’s all I have right now, but also because I’d be afraid I couldn’t carry enough food for that journey on a bikepacking rig. Or maybe I could but it would force me to do some large minimum distances every day which is a pressure that detracts from the sense of freedom that bike-touring gives me.

    I imagine I might end up with some sort of hybrid setup to try and get the best of both worlds as I love travelling by bike, but I also love riding rough and remote trails.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Your story resonates pretty closely with my own experience, particularly wanting to explore the landscapes more in places that have become culturally familiar. The main difference for me is that the Caucasus is that culturally familiar place because I’ve spent so much time here!

      Reply
    • Lassi

      You might find gonebikefishing.com interesting.

      Reply
  7. Lucas Faure

    Thanks for sharing this post. We all mostly find it difficult to distinguish between backpacking and the cycle touring. it is great that you have clearly portrayed it.

    Reply
  8. Tony

    Interestingly bikepacking is seen as something new when it isn’t. And by “bikepacking” I’m referring to how the bicycle is packed for distance travel as distinct from motivation of the traveller as discussed in Tom’s article.

    I don’t know about the rest of the world but in the late nineteenth and earlier twentieth century the bicycle was a significant means of transport in the Australian outback. This is excellently documented in Jim Fitzpatrick “The Bicycle and the Bush”.

    https://www.amazon.com.au/Bicycle-Bush-Machine-Rural-Australia-ebook/dp/B0053D0ZGI

    So I find it interesting to see that framebags, handlebar mounted packs etc were in common usage for practical travel one hundred years ago.

    Some photos here –

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/epicyclo/albums/72157626328442627

    Reply
  9. Diarmid

    A very interesting argument. And very useful to be reminded by your old photos from the Highlands that it’s about the pleasures of the ride, whatever kind of ride we prefer, than our bikes or how we attach our stuff to them.

    I need that reminder right now because as a two-weeks-a-year cycle tourer, I’m getting interested in the idea of bikepacking and I can feel the gear fixation taking me over. Bikepacking bikes! Bikepacking bags! Smaller bags to go inside the bags! Let’s face it, some of this trend (like a lot of trends) is about the pleasure of online shopping, rather than the pleasure of moving through a landscape on wheels.

    But probably the fashion will pass and, as you say, the gear will be better as a result and many more people will be cycling around (whether with bags or panniers or nothing).

    Reply
  10. gr8bkset

    I started road biking 35 years ago and mountain biking and backpacking 20 years ago. I identified myself first as a backpacker, then MTBer, and finally a road rider last eventhough, my time spent on these activities were inverse. I started backpacking with about 45 lbs then in time whittled my pack weight on a week trip down to 30lbs as the ultralight movement became popular and my body was miserable with the weight. To me, bikepacking is the combining of the popularity of mountain biking along with the ultralight trend from backpacking, but also can be applied to road travel. As I hit middle age I am starting to realize that a bike is a much more efficient instrument for a multi-day trips than backpacking. A bike is a better transmission of energy for travel than my feet for two reasons: 1. as long as I don’t run out of gear, I can maintain my optimal cadence 2. downhill is free. It covers more ground in an environmentally friendly way, but not so much that I zoom by places that can be of interests such as in a car. I think I’m glad to not have taken up bicycle touring with its heavy weight and specialized equipment. As it is, I’m able to take up bikepacking, with my existing road bike or MTB and about 20 lbs of gear. Bike packing will likely replace my backpacking habits.

    Reply

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