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Bikepacking: Will this autumn be the season of your first multi-day ride?

Mark Cohen
10 Oct 2018

Get with the latest trend in cycling and find out how to start your bikepacking adventure this autumn

You’ve read about it under many pseudonyms; maybe even ventured for a weekend trip yourself. Rallies and rides like Turin-Nice, Search Bridge and others are bringing into the mainstream opportunities to ride, camp and adventure unsupported on new roads for a mashup of cycling and backpacking: a segment of cycling that’s quickly growing.

If you’ve never bikepacked or bikesplored, this is the year. From people who’ve pulled off simple weekend trips, to others who’ve dialled-in cross-country or cross-continent efforts, the hardest part, they say, is getting started.

But with an initial baptism-of-fire out of the way and some critical kit, the experiential benefits of bikepacking are easily unlocked.

Research versus reality

Packing the bare minimum, riding your bike, enjoying a comfortable night’s sleep and turning around the next day isn’t a new concept. It’s just suddenly popular again.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cyclists in Europe (Italy, mostly) started pushing the limits of what was possible on one-day rides.

The desire to go long soon grew to events like Paris-Brest-Paris in 1891 and Audax events in the UK. Soon after, participation in randonneuring grew, capturing the imagination by expanding the beauty and geography of what was cycling at the time.

Today there are loads of PBP-style events; reality, however, is that the people making bikepacking big again are doing it in a way that’s much simpler.

Some gravel, some paved roads, riding outside one’s typical boundaries, but the masses aren’t pushing rally-style to the point of physical depletion.

Most weekend bikepacking trips are more straightforward than the rallies you see online, says Tim Pulleyn, author of The Broken Line, a UK bikepacking blog.

He recalls his early experiences bikepacking, overpreparing and overpacking with stoves, down sleeping bags and loads of other 'essentials' he brought with him on early trips. Most of it never left his saddle bags.

Once drawn in by the adventure and isolation, Pulleyn registered and completed part of the Transcontinental - an annual, self-supported, ultra-distance cycling event that crosses Europe.

Afterwards, his list of 'must-haves' shrunk alongside the desire to crush multi-day races. A small bivy bag, a packable down coat, a merino hat, a solid pair of mountain or cross-specific shoes - the rest became excess as less hectic, self-supported trips became more intoxicating.

Starting out, he says, is as easy rethinking what most consider multi-day bike travel.

'Spend a night set up outside in the back garden,' he explains over the phone, speaking about how he perfected his approach.

'If things aren’t working out and you need to change setups or gear lists, you can grab it and refine what you’ll actually take with, or start over and spend the night inside.'

That way, he says, essentials are quickly whittled down. So too is the perception of what one needs to be comfortable, Pulleyn says.

You can get away with sleeping outside and finding shelter just about anywhere. Embrace that side of bikepacking and the potential of multi-day travel on two wheels seems more within reach.

Gear essentials

Beyond a good set of packable wool and down layers for cooler bivvys, picking the right groupset and pedals for your first multi-day ride is critical.

Like any of the riding you’re doing but specifically with bikepacking, you want gear that can take a couple knocks without failure.

You’re after reliability here, says Pulleyn. If you’re riding gravel roads (likely), your bike will be subjected to bumps and lumps which could lead to mechanicals, rear mech issues or worse.

I’ve had a lot of success riding a SRAM Force 1x group; it’s simple and easy to maintain and with a good gear ratio (50x32/4) can cover most climbs.

Consider this a key criteria if you’ve not already built a bike or in the process of updating.

Same goes for shoes. Multi-day terrain often means walking your bike up steep gravel; for these reasons, and sheer comfort, Pulleyn suggests cross shoes over stiffer road alternatives, something like the Shimano XC7 shoes (Available from Madison).

I had a couple rides in the XC7 shoes while writing this article; with a reinforced carbon midsole and rubber outer underneath, they are stiff enough while being comfortable for walking around at stops and at camp (a lot easier on the wallet and pretty good looking, too).

Benchmark-type pedals too, like the PDM8000 race pedals (non-platform) are the kind of simple, reliable and durable pedal-type you want on your cranks.

The smaller profile sheds mud on wet track while the dual-sided cleat makes clipping-in mindless (Available from Madison).

Other must carries: a lightweight, packable down coat for sleeping; a compact sleeping bag that reflects heat back to your body versus the ground; a remote charger for powering up bike computers and phones; a properly loaded GPS device.

Owen Lewis, a cyclist from Canada who recently completed the 2018 Lands End to John O’Groats route, stresses that last point in particular - on bigger rides specifically, but on weekend rides too.

'First and foremost, never assume you know a route, even when it’s been researched with RidewithGPS and Google Maps only, he explains shortly after completing the tip-to-tip ride in the UK.

'I had assumed I’d be riding paved, B-roads, for 99% of the time, with the occasional bike path. Instead days two, three and four had well over 200 miles of cumulative canal paths that were very difficult to ride.

'Heavily graveled in parts. Wet, slippy, muddy, grassed in others. Single tracked sometimes. Shared with dog walkers. Shared with people in lawn chairs fishing with the longest poles known to man. A million bridges to duck under.'

All these variables meant frequent checks on multiple devices. Weekend trips with specific routes in mind might require similar frequent checks, so having files uploaded and working plus an external charger means you’re less likely to get caught out without navigation or a mobile should you need it.

Also on the essentials list, and perhaps something that can help constrain the kit brought with, are lightweight, compact seat post, top-tube and handlebar bags.

Recommended are ones from Apidura + Rapha. They are high-vis, durable and good for compressing kit into mall spaces. Both Pulleyn and Lewis agree that minimalism when packing is key.

You’ll push every ounce of kit you bring with; having compression-specific bags and a well thought out gear list will make the riding more enjoyable as you get started.

Packing list

While it looks long, here is a packing list for bikepacking used by Lewis for the Lands End ride. Pair it down for jaunts closer to home but best to be prepared for whatever conditions you’re riding in.

Bikepacking: The essentials

Kit

1x short sleeved cycling jersey
1x bibshorts
2x cycling socks
1x CX or mtb shoes
1x long sleeve jersey
1x gilet
1x mesh base layer
1x rain jacket
1x pair of long finger merino gloves
1x pair of short finger cycling gloves
1x set of arm warmers
1x helmet
1x sunglasses
1x buff
1x overshoes

Clothing

1x merino hat
1x merino shirt
1x packable down coat
1x merino longjohns

Use your discretion on bivvy bags but make sure you’re comfortable

Accessories

1x external power
1x Quad Lock
Toileteries: Toothbrush, deodorant, sun cream, and so on
1x tarp
1x groundsheet/inflatable mattress if you can find one small enough

Tools

Spare tubes
Mini pump
Levers / chain link breaker
Chain tool
Valve core remover/wrench
Tubeless repair kit
Tyre patches
Small section of spare chain
Spare chain links
Small bottle of chain lube
Small Multi-tool
Spare disc brake pads
10x isopropyl alcohol single wipes (great for disc rotors)
1x small pack of baby wipes (for you, and/or the bike)
Charging dock (if you’re riding wireless)
Zip/cable ties

Thanks

Thanks to Madison for supplying the kit that made this guide possible. Find out more at: madison.co.uk/brands