We're off on a big adventure: how we fell in love with bikepacking

Emma Osenton

Emma Osenton

A new frontier has opened up in cycling and it goes back to the origins of the sport. Everyone, it seems, is off bike packing, whether for an overnight getaway in the woods or on a solo cross-continental odyssey.

One of these odysseys took place at the beginning of August. The PEDAL ED Transcontinental race was won by Kristof Allegaert who covered a distance of 3,767.5km from Kapelmuur, Belgium to Canakkale in Turkey in eight days and three hours. When he finished he was 300km and an entire country ahead of his closest rival, having plotted a different route. Briton Neil Phillips from Cornwall finished second. You can read our Q&A with him here .

Emily Chappell, the first woman to finish the race, took a detour in Albania having passed the fourth and final checkpoint at Durmitor. Checkpoints are located in some of the more inaccessible parts of the world, with the Clermont Ferrand, Furkapass and Italy’s Passo di Giau all featuring and ensuring riders are forced to include the Alps in their route planning.

Emily crossed the line after 13 days, ten hours and 28 minutes. Her route could be considered more true to bikepacking than anyone else, taking the not-so beaten track to the south of her fellow competitors.

She is one of a growing number of women to be attracted to the challenges presented by endurance cycling. Another is Laura Scott, who undertook the Trans Am Bike Race across America earlier in the year.

I was riding and the lightning was hitting so close that every hair on my body was standing upright

Weather proved a significant factor for Laura, just as it has for the 219 Transcontinental riders, many of whom ‘scratched,’ or abandoned after being battered by multiple storms while riding through Croatia and Macedonia.

“I was halted because of a massive storm system,” Laura wrote. “I was riding and the lightning was hitting so close that every hair on my body was standing upright. Had to crouch in the middle of a field till it passed. Flash floods today are a bit harder to ride through!”

In the end it wasn’t the storms that cut Laura’s ride short, however. It was the pain of an injury picked up on day two of her ride when she was hit by a car. Despite this she rode more than 2,000 miles into a 4,400 mile journey before scratching, a distance doctors found astonishing given her shattered collarbone.

“Despite having to get stitches and a new wheel, I decided to push on,” said Laura. “While I hadn't been able to properly race the route, it has been an incredible experience.”

Bikepacking is an evolution of cycle touring in some respects, although many bike packers will argue they were doing it well before touring existed. By definition it is backpacking on a bike. You saddle up with everything you need to support yourself and clear off. The further the better.

The attraction is summed up by Laura: “I have seen parts of America most Americans will never see - I cycled along the coast, through national forests, desert, and up the Rockies. Bike packing allows you to see so much more of a place than you would experience by car or other means.”  

Far flung locations and 4,000-mile challenges might be desirable but they will not be achievable for many, what with the commitments of life in general but that shouldn’t put anyone off the bike packing experience.

“Using packs just adds more range to your cycling,” says Marta Gut from Rapha, who have developed a line of packs in collaboration with manufacturer Apidura. “Most people will typically cycle 50 or 60 miles on a Saturday ride, for instance, which will be 30 miles out and then back. But if you pack enough for a stopover in a B&B for instance you can double your range, returning the next day. Bikepacking allows you to discover a far wider area from the setting off point of your own home.”

Between the overnight stays and the 4,000 mile epics there are any number of rides and events there for the taking. One of the oldest is the 1,200km Paris-Brest-Paris ride, first held in 1891. Another is the Valleycat, a 600-mile ride across Wales organised by the people behind the Transcontinental and intended to give those thinking of embarking on the continent-spanning odyssey a small taste of what it would entail.

For your trip you will need remarkably little. A bike would be a good start but despite the new models designed specifically for transcontinental riding, you don’t need anything special. “Just go where the bike you have chosen allows,” says bikepacker Emma Osenton.


TIPS FROM A BIKE PACKER:

EMMA OSENTON regularly sets out on weekend trips around Yorkshire as well as organised endurance events:

Top tip: Have smaller bags than you think you'll need as if they're too big you'll only fill them.

Read and research your trip - barebones bikepacking is a good place to start. Or try Wildcat Gear, and Apidura.

Top ten things to take:

  • Toothbrush - one way of feeling a little bit human after a night on the fell.
  • Spare chamois cream
  • A pie
  • Waterproofs/warm clothes for when you stop, temperature can drop pretty quickly when you stop pedalling.
  • Wet wipes -  no need to be a stinker
  • A hip flask with your favourite filling
  • Booster battery for phone or GPS device
  • A bivi/tent and sleeping bag and mat
  • Small stove and a cup to make a brew
  • GPS or maps
  • Food
  • More food

Top ten things you should take but probably won’t need

  • Multitool with chain breaker
  • First aid kit
  • Brake pads
  • Bit of chain
  • Cable ties
  • Spare tubes and if tubeless a tubeless patch kit
  • Emergency food

In the bags:

  • Vaude power lizard 1p tent
  • Vaude norrsken insulated Matt
  • Vaude Cheyenne 200 3 season down bag
  • RAB infinity smock
  • Rapha rain jacket
  • Rapha quilted gilet
  • Rapha long sleeve merino base layer (to sleep in)
  • 3 clif bars
  • 5 packs clif Shotblok
  • 2 clif gels
  • Nezbit mini stove and two fuel cubes
  • Lighter
  • 3 teabags
  • 3 mini soya milk sachets (shurrrup I live in Hebden of course it's soya)
  • Titanium nezbit cup with lid
  • Titanium nezbit spoon
  • Wet wipes
  • Tissue
  • Lezyne multi tool with knife
  • Folding toothbrush and mini toothpaste
  • Hope R4 light and battery
  • Lezyne micro drive rear light
  • SPOT tracker device
  • Garmin 800 with full OS maps
  • Back up battery and cables
  • Morvelo melon farmer shorts, jersey and base layer
  • Spare socks
  • Split link
  • Tyre levers
  • Tubeless patch kit
  • Foil blanket
  • Chain lube
  • Chamois cream sachets
  • Spare brake pads
  • Hip flask. Talisker.

EMILY CHAPPELL, women’s winner of the 2016 Transcontinental makes a living from riding her bike. “I make my money from writing (and occasionally speaking), and currently spend most of my time on the road.”

Essential items: a tricky question, as everything I carry when bikepacking is essential - the whole point is to avoid the superfluous. I usually tell myself, when packing, that as long as I have my wallet, passport, toothbrush, phone charger and multitool, I'll be fine. Slightly less essential items include a kindle, a change of shorts, merino underwear for sleeping in, a lightweight sleeping bag and bivvy (if camping) and some emergency food.

Preparation: Again, the whole point is minimalism, so most of your preparation will have been done over your last few trips - gradually working out your systems and shaving down the amount you're able to carry. (I used to tour with four full panniers.) I also try to have a 'go box' in my garage, with everything I'll need for a few nights away - or just to keep a bag ready packed so I can hit the road at a moment's notice.

Bikepacking experience: Mostly on road, although I often do overnight or weekend trips out from my home in Wales, bivvying in the hills or sleeping in bothies. As well as the Transcontinental this year and last, I did my book tour by bike this winter/spring, and have just cycled down the US west coast from Seattle to LA. Oh, and I bikepacked Iceland on my fatbike in winter 2014.

LAURA SCOTT, endurance cyclist, founder of brand strategy consultancy, Criterium Global and founder of thelocals.net where you will find the first instalment of her report on the TransAm race.

Ten essential items:

  • Navigation device - I use a combination of garmin and the ride with GPS app on my phone.
  • Merino kit. When you are out day after day in the same clothes, it's great to have kit that adapts to the temperatures, wicks moisture and doesn't get too smelly. My go to is the Rapha windblock brevet jersey.
  • Bike packing bags. There are lots on the market these days, but I prefer Restrap. They are a small company based in Leeds and  essentially make holsters that hold dry stuff sacks. I prefer this as it’s 100 per cent waterproof and easy to take bags on and off the bike when tired.
  • A good pump. I use lezyne microdrive floor pump. It's a bit bigger than a lot of other bike packers might carry, but it's super efficient and beats using all your energy with a small handheld one.
  •  Tools. Nothing worse being caught out in the middle of nowhere with no way to fix things. I carry a Lezyne multitool and Leatherman Squirt.
  • Dynamo hub - this allows you to charge gadgets and not worry about constantly charging lights.
  • Back up lights. In Addition to my Dynamo I always carry back up USB lights in case something fails or you just need the extra light on dark roads. I use Lezyne strip drive pro lights.
  • Bivvy! Part of bike packing is being light weight. I use the North Face bivvy, because it completely zips up and has mosquito netting ... Something that came in very useful while camping out in America.
  • Battery pack. Anker make great battery packs that charge up quick. It's a great way of making sure you don't run out of power for lights or navigation devices.
  • Podcasts. When you are out riding solo, podcasts seriously stop you from going a little mad :)

One aspect of preparation that is an absolute must  ...

Plan lots, plot out services along your route, but be okay with throwing your plans out the window. I'm writing this from the halfway point on the Trans Am ... I had hoped to do 150 miles today but flash flooding and extreme thunderstorm warnings has kept me from riding today.  

Recommended trip

I would highly recommend the Bryan Chapman route to any first time bike packers. It's 620km and while you usually do it in one go would make a fantastic weekend trip. Wales is one of my favourite places to cycle.

Will Linton pauses for breath on the Tour of Ara. 

Will Linton pauses for breath on the Tour of Ara. 

WILL LINTON, endurance cyclist and engineer, completed the six-day Tour of Ara stage race in South Africa

Essential items:

  • Non perishable snacks - there weren't many places to stock up on supplies so we would carry all our food. It was a real treat to find some forgotten little snacks hidden at the bottom of our bags after a couple days. Savoury as well as sweet snacks makes for a nice change. Things like little bags of nuts or biltong were great.
  • Fresh socks - this is what I didn't take and wish I had!
  • Cable ties and duck tape - with a bit of ingenuity most things on a bike trip can be fixed with these two items.
  • Sun cream was a must in South Africa - No clouds or trees for shade meant all day in the sun. This still didn't stop us ending up with crazy tan lines.

One aspect of preparation that is an absolute must  ...

Research your destination - We finished the trip at a pub in the middle of nowhere. After riding for days dreaming of a cold beer we arrived to find the pub closed for the day! If you planning on a cold beer or a place to stay it's definitely worth checking opening times.  

Stan Englebrecht by Werner Müller-Schell

Stan Englebrecht by Werner Müller-Schell

STAN ENGELBRECHT: Long distance cyclist, photographer, and publisher of the Bicycle Portraits series with Nic Grobler, completed Tour of Ara in South Africa and director of the first Eroica South Africa.

“I'm not really a 'bikepacker', to use the popular term. While I have the equipment and occasionally tour bikepacker style, I mostly tour totally self-sufficiently and have a very secure custom rack and pannier system. I go remote, and I like to be comfortable, so I carry more than your average TCR-style racer.

Ten essential items

  • iPhone (maps, email, everything)
  • 35mm camera (lately I prefer shooting only on film)
  • Leatherman Wave (I've had it for years - truly useful for anything from preparing food to repairing my bike)
  • Moka pot and fresh coffee (need that)
  • Waterproof jacket (it's rain protection, warmth, a pillow)
  • Fresh chili and garlic (makes every meal better)
  • Sunblock (the African sun can be harsh)
  • Sun hat (I don't wear a helmet unless I have to)
  • Chickpeas (being vegetarian it's not always easy to find non-meat protein options)
  • Cotton 'sleeping sack' (protects your sleeping bag, or makes you comfortable in even the most questionable hotel bed)

A preparation must:

I always make sure my bike is in 100 per cent perfect working order. I service my own bikes, and I like to know exactly what's going on with each component. If my bike works as it should, I don't have to carry as many parts and tools, and I can concentrate on enjoying my journey.

Trip recommendation:

Africa! Bicycle touring is not big there at all, and there are loads of spectacular and remote areas that remain unexplored. It's wild though, so you have to be prepared. Most of my touring has been around Southern Africa, so my experience is with this harsh but beautiful area. Around here you have to carry water and food and shelter, and you have to be prepared for extreme weather shifts.


THE BAGS

It doesn’t have to be about panniers and racks anymore - the modern bikepacking equipment attaches to the frame and is cut to maximise available space and fit within the dimensions of the bike itself. Frame packs hang from the cross bar and handlebar packs sit between your hands. Saddle packs can project up to a foot from beneath the saddle, attached to the seatpost. There are also packs that sit above the seatpost and cup-shaped holders, for handlebars.

While a host of companies produce bags for bikepacking, two of the most favoured and best quality are produced by UK companies.

Apidura (https://www.apidura.com/): These bags are manufactured from a super-lightweight ripstop nylon and attach to the bike via a combination of velcro straps and plastic clips. Apidura produce a selection of bags, in a variety of sizes including a saddle pack, frame packs, handlebar packs and various little holders.

The bags initially prove a bit fiddly to work out in terms of attachment to the bike, in particular the saddlepack, but fitting proves a cinch once it’s worked out. Thanks to a handy roll-top fastening system you won’t always need to remove the pack if you want something out of it.

Weatherproofing is comprehensive and reliable and the packs are made with little loops for attaching peripherals such as lights.

Apidura has teamed up with Rapha to offer a range of packs in the Rapha colours of black with pink and white reflective stripes. The bags are part of Rapha's brevet collection which is made for long-distance riding. Will Linton is wearing the brevet kit in the image above and the handlebar pack can be seen attached to his bike. Rapha's brevet collection is available here.

Restrap (https://restrap.co.uk/): Started with a single sewing machine from a back bedroom in 2010, Restrap began with the simple production of pedal straps for bikes. The company now produces incredibly hardwearing kit for outdoor pursuits, and offers a comprehensive selection of bikepacking equipment. Restrap’s uses a system of holsters that contain 8-13 litre dry sacks. This allows the user to detach and access their bags away from the bike, a solution many cyclists find preferable, although the holster system does add a little extra weight. The sacks are fastened in place by a patented magnetic buckle.

Holsters are made from tough 1000d cordura fabrics, still hand-stitched in Yorkshire. Frame bags employ the same manufacturing techniques but do not utilise the holster system.