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Bikepacking vs Cycle Touring

Sam Jones • Cycling • Oct 01, 2021 • 10 mins

The open road is often synonymous with freedom, and there’s few things that will set you freer than taking to it on two or three wheels (or even one!). Sam Jones, from Cycling UK, outlines the differences between bikepacking and cycle touring plus what you'll need to set off on your own multi-day adventure!

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woman cycling 

Photo: Sam Jones

Bike travel

Ever since humankind began propelling itself on the early bikes and trikes of the nineteenth century, cycling has been a tool for enabling the adventure that comes through long distance travel.

Travelling by bike is great; it's cheap, you're able to cover more ground than if on foot and you can reach places vehicles or public transport can't. Bike travel offers the ultimate freedom.

cyclist drinking coffee tent 

Photo: Sam Jones

What is cycle touring?

Once upon a time, whether you were heading out for a weekend wander or round the world epic, your ride would have been a “cycle touring”. It’s a simple term covering the whole multitude of cycle travel, and usually evokes images of hardy souls with steel frame bikes and panniers festooned rear and aft of the bike – most often on the road.

male cyclist tarp 

Photo: Rob Spanring / Cycling UK

What is bikepacking?

Delve a little deeper into this fascinating world, and you might have come across the term “bikepacking”. Bikepacking is cycle touring but cycle touring isn’t necessarily bikepacking…..

Confused yet?

Bikepacking was once a niche side of touring that is arguably now gaining in popularity as more people fed up with motor traffic, abandon the road and head off onto the paths less frequently taken. By this I mean, the more natural habit of the bikepacker is off-road or at least on a non-tarmac one. Luggage is lashed to the bike, making it less bulky and easier to manoeuvre over rough terrain.

Both are great fun!

Great North Trail 

Photo: Rob Spanring / Cycling UK

What do I need to go bikepacking or cycle touring?

You need two things really: a route you want to travel on and a bike to ride it. In regards to everything else, how much or how little you take is personal preference, it all depends how much you're willing to carry. Camping and cooking on the road will give you the ultimate freedom but requires more gear.

men coffee bikes 

Photo: Sam Jones

Where should I cycle?

There are lots of named routes out there, but if you’re new to cycling and travelling by bike, start small and explore local. Swap country for county and you’ll be amazed what you could discover. Take inspiration from someone like adventurer Alastair Humphreys who during lockdown explored every single square of the OS map around where he lived, and you’ll soon discover there’s a world of wonders right there on your doorstep. Try short weekend trips first and build up your mileage and confidence.

woman cycle touring 

Photo: Sam Jones

What bike do I need?

You wouldn’t buy crampons and ice axes to go out for a walk in the local hills just because one day you want to climb the North Face of the Eiger, so there’s no need to buy a brand-new bike to head out on your first multi-day trip just because cycling the length of Patagonia is on your hit list. Yes, there are specialist bikes out there, but if you’re wanting to give cycling a go, you don’t need to fork out hundreds of pounds right at the start– that will come later!

Typically, touring, hybrid or cyclocross bikes that can support front and rear racks are used for cycle touring and mountain or gravel bikes are used for bikepacking. That said, you really can give either a go on any bike! You may not win prizes for being the fastest and you may have to sacrifice a little comfort, but not having the best bike for the job certainly shouldn't stop you from having a great adventure!

young woman bikepacking 

Photo: Jordan Gibbons / Pannier / Cycling UK

Fix up look sharp!

The most important thing before heading out is to make sure your bike is road worthy. If it’s not been ridden for a while run through the M check and identify any problems and fix them.

If unsure how to do this visit your local bike shop and get your bike serviced. The problems the mechanic finds, fixes and replaces in his workshop will hopefully save you from the difficulties of trailside repairs and you’ll also find your bike is more responsive and consequently easier to ride.

woman cycling scotland

Photo: Sam Jones

Planning your adventure

Once your bike is ready, unless you’re a fit explorer used to trekking and camping in the wilds of the world, I’d always suggest starting small. Decide whether you want to camp and cook on your tours, or stay at B&Bs and eat out – again it’s not an either or situation – you can do both! You’re holidaying by bike, so do what makes you happy.

There’s still plenty to learn and think about before heading off – from what to take, when to go, what to wear, how to fix your bike and more. It’s not an exaggeration to say books have been written on this! The beauty with bike travel is that you'll do most of your learning as you go along and you'll soon find out what suits you best. It's unlikely you'll be able to cover vast distances on your first cycle trip, so take it slow until you start to build up your strength, speed and fitness. Travelling by bike offers the ultimate freedom and you can make each day as easy or challenging as you like.

Bikepacking tarp

Photo: Sam Jones

Let's go!

If you haven’t got a pal who can take you on your first forays, then dip into the Cycling UK website where the charity has dedicated sections about cycle touring and bikepacking answering all your questions and hopefully more.

If you can’t find the answer there, then it’s always worth heading to the Cycling UK forum for friendly and informative discussion with bikepackers and tourers a like. We all started as beginners once upon a time, so there’s no need to be embarrassed. You’ll soon find the cycle touring and bikepacking community is a welcoming one.

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. - Ernest Hemmingway”

Be responsible cyclist

If you plan to wild camp when travelling by bike, it's important you do you bit to help protect the environment. As the saying goes 'leave nothing but footprints'.

#12nightsoutin1year

While you’re getting yourself ready to take on a cycling adventure, it’s always good to have a goal in mind. We’re fortunate in the UK to have an ever-varying landscape that can change over the space of several miles – that makes for interesting and great trips by bike.

And if you’re looking for inspiration for overnight adventures and riding in the UK, then Cycling UK and Ordnance Survey have you covered with our outdoor challenge #12nightsoutin1year

No matter your adventure, large or small, everyone is in with a chance of wining some great outdoors prizes that will make your cycle touring or bikepacking trips that bit easier, as well as a year’s access to OS Maps online, so why not give it a go?


When Sam Jones is not out riding his bike, he works at charity Cycling UK. As well as providing information, resources and routes for cyclists of all abilities – from beginners to round the world adventurers – the charity aims to make cycling better and safer across the UK. To find out more and how you can support this charity visit: cyclinguk.org/join

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