(For the purposes of this post, I’m defining ‘bikepacking’ as lightweight touring with a slant towards off road trails, even mtb-style singletrack)
The more I travel, the less I enjoy being confined to the busy claustrophobia of paved roads. And the more I explore dirt trails, the more I find myself drawn to the notion of travelling lean and light…
When shorter timescales are involved – anything up to a few weeks – there’s no debate that bikepacking is my preferred modus operandi. It’s refreshing to carry so little.
For longer periods on the road – I’m talking months – it’s not quite so clear cut. I try to follow at least a semblance of fresh, healthy diet, rather than relying solely on packet noodles. That takes up space. In my case I’m also hamstringed by my reliance on a laptop. It’s just too big to fit in my framebag and I’ve never enjoyed carrying a backpack for long days on end – that’s when a set of rear panniers or a trailer can work best for me.
But… If you’re happy with more compact computing – like a tablet, a smart phone or (shock, horror) just internet cafes – long distance bikepacking should be well within the realms of reason. With a few considered gear choices, travelling light should be do-able, without the associated gram-shaving obsession. This holds particularly true if you’re biking in a part of the world where food is readily available, or it’s warm enough to do without winter clothes, or even stove.
Pros and cons of ‘bikepacking ‘
+ The main upside to travelling light (and this is a big one) is the freedom to roam… almost anywhere! Explore the backcountry you might otherwise have grudgingly passed by. Take the most interesting road, whatever the terrain. Reduced capacity limits you to carrying only the very essentials – a good discipline! (less to think about = less to worry about) Covering bigger distances is considerably more pleasurable. There’s a knock on effect on your bike too. It handles better off road. Plus, less weight means wear and tear, so you can run a lighter, livelier wheelset – and even frame.
- Limited cargo space requires tetris-like packing precision, which doesn’t suit everyone. This reduced space also encroaches on how many days (and thus miles) you can ride between resupplies. Unless you can confidently to pull off big distances, it can put pressure on getting to places: planning becomes all-important. It’s easier to bikepack in a more controlled environment, where you have access to reliable information about where you’re riding. And, for overseas travel especially, a full framebag kit isn’t as straight forward as unclipping a pair of panniers and storing them in your guesthouse. If you’re expecting prolonged rain, be aware that soft bags are invariable water resistant, but with so many seams involved, not completely waterproof. Lastly, as with any lightweight kit, you need to take more care with soft bags – ensuring there are no contact points and zips are kept clean.
Here’s some weight comparisons:
- Seatpack – 310g
- Handlebar ‘sausage’ and bag – 340g
- El Gilberto Frambag (a burly, heavy duty model) for a large frame – 480g
- Total: 1130g
- OrtliebBackroller Plus (the lightest models): 1700g
- Ortlieb Ultimate 5 Plus bar bag (the lightest, M in size): 680g
- Tubus Cargo rack (light but strong): 650g
- Total: 3030g
The capacity of a rear panniers and bar bag setup is 47L. A bikepacking setup is roughly 25L, plus whatever a framebag is (which really depends on frame size). Let’s call it 7 litres – making 32L (without a backpack).
The setup in the pictures below includes 2-3 days of food. Weather-wise, I’m prepared for most mountain conditions, bar the coldest of temperatures. Water carrying capacity is 3.5l. The folding packpack and bladder can expand this by a few litres on the days I really need it. There’s even a spare tyre too, and my Panasonic GH2 camera and lenses.
From my experience, a light tent (think Tarptent, Big Agnes or similar), a minimal cookset (denatured alcohol) and a more compact camera system make all the difference to being able to travel this way. At just a few ounces, a vapour barrier (unfortunately no longer stocked here) is a good way of boosting your sleeping bag too, without extra bulk. This is what Joe carried in South America – he later even jettisoned the backpack – and here’s what Gary was packing on our New Mexico ride.
On a budget
Currently, the two main framebag players are Revelate Designs, up in Alaska, and Porcelain Rocket, out of British Colombia. It’s not a prerequisite to run these kind of semi-custom bags to travel light, but they do help. The best initial investment is probably an expandable seat pack, though traditional Carradice saddlebags can work well too – once you figure out a way to support them.
More homegrown methods include simply cinching waterproof role bags to your handlebars – tape anything that rub against the brake levers or frame with the likes of gorilla tape. Or, fit lightweight front/rear racks, and strap role top bags to them. Hoseclamps are great inventions too for attaching extra water bottle or Anything cages. The more creative can even try and make their own framebag – ideas can be found here.