Bikepacking – cycle touring’s minimalist, off-road, edgy cousin – is really as close to ultimate freedom as you may get when travelling. With the best kit you are able to pedal, self-supported, across the Himalayas, the Kazakh Steppe or the windy plains of Patagonia so long as your legs can carry you.
Forget photos of steel-framed touring bicycles laden up with panniers winding down European cycle lanes. These days, cycling Instagram is all about stripped-back luggage set-ups and impossible mountain passes – an opportunity to begin to see the world while weighed down with bit more than a bivvy bag and a change of clothes.
Bikepacking is all about moving away from the beaten track and onto the technical, gravel one, meaning being relatively self-sufficient.
A typical luggage set-up usually comprises at least three packs: a saddle pack that sits behind the seat such as a tail (and is a great place to store a roll mat); a frame pack – half or full-sized – that hangs from the top tube of your bicycle and is great for clothes, tools, food and cooking gear; and a handlebar pack to fix to the handlebars – frequently the best place to keep a tent.
There are very nearly infinite variations on this – cages, cable ties and straps for guerilla bikers or a couple of traditional panniers if you need more room for food and water – but even the basics will need you far.
For kit, think small, light and durable: a chunky sleeping bag, dome tent and portable barbecue won’t allow you to get far as well as fit on the frame. Luckily, lots of ski-touring and backpacking kits fit the bill: so compressible down-filled sleeping bags, simple gas-canister stoves and as few T-shirts as you possibly can.
When it comes to the right bicycle, lighter isn’t always better: a carbon frame may cause disaster if it breaks in the middle of Tajikistan. Unless you’ve planned to be a part of any transcontinental races soon, it’s most readily useful to get a tried and tested expedition bike and then save your self weight with your kit: the Surly long haul trucker is a classic choice, as is the Kona sutra or the Thorn nomad.
Ultimately, the freedom of bikepacking is that your set-up can be as flexible as the route you choose: so whether you want to live off cold food and sleep in a bivvy bag, or you fancy an airbed and a four-course dinner at the end of the day, this can be a best gear to allow you to get started.
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Apidura expedition saddle pack, 9l: From £118, Apidura
From the peaks of the Pamir mountains to the grinding grandeur of the Tour Divide, Apidura’s smart, durable bags can be spotted on the bikes of some of the best endurance bikepackers around. And with valid reason: we tested a full set-up – handlebar pack, large frame pack, saddle pack and a high tube pack – on and off road, and as well as being blown away by how light they were – 365g for a generous full-frame pack – we were taken aback by how stable every thing felt on the bike when fully loaded.
The saddle pack in particular, which we used to pack our roll mat, pillow and assorted tools, stayed firmly in position even when bumped around some knotty trails. Apidura makes lighter bags for racing, but the Expedition bags have the benefit of being waterproof (real peace of mind if you’re employing a down sleeping bag). Our reviewer once cycled around the globe with 50kg of luggage (including a spice rack) and was convinced she couldn’t be persuaded to love a bikepacking set-up: Apidura changed her mind.
Alpkit pipedream 400: £219.99, Alpkit
Explorers’ favourite Alpkit were early backers of the bikepacking movement, and lots of their clever microadventure kit transfers well to the game. This miraculous little sleeping bag is an excellent example: it packs down to concerning the size of a fat water bottle, weighs merely a 865g, and is rated for comfort down to -6C; our reviewer spent a comfortable night in the bag at around zero degrees, and you could easily extend the limit with a sleeping bag liner. An ideal fit for a saddle pack, or to snuggle inside a small pannier.
Thermarest neoair xlite: £159.99, Ultralight Outdoor Gear
The original and still, inside our tests, most readily useful: the Neoair Xlite airbed – all 230g of it – is a perfect choice for bikepacking. Because it does not have any stuffing, it rolls down to pocket size, and only really takes a good 20 breaths to fully inflate. Lined with Thermarest’s famous heat-trapping lining, which reflects your body heat back at you, sleeping on the Neoair feels luxuriously like sleeping on an electric blanket: the women’s model features a slightly higher warmth rating for slightly more weight. There are some downsides: the notorious rustling noise it creates when you roll around, the fact a puncture means game over (unless you can be bothered to seek out the puncture repair kit, included, in the center of the night), but over all the much-loved Neoair makes few sacrifices for huge gains.
MSR hubba tour 1 tent: £369.99, Ultralight Outdoor Gear
At just over 2kg, the Hubba Tour is a heavy tent for bikepacking. But there’s no denying this tent, that was specifically designed for cycle touring, has a number of the smartest features for bikepacking. Effectively a little sleeping compartment with an enormous porch, you are able to roll your bicycle within the Hubba Tour and zip it safely inside: offering serious security if you’re riding a pricey bike and wild camping. With vents galore and mesh doors it’s good in hot and winter –we’ve road-tested ours in the -20C Kazakhstan cold temperatures and +40C Thai summers. It’s most readily useful to share the weight with this tent: tightly rolled, the outer tent will sit nicely on the handlebars in a handlebar pack; meanwhile the poles and pegs can tuck into the saddle pack or frame pack.
Sea to Summit x-set 31: £64.02, Outdoor GB
This brilliant cook set from Sea to Summit carries a collapsible bowl, a collapsible cup and – on top of that -–a collapsible 2.8l pot, for cooking the vast level of spaghetti you’ll want to eat after cycling to the top of a mountain. Made out of food-grade, heat-resistant silicone, everything in the set concertinas down to a disc one or two hours centimetres high, and nestles inside one another. Remarkably, which means you can take with you an entire cooking set that takes up a comparable space as a thick dinner plate: perfect for dropping into a large frame bag.
Jetboil minimo personal cooking system: £115.82, Outdoor GB
The stove of preference for racers or solo bikepackers, the Jetboil Minimo is a gas canister stove with an built-in, one litre mug-sized pot on top. That means you are able to cook for starters person exceptionally quickly – water boils in about four and a half minutes (for hardly any weight) just under 400g – and with very little space sacrificed: packed, the stove measures just under 13cm x 15cm. This isn’t a luxury option by any means – really it’s only precisely suited to cooking ramen noodles, pasta for one, or even a quick cuppa – however it does have some clever and unexpected frills, like the built-in measuring cup/bowl.
Voile strap: £8, Charlie the Bikemonger
Sometimes it’s the smallest items that end up proving to function as the most indispensable: this is exactly the case with Voile Straps, which were originally sold to bind skis together and have been wholeheartedly adopted by the bikepacking community for fastening anything onto your bicycle. Basically indestructible, these little cinchable straps be able to carry anything you can’t fit elsewhere or want quick access to – think spare inner tubes, a pump, as well as an extra water bottle.
Snugpak bivvi bag: £74.55, Snugpak
For the ultimate in lightweight travel, take a bivvy bag bikepacking instead of a tent. A bivvy is simply a waterproof bag that you sleep in (along with your sleeping bag), and Snugpak – who know how to make a kit that will survive English weather – have dialled in the design at a brilliant 300g (compare that to around 2kg for a tent). Totally waterproof, and fairly breathable, the bag packs down to small pocket-size. Any luxury here can come from the others of your kit – your mattress or sleeping bag, as an example – and don’t forget to pack a buff or an eye-mask if you’d like to lie in following the sun arises.
The verdict: Bikepacking kit
The undeniable fact that Apidura has managed to craft affordable, super durable bags which are as suited to racing as round-the-world pottering – and which they converted our die-hard cycle touring reviewer to a minimalist create – makes them our best buy. Sea to Summit’s collapsible cooking pot is still probably one of the most innovative items of camping tech we’ve observed in years.
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