Cycle Touring Vs. Bikepacking

Since moving to Bristol, Michael and I have started to break into the bikepacking world, completing a few bikepacking trips in Scotland, Wales and England. We definitely hope to do a few more in future – though COVID has put a little delay on this for now.

Personally, I love cycle touring and I love bikepacking – both for different reasons! And though at first you might assume these are very similar ways of travelling, they actually are quite different in many ways. So I thought I would share some of the difference today.

Before we start:

  • If you are weighing up between a bikepacking or cycle touring trip, then this might help you.
  • If you’re set on cycle touring, but have never heard of bikepacking, then I apologise, as this might chuck a spanner in your spokes – as after reading this you may decide to change your plans 😉

So first what is bikepacking?

Usually done on a mountain bike (or in Michael’s case a plus bike), involving minimalistic camping in the wild. Carrying your own (usually lightweight) gear. Riding on dirt tracks, gravel roads, the roads less travelled – in the wilderness!

Think of multi-day hiking, carrying all your camping gear, food and essentials – well bikepacking is this, only with a bike.

Our first bikepacking trip in Gower, Wales! This was just a weekend trip.

How is Cycle Touring similar to Bikepacking?

  • You travel by bicycle.
  • You carry your gear on the bike.
  • In some cases you may even travel on the same or similar terrain – depending on your route and bike (though you wouldn’t want to do huge distances like this).
  • You might carry some of the same gear (ie. lightweight tent).
  • You’ll likely be camping… at some point (though cycle touring does tend to have more accommodation options).

How Bikepacking differs to Cycle Touring?

  • Probably the more obvious – you usually use a different bike to cycle tour compared to bikepacking. You could try a mountain bike to cycle tour – however you’ll probably go pretty slow and I can imagine it would get old quite quickly.
  • While cycle touring you tend to spend a lot of time on roads, visiting cities, towns, gas stations, shops. Bikepacking you tend to spend most of your time out in the wilderness, travelling on dirt roads and tracks. You’re less likely to see as many cars, or even as many people. There are pluses to both of these – but it’s important to consider what additional items or considerations you might need to take if travelling more remotely.
  • Linked to the previous point – you are generally more remote while bikepacking. When we were in Scotland we did a week around the Cairngorms National Park and we didn’t see anyone for 3 days.
  • A difference I didn’t consider when first bikepacking – I was using my entire body! Bikepacking is seriously a full body workout! Why is this? While bikepacking you tend to be on dirt roads, and you need to use your upper body strengthen a bit more to control the bike. This is especially true when riding downhill. My first bikepacking trip – wow, I was wiped out! My whole body could feel the ride. Now obviously if you regularly ride on mountain bikes trails, then maybe you won’t notice this as much, but as a novice, I can vouch, you will work muscles you didn’t know you had.
Michael’s plus bike during our bikepacking trip in the Cairngorms, Scotland.

Which is better?

So how does cycle touring vs bikepacking? This really depend on what you enjoy, what you want to experience and the route you want to take!

I love both!

I love being in nature, away from busy roads, with the challenges of riding on dirt tracks. And camping in some of the most beautiful spots you can imagine.

However, I love meeting local people in small towns or villages, and cycle touring does make that very easy to do. It’s also a bit more convenient not having to rely on camping, but also hotels, airbnbs and other options (a particularly nice option during a storm) and having easier access to bike stores and shops definitely comes in handy. Cycle touring also provides a few more route options, as you’re not as restricted to dirt roads (though you can technically ride a mountain bike on the road – I just can’t imagine it will be too fun for too long).

For this reason, personally I’d probably prefer cycle touring for my long distance, multi-month, cross country trips. And bikepacking for my weekend to several week trips. That said, one day we plan to bikepack the Himalayas for a few months – so I guess destination is also something to factor in.

Pitching our tent in someone’s yard after they gave us a dozen eggs as a gift! Got to love cycling in New England, US!

Finally, there are no rules to any of the above – your bikepacking could look completely different to the next person. However if you are on a mountain bike, carrying gear to camp and traveling through the great outdoors – you can probably assume it’s bikepacking!

What do you think? Do you agree with my comments? And do you have a favourite? Would love to hear your thoughts!

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