Whether you’re battling your way over the high passes of the Andes or wending through French vineyards, few things are as liberating as carrying your world with you on your bicycle on holiday. “Bikepacking” - literally, backpacking with a bicycle - has made cycle touring trendy again, offering more freedom than backpacking because you can literally go anywhere that you can point your bicycle, for a budget that’s as low as you need.
Obviously you need a ride to get started with: pick a tourer or a hybrid with wide tyres in case you end up on unpaved roads. Ridgeback’s Expedition is a good entry level bike, while a bespoke expedition bike from Oxford Bike Works will set you back around £1000, but will take you as far as your legs can carry you. After that, it’s time to think about luggage. Whether you intend to camp or not, you’ll need luggage racks to carry your bags. A rear rack with two panniers will do for a short journey, but you’ll need a front rack and bags as well if you’re going for a serious stretch.
It may seem counterintuitive if you’re planning a hilly route, but weight matters less with bikepacking equipment than other kinds of cycling. Once you’ve somehow adhered four litres of water to your bicycle, you won’t notice the difference between a light and a heavy tent peg. The best bikepacking equipment is built with this in mind: it might not be as a light a set up as you’re used to on your road bike, but you’ll be glad it’s durable when you’re stuck in a storm.
Here are some of the best essentials to take with you on your first bikepacking adventure - whether it’s for seven days or seven years.
1. MSR Hubba Tour 2: £510, Cotswold Outdoors
One of the toughest problems you’ll face when bikepacking is what to do with your bicycle at night if you’re camping in the wild. Thanks to MSR, who has developed this version of its popular Hubba tent specifically for cycle touring, you needn’t spend any more sleepless nights with it chained to a tree. The vast vestibule is big enough to stash your bicycle and four pannier bags, simultaneously keeping them dry, safe and leaving you room to stretch out in the sleeping compartment. It’s light, mostly free standing (you need to peg it out in two places) and pitches quickly with the inner and outer together - so no standing around in the rain while your sleeping bag gets soggy. Also available as a smaller, one-person tent.
2. Thermarest Neoair X-Lite: £135.95, Cotswold Outdoors
This tough little air mattress rolls up smaller than a newspaper - you can carry it with you in a pocket - and reflects your body heat back up at you and not down into the cold earth. It takes about 20 breaths to fully inflate; really the only drawback is that its rustle-y thermal reflector coating is noisy if you roll around a lot at night. But that’s a small price to pay for camping comfort at 350g. We went for the regular size.
3: Sea to Summit X-Set 31: £90, Go Outdoors
Quite possibly one of the most ingenious bits of camping kit I have ever come across, the “X” series of foldable, cooking-grade silicon cups, plates and pots squashes down to a centimeter in depth. They nestle inside each other to take up even less room, and the 2.8-litre pot - with drainage holes for pasta water, another helpful addition from a company who knows what campers need - is invaluable.
4: Ortlieb Ultimate 6 Pro-E Handlebar Bag: £134.99, Evans
The benchmark for water-proof bicycle bags, Ortlieb’s range of panniers are the go-to for bikepackers. This handlebar bag connects to a bicycle dynamo (which you must buy separately) to give you a waterproof bicycle basket that will charge your electronic devices using the power of your peddling. The clear plastic sleeve on top is perfect for maps or your mobile phone; and when you stop riding or need to dash into a shop you can either lock it onto the handlebars for security or unclip it and connect its shoulder strap for a nifty square handbag.
5: Platypus Platy Preserve: £17.10, Amazon
What point is there in planning a bike tour through the vineyards of France, Tuscany or the Rhine if you can’t carry some souvenirs with you? Wine bottles are fragile, won’t fit in bottle racks (believe me, I’ve tried), and leave you in the sometimes tricky situation of having to glug down an opened bottle in a single night. The wine platypus - basically a tough, refillable wine bag with a seal to keep air from oxydising your wine - solves all these problems and packs down unbelievably small.
6: Osprey Ultralight Drysacks: From £6.39, Wiggle
Pannier bags have an amazing ability to swallow your possessions whole. Not only does this make them difficult to find, it means that you then leave a trail of random laundry across your tent when you’re trying to change out of your muddy shorts. So do yourself a favour and pack everything in drybags: not only will it help you keep your stuff organised, it means that if the worst happens and your bags spring a leak, at least your pyjamas will stay warm. These come in a range of sizes and colours.
7: Rapha Women’s Core Shorts: £80, Rapha
There are certain repercussions to spending eight hours a day sitting on a bicycle saddle. These shorts, from Rapha’s core range, are the difference between an agonising early end to your holiday or blissful days on the road. Gorgeously stylish - like all of Rapha’s range - and finishing just above knee-length, they’re not so cycle serious you feel awkward wearing them into pubs or restaurants en route. They’re also super quick drying - helpful if you’re washing clothes as you go - and pack down small. Rapha also makes a big range of men’s bib shorts.
8: Infini Lava Twin Pack Micro USB Front and Rear Lights: £27.99, Tredz
In a perfect world, you won’t ever need to cycle in the dark on a bikepacking trip. Start looking for a campsite long before twilight and you’ll hopefully avoid any tricky situations. But it’s always best to plan for the worst, and these tiny but ferocious lights are the perfect failsafe. With plenty of mounting options to make sure they’re visible around your luggage, they charge quickly using USB, which whether it’s via a battery pack or hub dynamo is probably the most accessible form of power on a bikepacking adventure.
9: Topeak Cargo Net: £4.49, ChainReactionCycles
Small but a real essential, a cargo net like this one made out of strong elastic cord can hold your bulkier luggage - like your tent and sleeping bag - on the backrack, over the top of the panniers, thus saving you valuable room inside the bags. It’s also great to have in a pinch - when you need to stock up on food or water for a long stretch but don’t have much space left to pack it.
10: Caterpillar Cat S60 Smartphone: £529.95, Amazon
This warhorse of a phone will survive anything you can throw at it - or throw it at. It’s drop-proof to 1.8 metres - that’s lower than the height from which I customarily drop mine when I’m recklessly trying to navigate with one hand and steer the bike with the other - and waterproof to five metres for an hour, handy when you’re looking at Google Maps in the rain. With a gigantic battery - 3800mAh providing up to 43 days on standby - you can set its programmable button to torch mode, use its unique-thermal imaging camera to check your gas stove is still lit, set its SOS button to send your coordinates to a trusty friend and enjoy the ultimate adventurer’s phone.
11: Craghopper Nosilife Pro Convertible Trousers: £65, Cotswold Outdoor
Stay comfy by keeping one pair of trousers for off-bike use only. These zip-off trousers are the perfect space-saving, versatile option. Trousers and shorts in one, the material is impregnated with a biting bug repellent. This is an absolute lifesaver when you’re setting up your tent at dusk: pull them on as soon as you get off the bike and you can start pitching without having to rummage around for your insect repellent. Super stretchy, they’re comfortable enough to cycle in too - wear them if you’re riding through long grass in an area with tics. They also come in a men’s version.
The Verdict: Bikepacking kit
Our pick of the lot is the MSR Hubba Tour. This tent was invented by someone who had spent time on the road. Having a massive vestibule - which so far I have used for luggage, my bike, yoga and doing laundry - that is separated from your “bedroom” makes living in a tent so much more homely than waking up at night because you’ve rolled onto your wine platypus for the umpteenth time. Add to that its neatly hidden air vents; separate mesh door for stargazing sans-mosquitos; and numerous inner tags from which you can hang things like your hat - or, helmet - and you have a real home away from home.