This year has been a real eye opener for me. It's been a year of cycle discovery as I've been forcing myself to leave my cosy comfort zone, and experience all avenues that two wheels can take me. One of these new avenues was bike-packing.
Those who do know me, know I haven't been cycling for very long. I'm an impulsive pain in the ass, so when I get an idea for something, I just go for it... often without much of a clue, proven by my harrowing ordeal of cycling over 100 miles in a day. In addition to that, and a some light dabbling into cyclocross and track cycling, I decided I wanted to try something a new.
I thought to myself: "I love the outdoors. I adore cycling and camping is so much fun. Why not do it all together?" So I took myself and my - way more qualified, but less enthusiastic - friend on mini bike-packing adventures over the summer. I say mini, because I didn't want to get too ahead of myself straight off the bat and embark on a total wilderness wonder which would inevitable result in helicopter assistance, and wounded pride.
Rather than recounting a long essay of every painful pedal stroke, every scary forest sound, and every amazing landscape and new discovery, I've decided to write up some tips and tricks that I've learnt along the way.
Bike-packing: Where to begin
Bike-packing is the activity in which you cycle, rest, stay the night, cycle more and repeat until you reach your destination. Camping is commonly the method for sleeping, but those who are creatures of comfort can enjoy a proper bed in hostels and B&B's along the way. You load up your bike, and off you go...
The Route: This isn't one of your usual bimbles at the weekend, you'll be riding with a lot more weight so it's important to be realistic about the route you want to ride. Choose a comfortable distance which allows enough time for rest stops, unforeseen roadside repairs, and enough daylight to set up camp for the night. I love using the Sustrans website for searching out routes and ride ideas.
Once you found a route, study it. Get a map, and I mean old school paper map, and mark out your journey. Although we're living in a digital tech era, there's not much that can be done with a dead battery, so always have a paper copy for back up. Along with the cycle route, mark down any potential places to stay, camp, eat and water sources - just because you're bike-packing doesn't mean you have to miss out on tea and cake!
The Bike: Essentially, you can ride whatever you like, but you may regret that super slick carbon racer after a while. Touring bikes need to be tough, durable and ideally have a number of pannier mounts and mudguards to laden them with your stuff. Semi-slick and gravel tyres are commonly used, but this will vary according to the route you ride as well. For my adventures, I rode the new Marin Gestalt 3 and while it isn't the lightest of bikes, it was the most suitable for the long rides with additional weight, and some slightly rougher off-road terrain.
The Company: Solo riding is additively meditative, and in many ways, it's what keeps me sane on a day-to-day basis. However, for a new adventure requiring wilderness skills and long hours in the saddle, I wanted someone with me for company, and help should I need it... which I definitly did. My top tip is choose your companion wisely, otherwise you'll be suffering terrible jokes, whistling and constant pee breaks throughout.
Bike Set-up: Setting up your bike will vary from rider to rider, and it is something that's quite personal. For long spells of touring with increased bike weight, a lower gear is often favoured. This will keep your cadence up, while saving your knees from the many hours of strain from the additional luggage.
It goes without saying, but make sure you have an appropriate saddle for you. Saddle discomfort is the absolute worst, and can often result in lost time and a lot of whining.
You may be riding on the roads, in populated areas and even during low-light conditions. So grab those reflectors, lights and bells and bolt them onto your pedalling chariot. It's so important to remain seen and heard when you're out riding.
The additional weight will affect tyre and suspension settings (if you have a suspension system), so tweak the pressure to find the right levels for you. Remember to balance out the load on your bike so that neither side is heavier than the other.
Bike-packing: What to take
Bike Essentials: Just like any other ride, there are ride essentials to pack, and keep at an easy reach for use at a moment's notice. Puncture repair kits, inner tubes, tyre/shock pump, multi-tool, tyre levers, chain links and even additional brake pads. Most of these items can be neatly packed and stowed away with minimal inconvenience.
So you have your route, your companion and your bike all set up and ready to go. Now you have to face the challenge of packing. I really hate packing at the best of times, I never know what to take so I usually take too much, rather than too little. With bike packing, I've learnt that you have to be very strict on yourself to only taking essentials, and that you have to have wicked good Tetris organisational skills.
Camp Essentials: You're camping, so you need camp supplies. Sorry glampers and luxury yurt sleepers, bike packing is a minimal affair, so leave those pillows at home. Learn to layer, and learn to love it because a decent sleep is what you need for rest and recovery so you can ride again the next day.
Essentials include a sleeping mat that can be rolled away and strapped to the bike. A bivvy and sleeping bag go hand in hand for warmth and protection, and a tarp is essential for creating a little roof. This is to prevent any leaves, bugs and rain from plopping onto your face in the night. When set up appropriately, tarps can create a nice little wind break too. A majority of my camping essentials are from Alpkit because they've really come in handy in the past.
Before you go lighting a camp fire, make sure you're allowed to do so. Most forest areas are protected and fires are forbidden. If you're camping at a camp site, or in a farmer's field, check with the people in charge first. If you're planning on making a fire, then a small axe may be ideal for gathering wood, but not totally necessary. Knives are handy for cutting paracord used in the camp set-up, and for snipping away at cable ties and food packets. I've always been a big fan of Gerber gear for outdoor kit, especially their knives. They're durable, long lasting and super useful for wilderness and camping adventures. Unless of course you're truly going to rough it and rub some sticks together.
Clothing Essentials: It goes without saying that you wear good cycling shoes, and chamois shorts for the bike ride. When it comes to the riding element of bike-packing, it's not too dissimilar from what you would usually wear on a bike: Helmet, gloves, chamois shorts, suitable shoes, jerseys and layers.
The key to bike-packing and clothing is ensuring you layer effectively. Rather than packing big coats and blankets for the evening, it's best to wear layers to build up warmth. Similarly, if you're too warm, it's easy to strip off to cool down.
Merino wool will be your best friend for warmth and comfort. The unique properties of this fabric make it amazing for active clothing. It helps with moisture control by wicking away sweat, and has anti-odour features to help keep that fresh feeling for longer.
A lightweight down jacket is perfect for packing down really small, keeping you warm and comes in handy as a pillow for sleeping. It's important to keep your head warm as well, so a good woolly hat will offer warmth, and comfort when you're not riding. A comfortable pair of leggings were perfect for sleeping in, and chilling around the camp in as well. They roll down small and keep you warm, especially if they are brushed cotton lined like the SHREDLY ones.
When it came to camp shoes, I either took some flip-flops or daps to wear around the camp. After cycling all day, the first thing I wanted to do was take my shoes off, so having something else on hand to swap into is important.
Of course, what clothing you take will depend on the weather forecast too. Just remember that even on hot summer days, the nights can be bitterly cold as well.
Extra Essentials: You'll never think you have enough, and by this point you're probably looking at getting bigger bags and panniers. But be strict, and remember the essentials. Additional bits and bobs that can come in handy are:
- Battery packs for your phone/lights
- Duct tape and cable ties for life hacks in camp and on the bike
- Plastic bags that will save your life when your kit is wet, muddy, and they are perfect to collect your trash from camp
- Dry food. If you can't find a supermarket, food stop or anything on the way or near camp then take some dry foods with you.
- Water reserves for the ride and for camp. Full up at every opportunity.
- Toilet paper and wet wipes: A luxury I can't afford to live without
- Energy. Gels, electrolyte powders and energy bars will really come in handy when you feel like your flagging on the ride
- Bowl, stove and cutlery - only if you're planning on cooking. If you're camping near a pub, no need.
- Chamois cream!
It may sound like quite a lot of kit to take with you, but it's not too bad when you have a couple of people to share the load. Your first bike-parking adventure will be a good judge of what to take, and from there you can learn and adapt to suit.
Effective route planning can minimise a lot of the things that you need to pack. Ensuring there are enough water stops, food breaks and facilities along the way, will save you a lot of packing problems, and faffing around.
You will get dirty (and feel gross), you will ache and smell and there'll be uncomfortable moments, but enjoy and embrace nature. Listen, smell and take it all in. My best piece of advice is just do it, and have fun. All experiences are good experiences.