Bikepacking vs Touring: What’s The Difference?

Bikepacking is cycle touring with a sense of urgency. This was the first thing I used to say to people when they asked about my long-distance cycling adventures. Cycle touring has been around since the bicycle was first invented, and bikepacking is a relatively new term for adventure cycling. 

The fact of it is they are very similar yet completely different at the same time. In this article, I want to explain the difference between the two and why everyone should experience long-distance cycling adventures.

What Is Bikepacking?

Bikepacking has burst into the cycling scene in recent years and is being enjoyed by cyclists everywhere. From those who have just picked up a bike, all the way to professional riders, who have been riding all their life – it’s appealing to anyone with an adventurous side. Fundamentally, it’s about riding with the intention of adventure and exploration. I have been bikepacking for about six years now and have been lucky enough to travel all over the world with my bike. Every trip has been an adventure and will bring you new challenges and experiences that you would have thought impossible during your everyday riding. Bikepacking is different, it is a great way to see the world.

Bikepacking Bike on a cliff

The Bikepacking Reality

A bikepacking trip starts with destination inspiration, routes are then planned, and you start thinking about your kit list. The training is done, and the time has come for you to leave. 

You pack your Saddlebag, Frame Bag, and Roll bag. Of course, you then realise you have too much stuff and throw the spare set of lycra back in the cupboard and out the door, you go. The adventure has just begun. 

The Garmin routes are long, and the sense of freedom is overwhelming as you attack climbs and fly through descents, it’s time to get lost in the best possible way in the great outdoors. The night is upon you as you pull up at a small-town pub where you get a small meal then head back into the night to find a place to sleep.

With Bikepacking, sleeping can come in many forms. It can be in a small bivvy bag, a tiny tent, or maybe just an hour or so on a bench. An early start, and you’re already on the road. Adventure waits for nobody. You find yourself trying to keep the time on the bike at maximum and stop time short throughout the day.

The hills are challenging, the speed is fast, and you’re making significant progress and eating constantly. The next night a better night’s sleep is required. You Google hotels close to you and get your head down for a decent rest. 

On the last day of the trip, you’re looking at the Garmin map and making your way home, tired legs craving a warm bath and some clean clothes. The last miles feel long, and never ending. You step through your front door, unpack your bike, finally falling into bed ready for work in the morning.

Bikepacking, for most, is a micro-adventure; it’s fast, it’s intense, it’s exploring something or somewhere in particular. It’s what a long weekend was made for. A break from the world where all that matters is the pedals turning and making sure you eat and drink enough. In other forms, it can be referred to as self-supported Ultra Racing.

Related article – How To Pack Your Bike For Air Travels

Pros of Bikepacking

  • Light and fast setups
  • It can be as short as a single night away
  • Requires minimal kit
  • It can be done on literally any bike
  • Easy to organise with groups and friends

Cons of Bikepacking

  • It can be time restrictive
  • You might have to spend days in the same cycling clothing
  • Short big distance trips can be physically and mentally intense
  • If using hotels and eating out of restaurants it isn’t cheap!

What Is Cycle Touring?

Cycle touring has been around since the bike was invented. It’s easy to forget how much we needed bicycles before cars were around. 

Sometimes journeys needed to be done by bike, and there could be thousands of miles required covering. In other times, before Google maps, people just wanted to go and get lost and see what the world had in store for them. This was cycle touring, and the journeys were about exploration and adventure. It wasn’t a trip. It was a lifestyle.

Man tending to his touring bike

The Cycle Touring Reality

The idea for an adventure came to you six months ago, and you can’t shake the feeling that the road has something in store for you. You pick up a map and start looking at interesting roads and mountains you think might be fun to cycle across. You’re not worried about seeing anything in particular; just see what comes your way. 

The preparation isn’t complex. It’s like going on holiday, getting the basics right. Anything you need along the way you can pick up. A few spare pairs of clothes, some bike spares, camping set up with a stove, and ingredients for some meals. These are thrown in your panniers, and you tell your boss you will see him in a couple of months, and out the door, you go.

The miles are heavy, you’re carrying a lot, but there’s no rush. You have nowhere to be. The hill climbs are long, but the views are worth every second. The descents are a perfect excuse for a bit of time off. 

As the evening descends, you find a camping spot and start setting up the tent before the night draws in. The stove is on, and you cook a nice meal and drift off to sleep in your warm tent with that four season sleeping bag you have had for the last five years. 

As you wake, a lie-in is in order, and a warm cup of coffee brews on the stove. Mid-morning, you get back on the bike and see what the road treats you to today. Weeks go by, and your life is on the road now. You have made loads of new friends, observed the dreamiest of landscapes and some experiences you know you will never be able to replicate. 

Cycle tours offer a life of travel, the duration is usually quite long, and you have to adapt to look after yourself. The setups are heavy and the miles slow, but you’re not in a rush, so it doesn’t matter, you really do sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s much cheaper as most nights are spent in a tent and making your food. It’s not a short trip. It becomes a lifestyle.

Related article – Easy Ways To Prevent Sunburns While Cycling

Pros of Cycle Touring

  • Lots of gear and comfortable night sleep
  • It can be sustainable for long periods
  • The cheapest form of travel
  • No time commitments
  • It can be done with a friend or other cycle tourers you meet on the road

Cons of Cycle Touring

  • Heavy setups and challenging hills
  • You need a bike capable of carrying a lot of weight
  • Life on the road for long periods can be lonely
  • Lots of camping

Related article – The Ulimate Beginners Guide To Bicycle Touring

The Fundamentals Of A Good Bikepacking And Cycle Touring Bike

When it comes to Bikepacking and Cycle Touring, the bike is essential! 

Yes, you can use any bike, it doesn’t have to be expensive, and it doesn’t need to be new. However, specific characteristics of a bike will completely change the outcome and experience of an adventure. I believe that comfort is king. The more comfortable you are on a bike, the less you will stop and the more fun you will have. 

The first thing to look out for is frame geometry. You want something not too aggressive, preferably not something too stiff and sporty. You need a bike built for comfort, a real chewer of miles, maybe the handlebars might be a little higher, and it is made of steel, not carbon, to soak up the bumps in the road.

The next thing to think about is will the bike carry everything needed? Will it have pannier racks or the option of mounting pannier racks, or are you going to be going with Bikepacking bags? Think about the capability, and it will suit the load you’re giving it.

The next challenge for your bike is the terrain. You need to make sure your bike is suited to the road surface. Yes, that road bike will be quick on the small back roads, but will it be capable of that 20-mile trail halfway through the trip. You have to be realistic with yourself here and try to avoid saying the phrase, “That should be alright even if I have to walk for a while.” It is better to sacrifice some speed on the road for some comfort on a trail.

When I look at my routes, I break them down into three categories, Road, Gravel, and Trail. I roughly estimate how much I’ll be on each one and pick the bike based on this assumption. If it’s 100% Road, then the road bike, 50% road, and 40% gravel 10% trail, I’d take a gravel bike. Anything over 50% Trail, I’d be on a mountain bike.

Sometimes you might want to plan a trip around the cycle you have, and a fantastic resource for finding road surfaces and route planning is Komoot.

Another thing to touch on is cycle clothing. Shoes, bib shorts, and jerseys will also need to be comfortable and durable for long days in the saddle. You will also need to be well equipped when it comes to keeping warm and dry. A good rainproof and a down jacket for those cold mornings will go such a long way and take up little space when packing.

On my adventures in many countries worldwide, I have found if there’s one thing not to underestimate, it’s the weather. I have seen many great Bikepackers and Cycle Tourers stop trips due to getting too cold or overheating, and it’s something I feel is looked over.

Related article – Can You Convert A Road Bike To A Gravel Bike?

Enjoying a meal bikepacking

Equipment Needed

Like with any holiday or adventure, the equipment you need will differ significantly. 

The best way I used to think about it was firstly the weather. Will it be warm or cold, will I see much rain, or will I purely just be in the sun? With this information, you can assume your clothing.

The spares I always used to think about what could go wrong and then pack for that eventuality and then have a backup. Anything you won’t be about to resupply, make sure you have one or two spares. An example of this would be a mech hanger. As there are so many different types and most bikes have their design, it’s essential to have a couple of spares. It’s not an easy job if your mech hanger breaks. 

Another example if you get two punctures and run out of tubes, the backup would be the patch kit. Tubes are an easy resupply and can be found in any bike shop. The next thing to consider is how far you will be going between places to stop, so you want to have plenty of capacity to carry water and food. Especially with those heavy touring setups, it can take a lot to fuel up a mountain to the next town, and nobody likes running out. It’s imperative to ask the question “what if,” but try not to think about all the bad outcomes. 

Just be prepared for things that could go wrong. Below are a few example kit lists for some basic Bikepacking and Cycle Touring.

Example Bikepacking Packing Kit

Spares List

  • Inner Tubes
  • Patch Kit or Tubeless Repair
  • Multi-tool
  • Tyre Levers
  • Spare brake or gear cable
  • Brake pads
  • Gear Hanger to suit your bike
  • Chain Lube
  • Spoke Key and Spokes (Recommended if you are using an old wheelset)
  • Spare small piece of tyre incase of tyre rip

Clothing

  • Jersey
  • Bib Shorts
  • Cycling Shoes
  • Base Layer
  • Wind and Waterproof
  • Gloves
  • Arm and Leg Warmers
  • Overshoes
  • Gilet
  • Down Jacket
  • High Viz Vest

Sleeping And Essentials

  • Bivvy Bag
  • Down Mat
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Medication if needed
  • Hygiene creams
  • Emergency Gels
  • Electrolyte Tablets
  • Water Cleansing Tablets
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Bike Lights
  • Powerbank
  • Phone and Charger
  • Cash and Card
Simple bikepacking meal

Example Cycle Touring Kit

Spares List

  • Inner Tubes
  • Patch Kit or Tubeless Repair
  • Multi-tool
  • Tyre Levers
  • Spare brake or gear cable
  • Brake pads
  • Gear Hanger to suit your bike
  • Chain Lube
  • Spoke Key and Spokes (Recommended if you are using an old wheelset)
  • Spare small piece of tyre incase of tyre rip
  • Spare Tyre

Clothing

  • Jersey
  • Bib Shorts
  • Cycling Shoes
  • Base Layer
  • Wind and Waterproof
  • Gloves
  • Arm and Leg Warmers
  • Overshoes
  • Gilet
  • Down Jacket
  • High Viz Vest
  • Jeans
  • T-Shirts
  • Socks and Pants
  • Casual Jacket
  • Normal Shoes

Sleeping And Essentials

  • Tent
  • Down Mat
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Travel Pillow
  • Light
  • Medication if needed
  • Hygiene creams
  • Shower Gel
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Water Cleansing Tablets
  • Bike Lights
  • Powerbank
  • Phone and Charger
  • Cash and Card
  • Stove
  • Gas
  • Pan
  • Cutlery
  • Cup
Bike touring at night

Frequently Asked Questions

Why don’t Bikepackers use panniers?

Most panniers are very heavy and not aerodynamic at all.

It’s a straightforward way to slow you down, and when your Bikepacking being light and fast can help if you’re in a rush. The technology is getting better, and some companies are making panniers that are very light and aerodynamic. Still, I think we’re a long way off from being more efficient than a saddlebag or frame bag.

How do you load touring panniers?

There’s an art to packing panniers. Most people put the sleeping bag and tent aside and then distribute it by weight with the remaining equipment, so 60% in the front panniers and 40% in the rear. The tent and sleeping bag then on top of the rear Panniers to create an even distribution of weight.

What are the best bikepacking destinations?

This is really up to the rider. In my opinion, you have to ride where you feel the experience will be the best for you. I love riding by the beach and along the coast personally. Sleeping on the sand can be fun, and there are plenty of places for food and water, and if you plan well, you can even get the best tailwinds ever. 

The downside of this can be more cars, though. Some people love riding in the forest and with that comes less wind and lots of places to sleep and next to no traffic.

What is better for long-distance cycling – panniers or bikepacking bags?

It depends on how fast you want to get around the world!

If you’re setting a new self-supported record, it is a Bikepacking setup. If you’re planning on a year away from life, it is a Cycle Touring Set up.

Bikepacking vs Touring – Final Thoughts

Bikepacking and cycle touring are both fantastic in their own way, and I believe everyone would benefit from the experience of adventure cycling. The places you find the people you meet are memories that stay with you forever.

The only question you have to ask yourself now is when and where are you going?

Hi, I'm Harry, the owner of this site! A 30-something MAMIL - a middle-aged man in lycra. An avid cyclist who is looking to maintain a baseline level of fitness to be able to enjoy the great outdoors on weekend rides with his mates!

4 thoughts on “Bikepacking vs Touring: What’s The Difference?”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experience, specially the Touring kit 😊. I am planning a three day trip, wild camping in my gravel bike. Now, with your information I feel confident and ready to go. 😁

    Reply
  2. With the lightweight and compact gear that is available now, I find I can tour with just a pair of rear panniers. Really love carrying less weight. I discovered a trick a few years ago for cycling in the Alps. Catch a train to the top of a valley, then cycle mostly downhill, for days on end, surrounded by amazing scenery. Magic!

    Reply

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