Whether out of choice or obligation, this year many of us have become cyclists. As the pandemic hit and the world slowed to a halt, cycling gained ground. Record numbers of us dusted off long-neglected bikes and turned to cycling to help us fetch groceries or as a COVID-secure alternative to our daily commute. With cities under pressure to build cycle-friendly infrastructure and city-dwellers more conscious of the environment and their personal health than ever before, cycling's popularity isn't expected to slow any time soon.
A good bicycle can truly broaden horizons. Just ask Britain's bikepacking community. These cyclists aren't the types you see pootling around the shires on lean-as-a-whippet road bikes. Consider bikepacking the road cyclists' chunkier, more rebellious sibling. Bikepacking isn't too dissimilar to the grand old tradition of bicycle touring - as popularised by intrepid peddle-pushers like Dervla Murphy - but the optics are infinitely more Instagrammable.
Picture mud-splattered bicycles, strapped and buckled to the nines with nifty, ergonomic pouches in dynamic colourways. Try @fern_bicycles for some real rig porn. It might be the stuff of Depop fantasies, but the sport is more than its trendy paraphernalia. A bikepacking adventure offers the opportunity to carve your own path through Britain's tumbling countryside; it's an accessible means of reconnecting with the outside world and seeking out door-step adventures.
To bikepack like the best of them you needn't buy a state-of-the-art pair of wheels and the requisite baggage, nor do you need to plan a hair-raising itinerary. If you have a hybrid bike and some basic map-reading ability (try these apps if not), you're halfway there. We caught up with some of Britain's most in-the-know bikepackers to get some tips on how the bike-curious can set their wheels in motion. On your bike.
Matty is a photographer, bike enthusiast and long-time bikepacker. He's based in Yorkshire, but spends most of his time tearing up terrain abroad. Keep tabs on his latest adventures by following him on Instagram.
How did you first get into bikepacking?
Bikepacking for me stemmed from a need to travel faster than a canoe and slower than a car. I'd toured and camped with both means of transportation but hadn't considered cycle touring as I didn't want to ride on busy roads. When bikepacking bags started to become more commonplace, the ability to ride rougher, off-road routes on any form of bike really appealed to me, so I got some basic gear and headed to Tasmania in the winter for five weeks.
Where in the UK would you recommend for a first-time backpacking trip?
Anywhere. The beauty of bikepacking is that you can pedal from your front door. For a first trip, a small quiet campsite not too far away from your home is probably ideal. As you gain more experience you can plan bigger trips. Bikepacking.com is a pretty good resource for trip and gear ideas.
How would you recommend someone pack for a trip?
The great thing about touring with a bicycle is that the bike carries most of the weight instead of your back, so you can start off with cheaper and generally heavier gear without it feeling too cumbersome. If you end up falling in love with bikepacking, you'll probably care more and more about the weight of your kit. Aside from that, you need to carry a few spare parts specific to a bicycle such as a spare inner tube and puncture-repair kit, a multi-tool and micro-pump.
What food should a first-timer bring?
Nuts are a great snack as you go, and Snickers bars are perfect for an emergency energy boost. In the evening, I personally like some form of sweet-potato curry. Potatoes are pretty hardy and can take a lot of punishment. Eat small amounts regularly and you'll stay perky throughout the trip.
What would you say are the worst weather conditions for bikepacking and how can people overcome them?
Headwinds are hands down my personal nemesis when bikepacking. I find them really demotivating and it makes it hard to chat if you're in a group. I'd rather have torrential rain and be snug inside some waterproofs than battle through a gale.
Stefan is the founder of Pannier.cc, an online resource for bikepackers across the globe. What started in 2011 as a small online community - a side hustle to his career in architecture - is now a one-stop-shop for those wanting to brush-up on their bike knowledge, get the lowdown on the latest gadgets or head out on expert-led tours.
What essential items does a first-time bikepacker need?
Firstly, bags. Either traditional front/rear panniers or bikepacking bags that strap directly to your bike. You might be camping too, in which case you'll need shelter in the form of a tent or bivvy bag; a sleeping mat and sleeping bag; and some cooking kit such as a small stove, a pot, mug and spork. You need the same amount of kit for one night's bikepacking as you do one month. Bring a bungee or strap, as well. You never know what you'll pick up and carry en route.
Is it essential that people buy a bike specifically designed for bikepacking?
No. When starting out, just ride whatever bike you have and work out its limitations. If you find yourself heading seriously off-piste, you'll realise you need a bike that will weather gravel and more rugged terrain. Don't overthink it.
Where do you recommend first-time bikepackers go?
Our national parks make for great playgrounds - anywhere flat is a great beginner bikepacking location. Alternatively, try the South Downs Way, the West Highland Way, King Alfred's Way or Lon Las Cymru, or join an organised bikepacking trip like a Pannier tour. We're there for anyone who wants to try bikepacking in a friendly group with an experienced guide. It's slow, immersive travel at its finest.
Any life-hacks for first-time bikepackers?
Yes, a few. For an instant hot-water bottle, heat some water on the camp stove and decant into a drinking bottle. Drink it the next day. Not got round to purchasing a dedicated inflatable camp pillow? Inflate a dry bag; you're welcome. Fruit-and-nut trail mix can get a bit boring; throw in some M&M's. You won't regret it. Hopefully your tyres won't split, but banknotes make great tyre boots if you do.
Cass is the brains behind the blog While Out Riding. He initially launched it in 2009, to document an epic ride from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Argentina. Since then, he's not only pedalled his way across the continents - from Sydney to London, around south-west China and Laos, and through the less-travelled roads of Cambodia - but he's also explored the UK extensively on two wheels.
What has been your most challenging UK ride?
Lakeland 200 is a tough route. It's 200 miles up, down and over the Lake District. Lots of pushing up hills and magnificent views from the top. Many of the challenges in the UK depend to some extent on the weather.
Where should a bikepacking beginner test their wheels in the UK?
The New Forest is a great introductory area. It's very mellow, with mostly flat forest roads and plenty of nice camping spots along the way. It would suit any hybrid, hardtail or gravel bike. Oh, and it has lots of tea shops too.
Is specific training necessary?
I'd say no. Commuting by bike is probably the best training I can recommend, aside from being generally active and healthy. I think it's well worth doing a short overnight trip before undertaking any long trip to check your gear is in good shape, as much as anything. It's a useful exercise in figuring out what you need and what you don't, how to use each piece and where to pack them.
Bike aside (obviously), what is your most useful piece of kit?
A phone with a navigational app is very useful, along with a secure mount. I like the Quad Lock model. The MapOut app which is cheap and easy to use, or try Gaia GPS which is more in-depth and powerful. Ordnance Survey's app is very handy too for off-road rambles in the UK.
What do you bring as sustenance?
I'm into low-plastic solutions, so I try and prep dehydrated food in advance or look into whether there are farm shops along the way. Dorset-based Firepot is an excellent brand that offers a variety of pre-prepared dehydrated meals with compostable packaging, and its meals are very tasty as well.
One final piece of advice?
In the UK? Plan your cake stops around the weather forecast.