Bike Touring 101: Cycle Touring Vs Bikepacking

A Chancers Guide To Successful Bike Touring Anywhere In The World (On Any Style Of Bicycle)

Over the years I’ve enjoyed bike touring in more than forty countries. In the beginning, I started small. Local bike tours were my bread and butter. Gradually, I learned enough about bike travel to take off on a solo unsupported around the world cycle touring adventure.

Bike touring in the Peak District was my first foray into the art of long-distance cycle touring. Slowly but surely crossing Staffordshire and Derbyshire on a full-laden touring bicycle was my introduction to this weird and wonderful way of life.cycle touring in vietnam

After a few hundred miles of bike touring from my front door, I grew more adventurous. With a large group of friends, I organised a coast-to-coast bike tour. Then later, I planned a transcontinental bikepacking trip – 100 days of cycle touring around Europe.

Finally, after many years of bike touring in the UK and Europe, it was time for a long-distance bicycle tour around the world. In this bike touring guide, I’m laying down the fundamentals for the adventurous bike rider to plan their very own Really Big Bike Ride.

Road Bike Touring

The quintessential bicycle touring adventure has traditionally taken place on the roads of the world. There has been a recent trend towards a return to gravel, off-road and the less beaten path with the ‘invention’ of bikepacking. More on this later.

My bike trips have all taken place on the road. Road bike touring is the mainstay of the mainstream bike traveller. It’s the quickest and simplest way to get started. No expensive GPS, no detailed route planning, no additional permits or permissions, just the thrill of the open road.

A beginners guide to bike touring

Read Tom Allen’s definitive guide to cycle touring on Amazon.

Road bicycle touring around the world

Happily, the further you travel from home, the fewer the road choices. In my experience, this made for an easy method of navigation since each directional decision was simply left or right, East or West.

Beyond the simplicity of the navigation, there is another bonus to road bike touring. Roads generally become nodes of community. Folks tend to populate around important locales on busy roads, thus there’s always something interesting happening and a tasty treat at the roadside.

fully loaded in trieste

Classic cycle touring set up

A road bike in the context of bicycle touring is generally a touring bike with panniers. Most likely a steel-framed bike with 700c wheels and racks for luggage. This was certainly the case for my long-distance bike tours.

Way back in 2010, I purchased a Dawes Ultra Galaxy from Spa Cycles. This iconic touring bike came fitted with a high spec of components including a Brooks B17 Saddle.

At the time, I was planning a four-month cycling tour of Europe. It made sense to have a brand new machine with high-end parts. Spares would be readily available across the continent. I found the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook to be an essential companion.

Since then, the cycle touring and adventure biking scene has exploded with possibilities. Folks’ appetite for two-wheeled expeditions has reached fever pitch. And to break new ground, bike touring has returned to the early days of bicycle travel for inspiration.

Adventure cycle touring handbook

Buy the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook on Amazon

Bikepacking

Gravel bike touring, more commonly known as bikepacking, is the latest trend in cycle touring. Stripped back to the bare necessities, ‘gravel travel’ takes two-wheeled adventure off-road.

Many advocates of bicycle touring will tell you that there’s nothing quite like the wide-open spaces that come with cycling across vast natural vistas. Pitching camp in a remote place, miles from civilised society, is for many seasoned cycle tourers, the goal.

Bikepacking takes this as the opening premise. Seeking unexplored paths in deep nature is the modus operandi of the gravel bike tourer. The more rugged the trails, the further from mobile reception, the better.

touring bikes of many varieties

The bikepacking philosophy

Gravel bikes tend to be a middle ground between a traditional touring bike set up and a hardtail mountain bike. The option to add luggage with velcro straps and clip-on inserts is the preference over racks and panniers.

Modern bike technology has made this an attractive way to get further afield on two wheels. The philosophy to reduce kit requirements to a minimum – less is more in bikepacking – means that the genre has revived the idea of bicycle touring with a younger audience.

For example, rather than a tent, a bikepacker will place a tarp over an upturned bike as a means of shelter. There’s little room for comforts in the gravel world. It’s back to basics and the joy of the ride.

Personally, I like having a few luxuries and don’t mind the extra weight in the panniers. That said, having done a multi-year world tour, the idea of a lighter setup for shorter skirmishes does appeal. Read my cycle touring kit list for the full long-distance bike touring rig.

Escape by bike; a guide to bikepacking

Buy Escape by Bike on Amazon

Touring with a mountain bike

Mountain bike touring is a chance to go into full expedition mode when it comes to kit. A proper mountain bike offers the possibility of front and rear suspension, chunky tyres and a whole world of terrain to explore.

Like bikepacking, there’s an appetite to go further into tougher territory. A mountain bike tour is the ultimate in off-road self-sufficiency.

Since mountain bikes tend to be a bit heavier there is a weight consideration when it comes to luggage and gear. However, the ethos is much similar to that of gravel bike touring in that less is certainly more.

At this point the three bike travel styles we’ve mentioned cross over into a kind of holy grail. There is a specific kind of bike that has been created to cater for the keen mountain bike tourer, it’s called an expedition bike.

retro mountain bike touring setup

Expedition bikes for heavy-duty touring

Expedition bikes are based on mountain bike frames – there’s lots of space to attach luggage and the option to add racks – but there’s also a nod to the bicycle touring tradition in the way the components are assembled.

A decent expedition bike tends to be custom-built and includes personalised elements that are unique to the rider. Thorn make the Nomad and Oxford Bike Works build TomsExpeditionBike, both of which are available off the peg.

Perhaps, the classic bicycle tourer and the mountain bike have evolved into gravel and expedition bikes. The key difference is where and how luggage is attached. And that decision is generally made based on the length of the tour.

epic rides of the world

Buy Epic Ride of The World on Amazon

Hybrid Bike Touring

Back in the realms of easy cycle touring, there are hybrid bikes. These are the ideal candidate for a family tour or a more laid back approach to bike travel.

Hybrid touring bikes are very popular in Europe. Butterfly handlebars, cushioned saddles and sit-up-and-beg riding position are all a feature of hybrid bike touring.

Certainly, a hybrid bicycle is well suited to the plethora of EuroVelo cycle routes that span the length and breadth of Europe. The going is mostly good with paved surfaces the norm.

In Holland, you can go both ways

Unsurprisingly, the hybrid is the number one style of a bicycle found in The Netherlands. Two-wheeled travel is as popular as ever among communities across the country.

I mention Holland briefly here to shine a light on its extensive network of cycle paths. The Dutch are proud to have produced some of the best circular cycle routes in Europe.

You can read about my adventures cycling across The Netherlands in this travelogue from 2011.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BYLveCGlHU7/

Touring with a folding bike

Similarly, folding bike touring is a neat way to get out on a bike ride anywhere in the world. The convenience of a folding bike is hard to beat.

Certainly, it’s possible to transport folding bikes on the train and there are some airlines that will take folding cycles as hand luggage. A huge plus when it comes to air travel.

Sadly, I know all too well the perils of entrusting a touring bicycle to the baggage handlers at the airport. Too often damage is caused by sloppy treatment or accident in the hold.

Happily, a folding bike such as a Brompton, can make for a fantastic bicycle adventure. I once saw a guy crossing the Pamir mountains on a folder. Brave man he was.

guide to touring on a folding bike
Read this handy guide to touring on a folding bike on Amazon.

Bicycle Touring UK

Earlier, as an introduction to this piece I mentioned that bike touring in the UK was how I cut my teeth in bike travel. Here are my favourite UK cycling routes from the past decade.

Indeed, there are enough gnarly trails, sublime cycle paths and stunning B-roads to satisfy any biking ability and peddling penchant. Simply get out your bike and ride!

Bike touring UK is as popular as ever. Folks are out on trips short or long, rain or shine. Just be sure to pack a waterproof. Heavy weather almost guaranteed.

bikepacking in scotland

Bike Touring Scotland

Specifically, Scotland in the north of the UK offers some of the finest touring in the land. Wide-open valleys, fewer cars and climbs aplenty, bike touring in Scotland offers challenging and varied terrain for experienced tourers.

20 Countries in 100 Days

Way back in 2011, I completed a European Bike Tour for the bikes-to-Africa charity, Re~Cycle. Our challenge was to cycle to 20 countries in 100 days.

During this bike tour across Europe, I learned a great deal about the art of bike travel. It was this journey more than anything that ignited my passion for two-wheeled adventure.

bikepacking in UK

Buy Bikepacking in Britain on Amazon

Cheap Bike Touring

Bicycle touring is inherently affordable. That was certainly part of the appeal for me when I first began. Of course, there is an outlay on the kit, but that’s absolutely not essential. It’s possible to get started with next to nothing.

Bike touring on a budget is the name of the game. Many folks travel on less than £10 per day. I travelled on $10 per day which at the time was about six pounds sterling.

I stretched out my long-distance bike tour to in excess of 500 days. That’s a long camping trip by anyone’s standards. Whether it’s a long weekend, a week in the sun or a trans-continental bike trip, the principles remain the same. It’s simply a case of choosing the right style for you.

Congratulations! You are now fully versed in the possibilities for long-distance bike touring. All that’s left now is to get out there and ride! Bon voyage.

Have you made a Really Big Bike Ride? Share your bicycle journey’s in the comments below.

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