Bikepacking, now in fashion, is good old cycle touring but with less riding on tarmac roads and more on bridleways, gravel roads and stony tracks. It can be anything from weekends out in the local countryside to month-long rides down the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico.
The appeal of bikepacking in the British uplands is that it’s rougher and wilder than tarmac touring. You navigate using small-scale maps and sometimes you have to push your loaded bike up slopes or lift it bodily over locked gates. Descending a bumpy trail poses different challenges from riding on roads, and of course there are no cars.
Some bikepacking is Type 2 fun, to be honest, meaning that you only really enjoy it afterwards. And usually at least half my riding ends up being on tarmac roads, which connect almost every A to every B in Britain and are hard to avoid. But you do get to take your bike and camp in places like this:
This valley is one of the most stunning places I’ve spent a night. The ground was actually boggy and infested with midges which want to bite you and drink your blood, so I had to flee into the tent and zip it up instead of watching the sunset outside, but the experience of coping with such things is part of the satisfaction.
Bikepacking is attracting more interest but it’s still a minority pursuit in the UK, even among cyclists. In two weeks’ riding from Yorkshire to the top of Scotland I met fewer than a dozen other bikepackers, in a country which must have several million cyclists.
Not surprisingly, much of what you see online about bikepacking will celebrate its upsides, partly because it’s a lot of fun and people want to talk about it, but also to an extent because companies sponsor online content in order to encourage you to buy a new bike and lots of new kit to go with it.
So I thought I could offer something different by admitting three things I often get wrong and, along the way, shed some light on what makes bikepacking so satisfying:
1. Not having enough water.
2. Getting lost in the hills.
3. Worrying too much about being fast and light.
During a hot and sweaty day’s riding I can easily drink five litres. This is too much weight to carry for long on a bike without a great deal of hassle, at least if you’re planning to ride on rougher and steeper surfaces.
For a smallish and populous country, the UK has some surprisingly remote uplands where there are, for miles, no shops to sell you water or pubs to refill your bottles for free. You can filter from streams but even in the Highlands, with its abundant lochs and rivers, it isn’t always easy to find fresh water when you need it. Streams may have dried up, or be hard to clamber down to, or be so stagnant and murky that you don’t really trust your filter to keep the microscopic nasties out.
This is absolutely a first-world problem, of course. You are not going to die of thirst in a day without drinking water. But you won’t be having much fun that day either. You end up spending inordinate amounts of cycling time thinking about water: how much you have left, how much you would like to drink a delicious chilled and fizzy glass of Perrier with a hint of lemon …
Rarely there are miracles. This summer I was panting up a road climb in the Highlands on a blazing hot afternoon, wondering how to make my last 300ml of precious fluid last till the evening, when I was hailed from the roadside by Brian and Shona, a couple on their way to Oban who wondered if I would like some bottled water. Oh yes, I would, very much!
Their motorhome, it turned out, had a fridge packed with bottles of water with which they plied me until I’d slaked my thirst and filled my own containers to the brim. I was sorted for water for the rest of the day which, incidentally, gave me the confidence to take a more adventurous route later on, resulting in the photo above.
A blessing on both of them! If you’ve cycled long distance in the heat, you’ll know what this kindness to a stranger means. To pass it on, I’ve made a donation to WaterAid which helps to provide water to people elsewhere in the world who really need it.
There is no easy answer to the problem that the volume of water you need in the heat may be greater than the volume you can realistically carry. Either you carry more and accept the weight penalty, or you drink less, or plan to pass more sources of water, or just hope for kind people like Brian and Shona to come along.
If nothing else, it’s a reminder of the superb infrastructure which makes drinkable water so easily available in rich countries like the UK. You have to make quite an effort to get yourself into a situation where not a drop of this water is available for you to drink.
2. Losing your way in the hills.
I’ve done two long bikepacking trips in northern England and Scotland and one in Wales and on all three trips I’ve managed to lose my way while crossing rough ground.
It happens like this. The map (or Ordnance Survey app) will show a right of way running across the moorland, but on the ground will be only the slender traces of a path. You follow these traces until the path appears to split and the traces grow ever fainter.
Over-confidently you read the map again. You forge ahead, blindly determined that you know the way, and eventually you realise that what you’d taken to be a path was in fact a track made by sheep. Now you are deep in the heather, several hundred yards away from the place where the path might be.
You could retreat the way you came but you’re not going to because you’re in a bloody-minded mood and determined not to let the landscape defeat you. You are not really lost, because you know that the valley will eventually issue out into the lowlands where there are campsites and pubs and so on. And if you do go back on your tracks then you might well miss the path again and be stuck here forever and turned to stone like an invading warrior from a folk tale.
All you need to do is traverse the valley until you find the path. You may even be able to see the path in the distance. So you set off.
At this point you discover the existence of tussocks, which are mounds of earth with tall, tough, entangling grass growing out of them. You realise that the ground between you and the likely location of the path consists of nothing but tussocks, rising several inches out of a base layer of black and peaty mud with an admixture of sheep shit.
Your mission, whether you like it or not, is to arm-wrestle 20-30 kilos of bike and camping gear across the tussocks, down into any streambeds you may encounter and up the other side, being watched all the while by puzzled sheep, until you stumble onto the path. You will feel as if you are lifting a wardrobe and the bike will end up upside down and at times on top of you. Your arms will ache and your legs will be smeared with black mud. You will get thirstier (see 1. above)
(This situation must be easier to deal with for a hiker than a bikepacker. Not only is a laden steel mountain bike very heavy. When you try to treat it as a piece of luggage, it’s shaped so as to bang or scrape or poke you in ways that a backpack doesn’t).
The funny thing is that anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours later you will attain the path, leap on your bike, jubilantly ride off and instantly forget about the tussocks. The ride must go on! Perhaps there is also an element of not wanting to reflect on how you got yourself into such a mess in the first place.
So how not to lose your way in the hills? The obvious answer is never to get off the beaten track. The beaten track is exactly where you want to be. Beaten tracks in the British uplands can date back thousands of years and what is it you grasp about the landscape that all those other travellers didn’t? Stick to the beaten track.
You do, over time, get better at reading the signs which indicate the course of a track: scrapes of exposed earth, a thin line rippling through the long grass, maybe even a tyre mark here or there. I was very pleased with myself for navigating down into Scotland’s Glen Affric from the side-valley in the photo above, along tracks which were sometimes no more visible than this:
In the end, this kind of manageable difficulty is part of what makes bikepacking in the uplands more exciting than a tarmac ride from village to village. There’s a tiny bit more at stake, even if it’s only the prospect of aching shoulders, a couple of bruises and being caught in a rainstorm. I wouldn’t want to get lost on the moors in winter, though. Not on a bike.
3. Worrying too much about being fast and light.
Like all outdoor activities, bikepacking draws in two different types of people: those who like to go fast, and those who don’t or can’t. This may reflect bikepacking’s diverse origins in mountain biking, which is high-adrenaline and devil-may-care, but also in the traditionally gentler pursuit of cycle touring.
A field of bikepacking ultra-races has sprung up in the last few years, some of them involving astonishing feats of riding for days and nights over tough terrain. The people who thrive in these races are strong, agile and determined and I admire them immensely. But I have no more in common with them, as riders, than I have with Olympic swimmers when I’m doing lengths at the local pool.
For me riding is a way of experiencing a landscape: there is a goal of reaching a particular place by the trip’s end but along the way I’m thinking more about immediate questions: where will I camp tonight? Why is my bike making that squeaking noise? Oh look, an owl!
This is absolutely fine: neither approach is better than the other. But the two are not neatly separable and the idea of the first tends to seep into the second, at least in my mind.
I do worry endlessly that my kit is too heavy, that I’m riding too few miles a day, that I should be able to ride further up that hill before having to jump off and push. If you allow these worries to take root, then you end up aspiring to a kind of riding that doesn’t suit you, which at the same time reduces your enjoyment of the slower riding you’re actually doing.
This worry can also nudge you towards spending money on lighter and fancier equipment. It activates the urge, now deeply implanted in most of us, to buy more stuff. I recently saw a perfectly good hiking tent (which I own) described by a reviewer as a “beginner’s tent” because it’s a kilogram heavier than similar tents costing several hundred pounds more. And yet I, with a body weight of roughly 80 kilograms and a bike weight of 14 or so, still read that article and seriously considered whether I ought to buy a lighter tent …
It’s totally fine for racers, or people who aspire to be racers, to want to go faster and buy expensive kit that helps them to. Why not? Part of me wishes I had their strength and skill. But most bikepackers and cycle tourers will never be ultra-light or ultra-fast racers and it feels important for us to resist any growth in our minds of the notion that we should want to be. Cycling should be cheaper and more socially inclusive and the faster-lighter-costlier creed, if it becomes too dominant, would make it even less so.
The mistake I still struggle not to make a lot of the time is to fall into thinking that pleasure in bikepacking depends on numbers – the distances you’ve ridden, the weight of your kit – and that the pleasure must be the less if these numbers are too big or too small. The best parts of bikepacking are when you forget all this and just glory in the scenery and the motion of your body on the bike.
It’s a constant but necessary struggle – in the face of the natural tendency to emulate the most capable people among us and the unnatural tendency to let consumer capitalism infiltrate our minds with the notion that whatever we have already is not enough – to keep remembering why we ride and what we hope to gain from the experience, whether it’s to test our bodies to the limits or merely to ride through beautiful landscapes and feel a little effort in our calves and the weather on our faces for a while, before going back to normal life indoors, until the next time.