Glenn Charles

Adventurer | Photographer | Connector

Today I am a Time Traveler with a Camera... Tomorrow, who knows

Bikepacking - The Art of Simple, lightweight touring

My move from a traditional, over laden bicycle tourist, to my preferred way of travel, ultra light, is now almost complete. Over the past month I have been working  to once again get my kit down to the bare minimum, a focus on travelling with what I need and not what I might need.  Life this way is full of compromises, most notably the requirement that most items have a dual use.  Single use items become few and far between, especially on the clothes front.

The move to travel light has swept through the back packing community, dramatically changing the experience of long distance hikers.  Previously hikers would show up at the AT trail head with packs overflowing with gear and backs already set to break.  Now you are just as likely to see hikers show up with lightweight shoes, a pack carrying 20 pounds of gear and their food and water.  Not only does this lighter pack equal a happier back, but it dramatically alters the wear and tear on your body.  The revolution towards ultra light backpacking centered on two main elements.  First was the introduction of lightweight, durable clothing, that when layered, created a system capable of keeping you warm or cool depending on what you had on.

Second was the move to lightweight gear, items like titanium and silnylon now dominate the hikers backpack.  Next up was a move to the bottle can stove that runs on simple alcohol.  With the advent of these DIY stoves, hikers could carry a stove that weighed no more than a couple of ounces and they could fill up on fuel at any grocery store or drugstore.  These items have now coalesced into a new way to travel the back country.

Fast forward to a year or two ago and you find the same movement taking place in the cycling world.  The term bikepacking was coined to represent the art of traveling light by bike in the back country.  The objective of these early adopters was to carry all of their gear attached to the bike and then use a small back pack to carry their food and any remaining items.  The goal, kits that weighed less than 20 pounds, all fitting on the bike & back pack, without the use of panniers. 

Their motivation was undoubtedly fueled by the ultra light backpacking scene.  Carry less, travel farther, use less energy, need less food, have more fun.  I must admit that since late last year I have been following this community closely, looking at how they travel with such minimal gear.  I knew that this was the way I would prefer to go, but never having done a 10,000 mile bike trip I felt I needed more than I did.  Following the law that states "you will fill to capacity, whatever type of bag you have, no matter what your needs", I started with a BOB trailer, filling its bright yellow bag to near bursting capacity.  Within 2 days of starting out I was already sending back gear, and that has not stopped the entire trip.

Now, 4800 miles in, I have removed the BOB from my kit and am now down to a kit that weighs 18 pounds without food and water.  It is all attached to the bike without the use of panniers.  I have a small backpack that I use to carry my electronics and books.  Food is still an issue for me, and one that I am currently still sorting out.  Going so light requires that I change my menu and shopping strategy, something that I have been doing a single way for the past 2.5 years.  Needless to say, it is turning out to be a bit difficult to change, but I will persevere.

So far, the benefits outweigh the negatives.  The bike is easier to handle and dealing with hills,  especially at the end of the day, is a dream.  I am definitely going faster, although that was not a motivator in travelling this way.  Making and breaking camp is much easier since I only have what I need.  The downsides, well, not being able to carry as much food as I would like, and I am still lacking a piece of warm clothing.  I have struggled the entire trip to stay warm and this change in setup is not helping. I am optimistic that I will be able to pick up a small down vest on sale now that winter is finally over and most folks are dreaming of summer clothes.  Lastly, I was unable to find a frame bag, which would allow me to use the inner triangle of the bike as storage.  These are generally custom built, expensive, and have a 3 month waiting list. 

The following is a list of my gear and its location on the bike:

  • Bivy sack - handlebar
  • Sleeping pad - handlebar
  • Tarp and ropes - handlebar
  • Tools - bottom water bottle holder in water bottle
  • Stove and fuel - seat post
  • Stakes - seat post
  • Sleeping bag - dry bag, rear rack
  • Wool layers - dry bag, rear rack
  • Socks - dry bag, rear rack
  • Sandals - dry bag
  • Computer and cables - back pack
  • Rain jacket - back pack
  • Sunglasses, snacks, maps - reused camera bag, handlebars