Back in the spring of 2017, I set out for my first cycle touring adventure. In memory of my Nana, I had decided to ride from Istanbul to London, along the route of the Orient Express trainline. It was roughly 2,500 miles, taking in 10 countries across 1 whole continent and would take around 2 months to complete. I was an occasional road cyclist, but never had I even so much as sat on a touring bike.
I knew how to fix a puncture, I was fairly good with a map and I’d cooked plenty of meals on a camping stove, but beyond that I found the world of cycle touring quite overwhelming. Did I need front or rear racks, or both? How much should all my kit weigh? I was torn between researching every minor detail and scaring myself witless or doing little preparation which could then very well leave me in trouble. I opted for something between the two and booked my one-way flight to Turkey. It took 4 hours to get out there, and 2 months later I cycled over my metaphorical finish line in Richmond Park. It’s fair to say that my ride was a bit of a baptism of fire, but since then I have learnt a fair amount about what it means to travel on 2 wheels.
Cycle Touring vs Bikepacking
Bicycle travel strikes the balance between covering some decent daily distances, while not passing through areas so quickly that you miss out on local sights, smells, sounds and meeting people. Like many cycling-related things, there are a few different options. Cycle touring tends to involve longer distances at a slower pace, with kit loaded into panniers and attached to racks over the wheels. Bikepacking, on the other hand, tends to involve a mountain or trail bike with a lightweight set up, ideal for riding over mixed terrain or completely off-road. The latter has seen a huge surge in popularity in recent years, enjoyed by those who want to travel faster, lighter, shorter distances.
For any adventure, the first thing you’ll need, quite obviously, is a bike. If you already have one, you’re probably set as most bikes can be adapted to carry some form of equipment. Mountain bikes and road bikes can be set up with a combination of bike bags, whereas you’ll need a hardier hybrid or touring bike with a stronger frame with the relevant braze-ons to carry the weight of racks and panniers. The most important factor with any multi-day ride is comfort – a well-fitted bike and comfortable saddle can be the difference between a bearable ride and a great one! Visit your local bike shop for advice and a proper bike fit.
Before setting off it’s a good idea to have some basic knowledge about bike maintenance (or ride with someone who does!). Your ride will be far less stressful if you aren’t worrying about what to do with a puncture, a broken chain or jumping gears, given that you could be miles away from a bike shop or someone who can help. Carry a basic toolkit, including tyre levers, a spare tube, a pump and a multi-tool and you should be able to fix the majority of issues yourself.
How to Carry your Gear
There are numerous different options of carrying your gear and it can often feel like a conundrum trying to work out how to fit it all onto your bike. At the simplest end, stuffing your kit into dry bags and lashing them onto the frame (between the handlebars or under the saddle) using bungee cords or straps will usually suffice for a 1- or 2-day adventure. For longer trips you’ll want to consider something more robust in the form of bikepacking bags. The lightest gear, such as your sleeping shelter and sleeping bag, should ideally be strapped to your handlebars. Anything too heavy will impact the steering and control of the bike. Clothes and food can be rolled and put into a seat pack under your saddle, whilst the heaviest items should ideally be put into a frame bag to keep the weight centred in the middle of the bike. Tools, snacks and personal items can be stashed away in a top tube bag or stem bag for easy access.
If you are taking it up a notch and planning a longer trip or are more concerned about taking some home comforts with you, panniers are your best option. You will need rear or front rack, and a frame that is strong enough to carry the additional weight, as you could easily find yourself carrying 15kg when fully loaded. The Ortlieb brand is widely regarded as making the best fully waterproof panniers, but they are pricey and there are plenty of other brands out there.
However you choose to carry your kit, don’t be surprised if you think you’ve got it all sussed, only to be switching things around a few hours in because you’ve realised that it’s more important to have your camera and snacks more easily accessible than your headtorch. On your first few trips it’s also quite likely that you’ll realise you’ve packed far more than you actually need. Tweaks and modifications come with experience, and generally learning the hard way. There is no right or wrong way to carry your gear – make it work for you and enjoy the puzzle!
Somewhere to Sleep
At the end of a long day on the bike, you need somewhere to rest your head. As with your gear, there is no right or wrong way of doing this – some people might want the reassurance and comfort of knowing there is a hostel bed waiting for them each evening; others will prefer the wild and rugged approach of sleeping under a tarpaulin or climbing into a bivvy bag on the side of a hill. Relying on accommodation usually requires some additional forward planning with reservations to ensure you have a bed for the night.
If you prefer to sleep under canvas, there are numerous campsites dotted around the British countryside, some with excellent facilities, some with a more ‘rural’ approach. Wild camping is strictly illegal in the UK everywhere except Scotland and areas of Dartmoor, unless you gain the permission of the landowner. If you do adopt a stealthier approach, always take care when choosing your pitch and follow the Leave No Trace principles to minimise your impact on the environment. On solo rides I have often used Warmshowers, an online community of bicycle tourists who offer out their homes to provide shelter, assistance or a place to stay.
What to Eat?
You could aim to find local cafés and restaurants along your way, but part of the joy of carrying your own cooking equipment is the ability to rustle up a feast or pop the kettle on for a cup of tea or coffee wherever you choose to stop. There is a huge range of lightweight cooking stoves, and much depends on personal choice as much as practicality.
For a solo trip, a small ultralight backpacking stove that can be screwed directly onto a gas canister is ideal (such as the MSR Pocket Rocket 2 or the Alpkit Kraku). For larger groups of 3-4 people, a more traditional and practical Trangia stove is a great option. If you are travelling more remotely, where access to fuel could be limited, consider a multi-fuel stove – the MSR WhisperLite Universal regularly tops the rankings and provides the flexibility of being able to burn gas, kerosene and unleaded fuel. If you are really looking to shave your money and weight allowance, I can highly recommend a DIY stove made from an old beer or soft drink can. They utilise any form of alcohol (if you can spare some from your campsite stash!) and weigh in at under an ounce.
As for your meals, wholesome, simple food is often the most welcoming and tends to taste even better after a long day in the saddle. Pasta and rice are a tourer’s staples and carrying a small pot of mixed herbs or chilli flakes can make almost any combination edible. Sometimes you can’t beat the convenience of rehydrated meals (Firepot’s Orzo Pasta Bolognese is my personal favourite). That said, one of the elements I enjoy the most about cycling is the ability to stop for a well-earned rest in a café to sample the local cake.
Planning your Route…or Not.
We are blessed in the UK that we have a multitude of well-established cycle routes, both on and off-road. From the West Highland Way to the South Downs Way, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to stunning scenery and adventurous routes. The easiest option is to load a GPS device with a pre-planned route and set off. Bear in mind that you may need a backup battery or charging device if your trip is over multiple days. There are also plenty of apps to help plan your own route including Komoot, Viewranger and OS Maps.
My preference is to leave the Garmin at home, keep Strava switched off, and use the age-old method of following my nose, with a trusty map and compass as a backup (whilst carrying a mobile for emergencies). Pick a few towns or villages and then find small, quiet roads between them. You don’t need an intricate route, and you can often stumble across areas or things you wouldn’t otherwise expect. Use local knowledge but bear in mind that people are notoriously pretty rubbish at gauging distances!
If you are a road cyclist, or you’ve never ridden with any sort of weight on your bike, don’t expect to cover the same sort of big daily distances (I’ll admit I managed the grand total of 11 miles on my first day riding with a full touring set up). The extra weight is highly likely to slow you down and there is always a period of trial and error, with gear and packs rubbing on tyres or getting to grips with navigation.
Get Out There!
As I’ve learnt again and again, always expect the unexpected. You can plan and plan and still things will go ‘wrong’. Build in as much flexibility as you can but know that things will almost definitely not go to plan. I can guarantee those will be the times you remember and laugh about once you’re home…
The most important thing to remember about any bicycle adventure? It’s your trip, on your terms. If you want to travel fast and far, carrying minimal kit over an established route, that’s fine. If you prefer to travel slowly and more comfortably, with no real route in mind, stopping regularly to take in the views or eat cake, that’s fine too. And if you simply haven’t got the time or inclination to plan it yourself, or you don’t want to have to carry your own kit, or you simply want to join a group of like-minded people – you can always join Red Fox on one of our Escape the City adventures! Have fun and see you on the road!
About the author:
I'm Annabel, one of the tour leaders and have been part of Red Fox since 2019. Initially a reluctant cyclist, I now love nothing more than shoving far too many clothes into my panniers and setting off for a few days of adventure on 2 wheels!
Which festival ride are you MOST excited to join in 2021?
I’m really looking forward to Wilderness Festival – I’ve never been and some of my favourite artists are on the lineup for next year.
What are you riding right now?
My Surly Long Haul Trucker. It’s a solid workhorse of a bike that consistently handles pretty much any terrain or luggage set up I throw at it.
Any words of wisdom?
On any ride, always make sure you build in a cake stop!
Ready for your first Bike Packing adventure, but not quite ready to go it alone? Why not join one of our Escape the City weekend adventures?