This week, I became a bikepacker. I’d been intrigued by the idea of bikepacking – the lovechild of a union between cycle touring and backpacking.
I’d been dreaming about this adventure for ages. I’d read about bikepacking and loved the idea of a self-sufficient mini camping tour. Think of it as a modest mid life crisis – a chance to live a different life for under 24 hours. Last spring, I started buying bikepacking kit, including a small tent, stove and sleeping bag. Originally I planned a trip with my son Owen, 13, to the campsite at Cookham Lock on the Thames (see Jack Thurston’s original Lost Lanes, Southern England, book) but that has been closed for months. So I took the plunge with a prompt from Komoot’s #RideCampRide campaign.
This was my first trip with a laden bike for over eight years. I was impressed by the way my Apidura bikepacking bags didn’t affect the bike’s handling at all. While the bike was obviously much heavier, it was only when I got out of the saddle for extra oomph that I had a reminder that I needed to ride differently. It was nice to forget average speeds and simply enjoy the journey.
I confess that I avoided unnecessary hills on this first bikepacking tour. As a result, I slogged through the length of High Wycombe – a town not renowned for its beauty. Yet I found the low gears on my Specialized Diverge made laden hill climbing surprisingly manageable. Bikepacking gives you licence (not that you need it) to cycle slowly. Even Primož Roglič would be slower carrying camping kit. (Though far faster than me unladen.)
I set off in a rain shower, but after I escaped High Wycombe the sun came out. My heart was singing as I cycled in the sunshine from West Wycombe towards Radnage, my destination. The Chilterns may not have the grandeur of Snowdonia or the Cairngorms, but on a sunny afternoon they have a soft beauty that makes perfect cycling country. The climbs can be steep, but they rarely last longer than half a mile.
This was one of my favourite moments of the ride. I knew I’d have to climb, but I found it easier than I expected. I drank in the views of this classic Chilterns valley. What I didn’t realise is that I’d missed the turn to the part of Radnage that contained the campsite. That meant another climb later – but I didn’t mind. I enjoyed looking back over the valley – below.
Later, as I climbed from Radnage towards the City – the grand name for the southern part of the village – I enjoyed the view below. In the sunlight, it was hard to believe that 24 hours before the rain had been pelting down – and would be again overnight.
Before long, I had arrived at Home Farm campsite. Owen and I camped at this lovely site with friends five years ago. That April night proved bitterly cold, and I found ice on the tent when I got up. That taught me an important camping lesson: you need to have the right kit to keep warm, even when the temperature is above freezing.
I soon had my tent pitched – though far from perfectly – and got the stove going to brew a well-earned mug of tea. But disaster – the one thing I hadn’t packed was teabags! Fortunately I was able to beg some from the Crown Inn next to the campsite when I went for dinner later. (Thanks Steven and team!) I enjoyed a good dinner there, as we did in 2016. Highly recommended.
After a busy day, I decided on an early night on getting back to the tent, especially as I had to cycle home and then drive to Cardiff the next day.
My combination of sleeping mat, good sleeping bag and liner – not to mention two base layers, fleece and leggings – meant I was snug and warm overnight. I remembered back in 2016 escaping from the tent to find the loo during the night, edging my way in the dark past the trees in the photo above, feeling bitterly cold. No such discomfort tonight.
In the early hours, I listened to the rain on the tent and felt nervous about the morning. I didn’t like the idea of making breakfast and then putting the tent away in driving rain. But I was lucky. The skies were clearing as breakfast time approached. I enjoyed a mug of tea and a cooked breakfast under dry skies.
Before long, I was packing up, and getting ready to head for home. My mini-adventure was almost over. I looked forward to the largely downhill ride to High Wycombe and beyond. Just the climb to Beaconsfield to conquer. But it was easy – the joy of a gravel bike with low gears! I was a convert to the joy of bikepacking. Next time, I will venture further afield.
What have I learned?
Bikepacking kit makes cycle touring so simple. You can use almost any bike. There’s still a place for the traditional touring bike and panniers, but with bikepacking bags you’ll be more disciplined about what to take and what to leave at home. A contrast with my extravagantly packed panniers for a tour of Brittany in 1996, below. (More on that wonderful tour on a later post.)
Here’s my verdict on the kit I used:
My tent: Wild Country Zaphyros Compact 2
This was the big disappointment. Karen (a former guiding leader), Owen (a very practical 13 year old) and I failed to pitch this tent properly in three attempts. The problem is that there are just two guy ropes. The other pegs are on the lower flysheet. As a result, we found it impossible to pitch the tent in a way that it was taut with full headroom. At the campsite, I found a large gap between the ground and flysheet. Fortunately the wind dropped before the rain arrived overnight. Otherwise, I had visions of driving rain soaking me as I slept. That said, it was a light tent to carry, but as always I found it hard to imagine two people having enough room in this supposedly two person tent. (Let alone with two people’s kit.)
Sleeping easily: my sleeping kit
Alpkit Pipedream 400 three season sleeping bag
Rab silk sleeping bag liner
Thermarest NeoAir sleeping pad
By contrast, my choice of sleeping kit proved inspired. The above combination meant I was comfortable and warm overnight. Yet they were really compact, fitting well in my bikepacking bags.
Apidura bikepacking gear
I was so impressed by Apidura’s bikepacking bags. I’d bought these earlier this year in anticipation of my first bikepacking adventure. At first, I was a little unsure, as I struggled to fasten the saddle pack when half empty, but that was user error. You can see my Apidura bags on my bike above. I was thrilled by how well the bike handled fully laden. (And how I got everything on board, admittedly with a little help from a Camelbak for lighter items such as my stove.) I’ve used Ortlieb pannier bags in the past and I’m sure Ortlieb’s bikepacking range would have been equally good.
Jetboil MiniMo stove
I enjoyed researching stoves earlier this year. I went for the Jetboil MiniMo in the end, although the MSR Pocket Rocket had excellent reviews. In the wild – well, Radnage – the Jetboil was superb. It boiled water for my morning tea in no time. It then heated my breakfast easily thanks to the controllable heat output. Back at home over the summer, I also enjoyed cooking bacon and eggs for Owen and me, although I thought it unlikely I’d be able to carry eggs on this expedition! I was lucky to get hold of this stove – Jetboil seems particularly badly affected by supply troubles this year.
My last item was the most important: my bike. I’m now convinced that a gravel bike is a wonderful touring and bikepacking machine. Sure, you could find something lighter. But the combination of low gears and bigger tyres (38mm) make my Diverge a wonderful bike to take touring. Perhaps one day I’ll compare it with my old Raleigh Randonneur and Dawes Super Galaxy touring bikes. For now, I can’t wait to set off on another adventure. And maybe next time I’ll go offroad. The Ridgeway is calling me.
I’ll close with a thought. Much as I enjoyed my first bikepacking tour, I couldn’t help wondering how much fun a bikepacking trip would be with an electric assisted bike. Sure, some purists would see this as cheating. But they’re missing the point. Touring is about the joy of exploring rather than conquering climbs and securing personal bests. If you want to achieve those goals, by all means go for it. But for the rest of us an e-bike may open up new vistas. You may need to find somewhere to recharge your bike’s battery, but that should be straightforward with decent planning. In the jargon of Silicon Valley, the e-bike will democratise cycle touring, opening it to far more people. That has to be a good thing.
PS: You can watch a video of my adventure here: