Amongst the many questions I get asked such as, “Why don’t you shut up?” and “Really, are you sure?”, one of the most common is, “What’s the difference between bikepacking and touring?”. I have to say, the question is usually asked with a subtle sneer or at very least, a slight smirk; my inquisitor having generally thought long and hard about the question and in most cases, has already decided that there is no difference.
They’ll say that ‘off-road’ riding isn’t a valid filter to distinguish one from the other, as people have embarked on countless off-road tours to the furthest corners of the Earth for years. They may also point out that a specific genre of bike is in no way a surefire way to separate the two and I agree. After all, I and many others, have happily bikepacked on cyclocross bikes and those taking part in the Trans Continental Race do it on road bikes … so, if it’s nothing to do with where you go or what you go on, what is it?
Perhaps, before I say what I think it is, it might be prudent to say what it isn’t and I’m afraid that it’s nothing quite so tangible as where you go and it certainly has nothing to do with what bike you choose to go on. The difference will ultimately manifest itself in the physical but you can’t touch it, hold it or point at it. The difference comes from within; because what distinguishes bikepacking from touring, is attitude … I can hear the ‘tutting’ and feel the draught from all the head-shaking right now!
|Are we selling it to you yet? (pic Shona)|
If that last statement strikes a positive chord with you – good. If it doesn’t, then I apologise because I haven’t got the time to explain it fully. However, a brief glimpse into the thought process of the average bikepacker might help, so here goes – To carry the least amount of gear possible, that will enable me to ride for consecutive days without sacrificing too much comfort. This will allow me to travel further and faster and explore more remote areas because I will be less fatigued and my bike less compromised by additional weight and bulk. There we go, a fairly simple ethos with a firm grounding in common sense and practicality but one which is wide open to personal interpretation. Everyone will have different ideas about what constitutes ‘minimum amount of kit’ and possess a very defined comfort threshold that they’re wary of dropping below and that’s great. Those embarking on a journey to the land of bikepacking, may start by carrying numerous security blankets and metaphorical kitchen sinks but as the miles increase, so does experience and as long as they’re nurturing the ‘bikepacking attitude’ a reduction in what’s carried naturally tends to follow with the realisation that it actually makes life easier. I’ll be the first to admit, it’s not always plain sailing. There will be times when an error of judgement leads to more discomfort than you’d anticipated BUT that’s part of it, just like getting wet is part of learning to swim and as long as mistakes are learned from, they’re not really mistakes are they?. They’re simply learning experiences.
Over the years, a small and dedicated group of manufacturers and cottage industries / one man bands have grown up to support, supply and let’s be honest – encourage, the slowly but ever swelling ranks. These people are first and foremost, riders and the products and services they offer generally reflect this. They draw on their own experiences, both good and bad to design products that’ll help you, ‘To carry the least amount of gear possible, that will enable you to ride for consecutive days’, while not, ‘sacrificing too much comfort’. I’m not going to pretend for a minute that there’s no money changing hands, of course there is, it’s part and parcel of society and these people still have to eat but I firmly believe their prime motivation is improving the experience for their customers.
|When you can’t feel the wind, rain and cold it can even look appealing in black and white.|
Something I’ve never been labelled is a romantic, I’m far too pragmatic and cynical for that, but I can see the romantic appeal the notion of bikepacking might hold. From the comfort of your armchair you can’t feel the cold or the rain gently running down your back. Sat behind your desk there’s little chance of being eaten by midges and it’s unlikely your shoes will be full of brown, smelly bog water. It’s easy to paint a distorted picture that smoothes the rough edges off reality and make things look a little more appealing than they probably are … and the more appealing the picture, the more chance you have of selling it. Desire is a marketable commodity and more and more people want to buy ‘the experience’. Trouble is, they usually want the one they’ve been ‘sold’ rather than the warts and all one from under the counter. Big manufacturers aren’t stupid, they’re good at spotting new opportunities and potential markets, which has inevitably lead to a massive increase in the numbers producing ‘bikepacking products’ and on the face of it, that’s a great thing but developing and marketing new products, costs money, money which needs to be clawed back through sales. I hate to say this but increasing sales, likely means pandering to the masses, rather than bikepackers, and that often results in a dilution of, ‘To carry the least amount of gear possible, that will enable me to ride for consecutive days without sacrificing too much comfort. This will allow me to travel further and faster and explore more remote areas because I will be less fatigued and my bike less compromised by additional weight and bulk’. Inevitably, weights and packsize increase as comfort and ease of use become the prime concerns, until the balance is lost and those taking part are no longer ‘bikepacking’ … they’re simply touring by another name.