Bike Touring vs. Bikepacking:
What's the Difference?
The answer is, quite simply: a little bit of everything.
To say that people have been riding bikes around the world since time immemorial is a bit of an overstatement. But not by much. The first “bike” was the Draisine, invented in 1817 by Baron Karl von Drais. This was a push-style bike and it wasn’t too long before the Pennyfarthing was created and people were able to pedal at a much faster pace than they could push. By 1878, the Bicycle Touring Club was established in Britain and only 12 years later, John Foster Fraser and two of his close friends set off on a bike tour that lasted them 2 years and in which they cycled 30,958km. Needless to say, it wasn’t long after the invention of the bicycle before people started to ride them around the world.
Fast forward a little over 100 years and a whole new style of bike travel has come into fashion. Bikepacking. It’s gotten so popular that pretty much every bike manufacturer out there is creating some sort of ‘adventure bike’, whether it’s called a gravel bike, endurance bike, bikepacking rig, or some other such acronym. The unofficial concept of bikepacking came about shortly after the development of mountain bikes when guys like Joe Redington Sr. created the Iditabike race in the late 1980s or Eric Parsons, founder of Revelate Designs, decided to do some mountain bike touring in far off places like Alaska in the 1990s. At the time there were no commercially available frame bags, seatpost bags or handlebar rolls. Anything people used was homemade and fabricated through trial and error. Now, there are so many small bag manufacturers producing high quality bags, as well as bigger companies such as Restrap, Blackburn and Ortlieb, carrying bikepack specific collections.
One of the most common questions that comes my way as a bike touring podcast host is, what’s the difference between traditional bike touring and bikepacking? Unfortunately, the answer is not simple. What differentiates the two? Is it the bags? The bike? The roads chosen? The type of tire? Clothes? Gear? Handlebars? Groupset? And on. And on. And on.
The answer is, quite simply: a little bit of everything.
Let me dive into that a bit more.
The simplest way for me to make sense of the differences between bike touring to bikepacking is to give you the most understandable comparison that comes to mind. I’d like you to imagine backpacking. On a backpacking trip, you pack up a big rucksack (backpack) with way too much stuff and roam the world using a variety of planes, trains and automobiles to check out all the greatest cities, eat spectacular food and take epic pictures along the way. This isn’t always done internationally of course. It can easily be done in one’s own country as they travel between cities and stop for sightseeing along the way.
Now, imagine long distance hiking, also known as thru-hiking (or through-hiking). Through-hikers pack their bags much more efficiently while trying to keep the weight down, get off the beaten path and usually eat decidedly less-delicious food, more focused on being in nature and just thoroughly in love with the act of walking long distances through the forests, mountains, plains, etc.
In 2012 I did my first bike tour, travelling 1500 km across the Indonesian islands of Java, Bali and Lombok. I did this on a mountain bike with a wobbly rack on the back and two Ortlieb saddle bags, riding mostly paved roads and spending most of my time relaxing, partying and sightseeing in bigger cities along the way. I met up with Couchsurfers, went on hikes and visited zoos and museums. Although I was on a mountain bike, I definitely consider this more of a traditional bike tour. I used a mountain bike, because that is what I had at hand, but the concept was to travel to different cities in Indonesia.
In a slightly different style of bike touring, in 2020 I did a 5500km trip from Vancouver to Whitehorse and then on to Winnipeg, riding an Opus Horizon ‘Adventure’ bike, using a minimalistic bikepacking setup and keeping weight as low as possible. On this trip I used 32mm Continental GP 5000 TL slick tires and mostly stayed on paved roads. How do I classify this? Bike touring or bikepacking? In my mind, I consider this ride as an ultra-distance bikepacking. Even though I was riding almost entirely on paved roads, my mindset throughout made it feel decidedly less about the destination and more about spending time on the bike, although I also spent some time in a few cities and towns along the way such as Terrace and Whitehorse. However, for the most part I bypassed the bigger cities.
More recently, in 2021 I started using my adventure bike to get off the beaten track and explore the region in which I call home. Using my Opus Horizon adventure bike, I packed it up with as little gear as possible and took on huge bikepacking adventures in Ontario and Quebec, heading out for days at a time to get away from everything and be closer with nature, pedalling the days away. These roughly 800km bikepacking routes took me through little towns, villages and backroads that I normally wouldn’t be out discovering if I was on a traditional bike tour. My goal during these routes was to push myself to new levels and spend as much time riding my bike as possible.
So, back to the big question. What’s the difference between bike touring and bikepacking.
In my 10 years of bike travel and 3 years of interviews with bike tourers, bikepackers and countless discussions with riders, tourers, ultra-distance racers and every other classification in between, I have come to the conclusion that generally speaking, bike tourers use bikes as a means of travel to see the world. The bike is a tool used to explore the world at a slower pace, as an environmentally conscious means of travel and a way to engage with people and experience new cultures. Whether they are on something like a road touring bike or a dirt road touring bike, the ultimate goal is travel and the desire to live life on the road. This doesn’t mean they are not allowed to love cycling. It’s just that typically, the first priority is travel.
Bikepacking on the other hand, prioritizes the biking aspect over that of travel. It also has the elements of travel, adventure and exploration, but bikepackers typically have a stronger desire to explore further off the beaten path and be one with their natural environment. They love every aspect of biking and like to push their limits, take on challenging trails to get further away from ‘civilization’. There’s nothing quite like waking up at the side of a lake and having a hot coffee before jumping back on your bike and tearing through the countryside and bike trails for another day of fun.
Bikepacking is, in a sense, a means of going on a much longer bike ride, using a combination of trails and lesser used roads to get from place to place.
For this to happen, the bike needs to be setup in a way that allows the bike to be handled when riding on trickier trails and to allow the rider to be able to push the bike when it is impossible to ride. For this reason, bikepackers tend to use a more minimalistic approach to their gear and food supplies.
Does it necessitate being in the forest all the time? Not at all. You could go bikepacking and just ride back gravel roads and unserviced roads to get from place to place.
Does it require someone to ride a specific type of bike? Not really. As I mentioned previously when recounting my travels from 2020, I was using an adventure bike with road slicks and in my mind, I consider it a form of bikepacking. Some people like to use mountain bikes and spend their entire time in nature reserves, provincial or state parks, and crushing as much singletrack and doubletrack as possible. Others enjoy less technical gravel roads and can easily do it on a gravel bike.
Does it require a certain bike setup? Yes and no. Typically, for bikepacking you would run a lighter setup than someone who is bike touring. It helps to get the centre of gravity lower and more centred on the bike, hence the use of frame bags, handlebar rolls and seatpost bags. However, I have met and spoken to many bikepackers that run a hybrid system and carry smaller sized panniers on their rear rack, so that they can carry a bit more gear or bulkier items like laptops.
Do you have to be minimalist and uncomfortable? Not at all. While you would probably try to pack smarter, carry less items that aren’t used regularly, there are bikepackers out there that wouldn’t go anywhere without a lightweight camp chair such as a those by Helinox. Some people like to have fresh coffee in the morning and carry things such as grinders and espresso makers. In my experience, the best way to shed weight is to invest in a good sleep setup: lightweight tent, matress and down sleeping bag/quilt. A good quality tent weighs about 1kg, easily two to three times lighter than a cheap tent. My complete bikepacking camp setup weighs 2kg for tent, air matress and sleeping bag.
How do you distinguish between mountain biking (or gravel biking) and bikepacking? If you go out just for a day of gravel biking and are home by nightfall, you simply went gravel biking. The same can be said of mountain biking. However, if you are spending the night camping, in a hotel, guesthouse or being hosted, and continuing on your adventure the next day, I would then consider it bikepacking. In my estimation, the differentiating factor is time. Being outside on a ‘trip’ for two days or more is where the difference lies. Distance is irrelevant. If I ride a 100km gravel loop in one day, it’s a big gravel ride. If I ride it over a period of two days, it’s a short bikepacking trip.
Are there exceptions to the rules? Absolutely. All this should be taken with a grain of salt, as there is much overlap to be found between the two. Some people ride the Tour Divide on touring bikes with 4 panniers, while others, such as Belén Castello and Tristan Bogaard, interviewed in Episode 099 of the Bike Tour Adventures podcast, have gone from being traditional bike tourers to continuing their exploration of the world with bikepacking rigs set up to really get off the main roads and explore out of the way locales far off the beaten path. As of the publication of this article, they are still out there adventuring and travelling on their bikepacking rigs. Some bikepackers like Sam Rice and Becky Norman, interviewed in Episode 026, have been creating amazing meals while on their bikepacking adventures and really showcase what is possible with a minimalist setup. Needless to say, you can still be a bikepacker and tourer at the same time.
Bikepackers typically prioritize the journey over the destination, often focussing on setting up their bikepacking ‘rig’ to be as efficient as possible and to be able to take on the more challenging terrain that is typically encountered when riding off-pavement. While many bike tourers make the switch to bikepacking as a means of continuing their journeys, there are still many that continue their journey as traditional bike tourers. Those that do cross over to bikepacking may be making the switch as a means of injecting more challenge into their typical day of riding their bike while travelling, or as a means of getting away from the ‘bike’ tourist traps. In my experience bike touring and living abroad, you slowly get tired of temples, churches and museums. Maybe that is part of the reason some bike tourers change.
Either way, bikepacking is definitely not going anywhere. It is no longer a niche category of biking, but has nearly twice as many social media posts when comparing #bikepacking to #biketouring. It is quickly making gains on #roadbike, although still far behind. While I still love to explore and bike tour, bikepacking has re-ignited my passion towards mountain biking, quickens my pulse and brings a smile to my lips in much the same way as I remember from my teenage years when I first started to take bikes off-road. I look forward to more bike tours in the future, but am also pleased to be able to easily get out for a few days of bikepacking fun when time permits.
In the end, the goal is the same. Get out there, explore the world or your local environment, get on a bike and just keep on pedalling.
Founder of the Bike Tour Adventures Podcast and Bikepack Aventures