Terminology: Bike Touring and Bike Packing

Author: Noel McFarlane

Personal background

I want to go back to when I first heard about travel on a bicycle.

Bike Touring has been around for a long time (bike touring clubs were formed in the UK 140 years ago), but there was a point in time when each one of us first encountered the term and the idea of “bike touring”. We might have ridden to school as kids, ridden around on the weekend, visited friends, got into some “discipline” or some bike fad. But, until we heard the term “bicycle tour” we had no idea that travel could happen on a bike.

In my case it was the mid 1970’s when I saw a poster in Haymarket, Sydney advertising a ‘Friends of the Earth’ bike ride down the south coast and up the ranges to the “Down to Earth” festival in the ACT. The poster inspired me and I went on the ride. I met a bunch of people whose bikes had longer wheel bases, racks, panniers, lights and wide range gears, none of which I’d previously known about.

My bike touring started after that. In the 1970’s it took me to lots of remote places including across the Pilbara on tracks, and into the Himalayas. These were long and epic tours, often off-road. Progressively I got the point about the gears, the wheels, the luggage system, lighting, mudguards, saddles and always selecting quality parts when available.

As years went by, for me, bike touring could no longer be – “I’ll see you in a year, mum” but rather had to be limited to 2-3 week tours at a time. I had to work and so did my friends. But getting away on a bike had a magnetic attraction. I am not apologetic that I love bike touring. It is just as much that I love bike riding and being fit as it is that I like to travel. By adopting a 2-3-week-bike-tour-lifestyle, I am also able to get other people to come along on their annual leave. In my 62 bike tours to date, I’ve rarely ridden alone.

To summarise, there was the period when I rode a bike every day but had no idea I could travel on a bike; then there was the period when I heard about “bike touring” and got interested in doing it; then there was a period of epic tours that lasted many months at a time; and finally, for the last 18 years, shorter 2-3 week bike trips. I always thought they were bike “tours” because that was the term that was planted in my head at the outset.

What terminology do people encounter now and does it mean anything different?

According to google search data, searches for the term “bike touring” have been static over a long period. But in the last three years there has been a large rise in searches for “bike packing”. What does this mean?

Bike companies use the term “bike packing” and talk about it. Traditionally few bike companies said that they had a “touring” bike in their range or that a certain bike was right for “bike touring”. Of course, in an industry that avoids adding things to the bike frame other than wheels, brakes and transmission, it was always going to be a bit hard to say they had a “touring bike”. So, marketing noise from the bike manufacturing sector will be the initial source for some of those google enquiries for “bike packing”, simply because a lot of bike brands are pushing it.

Recently, bike shops have also started using the term “bike packing” more, whereas, over the decades, most shops seldom brought up “bike touring”. Now shops are putting on rides, described as “bike packing” to encourage their customers into the cycling experience. For customers, this is sometimes the first time they hear the term “bike packing” and get the idea of using the bike for overnight trips.

Mass MTB events like the Mont, that used to have thousands of entries and lots of sponsors, have fallen by the wayside. No one would have predicted that 15 years ago. Competitive but non-road-racing cycling has been one of the sources for a new community of people that have put minimalist overnight camping and X-country MTB racing together. Longer courses (Hunt 1,000, TA – Tour Aotearoa, etc) can now be done. Whereas there is often a sense of doing a “bike packing” trip as fast and hard as possible, this was not never a feature of “bike touring”. Thus, another source of that initial “bike packing” terminology encounter has been the marketing of mass participation, multi-day “bike packing events”.

Much visited gear-review websites like cyclingabout.com, that for years have presented “bike touring”, have also been presenting “bike packing”. There is a whole lot of new gear for them to talk about. Increased references to “bike packing” on the internet have helped make this the term that has initially linked new people to the notion of travel on a bike.

In Australia, NZ and the US, “bike packing” is becoming the term likely to be first heard, with its attendant visual imagery of a bike with luggage attached to the frame rather than a rear rack.

OK so it is a different term but what’s the difference between a bike touring experience and a bike packing experience?

To some people, if you are on a bike with panniers and dynamo hub and kickstand, it simply can’t be called “bike packing”. In the touring world, some people say, if you don’t have both front and rear panniers, it’s not really “bike touring”. Maybe it’s “credit card touring” as if the pure among us don’t spend money and don’t have credit cards. Google “fully loaded touring”. The obvious response is ‘who cares?’. It’s a machine to do a job so the issue is more about what the job is.

To some, a bike tour must be an epic life-changing, discover-the-world experience. So, if you don’t have the time or inclination for that, then “bike touring” will seem foreign. In a sense, the difficulty bike industry people have had in engaging with bike touring, in Australia and in the US, has left a big empty space. “Bike packing” has provided some fill for this space. It’s great being outside in the country on a bike and this is happening more. So, regardless of the set-up, it is a good thing.

When we talk about design and specifications for any bike category we will naturally address the most extreme and pure form. Road bike makers will leverage their success in the big European bike races. A touring bike designer will talk about how this bike will endure anything Mother Nature throws at it and it will never break down. This reminds me of when I ran a bike shop and how surprisingly often people would say, when explaining what they thought they needed, that they were not going to race. “I don’t need the pure form”.

Perhaps, fatter tyres aside, “bike packing” bikes are the less-pure form of touring bikes.

“I am not extreme. I’ll go away for a few days in a group. A long week-end and let-off steam, clear the cobwebs, enjoy the outdoors. But I can’t see myself heading off on a never-ending adventure with only vague destinations and possibly alone. I am currently too busy and involved for that”.

The weight issue

Whereas the weights of touring bikes have not been a driving issue, in “bike packing” discussions, weight comes up a lot. Perhaps partly because of sometimes rugged terrain and sometimes because you don’t want to get left behind. OK, its not a race, but then, maybe it is a race. People “train” for events but rarely does someone train for a bike tour.

If the quasi-competitive aspect is completely removed, for example, it is just you, do you take a small tent and sleeping bag or do you stick with the plastic tied up in a tree? Perhaps that depends on how many nights. One? Two? Seven? Two weeks? Are you doing this for pleasure or as some kind of toughening-up exercise? Bike touring was not that, in the pure form, or for the majority of bike touring people. On Instagram, follow round-the-world biker tourers and they are not grimacing. They are mainly talking about what a great time they are having.

But with the weight issue so much on the table in “bike packing” discussions, equipment compromises can more easily be justified. Dynamo hubs are heavier so give them a miss. Rear racks weigh something so give them a miss. A Tubus Logo rack weighs 738g. Is that a lot? About ¾ a litre of water equivalent. You can attach a tail light to a rear rack. You can put a luggage strap on it and have the convenience of having your lock so accessible. Panniers, which you can have if you have a rack, keep your centre of gravity right down, compared, for example, with bags that attach to the bike seat. Panniers may be moved on and off the bike in one second. But you need a rack and that may not fit in the “bike packing” image that you first encountered. You can’t be what you can’t see!

In Europe, where most new bikes already come with hub dynamos (by law) and rear racks, one rarely sees a “bike packing” set-up, with no rack but frame bags and things attached under the handlebars and saddle. Bike packing events are being run there but the “set-up” is broadly absent out in the countryside and on the massive Euro-velo route network.

In this sense, “bike packing” is what happens on bikes that have not already been created for travel but are being used for travel or multi-day unsupported races. And, more so, in countries where the bike industry tends to have never make bikes with rear racks and dynamo hubs.

I’m off to NZ to do the South Island section of the TA route with a mate. What type of bike is best?

Having already done much of the TA on a touring bike, I’d say, if you have a touring bike then that’s the bike to take. If you need a new bike, again, a bike designed for more distance and with fewer concessions to weigh weeniness may be better in the long term. 40mm tyres, kick stand for when you are in the obligatory Kiwi coffee/pie-shop/dairy. Dynamo lights to be on all the time, not just in the old railway tunnels. Live longer. More gears with closer spacing. Suffer less. You’d walk on the top bit on the Maungatapu Track but otherwise your 40mm tyres would be good for all conditions.

If you are more interested in competition, then you’d look at race bikes with capacity to attach your minimal gear. Perhaps it can be hard to know what luggage you need though. I recall an Australian in a cabin next to us in a caravan park in NZ, with a “bike packing” set-up. He had found the set-up to be a bit inadequate and had bought a backpack to carry for the bulky warm clothes he had found he needed.

The other time you could max-out “bike packing” bags is when you do a big supermarket shop. You might know you can stay in a campground in some tiny place but there is no food there. Most people arrive at those campgrounds in motor vehicles and bring everything with them. You are in paradise and want to have a few days of chilling out. You might be sick of living on snack foods. With panniers you can just load them up after that occasional big supermarket shop.

What about some other established trails?

On the Tasmanian Trail, if you are not heavily time constrained, there are some amazing camp sites like Mersey River and Golden Valley, where you could have a rest day, and include some hiking. But if you want to hang out there, you have to lug stuff in from Sheffield or Bracknell depending on your direction. Maybe even a bottle of wine! You also need to carry warm clothing as the weather can change suddenly. And you might carry hiking boots.

Trails are mostly not “single track” although in the Gog ranges there are sections of that. It has not registered with me that pannier bags are a problem due to sticking out at the sides. Or being too low. In normal European touring, following googlemap’s suggestions, you do occasionally find yourself on tracks that have reverted to bush. Especially if you are covering distances. To me it is normal to take panniers through occasional overgrowth. You can take them off in a second and then lift your stuff across a washout or whatever. There is no problem to address.

Some trails involve carrying all your food for over a week. On the Gibb River Road it’s 700km between towns. There are two small shops that sell biscuits and pasta basically.

Bike-wise you’d probably run 1.75”2.1” tyres without guards on both of these trail examples. (On the TA I’d use 40mm tyres). So, if you are looking at new bikes, ones that don’t get sold with bigger tyres already fitted, may still be candidates. Check that the bigger tyre sizes are compatible.

Plug for rear rack on a bike

Dismissing rack and panniers as being too heavy, on the grounds that a cr-mo racks weigh 738g might be a bit hasty. People wanting to sell bags might not say that though. The expandability of panniers is something you occasionally really appreciate. And the easy-on-easy-off aspect of panniers is good every day. So is the accessibility of your stuff.

You can go anywhere in the world, in the better seasons for at least a month, with good rear panniers only 60% full. Add a handlebar bag which you can also take on/off in a second. If you are on the road for over two months you would be adding a camping set-up most likely with one set of front bags being good for two people. In a lot of areas there are no suitable places to camp. The Airbnb system works, with little worry or cost. (Just back from Spain where Airbnb was costing AUD$60 a night and booking only 24 hours ahead). Then there are other options like Warm Showers.

To go on a few nights camping ride, you wouldn’t take much stuff. Maybe one or two front panniers but fitted on a rear rack, or a frame bag. If a new bike is going to last for 20 years then maybe consider that you might someday take off on longer rides. If you are into cycling, you might go in that direction. It doesn’t cost much (cycling is basically free), you stay fit, you experience freedom and independence, you go places and see them differently from the perspective of people who travel on trains or in cars. You might be better off with some smart features that are designed into your bike rather than the minimalist package. Can you really add those features later? If you are concerned about speed, how much is the difference, for example in a rear rack, anyway? If a bike ride lasting a week or more is not about hurrying, you can take your electric toothbrush. Why not?

Bottom Line

Calling travel on a bike “bike packing” or “bike touring” is just terminology. You are a bike rider and you are a traveller.

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