The first time I ever traveled a long distance with a vehicle that had less than four wheels, it had two wheels and two cylinders. Many hours of being in the saddle of a motorcycle proved to be not only very enjoyable, but also sometimes just... too easy.
Lai Chau, 2018.
If you take an ever so slightly jaded motorcycle enthusiast and couple that with pent up athletic energy and outward desire to reduce the travel carbon footprint, then you have the recipe to become an immediate and passionate bike adventure fanatic. I personally checked off each of these ingredients, but both the bike beginner and veteran pedal aficionado alike each have their own origins and paths to the world of cycling.
No matter where you start, perhaps the question that rests on your google search history most often is, “what gear for my bike should I buy? Bikepacking gear? Or Bike touring?”
Two wheels and two styles? Right?
To be upfront about something right from the start- If someone asks, “What is the fundamental difference between bikepacking and touring?” The answer is fundamentally- nothing.
Surly Straggler with panniers and seat bag.
That’s right. If you have a bike (regardless if made in 2020 or 2002), and you have bags on said bike (or even on your back), and you are traveling multiple days and multiple miles, then make no mistake you are both bikepacking and bike touring. These are both sports of passion and intention, not two segregated activities based on the brand of gear you own.
Despite having elemental similarities, it is true that bike traveling has evolved into functionally and aesthetically different directions over the last several decades and the history and differences between each are worth some exploration.
The history of the touring bike bohemian starts almost as early as the history of the bicycle itself.
The progression from early two wheel vehicles like the hobby horse to what we recognize now as the modern bicycle was swift and at first only a novelty enjoyed by the wealthy. However, as horses became old news and the rich became more attracted to the luxury of the automobile, bicycles became more popular among the middle class and by 1896, John Foster Fraser rode 19,237 miles across the world for the first time on a bike driven by the rear wheel. This cycle called “the safety bike,” sported a frame bag, rear rack and handle bar bag. Fraser’s traveling set up actually resembles something closer to a modern bikepack style than a traditional touring system.
John Foster Fraser in Burma sometime between 1896 and 1898.
As “cyclotouring” became more popular, the demand and design for cargo storage evolved. The first patent for a bike mounted cargo bag was issued in 1884 (even before Fraser’s world tour) and the modern “pannier” was first made in 1971. Luckily today, we have the luxury of delicious dehydrated food and can avoid carrying around awkward loafs of bread in panniers which derive their name from the Old French word “panier,” which means “bread basket.”
Salsa Marrakesh with panniers resembling a more traditional tour cycle system.
Touring bikes and panniers usually trend toward “on road” comfort and reliability as well as increased cargo space and access. Panniers hold a lot of stuff. The average combined capacity of front and rear panniers can be upwards of 100 liters. When compared to a large hiking backpack of 65 or 70 liters, it’s easy to see how bike cargo panniers allow the cyclist to hold extra items of convenience over longer distances.
Also, because of the priority for comfort, touring bikes typically sport low bottom bracket heights, shorter stack length, drop bars, and the ultimate accessory of the bike fashion rebel: kickstands.
As for reliability, touring long distances (especially internationally) usually requires bike systems to be less prone to failure and more likely to be repairable in a remote destination. Components like this often include mechanical rim brakes, externally routed cables, adjustable rear dropouts and every commuter’s (least) favorite: bar end shifters.
Compared to bike touring, bikepacking is like the little brother who compulsively took off his socks and shoes to stomp around in the mud and started growing up to be, “a little different.”
The bikepack style of travel is an emerging and quickly evolving industry in the world of cycling. Born in the muddy waters of war, utility and adventure, the lines of bikepacking’s creation are smeared through history and often become undefinable between itself and traditional touring. The modern recreational model of bike packing is perhaps best described as what happens when mountain bikers indulge in their insatiable desire to roam farther.
Bikepacking is a style of bike traveling that focuses on off road travel, remote destinations, and minimalistic cargo design. These bikes often roll on thick rubber tires and are directed with flat handlebars. Frames have high bottom bracket clearance and instead of using panniers on racks, most storage accessories strap or mount to existing parts of the bike.
Surly Ogre with handlebar, saddle and frame bag. A modern bikepack style system.
Handlebar bags, seat bags and frame bags are all bikepacking style containers that keep items up high and in line with the bike’s geometry. This design provides more stability and clearance over narrow and rocky terrain, but can also provide less storage and encourages the rider to prioritize their gear selection (my personal bike packing system has a maximum capacity of about 45 liters). The off-road travel trend has certainly recently gained popularity, however the idea of bagging up bikes and taking them off the beaten path is no new niche.
The ability to traverse challenging terrain brings the rider closer to the bike itself as the act of pedaling and maneuvering encourages the cyclist to be present in the moment that is bestowed by the trail. Couple this with the sport’s frequent scenic nature, and it’s easy to see why bikepacking has gained traction among big tire bicycle enthusiasts over the last decade.
How you get there.
To the traveling cyclist, life is about the journey (and when your butt and legs are throbbing from miles in the saddle, also the destination). The way you engage in the journey defines how you get there, but the most important details are the ones that you hold on to after your return. Will one of your detailed memories be how how much dirt is between your toes? Or the size of a shoulder next to a winding highway vista? Or perhaps how you were glad you had extra storage for that souvenir collected in a remote space during an enlightening expedition. Will you be glad you had panniers? Or wish that your tires could tear through the sand?
Both styles of bikes (especially more modern tour cycles) are designed to effectively encounter varying terrain over long distances.
So regardless of your tool of the trade (even if you prefer crankshafts to crank arms), moving through life is the bottom line. Bikepacking and bike touring are two different styles that appeal to different adventure(er)s. Both systems have their own appeal, but ultimately biking’s most grounding detail isn’t about how you go, but rather that you get up and go in the first place.
SEAN DRONIA * JULY 13, 2020
For more from author and photographer Sean Dronia, head over to his website at: https://www.seandronia.com/