There’s a hot new way to explore the UK – and it’s not for the faint-hearted. Bikepacking, a combination of cycling and backpacking, offers the freedom to explore long stretches of landscape, get a hell of a lot of exercise and travel sustainably at the same time. The trend has been taking off on TikTok and Instagram, with bikepackers sharing routes, tips and experiences along the way.
Luke Butler, aged 31 from London, got into bikepacking recently after falling in love with the outdoors during lockdown. ‘I think it was this sense of adventure that people were craving after being locked inside that made bikepacking gain popularity,’ he says. ‘I can just plan a trip, book a campsite in Kent and be rolling the next morning. I don’t need a car, I don’t need to spend any money, I just go. That’s the appeal for me.’
But it’s not always an easy ride. If you’re a complete beginner, you’ll need to plan ahead and be prepared for all sorts – from flat tyres to shitty weather. You’ll need to carry all of your kit on your bike, which means bringing only the bare essentials: no air mattresses or luxury tents this time, folks. So if you’re curious about the trend but don’t know how to get started? Here’s our basic guide.
So… what exactly is bikepacking?
Bikepacking is a mix of lightweight backpacking and cycling. Rather than carrying a rucksack, all of your camping gear, food and other supplies are strapped onto your bike. You load it up, pick a route and ride into the countryside to sleep under the stars. Cycles usually last for multiple days and tend to be off-road – but rides can be as easy or difficult as you want. Any bike can be used, but serious bikepackers go for mountain or gravel bikes to deal with all sorts of terrains.
How difficult is it?
It depends on your route, how many nights you’re going for and how much kit you bring. ‘Having a heavy loaded bike makes the gentlest climbs awful,’ says Butler. ‘Thirty miles will seem like double that.’
Some routes aren’t for the faint-hearted, and you’ll need a decent level of fitness – so don’t try and outdo yourself if you’re just starting out. It doesn’t need to be all about the distance. Even a shorter cycle and a successful night’s camp will be a challenge worth shouting about.
I have a bike. Will I need to buy anything else?
To really get going, you’ll need to invest in a couple of bikepacking bags. These can start from as little as £19.99 and can sit on the handlebars, saddle or bike frame. You’ll need a shelter: consider a lightweight one-man tent to avoid heavy tent poles, or a tarp. You’ll also need somewhere to sleep, such as a three-season sleeping bag or a hammock, depending on the time of year.
What will I need to pack?
The idea is to be self-sufficient. That means no three-step skincare routine and no electric razor. But you will need the basics: a bike, water bottle, phone, first aid kit, repair kit and (most importantly) snacks.
Depending on how long you’re going for, you’ll need spare clothes and layers for when it gets cold. If it works for your route, you can stop off at country pubs or shops for meals, but you might also need to bring food (dehydrated meals work well) and light cooking supplies, like a camping stove, pot and gas.
When is the best time of year to go?
In the UK, any time between May and October will offer the best weather and longest daylight hours for your ride, but it’s worth keeping an eye on the forecast, particularly in the warmer months to avoid heatwaves.
What routes are good?
Popular routes include the South Downs Way from Hampshire to Sussex, the North Coast 500 in Scotland, the West Kernow Way around the tip of Cornwall, and the Ridgeway along the North Wessex Downs (aka Britain’s oldest road). Bear in mind that although wild camping is allowed in Scotland, it’s illegal in England – so it’s best to book a campsite in advance.
Planning your route? Check out our guide to the 17 best campsites in the UK.
Plus: here are eight beautiful cycling trails in the UK.