Bike Touring versus Bikepacking 3


biketouring vs bikepacking

We humans like to categorize things. We like naming things or declaring that A is better than B.

Black versus white.

Hot versus cold.

Surly versus Salsa.

And now: bike touring versus bikepacking.

When I first started to travel on my bike, it was called bike touring, but in the recent year or two, many people began calling this activity bikepacking. You know, like BACKpacking, but you use your BIKE to carry the bags on your adventure, hence, BIKEpacking. To take it a step further, I would go on to say that bikepacking adds an additional element of off-road adventure that traditional bike touring does not account for. That’s just me categorizing things.

The Bikepack Setup

The Setup

Last May 2015, I had written a blog post that described what off-road bikepacking was and whether or not you should entertain the idea of doing it. It was not until August when I went out and bought some bags to carry my stuff for a trip to Catalina Island. They were Revelate bags for my handlebar, saddle bag, feeder bags, and large top tube bag that Sang Hyun had given me. I also had the foresight to buy a set of off-road knobby tires earlier in the year that I slapped on for some off-road fun. I even upgraded to a 1 person lightweight tent, I picked up a 20 liter compression stuff sack, and finally completed the entire bikepacking setup with an Osprey backpack that had a 3 liter water bladder. I was ready to take on the unpaved roads.

My Salsa Vaya was perfect for the job. I just ripped apart all the metal racks that were once bolted on as permanent fixtures and replaced them with black bags that seemed to wrap and hug the bike perfectly with straps and velcro sleeves. It was weird to see what I would say a traditional touring bike go through such a drastic change in looks in about an hour worth of reconfiguration. It was like I was riding a brand new bike! My Vaya looked like it was ready to take on any nearby gravel or dirt road.

Riding up Angeles Crest

My First Bikepacking Trip

I actually attempted to bikepack to a Salsa event that was held in Angeles Crest in August. Unfortunately, I never made it there because I ran out of water. The temperature was extremely hot that day, and I consumed over 1 gallon of water as the sun was setting in the mountains. The bike handled beautiful as I slowly grinded up the hills spinning my cranks up the steep descent.  I climbed higher and higher up the local Mount Lowe Road. The tires with lower pressure worked beautifully over loose sand and rocks. Many sections of the road were carved out by freak rain storms in July that made the riding slightly more treacherous. My test ride was done, and I was completely satisfied with my bike’s performance.

As you know, I brought the Vaya over to Catalina Island in August. This was the true bikepacking ride I was waiting for. Read all about the ride in my ride report. There wasn’t any doubt that I could have ridden the bike in the traditional bike touring setup with racks, but I may have lost a few bolts and screws from all the rough roads that we came upon. I was glad my bike was configured differently. So what exactly was it like riding the same bike under these circumstances versus when I bike toured in the traditional sense?

Bikepacking Catalina

The Ride

Bikepacking without mounted racks was a more pleasant ride. You don’t have racks and fenders tapping and scraping as you ride through the rough terrain. The only noise was from the bike itself. The chain slapping the chainstays or your tires bouncing violently as you screech your wheels to a comfortable pace down a steep decline. It sounded more natural, as if you are just mountain biking.

The bike handled admirably because all the things you’re carrying is essentially more centered on the bike. I didn’t have random bags strapped to the right or left side fighting me as I turned. It was so nice to be able to ride a bike and not fight it along the way.

Bikepacking, like backpacking, requires you to be very creative and conservative when it comes to packing your bike. You only have so much space, therefore, you have to be very judicious with what you’re bringing. Everything you bring, you must use. It is a completely different philosophy compared to bike touring where you have 4 panniers and a handlebar bag to fit everything you need for the rest of your life. This bikepacking setup was perfect for a quick 1 – 3 days type of trip. Anything more than that, will really stretch your own personal comfort level. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Heck, people have raced across the country in 1 month with the bare minimum.

One of the main reasons people like bikepacking is that it’s a lighter setup, they can ride further than if you were hauling a loaded touring bike. I can certainly see their point as I was glad to be able to climb the many hills that Catalina had to offer. Given the fact that I haven’t had to ride anymore than the 12 miles a day, this finer point of riding further have yet to be tested by me.

Riding Catalina

I like…

So where does bikepacking fit in with my current lifestyle of bike touring or traveling? I would say it is a perfect fit for the times where I want to take my bike and not worry about where I am riding because I know I can be both on road or off-road. It is the setup I will most likely use when I go on my overnight bike trips that has me out for 1 – 3 days. Would I ever take it for a long trip? That’s undecided at this point. I’m sure it wouldn’t be so bad, but other considerations like where I’m going and when I’m riding would have to come in play. I can’t see myself loving this setup when I am in the middle of a torrential downpour.

I am not going to abandon what I would consider my roots of bike touring and sell off my Ortlieb bags and various racks. There’s a time and place to have these ready to haul things. I still have a weird fascination of carrying lots of stuff on my bike, both for traveling and for commuting. It goes back to when I owned a cargo bike and how I got a huge kick out of carrying loads and loads of stuff.

Johnny + Bikepacking
Johnny & 2013 Vaya

Love for both

On the other hand, I have friends who have seen the light and completely converted over to a bikepacking setup. I am not completely convinced that bikepacking is the only way to travel on your bike. You don’t have to be one thing or another. Why can’t we have both? Why can’t I choose to have a saddle bag with 2 front panniers? There isn’t any rule out there that says you can’t do that, right? At the end of the day, I am going to ride my bike and carry stuff to camp. Why should we put these artificial constraints or categorize how we transport ourselves and our gear? To that, I say use whatever makes sense.

One consideration to be aware of is if you own a touring bike that won’t allow you to put on racks for panniers. Bikes, like mountain bikes or even road bikes, can certainly benefit from a bikepacking system. A few years back, bikepacking bags were not around to satisfy those luggage needs. You either have rack and panniers or you’re riding around with a rear trailer. There was nothing in between.

We live in a great time. Thank goodness for innovation and choices. We don’t have to choose A or B because we can have it all!

So what are your thoughts on this matter? Do you prefer to travel with panniers or a bikepacking setup? Leave your comments below to let me know.


About Johnny Lam

Johnny is an avid cyclist who enjoys bicycle touring as well as anything bicycle related. Johnny has traveled the entire Pacific Coast by bike from Vancouver to the border of California and Mexico. He's also toured through-out locations in Southern California. Johnny is also a League of American Bicyclists League Certified Instructor (LCI) and also completed the Adventure Cycling Association's Leadership Training Course (LTC). He is an active member in Los Angeles bicycling community being involved in organizations like the Los Angeles County Bicycling Coalition (LACBC), C.I.C.L.E. (Cyclists Inciting Change through Live Exchange), and Bike San Gabriel Valley (Bike SGV) by taking part in ride marshaling, pedestrian & bike counts, and other volunteering opportunities.


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