Welcome to the second installment of The Dust-Up. This will be a semi-regular platform for Radavist editors and contributors to make bold, sometimes controversial claims about cycling. A way to challenge long-held assumptions that deserve a second look. Sometimes they will be global issues with important far-reaching consequences; other times, they will shed light on little nerdy corners of our world that don’t get enough attention. This week, John looks at a divisive topic through a historical lens to lay it all out in a column called: “Bike Touring is Not Bikepacking No Matter the Bags Used or Terrain Traversed.”
Read our latest edition of The Dust Up below…
Our comment threads are often full of great discourse, and one theme that seems to pop up whenever I review a touring bike is: what’s the difference between bicycle touring and bikepacking? I’ve touched on this briefly over the past few years, and—while I’m sure this will inspire more spirited discourse—the truth is, most people are bike touring, not bikepacking, these days.
1897 Buffalo Soldiers aboard their bikes, complete with a bicycle touring kit. Photo via Math.Scholastic.com
Bicycle touring has been around for as long as the bicycle itself. People would ride dirt paths from town to town, carrying essentials, strapped to the bicycles in manners eerily similar to our modern-day bicycle portage. Frame bags, saddle bags, and handlebar rolls existed as far back as the 1800s. None of what we consider modern touring bags are new.
Wikipedia defines bike touring as:
“Bicycle touring is the taking of self-contained cycling trips for pleasure, adventure or autonomy rather than sport, commuting or exercise. Bicycle touring can range from single-day trips to extended travels spanning weeks or months.”
Google search trends from Jan 01, 2004, to May 29 2023… Imagine what the red line would look like if it predated 2004…
In 2007, bike bag designer Eric Parsons launched Epic Designs (which would go on to become Revelate Designs) and used the term “bikepacking” to describe a new ultra-endurance sport involving mountain bikes, ultralight bags, and self-sustained racing, particularly FKT’s (fastest known times), that would often go on for multiple days and even weeks.
Kurt and Hailey have both penned wonderful articles surrounding the beginning of these competitive events. Check them out here:
- Stefan Griebel and the Origin of the Colorado Trail Race; CTR
- Full Circle on the Grand Loop: Part I; Trail Visions Ahead of Their Time
- Full Circle on the Grand Loop: Part II; The First Modern Bikepacking Race
- Full Circle on the Grand Loop: Part III; A Cyclocross Specialist Turned Ultra Racer
- Full Circle on the Grand Loop: Part IV; A New Record, 12 Years in the Making
What is interesting about Eric’s blog post is that his setups in the early 2000s would be considered a “touring” setup by modern and classic standards. He even refers to his old photos as “mountain bike touring,” an activity that has been around since the birth of the mountain bike.
This early bikepacking progression, stewarded forward by folks like Eric, had much to do with the fundamental shift in how mountain biking began versus how it evolved. In the early 1980s, almost every MTB frame had rack mounts. Their geometries were more relaxed to haul loads, and the riding positions were more upright. Many vintage photos show riders using panniers, handlebar rolls, portage strap bags, and even frame bags as they explored much of the California wilderness via overnighters and long mountain bike tours.
Photo via Wende Cragg‘s story she penned for us: “I learned to fly… on a mountain bike.”
Bikes had free reign on all singletrack, even in wilderness areas, until congress passed HR1349 banning bikes in Wilderness in 1977. Many of these rides took an entire day to get from town to the “good stuff” so hauling your gear on hiking trails while riding was paramount.
As NORBA and professional racing began to influence MTB designs, the geometries got more racing-oriented, with more aggressive riding positions, not in line with the more relaxed geometries of the 1980s, and the frames lost the rack mounts. This shift is a big reason why hardware-free bags came to be. How would you carry cargo if your bike didn’t have rack mounts?
Photos by K. Montgomery, via The Vintage MTB Workshop
Modern mountain bike touring or overnighter setups are very similar to how Pearl Pass riders of the 1970s and 1980s would outfit their early klunkers, cruisers, and early MOUNTAINBIKES with lightweight racks, panniers, and handlebar bags. The bottom line is: you can bicycle tour on a mountain bike, with or without racks.
My touring nomenclature centers around the following disciplines:
- Road (pavement) Touring
- Gravel (dirt road/doubletrack) Touring
- Mountain Bike (singletrack) Touring
As such, S24O, or overnighters, follow the same rationalization as do bikes: road touring bike, gravel touring bike, mountain touring bike, etc.
The term bikepacking didn’t exist within the cultural zeitgeist until around the time Eric launched Epic Designs in 2007, so how can we use that term to describe bicycle touring as a whole? Bicycle touring has long existed and refers to multiple terrain types, not just pavement. Even in Europe, a number of the classic tours are on mostly dirt. If anything, bikepacking and randonneuring–or timed, long-distance rides–are more closely related than bike touring is to bikepacking. So if bicycle touring is pleasure-oriented in a non-competitive space, then bikepacking is inherently competitive with others or oneself and performance-oriented…
Let me clarify; I do not look down upon bikepacking or performance riding. I’m a different pedal strokes for different folks kind of person. If anything, I would draw the line between touring being more of an external experience (friends, more active observation of surroundings via stopping to take photos/make food/swin, etc..) while bikepacking is a more internal, personal experience (pushing oneself, packing light, riding longer distances, stripping oneself down to the core, etc). One isn’t necessarily better or more wholesome than the other–we host stories on both sides of this coin–but they are different experiences and deserve different nomenclature.
Chris Burkard, in our Yomp Rally Reportage, explained why he loves the individual-focused pursuit of ultra racing:
“I love where my mind goes, where my body goes and where my heart goes when I am on the fringe of my capabilities – I cannot find that kind of honesty with myself in any other situation.”
Bike tours can be challenging, and honestly, that’s one of the best parts about a long bike tour, but racing is a different ballgame. If you value time spent in a group setting with a bunch of your friends traveling along a route, stopping to soak in the views, rolling into towns for a drink at a bar, eating snacks, and swimming in a nearby water hole, then chances are you’re on a bike tour.
Back in the early 2000s, when I was living in New York, I used to use Carradice bags to cycle tour on the various dirt towpaths from New York to Philadelphia every year in the fall to soak in the Northeast’s leaf change. I would pack everything I needed to bandit camp along the way in a simple handlebar and saddle bag. Later, in a small group, we’d do this annually for the Philly Bike Expo. These early bike camping trips set the hook for my love of traveling by bicycle and offered up an escape from the hustle and bustle of city living.
Oregon Outback, 2014
My love for touring, on both dirt and pavement grew, and I began pushing deeper into the mountains, off the Adventure Cycling maps I used to guide my way, to soak in the vast grandeur of the Western United States. I’ll never forget slowly trudging up Nacimiento Fergusson and Plasket Ridge Road–both of which are formidable dirt road climbs on a fully-loaded bike–outside of Big Sur on my PCH tour, wishing I had more gearing to haul all the extra water weight.
Later, the pavement became less safe due to cell phones and distracted drivers, which pushed me and many cyclo tourists to the dirt. Bike camping quickly became a favorite outing.
This brings up a good segue. Bikepacking is often used to describe singletrack riding, yet when you think of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, aka the Tour Divide, it is primarily made of paved and unpaved roads. Many people consider this a bikepacking route, and it can be if you’re racing it. But if you’re pedaling it with no intention other than finishing it and savoring the views, the people, and the landscapes, I’ve got news for you: you’re touring it. For real, though, it has “tour” in the name!
Alexandera Houchin racing the TDR; a bad ass singlespeed bikepacker
Similarly, with the Colorado Trail Race, Arizona Trail Race, and other bikepacking races, some people are racing it either in a mass-start, grand depart format, or with an individual time trial to hit a new FKT. Those people are bikepacking without a doubt. For the rest of the riders that take three or four times as long to complete the event, they are touring it.
Many of the most popular touring routes people travel from all over to ride are dirt roads with small amounts of pavement and singletrack; multi-surface touring. Very few routes are 100% singletrack, and the ones that usually have a much higher degree of difficulty and, thus, are not as popular.
On the less physically demanding end, hut-to-hut trips encourage cyclo-tourism even more, offering a lighter load and a hut to sleep in, stocked with beds, food, showers, and water. With a hut-to-hut trip, riders can pack their bikes only with the bare minimum and rely on shelters spaced in distances that make the day’s ride all the more enjoyable. Check out our hut-to-hut posts in our archives:
- Continental Drifters: Durango to Moab by Bike Along the San Juan Huts
- Seven Days Mountain Bike Touring Across the Uncompahgre Plateau Along the San Juan Huts Telluride to Moab Route
- Golden Tunnels and Shipping Containers: Touring the Grand Staircase on the Aquarius Trail Hut System
Many argue that racks and panniers are unsuitable for “bikepacking” due to rugged and rough terrain. However, if you look at most modern setups, they include a lightweight T-rack and “micro” panniers. Even minimal front racks are making a comeback. My touring bike is a rigid 29+ mountain bike, set up with front and rear racks. I can run it lightweight like the above photo on the left or load it down with panniers or a larger saddle bag for longer trips like on the right.
The Adventure Cycling Association doesn’t get enough credit for its early mountain bike touring routes like the Idaho Hot Springs Route, which was altered a few years back due to newly-formed Federal Wilderness areas. However, that is very much a touring route. Who wants to race through the West’s most epically-positioned hot springs? The Adventure Cycling Association has many exceptional routes; you should check them out.
So why did the word bikepacking become so prevalent and become a catchall for all forms of bicycle camping? The first and most apparent reason is marketing. The bike industry loves to develop catchphrases to sell bikes, products, and accessories. Brands quickly developed or re-dubbed touring gear as “bikepacking” products, bikes, and accessories.
Fundamentally, a dedicated touring bike has rack mounts, yet several rack-like products have found ways to circumnavigate this requisite. Ryan Wilson loves using the Tailfin rack, which attaches to your axle and seat post…
Having labels and categories to quickly lump new information into lets our brains not work so hard, and it’s human nature to want to compartmentalize, even if we do so at the expense of nuance. You can see these kind of tidy camps crop up even in our modern marketing jargon about recreational activities–vis-à-vis: “gravel-specific,” “enduro,” “down-country,” etc.
Underlying all of this, though, I feel that people are just seeking connection through being able to self-identify with specific catchphrases and, by extension, the whole community that said term encompasses. Plenty of people identify as “bikepackers” for this very reason.
Portraits from our Yomp Rally Reportage–an event that utilized a cut-off time, similar to a brevet or randonnée…
Looking at the types of bikes people ride at bigger events also paints a picture: a carbon gravel bike with bags strapped to it is the dominating vehicle for many events. These jack-of-all-trades bikes are the only bike many people have, so they make it work for road riding, gravel riding, light singletrack riding, and then strap bags to them for an overnighter or extended tour. Any bike can be a touring bike.
This is also a reason for one of the most common questions asked about routes, even ones that are mostly singletrack: “Can I ride this on my gravel bike?”
Brands like Rivendell, Adventure Cycling Association, and others have spent decades lowering the barrier to entry into bicycle camping. Communities across the globe spring up for S24O, or sub-24-hour overnighters–a Rivendell phrase, offering community and safe group experiences. If things go pear-shaped, an S24O usually means you’re close to home and help.
The Swift Campout was ahead of its time and has catalyzed many bourgeoning bicycle tourists. Even here in Santa Fe, Kevin Hinton’s Adventure Bikepacking leads quarterly overnighters for all skill levels in an approachable format. People ride a variety of bikes on these routes, yet they all come out for a common goal: community.
So what should we do? Embrace the new marketing fad for the SEO hits and click-bait that bundles every form of bicycle camping under one umbrella. Or accentuate the nuance and uphold the historical significance of self-contained bicycle travel? In a space where we write multi-thousand-word bike reviews and trip reports, you can bet yer butts we’re going to uplift nuance. ;-)
We’re big bike nerds over here. We love dissecting the cycling industry, excavating the roots through storytelling, and seeing where branches within this history will lead. Many people don’t care to discuss semantics and instead offer “just ride your bike” to end the discussion, and that’s fine too.
Long live the almighty bike tour…