Workpacking: When an e-Cargo Bike Becomes a Mobile Home

A longtime “velopreneur” who has worked across the cycling media industry, Gunnar Fehlau decided to take on a new experiential project in 2023: He loaded his household onto his e-cargo bike and has been living and working from the road for one year. This is his report from the first 333 days of life while workpacking.

As you might expect, I didn’t have too many practical role models to turn to when planning for my workpacking tour. In the American, Steven K. Roberts is an ancestor of my idea; he rode a high-tech recumbent as a digital nomad around the US in the 1980s. But today, most digital nomads travel by van, or public transport, and work remotely as they go. Cyclists, on the other hand, tend to save up for big trips then work sporadically between. I didn’t want to do any of that. I wanted to continue working in my job, as a communicator between the media and the cycling world, and at the same time be on the road and experience (cycling) adventures. This also explains the neologism “workpacking,” a fusion of work’n’travel and bikepacking. It’s about the simultaneity of everyday life, work and adventure. By bike.

While outdoor outfitters now have their own product categories for vanlife (the equipment is usually too heavy) or long-distance hiking (the equipment is usually too light and delicate), you will be hard-pressed to find things described as “durable, suitable for cycling and mobile office-friendly.” So, I put the last 15 years of bikepacking, my youth in the Boy Scouts and the many business trips into a packing list mixer and started with the setup you see here on January 2nd, 2023 from Göttingen, Germany.

Restlessness Instead of Routine

I couldn’t fall back on routine for riding, camping or working and the start of my trip was correspondingly bumpy. This could also have been due to the weather. I set off from Göttingen and made my way to Switzerland via Fulda, Darmstadt, Karlsruhe, and Freiburg. On the very first day, I had a few hours of rain at just 8 °C (46 °F). The tenth stage, from Basel to Nottwil, was the low point of the first few weeks: At 2 °C (35 °F) I struggled through a headwind and sleet for a good five hours.

I arrived at the bike dealer event in a very deranged state and was delighted to spend my first night in a hotel on the tour. In mid-February, having already cycled via Huttwil, Zurich, and Kreuzlingen to Constance on Lake Constance, which I circumnavigated once via Friedrichshafen, Dornbirn and St. Gallen, I made a serious decision: My tipi tent and a titanium wood stove—a combo that provided perfect photos for Instagram but had proved to be too heavy and unwieldy in practice—was thrown out in favor of a lightweight dome tent. Together with all the associated equipment, this saved me almost ten kilograms and a good 30 minutes when setting up and breaking down camp.

The Fourth Pillar: Adaptation

Making adjustments between my expectations and assumptions, and the reality of workpacking dominated the first few weeks. The three pillars of my workpacking tour—everyday life, work, and adventure—have been running in parallel, or in opposition, on this tour and have required me to constantly adjust my expectations and adapt on a daily basis. Although I had laid out a precise structure for my ideal daily routine, I couldn’t stoically push it through.

I had planned to work for six hours a day, six days a week, and ride around 50 kilometers (30 mi) every day. So far, I’ve worked continuously for six hours in one place maybe a dozen times; most of the time, my day’s work takes place in chunks. The one-day record of for the number of different places I’ve located my laptop is five!

Normalcy Requires a Factor of Ten

Having some disjointed days, and being forced to be adaptable, has also carried over to the cycling side of the trip. On some days, I didn’t ride at all; on others I had to put in a lot of effort to be in the right place at the right time. A whopping 175 kilometers (109 mi) made for my longest day of cycling. On these longer days, there’s hardly time for anything else. In this context, where my transport is largely dictated by the distance I can cover by bike, scheduling takes on a new meeting.

I’ve been forced to accept that normal expectations of when and where to meet in the cycling and media world is not really compatible with my workpacking experiment. For example, an appointment made with two or three days’ notice at a distance of 500 kilometers (310 mi) away just isn’t feasible for my 7×50-kilometer-per-day routine. My mobility radius is simply not sufficient for this fast-paced business world.

According to my logic, 500 kilometers that can easily be covered by train, car, or plane in one day take ten days of riding. This has caused me some dissonance and unfortunately I’ve had to detour from the workpacking tour for some business trips, packing the cargo bike and using public transport to make certain meetings when my schedule demanded.

Some Words On The Why

Many people asked me why do it at all? What’s the point of workpacking? For me, workpacking is a fascinating opportunity to mix everyday life, work, and adventure in a different way than is usually the case in “normal” life. At the same time, I decided to take on my workpacking tour during a transitional period between two phases of life. Our two sons have moved out to study, and my wife and I now have the chance to readjust our life together.

A certain amount of distance is good for this, even though we keep in close contact by text message, phone, and Zoom. We meet once a month on a weekend at a location that is convenient for both of us in terms of transport. The “family network phase” of our lives is now coming to an end and these 20 years have changed both of us and our relationship. It’s worth taking a closer look, getting a new feel for it, and accepting what this time has done to us and how it will lead us into the future. They say, “no man steps in the same river twice.” While this trip changes me, it also changes us. With so many new experiences and impressions, this tour will enhance my personal development.

Of course, this trip is also motivated by the many trips, meetings and face-to-face conversations—both private and professional—that were missed due to the Covid pandemic. I wanted to make up for this a little with this tour, as much as possible. I’m not alone in this enthusiasm. The editors of German magazine Bike Bild found it so inspiring that they named me “Bike Personality of the Year” as part of the “Bike Bild Award 2023.”

With Warmth Comes Workpacking Bliss

Starting a tour with a new year and coming home when the year closes might sound pretty tidy at first. It doesn’t make much sense now in hindsight. I should’ve started in October and slowly gotten used to the low temperatures and short days. What’s more, in spring you’d be done with the cold part and able to send the winter gear home for good.

The winter was wet and moderately cold, my coldest day was -7 °C (19 °F). Last March was the wettest it had been in Germany in the last 20 years and April was the coldest in the last six years. In short: I didn’t choose a good year. I’ve also learned that the notion that a bad spring inevitably leads to a golden autumn is a romanticized understanding of nature rather than based scientific evidence. For this reason, I was especially dreading the last quarter of my workpacking tour.

A Boss in Adventure Mode

In addition to my family, my workpacking also has also had an impact on my work life. I manage an office with eleven employees, spread across six locations in Germany. My workpacking tour has impacted my “work systems” too. To borrow an analogy from the medical world, the concept of “initial aggravation” explains that if I take a remedy for a cold, it worsens for a short time before it can improve.

You might say that my workpacking tour has lead to an “initial organizational aggravation” in our office. The structures that have grown over the last 20 years are now breaking down somewhat due to my mobile work. However, I believe that we’re still in the initially worsened operational state—we’ve been working on solving the issues that have arisen and I suspect that the workpacking tour will actually improve the office system in the long haul.

My Household on the Cargo Bike

I planned and packed following a simple logic: Each room in the house gets a bag on the bike. One for the tent setup, one for the sleeping gear including toiletries, one for clothes, one for the mobile office, and the two remaining bags containing the kitchen and pantry. That leaves a frame bag, a kind of handbag for all the things you need to access quickly, and at the rear rack for bike clothes and junk room for everything that doesn’t find a useful place elsewhere.

This arrangement has only proven itself to a limited extent, as the easy access to rooms can’t be fully transferred to bags. For example, accessing the lower packs takes some time. That’s why I packed them according to the frequency and probability of use over the course of the day so that I eventually placed the kitchen, pantry, and study in the upper red bags and stowed all the other things in a large duffle bag underneath. I am now very happy with this setup. I started with around 56 kilograms (123 lb) of equipment, and in the summer setup I’m at around 42 kg (93 lb).

The Bike

I built the cargo bike specifically for the workpacking tour. The base is the Gen 3.2 Radlader frame by Cargo Bike Monkeys with a mount for a Brose drive, whose latest Cargobike H-Mag motor I have installed. The 3×3 gear hub is driven by a Gates belt. Schwalbe provided the Marathon 365 tires. The lighting system came from Busch + Müller. Thanks to Ergon grips (on Salsa handlebars and Paul stem) and Ergon saddle (on a Cane Creek suspension seatpost), I ride very comfortably on the bike; Trickstuff brakes ensure good deceleration, even when I’m hurtling downhill at 84.7 km/h (53.2 mph, my record!).

As Far as the Batteries Will Carry You

The great thing about e-bikes, in contrast to electric cars, is that you can also ride them without electric assistance. Of course, I don’t want that with a 90 kilogram (200 lb) cargo bike. That’s why I carry four batteries with 630 watt-hours each. Thanks to a prototype connector from Brose, these also serve as a power bank for charging my laptop, smartphone, camera, etc., via USB-A and USB-C.

This means I can ride around 250 kilometers (155 mi) and power all my devices independently for around four days. So far, I’ve always been able to manage. The same applies to my legs: They have been able to cope with all challenges, whether a 175-kilometer route (108 mi) or a 19% steep ramp.

Experience Instead Of Results

Cyclists usually ask about my annual mileage first. I don’t care about that at all. I’m interested in experiences, not results. The experiences don’t have to be big or spectacular, but they do have to be intense. For example: a swim in a bitterly cold lake in Wendland on a chilly April morning, feeling the cold sting your body like ice needles, and then getting on your bike in warm clothes full of vitality.

Or, the croaking concert of a plethora of frogs near a campsite in Hesse. Or, the ride out of Zurich on a firm blanket of snow in bright sunshine. The spontaneous conversation with a journey-woman shoemaker in Ratingen. These are the moments that keep me on the road.

Experiences I Could Do Without

Road traffic is one of the last situations where an entire cross-section of society physically meets. That’s why it’s close and emotional. In this vein, national borders in Europe are also cultural borders and you can feel certain changes when you cross them. In Switzerland, traffic is generally calmer, more moderate, and more cooperative. Yet, the many narrow mountain roads seem to turn the Swiss into hard-nosed drivers: nowhere have I been overtaken so closely with such consistency as in Switzerland.

But that wasn’t so bad, because the Swiss tend to pass cyclists slowly and carefully rather than thundering past at high speed. This makes it feel much less dangerous than the (still too frequent) close overtaking in Germany. I have experienced the entire spectrum, from a friendly honking to cutting in, which, in my opinion, can be interpreted as attempted murder.

What Workpacking Teaches Me

After 333 days of workpacking, despite all the stress of planning, the constant adaptation, and revision of most everyday routines, my gratitude prevails. I am grateful for having the opportunity to go on this trip. I am grateful for all the spontaneous, fantastic help and hospitality that I was able to enjoy. I am grateful for my family, my colleagues and a few other people for carrying “the stuff” that I am doing again. In sum, I really enjoy workpacking and can easily imagine working from my bike for three or four weeks every year in the future—I’d just be sure to take the cold months off!

For the German language speakers out there, Gunnar’s Workpacking book launches at the end of April. Check it out!