By Stan Purdum
QUESTION: What is the essential difference between bikepacking and bike touring? Don’t they just refer to equipment preferences? —Don L.
RBR’S STAN PURDUM REPLIES: The essential difference comes down to a good bit more than equipment. In fact, it’s possible — though not particularly efficient — to both bikepack and bike tour using the same equipment.
Still, generally speaking, bikepackers and bike tourists do differ in their preferred equipment, including the type of bikes used. And, again generally speaking, they differ in the places they go.
But the essential difference is related to what the rider wants to do on a bike.
Bike tourists want to travel and see other parts of the country or even other parts of the world while living life on the road. And while in those new places, they’re likely to be interested in how people there live and work and find meaning for their lives. Bike touring attracts people who, if bikes were not invented, would be traveling to settled places by car, bus, motorhome or even hitchhiking. But since bikes have been invented, these tourists find them a great way to make those journeys without the barriers to connecting with others that being in the protective shell of a motorized vehicle creates.
Bikepackers want the adventure of riding their bikes over challenging terrain surrounded by the beauty and wildness of nature. If they meet other people along the way, that’s fine, but bikepackers aren’t making their trips for that purpose. Bikepacking attracts people who, if bikes were not invented, would be traveling to the wilderness on foot, in a canoe or by some other self-propelled means. But since bikes have been invented, these adventurers find bikes a great way to make those journeys, while covering more ground and getting a great workout.
These two descriptions are “pure typologies.” In reality, there’s plenty of overlap, and there are riders in each category who would say neither type describes them. There is also some common ground where, for example, practitioners in both groups might be on quests of self-discovery or personal reflection or might be after a physical challenge.
But the typologies explain why equipment preferences are different. Since bike touring takes place mostly on paved roads, bicycles classed as “road bikes,” which includes those made expressly for road touring, are more efficient for journeying on paved surfaces. Likewise, bicycles classed as “mountain bikes” are more efficient for journeying on unpaved and off-road surfaces.
The equipment preferences also extend to the sorts of bags used in the two activities. Bike tourists usually prefer saddlebags (“panniers” in bike jargon) along with racks to which bulkier items can be tied. Typically, this sort of gear offers room for more stuff than bikepacking bags do, and since bike tourists travel in “civilized areas,” they may need room for clothing for off-the-bike activities. Bike packers, on the other hand, want minimal weight so they can journey farther over difficult terrain, and they don’t want low hanging panniers that can snag on foliage. For them, frame-hugging bags and setups that let them strap their stuff directly to the bike without racks and bungee cords are better suited.
Bikepacking and bike touring are both ways of multi-day journeying by bicycle, but the differences between the two forms are more than equipment preferences.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.