If you’ve been poking around this website for more than a few minutes, you’ve probably noticed me oscillating between two favorite forms of outdoor travel: backpacking (multiday hiking) and bikepacking (multiday biking, with a focus on unpaved roads and trails).
You might think one of these activities would eventually steal my heart completely, but they continue to compete for my attention. I love them both! After a long bike ride I crave a long walk, and vice versa. Backpacking and bikepacking are my yin and yang of outdoor adventure.
Recently, when returning to backpacking after a long summer on the bike, I found myself reflecting on their differences and similarities. Alternating between backpacking and bikepacking keeps my body balanced over the seasons and helps me appreciate the nuances of each. I simply can’t choose a favorite, but I can tell you more than you’ve ever wanted to know about how they compare and what I love about each.
Are you a backpacker who’s curious about bikepacking? A bikepacker who wants to try exploring at a slower pace? Maybe you’re already into both, as more and more people are these days. Whatever your relationship to these two fantastic forms of outdoor exploration, I hope you enjoy my thoughts on their similarities, differences, and respective strengths.
Backpacking and bikepacking might mean different things to different people depending on where you live and who you hang out with. Here’s what I mean by them:
Backpacking: Multiday hiking, usually in a remote place, while carrying your own gear and supplies. In the United States we have a popular niche of backpacking called thru hiking, which is when you backpack for so long that need to pop into civilization and resupply on food periodically. Many of my own backpacking miles have been in the form of middle-distance thru hikes, but I also love shorter backpacking trips.
Bikepacking: Multiday biking, usually on mostly unpaved roads or trails, while carrying your own gear and supplies on your bike. Similar to “bicycle touring” but usually with less pavement and a more minimalist gear list, though the two terms sometimes get used interchangeably. For a clearer picture see my Complete Guide to Bikepacking.
These are just my experiences, and everything in this article is just for fun! As with all generalizations, these are not absolute and others may have different opinions. Please share yours in the comments at the bottom if you’d like!
Backpacking and bikepacking have both been around for a long time, but backpacking is far more popular. Even with bikepacking’s recent explosion into the mainstream, it can’t compete with backpacking’s decades of established history as the primary self-powered outdoor activity.
Thus backpacking has a bit more of the mature and “traditional” vibe, while bikepacking is more of the younger, edgier cousin. Much like ultrarunning and indoor rock climbing a few years ago, people have been doing it since long before it was cool, but it’s currently becoming downright trendy.
Many bikepackers already had some experience backpacking before they got into pedal-powered exploring. It’s a natural transition for folks who enjoy the wilderness and also ride bikes. At some point they figure out their backpacking gear can be strapped to their bike, and off they go!
Occasionally I’ll meet an experienced bikepacker who’s never done a multiday hike. These folks are usually mountain bikers or other accomplished cyclists who got into outdoor adventure from the competitive cycling angle. If that’s you, the rest of this article should help you decide whether backpacking might be an interesting next step.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between backpacking and bikepacking: bikes can cover more miles per day. In eight hours of backpacking you might walk about 16 miles, but eight hours of bikepacking can get you 60+ miles down a gravel road. On a difficult trail that distance might be cut in half because bikepacking pace depends heavily on terrain, but in almost every case you’ll cover more miles on a bike than on foot.
For those of us with unending adventure wishlists and limited time, bikepacking is one way to experience a wider variety of places. Of course the experience is different, and some might say you absorb each mile more deeply at walking pace. I don’t disagree, but I feel that biking is still slow enough that I can be truly present for every mile if I choose to.
The faster pace of bikepacking allowed me to experience the bike version of the Continental Divide in two months, while the CDT hikers I crossed paths with were out for five or six months. Of course there are treasures to be unearthed during months three through six, and these can’t be rushed. In a perfect world I would have enough time for it all, but in reality I was thankful to cover those 2700 miles in the time I had.
Bikepacking feels to me like a broader category, and bikepackers need to think more carefully about the terrain they plan to explore. Sure, a hiker might prefer to backpack a gentle forest trail or a rocky mountain trail, but most people are able to hike either with a few small changes in gear list and pacing.
Bikepacking, on the other hand, can require totally different skillsets and bikes for different routes. One rider might seek out gravel roads and another rocky singletrack, and they might not have the skills, desire, or equipment to switch places. It’s almost like technical trail bikepacking is to gravel bikepacking as scrambling is to hiking.
Thus, bikepackers tend to specialize in certain types of terrain. Personally I find hiking best suited to rough and rugged trails, and biking better suited to dirt roads and 4×4 tracks. The more rugged a trail the less advantage wheels provide, and the more I’d rather be on foot.
This is why I backpacked the Colorado Trail and Arizona Trail instead of bikepacking them, though both are prized as bikepacking routes by mountain bikers who enjoy technical trail. Me, I’d be walking my bike over the rough sections anyway, wondering why I brought a big heavy bike along on this otherwise lovely hike.
On the other hand, I thought my bike was the perfect tool for the flat dirt roads of the Great Basin in Wyoming. Ditto for the dirt roads of southern New Mexico. Many of the Continental Divide hikers I met there agreed; they seemed rather jealous of my wheels on those particular sections.
Pace and Variability
Whatever the terrain, backpackers can generally count on walking between one to three miles per hour except in extreme circumstances. Bikepacking, on the other had, has a massive speed range depending on terrain and elevation.
Cyclists can zip along at 25 mph while descending or grind uphill at 4 mph (or, sometimes, hike-a-bike uphill at 1 mph). Even on flat ground we could cruise at 12 mph on pavement or rattle along at 5 mph on bumpy singletrack. Without knowing what awaits, we don’t know whether to expect an 80 mile day or a 30 mile day.
Bikepackers need to put more effort into figuring out what type of terrain to expect on each route, and choosing routes that match our skills and preferences. We also need to factor in big potential speed differences when planning our days. Backpacking tends to be more consistent and predictable.
There are many lovely places you simply can’t explore by bike. National Parks rarely allow bikes on their best trails; they’re already overflowing with hikers as it is. Many local and regional parks have hiking-only trails to prevent conflict in crowded areas. And trails in designated wilderness areas prohibit mechanized travel of all kinds, including bicycles.
Hikers, on the other hand, are welcome pretty much anywhere. So if we want to see the best of Yosemite National Park, cross the Grand Canyon, explore Tahoe’s Desolation Wilderness, or just enjoy the hiker-only singletrack at the local county park, we’ll need to do it on foot.
Bikepacking feels more gear-intensive, mainly thanks to the biking part. We carry pretty much all the gear backpackers carry, plus extras like bike tools and spare parts, high-vis safety gear, lights, handlebar mounts, a variety of specialized bike-mounted bags, helmet, and more. Sometimes it can feel like camping gear is the least of our worries!
When it does come to camping gear, bikepackers often draw on wisdom and technology from the lightweight backpacking community. Every self-powered traveler appreciates lightweight and compact gear!
Good news for backpackers looking to get into bikepacking: most of the same camping gear will work. I bikepack and backpack with very similar gear and clothing, as you can see from comparing this gear list from bikepacking the Great Divide with this one from backpacking the Colorado Trail.
Still, if I’m really trying to optimize for a certain style of travel or terrain, some differences do come up. Here are the biggest differences I notice when packing for backpacking versus bikepacking.
Weight: Bikepacking is a little more forgiving of extra weight, at least on easy or moderate terrain. The bike bears most of the load, sparing our shoulders and knees. Thus I have some luxury items I carry bikepacking but not backpacking, like camp shoes and a mini camp towel. When bikepacking more challenging terrain the difference disappears; now you have to drag or carry your gear and bike over awkward obstacles, and every pound counts.
Bulk: If riding with a typical bikepacking bag setup, especially on a small bike frame, it can feel even more space-constrained than backpacking. Certain bulky items that fit easily in my backpack, like a cooking pot or tent poles, require more creativity to jam into a bikepacking setup.
Shelter style: Most shelters work fine for both activities, but a few special features make a bigger difference for one than the other. I love a freestanding tent for bikepacking because it’s more common to camp on gravel, concrete, or other un-stake-able surface during bike trips. I also appreciate the shorter tent poles that some manufacturers now offer on bikepacking-specific tents. For hiking, trekking-pole supported tents and tarps are a clever and lighter solution.
Clothing and temperature: I find that bikepacking has colder colds and hotter hots for the same weather. When it’s cold a fast descent on the bike adds brutal wind chill. In the heat, biking or hike-a-biking a steep climb on a sunny exposed road builds even more heat than hiking it. While bikepacking in variable weather I am constantly stopping to add and remove layers, so a convenient system of breathable and flexible clothing is a must.
Resupply and Civilization
Bikepacking usually involves more civilization than backpacking. In the U.S. most backpacking routes are backcountry affairs; you may not see a single vehicle or town from start to finish. This is a big plus for backpacking in my opinion — it’s one of the best ways to truly escape into nature.
Many bikepacking routes, by contrast, travel lightly used dirt roads where you’ll meet the occasional camper or pickup truck. At bicycle pace you reach towns faster; 150 miles between towns could take a bikepacker 4 days and a backpacker 7 days. Even in sparsely populated areas of the western US, you have to work pretty hard to design a bikepacking route that avoids any towns for over a week.
There are pros and cons to more civilization. Small towns and their culture and history become part of a bikepacking route’s attraction. Friendly locals play a role in many of the best bikepacking stories. Bikepackers rarely need to carry more than 2-3 days of food at a time, and luxuries like motel rooms and restaurant meals are more frequent.
The price bikepackers pay for all this convenience (in addition to actual money): it’s harder to slip into that meditative nature-fueled state of bliss that many of us enjoy while backpacking. It can be jarring to constantly dip in and out of civilization, traffic, and internet access. If you’ve ever walked into a grocery store on a biking or hiking trip and been too hungry, tired, and overwhelmed to buy your resupply food, you know what I mean.
Food and Water
Two things we all have in common: a massive appetite, and the annoying need to drink water fairly often to stay alive.
I eat similarly when bikepacking and backpacking: mostly simple dry staples (ramen, couscous, oatmeal, etc) supplemented with freeze dried veggies and various powdered fats. I try to include plenty of low carb foods to keep the calorie-to-weight ratio high. My post on bikepacking food applies equally well to backpacking, especially if you’re on a thru hike and resupplying as you go.
Bikepacking does have some advantages in the culinary department. More frequent towns and more weight capacity translate to more “real food,” like carrying out a sandwich for dinner or packing fresh fruits and veggies. I’ve even been known to carry canned food while bikepacking (cold ravioli, yum…) which I would never consider while backpacking (too heavy!).
I can get away with less detailed food planning while bikepacking. It’s easy to make up lost calories with a big town meal every 2-3 days, and not the end of the world to carry a little extra food weight. But when backpacking, especially for food carries longer than 4-5 days, I count calories very precisely. This also means I’m more likely to mail resupply boxes to myself on a hike, so I can be sure to have the right amounts of all those lightweight dehydrated ingredients that are hard to find in stores.
The biggest challenge for bikepacking food is finding space for more than a few days’ worth. It’s hard to fit a full food bag into any single spot on my bike, so I have to get creative. Don’t even think about fitting a bear canister on a true bikepacking setup; you would need to strap it to a rear rack. An Ursack is usually the best you can do.
Water depends more on location and season than feet versus wheels, but I often find myself carrying more water while bikepacking. It’s not too unusual to carry 6-7 liters of water on my bike, but I only carry that much on my back through the very driest sections of a desert route like the Arizona Trail.
A few reasons: 1) I can manage the weight more comfortably while biking. 2) I dry camp more commonly while bikepacking, usually out in National Forest or BLM land where I’m looking for a stealthy campsite away from vehicle traffic. 3) The bike makes it possible to traverse dry places that would be impractical for most people to even try on foot.
Bikepacking has a reputation as a spendy activity. The bike alone can cost as much as you’re willing to spend, and bike maintenance and spare parts aren’t cheap. Factor in all the camping gear plus the bikepacking bags to carry it, cycling-specific clothes (not a necessity in my opinion), and fancy electronics if that’s your style, and bikepacking costs can really add up.
The typical bikepacking route brings you through towns more often than the typical backpacking route, so you’ll be tempted to spend more money on cheeseburgers and motel rooms (you could try to resist, but good luck!). Transportation to and from routes can also be more expensive, whether you’re flying with a bike or booking an extra-large shuttle van.
That said, there are ways to approach both backpacking and bikepacking with a more budget-friendly mindset. Bikepackers have many creative tricks for DIY bags and gear, and more affordable bikepacking bags are proliferating. Ultralight gear is expensive no matter the sport, but there’s good value to be found in the moderately lightweight category. Don’t be fooled into thinking you need the latest and greatest, especially if you’re just getting started.
I’ve done long hikes and long rides both solo and with my husband, and a few shorter ones with friends. When it comes to the “social scene” of both backpacking versus bikepacking, I’ve noticed some trends.
Groups: Individual paces diverge fast while pedaling up or down hills, so you can easily end up many miles from your riding companions while bikepacking. Most groups separate as needed to maintain each person’s comfortable pace, then meet back up at designated spots like a water source or top of a big climb. Backpackers do this too, but more slowly and over smaller distances.
Conversation: Unless you’re riding a smooth road with no traffic, it’s hard to carry on a conversation while riding bikes. Paces diverge, terrain demands single-file travel, and the crunch of gravel and whooshing of wind make it hard to hear. You’ll usually have to entertain yourself while riding and save the deep conversation for camp.
Other hikers and bikers: Depends on where you go, of course. Both activities can be remote and solitary and both can be crowded, but nothing compares to the bustling social scene of a popular thru hiking trail. The closest I’ve found on a bike was the popular Great Divide route, but even there I only encountered 5-10 other cyclists a day while riding against the grain. Often when I’m out bikepacking I don’t see any other cyclists at all, or just one group every few days.
Locals: If you’re backpacking but not thru hiking (so you’re not going into towns for resupply) you may not meet anyone except other trail users. While thru hiking and bikepacking you’ll meet local folks while resupplying, and sometimes these experiences are highlights of a trip. For me this is an even bigger part of bikepacking, maybe because it’s a less expected activity and includes more time on rural roads. A cold beer offered from the window of a passing pickup truck feels like original “trail magic,” like how things used to be for thru hikers before the trails became so popular.
After years of alternating between them, I definitely notice that backpacking and bikepacking have different effects on my body.
Biking is easier than hiking on flat ground, gradual climbs, and most descents. Hiking is easier on steep climbs (especially when pushing the bike) and also rough steep descents. Biking on trails can take quite a bit of mental energy and focus, to the point where it’s hard to think about anything else.
Both are great aerobic exercise and have gradually transformed my body into a slow-twitch endurance machine. Bikepacking can be a bit more dynamic, almost like interval training, with periods of high heartrate while climbing and almost no exertion while descending. On rough trails where hike-a-bike is required, bikepacking can be a burly full-body struggle. Backpacking is a more consistent burn, and mostly from the hips down.
All other things being equal, bikepacking is easier on my body. I can manage 20 hours in the saddle during a bikepacking race and then do it all again the next day, whereas 20 hours on foot with a heavy pack would probably destroy me. The difference seems to be mainly in my connective tissue; backpacking takes more of a toll on tendons and ligaments which are slower to condition and slower to recover. I can get away with biking absurd distances without much training, but that doesn’t work for backpacking.
I often struggle with knee pain while backpacking, but less so with bikepacking. Foot and Achilles issues are a bigger risk with backpacking, though I’m usually lucky in that department. Biking can cause saddle soreness and hand weakness / tingling, and both can cause back and shoulder pain. Generally I feel like biking requires less recovery for my tendons and ligaments, but more recovery for my muscles.
Both make my already-tight IT bands even tighter, and both require lots of yoga and stretching to recover from!
Like a connoisseur of fine wines, I’ve learned to appreciate the nuanced differences between these two activities that might seem very similar to the uninitiated. Here are the overarching themes as I usually experience them.
Simplicity: Backpacking. No bike, no mechanical issues, less civilization and vehicle traffic. With nothing but the trail and the landscape to focus on, backpacking gets me into a meditative state like nothing else.
Connection to nature: Backpacking. Thanks to its simplicity and longer periods of remoteness, there are fewer distractions to pull me out of my meditative, slightly trippy, nature-goddess state of mind. At the risk of sounding too “woo,” after a few low-stimulation days in the wilderness I start to feel more primal, more aligned, and more feminine.
Variety and stimulation: Bikepacking. The more dynamic aspects of biking keep things interesting, especially when going solo with less social distractions. There are more dramatic transitions between up and down, slow and fast, rough and smooth, backcountry and civilization, people and solitude. The mechanical aspect of bikepacking can also be interesting and fun, at least when things aren’t going too wrong.
Badassery: Bikepacking. For lack of a better way to describe it, bikepacking — especially solo — makes me feel like a total badass. At some point in every trip, maybe while rolling into a small town after successfully managing a few challenging days in the backcountry, I feel incredibly alive and competent, master of both my body and my bike. We move as a team like some kind of wild cyborg creature, capable and windblown, on the hunt for a cheeseburger and more chain lube.
So there you have it, my comparison of bikepacking and backpacking. On the whole they have more in common than not, especially compared to a day at the office or elsewhere in “real life.” They both leave me feeling more grounded, connected to the planet, and in tune with myself. But they do have different flavors, and I enjoy choosing the taste I’m craving most at any given time.
Do you also love bikepacking and backpacking? How do they compare for you? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
If you want to dive deeper into either of these fabulous activities, here are more helpful articles:
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