What do pedal-powered travelers mean when we talk about bikepacking versus bicycle touring, and what’s the difference? Oh my, what dangerous waters I’m about to wade into!
This debate gets surprisingly heated in forums and Facebook groups, and I’m not about to subject myself to that kind of abuse. Instead I’m going to offer my answer here, on my own website, where I have the power to delete any and all mean comments (civil and constructive comments always welcome).
You might be saying “Who cares? It’s all riding bikes, and it’s all awesome. Just go ride.” And you would be correct. It doesn’t matter what we call it, as long as we’re having fun or adventure or whatever it is we seek. We’re all one big happy family.
So why even bother writing yet another article about cycle touring versus bikepacking? Two reasons.
1) I run this website, I write about both, and I need a page I can link to that explains what I mean when I use each term.
2) I want to help beginners understand what other writers might be implying when they use the terms bikepacking and bike touring. Most of us have a so-many-rides-so-little-time problem on our hands. I want to help others choose the routes and styles that are going to drag them further down their personal rabbit hole of bike travel obsession (in a good way, obviously).
There’s no bias in this article; I love both touring and bikepacking. I got my start in what most would call touring: a three-month solo wander through Southeast Asia. At some point, after riding across the U.S. and deciding I didn’t want to die, I embraced what I now call bikepacking in order to get away from cars. These days I pick and choose, and even mix and match during the same trip, based on what suits each place best.
Without further ado, here are some ways to tease out the differences between bikepacking and bicycle touring.
Bicycle Touring Is…
An older term. As you can see from Google Trends, search traffic for bicycle touring has been steadily decreasing as the term bikepacking picks up steam. It’s worth noting that if you include variations like “bike touring” and “bike packing” the lines only cross as recently as 2020. However, we’ll never know how many people are referring to motorbikes when they search “bike touring,” so just take this as a general statement: bikepacking is trending up while bicycle touring is trending down.
Hauling gear with racks and panniers instead of soft bikepacking bags. You can usually tell whether someone considers themselves a “bikepacker” or “tourer” from a mile away. The classic touring setup uses racks and panniers, often front and back, with a wide-open frame triangle holding a bottle cage or two. The classic bikepacking look is more svelte, follows the shape of the bike, and includes a wider variety of funny-shaped bags like a frame bag, seat bag, and handlebar roll. That said, racks and panniers are used by bikepackers too when more capacity is needed, but usually combined with a frame bag and other hallmarks of the bikepacking setup.
Focused on populated areas and the culture, sightseeing, food, etc found in them. If you’re “touring” you’re more likely to be stopping at restaurants and hotels, or at least grocery stores and campgrounds, on a daily basis. Think EuroVelo routes in Europe, or rail trails on the U.S. east coast. Bikepackers, on the other hand, sometimes carry many days of food between resupply stops so we can explore all the places without towns. Long-haul bike tourers break this pattern when riding in sparsely populated regions like Mongolia or the Andes, but most casual trips generally align.
Riding more pavement than dirt or gravel, at least in places with plenty of each to choose from. Many routes have a mix of surfaces, and some — the GAP rail trail comes to mind — feel like touring routes even though there’s no pavement beneath your wheels. In some parts of the world where paved roads are uncommon, bike touring might involve a lot of gravel and dirt. In that case, other factors like cargo-carrying style tip the scales toward one term or the other.
Focused more on culture and sightseeing than nature and scenery. Not that bike tourers don’t enjoy a quiet backroad or gorgeous view when we find one — who wouldn’t? And many bikepackers love sightseeting and cultural exchange. But folks who consider themselves bike tourers are likely happier spending time on busier roads and in cities that their bikepacking counterparts may prefer to avoid. These more populated areas offer more activities and things to see — museums, restaurants, monuments, lots of social interaction — that more nature-focused bikepacking routes usually don’t.
Staying in hotels and eating at restaurants? Only if your budget is big enough! I’ve heard some people call this a defining feature of bike touring, but I say not always. Plenty of bike tourers, especially the long-haul folks, travel on a shoestring budget and do plenty of camping and cooking. That said, in more populated areas it can be very hard to find camping opportunities and bike tourers may be forced to stay in hotels, while bikepackers wouldn’t spend much time in these areas to begin with.
More a method of travel than a type of cycling. As Tom of tomsbiketrip.com says in his article on the subject, “One camp really just wants to go travelling. The other camp really just wants to go biking.” Though I do generally agree with this, I think this point has more exceptions than most of the others. So don’t get your chamois in a bunch if you’re a bikepacker who loves travel or a bike tourer who loves biking. Many of us have been doing all this long enough that the lines are blurry anyway.
A newer term. “Bikepacking” first started picking up steam around 2009 (at least as an internet search term) and was a fringe of a fringe activity, folks strapping gear to mountain bikes so they could ride for days without having to come home in between. It’s been steadily growing in popularity ever since, taking off for real sometime around 2015 after bikepacking.com (founded in 2012) began hitting its stride.
Riding more gravel and dirt than pavement, and thus in more remote places. Some people reserve the term bikepacking for mostly singletrack riding, a true MTB experience that takes you places no four-wheeled vehicle can venture. Maybe it’s because I suck at singletrack, but I use the term more broadly to include rough but nontechnical surfaces like dirt roads and 4×4 tracks. Since pavement eventually appears wherever large numbers of people settle, this means bikepacking takes riders to more remote places with fewer people. This distinction – less pavement and fewer people – is the core of bikepacking.com’s take on the subject, and they’ve probably done more to shape the sport than any other entity.
Streamlining your gear list to be more lightweight and compact so you can ride rougher stuff more gracefully and safely. While bikepacking you might find yourself carrying your steed across a river, dragging it up a steep slippery hillside, or maneuvering between tight trees on technical trail. There’s no question that a lighter and more streamlined setup makes all this easier and more fun.
Hauling gear in soft bags instead of racks and panniers for a more streamlined setup. The original idea was that a svelte bikepacking bag setup limits your load, keeps the bike agile on technical trail, and has no rigid parts to break if/when you crash. These days smaller bikepacking-style panniers are making a comeback for smaller riders, more involved trips, and mountain bikers running suspension and dropper posts. But the guiding principles of bikepacking bags — soft attachment points, smaller capacity, and rattle-free design — still apply.
Riding an off-road capable bike like a rigid MTB, hardtail, or even full-suspension mountain bike. Though you can go bikepacking on a touring bike, I’ve done it and I’m here to say that the right bike for the job makes it easier and more fun.
Camping in the woods (or desert or wherever), filtering water from natural sources, and cooking your own meals. You might be carrying food for several days at a time between resupply stops. Bikepackers usually choose routes with at least some camping opportunities, though there are always exceptions. You can “credit card bikepack” if you’re fast enough and choose the right route (and have a backup plan in case you can’t make your miles).
Being more self-reliant and self-contained. This is usually a consequence of the routes bikepackers seek out. If we have a mechanical disaster in the middle of nowhere or get caught in a storm that turns the dirt road to death mud, we need enough skills and supplies to survive without help. Bike tourers, on the other hand, can more easily count on meeting other humans nearby and the possibility of hitching or detouring to get help.
Often following a pre-established or preplanned route. The difficulties of stringing together an off-pavement route (private land, more specialized mapping resources, limited access to food and water, greater chance of no one finding your body if something goes wrong… just kidding) mean that many remote bikepacking routes are carefully planned and mapped in advance. By contrast, when touring it’s more common to make decisions as you go based on standard maps or local advice. Put another way, the penalty for choosing a sub-optimal route usually isn’t as high when touring.
Focused more on nature, scenery, and traversing remote spaces over culture, sightseeing, and traditional “travel” experiences. These lines can be blurred though, in fact that’s my favorite type of trip! My bikepacking trips in Kyrgyzstan and Morocco offered engaging blends of rough riding and remote spaces alongside the challenges of navigating unfamiliar countries and cultures. This style of bike travel, in large part due to the extensive global route network on bikepacking.com, is on the rise and for good reason.
A western US thing? I couldn’t resist looking at the breakdown of search queries for bikepacking versus bike touring on Google Trends. The states where bikepacking gets more interest are solidly Rockies westward, and a few patches on the east coast. The midwest and south are still into bike touring.
Certainly this has to do with the locations of the most popular bikepacking routes, which is correlated with another factor: public land. A quick look at % of public land by state shows that of the top 10 states with highest search traffic for “bikepacking,” seven of them are also in the top 10 for highest % of public land. In other words, people are more interested in bikepacking in the places where bikepacking as we know it — wild camping, quiet dirt roads and trails, vast natural spaces — is more available. No surprise there!
A marketing fad? I’ve heard the cynical argument that bikepacking is just an invention of gear makers trying to lure old-school bike tourers into buying new gear. Thus we now have a wide variety of well-designed and functional bikepacking gear to choose from. That’s a good thing! Buy what you can afford and what helps you achieve your riding dreams, and ignore the rest (see Bikepacking on a Budget).
A short trip of just a few days? I’ve heard some folks say they’re bikepacking on short trips close to home and touring on longer trips. I personally don’t use the term this way, and I think that usage probably has to do with where people live and how they ride. If you can find the time, you can bikepack for months on routes like the GDMBR or Western Wildlands, or you can tour for a weekend on the Ohio to Erie rail trail.
Touring Versus Racing
Here’s one more confusing twist. In the world of bikepack racing people often say they are “just touring” when they’re bikepacking outside of a racing context. Used in this way, “touring” doesn’t have the same connotation as I just described above. If someone who likes to race says they’re “touring” a bikepacking route, they mean they’re going slowly, getting plenty of sleep, and riding for pleasure rather than competition or personal achievement.
John Watson of The Radavist recently wrote a somewhat controversial article (at least in the rather self-obsessed little world of bike travel) asserting that bikepacking always means some kind of competitive intent with self or others. Personally I wouldn’t go this far. I think if you’re riding dirt with bikepacking bags and camping a lot, you are bikepacking, even if you’re doing it slowly. Only someone in the racing scene cares about the distinction implied by “touring a bikepacking route,” and that’s a small minority of multi-day riders.
I hesitate to press publish on this article because I can think of an exception for pretty much every statement I just made. A few sub-sub-niches of bike travel are especially difficult to label. For example…
Round-the-world tourers challenge many of my points above. They’re likely to show up in the most remote corners of the world, riding dirt roads and camping every night like bikepackers, but rocking touring tires and a touring bike and a full four-pannier setup. Ultimately we call them “tourers” because they’re focused primarily on travel and their trip includes a lot of pavement, where available. It’s logistically very difficult to “bikepack around the world” because so much of the world is too populated. The site worldbiking.info does a good job exploring the distinction within the long-distance-focused bike world specifically, pointing out that bikepackers often combine “riding adventurous terrain with bussing over the ‘boring bits’ ” — guilty (raises hand)!
Bikepack racers are another wacky group that defies categorization. We would all agree they’re not “touring” — their focus on speed and their minimalist bikepacking bags both rule that out. Most bikepack races focus on unpaved routes, so it’s easy to call this bikepacking. But what about when they’re riding the TransAm or Transcontinental? Road bikes! So much pavement! Ultimately I’m at a loss for what label to use here, and thankfully no one cares. We all know exactly what they’re doing, and it’s awesome.
Summing Up the Vibes
So which one are you, a bike tourer or bikepacker? As for me, it’s hard to say. My heart will always be most at peace in remote wild places, but culture and people are usually the most engaging and memorable parts of my bike trips. I ride pavement, gravel, and dirt, often all on the same day, and have both bikepacking bags and panniers in my gear pile. I suppose I prefer the term “bikepacker” as an identity, but that’s probably because it’s trendier and my bike obsession came of age during its rise.
When I “tour” I’m usually riding pavement, have rear panniers on my bike, eat more calories per day, and spend more money on food and lodging. I’m thinking about traffic, wearing a bright vest, and making sure to keep my tail light charged (always a good idea). I meet more people and have more conversations, sometimes too many! I bring an extra set of clean clothes for town, but my bike repair and first aid kits are less extensive. I use my water filter rarely and may not bring a stove at all. I might navigate by smartphone, no need for a GPS device. I’m less likely to listen to music or audio books while riding, as there’s too much going on. When I feel awe it’s usually for an impressive human-built structure, the scale of a city, or a way of life different from my own. I come home feeling energized by everything I saw.
When I “bikepack” I’m riding more dirt and gravel than pavement, and my tires are wider and knobbier. I usually have bikepacking bags but might use small rear panniers if I need the capacity. I’m looking for solitude and natural beauty and can go many hours between seeing another human, but when I do meet people I have some nice interactions. I depend on my water filter and stove and rarely carry less than two days of food. I have a Garmin InReach Mini with me for emergencies and a couple power banks for charging. I’m more likely to navigate with a dedicated GPS device for its ruggedness and battery life. When I feel awe it’s usually for the power of nature, a breathtaking view, or the vastness of a landscape. I come home feeling rejuvenated and calmed by natural beauty and a slower pace of daily life.
Alright, bring on the comments, but be nice. 🙂 How do you think about bikepacking versus bicycle touring, if you even care at all? Do you do both, have you transitioned from one to the other, or do you weave them together in your own creative way?
Whatever you call it, wherever and however you ride, and whatever gear you’re carrying, I wish you tailwinds on your next bike trip.
More Bike Travel Resources
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like these:
- Bikepacking Tents: How to Choose
- How to Find Riding Partners for Bikepacking and Touring
- Comparison of Bike Routes Across the U.S.
Or visit the bikepacking (and touring!) section for more.
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