Bike touring vs Bikepacking

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Biking shifts your entire perspective as you slowly go by, hearing the world speak and seeing the day transition. It slows and speeds up travel at the same time and in the best way. There are many ways to experience traveling by bike. In this article we break down two of the major ones: bike touring vs bikepacking. Each is entirely by preference and dependent on what type of travel you want to experience and what you are comfortable with. 

Bike touring has been around for ages and for some it may bring up elderly faces and dollar signs. In reality, bike touring is a broad category that encompasses all forms of loading up camping gear on your bike and traveling. Bikepacking is a type of bike touring that is more dialed in on unpaved, gravel, or off-roading surfaces. Bikepacking bags are optimized to handle those specific situations. With bike touring you have the ability to pack more and usually you’re on the way a bit longer. 

In this article, we’ll breakdown bikepacking vs bike touring and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each, and what to look for when deciding what bike is best for either activity to leave you well informed and confident for the next biking adventure.

Bike touring

Bike touring can look like a lot of things depending on how far and what type of setup you opt for. Traditionally, bike touring occurs mostly on on-road routes. Surfaces can be a blend of paved and unpaved. A touring setup is designed to endure long distances and allow for comfort items and room for plenty of food and water. That’s where panniers come into play and specific preferences. 

Most commonly, you will see riders have a front and back rack each supporting two pannier bags that hold food, water, clothes, and camping gear. Some riders opt for instead of the front panniers to reduce weight on their bikes. Typically, those traveling for months of even years will have a larger setup carrying a little more on their bikes to create more comfort. 

When you are on a bike tour, you are usually riding for weeks at a time, sometimes months or even years. We like to think of touring as a means of human-powered traveling to see the world. 

You might also like: The greatest European Bike Tours of All Times

Bikepacking 

Unlike bike touring, which has been around for ages, bikepacking is a relatively new concept. The purpose of bikepacking is forging places that are less traveled, via singletrack trails, gravel, and abandoned dirt roads. It is completed on mixed terrain or entirely off-road using a simple setup to encourage bringing only the bare necessities. Bikepacking is a minimalist style of camping combined with mountain biking, which offers an entirely different experience than bike touring. 

Bikepacking is a way to extend a bike ride in extreme conditions. Although arguably, both are a means of travel, bikepacking is a more adventure-packed method that requires mountain bike-esq skills and planning specifically to endure unpopulated areas that lack resources. Because bikepacking has an emphasis on minimalism, brands tend to tweak and update gear to include the lightest and efficient materials, whereas touring tends to stay the same year over year.

Interesting as well: Bike touring essentials and a bikepacking gear list

The Pros & Cons of bike touring vs bikepacking

There is no right or wrong way to go on a bike adventure. Whichever method you choose will come with its fair share of advantages and disadvantages. 

Bike TouringBikepacking
Lots of gears Lots of gears 
Panniers are more user-friendly than bikepacking bagsBikepacking bags are less user-friendly than panniers
The pace. As opposed to bikepacking, touring is less aerodynamic.  You can cycle more kilometers a day as the bike is loaded less heavy
Riding roadside can become monotonous and frustrating when putting up with traffic.You won’t cycle as much on the roadside as with bike touring
More space for luggage, so you can go on a bike touring trip for yearsLess space for luggage, so real long trips can be a real challenge

The Bike Differences

Whether you opt for bikepacking or bike touring, it is essential to get a bike that is suitable for the terrain and your comforts. There are many adventure bikes out there to fit desired budgets, especially if you are just getting into the sport. Simply said, any bike that can mount racks and/or store bags can absolutely be used. You can always add comforts as handlebar grips or bar ends for longer days. 

That being said, optimizing a bike for its intended purposes will elevate the experience and comfort, especially on longer adventures. Many bikepacking destinations and routes are designed for the backcountry, with rugged terrain and often forest-service roads that cannot be accessed by vehicle. If you are interested in adventuring in this realm, bikes that suit this type of terrain are typically mountain bikes or hybrids. These bikes will feel and look different than traditional bike touring bikes, which are optimized for different conditions – like smooth paved roads. 

Our experience with different bikes

Again, there is not just one bike right for bike packing or touring. Bikepackers use everything ranging from touring bikes to full-suspension rigs on their expeditions. For example we did a 3-month bike touring trip through the highlands of Iceland on a cheaper-kind-of-mountain-bike. We mounted racks at the back of the bike to be able to carry panniers. On top of the panniers we had a backpack for extra storage. We avoided the panniers at the front because we had suspensions. This really felt like the best set-up for the circumstances, as we were cycling through very rough terrain but also needed lots of storage to pack enough food for up to 10 days at a time.

On the other hand, when we cycled in Switzerland, we were cycling with a Koga touring bike. The road conditions were a lot better and we have to admit that using a touring bike with the traditional set-up felt more comfortable. These bikes are made to carry a lot of weight and they feel more stable when packed. It was a big difference compared to the mountain bikes we loaded with panniers. So that being said, it might be better to load mountain bikes less heavy by using the bikepacking packs. 

You might also like: 5 magnificent bike tours in Switzerland

Bike touring vs bikepacking bikes

To help you navigate which bike will be best suited for your next bike adventure, we’ve compiled a shortlist of the main bike differences. 

Touring bikes:

  • Tougher frames and components
  • Stiffer frames to handle loads
  • Ride great with luggage
  • Lower gear ratios on average
  • Rack and fender mounts at a minimum 
  • Easy to maintain

Bikepacking bikes: 

  • Less overbuilt frames and components 
  • Reduced frame stiffness for lighter loads
  • A more flexible ride unloaded 
  • Slightly higher gear ratios on average
  • Cargo cage mounts at a minimum 
  • Less easy to maintain due to more advanced components 

Finding your ideal bike is both an art and science of balancing your priorities and accepting certain tradeoffs. To optimize your setup, it is worthwhile considering your total load, the terrain you will ride, the steepness of the terrain, the bag setup you prefer, and how remote you expect the route to be.

The Bag Differences 

As selecting a bike to optimize in certain conditions, you can do the same when choosing your bag setup. How you set up your bike depends entirely on your preference and on a couple of variables such as duration and resource availability. 

For longer tours, riders opt for the traditional four pannier setup, which includes two smaller sized panniers extended on the front rack and two larger panniers on the back rack.

Whereas bikepacking will demand a lighter setup to maneuver the terrain adequately. To do so, instead of using panniers, many riders opt for bikepacking bags, such as frame bags, fork bags and handlebar bags to store their specific equipment. Sometimes they bring a small backpack to carry a bit more stuff. By not using racks, riders save a considerable amount of weight to the bikepacking rig. This is important because it would be extremely challenging to haul all the weight over the single-track mountains, for example.

We recommend using what you have first. This way you can get comfortable and develop your preferences without breaking the bank. Remember, the rig is to help you extend your adventure, not put you in debt! 

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We love to hear from you 

Thanks for checking out the bike touring vs bike packing article. We absolutely like adventuring by bike and for us, it was overwhelming at first. Hopefully, this article has provided you with additional insight into the bike travel world and provided guidance in your search for which rig you to lean towards in your next bike adventure! If you’re an avid cyclist or new to bike adventuring, we’d love to hear from you! Please leave a comment below! 

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