Bikepacking vs. Cycle Touring | What’s the Difference?

A breakdown of the two major types of long distance bicycle travel.

Keeping up with cycling terminology is often frustrating.

Exhibit A) What’s the difference between a free-wheel and a free-hub?

I know the answer but it still takes me far too long to remember which is which. Cycling terms are either a very literal description of something but in French (j’accuse “derailleur!”), or mean the complete opposite of what their name suggests.

Exhibit B) Would you ‘clip in’ to clip-less pedals?

As cyclists we have to maintain the illusion of knowing what all of this riddle filled cycle jargon actually means (the answer is “yes” by the way). In this vein, there are two types of cycling becoming very popular that you may have heard of, but have no idea what they are or how they’re related.

They are bikepacking and cycle touring. Two cycling methods that are basically the same thing, but also very different.

The Similarities

Both bikepacking and cycle touring focus on getting back to nature. Photo: iStock

Both bikepacking and cycle touring involve making a journey by bicycle, starting in one place, finishing in a different place and (usually) camping there for the night.

They both focus on experiencing the world at a slower pace on two wheels.

They both involve carrying your gear such as tent, sleeping bag, and clothing on the bike itself.

They also both involve lots of people telling you that you can get where you’re going quicker by car.

The differences

Say you’re riding along on a smooth paved road, and spot a nifty looking off-road trail you would love to tear up.

Sadly you’re on a heavily laden touring bike with slick tyres and panniers that rattle going over the slightest bump in the road. I guess you’ll just have to come back next time with your mountain bike for a bit of off-road action.

Bikepacking solves this problem.

Cycle touring is great until you want to get off-road. Photo: iStock

Instead of using a touring bike which is designed for pavement, bikepacking uses off-roader machines like mountain bikes or cyclocross bikes which are – as you would imagine – designed for the dirt.

So when you fancy a dirt detour, or even a entire off-road adventure, bikepacking is the way to go. Using specialised bikepacking bags that cling tightly to the frame, bikepacking allows you carry gear, and at the same time bomb it down your favourite trail.

“When you fancy a dirt detour, bikepacking is the way to go”

However this hasn’t stopped road cyclists from jumping on the bikepacking bandwagon. The weight and space saving philosophy of bikepacking works great for endurance road events. So if you’re not keen on the dirt, but still like the sound of bikepacking, then this is the option for you.

Who are they for?

Everyone! Is the simple answer. Owning a bike is a good place to start.

If you’re looking for a new touring machine, or need some more info on what to look for in a mountain bike, then we’ve got you covered.

If you’re not sure if you will like travelling on two wheels, then a cycle tour is the best way to start. Bikepacking will require more planning and preparation as you will be in more remote locations with less equipment.

Riding a fat bike through snow – the more extreme end of bikepacking. Photo: iStock

Cycle touring allows you to carry more gear, and therefore you can use more day-to-day camping equipment which you may already have lying around.

Bikepacking is all about space and weight saving, so a lot of the gear is designed specifically for this purpose.

Both bikepacking and cycle touring are very liberating ways of experiencing the world on two wheels. Whether it be a few days touring the UK, or bikepacking the Trans-continental race in Europe, taking the plunge into a cycling expedition will boost your confidence and appetite for adventure.

You may also like:

Cycle Touring | A Beginner’s Guide

Best Gear for Bikepacking | The Ultimate Winter Kit Bag