Apart from the obvious addition of a bicycle, what is the difference between a bikepacking and a backpacking tour? Over the years, I have made a few extended trips, and both are wonderful, but which would I choose? There are quite a few things to consider:
One advantage of walking is getting to your intended trailhead. A sequence of trains and buses usually does the trick, but getting a bike on a train is becoming increasingly tedious. The days of throwing your fully loaded bike in the guard’s carriage are disappearing, replaced with hybrid bike/luggage storage zones, which don’t do either well. It would be wonderful to have a dedicated bike carriage, where loading/unloading takes only a few moments; as evidenced by the cyclists waiting for the ScotRail sleeper services at Inverness most Sunday evenings, there is increasing demand. In peak season, they lay on a Mercedes Sprinter van to collect bikes before departure and deliver them to the destination. The website http://www.seat61.com has a lot of detail to help you plan journeys with a bike. Alternatively, take your bike in a car/van and park up; but this can mean a circular route only.
A bike allows you to carry more, meaning more cooking options: a proper stove and pans; spices and oils; rare ingredients and space to fill up with all manner of goodies at the supermarket. As you can cover greater distances, you will encounter more cafes and restaurants, and you can plan a meal or shopping stops, without too much concern about how far it will be to the next campsite. With more generous storage and carrying capacity, your meal quality improves dramatically compared to the calorie/weight, counting freeze-dried meal options. You can carry multi-day provisions easily, with greater variety. It also means that you can keep costs down. I always buy too much when backpacking, which reminds me of the famous boy scout question: “Sir, can we eat out food now to save weight?”
Over the years, I have whittled down my clothing to the basics, yet finding a balance of smarter outdoor clothing is a challenge, and a bike packer will need specific cycling shorts, gloves, overshoes, shoes, and helmet. The top layer starts with a decent base layer, usually long-sleeved merino wool, worn for days before stinking too much. I usually pack an outdoor shirt and convertible trousers to look decent in restaurants and travelling by bus/train. I try not to look like sweaty lycra clad alien for an evening meal, although cafes at lunchtimes are relaxed about the dress code. A bikepacker will carry more clothing, so campsite and exploring after the ride is comfortable and warmer.
As a bikepacker, if you have the right saddle and padded shorts, you will not get sores. A backpacker, carrying that extra weight, has to be vigilant to avoid blisters. My feet are weary after a 20-mile trek, yet only my thighs ache after a cycle until I fill them with a warm meal. I prefer the post cycle exercise glow to the weary walking feeling.
At a walking pace, you absorb every detail of your environment and gently process the experience into your memory as you sleep off the day’s effort in your tent. I find I can recall every detail of the journeys I made years ago, but ask me about a two-week beach holiday in Greece, and I would struggle to remember much beyond the mousaka and retsina. A natural walking rhythm, repeated daily, is like a meditation as you gently progress through the landscape. It brings joy and rewards your efforts; it is just you and the path, with no technological intervention (like a bicycle) — as nature intended.
Cycling doesn’t quite match that experience, yet the thrill of speeding down the lanes is exhilarating. Even the occasional hill serves only to warm your muscles and inject you with endorphins. It is a different buzz, but no less a pleasure — a guilty pleasure, riding one of the worlds greatest inventions. Your field of vision is uninterrupted, but your progress can mean you miss those details; with backpacking, you can absorb more and stop to observe without guilt. Take a pair of binoculars and sit for a while, perhaps looking for dolphins or rare birds, watching things emerge, and developing your observation skills. You will be amazed at how attuned you become to your surroundings, quickly spotting anomalies and movement to reveal even more depth in the natural landscape. A bike, however, does have the advantage of sneaking quietly upon wildlife, disturbing a buzzard perched on a branch and watching it fly alongside you.
You will encounter all walks of life (excuse the pun) when backpacking. The paths are long, but they collect walkers. If you are travelling in the same direction, you might meet the same walkers for several days, as they set out at different times. Long-distance walkers will assemble at hostels and campsites, but you will also meet a wider variety of day walkers and have time to stop and chat. That is more difficult on a bicycle, yet if you spot the tell-tale Ortlieb triangles heading towards you, complete with a sun-tanned cyclist, you will always stop. Likewise, you can tell the multi-day hiker, with similar strange tan lines and weathered appearance, seemingly carrying a backpack with ease, now they have got accustom to the weight.
It is always a pleasure to team up with another adventurer. You can chat for hours, exchanging life stories and sharing tales. If your pace is similar, you might spend several days together.
Backpacking allows you to explore terrain which a bicycle will struggle with: mountains, remote beaches, moorland, and rugged coastline – all of which will take you further from civilisation and offer up opportunities for wild camping. You can wild camp on a bike, but you need to plan and study a map to search out tracks or bridleways to lead you to a remote spot. A heavy bike makes this more difficult, so I am working to lighten the load to push the bike down paths or across open countryside to find those elusive wild camping spots.
On a bike, you can take a more relaxed approach to find accommodation; cycling another 5-miles or so is no great deal, but this would dishearten a walker at the end of a long day. A bike will carry more lavish comforts: a deeper sleeping mat and larger tent, more warm clothing options and a real book to read.
So now is the time to choose. Shall I walk, or shall I ride? The decision is easy: I shall do both. Each has its merits, and what is more important is to get outside, in all conditions, and become a part of the natural landscape. Leave behind the comforts of home and immerse yourself in the rich and diverse communities and landscapes that are just a short distance from your familiar routine. Mixing it up as a backpacker and bikepacker is easy to do, and much of your equipment is interchangeable. So if you are in one tribe, try the other and see where it takes you.