“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”
The sheer euphoria of cruising down a road that kisses the coast and shimmering sea. Gusts of wind cooling a sweating brow. Therapeutic, rhythmic thrusts of kilojoule energy taking you to your destination combined with the satisfaction your journey has a zero CO2 cost to the environment.
This helps us understand why humans have been riding bikes for centuries. The COVID-19 pandemic stirred a world of new emotions and stalled our reality. Allowing us time to stop and realise the empty parts of our daily routines. Defunct and disconnected, I was urged to retune my internal rhythms. The free-flowing feeling found on two wheels led me to bike packing.
Have you heard of Bikepacking?
…It’s another word for cycle touring.
It takes a little kinetic imagination to envision yourself rolling into a little town for shelter and food racked on bicycle wheels and to understand why bike packing is such a rewarding adventure. Similar to backpacking, cycle touring offers the rider freedom to sketch your trip through countries and then camp in offbeat locations not easily sourced through conventional tourism.
Bicycle odysseys across entire continents or a weekend down the river gives riders a choice to camp or lodge in a hotel. There’s even an online community of long-distance cyclists, ready to house you for a night during your travels. Online there are hundreds of people, forums, pages and guided tours dedicated to bike packing.
The more I talked to cyclists I realised my trip wasn’t such an outlandish endeavour. Usually, cycle touring happens away from the average commuter’s sight. Still, you can see two wheels, panniers and a cyclist moving along the periphery if you stare absentmindedly across the fields for long enough. This style of travel happens at different velocities, and I have met families, couples and made friends along the bike paths.
One can’t go wrong on a bike. One can’t get sore
The iPhones of transport, bicycles have endured the barrage of new gadgets and over the century transformed from a private novelty reserved for the wealthy to the transport tool of the masses. When the automotive arrived in the early 1900s, cycling took a backseat until WW2 brought with it petrol rationing and then bikes returned on the scene. Renewing its role in society, people dreamed up long journeys across continents.
Bike touring started to trend in Europe and Northern America. As petrol scarcity restored bicycles in cities and towns, the global health pandemic triggered a rethinking of how we live and travel with municipalities noting lower air pollution while economies were seriously halting during lockdowns. Cities were rewritten and given makeovers to reduce the privileges of cars. Bike lanes increased, and more people sought to ride as a substitute for public transport.
A consequence of months cooped inside and a hopeful sign that, collectively, we acknowledge that nature can’t be ignored.
The UN’s comprehensive HEAT study statistically indicates we cannot justify nor sustain our use of the automotive. In Europe, passenger cars produce approximately 129.1 grams per km of CO2e* and during manufacturing, produces 4.7 tonnes of CO2e per km per automobile.
In contrast, the bicycle has zero CO2e emissions when being used and produces 0.10 tonnes of CO2e emissions in the manufacturing process. This is not startling data, nor is it a burden for the individual. After cycling for a few weeks and meeting drivers who would marry their car if given a chance, unfortunately not everyone will use bicycles. But countries treating the bicycle as a standard household item have less air pollution in concentrated living areas, better conditions for riding and a greater appreciation for long-distance cycling.
It goes deeper than emitting less CO2
I wasn’t aware of the mindfulness benefits until I completed my first bike trip. Deep breaths set a rhythm, and my mind locked into its own zone. As one who finds exercise a meditative retreat, unlike passive travel; cycle touring embeds the rider in their physical surroundings, preventing many of the distractions, setting your focus and reminding you to trust instinct. I rediscovered my gut instinct after a long trip.
The first advice I received after announcing my intention to cycle from Spain to the Netherlands was to start with short trips. Some riders have travelled for years on a bicycle; a few days will allow you to enjoy the trip and face the reality of cycling for 4-8 hours a day (some cycle for 12 hours each day!).
First days of a short bikepacking trip to France
I left late in the day, and the blistering sunburn reminiscent of childhood summers was a nice reminder of coordinating with nature. Wind, rain and cancerous UV rays are variables one must consider. After getting lost and losing my patience, I questioned if this would work for me for more than a week. I saw images that made me yelp. My wrist flinched without a camera. Dreary apartments with for sale signs, neon lights glaring onto groups of stoic old Spanish men. The pandemic was leaving its mark on my hometown, and the fragility of the economy was worrisome.
Pleasure has spates of struggle, and this is part of the process. Otherwise, we would not appreciate the fruits of our labour if everything was instantly given to us. We would only momentarily enjoy the experience rather than savouring it as we recall the journey it takes to achieve it. My skin was on fire when I finally neared my campsite. I pitched camp and cooled off on the beach while regretting the lack of sunblock on my legs.
I felt like I was travelling again. Over the last few years, I stopped travelling because I wasn’t interested in tourism. Seeing herds of people snapping through locations and stampeding through cities too quickly for a holiday stole my wonder of the world. Appearing like it was built on appearances and fast consumption of people, their lives and stories. We were ravenous and seemed dissatisfied. Bike packing took me down a different road, travelling mainly down forest paths or near the sea, usually dissecting a town from a different geographical perspective. Slumber was calling me, and I felt nourishing exhaustion as my body collapsed into my inflatable mattress.
The following day was equally testing but required less navigation, and I could focus on physically challenging myself. Flights of professional riders flew past me. Generally, they were men in groups of two to four, who wore tight spandex riding clothes that propelled them a few seconds faster. They were on a different journey, but we shared camaraderie and adoration for the bicycle. Cycling is unifying. I’ve shared many nods and smiles with other riders as we sweat to our destination.
Bikepacking is a refreshing travel experience
As everyone echoes, anyone can travel on any bike. Solitude becomes loneliness in a constantly connected world. On the other hand, travelling on a bicycle interrupts and embeds the rider into their environment and slows their consumption, deepening an appreciation for their immediate surroundings.
Considering a trip on a bike may sound daunting, day trips or a weekend close to your home will ease you into the saddle without buying an excessive amount of gear. Finishing a two week trip through Europe, discovering the French countryside and a feeling for the country – the terrain, people and culture, opened a whole new world for me. Bikepacking is a refreshing travel experience for anyone seeking thrilling and straightforward freedom.
A bikepacking packing checklist
I had not prepared as well as some suggest you should for a bikepacking trip, so I didn’t pack as many of the recommended items you’ll find on some lists. I took:
- My simple bicycle
- A bike rack filled with simple camping equipment (tent, inflatable mattress, sleeping bag).
- My phone and a GPS Map. I used Google maps, Mapsme and Komoot. People recommended Wikiloc, Strava and Locus, but they use similar data to calculate the best bike path.
- 2 litres of water
- A few clothes
And that was basically it. I had simple bike tools because this was a simple trip, close to civilisation, and I wasn’t particularly worried about bikepacking problems that may or may not happen.
Other checklists recommended by seasoned cyclists:
*CO2e – carbon dioxide equivalent measures the Global warming impact of all the greenhouse gases emitted in the use/manufacturing of cars and bikes. The CO2e was designed to include measuring the total impact of other greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere (methane, nitrogen, ozone).