The Difference Between Bikepacking and Bike Touring

If you click and purchase with one of our links, we earn a commission. Thanks.

Bikepacking has, in recent years, become quite popular as a form of bike travel. Chances are you’ve heard about it and are wondering what it means exactly and how it’s different from bicycle touring. If you are looking for information concerning bicycle touring and bikepacking, you’ve come to the right place. This article will be looking at the key differences between the two and the benefits and disadvantages of each. Want to learn more? Read on.

Bikepacking is a more-minimalist, adventure-rich travel style that involves riding along well-worn paths and through secluded, less-traveled wilderness environments. The Touring idea has been around for quite some time now and is the more traditional way of traveling by bike. Fully-loaded bike touring involves or incorporates boxed-shaped panniers on the back – and sometimes front – of a bike using racking systems and involves traversing mostly-pathed roads around the world.

While bike travel is generally an excellent way to experience the world around you, there is one question that needs to be answered – what’s the best way to enjoy this experience? Bikepacking or bicycle touring?

So, how do both options compare to each other? Let’s find out.

Bikepacking: What Is It?

While there’s no exact definition for either style of bicycle travel, according to our article on bikepacking defines bikepacking as the amalgamation of minimalist camping and mountain biking. According to our site, bikepacking captures the freedom of multi-day hiking and camping and the thrill and range of riding a mountain bike. It is all about exploring less-traveled places near and far, via abandoned dirt roads, single-track trails, and gravel, carrying essential gear only. Ride, explore, eat, sleep – repeat!

To understand what bikepacking is all about, let’s delve a bit deeper. There are four main bikepacking sub-categories. They include:

  • Ultralight, Race, and Gravel
  • Multi-Day Mountain Biking
  • Multi-Day Road Biking
  • Expedition and Dirt Touring

Ultralight, Race, and Gravel

This self-supported style of riding or racing branched off from the 2,745-mile “Tour Divide” bikepacking race. Since then, a lot more races have started popping up all around America and the world. This option attracts riders who aren’t very interested in traveling, seeing the sites, and exploring but people who are more interested in reaching the finish line first. As a result, most ultralight bikepackers only bring minimal gear and sacrifice a bit on comforts.

Multi-Day Mountain Biking

This option is the core idea behind bikepacking. It involves packing bike bags on a mountain bike and traveling along trails for more than a day’s ride. Multi-day mountain biking can span anywhere from an overnight ride to something that’s a week-long – or even more if you have no specific destination. With this option, the focus is on taking the bare essentials to sustain you through the trip.

Multi-Day Road Biking

This option is quite similar to multi-day mountain biking, with the only difference being the type of bike you use. Instead of bikepacking with a mountain bike, you use a road bike. And just like multi-day mountain biking, you pack your bike bags on your road bike and head out for a bike trip that lasts several days.

Expedition and Dirt Touring

Dirt & expedition touring is a favorite amongst bikepackers, and this is where the gray line is between the bikepacking and bicycle touring worlds (It’s more – or less – an amalgamation of the two.) This form of traveling by bike focuses on riding through areas with low traffic that are mostly remote and untouched. Areas where very few people/travelers have been before. It is why this approach of bikepacking excessed the cumbersome and traditional four pannier setup that’s touring – you travel with fewer restrictions and a bit more difficulty in comparison.

Bicycle Touring: What is it?

According to Wikipedia’s definition, the term “bicycle touring” means self-contained, autonomous cycling trips for adventure and pleasure rather than exercise, sport, or commuting. Bicycle touring can range from one-day to multiple day trips, and in some instances, even years of touring with a bike.

To most people, bicycle touring is about riding a bike with a rack system affixed to the bicycle with a pannier on the rear (and front in some instances) and a bag on the handlebar. In most cases, touring bikes come loaded with everything you need to travel the world self-sufficiently.

The important thing to note about this type of riding is that it tends to involve much heavier bike setups. Most bikes intended for bicycle touring tend to be hybrids with more road-style bike parts such as beefier tires. You shouldn’t have a hard time finding all the gear you need (and more if you need – but that’s not recommended.

Bicycle touring involves riding along mostly-pathed terrain and roads. While most bikepackers feel that cycle touring isn’t as adventurous, the experience is subjective, depending on one’s interests.

Bicycle touring, just like bikepacking, has several sub-categories. They include:

  • Guided Touring
  • Self-Guided Touring
  • Self-Supported Touring

Guided Bicycle Touring

Guided touring is where you pay a bicycle touring company to ride with you and a group of other cycle touring enthusiasts on a pre-planned route. These tours often include food and support where needed. In most cases, and in pre-set intervals, a van will meet up with you to offer bike maintenance and food. This type of tour includes accommodation where tourers spend the night.

Self-Guided Bicycle Touring

Self-guided touring is similar to guided touring. The bike tour company plans the route, offers food, and caters to every other tour aspect. The only difference is that tourers navigate the set route on their own.

Self-Supported Bicycle Touring

The self-supported touring option is by far the most popular bicycle touring option amongst enthusiasts. Here, you can travel in a group or solo carrying all the gear you need on your bike. As the name suggests, you are completely on your own throughout the excursion and have to rely on your knowledge and skills to sustain your travels over many days, weeks, months, and even years.

To become a self-supported bicycle tourer, you’ll need skills to find water and food, plan your routes, and people skills for when you meet with other people along the way. This option is way less expensive than the other options considering that you aren’t paying a company to plan things for you or provide support. Furthermore, you get to go anywhere you want, which means you have the freedom to do whatever you want.

Advantages of Bikepacking

As bikepacking involves a minimalist setup, the load you carry is lighter, making it less physically demanding in challenging and mountainous environments.

As bikepacking involves carrying lighter loads and is way more aerodynamic, it is easier for you to ride much faster than if you had a fully-loaded touring bike.

Since the bikepacking setup is higher and narrower than the touring setup, your chances of striking your bags when traveling on single-track trails are minimized.

However, please note that this fact is subjective – some people argue that the only thing great about the bikepacking setup is that it just looks cooler.

If you’re new to bike travel, bikepacking is a lot easier to get started in than bike touring as it doesn’t cost as much to buy a good bike. To become a bicycle tourer, you need to buy the right touring bike if you want to go on grand adventures.

When it comes to bikepacking, all you need is a sturdy mountain bike – which you might already have. Apart from that, you will need to buy one or two bike bags for storing necessities while on the road or trails. The good thing is that most bikepacking bags or gear are easy to install and are less permanent, which means you can take them off when you aren’t bikepacking. As a newbie, you’ll be glad to know that there you can get good quality bikepacking bags for about $150. These are perfect if you are starting and are on a budget.

Disadvantages of Bikepacking

As you only can carry lesser gear than with a touring bike, you have fewer comforts to enjoy.

If you plan on carrying extra equipment such as cameras and drones for documenting your adventure, then the bikepacking option won’t work great for you considering the load-carrying restrictions.

Packing your gear is something that requires careful thought and planning. You have to think about where and how you’ll pack your stuff since you have limited storage. You must have good organization skills and come up with a packing system to ensure you get your setup just right.

Advantages of Bicycle Touring

There aren’t any major storage limitations compared to bikepacking. With this option, you can pack as much gear as you’d like, and this allows you to maintain or carry more “comforts” on extended adventures.

Packing pannier is a lot easier than packing bikepacking bags. As panniers are quite big, they make it easy to throw stuff in quickly when packing up camp.

With bicycle touring, you do not have to worry about your next resupplying location as you have enough space to pack enough food to last you ten days on the road.

Bicycle touring bikes do look cool. Most people who see a fully loaded touring bike for the first time tend to be mesmerized and often want to learn more about it. At first glance, anyone can tell that you are all about adventure and discovering new things.

Disadvantages of Bicycle Touring

One of the biggest reasons why many people don’t like bicycle touring is that they aren’t nearly as adventure-rich and fun as bikepacking. Putting up with traffic and riding on busy roads for months can be monotonous. Plus, you miss out on the adventures of exploring beautiful, remote, and often exotic locations that bikepacking has to offer.

Bike touring setups tend to be bulky, which means there’s very little you can do except stay on smooth paths/roads.

Another thing is that you can’t travel fast considering how bulky your setup is (which is a good thing if you are in no particular hurry and want to enjoy your touring experience.) If you want to ride faster, consider bikepacking.