On turning a road bike into a tourer: the magic of bikepacking gear

This is a companion post to my video of my mini-tour of the Morecambe Bay Cycleway, which I cycled over a weekend in August 2020. Given that bikepacking is a comparatively new form of cycle touring (or rather, carrying gear on your bike), I thought I’d quickly run through the set-up I took on this two-day, 130-mile ride from Walney in Cumbria back home to Manchester. So we’ll look at the bike, the luggage and few pointers on what to take.

The bike

Svartálfur, my steel road bike, kitted out as a light tourer with bikepacking luggage.

Advance research on the Bay Cycleway told me that “[a]lmost all the route is paved” with a “lack of hills”, so I eschewed the standard, stately tourer for my wet-weather/winter/bikepacking roadie: a steel-framed and -forked Genesis Equilibrium I affectionately refer to as Svartálfur (the Black Elf). My first custom self-build, the bike started as a Reynolds 631 frame, to which I added a Shimano 105 triple chainset (50/39/30) with a 12-32 cassette (i.e. good climbing gears); for the wheels I went for Halo Aerotrack rims on Shimano RS505 CX hubs with Schwalbe Durano Plus 25mm tyres; Avid BB7 disc brakes; SKS Bluemel mudguards; and a Brooks Cambuim C15 saddle – for those who like that level of detail.

For those who don’t, it’s a sturdy, comfy road bike that’s well-suited to bikepacking-style light touring.

What is bikepacking?

When I say bikepacking here, I don’t mean cycling off-road and unsupported across the Great Divide or equally remote wilderness with everything I need for my very survival hanging off my bike. Instead, we’re talking about a new generation of cycling luggage that straps directly to the various parts of the frame etc., meaning essentially any bicycle can be used as a tourer – even if there’s no way of fitting a conventional rack, as in Svartálfur’s case. So here’s a brief run-down of how I kitted out a rackless road bike to carry luggage on this little trip.

The rear end

Restrap holster and dry bag: this arrangement entails a “holster” that is held in place by straps over the saddle rails and around the seat post and that houses a 14-litre dry bag. I mainly use this to hold the stuff I only need at my destination: off-bike change of clothes (trousers, smalls, t-shirt, top) as well as toiletries, chargers and fresh cycling gear for day 2. There’s a bit of an art to packing the dry bag: the more compact, the less it moves as you’re pedalling.

A sight typical of a bikepacking rig: an extended seat bag protruding from under the saddle. Incidentally known colloquially in German as an “Arschrakete” (arse rocket)!

A little tip: try and use smaller dry bags to keep the different categories of stuff separate. Rolling clothes is much more space-efficient than folding them – e.g. lay all your off-bike clothes on top of one another:

Then simply roll them up tightly and insert the resulting roll into a dry bag of a suitable diameter:

Squeeze all the air out and roll the top of the dry bag tightly closed. Then take your various dry bags and pack them tightly into the larger one. It’s an easy and effective way of keeping a little order when you have limited luggage space. (By the way, for cost-effective cycling luggage, dry bags etc. you can do worse than Glasgow-based company Lomo.)

Individual dry bags ready to go in the Restrap bag.

Frame luggage

Moving to the luggage attached to the frame itself, we have the Deuter frame bag and an Alpkit top-tube bag that go at the front of the frame.

Frame bag and top-tube bag for spares and essentials respectively.

When doing shorter day rides, I usually take a small bag that sits under the saddle and contains tools and spares should the puncture fairy or mechanical gremlin visit during a ride. With that prime real estate occupied by the Restrap saddle bag in this setup, I transplant my multi-tool, spare tubes, emergency trail food etc. to this trusty Deuter frame bag that sits out of the way in the angle between the top and down tubes, still leaving room for a 500 ml bidon to go in the downtube bottle cage.

On top of that there sits an Alpkit top-tube bag where I keep phone, wallet, keys – stuff I need to have close to hand.

Lock

There are arguments for and against taking a lock on a bike tour. On the one hand, crime levels in the towns and villages you typically visit are pretty low, plus most accommodation places will provide safe overnight bike storage. On the other, travelling alone, I wasn’t sure if there’d be any moments when I may have to leave the bike unattended outside a shop or what not, so I took along my Abus Bordo lock just in case. Sitting snugly and unobtrusively on the seat tube, it’s handy to have just in case.

This handy Abus Bordo lock sits out of the way on the seat tube.

The cockpit:

The nerve centre of the bicycle, housing the two key gadgets I take touring: my GPS device for navigating and tracking distances and my video camera for recording memorable moments along the way. With space at a premium thanks to various luggage straps entwined around the handlebars, I made use of this ingenious handlebar extender to mount my gizmos, which I’m sure you’ll agree is a pretty neat solution.

Cockpit: navigation and cinematic equipment on a cool little handlebar extender.

In terms of the electronics themselves, I recently took the plunge on a Hammerhead Karoo cycling GPS unit – a Kickstarter project which, after a bumpy start, is now giving the established brands a real run for their money. Hugely customisable and with a vast array of displayable data, an outstanding battery life and extensive mapping features, it really does the business. OK, so it doesn’t beep, but if you pop the “distance to next turn” field on your display, you know exactly when you need to look down in anticipation of your next manoeuvre.

The camera I’ve used for years is the original Garmin Virb – long discontinued but I love how easy it is to detach from its cradle and point at interesting stuff as you go. If you’ve not already, you can have a look at the videos I’ve made with it on my YouTube channel.

The final cockpit item is the Alpkit stem cell – a hugely useful bag that, as the name suggests, straps to the stem and handlebars and can be used for stuff you want to access quickly: jelly sweets, cans or bottles you may procure along the way, other random snacks – and indeed in today’s day and age, face mask and hand sanitiser.

Stem cell: useful receptacle for random gubbins.

The front end:

Purchased for a tenner during a recent Lidl cycling promotion, I’ve become a real convert to the handlebar roll and dry bag – chiefly as this means I have an option for a pair of off-bike shoes, which fit perfectly in the space between the bars. As we also see on the right of the photo, this is also a perfect space for stowing the all-important paper map, which I always prefer to have as a backup/supplement to the sundry electronic options discussed elsewhere.

Handlebar roll and dry bag: first proper outing for what is now an essential piece of kit.

In sum

Whilst I still prefer the traditional rack-and-pannier arrangement for longer, more ambitious tours, this is an ideal, and indeed lighter and faster, setup for shorter trips of a night or two. The beauty of bikepacking gear is that any pretty much bike can be configured for the specific tour you’re doing. With an increasing choice of e.g. compact and lightweight camping equipment, the scope of the type of trip you can undertake without a conventional touring bike is truly vast. And with bikepacking gear available for all budgets – e.g. Ortlieb for higher-end stuff, our old friends Alpkit who offer high-quality options in the mid-price range, or somewhere like Planet X whose offering is geared to pretty much any pocket – there’s an excellent choice of stuff out there. So what are you waiting for?!

Oh, and if you missed the link above, this is the video of the trip.

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