For a long time it seemed that boiled-down living couldn’t get much simpler. Anytime I wanted to travel, all I had to do was clamp those brightly coloured, slightly unwieldy, boxes onto the side of my bicycle and I was away. I bought my shiny red panniers in 2010. Today they have dust and holes and ketchup stains accumulated over 20,000miles and three different continents. Along the way they been knocked off by lampposts, thrown down on desert floors and survived spectacular crashes. They even once rolled off a cliff and got washed down a river.
But recently I discovered something new called “Bikepacking” a faster, lighter more streamlined approach to cycle touring. If you’d asked me five years ago what I enjoyed about cycling across continents, those three adjectives wouldn’t have been used. Yet in the last few years my trips have become shorter and I have wanted to ride faster. The kit I need to carry has decreased in quantity and in weight. And the clunkiness of my wide-load panniers has started to restrict me on the remoter trails I want to explore. Bikepacking it seems, might provide the answer.
This February we will be travelling to the south of Chile with our new bikepack fitted touring tandem. We kitted it out here in Santiago, Chile with custom-made Choike bags. I have written before about the joys of Tandem Living with our 1980’s two seater bicycle. And whilst I will repair and continue to use my old traditional panniers, I think the sleek bags on the vintage tandem might give our three-way relationship a whole new lease of life. Here is the thinking about the benefits as well as some of the compromises of our modern new arrangement.
This is the big benefit for me. Reducing the width of the bike improves manoeuvrability on singletrack, right through to crowded streets. Never again will I knock the panniers off the rack in a high-speed impact with a lamppost or tree. A slimmer bike also makes for a safer ride, reducing the obstacle we present to passing vehicles.
Aerodynamics are also improved. Bikepacking bags attempt to fit into the spaces where the wind has already been broken by the rider or the bike.They add little extra resistance to your ride than if you were pedalling the bike unloaded. A traditional touring bike however, blocks much more wind because of the hard edged panniers that protrude well beyond the frame.
Lighter weight but reduced capacity
Bikepacking bags try to remove the need for a pannier rack, instead directly attaching bags onto the bike frame itself thereby reducing weight. Of course though, the space inside the frame is not as big as the capacity of external mounted traditional pannier bags.
I took this photo above on the first test ride around Santiago’s streets. The capacity shown here (including the tent that will be mounted over the front wheel) is roughly the same as just two large 40litre Ortlieb panniers. I now realise that on the three week tour we are planning, we will not be able to fit all our equipment into the bags seen in the picture. Instead we are going to compromise, using a pannier rack over the rear wheel, attaching two small 20litre Ortlieb panniers. Whilst this hybrid approach will not be as light as a strict biketouring setup, it will still force us to selective about the items we take and help increase our overall speed compared to previous trips.
If you have ridden a loaded touring bike over rough terrain, or even for a long time on road you will know there often comes a time when the rattling sets in. Sometimes it’s the objects in your panniers that have worked their way loose. Sometimes it’s the bags themselves as they move around on the rack. By reducing the volume of the bags and fitting them into the shape of the frame, all your essential items are more compact. It doesn’t seem like a big gain, but nobody deserves to have that silent hour of sunset riding spoilt by erroneous noise.
Changed Centre of Gravity
A lower centre of gravity (COG) is going to help with cornering and handling. It is also going to help you balance the bike whilst stationary (especially important with a tandem!)
When changing to a biketouring setup, the COG is going to vary greatly depending on how you use the space on the bike. A large handlebar bag accompanied by a hefty saddle bag is going to raise the COG compared to a traditional touring setup. If you keep these bags small though, and maximise the space in the frame bag then you may well be able to get the COG much lower.
On our setup, we weren’t able to get full frame bags fitted because of the interference it would have caused with the drive chain. I think the COG is going to be about the same, or maybe a touch higher.
Increased accessibility, style and making a good first impression
A nice feature of our Choike bags are the full length zips. Some of the bags also have two zips on each zipper meaning we can choose the part of the bag we wish to access. Inside, the bags are compartmentalised and have pockets for electronics, documents and passports.
The bags are attached to the frame by velcro fasteners, and to be honest they seem on first impressions to be a little fiddly. Ortlieb quick release panniers are much quicker and over time I suspect this velcro might frustrate me. (Next month I’ll be feeding back with Tandem Bikepacking Verdict.)
Finally a word on style and first impressions. A bikepacking setup looks smart. The human eye is more commonly drawn to slimmer shapes and smoother lines. It’s not likely we will turn many heads as we cycle one of the most uninhabited sections of the Pacific coastline. But if we do hope to have any meaningful interactions with the native Huilliche people we will find there perhaps the subtle grey colour scheme we have opted for and our more modest amount of luggage might help smooth the way.
Call for comment
- Are you thinking about changing to a bikepacking setup? What’s holding you back?
- Already made the plunge? How’s it working out?
Next month: Tandem Bikepacking Verdict