Spring: High Time for Bikepacking

For a Californian who isn’t used to experiencing real seasons, spring in the UK is a wonderful time. Six long months of dull, overcast skies and seemingly lifeless trees and bare muddy ground- in the space of two weeks- yield to a sudden explosion of green lush fecundity- this year fueled by the warm and wet weather. Perhaps a result of climate change, it is nevertheless quite welcome after the bone chill of winter. Summer is right around the corner and the time is right for planning adventures and holidays. What’s that you say? Short of cash and concerned about the impact of your getaways on the environment? Don’t just sit home and mope- the time is ripe for bikepacking.

Bikepacking is a term coined by one of my heroes, Ken Kifer, a prolific writer and bikepacker based in Alabama. It’s a kind of a hybrid between backpacking and cycling, a particular breed of cycle touring where the rider is self sufficient, and independent of RV (caravan) parks, motels, and campgrounds. Find a field, or a spot in a forest, pitch your tent, prepare your evening meal, and enjoy. Of course, bikepacking requires a basic set of equipment, but once you have it, you are ready to go! There’s something so rewarding about cycling along the open road with everything you need, able to stop when you get tired, go to sleep when the sun sets, and rise when it does- as Sustrans says- bypass the bypass!

Last Friday, having finally submitted my dissertation, I needed to get out of the city, get some exercise and fresh air, and get back on my bike. I also wanted to see friends back in Bristol, so I decided to ride along the Kennet and Avon canal between Reading and Bristol, about 110 miles pedaled over three days, following this beautiful waterway through town centres, rural farming communities, tree lined banks with swans swimming gracefully, and the colorful narrowboats that are so quintessentially English. I camped in fields and forests, picnicked on benches along the way, drank pints of local ale in sunny pub gardens fronting the water, and followed the entire length of the canal, even when the official cycle route 4 diverted onto roads. I wasn’t going to be put off by directional signs based more on deals made with British Waterways, than on the actual suitability of the route. From my years working at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, I can smell political compromise a mile away. The anglers and walkers didn’t seem to mind me cycling, though, as long as I was polite and used my bell.

The canal is a rare find, a state of mind far from the motorway grind and laughing in the face of the speed imperative of industrial society. Ironic then, that the canal network was the first transport system of the industrial revolution, built in the 1810’s to transport coal and other goods. On the canal, you can go as fast or as slow as you want- you can stop when you like, and if you have a houseboat or an equipped bikepack, your house is always with you. The towpaths make this kind of travel accessible to practically everyone- the ultimate way out of the city into the countryside. On the level, the bicycle- pure of heart and healthy for the lungs- reigns supreme.

The ultimate populist travel mode, independent of petrol prices and road congestion- no wonder Sustrans has had notable successes in their project of building a national cycle network- it’s the dream and the growing desire for continuous, safe, and enjoyable routes for human beings- what could be a more basic need, and yet one that has been sadly neglected by our growing addiction to cars.

The Kennet and Avon, though well surfaced in many sections, in parts is muddy, rocky, and difficult (though not impossible) to pedal. For the cost of a few metres of motorway, the whole 120 miles of canal between London and Bristol could be surfaced with all weather crushed stone, easy and pleasant for even your grandmother to pedal. Put in a campground every twenty miles with basic facilities of water and pit toilets, and suddenly you have a carbon neutral, healthy, and equitable means for urbanites to holiday away from the pollution and danger, and experience a bit of nature, a connection that has been denied to so many these days.

Though Ken Kifer was tragically killed by a drunk driver in a pickup in Alabama several years back, his website is still active and is, though cheesy at times, is a great resource for bikepackers. His murder by petrol and cheap beer should not depress us but inspire the spread of bikepacking to the masses, and make it one element of our transport related carbon reduction policies. It’s great that Sustrans is focusing on urban cycling routes, but they should not neglect the potential of a true national cycle network, following canals, and active and abandoned railways, to connect cities and towns throughout the UK, a quality network that is safe for young children and old people, a role that on-road routes will never fill, as long as there is the threat of Jeremy Clarkson rounding the bend at 80mph. We need to finish what we started and remember the original vision of CYCLEBAG- a continuous off road pathway network. Cycling is worth it!

At a time when most of the alternative methods of holidaying involve further damage to our climate, the time is ripe for packing up the saddlebags, calling in sick to your desk job, and pedaling into a better future where transport adds to community and quality of life, not detracts from it.

9 responses to “Spring: High Time for Bikepacking

  1. If its dry enough, the ridgeway from Avebury to Goring on the Thames is a better experience. A muddy track that predates the romans, going through the developed regions of the south east west of heathrow, yet never tarmaced over. wonderful -when dry

  2. Inspired piece of writing, sir.

    You are so right. Most of western “society” has long lost the ability to enjoy life outdoors. It only sees the world through a glass screen whilst sitting in “air-conditioned luxury” – aka “yesterday’s recycled farts”. Many only experience the outdoors as “that uncomfortable bit with no ceiling between a building and a car” to be avoided at all costs.

    Good luck with your dissertation, by the way!

  3. Interesting you mention that the “rider is self sufficient, and independent of RV (caravan) parks, motels, and campgrounds.” I have used caravan parks and pubs when cycle touring (I am in Australia). I haven’t had an issue with them. They provided the facilities that I needed at the time and were the most conveniant.
    Do cycling organisations offer cycling tours in the UK as they do here in Australia? I have not long come back from a tour of NSW organised by Bicycle Victoria and Bicycle NSW that covered 750 km. They organised camping grounds and facilities, the participants just rode.

  4. onthelevelblog

    I’ve always had an issue with so called “supported rides.” It’s as if the meek cyclist is incapable of taking care of him or herself- so they need to pay a van full of people to watch over them, feed them, tell them the right way to go, and provide accommodation. This whole arrangement is a boon to tour providers which thrive on cyclist’s feelings of vulnerability, and ultimately fear of being stuck out on the road alone. Funnily enough, on my own self-supported rides it’s this vulnerability- putting yourself out there and trusting that things will go alright- that has led to the most serendipitous and incredible events.

    I was riding across British Columbia with my friend Melanie once when it started to rain, and I got a flat tire that I just couldn’t fix. We pulled into a petrol station, struggling with the tire- a native Canadian man came up and started chatting with us, eventually inviting us back to his village, where, bedecked by feathers and grizzly claws, the local tribe held a traditional dance, with us as the honored guests. That would never have happened on a supported ride unless it was pre-planned, sterilised, and agendized.

    When you’re riding on your own, people see you and seem to instantly understand that you cannot just drive to the nearest motel 6- or be picked up by your gas-guzzling van- more often than not they invite you to pitch your tent in their garden, or even sleep on their sofa. This is not just my experience- ask anyone who has bikepacked and they will tell you the same thing.

    When you get over your fear of independent travel, it’s possible to understand the local countryside better by meeting- almost becoming- a local. This is the true meaning of relocalization. Not just driving or flying in for the day or the week, but through slow travel, actually beginning to identify with the perspective of those who live in a place.

    Granted some people need the physical help to carry their gear, but why not hire a strong young bicycle sherpa towing a trailer instead of a bunch of post adolescent Abercrombie guys driving a van with the latest shades trying to look cool?

    As far as campgrounds go, I think Ken Kifer said it best:

    “campgrounds often offer little privacy and quiet. Unlike a motorist, the cyclist lacks all the extras to ensure privacy, is physically tired, and just wants a quiet night’s rest. A cyclist does not travel with a mob of screaming kids, a pack of dogs, a noisy radio, a color TV, a supply of charcoal or firewood, great slabs of meat, a cooler full of beer, a standing tent with auxiliary sleeping tent and connecting canopy, a full set of cookware, a gas stove, one or more gasoline or electric floodlamps, a bug zapper, fogs of chemical spray, a motorhome, a boat, a spare car, or an extra trailer. Nor is a bicycle camper thrilled with acre after acre of parking lots with mandatory gravel “pads” for the tent, open and smelly trash cans, a scarcity of scrawny trees, cigarette butts and beer tops littering the ground, and the obviously mandatory mowed grass. Frankly, sleeping in the backyard at home is a lot more of an adventure, and a lot quieter.”

  5. Thanks for the reply. Being new to cycle touring I found the supported ride I went on a good opportunity to learn from the WARBYs (We Are Right Behind You) volunteers who are a group other cyclists who had done a lot of independent touring more about bike maintence and cycle touring than I learned from either books or websites. The WARBY’s provided instruction on on the spot repairs and maintence issues. I was considering buying a brand new touring bike at one stage because of the hills I have encountered in the areas I ride in. After speaking to one of the WARBY’s I found that even with my Trek 730 hybrid I could conquer hills if I changed the cogs on the cassette to a 34 or 38 tooth cog
    Having attempted one unsupported ride prior to the supported ride I wouldn’t have considered attempting another cycling tour if I hadn’t had the opportunity experiance cycle touring with other people who knew more than I knew about touring.
    My issue with wild camping – camping in areas other than camping grounds may be a result of my location (Australia). I would be concerned about wild camping in the bush and especially in some of our national parks and world heritage areas because of the amount of damage that can be done when camping in those areas. If travelling through those areas I would use the designated camping grounds to minimise any damage I would do to the area. These camping grounds have toilets and other facilities that are needed.
    On my attempt at unsupported touring I found that while staying in the local pub in a small town, I was able to meet most of the locals and learned a lot about the surrounding area and met some of the most interesting people I have ever met. While the trip was not successful because of my lack of fitness at the time and lack of knowlledge on bicycle repair issues. I would not hesitate to use the pub again.

  6. Awwww! My little Joshy has grown up!! Happy Mother’s day from your yankie friend in SF!!!
    Call your mum, and good luck with the dissertation thingy! I’m in culinary school 🙂

  7. Nothing new about bikepacking, except perhaps the name. When I did most of mine in the 80s we just called it cycle touring with wild camping. But I agree about the serendipity bit. Once you escape from the planned and programmed, almost anything can happen, both good and bad. You certainly know your alive when you’re camping wild.

    I also agree that the current National Cycle Network leaves much to be desired. The original idea was that roads would only be used where traffic levels and speeds were such that a 12 year old could cycle in safety without adult supervision. However that appears to have been dropped for the sake of expediency, to achieve notional mileage figures to gain Lottery funding.

  8. what a long way away you are. coveting my houseboats and having affairs with my countryside…
    keep blogging please 🙂

  9. Pingback: The Problem with Sustrans: How a Grassroots Phenomenon Has Turned Into a Private Unaccountable Corporation « On the Level: Car Free Blog

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