Our very own Viv Tolley has just returned from his ‘epic’ bikepacking adventure from Santander to Santiago de Compestela; the latest in a long line of envy inducing trips which have taught him a lot of the do’s and don’ts of travelling by bike. Having all benefited from his knowledge ourselves we thought it was time to share the wisdom of experience with anyone else thinking of embarking on their own bikepacking journey:
My main tip when planning for a multi-day overseas trip would be to do some local practice rides with full kit to get used to bike handling etc. In our case we did a weekend trip to the coast with the full kit we expected to use for the main trip. This helped with simple things like practicing /remembering how to set up the tent for example, having all the required charging leads for devices such as lights and satnav as well as mobile phone, and in the case of my partner for the trip making the decision to switch from a bivi bag to a tent.
Viv’s three top tips:
- Do not rely on taking just one form of navigation (i.e. gpx mapping, road atlas/paper mapping or even just using route sign posts in our case the Camino de Santiago signs). This is particularly important when it comes to navigating through big towns and cities. In our case getting out of Santander, through Leon and Gijon were particularly problematic and time consuming. The big cities are not very cycle friendly so trying to follow navigation with lots of vehicles and pedestrians must not be under estimated.
- When planning the route, factor in the amount of elevation/climbing per day and the surfaces you will be riding on. In our case we knew and expected the amount of climbing from Unqerra and over the Picos de Europa but under estimated the amount of climbing on other days. Days when we were using the gravel and forest trail surfaces when directly on the Camino de Santiago meant for great riding but meant much slower and harder progress in terms of covering the distance.
- Based on points 1 and 2 be prepared to be flexible with both following the planned route and the start and finish points for each day. The trip should be enjoyed and not just endured, so do not be a slave to the miles and take time to enjoy the route, take photographs, admire the scenery etc. It is also worth noting that the type of accommodation available can play a big factor in this. Towards the end of the day particularly in more rural areas unless you have specific accommodation pre-booked then do not leave it too late in the day choosing your evenings accommodation. When you have been riding for 10 hours or so and tired, hungry and ready to just get off the bike this can become frustrating and stressful.
Is it really all about the bike?
Each trip needs to be specifically prepared for and this arguably starts with the right type of bike for the right conditions for the trip and route you have planned. In our case a gravel/adventure bike enabled us to not only fit bike packing bags, but to fit 3 water bottle cages to carry extra fluid and wider tyre clearances to use gravel tyres for use on gravel paths and forest trails. Even with 3 water bottles we both ran out of fluid by the time we reached the top of the Picos de Europa particularly as there were no stopping points to refill once we departed from Potes.
My choice of bike was the Kinesis Tripster AT with Shimano hydraulic brake groupset and Hope Tech XC wheelset and in the case of my ride partner the Genesis Croix de Fer 30. Both bikes were fully serviced before the trip by the Epic Cycles technicians and neither bike had a mechanical issue through the whole trip. The only thing we needed to do was to keep the drive chain clean and lubricate on a couple of occasions. Both bikes would be highly recommended for this type of trip.
The wider gravel tyres provide a more comfortable ride as well as being able to cope easily with the off road conditions. The choice of tyres for both of us were the Panaracer Gravel King SK which we have both used in advance of the trip for quite some time so were well proven for capability and reliability. On this trip neither of us had a single puncture or issue with the tyres and again these tyres would be highly recommended by us.
What lessons have you learnt throughout all of your bikepacking trips?
Each trip is different and each requires its own specific preparation. Do you want to be very independent and wild camp, use regular campsites, use accommodation either pre-booked or found along the route? Camping does add to the experience of independence and adventure and is much cheaper than hostels and hotels. It does however mean having to carry more kit i.e. tent, sleeping bag and mat as a bare minimum. Camping is enjoyable in dry warm weather but obviously not great in cold, wet conditions. I am definitely a fine weather camper and prepared to find the nearest hotel if the weather turns bad.
I tend to separate things to take in terms of essentials and desirables. Other than the bike the key essentials were passports, ferry tickets, insurance document, EHIC card, credit card and Euros. With money and cards you can source things along the way.
Other essential kit for me was power pack, and charging leads and adapter for phone, satnav and lights. Forgetting charging leads can be very frustrating as replacement ones and not always easy to source along the way.
Essential kit for the bike was a rear mech hanger, spare spokes for the wheels, tyre boot/patch, inner tube and patches, pump, tyre levers, chain lubricant and multitool (make sure this contains the right size allen keys etc that are necessary for your bike. Not much use having a rear mech hanger if you cannot replace it.
I have also come to think of front and rear day lights as being essential kit particularly when travelling through big cities. I also carry a bike cable lock, although with 2 of us travelling together there is minimum time when the bikes are not within our sight.
Stats from Viv’s Santander to Santiago de Compestela trip:
Total Distance in 10 days: 1171.7km Total metres climbed: 17814 metres