Traditional paved bike touring has had a decline in the last decade while bikepacking is still accelerating. What's causing the shift and how do we even know that this IS a trend? Here we break down some of these trends and offer a few guesses as to what might be contributing to it.
Words and photos by Josh Rizzo
When I originally got into bike travel, the only version of it that I ever thought of was bike touring. Paved rides on low traffic roads using a rack and panniers was the only concept in my mind. The bikepacking.com website didn't exist until 2012 and I'm not sure that the word was even used within cycling communities very often prior to that.
I switched my main interest from touring to bikepacking around 2018 and have since then hardly thought about bike touring at all. My monthly Adventure Cycling subscription (traditionally, their emphasis has been on bicycle touring, though they cover a lot of bikepacking as well) lapsed around that time and I soon switched to the Bikepacking Journal. Though I still use a rack and panniers occasionally for local rides around town, picnics, or commuting to a co-working space with a laptop and lunch, I haven't used them for overnight bike adventures in over 5 years.
Now before I get too far, the traditional use of the words "Bike Touring" doesn't exclude bikepacking trips. Any seasoned bike travel enthusiasts would be very quick to point out that people have been bike touring off-road LONG before "bikepacking" existed in mainstream cycling vocabulary. People have been traveling off-road on gravel, double-track, and mountain bike trails all over the world for probably as long as the bike has been around. Case in point, Adventure Cycling Association who has been the leader in bike touring coverage is the original creator of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route which is now probably the most famous route in the bikepacking community.
So it's not completely fair to put "bike touring" in a box that doesn't fit it.
But in general, "bike touring" has often referred to paved bicycle travel using traditional racks and panniers.
I got curious about the trend in bike touring vs bikepacking and here is what I found on Google Trends using filters "USA" and "Web Search":
Interest in "Bike Touring" over the last 20 years
Interest in "Panniers" over the last 20 years
Interest in "TransAmerica Trail" over the last 20 years
(TransAmerica Trail is a coast-to-coast paved bike touring route in the USA)
Interest in "Touring Bikes" over the last 20 years
Interest in "Bikepacking" over the last 20 years
*note that bikepacking.com was founded in 2012
Interest in "Bikepacking Bikes" over the last 20 years
Interest in "Frame Bags" over the last 20 years
*Side Note: So Why Does Autocorrect Still Not Recognize "Bikepacking"?
When looking at these charts, it's important to note a few things.
First, Google Trends data only goes back to 2004 and the data from the early years are almost always hard to rely on. The spikes are inconsistent and they rarely match the rest of the trend line that follows.
Second, 20 years is overly generalized. If you zoom into just the past 5 years, these lines can start to hint at telling another story or showing an increase that otherwise looked like a flat line on the 20 year chart.
Third, this is a tiny sample of query phrases and you can definitely find growing terms related to bike touring such as bike front rack.
But it's interesting to look at, no?
This brings us back to the first question, is traditional paved bicycle travel with rack and panniers (which we're generalizing with the term "bike touring") losing interest while bikepacking is steadily growing?
And if it is declining, why?
Why would interest be switching from bike touring to bikepacking?
I'm not a bike industry professional. I don't have any hard data on sales and manufacturing of different categories of bike gear. Plus I really have limited connection to the bike touring category altogether. This site is primarily focused on unpaved bike adventures. So consider this an unprofessional, outsider's guess.
But as an outsider, here are few things I think could contribute to this trend.
1. Advancements in Gear
Traditional rack and panniers usually don't work great on long, rough, unpaved trails. When I originally learned about bikepacking, it seemed laughable to try to squeeze a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, food, clothes, etc. into the comparatively tiny bags on a bikepacking rig. It's almost impossible to unpack a pannier'd bike and repack it into a set of modern bikepacking bags.
But the necessary gear as well as the bags used to carry the gear have come a long way. Now it's fairly simple to get everything you need onto a bikepacking setup because everything has gotten smaller and lighter and the bags have gotten stronger, more versatile, and include many inexpensive options.
The gear and packing systems have gotten a lot more accessible which could be opening doors for more people to embark on pannier-less off-road adventures.
2. A Minimalistic Approach
This piggy backs off the previous point. But I think people have come to want experiences where they can bring less and need less. In some cases, bikepacking can be simpler than pannier'd and paved bike touring. The bags are smaller and we've gotten accustomed to bringing fewer things and this minimalistic approach may have become more attractive.
3. It's Part of a Larger Shift from Road to Gravel
Go ahead, check out Google Trends yourself and see the growth of interest in "gravel biking" compared to declining interest in "road biking". It's pretty staggering. I knew gravel biking was growing but I didn't realize that road biking interest was declining like it is.
4. The Desire for Alternative Adventures
I am NOT saying that bike touring is not adventurous. Nor am I saying that it is less adventurous than bikepacking. But I think the allure of old forgotten fire roads and connecting minimally traveled dirt trails has given bikepacking a reputation for a new kind of adventure (not actually new. These roads and the people who ride them have been around forever, but for many of us including me, they're a new style to explore and they take us to new, alternative places).
Because bikepackers are often studying satellite images to specifically find unpaved roads, it naturally leads to exploring places that just aren't on the radar if you're traveling with panniers on a the paved grid.
5. Environmental Considerations
Bikepacking often promotes a closer connection with nature and a lower environmental impact compared to traditional bike touring. With increasing awareness of environmental issues, some cyclists may choose bikepacking as a more sustainable and eco-friendly way to explore the outdoors.
6. The rise of bikepacking communities
When I say "communities" plural, I'm almost entirely referring to the rise of bikepacking.com starting in 2012. I'm sure other readers will be quick to point out other sites like The Radavist, Bikepacking Roots, Bike Gear Database, and other Youtubers and gear review sites, but bikepacking.com tends to be the clear leader in bikepacking. They've published 400+ routes including over 100,000 miles. Stunning professional photography, gripping adventure stories, and highly detailed route guides has cultivated a global class of bike adventurers who are hungry for similar experiences.
What Happens Next for Bikepacking and Bike Touring?
To me, the most interesting graph was simply the term "bikepacking". It rapidly ascends starting around 2012 and is still on a steep upward spike.
Will the trend continue or are we nearing the peak?
Will traditional bike touring make a comeback after we've all had our fill of dirt roads and the allure of smooth sailing on rolling paved roads wins us back?
I don't know but I'm excited to find out.
One thing that will always bring both bike touring and bikepacking together is the curiosity for new places and the hunger for adventurous experiences. Wherever the trails goes next will be its own new adventure.