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Andrew O'Neill: bikepacking is a state of mind, a cheap, punk-rock adventure

The comedian explains how with a cheap bike, some waterproof bags and a sense of adventure anyone can seek out out the wild places in-between…

comedian Andrew O'Neill

Much like the ups and downs of stand-up comedy, bikepacking has given me some of the very best experiences in my life, and some of the toughest. Sometimes on the same day. Like day five of my cycling trip around the North Coast 500 – a 520-mile coastal route around the top bit of Scotland. Hope was receding by mid-afternoon. I stupidly hadn’t eaten enough to fuel my legs for the climbs. The hills were killing me, my bike seemed to be worryingly close to breaking and the town I was pinning my hopes on was… not much of a town. Nowhere to fix my bike, nowhere even to buy a new book, just one weirdly posh chocolate-based cafe with no fucking vegan options. I was as far away from home as it’s possible to be on this island and I was done. Then I found the town’s one little shop.

Bikepacking is a new name for something people have been doing in various forms for years… For me, the real spirit of it is cheap, punk-rock adventure.

Two hours later I was sat cosily on a blustery beach, facing out to the North Sea, eating Linda McCartney sausages, red onion and beans, drinking hot chocolate laced with cheap whiskey. As dusk fell the brightest, clearest stars I’ve ever seen came out, showing the Milky Way as a slash of brightness across the dome of the sky and then… on switched the Northern Lights. My concerns receded beyond the horizon and I was utterly, deeply happy.

The only way those particular highs and lows were possible was bikepacking.

Bikepacking is a new name for something people have been doing in various forms for years. Basically it is cycling long distances and camping, with all the gear you need strapped to your bike. What gear you need and how you strap it on is up to you.

For me, the real spirit of bikepacking is cheap, punk-rock adventure. Matt Gauck, author of the amazing book Next Stop Adventure, did his first big bike trip using the heavy mountain bike he’d had since he was 14 and his little brother’s sleeping bag. He bin-dived for food. That austere method may leave you cold, wet and hungry, and it’s not strictly necessary – you can achieve a more comfortable adventure without spending lots of money. Capitalism loves to trick us into spending loads of money on our hobbies, but you don’t need expensive gear. I rode and camped along the EXTREMELY hilly South Downs Way on my old commuter bike that was Very Definitely Not Designed For Muddy Hills.

To begin with, use any old bike. I recommend obtaining a couple of decent-sized cheap dry bags from a camping shop and some bungees to affix one underneath your saddle, and one underneath your handlebars. You can then carry sleeping stuff and food, and maybe a spare battery for your phone.

To begin with, use any old bike.

That said, specially designed bikepacking gear is waterproof, robust, and fits neatly to your bike, making you less bulky and able to ride thinner trails. I generally take a sleeping bag, mat, and bivy bag (waterproof cover for my sleeping bag) under my handlebars, spare clothes and food behind my saddle and a small stove, food and tools in a triangle-shaped frame bag right in the middle. Then I put water wherever bottles will fit.

I mainly use bikepacking to explore the UK in between my stand-up comedy gigs. Round-the-world cyclist Alastair Humphreys coined the term ‘Microadventure’ for small overnight expeditions you can fit round a busy life. Over the years I’ve struck out after shows and slept in woods in the middle of Scunthorpe, on a remote hill in North Wales, next to the Thames 25 miles from Reading and in a field somewhere half an hour outside Chippenham. Often on train journeys I screenshot the map on my phone to remember a cool-looking hill or a ruined castle. My next big plan is two weeks in Transylvania.

Not everyone can ride a bike, but bikepacking is a state of mind. Do what you can. Adopt, adapt and improve.

Bikepacking has only one rule – leave no trace. Beyond that it is limited only by your ingenuity. A bike gives you range, wild camping gives you flexibility. Many people travel all the way around the world using this method. As you go about your daily life, look for the spaces in-between. Bridges, bits of woodland, meadows next to rivers. Think in terms of squatting the natural world!

Not everyone can ride a bike, but bikepacking is a state of mind. Do what you can. Adopt, adapt and improve. Find the nearest woods and sleep there overnight with mates. Camp on the beach. If I can find adventure within the town limits of Scunthorpe then you can find it near where you live. Just remember to eat enough.

Andrew O’Neill is planning a bikepacking stand-up tour of the British South Coast in July! andrewoneill.co.uk/shows for details. Alistair Humphreys website is unbeatable inspiration: www.alastairhumphreys.com

Image: Steve Brown

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