Most people might not have given a second thought to the small group of riders with bags strapped to their bicycles who Adam Lee passed while driving to the NSW south coast.

But their gravel bikes loaded with camping equipment were a dead giveaway; they were part of Australia’s rapidly growing bikepacking community.

Mr Lee not only knew the route these adventurers were pedalling — he created it.

Bikepacking — a twist on the perennial pastime of backpacking — is an overnight, self-sufficient adventure on a bicycle.

All necessary equipment, such as a tent, sleeping bag and cooking pots, is loaded into bags strapped to the bike.

Bikepackers love the freedom exploring on two wheels provides.(Supplied: francoues.bybike)

“You can go a lot of places you can’t go with a car,” Mr Lee said.

“It’s the freedom. It’s experiencing the environment. It’s getting healthy and spending time with friends.

“You get to push yourself and learn. Sometimes it’s a bit crap, but sometimes it’s absolutely glorious.”

François Lemancel camping beneath the Milky Way.(Supplied: francoues.bybike)

An instant addiction

Mr Lee’s first experience, 12 years ago, was a bit of both.

The group he was with in Tallaganda State Forest, east of Canberra, rode through drizzle all day and got multiple punctures.

Yet Mr Lee was instantly hooked.

Adam Lee created the Attack of the Buns route from Bungendore to Bundanoon.(Supplied: Adam Lee)

“It was something we all knew we wanted to do more of,” he said.

He has now ridden the length of New Zealand, travelled from Melbourne to Canberra and also created a 323-kilometre route through the NSW Southern Highlands that won an international bikepacking journal competition.

Mr Lee said the route had become increasingly well-worn as Australia became a global bikepacking destination.

Adam Lee says there are always new bikepacking routes being created.(Supplied: francoues.bybike)

Attracting international attention

François Lemancel hails from the town of Orbec in Normandy, where he said bike riding and competitive cycling, inspired by the Tour de France, was part of the culture.

“If you see a cyclist abroad, there is a good chance they are a German or Frenchman,” he said, adding that he was surprised by the quality of bikepacking in Australia.

François Lemancel loves the atmosphere of the Australian outback.(Supplied: francoues.bybike)

He pedalled from Melbourne to Darwin in 2023, a trip which included paddling the length of the Murray River in a $100 second-hand canoe with his bike stashed on top.

“I loved the wide, open spaces that we don’t have in Europe, the ease of camping and the atmosphere of the Australian outback,” he said.

François Lemancel says bikepacking gives adventurers time to see the landscape and meet people.(Supplied: francoues.bybike)

Flying under the radar

Australian Geographic Adventure magazine editor Justin Walker has witnessed the explosion in popularity of bikepacking but said finding statistics tracking the trend was difficult because anyone could easily set off to ride.

“It’s a quiet achiever. It’s hard to find data on bikepacking participation,” he said.

“When government authorities or whoever does all the research, they just bundle it all into cycle tourism.”

Justin Walker says the COVID bike boom rolled into bikepacking.(Supplied: Justin Walker)

The Cycling and Walking Australia and New Zealand 2023 national survey found 41.6 per cent of respondents favoured off-road cycling, which includes mountain biking, gravel riding and bikepacking.

Mr Walker said the increase in popularity for bikepacking was because of accessibility of information through online blogs and journals as well as new bike developments.

Bikepacking was not a new concept, he said, just a new name for what people had been doing for years.

“It’s something new developed from something old, but the information is now there.”

Arthur Richardson was the first person to circumnavigate Australia on a bicycle.(Supplied: State Library of WA)

The Overlanders were a group of cyclists in the 1890s who traversed Australia before motor vehicles.

They rode steel-framed bikes with more than 10 kilograms of equipment.

Modern bikepackers have aluminium or carbon-frame bikes and gear weighing less than two kilograms.

Mr Walker said the invention of gravel bikes in the 2000s unlocked bikepacking’s potential.

Gravel bikes are hybrid models with a road-bike frame but thicker, more durable tyres and a more comfortable riding posture.

Mr Walker says there is now more bikepacking-specific gear available on the market.(Supplied: francoues.bybike)

“It pushed that exploratory nature of cycling because they are more capable of going off the main sealed roads,” Mr Walker said.

“That sort of promoted dirt travel. It opened up national park fire trails.”

Now, he said all the largest global cycling companies produced several gravel bike models.

In his time as an editor, Mr Walker said it was not often that a new activity came along and shook up the adventure space.

“It’s quite rare, especially these days when everyone’s a bit jaded and we’ve seen it all, or think we have, but it’s a bit of a no-brainer — we have such a beautiful country to see.”

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