The guilty pleasure of credit card bikepacking

I received a phone call from my youngest sister in England this January. We don’t talk all that much, especially now we live on different continents. But she was calling because she had met someone special. His name was “Pedro.” Pedro, she assured me was handsome, fast, and blue. And she wanted us to go on a bike trip, to get to know one another. The ride through Northern Blighty would take us through the Durham Dales, on a quick tour of the Lake District and then back over the Yorkshire Dales to Durham. Along for the ride would be our other sister, her husband and their respective bicycles “Gisella” and “Lionel.”

Now, I try never to say “no” to adventures. Especially not the ones that present themselves in spontaneous, breathless TransAtlantic phone calls. But I was reticent, at least at first. It was the style of the adventure that didn’t grab me.

The credit card bikepack style my sister was suggesting, takes the already SlimFast-ed bikepacking version of regular bike touring, and then further strips out sleeping kit and food – essentially leaving you with just your flexible friend, plus a sizeable bill for eats and sleeps along the way. Credit card bikepacking seemed too easy. Too Frivolous. Too restrictive.

And I quickly set about trying to set my sister straight:

 – Won’t we miss the camping? –

Moody riding in the Lake District, Northern England

On previous bike trips I’ve slept rough in cow fields, wild camped in bear country and weathered mountain nights from Banff, Alberta to Bariloche, Argentina. Riding with everything  on your bike so you can hit the hay, in well, any hay field you like, certainly has the hallmarks of footloose freedom.  Wild (even sometimes illegal) camping smacks of everything that is anti-establishment and backwards and beautiful about bike riding. But now with the contactless wave of Capitalism’s most potent symbol of power – the credit card – I was being asked to say goodbye to all of that. Replacing it instead with clean sheets, a warm bed and good night’s sleep…Hmm.

This trip was planned for March. It would be cold if we camped. Maybe snowy even. On winter nights, my sister reminded me, in the north of England, the sun sets at teatime. A regular bike camping trip would certainly involve a lot of time spent brewing up and pitching tents in the dark. Stumbling around farm fields and dark woods wouldn’t exactly be conducive to a family reunion either. We eventually settled on booking a few cosy farmhouses through Airbnb. There were no unwelcome interruptions by cows, or bears. And there was a supply of tea bags waiting for us each night by the stove.

 – Will we be rushing to reach pre-planned accommodation? –

Seeking midday shelter from a storm in Yorkshire, Northern England

After agreeing to reach a fixed destination every night, my second concern was we’d be rushing during the day. Rushing is to bike journeys what line dancing is to RnB music. You just don’t do it. Choosing to go by bike is to give a middle fingered salute to the haste and mindless of automobile miles. It is to wrestle back the present moment. To inhabit it. To be ready for each new thought or sensation as it comes zipping up fresh from the asphalt. How, I asked, could I compromise on that?

But as my sister pointed out, finding a wild campsite isn’t always sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes I’ve pushed on well after dark, missing out on landscapes and cycling past perfectly good motels – all so I can crawl into my tent for free on the next miserable scrap of scrubland or roadside. That’s not fun, and definitely not with your family.  And so I relented a little. On our credit card bikepacking trip I found that climbs are more enjoyable when your bags are lighter (Duhh.) And, as it turned out – whenever we did have to cycle one more pass than we would have liked to reach our homestay – we always had a laugh whilst pedalling it out.

– Won’t the gas station food we eat be terrible? –

A well fed team

I draw the line on crap food on bike trips. I’m not talking gourmet stuff. Just wholesome, fill your belly, real-ingredient goodness. Since making the switch to bikepacking, I can’t always fit those bottles of olive oil and chili sauce in my framebag anymore. But I still make space for a compact stove, vegetables and rice. By going lighter still, I was worried we would now be missing meals or eating junk.

Memory though is a slippery friend. On this credit card bikepack through the Yorkshire Dales we stopped one afternoon at the Fish ‘n’ Chips shop in Hawes. And whilst I am not advocating deep fried potato and cod as a healthy meal, it certainly fires the engines. Far more so than if I had had my way and we’d eaten a flapjack and an apple on the sidewalk. For every memory on previous bike trips where I had eaten well, there was a good few I’d suppressed. Reluctance to pay for a proper meals meant I’d bonked and suffered for the rest of the day. Dropping a few filling restaurant meals on the credit card this March suddenly didn’t seem such a big deal.

 – Okay, but surely it will be really expensive? –

Waiting out another storm in a cattle shed with the very psyched (slightly odd) team

There are a lot of experiences I would have missed over the years on bike trips if I’d had more money. Um hum, you read that right. Waking up not knowing where you will next lay your head or cook your next meal has a certain romance to it. It makes you more likely to interact with strangers, more curious, more vulnerable even. And these are experiences I have courted over the years.

But maybe as I get established in my fourth decade I’m getting soft. I’m certainly not any richer than ten years ago. But the $25 we each paid per night for accommodation on our credit card bikepack meant we could ride more, pedal lighter, talk late into the evening and sleep deeply each winter night. So I don’t think I’ll be throwing out my tent just yet. And if splashing a bit of cash here and there brings me closer to the people I love (and their bicycles), then I’m all for it.

My Credit Card Bike Pack Setup – including tools, spare clothes, warm jacket and camera gear. (His name is Claude)

Call for comment

  • Have you been on a super light-weight “credit card” bikepacking trip?
  • Has biking every brought you closer to members of your family?
  • Got any silly names for your own bikes?
  • Even ridden a bike in the UK?

Matt Maynard is a British cyclist, writer and environmentalist. He is based in Santiago, Chile. Find more of his adventures on Twitter, Facebook and at his website

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