Bikepacking – cycle touring’s minimalist, off-road, edgy cousin – is as close to ultimate freedom as you can get when travelling. With the right kit you can pedal, self-supported, across the Himalayas, the Kazakh Steppe or the windy plains of Patagonia for as long as your legs can carry you.

Forget photos of steel-framed touring bicycles laden with panniers winding down European cycle lanes. These days, cycling Instagram is all about stripped-back luggage set-ups and impossible mountain passes – a chance to see the world while weighed down with little more than a bivvy bag and a change of clothes.

Bikepacking is all about getting off the beaten track and onto the technical, gravel one, which means being relatively self-sufficient. A standard luggage set-up usually comprises at least three packs: a saddle pack that sits behind the seat like a tail (and is a great place to store a roll mat); a frame pack – half or full-sized – that hangs from the top tube of your bicycle and is great for clothes, tools, food and cooking gear; and a handlebar pack to fix to the handlebars – usually the best place to keep a tent.

There are almost infinite variations on this – cages, cable ties and straps for guerilla bikers or a pair of traditional panniers if you need more room for food and water – but even the basics will take you far.

For kit, think small, light and durable: a chunky sleeping bag, dome tent and portable barbecue won’t get you far or even fit on the frame. Luckily, a lot of ski-touring and backpacking kits fit the bill: so compressible down-filled sleeping bags, simple gas-canister stoves and as few T-shirts as possible.

When it comes to the right bicycle, lighter isn’t always better: a carbon frame could cause disaster if it breaks in the middle of Tajikistan. Unless you are planning to take part in any transcontinental races soon, it’s best to go for a tried and tested expedition bike and then save weight with your kit: the Surly long haul trucker is a classic choice, as is the Kona sutra or the Thorn nomad.

Ultimately, the freedom of bikepacking is that your set-up can be as flexible as the route you choose: so whether you plan to live off cold food and sleep in a bivvy bag, or you fancy an air mattress and a four-course dinner at the end of the day, here is the best gear to get you started.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.

Apidura expedition series packs: from £88, Apidura

From the peaks of the Pamir mountains to the grinding grandeur of the Tour Divide, Apidura’s smart, durable bags can be spotted on the bikes of some of the very best endurance bikepackers around. And with good reason: we tested a full set-up – handlebar pack, large frame pack, saddle pack and a top tube pack – on and off road, and as well as being blown away by how light they were – 365g for a generous full-frame pack – we were amazed by how stable everything felt on the bike when fully loaded.

The saddle pack in particular, which we used to pack our roll mat, pillow and assorted tools, stayed firmly in place even when bumped around some knotty trails. Apidura makes lighter bags for racing, but the Expedition bags have the benefit of being waterproof (real peace of mind if you’re using a down sleeping bag). Our reviewer once cycled around the world with 50kg of luggage (including a spice rack) and was convinced she couldn’t be persuaded to love a bikepacking set-up: Apidura changed her mind.

Buy now

Alpkit pipedream 400: £215, Alpkit

Explorers’ favourite Alpkit were early backers of the bikepacking movement, and a lot of their clever microadventure kit transfers well to the sport. This miraculous little sleeping bag is a good example: it packs down to about the size of a fat water bottle, weighs a mere 865g, and is rated for comfort down to -6C; our reviewer spent a comfortable night in the bag at around zero degrees, and you could easily extend the limit by using a sleeping bag liner. A perfect fit for a saddle pack, or to snuggle inside a small pannier.

Buy now

Thermarest neoair xlite: £139.99, Ultralight Outdoor Gear

The original and still, in our tests, best: the Neoair Xlite air mattress – all 230g of it – is a perfect choice for bikepacking. Because it has no stuffing, it rolls down to pocket size, and only really takes a good 20 breaths to fully inflate. Lined with Thermarest’s famous heat-trapping lining, which reflects your body heat back at you, sleeping on the Neoair feels luxuriously like sleeping on an electric blanket: the women’s model has a slightly higher warmth rating for slightly more weight. There are some downsides: the notorious rustling noise it makes when you roll around, the fact that a puncture means game over (unless you can be bothered to dig out the puncture repair kit, included, in the middle of the night), but overall the much-loved Neoair makes few sacrifices for huge gains.

Buy now

MSR hubba tour 1 tent: £429, Ultralight Outdoor Gear

At just over 2kg, the Hubba Tour is a heavy tent for bikepacking. But there’s no denying that this tent, which was specifically designed for cycle touring, has some of the smartest features for bikepacking. Effectively a small sleeping compartment with a massive porch, you can roll your bicycle inside the Hubba Tour and zip it safely inside: offering serious security if you’re riding an expensive bike and wild camping. With vents galore and mesh doors it’s good in hot and cold weather –we’ve road-tested ours in the -20C Kazakhstan winter and +40C Thai summers. It’s best to share the weight with this tent: tightly rolled, the outer tent will sit nicely on the handlebars in a handlebar pack; meanwhile the poles and pegs can tuck into the saddle pack or frame pack.

Buy now

Sea to Summit x-set 31: £61.96, Outdoor GB

This brilliant cook set from Sea to Summit includes a collapsible bowl, a collapsible cup and – best of all -–a collapsible 2.8l pot, for cooking the vast amount of spaghetti you’ll want to eat after cycling to the top of a mountain. Made out of food-grade, heat-resistant silicone, everything in the set concertinas down to a disc just a couple of centimetres in height, and nestles inside each other. Remarkably, this means that you can carry around an entire cooking set that takes up about the same space as a thick dinner plate: perfect for dropping into a large frame bag.

Buy now

Jetboil minimo personal cooking system: £114.61, Outdoor GB

The stove of choice for racers or solo bikepackers, the Jetboil Minimo is a gas canister stove with an integrated, one litre mug-sized pot on top. That means you can cook for one person extremely quickly – water boils in about four and a half minutes – for very little weight – just under 400g – and with very little space sacrificed: packed, the stove measures just under 13cm x 15cm. This is not a luxury option by any means – really it is only properly suited to cooking ramen noodles, pasta for one, or a quick cuppa – but it does have some clever and unexpected frills, like the integrated measuring cup/bowl.

Buy now

Voile strap: £8, Charlie the Bikemonger

Sometimes it’s the smallest things that end up proving to be the most indispensable: this is exactly the case with Voile Straps, which were originally sold to bind skis together and have been wholeheartedly adopted by the bikepacking community for fastening just about anything onto your bicycle. Basically indestructible, these little cinchable straps make it possible to carry anything you can’t fit elsewhere or want quick access to – think spare inner tubes, a pump, or even an extra water bottle.

Buy now

Snugpak bivvi bag: £74.55, Snugpak

For the ultimate in lightweight travel, take a bivvy bag bikepacking instead of a tent. A bivvy is basically a waterproof bag that you sleep in (along with your sleeping bag), and Snugpak – who know how to make a kit that will survive English weather – have dialled in the design at a brilliant 300g (compare that to around 2kg for a tent). Totally waterproof, and fairly breathable, the bag packs down to small pocket-size. Any luxury here will come from the rest of your kit – your mattress or sleeping bag, for example – and don’t forget to pack a buff or an eye-mask if you want to lie in after the sun comes up.

Buy now

The verdict: Bikepacking kit

The fact that Apidura has managed to craft reasonably priced, super durable bags that are as suited to racing as round-the-world pottering – and that they converted our die-hard cycle touring reviewer to a minimalist set up – makes them our best buy. Sea to Summit’s collapsible cooking pot is still one of the most innovative bits of camping tech we’ve seen in years.

IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.