Bikepacking 1973

Bikepacking in modern day cycling is a buzzword and has spawned a host of brands and products dedicated to fulfilling it’s needs. Bikes themselves have developed to cater for this current trend, taking advantage of the normality of disc brakes, to run fatter tyres so they can travel further off the beaten path.

As with most trends it’s easy to think this is a modern invention but, as this 1973 National Geographic confirms, it is anything but. Based around the theme “Bicycles are back – and booming”, the article “Bikepacking Across Alaska and Canada” covers the 3,103 mile first leg of the 20,000 mile Hemistour, ridden on 10 speed racers with handbuilt 650A wheels and customised Campagnolo long cage derailleurs.

Modern bikepacking has more in common with lightweight touring in so much as it encourages a minimalism of kit, whereas the riders in the 1973 Hemistour were laden by some 50 pounds worth of gear. However what both have in common is the key principles of bikepacking; exploration and adventure.

The Hemistour certainly provided that. Travelling from Anchorage in Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, it began in 1966 by Dan Burden as a way of promoting hosteling and bicycling and he along with his wife Lys and friends Greg and June Siple were the core group. The route was designed to keep away from major roads which meant that services and supplies would be few and far between and the group mainly camped just off the road.

Twenty nine other cyclists joined the Burdens and Siples for part of the trip which was split into three legs; Anchorage to Missoula, Montana; the second onto Oaxaca in Mexico; and the third to Ushuaia in Argentina, but it was only the Siples who completed the whole journey.

On the first leg of the Hemistour, the four dodged rocks, battled over wilderness gravel roads, strained over steep mountain passes and slide over muddy half completed highways. Easier and more direct passages exist along the backbone of the two continents but they aren’t seeking speed records. If they are trailblazing it is only in demonstrating the bicycle’s use as an enjoyable means of transportation, simple and inexpensive. With camping equipment and food in their bags, they were completely self-sufficient, with rain suits and down jackets (no super lightweight Gore-tex jackets here) letting them wheel along in a wide range of climatic conditions, but best of all is the gaining of intimate knowledge of the countryside and proving that long range cycling is more than a vainglorious exhibition by the athletic elite. Welcome back bikepacking.

Writer and expert