With over 40,000 kilometres clocked on the pedals, Explorer Tom Connell knows a thing or two about bikepacking. He shares his tips, essential gear, and some of the best bikepacking trips he’s encountered.
JT: What’s the make and model of your bike?
TC: Surly ECR XL, Tank Green
What drew you to the Surly ECR?
After putting over 40,000 kilometres on my last touring bike, the Vivente World Randonneur, I started dreaming of something more at home on the dirt, a true ‘go anywhere’ bike. This time around I wanted a bike with wide tyres that would allow me to run low pressures, for when a trail becomes really loose or sandy, a long wheelbase, and fairly upright riding position. These factors would create a bike designed to go all day, day after day.
Surly is renowned for their bomb-proof bikes and their various models were by far the most common adventure bikes I encountered when cycling from Patagonia to Alaska. I went for the ECR model due to its ability to run up to 29 x 3.0” tyres while still being able to slap on more standard MTB tyres in a pinch (unlike dedicated fat bikes).
What modifications did you make to the bike?
This is a bit of a ‘dream bike’ for me and the build varies quite a lot from Surly’s stock configuration.
Once the frame landed in Australia, its first stop was Killenbike in Newtown for frame modifications to allow me to run a carbon belt drive. Since the belt can’t be broken like a standard chain, the frame itself has to come apart. These belts are super long lasting (up to 30,000km!), don’t need lubrication, are very quiet and are unaffected by mud.
Both wheels were hand-built by Omafiets in Sydney. The rear wheel has a 14-speed internally geared Rohloff hub and the front wheel has a SON dynamo hub. The dynamo powers both the front/rear lights and a USB port for charging electronics while I’m riding.
My handlebars are Velo Orange ‘Crazy Bars’, which came off my old bike, along with the front and rear racks (Surly and Tubus, respectively).
How do you carry around all of your gear?
Although they’re seen as a bit uncool by the bikepacking crowd, I really like panniers. They’re robust, waterproof, easy to put on/off and hold heaps of stuff (which can be a double-edged sword!).
For this bike, I’m running a hybrid scheme with panniers/duffel upfront and a variety of more typical bikepacking bags attached to the frame.
Wanting to keep things local, I had Bike Bag Dude make both the frame and top tube bags, while Hungry made the handlebar pouches. The colourway for these bags was based on the Gouldian Finch, an endangered bird native to Australia.
The configuration my bags are always in flux, with the length and remoteness of the ride dictating the setup.
Do you have any packing tips?
Expandable storage solutions can be very handy for managing food and water, which are likely to fluctuate through a trip more than the rest of your gear. A stuffable backpack is invaluable for grabbing bulky food items in the afternoon before making a camp.
Similarly, some Voile straps or webbing will let you strap extra items to your bike for stretches where you need to carry just that little bit extra.
Not everything needs to fit in your bags, and can easily be tied on and carried on the outside. Hats, jackets, camera tripod, buff/gloves, sandals, maps, snacks are all items I often carry strapped somewhere in the cockpit for quick access.
What got you started down the path of bike touring and bikepacking?
Bike touring is a relatively accessible form of getting outdoors and so I think travelling by bike is something that is quite easy to stumble into.
My first taste was in 2013 when I hired an old clunker bicycle in Cambodia and pedalled around the temples of Angkor Wat for a few days. I was immediately struck by how immersive this style of travel could be and promptly bought a touring bike on my return to Australia!
Since then, I’ve toured over 40,000 kilometres in Australia and overseas, including over two years cycling from Patagonia to Alaska.
What’s an underrated piece of gear that you take on your trips?
An inflatable pillow is an absolute game changer and so much better than resting your head on a dry bag or a heap of clothes!
I use a Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight.
Can you give us some insights into your sleep system?
I’m currently using a Sea to Summit Ultralight sleeping mat, Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight Pillow and the Outrak Peregrine sleeping bag. I use a silk liner and/or warm jacket to adjust for cold weather as needed.
Read more: Essential Gear for Bikepacking Adventures
What advice would you give to someone looking to get into bikepacking?
Ride what you have or hire a bike. Strap any gear you need to your frame and/or wear a backpack. Look up websites with recommended routes that avoid traffic but are still well known.
Start with a long day ride or an overnighter. Take it easy and enjoy the ride!
What was your experience like on the Hunt 1000?
I approached the Hunt 1000 more like a holiday than a race, which meant I ended up getting dropped by most people on the course! The route itself is breathtaking, passing through remote wilderness areas in the Australian High Country on a variety of dirt roads and tracks.
It was also fantastic to share the trip with other riders, even if only for a short amount of time. We had some pretty memorable river crossings in the Jagungal Wilderness, hiking our shorts up above the water line and showing off our pasty winter tans.
I think it could be considered the top bikepacking route in Australia.
What’s been your favourite bikepacking expedition?
The time spent in the Bolivian and Peruvian Andes certainly sticks out in my mind. Jaw-dropping views of peaks and valleys, lovely people in remote mountain towns, delightful dirt roads, stray dogs forever wagging their tails and trying to win a cuddle or head scratch. Coming from the relatively flat Australian landscape, it was eye-opening.
At the risk of being cliché, I do think that all trips have their own merits, whether they be overnighters or multi-month expeditions. Maybe it’s the landscape, the travel buddies, or a memorable gear failure, I remain pretty stoked on all the bike adventures I’ve ever taken!