Great rides: Bikepacking adventure in the South Downs

Intro to Bikepacking is a supportive off-road ride in the South Downs for women, trans and non-binary folks. Photo: Sarah Hewitt
This introductory bikepacking ride organised by Sisters in the Wild is a 38-mile route in the South Downs. Charlotte Inman describes a supportive group ride that’s ideal for beginners

Sisters in the Wild is a mission-focused organisation that runs bikepacking and gravel events and trips, with great rides and community building at their heart. We have different events to suit all levels, from bringing 200 people together in a field in the Lake District this May, to beginners’ bikepacking rides, to gravel camps.

With bikepacking soaring in popularity as a wonderful way to travel and explore, we aim to give women, non-binary and trans people an opportunity to get started in a safe, supportive and snack-filled space.

We’ve seen just how many women want to give this relatively new form of riding a go, but often hear that they don’t know where to start. The amount of kit needed can be intimidating, and sometimes people struggle with their confidence and belief in their ability to give it ago, especially if they don’t have friends to go with.

We’ve been running Intro to Bikepacking weekends for the last 18 months, in the Peak District, Lake District and South Downs. Their main aim is to help people overcome these barriers, and share as much knowledge and experience we can. Our main premise is: “Start wherever you are!”.

That means, whatever bike you have, whatever bits of kit you have, and whatever length of ride you can do. We believe that you don’t need to go far from your front door, or invest in all new kit or a fancy new gravel bike, to have an amazing adventure.

We recently hosted our first Intro to Bikepacking weekend of the year, in the lovely South Downs. It’s a perfect place for a beginners’ bikepacking trip. There are lots of great campsites and hostels, some amazing gravel riding up on the Downs (though a gentle bit of bike pushing might be needed to get up there!), bike hire available, and lots of lovely cafés and farms to stop at on the way.

In the beginning

Our weekend begins on Friday evening, when our group of new bikepackers meets us at the South Downs YHA. It’s a great hostel, right next to Southease train station, with bell tents outside where we sleep and share dinner around a campfire.

After the introductions (most people come solo, looking to make new bike pals), we get started with our bikepacking lessons for the weekend. One of our hosts, Cycling UK's Rachael Walker, lays out the stuff that she would take on an overnight trip.

We talk through the sleeping system (for Rachael, that’s a bivvy bag), what spare clothes she’d take (just one warm dry change of clothes) and what spares and tools she takes to be prepared if something happened. We chat openly about saddle sores and periods on the bike.

Rachael’s kit list is pretty ruthless, but we talk about alternatives. For some lightweight is best; for others, it’s all about enjoying the time off the bike and throwing in plenty of luxuries. There’s definitely no one rule. We encourage everyone to find a style that suits them.

We arrive at our campsite in the early evening to celebratory beers – then it’s time to set up camp

Charlotte Inman

The next morning, everybody brings their bikes with them, and we demo all the different types of bikepacking bags we have to lend out. A common issue is that people have bought new bags only to find they don’t work for their bikes. What works well for, say, a large-framed hardtail mountain bike might not fit on a small gravel bike.

We have lots of fun helping people find the right bags from our Ortlieb bag library to fit on their own bikes. We make this part of the weekend: “The big packing faff”. We try different ways to fit in sleeping bags, tents and cooking stuff for the evening (which we loan out as well) – eventually we are one big group of fully loaded bikepackers ready to hit the trails.

After a quick safety check of everyone’s bikes to catch any dangling straps or rubbing tyres, we set out on our ride. It’s about 20 miles to our secret campsite for the evening. With all kinds of terrain purposefully thrown in to add to the learning and adventure, it’s certainly not an easy ride.

But with a friendly group pace, lots of stopping to share tips and tricks (and snacks), the afternoon flies by as we get covered in mud and zoom down bridleways. We encounter punctures and gear issues, using them as a chance to learn from each other and build confidence in fixing things on rides.

Celebration drinks

We arrive at our campsite in the early evening to celebratory beers. Then it’s time to set up camp. For many, this is their first time camping and everybody helps each other pitch their tents before we settle down around the campfire to chat about the day.

Over camp stove dinners we talk about all kinds of things, from route planning and wild camping, to food and bucket list adventures. Rach shows everyone how to make a tarp shelter using just bike wheels, a great option for travelling super light. We toast marshmallows on the last of the flames before the day’s efforts catch up with us and we’re all toasty in our sleeping bags by 9pm.

We wake to the sound of birdsong, and let our dewy tents dry in the morning sun as we toast breakfast bagels on the fire. Our first stop of the ride will be for the most important bikepacking meal of the day: second breakfast!

The group loads up the bikes again – it’s amazing how much quicker the packing faff is the second time around. Soon we’re zooming through quiet country lanes towards Lewes, feeling like we’re flying compared to the off-road riding of yesterday.

Sixteen loaded and muddy bikes leaning against the café walls draw lots of intrigue as we devour our brunch, and the proper coffee tastes great. Re-energised, it’s time to take on our final big climb of the weekend.

We head through the lovely village of Firle for a final snack resupply at the post office, before starting the tarmac grid up to Firle beacon. One by one we arrive at the top, greeted by the cheers of those who arrived before us. We’re all in this together, and though there’s a range of abilities and fitness in the group, we share in the joy of everybody facing their challenges together.

It’s the perfect end to the ride as we stay high on the Downs, with the sea on our left and the valley of Lewes seemingly miles below us. Walkers return our friendly “hellos” as we weave along the grassy bridleways, and eventually a wonderfully fun downhill back to the hostel where we started the day before. Though we’ve only been away for 30 hours, it feels like we’ve been on a truly wild adventure.

As we unpack kit, plans for more adventures between new friends are being made. There’s talk of arranging a group trip on the West Kernow Way, after-work rides in London, and even a reunion bikepacking trip to Slovenia. The mud and smiles linger on faces in equal measure as the group slowly parts ways and heads back to civilisation.

It’s these moments, where we see confidence built, inspiration planted and friendships being made, that are what these weekends are all about.

Fact file: Bikepacking in the South Downs

Distance: 38 miles

Route: Start/end at Southease YHA. Loop up to South Chailey via the South Downs Way and back via Lewes and Firle

Conditions: Lots of rain in the weeks before meant the valley bridleways were pretty muddy. Thankfully high winds had dried off the higher downs, and the rain held off for the weekend

Accommodation: Hostel (South Downs YHA) on Friday night; secret campsite on Saturday

Equipment: Ortleib bikepacking bags (various, to suit everyone’s bikes!), Alpkit camping kit (Jaran 2 and Aeronaut 2 tents, Cloudbase mat, Karu Stoves, Pipedream 400 sleeping bags)

Maps and guides: We planned our route on Komoot

I’m glad I had… Electrical tape. Always handy for putting on your bike to stop any bag rubbing on the frame paint

Next time I would… We had one snapped derailleur hanger in the group, which is a part specific to every bike and something most bikes shops need to order. We always recommend carrying a spare one of these for your own bike

Find out more

Sisters in the Wild is running more Intro to Bikepacking weekends this summer in the Peak District, South Downs and Lake District, as well as a five-day supported bikepacking trip on the West Kernow Way on 30 June.

Instagram: @sistersinthewilduk

Facebook: Sisters in the Wild