I went bikepacking to Wales and it literally changed my life

Aperol Spritz served in enamel mugs, watercolour painting sessions, and swims in reservoirs – bikepacking is indeed the best way to enjoy the great outdoors

Fjallraven/Specialized Ride Out, Stay Out bikepacking trip photos
(Image credit: Matt Grayson)

'SEND IT!' someone shouted from below, meaning the coast was clear for me to bomb down on the side of the hill, which ended in a massive puddle you could splash through. I let go of the breaks and started rolling down faster and faster until I hit the water, creating what felt like enormous waves on both sides of my third bike of the day. Who would've thought bikepacking in Wales was so much fun?

Clearly, a lot of people do. Bikepacking, an activity that involves you travelling around on a gravel bike (see also: best gravel bikes), exploring the Great Outdoors at a much gentler pace than if you were driving around, gradually rose in popularity in recent years. It's no surprise; pandemic-induced lockdowns around the globe made people appreciate not only physical activity but also time spent outdoors, and bikepacking combines the two into one delightful experience.

Fjallraven/Specialized Ride Out, Stay Out bikepacking trip photos

All photos in this article were shot by the talented Matt Grayson (website/ Instagram)

(Image credit: Matt Grayson)

I'm not an experienced bikepacker, so when I was invited to Wales to celebrate the launch of the new Fjallraven/Specialized SS23 bikepacking collection, I jumped at the opportunity. Organised by Fjallraven and the wonderful folks over Pannier.cc (external link), the two-day adventure involved a trip around the magical Cambrian Mountains (Mynyddoedd Cambria in Welsh) on two wheels, sleeping in tents halfway through.

The Cumbrian Mountains "lie between the mountains of Snowdonia in the north of Wales and the Brecon Beacons in the south, inland from the coastline of Ceredigion but west of the central Welsh farmlands," the Cumbrian Mountain Society explains. We were lucky enough to cycle there in 25+ degree warm and with the sun shining all the way through, which made it feel like we were in Italy, not in rainy Wales.

I was part of a 10-people strong crew, which, needless to say, included people interested and more experienced in bikepacking. I love being around people who are more knowledgeable about a topic than I am; I look at trips such as this as a bootcamp, where you can learn about anything much faster than if you just searched for stuff online.

Fjallraven/Specialized Ride Out, Stay Out bikepacking trip photos

(Image credit: Matt Grayson)

After a lovely evening drinking Aperol Spritz out of enamel mugs – made by the ever-so-lovely Luke from Outdoor Provisions (external link), who also headed up the group alongside Pannier's Stef  – and picking out gear from the new Fjallraven/Specialized collection, we had a sleep in our sweltering Dolgoch Hostel rooms.

In the morning, we finalised setting up the bikes – I was riding a loaner from Pannier – and set off towards Rhayader, where we would spend the night in tents. The distance to cover on Day 1 was roughly 60km (37 miles), with some steepish inclines here and there. Although I was recovering from a cold at the time and often struggled with climbs, I never felt left behind or forgotten.

On the contrary. Everyone rode together as a team, and there was a lot of laughter and chatting as we pedalled. Thankfully, we didn't have any reception at Dolgoch and most parts of the first day, which allowed us to just 'be present', as Jay Golian, a Canadian-born outdoor/adventure photographer who now lives in Scotland, succinctly said in the description of a reel he made about the trip.

Fjallraven/Specialized Ride Out, Stay Out bikepacking trip photos

(Image credit: Matt Grayson)

It felt almost surreal to cycle around the beautiful valleys in the area. There weren't many people around... No, that isn't true. For the most part, there was no one around apart from the occasional motorcycle group or cattle. It's like we were the only people existing at that time – a small group of riders in the massive Welsh countryside.

Let me explain. We arrived at a half-derelict building off the main road at around lunchtime. This building, which clearly has been used before by people for resting, was pretty much invisible unless you knew where it was. You had to come off the tarmac and ride around a hill to be able to catch a glimpse of the building, just over a little stream.

At that point, we exited reality. We were in a timeless limbo of intimate experiences with nature. We were sitting, doing our watercolour paintings, washing our feet in the little stream that ran just by the building, or just sitting by the low wall surrounding the house, admiring the many sheep that grazed the area.

This was the point when the tranquillity of the experience really downed on me. I relied on our guides to navigate us in the wilderness, and if anything happened to them, I would've struggled to find my way back to civilisation (I might be exaggerating a bit). However, instead of anxiety, I felt at peace with the situation. Indeed, I felt calm and serene, listening to the water gently flowing past me as I cooled my weary feet in the stream.

Fjallraven/Specialized Ride Out, Stay Out bikepacking trip photos

(Image credit: Matt Grayson)

After our lunch stop, we headed further north to Elan Valley, "70 square miles of dams, reservoirs and rugged Welsh landscape." I soaked in all the smells, all the views and all the pain that started to manifest in my legs. It didn't bother me; it was part of the experience and helped me put the bikepacking trip into perspective.

Another part of bikepacking that might not sound pleasant is issues with the bikes. It's not the question of if you had any problem – it's more like when these issues will arise. Cycling on rough terrain poses some challenges, but fixing odd punctures and adjusting pedals is part of bikepacking life. This is why you should try it as being part of a team, not as a solo adventure.

Back to Elan Valley. This magnificently large body of freshwater, regulated by a chain of dams, was created to supply the growing Birmingham with drinking water. I've been told that the water gets to Birmingham using gravity – yet another fact that made the trip almost surreal. How do you engineer such a complex system? And all that without making the area ugly and unusable?

Fjallraven/Specialized Ride Out, Stay Out bikepacking trip photos

(Image credit: Matt Grayson)

After a long day of riding, we were allowed a quick dip in the reservoir (sorry, good people of Birmingham, for making your drinking water a little less clean!). The water was ice cold; it reminded me of the one time I tried the Wim Hof Method in Brighton. Despite the initial shock to the system, the brief swim in the reservoir was beyond refreshing.

A short ride after the swim, we arrived in Rhayader and had a lovely pub dinner. We did some more watercolour painting, using cider/beer instead of water to soften up those colours. After dinner, we pedalled another 15 minutes to camp, where we spent the night in Fjallraven tents. I was exhausted and didn't participate in the little get-together around the fire; maybe next time!

Day 2 was shorter, with us looping back around to Dolgoch Hostel, where our journey began. There were more brutal uphill sections on this day, including the Devil's Staircase with its 20% incline – even pushing the bike made me sweat profoundly! But before we got there, we cycled down to Beulah, the last village in southern Powys where you still have smartphone reception.

Fjallraven/Specialized Ride Out, Stay Out bikepacking trip photos

(Image credit: Matt Grayson)

From Beulah, we rode back to Dolgoch Hostel on mostly tarmac roads in the stunning Cnyffiad Valley. In the weather we had, the views were unbelievably pretty. There is a small river/stream running at the bottom of the valley; you find it hard to pay attention to the road instead of just staring at the scenery.

Not far from the Devil's Staircase, we headed off-road again to check out what surely was one of the most amazing experiences of 2023 (a year I went running 100 miles across the frozen surface of Lake Khovsgol and tried e-foiling, among other things): swimming in the stream and discovering a small underwater waterfall. This was another moment when I thought this couldn't be real – people shouldn't be allowed to have this much fun.

Yet, fun we had, and lots of it. Once everyone dried themselves and finished yet another watercolour painting session, we pointed our bikes toward the Devil's Staircase. I went ahead as I was ready earlier than the rest, and I knew exactly where the hostel was from there.

On my way, just before I hit the incline, a cyclist came thundering down the slope. As he rode past, he looked at me and said, "Good luck with the Staircase!" Little did he know I had no intention of climbing the gradient – jokes on you, my friend!

Arriving back in Dolgoch, I was both relieved and sad. I was relieved because my legs and lungs were tired, and my midgie bites started to flame up, too, making it rather uncomfortable to exist (it took 10 days for them to clear). I'm not used to being on the saddle all day, and no matter how brilliant the Fjallraven/Specialized kit is (it's really comfortable), my bum hurt like a mf by the end of the second day.

But all this pales compared to my sadness because I knew the trip was over. I knew that all the things I experienced would live only in my memory; I won't be able to live them anymore. I was also sad to say goodbye to the people who accompanied me on the bikepacking trip after sharing such a brilliant experience.

Now, a few weeks after the trip, I can't stop looking at gravel bikes and planning potential bikepacking trips in my area. This trip to Wales not only made me a keen bikepacker but also reignited my passion for adventuring in general. Two days after I arrived back home, we were out in Dartmoor, swimming in quarry lakes and roaming the countryside.

If reading all of this makes you jealous – good. That was my goal. I wanted you to feel what I felt when I was on the saddle, cycling around Wales (well, part of it). You should go bikepacking now, or at least look up local bikepacking groups and consider joining them. Make bikepacking your top priority this summer. Go and enjoy the great outdoors on a gravel bike. You won't regret it.

You can check out the Fjallraven/Specialized SS23 collection here.

Matt Kollat
Section Editor | Active

Matt Kollat is a journalist and content creator who works for T3.com and its magazine counterpart as an Active Editor. His areas of expertise include wearables, drones, fitness equipment, nutrition and outdoor gear. He joined T3 in 2019. His byline appears in several publications, including Techradar and Fit&Well, and more. Matt also collaborated with other content creators (e.g. Garage Gym Reviews) and judged many awards, such as the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance's ESSNawards. When he isn't working out, running or cycling, you'll find him roaming the countryside and trying out new podcasting and content creation equipment.