As the trendy cousin of cycle touring, bikepacking has surged in popularity. Bikepacking is a pursuit that has something for all cyclists, providing escapism and adventure in equal measure, but what do you need for the ideal bikepacking setup?
Bikepacking has risen out of cyclists’ desire for self-sufficient travel on any terrain, and bikepacking gear is designed to be adaptable to meet those needs. From ultra-endurance races crossing continents and mountain ranges to weekend escapes from the city, bikepacking is here to stay.
The vast range of bikepacking gear and bikepacking bags available can be overwhelming, so we’re here to help you get going. This guide covers the bikepacking essentials you’ll need to go on an adventure with your bike.
What’s the best bikepacking bike?
The great news is that you can go bikepacking with almost any bike, by tailoring your route to what you’re riding.
Being immersed in the landscape is one of the draws of bikepacking, so if you’re heading off-road, you’ll need something suitable. Gravel bikes, cyclocross bikes or mountain bikes are all good options and, even if you overshoot your ability with route planning and bike choice, there’s always the option for a bit of hike-a-bike.
However, if you’re planning a technical route you’ll likely want a mountain bike, and if you’re getting serious or considering an off-road bikepacking race there are brands that offer specific bikepacking bikes with comfortable geometry and robust frames.
Road bikes can be bikepacking bikes too, and many people take to bikepacking on the road or on cycle paths. Exploring new areas on quiet lanes can give that same sense of adventure, freedom, and connection to nature that comes from self-sufficient travel and sleeping out.
Gravel bikes are an increasingly popular option for bikepacking and provide a happy medium between road speed and off-road capability, so you can cover distances quickly when required, while also allowing you to venture off-the-beaten-track on bridleways, trails and dirt roads.
Whatever bike you choose, it’s worth having a think about your gearing. A bikepacking setup is likely to add about 10 to 20kg to your bike and the extra weight will make climbs and loose terrain harder work. Ensuring your bike has a suitably low bottom gear is a very good idea.
Bikepacking bags vs panniers
One of the key differences between traditional cycle touring and bikepacking is how you carry your kit on the bike.
Pannier bags and luggage racks are a classic approach to carrying kit on your bike, offering stability and volume for cycle touring. However, a rack and pannier setup can be heavy and their use is largely limited to bikes with rack mounts.
In the world of packing light and travelling far – an ethos at the heart of bikepacking – bikepacking bags come to the fore, enabling riders to venture further away from paved roads and tackle challenging terrain, with a lightweight, versatile setup for carrying kit. (How much your bikepacking setup weighs will depend on how much you’re taking with you, of course).
Bikepacking bags are designed for use on any type of bike, without the need for rack mounts, and you can tailor your exact setup by adding and removing the bags you need for a particular trip. They are generally soft-bodied and shaped to fit a particular section of your bike.
Bikepacking bags may not offer the same capacity as a traditional touring bike, and they can be prone to jiggling around a little, but careful bag choice and thoughtful packing can overcome these limitations and give you a versatile, lightweight bikepacking setup to carry everything you need.
Working from the front of the bike back, we’ll run through the main bags on offer, their benefits and uses, and what to look out for if you’re investing in a bikepacking setup.
A handlebar bag (sometimes referred to as a handlebar pack) sits between the brake/gear levers and is fixed to the handlebar. While they’re great for bikepacking, smaller handlebar packs are also gaining popularity for day-long rides.
A handlebar bag is sausage-shaped, which lends well to storing sleeping kit, rolled up to match.
Items kept in a handlebar pack are going to be a bit awkward to access while riding because typically you will need to undo all the fixings and take the bag off before you can open it, so it’s best to use these for the kit you’ll need overnight but are happy to be without during the day. Small handlebar bags will often have a zip closure for easy access, though.
It’s worth remembering that the volume you can store in a handlebar bag will, of course, depend on your bike’s handlebar. Flat-bar bikes will have the freedom to take a larger bag, while drop-bar bikes will be limited to a bag that leaves space for shifter movement when changing gear.
Handlebar bags usually have adjustable volume, often with a roll-top closure, so offer some leeway for fitting to your bike’s dimensions.
When choosing a handlebar pack, look for something waterproof because you don’t want to be setting up camp into a soggy sleeping bag. Some bags also have storage straps or nets on the outside which are handy for stuffing that raincoat you’ve just taken off.
Finally, if you’re on the fence about whether this might be your thing, a good quality dry bag lashed to your bike’s handlebar with a tie-down strap also works.
Mounted to the fork using bottle cage-style mounts or a mount adaptor, fork bags are a good place to store bulky and heavy items because their low position on the bike contributes to stability.
You can get fork bags in a wide range of sizes, broadening the carrying capacity of your bike significantly.
Mounts and bags can be purchased separately or together. Many of the latest gravel bikes have a fork with mounting points for cages and, while that does open up more options when buying fork bags, there are bags and cages designed for bikes that don’t have fork mounts.
Care should be taken when choosing your mount and bag combination because some won’t work on carbon forks, forks without mounts, or forks with a tapering diameter.
Cockpit bags are ideal for the items you’ll want to hand throughout the day’s riding. Broadly speaking, cockpit bags can be split into two categories: stem bags and top tube bags.
Stem bags, sometimes referred to as ‘snack pods’ are cylinder-shaped and sit behind the handlebar, secured to the bar and either the top tube or fork.
They’re small in volume (usually 500ml to 1-litre) but are incredibly handy for storing those items you’ll want to access often. Some brands offer item-specific stem bags – for example, for a camera – so your choice of bag often depends on the riding you’re planning.
Top tube bags
Top tube or ‘Bento’ bags sit on the top tube, attached via the tube itself and often the stem as well.
Size varies, from small bags for easy-access items, such as snacks or valuables, to bags spanning the length of the top tube. New gravel bikes now often feature mounting bolts on the top tube for a bag, to provide a more secure fixture.
Frame bags are designed for the triangle between the top tube, down tube and seat tube of your bike frame.
Offering well-balanced, aerodynamic carriage, these are a favourite for ultra-distance racing. Storing heavier items, such as tools or food, in the frame bag is a good idea because this helps to maintain a low centre of gravity.
Despite this, there are still options, with some brands offering custom-sized frame bags fitted to your bike’s dimensions. Size and shape will also be important if you’re using a full-suspension mountain bike, to avoid the bag interfering with the suspension.
Saddle or seat packs sit behind the rider, attaching around the seatpost and through the saddle rails.
A saddle pack provides the classic bikepacking look and marks out a bikepacking rig from a conventional touring setup with a pannier rack on the rear of the bike. Saddle packs come in a range of sizes, with a typical capacity from 8 to 18 litres.
One key advantage of a saddle pack is the relatively easy access to your belongings during a ride. You’ll need to stop before you can access anything, of course, but it’s easy to open the bag and grab what you need – providing you pack smartly (we’ll come on to this).
Most bags are designed with a roll-top closure, allowing the bag to become smaller or larger – another advantage – and keeping the contents secure and firmly attached to the bike.
However, saddle packs can also provide some challenges for smaller and women’s-specific bikes, requiring sufficient space between the saddle and rear wheel to fit effectively, though some bags are designed specifically for use with minimal clearance.
Small packaway bag
At some point during a bikepacking trip, you’ll inevitably need a bit more space. Enter the packaway bag.
The ideal packaway bag is a tiny foldable rucksack or musette, designed to be small and light. They’re not for wearing all day but are helpful if the weather has warmed and you’ve got more layers to carry, or for when you’ve just restocked with supplies for the night. You can also use it as a shopping bag for picking up those supplies.
It’s a bit like a buffet…
The combination of bags required will depend on your plans and the conditions. Most riders will use a selection of bags that provide enough space for basic bikepacking kit, including sleeping gear, tools, spare layers, tech and food.
How to pack for a bikepacking trip
Bags sorted, now what to put in them?
We’ll focus on the bikepacking essentials here, but your kit is likely to vary depending on whether you’re off on a big adventure, a bikepacking race or an overnight getaway.
Somewhere to sleep | Bivvy vs tent
Assuming you are sleeping wild (and not checking into a B&B or hotel), there are two main options for sleeping on a bikepacking trip: a bivvy bag or a lightweight tent.
A bivvy-bag is a waterproof, single-person, tube-shaped shelter for sleeping in. Above all else, bivvy-bags offer simplicity: they are quick to set up, lightweight, inconspicuous and pack down small.
The main drawbacks are the limited space, and potential exposure to the elements and insects. The simplest designs, like the popular Alpkit Hunka, are a waterproof bag with a drawstring hood, while some bivvies, like the Outdoor Research Stargazer, are more structured.
These bivvies feature a raised head-end section, allowing full closure away from your face, and a bit more protection from the elements. Additional rainproofing can be gained by combining a bivvy with a tarpaulin fixed above the sleeping area to create a canopy.
Lightweight bikepacking tents may be preferable for longer trips, or where sleep quality matters and good weather isn’t guaranteed.
They’re heavier and take up more space, but give good protection from insects and the elements. The extra space can also be great for getting ready in wet conditions and preparing food.
Sleeping bags and mats will be determined by personal preference and season. If weight and space are at a premium, some brands offer mats with cut-outs or at three-quarter lengths. Alternatively, a full length, thick inflating mat can provide a great night’s sleep.
A sleeping bag that packs down small is also ideal. Down-filled bags tend to offer the best warmth to weight and space ratio. An inflatable pillow is a nice addition to a sleeping set up, but a dry bag or seat pack stuffed with kit will work well, too.
More bikepacking essentials
Beyond the basics for sleeping, you’ll also need all the usual ride essentials: something to navigate with (GPS bike computers are great but nothing beats an old-school map if battery life is likely to be an issue), tools to fix any problems you may encounter, warm layers, and food for the trip if you won’t be near amenities.
Cooking equipment and a water purifier or tablets may also be needed if you’re going off-grid.
In essence, your bikepacking kit is going to be determined by the trip, the conditions, and the season. There’s always a trade-off between having luxuries and the weight/space they take up.
Experience counts here and it will take a few trips to find the balance that’s right for you. However, here are our five top tips for your first bikepacking trip.
Five top tips for your first bikepacking trip
- If you’re using a saddle pack, pack carefully. Putting heavy items near the bottom of the bag and towards the seatpost will help keep the bag secure and prevent it from wiggling.
- Give everything a home. Having a routine for where each piece of kit lives can prevent frustration when trying to find a lost item and searching all of your bags – especially in the dark.
- Pack light, especially if you’re heading for the hills. Don’t skimp on the essentials, but remember that you’ll need to carry everything you’ve packed so it may be worth leaving that hot water bottle at home.
- Change out of your cycling shorts for sleeping — your bum will thank you.
- Take a friend – bikepacking adventures are best shared!