Bikepacking bags explained | Everything you need to know about handlebar bags, frame bags and more

Planning a bikepacking trip? Here are the different bags you can use

Ortlieb Gravel Pack

As the trendy cousin of cycle touring, bikepacking has surged in popularity, and so has the range of bikepacking bags. 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?

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Bikepacking has risen out of cyclists’ desire for self-sufficient travel on any terrain and the 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 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.

Bikepacking bags vs panniers

Apidura bikepacking bags 5
Bikepacking bags are typically strapped to the bike and offer a lightweight, modular and versatile approach to carrying kit.
Robyn Furtado / Immediate Media

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 heavier than strap-on bags. They usually require bikes with rack mounts.

Dawes touring bike with pannier rack
The traditional touring approach to luggage works less well off-road.
Russell Burton / Our Media

In the world of packing light and travelling far, bikepacking bags come to the fore, enabling riders to venture further away from paved roads and tackle challenging terrain.

Bikepacking bags are designed for any type of bike, without the need for rack mounts. They are generally soft-bodied and shaped to fit a particular section of your bike.

You can tailor your bikepacking setup by adding and removing the bags you need for a particular trip.

Jordan Gibbons Atlas Mountain Race bike tech gallery
Flat bars on mountain bikes can hold bikepacking bags.
Jordan Gibbons

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.

Bikepacking handlebar bags explained

Ortlieb Handlebar-Pack QR
Larger handlebar bags designed to hold sleeping stuff require wide handlebars.
Robyn Furtado / Immediate Media

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 and audaxes.

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.

Assos Lowenkralle jacket fitted to handlebar
Smaller, zip-up handlebar bags may hold little more than a jacket.
Kaden Gardener / Our Media

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 your bike’s dimensions.

Apidura bikepacking bags
Waterproof fabrics will keep your belongings dry at the end of a long day.
Robyn Furtado / Immediate Media

When choosing a handlebar pack, look for something waterproof because you don’t want to be setting up camp in 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.

Bikepacking fork bags explained

Niner RLT9 steel gravel bike
Fork mounts can hold bottle cages and water or bags and luggage.
Josh Patterson / Immediate Media

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.

Fork mounts on Ribble Gravel SL
Many of the latest gravel bikes have eyelets for fork cages/mounts and bags.
Felix Smith / Our Media

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.

Bikepacking cockpit bags explained

Apidura Expedition bolt-on top tube bag
Stem bags sit directly behind the cockpit.
Jack Luke / Our Media

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.

Bikepacking stem bags

Frame bag and top tube bag on audax bike.
Stem bags can hold lots of snacks for long days out.
Kaden Gardener / Our Media

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.

Bikepacking top tube bags

Salsa Warbird Carbon GRX 600 has mounts for Salsa’s top-tube bag
Some gravel frames have mounts on the top tube to screw bags into.
Joseph Branston / Immediate Media

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.

Bikepacking frame packs explained

Jack Luke Horse for the Course Scottish bikepacking on Vitus Energie
The frame pack sits in the central triangle of your bike’s frame.
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

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.

Rose road bike at start of TCR 2022
Frame packs come in a range of sizes, depending on how much capacity you need and the amount of clearance your bike offers.
Joseph Murphy

Frame bags are ideal for taller riders with bigger frames because on smaller bikes (and especially women’s-specific bikes) it can be tricky to fit a frame bag around water bottles and bottle cages.

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.

Bikepacking saddle packs explained

Jordan Gibbons Atlas Mountain Race bike tech gallery
Saddle packs attach to the bike around the seatpost and through the saddle rails.
Jordan Gibbons

Bikepacking saddle bags 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.

Restrap Race Saddle Bag for road cycling
Look out for roll top closure and buckle straps that allow easy access.
Our Media

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.

Apidura saddle pack on TCR 2022 start line
While saddle packs come in a range of sizes, you can also keep the bag compact by tightening the straps.
Joseph Murphy

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.

Bikepacking packaway bags explained

Apidura packable musette
A packable musette is handy when you go shopping on a bikepacking trip.
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

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

Basic toiletries and gadgets for bikepacking
Your bikepacking kit list depends on where you’re riding and for how long.
Katherine Moore

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

Hooped bivvy bag bikepacking sleeping setup
You have two main options when camping on a bikepacking trip: a bivvy bag or lightweight tent.
Katherine Moore

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.

Camping on a plain one night.
Lightweight bikepacking tents are best on longer trips where sleep quality counts more.
Josh Murphy

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 mat for bikepacking
A compact, inflating sleeping mat will offer comfort without taking up too much space.
Felix Smith / Immediate Media

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

Primus Express Spider Multifuel conversion kit
Packing for a bikepacking trip is a balance between having luxuries and the weight/space they take up.
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Change out of your cycling shorts for sleeping — your bum will thank you.
  5. Take a friend – bikepacking adventures are best shared!

But what bikepacking bike should I use?

Ridley Kanzo Adventure Rival XPLR gravel bike
Huge tyre clearance, slack angles and bosses galore mark out an off-road bikepacking bike.
Russell Burton / Our Media

The great news is that you can go bikepacking with almost any bike, by tailoring your route to what you’re riding. Or indeed, tailoring your bike to bikepacking.

For off-road bikepacking, you’ll need something suitable. Gravel bikes or cyclocross bikes are good options.

If your bike handling or bike choice doesn’t meet the terrain’s technical demands, you can always carry your bike (known as “hike-a-bike”).

However, if you’re planning a technical route you’ll likely want a mountain bike.

Adventure or extreme gravel bikes with comfortable geometry, robust frames and possibly gravel bike suspension are best for off-road bikepacking races.

Cannondale Synapse road bike with frame bag, mudguards and aero bars.
You can rig up your road bike for bikepacking as well.
Kaden Gardener / Our Media

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. They 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.

The latest gravel bike groupsets, including Shimano GRX and Campagnolo Ekar, also offer a wide range of gearing.

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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.