Bikepacking is a thrilling sport for anyone wanting to explore remote areas and ride further on their bike. What differentiates bikepacking from a regular long ride is the duration - usually, bikepacking trips include at least one overnight stay.
That means that you will be carrying all of your essential bikepacking kit on your bike. The easiest way to pack everything on your bike is bespoke bikepacking bags. Although you can sometimes get away with using a strap, purpose-built bikepacking bags are the best way to attach gear to your bike.
Depending on the type and duration of the ride you are doing - self-supported, camping, staying in hotels or racing - you might need to fill your bags with a cooking kit, a sleeping bag and a mat. If speed and distance are all you’re going for, you can also get away with as little as a change of clothes and a toothbrush.
Once you have figured out what kind of bikepacking trip you are doing, you need to find bikepacking bags that have enough storage and also, bags that fit your bike. Bikepacking bags can be placed all over the bike and their size, position and contents depend on a variety of things such as your bike size and your personal preferences.
What bikepacking bags are best?
As mentioned before - sometimes a larger bar bag is all you need and can hold your slippers and some civilian clothes. Other times you will need the full bikepacking bag set up to carry the essentials.
Bikepacking bags can be split into three main categories; rear, front and the frame.
1. Saddle or seat bags and pannier racks
2022 Specialized Fjällraven collab saddle bag.jpeg, by Suvi Loponen
You can have either a large saddle bag or a more traditional pannier set-up at the back of the bike. Saddlebags and pannier bags can hold anything from five- to 40 litres of cargo, meaning they are great for multi-day trips where camping is required.
When looking for the best saddle bag for your bikepacking adventure, pay attention to the volume, the materials (ideally waterproof) and how the bag attaches to the bike. Saddlebags usually utilise a harness that affixes to your and holds a separate, removable drybag inside it. Other saddle bags are one-piece options that need to be fully removed when you want to repack the contents.
When using saddle bags for bikepacking there are a few things to consider. Especially the larger, over 10-litre saddle bags that will need a decent tyre clearance to avoid tyre rub - this is appreciably true on smaller frames. On any frame size, saddle bags are usually attached to your saddle rails and seat post, meaning there is increased stress put on these components. Many manufacturers recommend against attaching a seat pack on your carbon seat post but many do this at their own discretion.
It is fair to say that traditional pannier racks, once the go-to bike touring way of doing things, have seen a decline in popularity since the introduction of saddle bags. Saddle bags are more aero and sleek looking than the metal rack attached at the rear of your bike, but this doesn’t mean you should rule it out altogether.
Pannier racks can hold a lot of cargo as the largest pannier packs can hold 40 litres. This is more than you can sometimes fit on your whole bike using a complete bikepacking bag setup. So if you’re going for a long adventure and don’t mind the slight aero disadvantage (a bar bag will also negatively impact aerodynamics), a pannier rack paired with quality pannier bags is an excellent choice.
2. Frame bags
2022 Restrap full frame bag lifestyle, by Restrap
Frame bags are extremely versatile as you can get them in a range of sizes and even custom-made to your specific needs. The best bikepacking frame bags will fit your specific frame well and don’t poke out on the sides too much causing rubbing on your inner legs.
The frame bag is located under your top tube inside the frame triangle, making it an ideal location for any heavier items and, depending on the size and closure of the bag, for snacks and tools that you need to easily access. Unlike a saddle bag, the more even layout distribution doesn't place excessive stress on the bike.
If you decide to rock a full-frame bag, you will need to find another way of carrying your water bottles as the frame bag will render your bottle cages unusable. You might place a hydration bladder inside the frame bag, get a hydration backpack or use a cargo cage - some frames might also have cage bosses under the downtube so that's something worth considering.
3. Handlebar bags
Handlebar bags are possibly the most versatile piece of bikepacking kit on offer - and something you will likely use even if you’re not doing an overnighter. The best bikepacking handlebar bags are robust, have enough space for your kit and attach easily to your handlebars.
Smaller handlebar bags are great for lighter items and things that you might need quickly on your trip - a passport, tools, rain jacket, sunscreen, spares - the list goes on. Larger ones can hold your sleeping and cooking gear, in addition to some spare clothes.
When choosing your handlebar bag there are myriad options that come in different shapes, sizes and attachment styles. Most handlebar bags attach with some sort of straps: either by way of a buckle, velcro or using Voile straps. Some come with a clip-on-clip-off system, meaning you can detach the bag quickly but you have a sturdy fixture attached to your bars.
Again, handlebar bags require space in both vertical and horizontal directions and, depending on your bar and frame size, these are limited. Modern bikepacking handlebars often have a flare to accommodate larger bags, but you still need to make sure you can shift effectively and ride on the drops with the handlebar bag on. Alternatively, if space and your bar height allow, you can also consider attaching a front rack such as the Jack The Bike Rack to your bike.
4. Top tube bags
Top tube bags are usually under two litres in size and are meant for carrying snacks and small items that you want to access easily while riding. They come in many different sizes and closures but the most important thing to consider is the width: if it’s too wide your knees will keep hitting it and that’s not what you want on a multi-day ride.
5. Fork packs and cargo cages
Tailfin_Cargo_Pack_fitted2.jpg, by Matt Page
Another way to carry your bikepacking gear is on your frame forks and cargo cages. Cargo cages cannot handle large loads due to their location on the bike, but they’re great for extra water storage or carrying tools under your down tube.
Attaching your bikepacking bags
It is worth paying attention to the way bikepacking bags attach to the bike before you purchase any so you can choose the right ones for your trusty steed.
Most bikepacking bags are designed for easy attaching and detaching, and have straps and buckles for tightening them against the bike frame. Some bags have on-bike attachments that you slot your bike onto - these are good for getting the kit off the bike easily, and not worrying about straps and velcro flapping about.
Both bar bags and saddle bags are available in designs that utilise a separate dry bag and a harness. These allow you to first secure the harness on the bike, and then only worry about tightening it around the dry bag.
Top tube bags, cargo cages and pannier racks utilise your bike's eyelets, so if you don’t have any you might steer away from bags that require those. However, many bikepacking bags allow for both screw-and-strap attachment, so that you can attach your bags even if the only eyelets on your bike are for your bottles. Screw attachment is a more sturdy, but also an arduous way to attach the bags.
Regardless of the way you attach the bags on your bike it is important to make sure that they’re secure and as sway-less as possible. A saddlebag can swing massively from side to side if you haven’t attached and tightened it properly and this will for sure make your ride feel unstable - or possibly dangerous on corners and when getting off the saddle.
Similarly, at the front of your bike, you need to make sure that your bag is attached in a way that keeps it safely off the front tyre. If you cannot do this with just the straps that come with the bag, there are accessories such as Restrap’s Bumper Bar out there to help push the bike off the frame and your tyre.
Frame protection is also an important thing to consider before you start bikepacking - otherwise, it will be too late. Regardless of where you attach your bikepacking bags on your bike, it is likely that the bags will rub on the frame and the parts touching them. To prevent this, simply purchase dedicated frame protection (Slicy Sublimistick custom frame protection is a good option) or some clear Gorilla tape that you can place at the attachment spots.
How to pack bikepacking bags
When you are packing your bikepacking bags, you need to think of weight distribution. Ideally, you want it to be distributed evenly across the bike so that the weight doesn’t affect the bike handling. The bag shape affects how you can pack it, but for example, saddle bags should always hold the heaviest objects closest to the saddle.
1. Bag layout and weight distribution
Distributing your kit depends also on how many bags you have on your bike. A full bikepacking set-up would include a handlebar bag, a top tube and frame bag and a saddle bag, which will help you divide your gear into different bags.
It’s good to not load heavy objects at the front of the bike - especially if you have carbon handlebars - as the headset components are much more sensitive to damage from excess weight. Instead of filling the handlebar bag with heavy items such as a battery pack, tent and tools, rather use it for your sleeping bag and mat, pillow and cooking kit. The saddle bag can hold more weight so it can carry your clothing and shoes, tent and food for any meals you might prepare on the go. The frame bag can hold spare tools, a tyre, snacks and electronics - because of its length it can also hold a larger or even full-length hand pump. A small top-tube bag is best for on-the-go snacks, a small pot of chamois cream and small electronics, and maybe a camera.
2. Pack according to your needs
For shorter rides, you might want to only get a handlebar bag and a saddle bag, as you won’t be carrying as much stuff. Similarly, if you don’t do camping you can avoid a lot of bulky, heavy things from your packing kit.
Remember that you can wash clothes so you don't need many sets, even on longer tours. Depending on the remote nature of your route, carrying enough tool, spares and patches are more important than a spare t-shirt. Bikepacking off-road also limits your recharging opportunities so having a battery pack is essential - even if you're only going for a short one-nighter.
Looking for kit grids is a useful way to see what others have packed for their bikepacking trips and seek inspiration and advice on what you might need. It's also good to make notes after each of your trips of things you definitely needed, didn't pack, or packed but definitely didn't need.
3. Practice makes perfect
The most important thing with bikepacking - and the kit - is practice. Test whatever bags and kit you plan to take before the trip - not all on one go but even on separate rides. Make sure you know how to attach each bag, that they don’t rub on your bike or the tyres (use frame protection tape or Gorilla tape for protecting the frame at the strap locations) and that you know whether they’re waterproof or not. It’s worth getting smaller drybags for storing your valuable electronics inside your bikepacking bags so that they’re always protected from water. And always, always pack some zip ties for bag breakdown emergencies.
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