Levi Boughn

Bikepacking Gear: The Bags

Aug 16, 2022
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Carrying gear and provisions through rugged terrain on a bicycle is no easy feat. A few key gear considerations will make your life easier on the road or trail. 

The type of terrain you want to ride will influence how much gear you can bring and how you carry it. The common theme is that bikepacking, compared to pavement-focused touring, is a more precise and minimalist endeavor for more technical or rough terrain. 

Bikepacking Bags 

A typical bikepacking bag setup includes a frame bag, seat bag, roll-style handlebar bag, and small accessory bags.   

Contrary to the name, you don’t necessarily need bikepacking bags to bikepack, but the style is especially well suited to off-pavement riding. Streamlined shapes, small capacities, and soft mounts keep the setup nimble, light, and resilient on rugged trails, while a flexible mix-and-match approach accommodates a wide range of bike styles. 

A frame bag sits inside your frame triangle, its low and centered position perfect for heavy items like water or tools. A frame bag adds a surprising amount of convenient cargo space to almost any bike (full-suspension bikes excepted). It should fit your bike’s triangle as snugly as possible, so be sure to take measurements and note dimensions while shopping around.  

A seat bag attaches to your seat post and saddle rails and extends back over the rear wheel. Capacity varies from small to around 15 liters.  

It’s important to choose a seat bag that fits between your saddle and rear tire with enough clearance to avoid the dreaded “tire rub,” especially on rough terrain. Shorter riders running 29” wheels may have difficulties, as will those running dropper seat posts or rear suspensions.  

A handlebar bag is a cylindrical waterproof bag mounted directly to the bars or strapped into a handlebar-mounted cradle. They’re great for lightweight but bulky gear that already lives in stuff sacks (sleeping bags or tents) or awkwardly shaped items that don’t fit anywhere else (accordion-fold sleeping pads).  

Handlebar bags are usually more forgiving than seat bags when it comes to tire rub, but it can happen, especially with front suspension. Most can be rolled up shorter to fit between drop handlebars but capacity will be smaller than advertised. If you’re watching your budget, handlebar bags can be imitated surprisingly well with a dry bag and two adjustable straps. 

Stem bags, also called feed bags, nestle into the corners where the handlebars meet the stem. Their flexible shape and drawstring closures are perfect for small items you reach for often like ChapStick, a water bottle, or an open bag of trail mix. An inexpensive climbing chalk bag is a great budget substitute. 

Top tube bags are another great place to carry small items and snacks. They can attach at the front against the stem, at the back against the seat post, or both if you have space. Their relatively stable position and secure closure make them good for electronics like lights, power banks, and a smartphone.  

Other Bits and Pieces 

Bikepacking bags create an impressive amount of cargo space in unlikely places, but many folks still struggle to fit all their gear into a standard set of bags. The next part of the puzzle is to make the most of any remaining frame space with gear cages, dry bags, rubber straps, tape, and shock cord — all versatile and useful gear to keep on hand. 

Racks and Panniers 

Racks and panniers aren’t just for pavement touring. Smaller riders or others with limited frame space might turn to racks for much-needed cargo space. The extra capacity can be key for expedition-style rides, long-term travel, cold weather, or family bike vacations. Today’s racks include minimalist racks and mini panniers, “pizza box” style racks, and rear racks designed for full-suspension mountain bikes.  

Look for a sturdy steel rack and panniers with a resilient, bike-compatible attachment system. Dab a bit of Blue Loctite threadlocker on the bolts to make sure they don’t rattle loose. When packing, put heavier things at the bottom, balance weight left to right, and resist the urge to completely fill large panniers.  

Backpacks and Hip Packs 

Most people prefer to ride without a pack, but backpacks — or hip packs, which some riders find more comfortable — can be popular on rugged terrain where bikes must be light enough to push, lift, or carry. They’re also handy for riders with limited cargo space on their frame, and for stretching water or food capacity on remote trips.  

Look for a small hydration-style pack that fits snugly and won’t bounce as you ride, and pack it as lightly as possible. Folks with saddle soreness issues or cranky neck and shoulder muscles may want to limit pack weight or avoid it entirely. 

Creative Combinations 

The bikepacking style embraces resourcefulness and independence, and gear is no exception. A mix-and-match setup cobbled together from personalized choices is likely to attract more admiration than a sleek coordinated kit, and more importantly, it’s probably just as functional. Use what you have, make adjustments based on the demands of each trip, and don’t be afraid to get creative.  

Where to Buy Gear and Find Deals 

If you’re lucky enough to live near a shop that stocks bikepacking gear, there’s no substitute for expert advice and the chance to see gear in person before buying. 

For everyone else, a few outdoor retailers like REI now sell popular brands of bikepacking bags online, and most small gear companies have online stores. Adventure Cycling has its own online shop stocked with carefully selected gear for both touring and bikepacking.  

Check eBay, Craigslist, and outdoor gear exchanges for deals on used gear. Finally, don’t overlook budget-friendly solutions like dry bags, straps, and backpacks if you need to hit the trail on a shoestring budget. 

What to Bring & How to Pack It (Coming Soon)

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