Bike Touring Special: How to Pack Your Bike

Photo by Aaron Teasdale

Photo by Aaron Teasdale

For as long as people have been touring on bicycles, people have been carrying too much stuff when they tour on bicycles. In fact, the central image most people have when you mention bike touring are the people you see with a full set of front panniers, rear panniers, and a mountain of crap — pillows, guitars, their dog — strapped on top. The eternal debate in cyclotouring is panniers vs trailers, but more than once I’ve seen people loaded down with both like they were punishing themselves for past crimes.

The truth is that both panniers and trailers work great, though panniers are a better choice for road touring and single-wheel trailers for dirt. Panniers are fine for mellow dirt, but put more strain on your wheels and affect bike handling more than a trailer. Trailers are fine for pavement, but I’d suggest a two-wheeler like the Burley Nomad rather than a single-wheel trailer. Single-wheelers like BOBs require more handlebar input to balance and make more sense off-pavement, where their narrowness, tracking, stability, and durability all shine.

While the traditional ways still work, the whole concept of packing for bike touring has been upended in recent years, and now there’s a third contestant in the debate that many people argue is better, more fun, and just plain cooler. Those people would be correct.

Bike touring and bike racing have long had opposing world views. Touring is about the soul-nourishing experience of traveling under your own power and finding new places in the world and in yourself. Racing is about the challenge of getting through a landscape as fast and efficiently as humanly possible, often through a haze of pain. The roses will not be smelled. But there is one area in which the two disciplines share an interest and where racing pushed touring in a much-needed new direction — efficiency.

Photo by Joe Cruz/Revelate Designs

Photo by Joe Cruz/Revelate Designs

Mountain bike racing was all about laps on a course until the Iditarod and the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route came along. By the late 1990s cyclists had started racing both routes and by the 2000s the Iditarod Trail Invitational had grown to 1,100 miles and the Tour Divide, which followed the GDMBR from Banff to the Mexican border, covered 2,753 miles. Both races required riders to carry food, clothes, and overnight gear for days at a time. After winnowing gear to a bare minimum, racers began finding clever ways to affix it to their handlebars, seatposts, and main triangles. At the same time, the ultralight boom was hitting the backpacking world, creating gear that made it easier than ever to travel with less.

Around this time, in the mid-2000s, a few cyclists (me included) started experimenting with mountain biking and ultralight camping gear. The standard practice at that point — inspired by GDMBR racers who started their now-annual competition in the summer of 2004 — was to put your gear in waterproof compression sacks and strap it to Old Man Mountain racks, the only racks at the time that could mount on mountain bikes without eyelets. (Why mountain bike companies no longer put rack eyelets on their frames is an unexplainable mystery.) This worked fairly well. We started doing four-day rides through wild mountains and the sport of “bikepacking” was born.

(A quick aside: the word “bikepacking” has been used since the 1970s to describe bicycle touring in general but has recently been adopted by singletrack-minded, lightweight, multi-day mountain bikers to describe their unique form of cyclotouring. Some old codgers insist on keeping the word general but it fits this new discipline well, and it deserves its own name, so we’re running with it.)

The world of bikepacking changed forever — or maybe it’s when it was truly born — in 2006 when an ingenious mountain biker and backcountry aficionado in the Sierras, Jeff Boatman, posted photos on Flickr of his new hand-made bag systems for multi-day mountain biking. His business, Carousel Design Works, produced trim, made-to-order bag systems made of lightweight nylon that attached to the seat, handlebar, and main triangle. I can’t remember how I found the picture, but as soon as I saw it there was no mistake: This was it.

Photo by Revelate Designs

Photo by Revelate Designs

And it was. Suddenly three- to five-day remote rides on technical singletrack with lightweight camping gear were a breeze. Clothes go in the capacious seat bag (which shouldn’t be overpacked if you want to drop behind the seat on steep descents). Sleeping bag, down jacket, and shelter — light, bulky stuff — goes in the handlebar bag. Heavy things like food and tools go in the frame bag, which I had custom fit to my Santa Cruz Blur. Once I got used to the extra bit of heft on the handlebars and the overall increased climbing weight (low gears are your friend!) I realized you could rail — rail, I tell you — technical singletrack with all of your multi-day gear. Gone was the mechanical complexity and weight of racks. This new system offered more than enough capacity for the savvy packer and snugly held it to the bike in a way no other system could match. Soon we were riding into the wilder corners of Montana and the Canadian Rockies on remote trails that had never seen touring cyclists before.

We weren’t the only ones. In 2007, Eric Parsons launched Revelate Designs out of his shop in Anchorage, which makes bags in the same style and is now the biggest player in the game.

It didn’t take long before every rider racing the GDMBR was using the new bag systems and the sport began its slow spread across the mountain bike underworld. It was easy to understand why — it only takes one look at someone riding with the new gear for the lightbulb to go off in a mountain biker’s mind. Suddenly, heading into the mountains on a bike for days at a time was viable for anyone with the skills and a credit card. Soon there were several one-man companies making similar bags across the country and Canada. New self-supported events like the Colorado Trail and Arizona Trail races began popping up like beards in Brooklyn. Bikepacking had arrived.

While the system excels for self-supported, ultralight use, you don’t have to be a backcountry wizard to use it. The bags are perfect for hut trips. They work on road bikes just as well as mountain bikes, assuming your handlebar bag is narrow enough to fit between your drops. As long as you pack light, there’s no reason you can’t ride across the country with this setup. You’ll probably have a lot more fun carrying less gear and actually enjoying the ride with a bikepacking-bag setup than with the traditional, overladen, take-your-favorite-jeans-and-bowling-ball-style of touring.

Not that what I think really matters. The point is to get out there on your bike and explore. With a proper bikepacking setup mountain bikers can now ride for days at a time into the kind of wild country previously accessible to only backpackers and mountain goats. It’s a game-changer for cycling. There’s a whole new world to ride.


For more of AJ’s Bike Touring Special, go here.


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{ 7 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Mike G

    I am currently trying to organize a group cycling tour to help build my local touring community. Recently my thoughts have gone to better ways to carry gear on the bike. What I have seen here further reinforces what I am coming to understand as a backpacker approaching bike touring. Great article.

  • Minh Nguyen

    My wife and I moved to the UK a few months ago (thankfully, it’s only temporarily!) and apparently bike packing is pretty big here. There is a company here that also makes custom frame bags and are soon releasing saddle bags and bar bags as well. Their system looks promising and I plan on grabbing some of their products before we leave the UK. Check them out at http://www.alpkit.com

    • Simon

      It will be worth checking out Bear bones bike-packing forum too for UK stuff. Can’t link to the site, so worth googling it

  • Reuben

    Excellent write up..! I too merged a love of touring with a passion for mountain biking and have ended up firmly in the bike packing camp… Gone are the days of aching backs after carrying all my kit in a rucksack. I can also vouch for Alp Kit being a top company, with excellent products.

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