The Best Bikepacking Bike is the One You Already Own

Dirt touring dates back to the late 1800s and the advent of the bicycle, so “bikepacking” isn’t exactly new, but it’s obviously exploded in recent years. There are lots of reasons for this: road tourers looking to get off increasingly busy and dangerous highways, mountain bikers enticed by the idea of multi-day adventures, hikers looking for ways to cover ground more efficiently, and racers drawn to the challenge of bikepacking events. The advent of both bikepacking-specific gear and ultralight and packable camping gear has also helped; bikepackers can ditch panniers for more svelte setups that keep loaded bikes agile and capable even on technical singletrack.

Bikepacking sank its claws into me a decade ago. My first trip was a quick overnighter into the foothills above my town. I threw everything I’d need into an over-engineered backpack and headed for the hills. A few hours later, the pack’s weight had my backside in pain, and I decided to try another approach. For the next trip, I loaded up my full-suspension bike with a sturdy Old Man Mountain rear rack, strapped a stuff sack to it with clothing and a cook kit, used hose clamps to attach a couple extra water bottle cages to my frame, pulled on a small daypack, and I had a much better experience.

Fatbikes in their element on a multi-day beach ride in Alaska. All photos: Kurt Refsnider

In the years since, I’ve watched in awe as the bike industry embraced this “new” bikepacking thing. At first, there were just a couple brands making innovative seat, frame, and handlebar bags for mountain bikes. Then a few bike brands began offering bikepacking-oriented bikes. And then more and more companies hopped on board with the “adventure” concept. Today, most mountain bike brands offer a bikepacking frame of one sort or another. And consumers are eating it up and getting out on multi-day adventures all over the place.

Unfortunately, a byproduct of this commercial bikepacking boom is that it can create the sentiment that a specialized bike is absolutely necessary for bikepacking. It’s not. If you have a bike, you have a bikepacking bike. Yes, there are a few gear pieces that can make a first bikepacking adventure much more enjoyable, but a packing-specific bike doesn’t need to be one of them. I can’t even count the number of conversations I’ve had with people absolutely stoked to get out on their first bikepacking trip, including lots of already die-hard cyclists, except that they think they don’t have the right bike yet.

“I can’t way to give bikepacking a try, but I need to get a hardtail since I can’t do it on my trail bike.”

“I really want to go on an overnighter. I need to get something with plus-sized wheels, though. This bike can’t handle the weight of the extra gear.”

“I’m so excited to build a bikepacking rig for this summer! It sounds like drop bars are best, and I want one of those rigid forks with all the extra bottle cage mounts.”

“I already have all the gear I need. I just need a fatbike like everyone else.”

The author’s first comfortable bikepacking setup, circa 2008

As someone who has helped get dozens of mountain bikers out on their first bikepacking trips, I can unequivocally say: The best bikepacking bike for your first trip is the bike you already have.

If you already have a cross bike, a gravel bike, or mountain bike (one that’s not designed simply for going downhill), you’re set. Plan an overnight trip for your first adventure and choose to terrain and surfaces on which you and your bike will be comfortable. Don’t overthink where to go—you can even head somewhere familiar and close to home. Keep the mileage reasonable, choose days with a desirable weather forecast, and then decide what to bring along and how to attach it all to the bike or your body. If the forecast is dry and bugs aren’t likely an annoyance where you’ll be, consider traveling light and leaving the shelter behind. The lighter your bike, the more fun you’ll have pedaling and the more you’ll smile.

Fatbikes can be ideal on routes that may wander into soft territory, whether that’s over snow, tundra, beaches, washes, or dunes.

If you are going to buy one specific bikepacking bag to get started, a seat bag is the one to get. So long as you don’t ride a particularly small bike, a seat bag can swallow up quite a bit of gear and carry it securely. A simple dry bag or sturdy stuff sack can be strapped to the handlebars (ski straps work quite well for this), and that should be secure enough for terrain that’s not too rough. The leftover gear, food, and water that doesn’t fit beneath the seat or on the bars can get tossed in a backpack. Heavier packs are not particularly comfortable to wear while pedaling long distances, but for getting a taste of bikepacking with minimal investment, this basic approach can work quite well.

Here are some specific tips for getting you up to speed and on the trail.

Bigger frame triangles can hold more voluminous frame bags, and that’s a great place to stash food, water, and other dense items to keep the weight low and centered. But any style of frame will work—full suspension, hardtail, steel, carbon—and any virtually any style of dirt-oriented bike will be ideal for some type of trip. Long-travel trail bikes can be particularly enjoyable for bikepacking on rugged routes, and gravel bikes are, unsurprisingly, great for smooth dirt road touring.

Rigid forks are simple and can offer more places to bolt on extra baggage systems. But too much weight on the fork can adversely affect bike handling, and for any riding on rough terrain, suspension can be quite advantageous. Hose clamps (like what holds hoses onto a car’s radiator) can be used to attach extra water bottle cages to a suspension fork.

Fat tires on gravel roads are common now, but remember that while wider tires can be more comfortable beneath a loaded bike and are critical in sandy country, the wider the tire, the slower it rolls and the heavier it is. Any width tire can handle a reasonably loaded bike—just add an extra 5-10 psi to support the heavier load and get rolling.

Drop-bar mountain bikes and severely back-swept handlebars have become popularized by bikepackers. For long days in the saddle, multiple hand positions and a more upright posture can be more comfortable. Neither are requisite for one’s first (or twentieth) bikepacking trip, however.

Racks and panniers, stalwarts of the road touring world are not preferred in the bikepacking realm by nearly as many riders. The width of conventional panniers makes riding narrow trails and comfortably hiking with one’s bike more challenging, and shifting too much weight toward either end of the bike can result in poor handling. Soft-sided bikepacking-specific bags have become far more popular for off-road riding, but metal racks have successfully accompanied countless dirt tourers for more than a century.


A full-suspension trail bike rigged for the rough, damp trails of the Scottish Highlands



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