How to Choose the Best Bike for Bikepacking

By Pete McNeil

Veteran bikepacker, explorer and endurance bike racer Pete McNeil takes us through everything you should consider when choosing the best bike for bikepacking...

What is Bikepacking?

Bikepacking is essentially strapping some stuff on to your bike and going off for a ride that lasts a few days (or even a few days more...). It’s a bit like ‘backpacking’ with a bike… get it??.. Yeah clever!

One of the many beauties of bikepacking is that anyone can do it almost anywhere, and riding off into the unknown with everything you need is one of the truest forms of freedom out there. For me, bikepacking creates the perfect getaway. Whether you’re headed around the globe or around your postcode, it really doesn’t have to be that complicated.

Whilst bikepacking has been going on since bikes were first invented, it's now getting plenty of attention in the bike industry as a ‘cool new thing’.

But what is a ‘Bikepacking Bike?’ And what does that actually mean? What features are useful and for which kinds of trips? And what bike is right for your adventures?

10 Factors to Consider when Choosing the Best Bike for Bikepacking


  1. What Type of Bikepacking do you Intend to do?

    The type of terrain you expect to cover is the single most important factor in choosing the right bike for your adventures. How far you want to go and in what regions of the world will also affect choices concerning durability, simplicity and weight.

  2. How Much Luggage do you Need to Carry?

    The season, length of trip or even the activities you intend to do en-route will affect how much kit you need to carry and therefore also the right bike to carry it.

  3. What's the best Geometry for a Bikepacking Bike?

    The angles of a bike frame will affect both how comfortable it is as well as how well it handles, tackles obstacles and its ability to carry loads.

  4. Which Frame Material is Best for Bikepacking?

    The material that a bike frame is made from will affect the ride feel, strength, weight and the durability of a bike.

  5. Do you Need Suspension for Bikepacking?

    Rigid, Hardtail or Full-sus? Whilst suspension smooths out rough trails it also adds weight and complexity to your bike set up.

  6. How Many Gears Does a Bikepacking Bike Need?

    The necessity to tackle hills all day long whilst also carrying a load means that a wider or easier range of gears is usually most suitable for bikepacking.

  7. What Kind of Brakes are Best for Bikepacking?

    Disc brakes perform best on nearly all types of bike but whilst hydraulic disc brakes have greater stopping power, cable disc brakes can be more serviceable should things go wrong out on the trail.

  8. What's the Best Wheel Size for Bikepacking?

    700c, 650b, 29er, 27.5, 26, ‘Plus’ or ‘Fat’? Wheel size can affect the performance, efficiency, comfort, weight and serviceability of your bike out on the trail.

  9. What Tyres Should You Use for Bikepacking?

    The fatter (and softer) your tyres are, the more types of terrain you can cover with ease and comfort. Tubeless stops you getting so many flats.

  10. Which Type of Handlebar Design is best for Bikepacking?

    Comfort, fatigue, control, aerodynamics and length of beard can be all affected by your handlebar choice.


The type of terrain you’re covering, the distance you intend to travel, the amount of gear you need to carry, your own physical ability and the size of your wallet will all have great bearing on what type of bike is best suited to your bikepacking adventures.

By its very nature, bikepacking involves riding a bike all day (and quite possibly for multiple days at a time). For most people this is unusual and so, whichever way you look at it, comfort on the bike is paramount.

Even when speed is important (which it usually doesn’t have to be) in terms of long-distance: comfort = speed. Finding the best bike for you requires a balancing of your priorities and accepting certain tradeoffs in design.

So here are ten things you should consider when choosing the right bikepacking bike for you...

1. What Type of Bikepacking do you Intend to do?

The type of terrain you expect to cover is the single most important factor in choosing the right bike for your adventures. How far you want to go and in what regions of the world will also affect choices concerning durability, simplicity and weight.

Terrain:

If you can ride a bike over it (and sometimes even when you can’t) then a landscape is ripe  for a bikepacking adventure! Bikepacking can be done almost anywhere but the tendency is to head for wilder, more remote landscapes.

A basic rule of thumb is that the fatter your tyres, the more types of terrain you can cover. It’s always worth remembering that any type of bike can ride on smooth, even ground but not all bikes can ride on the rough stuff. As such, your choice is usually between efficiency and versatility.

Key bikepacking terrain categories explained:

Mixed Road

Smoother surfaces allow you to cover greater distances and see more of the landscape within a day. Despite being at the smoother end of this spectrum, all-day comfort and the ability to tackle roads that may not be in the best of shape (often the quieter or most interesting ones aren’t!) means that audax, touring and gravel bikes are generally more appropriate than really racey road bikes.

Higher volume tyres for comfort, mud clearance, bottle cage mounts and disc brakes are all advantageous. It’s also worth considering that if you’re wild camping you may have to tackle a bit more off-road on your way to find a quiet spot.

A grey Sonder Camino Al packed up with bikepacking bags on a gravel track

Sonder Camino

Shop Now

A man on the side of the road on his Sonder Santiago loaded up with pannier bags and looking out into the mountains

Sonder Santiago

Shop Now

Gravel and Double Track

Off-road trails that are designed for vehicles often offer the best way of covering long distances over wild and remote terrain. They’re easier to find and navigate than singletrack and, by their very nature, they usually lead somewhere!

When the first (rigid) mountain bikes were conceived these were, for the most part, the trails they were used on. These days, ‘gravel bikes’ are following firmly in their footsteps (or tyre tracks…).

Increasingly fatter tyres will allow more comfort and control on rough and loose surfaces and so suspension isn’t always necessary. Also, by being able to carry more load you may make it further away from civilisation, this is when reliability and serviceability of a bike will play a significant role.

Big Mountain and Singletrack

Some of the most spectacular and remote places can only be reached on technical singletrack trails. The advances in light-weight and minimalist kit design means that it’s now very possible to carry all of the gear you need to be ‘self-sufficient’ on a bike over even the most challenging of terrain and even have fun whilst doing it!

The lower pressures of fat tyres can provide all the traction and comfort you need to handle this terrain, but at higher speeds suspension adds an element control and more of a fun-factor!

Sonder Frontier

Shop Now

Sonder Broken Road

Shop Now

Sonder Vir Fortis

Shop Now

Distance:

There’s a big difference between an ultralight bikepacking weekend and weeks, months or even years away on a bike.

Depending on your propensity for discomfort, minimalist kit can only get you so far and therefore your load is likely to increase the farther you expect to go. This may well also affect the types of terrain you can cover.

Sacrificing speed and handling capability for durability, comfort and serviceability on long journeys usually makes sense. (That is, unless you’re racing, in which case you might well flip that equation!)

Region and Remoteness:

For most people, their bikepacking adventures will be, for the most part, within relatively easy access to transport links, bike shops or at least ‘next-day-delivery’. This is worth considering when you’re putting together that ‘apocalypse’ bike set up!

However, some adventures can take you so off-the-beaten-track that it’s worth considering how to cope if things go wrong. In these cases, minimising complexity or having parts to make easy trailside repairs could well be important factors.

A man in the middle of the mountains riding his bike
A man bikepacking off the beaten path in Norway

2. How Much Luggage do you Need to Carry?

The season, length of trip or even the activities you intend to do en-route will affect what you need to pack and therefore also the best bikepacking bike to carry it.

The simple rule of thumb is that the more kit you carry, the more home comforts you have with you, but the heavier your load. Long periods away from civilisation might mean carrying more food and water, or riding in colder climates might necessitate carrying more warm kit.

Either way, if you want to carry more stuff, the best way is to figure out how to pack it on the bike. In my early days of bikepacking, I tried carrying a big, heavily laden rucksack on my back. There wasn’t a second time...

There’s a number of factors to consider in carrying bikepacking bags:

Does the bike have rack mounts?

Panniers and racks are great at carrying lots of kit but can be heavy and cumbersome, reducing handling ability; and therefore the kinds of terrain you can cover.

How many cage mounts?

Bottle cages can keep the weight of water off your back but if you want to use a full frame bag then it might be worth considering cages on your forks/top tube/down tube. Triple cage mounts can even carry extra dry bags. The possibilities are endless!

Frame bag capacity?

Carrying kit within the frame of the bike is great for centralising the weight of heavy items. All bikes have different shapes and sizes so if you want a full frame bag, it’s best to go for a custom option like the Alpkit Stingray.

Considering the size of the bike’s ‘front triangle’ will affect capacity of what can be carried. Full suspension bikes tend to sacrifice most, if not all, of this space.

Handlebar Space

Simply strapping a drybag to the handlebars is the simplest way of carrying bulky, soft items like sleeping bag, tent, etc. However the design of your handlebars will affect this space. ‘Drop bars’ will reduce the width whereas a ‘looped’ bar design like the Love Mud Confucious will mean you can carry bigger loads more easily.

It’s also worth remembering that front suspension will vary the space available between the front tyre and this load. Check the distance at full compression to avoid a damaging tyre buzz.

Dropper Seatpost

Whilst a dropper seatpost is great for handling rough, technical and steep terrain, it does present challenges and limitations to carrying kit in a saddle pack. Firstly, as you can’t anchor to the seatpost, you’ll need to stabilize the load using a device like the Exorail system.

Secondly, you’ll need to make sure that there’s space to avoid buzzing the seatpack on the rear tyre. If you’re on a full-suspension bike this will be further reduced by the rear suspension action.

Bike Size

It’s an unfortunate discrimination against the vertically challenged but almost all load capacity is reduced on smaller bikes. Going for a smaller wheel size is one way freeing up more space.

A woman carrying her bikepacking bike with grey bikepacking bags on through a river

Bikepacking Bags

Shop Now


3. What's the best Geometry for a Bikepacking Bike?

The angles of a bike frame will affect both how comfortable it is as well as how well it handles, tackles obstacles and its ability to carry loads.

When choosing a bikepacking bike, you usually want to avoid anything too extreme as it’s the middle ground that often makes for the most diverse and comfortable bikes.

Bike geometry can seem confusing to most people. Diagrams full of different angles don’t really make sense to all but a few of the geekiest bike geeks.

It does however, have the greatest bearing on how the bike feels to ride, how comfortable it is and how it handles. Often if you get the angles right, everything else falls into place but if they’re not, all of the flashiest kit and best materials won’t make it a good bike.

A diagram indicating the geometry sections

Here’s a few basic principles to watch out for:

Head tube (HT) angle - is the angle that the forks come out of the frame. Steeper and the bike will feel twitchy yet maneuverable; slacker and the bike will feel stable at speed yet sluggish. Bikepacking bikes tend to work better with slacker headtube angles as it makes them more stable whilst carrying loads at higher speeds.

Wheel base (WB) - is the distance between the wheels. A longer wheelbase provides a more stable and comfortable ride. Bikepacking bikes tend to benefit from a longer wheelbase due to a combination of a slack head angle and longer chainstay length.

Chainstay Length (CS) - is the distance between the rear axel and the BB. This is particularly important if you intend to carry panniers as it provides clearance for the pedals.

Bottom Bracket (BB) drop - determines how high your cranks sit from the ground when you pedal. A lower bottom bracket results in a lower saddle height and therefore a lower centre of gravity and stability at speed. Off-road bikepacking bikes, however, may need more pedal clearance over obstacles.

Seat tube (ST) angle - is the angle of your seatpost to the ground. Steeper and the bike will climb better with more pedaling efficiency.

A man holding his sonder camino ti loaded up with bikepacking bags on a gravel path in the mountains
Three friends on touring bikes with panniers in the faroe islands as the sun is setting

4. Which Frame Material is Best for Bikepacking?

The material that a bike frame is made from will affect the ride feel, strength, weight and the durability of a bike.

There are some commonly held misconceptions in this field such as: “steel bikes are strong”, “aluminium bikes are uncomfortable” and “carbon bikes are fragile”. The truth is that it very much comes down to the individual bike design, quality and manufacturer.

Here are a few things to consider with each frame material:

Steel Bikes

I’ve heard people say that bikepacking bikes can only be made from steel. This is not true, but there are lots of benefits to choosing a steel bike frame.

Steel bikes have a tendency to be both strong and durable (but only if they’re made that way). This does however make them heavier than other materials. Whilst the inherent ‘flex’ in a steel frame makes for a comfortable ride, this is often negligible in comparison to a good tyre choice.

Steel is also more likely to bend than other frame materials, which means that it can often be bent back into shape and if you do break one, you’re more likely to find someone who can weld steel in the ‘back of beyond’.

Aluminium Bikes

Aluminium frames can be light and affordable. They have a tendency to be stiffer than other frame materials but running either suspension or higher volume, softer tyres makes this less noticeable in the ride.

“steel

Steel Bikes

“Aluminium

Aluminium Bikes

Carbon Fibre Bikes

Carbon is an incredibly diverse frame building material. Carbon bikes can be made to be exceptionally light, strong, flexible (in some directions) and stiff (in others).

Whilst the lightweight construction is attractive and (despite common misconceptions) carbon bikes can be as strong (or stronger) than many other bikes. They do, however, have a shorter ‘life expectancy’ than other frame materials but this is still much longer than most people will ever keep a bike for. 

Bikepackers should be aware that wear and tear, particularly from frame bags, can take its toll on carbon frames so it’s best to use frame protection. They’re also prone to crushing when excessively clamped so aftermarket racks and cages can be troublesome.

Titanium Bikes

Titanium bikes have the benefits of being light, strong, flexible and durable. They are generally more expensive than other bike frames but get the right one and you’ve got a bike for life!

carbon bikes

Carbon Bikes

titanium bikes

Titanium Bikes


5. Do you Need Suspension for Bikepacking?

Rigid, Hardtail or Full-sus? Whilst suspension smooths out rough trails it also adds weight and complexity to your bike set up.

Many people say that bikepacking bikes shouldn’t have any suspension. Suspension does add a layer of complexity to a bike, and whilst it’s certainly possible to ride most terrain on a rigid bike (providing you have the right tyres or don’t much value your teeth), good suspension is incredibly effective at smoothing out rough surfaces, reducing fatigue and adding to the handling and enjoyment of the ride.

Like everything else, it’s a case of balancing these different factors and matching them to the kind of riding you’re most likely to do.

Rigid Bikes

Rigid bikes have less components that require maintenance and are often lighter than hardtail and full-suspension bikes. They don’t handle rough, technical terrain as well at high speeds but then I would always much rather a rigid bike with responsive tyres than one with ‘bad’ suspension.

Hardtail Bikes

The addition of a suspension fork will help you to navigate more technical trails with much better handling. Hardtail bikes also make riding rough gravel roads at high speeds more pleasant, reducing upper body fatigue. With the same frame capacity as a rigid bike you can still pack plenty into a frame bag.

Full Suspension Bikes

If you’ll be riding mostly technical singletrack, then a full-suspension bike might be for you. Be aware that the rear shock on most full-suspension bikes will reduce the space available for a frame bag, and may also cause your saddle bag to catch the rear tyre.

A man sat on his bike on top of a hill and watching the sun set


6. How Many Gears Does a Bikepacking Bike Need?

With the exception of the odd crazy singlespeeder, bikepackers typically want more gears, or at least a lower (easier) range, to tackle hills all day long whilst carrying a load (and not popping your knees!).

Many bikes these days come with 1x (one by) drivetrains, meaning that they do away with a front derailleur for simplicity and to avoid the chain falling off so often. They rely instead on a greater number of gears on the back cassette (11 or 12) for range.

Great as these are, and whilst the range is often almost just as good, for those going further afield, squeezing so many gears in can affect durability in the longer term. You’re also less likely to find spare parts in all but the most developed parts of the world.

7. What Kind of Brakes are Best for Bikepacking?

It’s now accepted that disc brakes perform best on nearly all types of bike. Less affected by weather and trail conditions, they have more stopping power and require less maintenance than all other kinds of brakes.

Pads are specific to the brake model and can be tricky to find. Fortunately, they’re small enough to fit a year’s supply into your back pocket and so you can always carry spares.

Hydraulic disc brakes have greater stopping power, require less maintenance and in almost all circumstances are better; that is, until they go wrong. In the unlikely event that you develop a fluid leak or damage a cable then nothing short of a trip to a decent bike shop to get them bled will get it fixed. Cable disc brakes on the other hand are more serviceable should things go wrong out on the trail.

bike gears
brake disc

8. What's the Best Wheel Size for Bikepacking?

700c, 650b, 29er, 27.5, 26, ‘Plus’ or ‘Fat’? Wheel size can affect the performance, efficiency, comfort, weight and serviceability of your bike out on the trail.

It seems that with each passing year a new wheel size or tyre standard is thrown into the bike industry. It can be baffling to negotiate but some, however, really do hold massive benefits for bikepacking.

The general (over-simplified) principle of wheel size is that bigger diameter wheels (700c/29”) roll better and smaller diameter wheels (650b/27.5”/26”) are more maneuverable. In reality, frame geometry dictates much of the handling of a bike and wheel diameter is determined by what fits into this space in relation to tyre volume.

Ultimately it often comes down to personal preference. Some smaller riders can have trouble with larger wheeled bikes, especially when fitting in seatpacks.


9. What Tyres Should You Use for Bikepacking?

The fatter (and softer) your tyres are, the more types of terrain you can cover with ease and comfort. Tubeless stops you getting so many flats.

Wheel size is only half the story. How this relates to tyre volume is arguably more important. For example, a 650b “road plus” wheel (with a 48c tyre) will have a similar overall diameter to a standard 700c road wheel with a skinny (28c) tyre but make for a smoother ride.

Likewise a 27.5+ mountain bike wheel (with a 3” tyre) may have a similar overall wheel diameter to that of a standard 29er but add more traction. The upshot of all this is that in many modern bike designs (specifically those with the wider axels of “boost” geometry) wheel sizes can be interchangeable to allow for different tyre volumes.

This means that one bike can effectively have multiple uses, dependent on which wheel size and tyre volume you choose.

Tyre Volume

Tyre volume (and therefore pressure) plays a crucial role in how the bike feels and where it can go. Fatter tyres generally allow you to run lower pressures and so create a smoother, more comfortable ride that rolls better on rougher surfaces along with more grip and traction on softer ground. This is great for bikepacking ‘off the beaten path’ (especially if you’re going to forego the complexities of suspension) however, it’s typically thought to be at the expense of increased weight and drag, especially when you run into a stretch of tarmac.

The truth is that the general trend towards fatter tyres across the board in cycling is because, as tyre technology improves (lighter, stronger, tubeless, etc) then the benefits of more volume and lower pressures are less outweighed by the disadvantages of weight and drag (which are more commonly the result of tyre sidewall construction and tread design anyway).

Really fat tyres do, however, not handle too well at very high speeds and so bikes with suspension tend not to have them.

Tread Patterns

Typically bikepacking bikes tend to have a lower profile tread pattern as the increased weight of a loaded bike will add traction, and you could do without high levels of drag from really aggressive tyres when you’re riding all day on inevitably mixed terrain.

Is Tubeless Best for Bikepacking?

The advantages of running tubeless are multiple. Yes, they’re lighter but the biggest advantage is really that you’re way less likely to get a puncture.

With no tube inside the tyre, there’s nothing to pinch against sharp rocks and the rim, so you can experience the risk-free benefits of running lower tyre pressures. The sealant inside will also plug any holes created by thorns, etc which, in some parts of the world, can be a total game changer.

The catch is that they can seem a bit tricky to set up initially. It’s best if you have tubeless specific tyres and rims and compressed air to ‘seat’ the tyre. People tend to also worry about what they’ll do if they do fail out on the trail but the simple answer to that is that you can always use a spare tube in an emergency.

A man putting his helmet on whilst bikepacking along the roads of norway


10. Which Type of Handlebar Design is best for Bikepacking?

Comfort, fatigue, control, aerodynamics and length of beard can be all affected by your handlebar choice.

What you’re used to, your body shape and your own cycling background will probably play the biggest parts in deciding which kind of handlebar design is best for your bikepacking bike. Of course, certain fashions have emerged but, as with everything else, your own comfort for long days on the bike is paramount.

Here’s a few general principles to consider:

Multiple Hand Positions

Having more options for riding position definitely helps to reduce fatigue (and injury) by allowing you to change position periodically throughout a long ride.

Drop handlebars, by their nature, have at least three hand positions (however this is only relevant if you actually use them).

Flat handlebars typically have less but are in a more upright position to start with. The addition of bar ends can provide extra positions as can the addition of “Aero bars”.

A looped handlebar (like the LoveMud Confucius) also provides additional hand positions.

Access to the brakes is obviously important and will affect how well you can control the bike and fatigue whilst descending.

Width

In some ways, width is mostly about personal preference, body shape and what you’re used to. However the wider the bars, the more leverage you have for handling.

Luggage Capacity

The width of drop bars will determine the size of ‘bar roll’ that you can fit comfortably between the brake levers. Flared drops can also help with this.

Having enough room for luggage straps, gps, lights, etc can also be an issue, which is where a looped bar or additional light mounts come in handy.

Swept and Flared Bars

These affect the angle in which the handlebar comes back towards the rider. Many bikepackers favor a more swept back bar because it allows the wrists to sit at a more natural angle, reducing fatigue on long days.

Flared drops, like the LoveMud Bomber, can feel more comfortable to those not so used to drop bars and offer more stability on descents. 

Aerodynamics

This typically plays less of a role in bikepacking on account of the slower speeds of all day riding and the additional bulk of the bike, but whilst riding into a strong headwind, it all stacks up.

two men riding bikepacking bikes while the sun sets behind them
A man pushing his bikepacking bike through the mud on a wet day in the hills

 

A man riding his rigid bikepacking bike through the mud on a wet day in the hills

And the Best Bikepacking Bike is...

What all of this really tells us is that ‘Bikepacking Bike’ is, in fact, a truly nebulous term. The kind of bikepacking adventure you're planning dictates which type of bike might be suitable.

From ‘road racer’, to ‘enduro weapon’; ‘hybrid’ to ‘fatbike’ (even that rusty old 90’s mtb at the back of the shed). As long as it functions, and with perhaps a little adaptation, it will no doubt have attributes suited to some form of bikepacking.  And, if you flip this concept on it’s head, then almost ANY kind of bike can facilitate some kind of bikepacking adventure!

This means that if you own a bike, any bike, then the chances are that you could strap some kit to it and head off on a bikepacking adventure of some sort right now. This, surely, is the most important thing! Because, whilst it may not be perfect (in fact it probably won’t be) the experience you have and the knowledge you gain will define your choices for future adventures, allowing you to hone your bike and set-up to your needs.

The important thing to remember is that whilst the right bike can indeed facilitate you, not having the right bike should never present an insurmountable barrier to having a go. So go on! Just get out and ride!...

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published