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