by Stan Purdum
Bikepacking is the off-road / adventure cycling sister of bike touring, and the gear associated with it makes multi-day adventures in the backcountry or on mixed terrain easier.
Bike touring, as the term is used today, usually refers to cycling on paved roads with your personal gear attached to the bike either by means of panniers (saddlebags) mounted on racks or in bags towed behind the bike in a tag-along trailer. Both systems have been around for years and have proven effective on highways and byways, but they don’t work as well for bikepacking.
While trailers are generally too clunky for towing on single-track or irregular off-road surfaces, it is possible to pedal those paths with your gear in panniers. But the rise in popularity of off-road bicycle travel has led to development of lighter, less bulky arrangements that don’t interfere with your agility on the bike and don’t protrude widely to the sides where they can be snagged by bushes on narrow, technical trails or offer wind resistance.
Bikepacking assumes you are going to pack as minimally as possible. Bags intended for bikepacking attach directly to the bike without racks, and, except for some peripherals, without eyelets, and thus make it easier to use almost any bike that can handle off-road terrain or gravel roads for your adventure.
In general, bikepacking systems consist of four parts: seat bag, frame bag, handlebar bag, and peripherals.
Seat bags mount under the saddle strapped to the seat post and saddle rail and extend back behind the saddle and slightly upward for several inches. Internal supports within the bags — similar to internal-frame backpacks — keep them from collapsing. These bags are usually available in sizes ranging from 5 to 15 liters. (I use a 9-liter bikepacking bag from eoGear on my road bike instead of a standard under-the-saddle bag, which I always find too small for the stuff I wish to have with me.)
These bags are water-resistant, and some are waterproof. They usually have a roll-tight top that enables you to squish the bag down if it’s only partially filled.
A variation of the seat bag is where the straps and hardware form a harness for the bag, which is a separate item. That way, the bag can be easily removed from the bike without undoing all the straps, making packing, unpacking and repacking easy.
Most experienced bikepackers say that if you purchase only one specialized pack, the seat bag should be it.
Frame bags are designed to mount within the triangle formed by the top tube, the seat tube and the down tube of your bike, and they are available even for full-suspension bikes. Some are designed to fill the entire triangle — meaning you must mount your water bottles elsewhere. Others use only part of the triangle’s space, which are likely better if you have rear suspension.
These bags can be a good place to carry your heavier items because the location of frame bags gives them a lower center of gravity than either the seat bag or the handlebar bag. Some frame bags also have outside pockets. Obviously, you cannot put overly wide items in these bags as the resulting bulge will interfere with the movement of your legs while pedaling.
Handlebar bags attach, as the name suggests, to the handlebars, but these are not the small bags used on some road bikes. Bikepacking handlebar bags come in two forms: a generous-sized one-piece bag with the hardware built-in, or a two-piece harness-and-bag combination (or just the harness, with second piece being the bagged item — such as a tent or bedroll — that you strap into it). Some handlebar bags and harnesses are made to work with straight handlebars and others with drop bars.
The one-piece bag attaches to the handlebar with sturdy straps. There may be outside pockets, and some bags will have straps for attaching additional items horizontally to the bag.
Some harness systems come with their own drybag that can be packed away from the bike and then strapped into the harness. Systems that supply both pieces are sometimes called a “handlebar roll.” Those sold just as a harness usually accommodate larger items, or even a stack of items within their cradle.
Peripherals include smaller bags, pouches and cages that attach elsewhere on the bike. Among these are:
- bags that mount on the top tube or stem, which are handy for snacks, phone, sunglasses and other things wanted close at hand.
- cargo cages, which are similar to water bottle cages but accept somewhat larger items, including tool rolls, larger water bottles, packaged food supplies and the like and usually attach to your bike’s fork or the underside of the downtube.
- accessory pockets that strap to the seat bag or handlebar bag.
- backpacks. When using these, it’s best to keep their load as light as possible, especially, since their location gives them a high center of gravity.
There’s no rule that says you can’t combine road-touring packs with bikepacking bags, and some riders do. Figure out what works best for what you need to carry and the terrain you need to cover.
Remember that bikepacking bags were developed exactly that way — figuring out through experimentation what worked most effectively. And when it comes to how to make a bicycle work for what you want to do, the door to experimentation and invention has not closed.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, and Methodist minister, lives in New Jersey. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.