Shortly after I started mountain biking I quickly realized that if I could carry my camping gear on my bike, I could get farther into the backcountry in less time than on foot or on a single-day ride. Without researching how other people go on multi-day mountain bike rides, I packed my 50L backpack and rode the Kokopelli Trail. It was 2011, I did not yet have a smartphone and I naively assumed my approach to multi-day mountain biking was novel. Although I was packed lightly for a two-night outing, my pack felt heavy on my butt and hands and raised my center of gravity, causing my bike handling to suffer. After pedaling all day, camping, and pedaling on for a total of 135 miles between Fruita, CO and Moab, UT I wondered if there were better ways to pack, and if my full-suspension bike was suitable for the task. I returned home enamored with the experience.
It turned out that my idea of multi-day, self-supported biking was not new or novel. People have been using bikes to support their multi-day travels since the late 1800s, and the first frame bag was invented in 1891! Following the more recent evolution of trail-capable bikes, lightweight backcountry camping gear, and a rapidly growing industry of bikepacking bag manufacturers, bikepacking has grown exponentially in popularity since 2010. Since that first trip on the Kokopelli Trail, I have adopted bags to pack and carry my gear on my bike and taken a wide variety of mountain bikes on bikepacking trips around the world. The repertoire of bikes I’ve used bikepacking has included 26”, 27.5”, and 29” wheels with tires ranging from 2.2”-5” wide. I’ve ridden carbon, steel, aluminum, and titanium frames and pedaled single speeds, 3×9, 2×10, 1×11, and 1×12 gearings with rigid and dropper posts. So when I hear I want to start bikepacking but I need a bikepacking bike, I respond, your favorite bike to ride on dirt is the best bikepacking bike.
The secret to making your mountain bike a bikepacking bike lies in how you pack it. Here I’ll share some general packing tips to apply to various styles of mountain bikes and a small gallery of how a line of Pivot’s long-distance ready bikes can be packed. Most importantly, remember when selecting your gear and packing system, that the lighter you pack your bike, the less energy you’ll expend pedaling, and that energy will transform into having more fun and being a happy bikepacker!
Handlebars: A long, somewhat narrow stuff sack strapped to the handlebars is an ideal place to carry lighter weight and bulkier items. Sleeping bag, sleeping pad, shelter, and warmer layers are great options to stash in a handlebar roll. This is an ideal place to have bulkier items – the lighter you can keep your handlebar roll, the easier time you’ll have maneuvering the front end. This is especially important for technical riding and less important for less technical riding. A handlebar roll system can be purchased or improvised with dry-sacks and ski straps.
Frames: The triangle of the frame is an excellent storage space when paired with a frame bag. Stock triangle frame bags will fit most hardtails and custom full-suspension frame bags are readily available by most bikepacking bag manufacturers. Because this void is over the bottom bracket, weight here will stabilize your bike. Food, water, and repair items are perfect to store in a frame bag. Even the smallest of frame bags for full suspension bikes can add a surprising amount of storage.
Rear-end: A seat bag is essentially a larger version of the small saddlebags that are commonly used to store tubes and tools. These bags provide storage room behind the saddle while keeping the weight relatively close to the middle of the bike. In dirt-oriented bikepacking, seat bags have become widely preferred over racks and panniers for their improvements in bike handling and light weight. With the wide range of seat bag sizes available now, most riders will find a seat bag that can clear the rear tire when loaded. Full suspension rigs must account for clearance with the rear suspension compressed. Riders employing dropper posts must account for the drop plus the potential suspension clearance. This can become a tricky fit, especially for shorter riders. That said, at 5’2” tall I have bikepacked on 29” full suspension bikes, 27.5 full-suspension bikes, and 27.5 hardtails with a dropper post. It can be done, you just may have to sacrifice the size of your seat bag or some length of dropper post used.
Miscellaneous: There are a variety of smaller bags that can be strapped to the top tube, down tube, or fork. While small, these can increase space and reduce weight elsewhere. A top tube bag for snacks can pack a whole day’s worth of riding food, and a downtube bag of repair can save a water bottle size bundle from somewhere else and keep the weight at the bottom bracket.
Backpacks: A day 10-30L daypack will go a long way to increase the room on your bike and decrease the weight of it. For singletrack oriented bikepacking I prefer to carry a 20L daypack with my water, some food, and a layer of two. This system keeps my bike lighter and more maneuverable, and it helps me pack my size small Mach 5.5 or Mach 4 SL.
While the initial investment in bikepacking bags will cost you a couple hundred dollars, the expense is an investment in your adventures and can be quickly offset by camping instead of sleeping in a hotel. A larger daypack, an improvised handlebar roll system paired with a seat bag will get you out on a first trip set up for success. However, you choose to load up your favorite bike for a bikepacking trip, be sure to test ride your packing system before embarking on a committing trip; often a small rearrangement and addition or shift of a strap makes all the difference. Happy bikepacking and enjoy your ride!
By Kaitlyn Boyle