Bikepacking is an emerging sport that combines bicycle touring and backpacking. It’s different from conventional paved bicycle touring because it favors off-road routes over gravel and dirt roads, ATV and snowmobile routes, XC ski trails, logging roads, and even hiking trails where bikes are permitted to travel. Instead of road bikes, mountain bikes and fat bikes are the norm, with an emphasis on ultralight and highly compressible backpacking gear since off-road cycling is so energy intensive.
Bikepacking bags come in all shapes and sizes, but the emphasis is on keeping your load as close to your bike’s center of gravity as possible for balance, and so you can ride down narrow single-track without having overhanging vegetation tear off your bags. As a consequence, bikepacking bags are low volume and can’t hold much gear, so you need a lot of them, or you need to slash your backpacking gear list to a minimum and only carry the absolute essentials.
Here are some of the key types you’ll find available:
- Frame Bags – fit into the gap under your top tube and seat post. Good for carrying tools and tubes.
- Handlebar Bags – a higher volume dry bag that hangs off the handlebar. Good for tents and food.
- Seat Packs – a higher volume dry bag that attaches to the seat post. Good for sleeping bags and clothing.
- Top Tube Bags – small bag that goes on top of the top tube. Good for snacks, phone keys.
- Fork Bags – bottle-sized bags that connect to the front fork. Good for less fragile accessories.
Bikepacking bags are also surprisingly heavy and overbuilt because they need to incorporate some sort of attachment system to hang off your bike, be it a metal rack to connect to your front fork, or velcro strapping to wrap around your top tube and seat. When push comes to shove, many riders also carry a hydration pack or even a backpack so they can haul all their gear and food – which is pretty sub-optimal on long rides.
Panniers are waterproof bags that hang off racks situated over your rear wheel or on your front fork. They come in a wide range of sizes, making it easy to over pack for a bikepacking trip and haul too much heavy gear if you’re not disciplined. They also require more side clearance than bikepacking bags and front panniers (if you use them) can seriously impede the visibility of your front wheel, something that’s very important when riding over rough terrain.
While pannier racks are almost universally compatible with road bikes, the same can’t be said about mountain bikes or fat bikes, which often don’t have the braze-ons or mounting points for adding pannier racks. That’s changing, but it’s one of the reasons why bikepacking bags evolved for off-pavement riding. You also need to be careful to buy a rack that’s compatible with the mechanical or hydraulic disc brakes commonly found on mountain bikes and fat bikes and has clearance for a wider tire.
How to Choose
I wrestled with the choice between bikepacking bags and panniers for most of last year when I was first getting into bikepacking. If you’re an experienced lightweight or ultralight backpacker, it’s easy to assume that bikepacking bags are the way to go and that you won’t have any problems minimizing the gear you need to fit into them. Ah hem. It wasn’t easy. It was expensive and I ended up preferring panniers much more than bikepacking bags.
I own two bikepacking bikes, a gravel bike with drop bars and a fat bike with 5″ wheels, and use panniers on both. I never ride single-track and prefer piecing together routes from many adjacent roads and trails that travel through the backcountry. It’s a fun planning these route using satellite imagery, historic maps, and whatever other odd maps I can find for the area I want to explore.
Here’s a summary of my key takeaways comparing the pros and cons of both packing systems:
- Easier to access gear while you’re riding, so you don’t have to stop.
- Easier to separate bike repair tools from backpacking gear and keep track of it.
- Removes the temptation to carry non-essentials.
- Compatible with all types of bikes.
- Outrageously expensive.
- Spend lots of time attaching and removing bags in the morning and at night.
- Hard to develop a consistent packing system across different trips w/ different gear.
- Often requires the use of a backpack to augment storage.
- Hard to secure when you stop in town to prevent theft.
- Interchangeable – use different pannier sets with the same rack for different length trips.
- Easy to remove and carry when you stop in town to prevent theft.
- Pannier rack is a convenient shelf to carry more gear with straps.
- Often only need rear panniers if you pack conservatively, preserving front tire visibility.
- Easy to organize gear because the storage works more like a backpack.
- Easy to use the same panniers on different bikes.
- Wider profile than bikepacking bags makes it harder to carry your bike across obstacles or push uphill.
- Increases temptation to over pack.
- Some bikes lack mount points to attach pannier racks.
- Can be difficult to find a rack that is compatible with disc brakes and fat tires (try this one).
When comparing bikepacking bags and panniers, remember that you’ll probably need multiple bags to get the same amount of storage provided by provided by a pair of rear panniers.
Most bikepackers aren’t orthodox about the type of storage they bring on bikepacking trips. The best approach I’ve found is to mix and match, depending on your preferences and budget. For example, I like riding with a frame bag because it lets me keep my bike repair tools and tubes separate from my camping gear. But the simplicity of using a pair of panniers over a million little bikepacking bags seals the deal for me, regardless if I’m riding a fat bike or a more conventional gravel bike.
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