Using your bike as a form of transport is one liberty, but using it as a way to escape the city and make a holiday out of a weekend is growing in popularity. If you have an idea but not much gear, fret not! It is easy to gather a few vital pieces of equipment to get you through an overnight adventure on the bike.
With the increase in equipment available, particularly the booming popularity of gravel bikes, along with off-road or dedicated bikeways and rail trails, all it takes is a little planning, some gear and almost anyone can enjoy bike-touring or bike-packing. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be a navigational wizard or seasoned bike-tourer to enjoy a weekend away with your bike.
Choosing the Right Bikepacking Bags
Bikepacking bags open up the world of adventure to anyone with any style of bike. Unlike pannier bags, they require no pannier rack mounting points on the frame, are lighter and come in a range of sizes. From a spontaneous overnighter to months away in the mountains, there is a bikepacking bag to suit all adventures.
Most bikepacking bags will take a beating. When facing the elements, going for something waterproof will make for a more enjoyable experience when you unpack your equipment. However, waterproof bags will likely come with a higher price-tag.
When seeking bike packing bags, look for items designed to fit with your existing bike and ones that won’t be in the way of your pedalling. Spending more often achieves better protection from the elements and a more stable hold to the bike.
The great thing about a bike frame is the front triangle offers a considerable amount of space to store things, assuming the right bag is attached. Frame bags attach between the seat tube, down tube and top tube, sitting flush inside the frame so you can still pedal freely.
Accessible by zip and deceptively roomy, a frame bag is a fantastic selection to make if you want to take just one bag. Again, the variety is exponential, but it is worth choosing something compartmentalised to arrange your equipment better, allocating everything to a specific spot.
Frame bags are helpful because they generally don’t require compression wizardry to get everything to fit. Additionally, with multiple attachment points and a low centre of gravity, they’re typically very stable. Put your spare on-bike clothes, food and tools in the frame back for easy access.
Do be warned, however, frame bags are best suited to larger frames. And depending on the bag size, you may need to find an alternative location for your water bottles.
Top Tube Bags
Easy access to snacks, essentials and valuables! Top tube bags are a great addition to an already elaborate set-up or simply as a convenient way to carry your daily things on the bike as a stand-alone addition. Like frame bags, they are often secured with velcro around the top tube and head-tube and are accessible by zip or a velcro (sometimes magnetic) flap.
It is a good idea to select a splashproof bag here, especially if you plan on storing things like a phone, I.D or passport inside. Sometimes referred to as a “bento-bag”, these bags are a popular addition for any discerning bike traveller.
Imagine a little saddle bag where you carry your tools and spares on a regular ride, but plus-sized! Saddle bags are typically preferred for carrying sleeping equipment and soft, compressible items. They are affixed to the seatpost and saddle rails by way of velcro or clip straps.
If the bag is designed well and secured correctly, it will reduce sway, which can throw the rider off balance. It is best to have a few practice packs where you experiment with how much you can pack and how to fit everything effectively and ensure you have mastered the most secure way to fit the saddle bag on the bike. The more tightly packed the bag, the less likely it is to swing around underneath you.
Volumes vary from anywhere from 2 litres up to 15 litres, so think carefully about what you might want to take with you as obviously, the smaller the pack, the less it will swing.
As the name would suggest, handlebar bags are mounted on the front of the handlebar itself. While this mounting location can often require some troubleshooting to live in unison with lights, GPS computers and the like, the main advantage of a handlebar bag is its ability to carry a large number of items, or bulky items (such as a tent), in a stable position on the bike. The bags themselves will typically come either with zips and/or velcro pockets or as a roll-up style, similar to a dry bag.
As it’s mounted to the front of the bike, a handlebar bag can be one of the first areas to be exposed to the elements; it will typically be available either waterproof or water-resistant. They also vary in size, with some designed to carry smaller clothing items, food, and spares, right up to sleeping bags and mats. An alternate option is to use some straps to attach an existing sleeping bag, matt, or tent straight to the handlebar. If going this route, seek straps that are easy to use and hold securely, and look to wrap or cover your items with a dry bag or similar.
A more traditional approach for the travelling cyclist is the humble pannier bag. Still hugely popular with seasoned tourers and commuters alike, and for a good reason. Pannier bags are hooked or fixed to the side of a pannier rack, bolted into the frame, either on the rear chainstays and seattube or on the front fork.
Pannier bags are often waterproof and are easy to access, either via a rolltop type design or with velcro. These bags are quick to pack and unpack and are capable of carrying heavier loads than bikepacking bags. The large volumes they can carry make it easy to compartmentalise your belongings and are ideal for transporting things like laptops and cameras. Pannier bags allow for a surprising amount of space, with 20 litres being the standard.
The limitation with pannier bags is that they are not easily fitted to every bike, nor ideal for every bike. However, if you like a fuss-free, load-and-go style of carrying, then a pannier set-up may be best for you.
When considering using panniers, you need to start with a reliable and well-manufactured rack. Most racks are constructed of aluminium, steel or titanium. Aluminium is often the material of choice as it offers a good balance between strength and weight.
Begin with considering how much load you want to carry and what mounting points (if any) your frame features. Look for eyelets on the dropouts and the upper section of your seatstays. Pannier racks stay fixed to the bike, so fitting and removing the pannier bags is a quick task when on the go. As a starting point, choose a pannier rack that can hold over 25kg, a good sign that it will be strong!
If you are determined to use panniers, but your current frame has no mounting options, some brands can mount the rack via a clamp to the seatpost, by the wheel axle or strapped directly to the frame. In these cases, the main concern is that they will not withstand the weights that frame-mounted pannier racks can hold.
Likewise, bikes with short wheelbases, such as road bikes, cyclocross bikes or gravel bikes, are often not well suited to using pannier racks due to heel clearance issues. This is a key factor for the popularity of frame, saddle and handlebar bags.
Looking to carry your goods more traditionally? A backpack may be the solution for you. While some riders may shy away from having a pack due to the added instability and stress on your shoulders if it’s a shorter trip or a more technical mountain bike ride, it may make sense to have a light backpack that doubles as a hydration pack, capable of holding a water bladder.
They’re also a fantastic addition to any bikepacking set-up if you plan on doing any hiking or off the bike activities during your trip. Look to keep your backpack as light as possible to keep stress off your neck and shoulders by restricting content to essential items such as snacks or camera gear.
What to Carry
With the bags sorted, it’s important to carry the basics. Below we briefly outline a few items you shouldn’t go without. Indeed, depending on where and how far you ride will dictate what you should pack.
A front light of 1000 Lumens or more will more than sufficient to light the way even in the darkest of roads and ensure you’re seen. A good front light will increase your depth perception to spot dips and uneven road surfaces, as this is the first thing to become a challenge when the natural light disappears.
A rear light will allow you to be seen by approaching traffic and other cyclists. Rear lights need not have as many lumens and are red to indicate the rear of the bike, much like cars. Some lights will even feature a day riding mode, which is designed to provide extra visibility to your bike during the day and can be run in various flashing patterns.
Although USB lights are convenient, consider purchasing something with replaceable batteries or a long-lasting charge – you don’t want to be caught out. This way, if the lights are running low, you can drop by a service station and either buy some batteries or find a powerpoint to plug into.
Many bikepacking bags and pannier racks will have a spot specifically for mounting a light.
Tools and Spares
As you will be confronted with a brief stint of self-sufficiency, don’t let your trip be stifled by something as simple as a flat tyre or a loose bolt.
Short of packing a small workshop, prepare for everyday problems by ensuring the following have a spot in one of your bag.
Up to three spare tubes
A multitool that features all needed hex key sizes, as well as a chain breaker and Phillips head screwdriver. Some multitools are more comprehensive, but you need to know how to use the provided tools for them to be of value.
A First Aid Kit (to fix yourself if required!)
Having comfortable clothing suitable for the conditions you’re likely to face on a ride is one of the most important considerations. Cycling specific clothing is specially formulated to ensure that a rider is as comfortable as possible when riding a bike, so it makes sense to look into clothing that suits your adventure. If you plan to visit several public places on your journey, consider mountain bike style clothing with a more street-style look.
Bikepacking is all about packing more of what you need and less of what you don’t, so selecting versatile clothing across a range of weather conditions is advisable. For more information on staying adaptable to the elements, check out our guide on how to layer up your cycling clothing.
A bikepacking adventure will typically (unless you plan on staying in accommodation) involve having to pack and account for basic camping supplies such as utensils, shelter, sleeping necessities and something to cook with (such as a mini stove).
The type of shelter you choose will be a personal preference as everyone sleeps differently. Be it a small hammock, bivy, a tent, or even a sleeping mat under the stars, figuring out what best suits you and your ride conditions will go a long way to simplifying what to pack. Regarding sleeping necessities, the standard advice is to select lightweight items, pack down small and are reasonably resistant to the elements.
With cooking and eating utensils, items that are lightweight and versatile are often the way to go. This not only saves on precious space in your bags, but it also saves time in packing and repacking your bags when you’re setting up camp or setting off for a day on the route.
Water and Food
It should come as little surprise that nutrition and the food you take on a bikepacking adventure are among the most important considerations. Understanding the basics of what food, sports nutrition, and fluids work best for you is something you’ll likely not want to leave to chance when out on the road.
Snacks such as muesli bars, lollies, dried fruit, and nuts all make for great mid-ride snacks to ensure you’re on top of your on the bike nutrition. Not only are they typically smaller and more comfortable to carry, but they’re also efficiently burned by the body as fuel during sustained efforts in the saddle. For larger square meals such as breakfast, lunch, and dinner, foods that pack down such as flatbread, rice cakes, and dehydrated meals are often favoured due to their smaller size. A good rule of thumb with food is calculating how many meals you’ll likely require, then pack an additional two, just in case.
When it comes to fluids, it’s widely suggested that you should aim to take on one bidon worth of fluid per hour of riding at a minimum. Of course, this will vary according to temperature. However, it’s always wise to carry at least two to three bidons or a hydration pack with you to ensure you stay adequately hydrated in between water sources when riding. And obviously, work out in advance where and how you’ll top up your water supplies.
Not packing for the long haul? Check out our guide on what tools and spares what to pack the next time you’re planning a ride.