When bikepacking began to gain traction as a sport, fitness gear manufacturers focused on creating accessories that would render a bikepacking ride more comfortable and efficient, such as mounts and panniers. Years later, bikepacking experienced a huge spike in interest even among casual bike riders, and bikepacking-specific gear expanded from simple accessories to modified bikes. One of the first questions a newbie in the bikepacking scene might ask is, “How is a bikepacking bike different from a mountain bike?” A quick glance may reveal that they are essentially the same; after all, bikepackers traverse the same serpentine routes as regular mountain bikers. Then, if the geometry of the bikes is the same, how is a bikepacking bike special?
Frame and fork
The blueprint of the modern mountain bike has undergone many revisions to arrive at the geometry it has today, so bikepackers make do with tweaking the specifications of the frame and fork.
Since bikepacking trips take days or weeks to finish, the bike frame needs to support a variety of items – these include water bottles, bags, and panniers. Maximum support is achieved with the use of a longer headtube and a more horizontal top tube. To accommodate these changes, the handlebars are supported by negative stems, i.e., stems that are lowered by 17° or more.
The point of using wider front triangles is to provide space for additional mounts. Extra bidon cages can be integrated into the frame, usually inside the triangle and on the downtube, to stock up on water, soup, and electrolyte drinks.
Integrated frame bags are also popular, as they give bikes a tidy look and do not have straps that will scratch the frame. However, since the bag mounts are built into the bike, it is difficult to detach the bag from the frame. It also occupies the whole frame triangle, so you can’t add bidon cages.
Are these changes necessary? Do I have to buy a new bike?
No. You can use the mountain bike you already have and just screw in the mounts or strap on the bags to the available space. This is the main advantage of bikepacking gear.
However, if you have extra cash and are seriously considering bikepacking as a regular form of exercise or recreation, don’t hold back on customizing your bike. After all, the modifications mentioned above exist to make the most of the bikepacking experience.
But where do I start?
A guide to choosing mountain bikes has been published previously on our blog, listing important specifications on mountain bike components. These include bike style (trail bikes, cross-country, fat bikes, all-mountain bikes, and downhill bikes), features, and fit. The versatility of mountain bikes makes them ideal for bikepacking.
There is strictly no one bike for this endeavor, especially if you are a seasoned rider, but if you are completely new to biking or bikepacking, here are some pointers that you may find useful.
Where do you want to go bikepacking – in technical landscapes such as the Colorado 14ers loop or in the woodland paths of Vermont? The specifications of your bike (especially the suspension) will depend on the terrain you want to cover. Bikepacking routes are either just one feature or a mix thereof. These features include singletrack, doubletrack, mixed surfaces, gravel roads, and forest roads. Singletrack is known for technicality, as it is specifically created for bikes.
The suspension is the shock absorber of the bike and helps the rider maneuver across bumps and obstacles. The types of suspension vary according to the amount (rigid, hardtail, or full suspension) and your preferred terrain determines this. Rigid bikes, such as fat bikes, have little to no suspension. To make up for this, they weigh less and have fewer components. Maintenance, therefore, is fairly easy.
Rigid bikes are perfect for smooth, nontechnical trails such as pavement and dirt roads; though, fat bikes, which have wider tires instead of suspension to cushion the rider from bumps, can also be used for technical singletrack.
Hardtails fall in between. The suspension fork is installed only on the front wheel, hence the term ‘hardtail.’ Conveniently, the suspension fork can be locked for full rigidity. Hardtails are great for crossing gravel roads, forest roads, doubletrack, and singletrack – any track a rigid bike can handle, but the front suspension gives enough liberty to tackle singletrack more smoothly than, say, a fat bike. These bikes are the most versatile, plus they are inexpensive to own and maintain.
The front fork and rear shock in full suspension bikes make them ideal for technical trails that abound with obstacles, like singletrack and steep climbs. Consequently, they are more expensive and difficult to take care of. Since both ends of the bike have suspension rigs, there will be less space available for your bikepacking accessories.
Tire and wheel size
Mountain bike tires come in sizes of 27.5 in. and 29 in., but choosing the size is more of an issue of personal preference. The 27.5 in. variety is more agile and responsive, while the 29 in. rolls more smoothly.
The size ‘27.5+ in.’ indicates wider tires, which is a common preference for bikepacking due to the comfort it provides. However, having wider fat tires gives the bike a bulkier feel. Before installing wider tires, make sure the frame has an allowance so that the wheels won’t rub against it.
Gears are a bit more complicated to modify, but if you are devoted to fully customizing your bike to your needs. By all means, go crazy! The general rule is to stick to easy gears as they are more practical for steep ascents and technical trails. “Easy gears” means getting rid of the need for a derailleur, riding with a 1x setup: one chainring paired with a wide-range cassette.
Bike frames are made of one of the following materials: aluminum, Chromoly (chrome-molybdenum) steel, carbon fiber, and titanium. Aluminum is most commonly used in bike manufacturing due to its lightness and cost-effectiveness, but its stiffness makes it uncomfortable in technical terrains.
Chromoly steel is a popular choice for its durability, lightness, and repairability. Alternatively, carbon fiber is a more advanced material; it makes light robust frames but is brittle. Once a carbon fiber bike frame is severely damaged, it is almost impossible to repair. Finally, the most expensive frames are made of titanium, as it exhibits all the sought-after properties. If you want to go big with your bike, stick with this material.
Now that you have a decent idea of what to look for in a bikepacking bike, do not hesitate to ask for opinions from friends or other bikepacking experts. After all, the experience is the best teacher. Weigh your options wisely – you can even make a pro/con list!