There are plenty of factors that will affect what bike is best suited to your bikepacking adventures. The type of terrain you’re covering. The distance you intend to trave. The amount of gear you need to carry. Your own physical ability. AND the size of your wallet!
Sonder Rider Pete McNeil takes us through everything you should consider when choosing the best bike for bikepacking...
Bikepacking can be done almost anywhere. A basic rule of thumb is that the fatter your tyres, the more types of terrain you can cover. It’s always worth remembering that any type of bike can ride on smooth, even ground but not all bikes can ride on the rough stuff. As such, your choice is usually between efficiency and versatility. Here’s a rundown of key bikepacking terrain categories:
Smoother surfaces allow you to cover greater distances and see more of the landscape within a day. But sometimes the most interesting roads aren’t in the best of shape. This means audax, touring and gravel bikes are generally more appropriate than really racey road bikes.
Higher volume tyres for comfort, mud clearance, bottle cage mounts and disc brakes are all advantageous. It’s also worth considering that, if you’re wild camping, you may have to tackle a bit more off-road on your way to find a quiet spot.
Off-road trails that are designed for vehicles often offer the best way of covering long distances over wild and remote terrain. They’re easier to find and navigate than singletrack. And they usually lead somewhere!
Rigid mountain bikes and gravel bikes are the best option for this terrain. Fatter tyres will allow more comfort and control on rough and loose surfaces - so suspension isn’t always necessary.
Some of the most spectacular and remote places can only be reached on technical singletrack trails. The lower pressures of fat tyres can provide all the traction and comfort you need to handle this terrain, but at higher speeds suspension adds an element control and more of a fun-factor!
Are you comfortable being uncomfortable? Because there’s a big difference between an ultralight bikepacking weekend and weeks, months or even years away on a bike. The further you’re going, the heavier your kit might be. And the more important comfort and capability become.
For most people, their bikepacking adventures will be within easy access to transport links, bike shops or at least next-day-delivery. This is worth considering when you’re putting together that ‘apocalypse’ bike set up!
However, some adventures can take you so off-the-beaten-track that it’s worth considering how to cope if things go wrong. In these cases, minimise complexity and make it easy to have easy trailside repairs.
Some trips need more kit. Winter trips, long adventures, home-comfort-bikepacks and multi-activity holidays. You store all this kit on your bike. It’s an important consideration! So where are you going to put it?
Panniers and racks are great at carrying lots of kit but can be heavy and cumbersome. They reduce handling ability, meaning techy off-road is more off-limits.
Carrying kit within the frame of the bike is great for centralising the weight of heavy items. It maintains your bike handling. A custom frame bag – like the Stingray – is perfect for filling every nook and cranny of your frame.
Considering the size of the bike’s ‘front triangle’ will affect frame bag capacity. Full suspension bikes tend to sacrifice most, if not all, of this space.
Simply strapping a drybag to the handlebars is the simplest way of carrying bulky, soft items. However, the design of your handlebars will affect this space. Drop bars will reduce the width whereas a looped bar design will mean you can carry bigger loads more easily.
Front suspension will vary the space available between the front tyre and your load. Don’t forget to check the distance at full compression to avoid a damaging tyre buzz.
Whilst a dropper seatpost is great for handling rough, technical and steep terrain, it does present limitations to carrying kit in a saddle pack.
Firstly, as you can’t anchor to the seatpost, you’ll need to stabilise the load using a device like the Exorail system. Secondly, you’ll need to make sure that there’s space to avoid buzzing the seatpack on the rear tyre. If you’re on a full-suspension bike this will be further reduced by the rear suspension action.
It’s an unfortunate discrimination against shorter riders riding smaller frames. Almost all load capacity is reduced on smaller bikes. Going for a smaller wheel size is one way freeing up more space.
The angles of a bike frame will affect both how comfortable it is as well as how well it handles, tackles obstacles and its ability to carry loads. When choosing a bikepacking bike, you usually want to avoid anything too extreme as it’s the middle ground that often makes for the most diverse and comfortable bikes.
Bike geometry can seem confusing to most people. Diagrams full of different angles don’t really make sense to all but a few of the geekiest bike geeks. But they do tell you how the bike feels to ride. Here’s a few basic principles to watch out for:
Here’s a few basic principles to watch out for:
Head tube (HT) angle - is the angle that the forks come out of the frame. Steeper and the bike will feel twitchy yet maneuverable; slacker and the bike will feel stable at speed yet sluggish. Bikepacking bikes tend to work better with slacker headtube angles as it makes them more stable whilst carrying loads at higher speeds.
Wheel base (WB) - is the distance between the wheels. A longer wheelbase provides a more stable and comfortable ride. Bikepacking bikes tend to benefit from a longer wheelbase due to a combination of a slack head angle and longer chainstay length.
Chainstay Length (CS) - is the distance between the rear axel and the BB. This is particularly important if you intend to carry panniers as it provides clearance for the pedals.
Bottom Bracket (BB) drop - determines how high your cranks sit from the ground when you pedal. A lower bottom bracket results in a lower saddle height and therefore a lower centre of gravity and stability at speed. Off-road bikepacking bikes, however, may need more pedal clearance over obstacles.
Seat tube (ST) angle - is the angle of your seatpost to the ground. Steeper and the bike will climb better with more pedaling efficiency.
The material that a bike frame is made from will affect the ride feel, strength, weight and the durability of a bike. Here are a few things to consider with each frame material:
Steel bikes have a tendency to be both strong and durable (but only if they’re made that way). This does however make them heavier than other materials.
Steel is also more likely to bend than other frame materials, which means that it can often be bent back into shape. And if you do break one, you’re more likely to find someone who can weld steel.
Aluminium frames can be stiff, light and affordable. They have a tendency to be stiffer than other frame materials but running either suspension or higher volume, softer tyres makes this less noticeable in the ride.
Titanium bikes have the benefits of being light, strong, flexible and durable. They are generally more expensive than other bike frames. But get the right one and you’ve got a bike for life!
Whilst suspension smooths out rough trails it also adds weight and complexity to your bike set up. Like everything else, it’s a case of balancing these different factors and matching them to the kind of riding you’re most likely to do.
Rigid bikes have less components that require maintenance and are often lighter than hardtail and full-suspension bikes. They don’t handle rough, technical terrain as well at high speeds but then I would always much rather a rigid bike with responsive tyres than one with ‘bad’ suspension.
The addition of a suspension fork will help you to navigate more technical trails with much better handling. Hardtail bikes also make riding rough gravel roads at high speeds more pleasant, reducing upper body fatigue. With the same frame capacity as a rigid bike you can still pack plenty into a frame bag.
If you’ll be riding mostly technical singletrack, then a full-suspension bike might be for you. Be aware that the rear shock on most full-suspension bikes will reduce the space available for a frame bag, and may also cause your saddle bag to catch the rear tyre.
For most bikepackers, the more gears the better, At least, a lower (easier) range is recommended to tackle hills all day long whilst carrying a load. Unless you’re one of those crazy single-speeders!
Many bikes these days come with 1x drivetrains. They’re simple – and the chain doesn’t fall off so often. They rely instead on a greater number of gears on the back cassette (11 or 12) for range. They’ve got a great range but squeezing in so many gears can affect durability in the longer term. You’re also less likely to find spare parts in more remote or less developed locations.
Disc brakes perform best on nearly all types of bike. Less affected by weather and trail conditions, they have more stopping power and require less maintenance than all other kinds of brakes. In the unlikely event that you do develop a fluid leak or damage a cable, then you can just pop to a local bike shop.
Cable disc brakes on the other hand are more serviceable should things go wrong out on the trail. And, while pads can be difficult to find, they’re small enough to fit a year’s supply into your back pocket. It’s easy to always carry spares.
The general (over-simplified) principle of wheel size is that bigger diameter wheels (700c/29”) roll better. Smaller diameter wheels (650b/27.5”/26”) are more maneuverable. Wheel size can affect the performance, efficiency, comfort, weight and serviceability of your bike out on the trail. Ultimately down to personal preference! For example, some smaller riders couldn’t combine large wheels with big seatpacks.
The fatter (and softer) your tyres are, the more types of terrain you can cover with ease and comfort.
Tyre volume is key. For example, a 650b “road plus” wheel (with a 48c tyre) will have a similar overall diameter to a standard 700c road wheel with a skinny (28c) tyre but make for a smoother ride. On plenty of bikes, wheel sizes are interchangeable. This means that you could have one bike with multiple uses.