One thing that’s significantly helped popularize bikepacking is the commercial availability of soft bags that not only eliminate the need for rack mounts but make it easy to carry gear on just about any bike. Still, we receive a lot of questions along the lines of, “Which bags should I start with? Are there any specific bags you’d recommend? What do you pack where?”
A frame pack, seat pack, and handlebar bag—aka the bikepacking trinity—can carry most of the gear you’ll need for an average trip, with accessory packs adding extra capacity. There are several nuances that complicate matters, however, and there are quite a few options in each of those categories, with various sizes and shapes to cover a variety of bike types and proportions. Plus, there are even more great alternatives that use lightweight racks, mini panniers, and baskets. Here, we’ll cover all of these possibilities with insight into what each can carry and what to consider when you’re contemplating the myriad options.
Formed by the top tube, seat tube, and down tube, the triangular space on a bike frame is arguably the most efficient place to carry gear. It places the extra weight in a low, centered position where it has less of an effect on the bike’s handling than it would elsewhere. The frame pack was conceived to maximize the use of this space and has been around for quite some time. In fact, photos of leather frame packs can be found on the military-issue bikes used by the Buffalo Soldiers on their historic 1887 expedition. Today, frame packs are typically made from synthetic Cordura or nylon X-Pac, and they’re usually lashed onto the frame with velcro straps or cord lacing. Frame packs are available for full-suspension, hardtail, and rigid bikes and are often custom made to fit snugly within a bike’s unique frame shape, although there are plenty of near-universal bags available to fit most bikes.
Frame packs provide anywhere from three to nine liters of storage, with the lower figure being based on an extra-small half-frame bag and the larger based on an extra-large full-frame pack. At any size, a frame bag can usually store more than you’d think, and it’s an excellent place to pack heavier items as it maintains the bike’s low center of gravity. Heavy items might include food, tools and spare parts, stove fuel/cooking equipment, batteries/heavy electronics, and water.
Full Frame Bag
A full frame bag takes up the entirety of the frame triangle and is the best way to maximize the packing volume of that space. Going custom is the best way to approach a full-frame bag, as all bike frames are different. Most bag makers offer full frame bags for regular diamond frames as well as oddly shaped full-suspension bikes and more bespoke bicycles with curved tubes. Here are a baker’s dozen custom frame bag makers we like:
Bedrock Bags (CO, USA)
Bike Bag Dude (AUS)
Cedaero (MN, USA)
Gramm Tourpacking (GER)
Jpaks (CO, USA)
Nuke Sunrise (UT, USA)
Rockgeist (NC, USA)
Rogue Panda (AZ, USA)
Straight Cut Design (UK)
Wit Slingers (GER)
Wizard Works (UK)
There are also a few great readymade, universal-fit full frame bags that work very well. All three of these companies have done a great job in engineering the fit to work with a multitude of bikes:
Revelate Ranger and Ripio are two made-in-the-USA bags sized for mountain bikes and gravel; find at REI: Ranger / Ripio
Rockgeist 52hz is a unique waterproof/roll-top bag that comes in a variety of sizes
The Ortlieb Frame Pack RC has a waterproof roll top design; we used it on the Cotic SolarisMax and liked it; find at REI
Other options include the Blackburn Elite and The Restrap Full Frame Bag
Half Frame Bag
There are smaller frame packs purposefully designed to only use a portion of the frame triangle. This allows it to be paired with one or two water bottles or a cargo cage with other gear. The most popular is the half-frame bag, which runs the length of the top tube and is 4-8” (10-20cm) tall. On a conventional diamond bike frame, half frame packs allow the use of the water bottle cage mount on the down tube and even the second cage mount on the seat tube on larger frames. This format is especially suited to gravel bikes where the large frame triangle has room for two water bottles in addition to the pack. Half frame packs can be custom made to precisely match the fit of your bike, and there are also several commercially available models that come in multiple sizes for a universal fit. They’re quite versatile and can easily be swapped between bikes. Here are three of our favorite readymade models:
Dig into our full Gear Index of Half Frame Bags for a complete list of options
The Revelate Tangle was one of the original readymade half frame bags and stands the test of time; find at REI
Oveja Negra’s 1/2 Pack Frame Bag is another excellent, made-in-Colorado bag; find at Oveja Negra
The Outer Shell Half Pack has become another trusted favorite and comes in several colors; find at Outer Shell
We love a good “wedge” frame bag. A classic wedge design typically takes up the front of the bike’s triangle and leaves enough room in the back to utilize the seat tube-mounted water bottle cage for a standard bottle or an oversized Nalgene or 32-ounce Klean Kanteen. Not only does this provide a convenient storage spot for water, but it also positions the water bottle in a low, central point on the frame to minimize the effect of the weight on the bike’s handling. In addition, having a little exposed top tube leaves a good grab handle for those occasional hike-a-bike portages. A wedge is good for bikepacking, and it’s also great for everyday rides. Here are a few of our favorites:
Features to Consider
Bolt-on or Strap-on: We appreciate having the option to bolt bags onto the frame’s water bottle bosses. This not only eliminates straps, which often wear paint and finishes, but it offers a clean look. Salsa also produces some nice rubberized frame bag screws that make bolt-on bags easier to install and uninstall.
Big Zips or No Zips: As with all gear, zips are the weakest part of a frame pack. Try to resist the temptation to cram as much as you can into your bag, as it will inevitably stress the zipper and cause it to split (which can be prevented). Although not as quick to access, there are several zipperless frame bags on the market, including those from Rockgeist and Rogue Panda. These are especially well suited to longer journeys where reliability is more important than practicality. If you opt for a zipper, make sure it’s a large molded-teeth zip, like #10 YKK zippers. Revelate Tangle and Ranger bags use a stretch strip of fabric around the zips to allow some flexibility, which is a nice feature.
Single Pocket or Multiple Pockets: Many frame packs have a main compartment on one side—typically the drive side—and a zippered flat pocket on the other. This is handy for keys, a wallet, or other odds and ends. Most custom bag makers also use these nowadays, and bags like the Revelate Ranger have a flat pocket with several convenient storage areas. For the organizers among us, frame packs with multiple compartments or dividers are available too.
While the frame triangle might be the most efficient place to store gear, the handlebars are the easiest and most convenient. Folks have been strapping bedrolls and baskets to the bars ever since the advent of the bicycle. Purpose-made handlebar packs go one significant step further by featuring rugged handlebar connections, anti-abrasion patches to reduce damage to and from cables and levers, additional accessory pockets, and elegant solutions for stabilizing the load and accessing gear. There are a variety of options available these days. We’ll cover the three main types here and get into some alternative carrying methods later.
We usually recommend packing lighter items in the handlebar bag. These might include ultralight camping gear such as a tent, sleeping bag, or lightweight clothing. No matter what type of handlebar bag you use, our rule of thumb is to keep the front load as light as possible. Otherwise, the bike’s handling will likely suffer.
Often called a burrito or sausage bag, a handlebar roll is an integrated system with a dry bag and handlebar attachments constructed as a single unit. Aside from using a couple of straps to lash a dry bag to the handlebars—which is a perfectly reasonable solution—rolls are the most simple and universal off-the-shelf option for storing gear on the handlebars. They work with just about any bike, usually don’t take up much vertical space that might interfere with the front tire (especially if you’re running a suspension fork), and they don’t require any racks or accessories.
The handlebar roll is typically made up of a dry bag with a roll closure on either side and a pair of integrated straps/mounts that attach it to the bars. There are readymade versions available from quite a few brands, many of which come in several width and diameter variations. Find three of our favorites and more here:
A handlebar harness is similar to a handlebar roll but with the user-friendly option of being able to easily remove the main bag to pack and unpack it off of the bike. The harness system remains mounted to the bars and usually has a couple of simple compression straps to secure the dry bag and other items. Think of it as a quick-release handlebar roll where you can leave the attachment in place and just remove the bag to use away from your bike. Handlebar harness systems come in all forms, with some having minimal hardware to add stability and others with plastic shells that form a cradle. One of the biggest benefits of a harness is that other items can be strapped into it, aside from just a single dry bag. You can use almost any dry bag, which keeps your stuff dry, unlike many stitched bags. Here are a few of our favorite harness systems:
Long before the advent of modern handlebar bags, there were saddlebags strapped to the bars. Known for their classic aesthetic, these bags usually have a top-opening flap that’s completely different from the technical roll-closures in the bags mentioned above. They also have two strap junctions made to attach to saddle clips that folks later realized work even better to connect to the handlebars. This style of luggage continues to hold favor among many dirt road and gravel tourers, largely because of its look and top-loading practicality. Our favorites include:
A single bag behind the saddle is the third part of the prototypical bikepacking luggage trinity. There are other options that we’ll dig into—such as panniers—but the rationale behind a single seat bag positioned above the rear tire is to maintain a lightweight, narrow, pannier-free setup. When riding off-road, seat bags don’t flap around noisily, and the minimal form factor keeps things nimble and out of the way. Like other bikepacking bags, there are many options and subgenres to choose from.
What you pack in a seat pack or saddlebag largely depends on personal preference. Some of us on the BIKEPACKING.com team use this bag and position to pack clothing, and others use it to store a tent and an air mattress.
The seat pack may appear a bit odd to the uninitiated, but it’s a crucial piece in a bikepacking bag kit. Its conical or missile-shaped body is wedged behind the saddle with straps that usually run under the rails and an additional strap that anchors it to the seatpost. Most seat packs range from five liters in packing volume all the way up to 14 liters. One benefit of a seat pack over traditional panniers is that it keeps the load in a narrow format, making those inevitable hike-a-bikes less cumbersome, as seat packs won’t interfere with your legs as panniers do. They’re also considerably lighter than a rack-and-pannier setup or even a traditional saddlebag. Note that there are several types of seat bags, including some that are stitched, others that are welded from a waterproof polyurethane-coated nylon, and some that are designed around holsters that remain mounted to the saddle with removable dry bags. There are also smaller versions made for use with a dropper post, which you can find linked below after a few of our favorite seat packs.
Rack and Dry Bag
The rack and dry bag method of carrying gear has been around for a long while and is hard to beat when it comes to stability and versatility. It offers a few benefits over soft bags. First, it’s the absolute best method for use with a dropper post. Since the bag is mounted to the rack, there’s no weight burden placed on the dropper, and the bag is out of the way. Additionally, some racks—like the Tumbleweed T Rack and Old Man Mountain Elkhorn—have three-pack cage mounts on the upright struts that allow you to expand the load using cargo cages or extra bottle mounts. It’s a super handy technique for bigger trips or desert expeditions where added water capacity is a must. Here are some useful links:
The popularity of this style of bag can be attributed to the British brand Carradice. Their Camper Longflap and similar designs were created for minimalist touring and more off-the-beaten-path bike trips back in the 1950s. Later, these bags could be found in the timeless photography from the Rough-Stuff Fellowship, a cycling club that essentially led the charge in what we now think of as off-road bike travel. This style of bag saw something of a resurgence when folks started using them for dirt-road touring back in the 2010s. We made a DIY version in 2013 using modern touches like plastic buckles, and Swift Industries and Ultraromance started making saddlebags with similar features shortly thereafter.
There are a few things to consider if you’re contemplating this style of bag for rear luggage. You’ll likely need a rack or bag support, as they can be a little unwieldy in this position. Also, having a saddle with attachment loops is crucial, as is making sure you have enough space between your rear tire and saddle loops. You can see some of our favorites in the top-loader entry above and find more information in our Gear Index here.
Racks, Baskets, and Panniers
While folks might not think of racks, panniers, and baskets as part of a bikepacking bag setup, they’ve been used in some applications consistently throughout the growth of bikepacking. They’re all tried-and-true methods of carrying gear on an all-terrain bicycle. And with some attention to detail, they can be reliable and ready for the rough conditions that bikepacking is known for dishing out. Find some insight into these approaches with some useful links below.
Saddle rail- and seatpost-mounted bags are great, but they have limitations. Most notably, shorter riders often don’t have enough room between their saddle and the rear tire to accommodate a seat pack or saddlebag, especially if they’re using a dropper post. Additionally, seat packs don’t have enough space for some people’s packing preferences. Small or mini panniers are perfect for these scenarios. There are a ton of options, with many bikepacking bag companies developing their own lightweight and minimal variations that are perfect for dirt road exploits. You can find a comprehensive list and tips in our Mini Pannier Gear Index linked below with a few of our favorites:
Another ever-evolving and interesting packing technique is the classic rack-mounted basket. Dozens of bag companies have created their take on a basket bag that fits snugly in popular baskets, such as the Wald 137 and 139. You can find loads of info in the subject and a full list of options at our Basket Bags Gear Index. Here are three perennial favorites:
A front rack with small panniers is another gear-carrying option that’s popular with gravel and all-road enthusiasts. Low-trail bikes excel at this style of packing and often exhibit better handling when front loaded. The same products we highlighted in the Rear Mini-Panniers section above can work well here. Note that front loading isn’t the best method if your adventures include rocky singletrack and other obstacles, as low panniers can affect the handling of the bike and get hung up on tight trails.
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