One of the best things about bikepacking is how open-ended and welcoming it is. There’s no wrong way to go bikepacking because there’s technically not a “right” way to do it! With a broad range of bikes, bags, camping equipment, and clothing that works well for bikepacking, the possibilities for setups are nearly endless. The same can be said of the riding, too. Routes can be long or short, based on gravel or singletrack, ridden fast or slow, and roll through fascinating communities or away from civilization deep in the backcountry. All of these variables and nuances lead to a diverse mix of people with unique riding styles and aesthetic preferences joining our community, and with that comes an infinite array of bikepacking setups. To showcase some examples, here are the seven most common types we’ve identified over the years.
If you’re just getting started, be aware that all these styles are dictated by the types of riding for which they’re intended. In short, the type of route you’re planning on riding can impact your bike of choice. On the gravel and dirt roads of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, for instance, almost any bike will do, with many people choosing fully rigid ones. But on the technical singletrack of the Colorado Trail, a full-suspension bike might make more sense. In snowy or sandy conditions, such as El Camino del Diablo, having plus-sized or fat tires could make or break your trip.
Any Ol’ Mountain Bike
First things first: you can use almost any bike to go bikepacking. The best bike to get started with is likely the one you already have. If you currently ride a mountain bike that works for you on the trail or a gravel bike that you’re happy with, chances are, it will make a very capable bikepacking rig with little to no modification. After all, bikepacking doesn’t rely on a frame having eyelets for racks and panniers, as with other styles of bike touring. The only caveat is that bikepacking usually involves gravel, dirt roads, and/or singletrack trails, so make sure you use a bike that can handle whatever terrain you set out to explore. If you don’t have a bike that fits that description and you’re on a budget, scour the classifieds for a secondhand cross-country hardtail, as they’re very versatile, affordable, fun to ride, and offer maximum frame space for carrying gear. They’re the ideal type of bike to use when figuring out what terrain you like to ride and your unique style of bikepacking.
There are also many affordable options for gearing up your bike, and if you already have some camping gear, you can probably make that work for your first bikepacking outing. Between simple and cheap rear racks, drybags, and backpacks you have on hand, or an old pair of panniers, a starter bikepacking kit is fairly easy to cobble together. We’ll dig into types of bags more in the next section, but here’s a simple starter kit if you just want to try out a quick overnighter:
The Starter Kit
If you want to try bikepacking but aren’t ready to invest in a set of purpose-made bags, you can use a few simple pieces of gear you probably already own to do a quick overnighter. For starters, a comfortable daypack along with dry bags lashed to your handlebars and seatpost makes a good barebones approach.
Seat pack dry bag: For a seat pack, you can use a 5- to 7-liter dry bag clipped around the seatpost and cinched to the saddle rails with a webbing strap to store a change of clothes and a few other odds and ends. To help stabilize the load, pack something stiff in the bag, such as tightly rolled clothes. Conversely, if your bike has mounting provisions for one, buy an inexpensive rack, and you can strap a dry bag and other items on the platform.
On the handlebars: Use a larger 14- to 20-liter dry bag cinched to the handlebars with two pieces of webbing or Voile straps. This can fit a small tent, with the poles assisting in keeping the bag’s shape, and a lightweight down sleeping bag. Long and slender bags work better than short and stubby ones. Sea to Summit Big River bags are a good option.
Backpack: For many types of bikepacking, it’s more comfortable to ride without a backpack, but they can be useful for more technical rides (especially those that require their fair share of hike-a-biking), or for carrying a camera, or if you don’t yet have bikepacking bags. In fact, all of us used a backpack when we were first getting started. For such purposes, a 14+ liter hydration pack will do, or, just use a day pack you have lying around. This can carry extras like a sleeping setup, rain gear, or food and cooking supplies.
Electrical tape bottle cages: In addition to your standard water bottle cage mounts, use about one third to a half roll of electrical tape to add bottle cages to your fork legs or the underside of your down tube. This will reduce the water you need to carry on your back and help maximize the storage space in your backpack. Another space-saving trick is to use electrical tape to attach a spare inner tube to your bike.
This Old Bike?
You can do a lot with an old secondhand bicycle. Find a few inspirational write-ups here to show you what’s possible with a used mountain bike. Whether you have a small budget or want to start simply with a plan to invest later, it’s pretty amazing to see what you can do with very little.
The roots of modern bikepacking are based on using a hardtail cross-country bike or a rigid all-terrain bike (ATB) with soft bags and minimal racks (or none at all). Bikepacking at its core is carrying only the bare necessities on a bike that’s capable, reliable, nimble, and light enough to explore a medley of trails, dirt tracks, and gravel roads. Almost all mountain bikes can be made into capable bikepacking rigs, but the quintessential choice is a rigid or hardtail 29er outfitted with 2.2-2.6” tires.
These bikes come in all sorts of materials, but steel is the most popular for this type of bicycle. Aside from the fact that it’s the most economical, steel tubing can also be very compliant and comfortable, and it’s arguably the most environmentally sound choice, considering its durability, seemingly infinite lifespan, and recyclability.
If you’re on the hunt for your first all-terrain bike, there are a few basic factors you might consider:
Tire clearance: Knowing the maximum tire size allowed within a bike frame is one thing, but it’s also a good idea to leave some wiggle room for mud clearance. Caked-on mud can often damage chainstays, so having a little more clearance than your intended maximum tire size is ideal—a frame that has a maximum tire clearance of 2.6″ shouldn’t always have 2.6″ tires on it.
Bottle and gear mounts: If you’re looking for a bike for bikepacking specifically, or just one to be as versatile as possible, having bottle and accessory cage mounts, rack mounts, and fender mounts could be an important consideration, although there are alternative ways to mount bottles and cages.
Frame features: Pay attention to features that might help you evolve your bike as your tastes change or you grow more into your own personal style. For example, you’ll probably want sliding dropouts if you think you might want to try your bike as a singlespeed or with an internally geared hub; and you’ll want internal seat tube cable routing if you’re going to use a dropper post.
Standards: This concept is pretty basic, but think about future-proofing your bike or building it around standards that are important to you. If you have another modern mountain bike, for example, you might want to get a bike with Boost hub spacing (148mm rear and 110mm front) so you can swap wheels between the two bikes. If you want to run a dropper post, we’d recommend getting a bike with a 30.9 or 31.6mm (ideally) seatpost size; there are more options in those sizes than there are in the 27.2mm variety.
Brakes: While hydraulic brakes are becoming more and more reliable, it’s worth weighing out the options. There are a lot of great mechanical disc brakes on the market. We really like the Growtac Equal brakes, PAUL Klampers, and the Spykes and Spyres from TRP.
Bars: Hand comfort is key, and one approach to dialing this in is with alt mountain bike bars and flared gravel bars. Find links to our Gear Indexes below to learn more about flare, backsweep, and loads of alternative bars that might help make the ride more comfortable.
Tires: Get a set of tires that are good for all-terrain riding. These usually have tightly spaced, fast-rolling center knobs and bigger side lugs for cornering traction on dirt. A few good options we like include the Teravail Ehline, Maxxis Icon, and WTB Ranger.
Drivetrains: One thing that’s certain about loaded bikes is that they require a much lower gear for climbing. Learn more about wide-range cassettes here, and find our gearing calculator to help figure out the ideal bailout gear here.
Our Favorite Bikes
There are a multitude of great ATBs that fit in this category, but here are some of our favorite all-around bikepacking mountain bikes that we’ve tested over the years:
Self-supported, ultra-distance rides were popularized by the Tour Divide, an iconic 2,750-mile bikepacking race from Alberta, Canada, to Antelope Wells at the US/Mexico border that happens every year as hundreds of riders depart from Banff on the first Friday in June. Similar races and routes have sprung up around the world, taking inspiration from the Tour Divide. This style of bikepacking typically involves the use of a lightweight mountain bike outfitted with an efficient, ultralight gear kit. A typical Divide bike is assembled to move quickly and reliably across a mixture of surfaces and terrain, often including gravel, doubletrack dirt roads, a little bit of singletrack, and some pavement.
So, what makes the perfect bike for this style of ride and route? Terrain and surface conditions vary greatly between routes, which can change the requirements. Bikes fit for the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route or the Eastern Divide Trail are typically shod with 2.0-2.6” cross-country-oriented mountain bike tires (2.35” is a common size). Due to the massive distances, fast-rolling and long-wearing tires are a priority, as is having a comfortable bike fit and alternate handlebar positions. Riders choose drop bars or flat handlebars based on personal preference; the field is usually split 50/50 in events such as the Tour Divide.
Our Favorite Divide Bikes
We’ve written about quite a few bikes in this category, which you can see in our Drop-bar 29er Index, but some of our favorite Divide-style bikes include:
Resources and Links
There’s a lot of information on bikes, gear, and event coverage for the Tour Divide and similar rides. Here are a few relevant links to get you started:
Revised and expanded in 2023, the Bikepacking 101 Handbook (2nd ed.) required thousands of hours of research, design, and writing, all of which was made possible through the generous support of our Bikepacking Collective members. As with all of our detailed route guides, in-depth reviews, and daily news, stories, and event coverage, this 20,000-word resource is available to the public for free. If you appreciate what we do here at BIKEPACKING.com, consider joining to support our efforts.