Bikepacking Bikes: The Best Choice for YOUR Riding Goals (Visual Guide)

Word is spreading: you can strap some camping gear to a bicycle and pedal off into the middle of a beautiful nowhere for days or months at a time. It’s called bikepacking, and as more people hear about their new favorite hobby they want to know: what’s the best bike for bikepacking?

To those of us already deep down the bikepacking rabbit hole, this is a complicated question. Bikepacking is actually a pretty broad activity, and there are hundreds of good bikes that work well for various types of bikepacking routes.

But if you’re just getting into bikepacking, it’s overwhelming to sort through every potential bike option. How are you supposed to choose, especially when most articles just throw out a handful of seemingly randomly chosen bike models and leave it at that?

Asking “what’s the best bike for bikepacking” is a bit like asking “What’s the best car for driving long distances?” and being presented with a list: Subaru Forester, Volkswagen Jetta, Tesla Model 3, Ford Mustang… Well, how do you like to drive? What’s your budget? What are your priorities and personal style?

Instead of trying to sell you a specific bike, I’m here to explain the different types of bikepacking bikes and what they’re best for. More importantly, I’ll help you understand – even if you’re a total beginner – which sub-genre of bikepacking tickles your fancy and which type of bike will make it the most fun.

I have a lot of experience with this process! My own bikepacking style has evolved through several bikes, from my heavy-duty road touring bike (the one that started it all) to my current mountain bike. I ride thousands of loaded miles each year on every surface – pavement, gravel, and singletrack – and have done so on both “the right bike” and “the wrong bike.” I talk to other bikepackers, read bike forums, and email with my readers about their bike questions. I’m a total bike nerd!

So let’s talk bikes and bikepacking. More specifically, let’s talk about what kind of bikepacking captures your imagination and refuses to let go, and what kind of bike would be best to take you there.

The Bike You Have?

It’s popular for experienced bikepackers to answer the newbie question “What’s the best bike for bikepacking?” with a glib “The bike that’s already in your garage.” I’m guilty of it myself.

This is exactly what some people need to hear. If you have a bike, any bike, and you’ve never done an overnight trip before, this is the perfect place to start. Here are ideas for your first bike camping overnight. Have fun and come back when you’re done! I’ll wait.

But if you’re a bit further along in your explorations, “any bike” is a supremely unhelpful answer. If you’re already a cyclist of any kind, or you already road tour and want to try off-road bikepacking, or you’re about to make a serious investment in a new bike… you’re going to want some real guidance!

So yes, any bike will work, and don’t let the lack of a perfect bike get in the way of heading out on an adventure. But if you’re looking for the best bike for your bikepacking style and favorite types of terrain, read on for practical advice.

Just Regular Bikes

A quick clarification: We often talk about “bikepacking bikes,” but most bikes that people bikepack with are just regular bikes – the kind people often ride without days worth of gear and supplies.

Sure, more manufacturers are hopping on the bandwagon and marketing certain models as bikepacking-capable. The Salsa Fargo is a classic example. But you can ride those bikes without gear and you can put gear on other bikes.

It’s true that bikes designed for bikepacking have some helpful features. They’ll often have a comfy all-day geometry and bolts for mounting cages and racks, and they’re sturdy enough to take some knocks. But plenty of other bikes can work too; you’ll just have to do a bit more detective work to make sure they meet your needs (or look to the examples below as a starting point).

Beyond that, what really makes a bike great for bikepacking comes down to what type of bikepacking you want to do.

Types of Bikepacking

The best bike for bikepacking depends on what kind of bikepacking you want to do. A Jeep Wrangler and a Ford Mustang are both cars, but if someone asked you which one they should buy, you would probably ask them about the kind of driving they want to do.

Bikes are a similar deal. We have road bikes, gravel bikes, and mountain bikes (and countless smaller sub-categories) because each style has a set of features that make riding that specific type of terrain more comfortable and fun. Geometry, tire width, suspension, gearing, handlebar shape… The right choices for the terrain can make the difference between bumbling through and having a blast.

Related: Handlebars for Bikepacking: Drop, Flat, Alt – How to Choose?

Bikepacking, as it’s usually defined in the US at least, refers to multiday riding with a focus on unpaved surfaces. It can also refer to the style of gear often used for more rugged routes where it’s important to stay light and nimble: minimalist soft bags instead of racks and large panniers. Some people put these minimalist bags on a road bike and ride pavement and call it bikepacking – who am I to argue? So I’ll include some notes for pavement pedalers too.

In general though, we’re talking unpaved surfaces. But what kind of unpaved surfaces? There’s a wide world of difference between a well-maintained gravel road and a gnarly backcountry trail. Both would be considered bikepacking, but the ideal bike for each is very different.

The Less Bike / More Bike Continuum

You’ll hear cyclists talk about overbiking and underbiking, which is where you have “more bike” or “less bike” than ideal for the terrain, respectively. What on earth does more bike mean?

Generally, features that add to the comfort, capability, and durability of a bike on rougher terrain are considered “more bike.” Suspension (front and sometimes rear), wider and knobbier tires, and wider and more durable rims are all examples. If you try to ride gnarly trails on a gravel bike, you’re lacking most of these features and “underbiking.” You can do it, but it won’t be comfy and you may need to get off and walk in places.

On the other hand, “more bike” adds weight and complexity. If you’re just riding smooth pavement you don’t really want a suspension weighing you down and dissipating your power. You’d be “overbiking” to ride a hardtail mountain bike on a mostly paved route. You can do it; it’ll just be slower and more work.

The rest of this post is all about deciding “how much bike” is best for the riding you want to do. But first, let’s get oriented. Here’s a graphic showing broad categories of bikepacking bikes (really just bikes in general) ordered from less bike to more bike.

Bikepacking bikes infographic showing which type of terrain each bike style is best for.

With that in mind, let’s deep dive into each category of terrain and style of bike and talk about why it might, or might not, be your favorite.

Paved Roads and Light Gravel

In the U.S. at least, we usually use the term “bikepacking” for off-pavement adventures. But for some people, bikepacking just means attaching some overnight gear to a bike. So as not to leave these folks out, let’s start with pavement and light gravel. You might also call this bike touring, gravel touring, or dirt road touring.

The Vibe

For many people this style of bikepacking is the most approachable: just point the bike forward and pedal, no special riding skills required. You’re never too far from civilization if something goes wrong, which is great for beginners. You’ll often find more services – motels, restaurants, stores – along these types of routes, so the luxury factor is higher.

The main downside: more motor vehicle traffic. You’ll want to choose your route carefully, but with a little work you can still find some lovely stretches of quiet road (or even better, rail trails) for your bikepacking adventures.

Here’s what this style of bikepacking can look like:

Rainbow over country road in Oregon
Central Oregon (Bike Nonstop US)
Bikepacker on dirt road in Mendocino National Forest
California (Mendocino National Forest)

Example Routes

If you get into this style of bikepacking, here are some of the places you could be riding.

Best Bikes for Bikepacking Light Gravel and Pavement

Nearly any bike can work for this style of bikepacking, but some will be more efficient and comfortable than others. Generally you’re looking for a fully rigid frame (no suspension), narrower and smoother tires, and usually (but not always) drop handlebars.

Here are the categories and examples of bikes that work best for bikepacking on pavement and light gravel.

Road Touring Bikes: Sturdy, loaded with bolts and mounting options, and built for long adventures, road touring bikes are a good option for those looking to get into multiday riding in a big way. They’re not as fun and fast as a regular road bike when unloaded, and they’re not as capable as a gravel bike off-pavement, but they’re perfect for long-distance road touring and make excellent commuter bikes. Popular examples:

Road Bikes (adventure / endurance focus): For riders who want a little more zip on unloaded rides, a regular road bike can be used for touring / bikepacking on mellow terrain. Road bike posture can be quite aggressive on the racier end, so look for models focused on endurance instead of short-distance speed. Options are endless, but here are a few popular models specifically intended for long and varied riding:

Gravel Bikes (adventure / endurance focus): Except for die-hard roadies, many bikepackers find themselves drawn to gravel and dirt sooner or later. A gravel bike leaves plenty of room to grow in that direction while still being light enough to not feel bogged down on pavement. Here are a few of the best gravel bikes for bikepacking:

Hybrid Bikes: You don’t hear much about hybrid bikes for bikepacking; they’re more of an entry-level category focused on commuting and neighborhood rides. But if you already have a hybrid bike it can work perfectly well for pavement and light gravel bikepacking. The upright posture and flat bars make for a comfy and accessible riding posture, and some models come with rack and fender mounts. Examples of hybrid bikes that could work for light bikepacking:

Rougher Gravel Roads and Smooth Trails

As new gravel riders quickly learn, there’s gravel and then there’s gravel. In this category we’ll include unpaved roads that aren’t quite as nicely groomed. They might be chunky, washboarded, potholed, or rutted, but are still accessible to a normal 2wd car.

Let’s also throw in well-graded buff singletrack, because it’s a ton of fun and you can ride it on a similar bike with similar skills. Mixing in high-quality trails, where available, is a great way to get away from cars and enjoy some peace and quiet.

The Vibe

This style is a great happy medium between more civilized roads and more rugged trails. You won’t need to master any technical riding skills, but you’ll get to venture further from civilization (and traffic) and explore more remote areas. You’ll have a wide range of routes available to you and can mix things up with plenty of variety.

Here’s what this style of bikepacking can look like:

Colorado (GDMBR)
Very washboarded gravel road
California (Lake Tahoe)

Example Routes

If you get into this style of riding, you have a lot of options. Here are some routes that fit this category:

  • Oregon Outback: Dirt and gravel roads, not too remote but occasionally a bit rough, traversing Oregon from north to south.
  • Idaho Hot Springs: Dirt and gravel forest service roads through scenic mountains with opportunities for soothing soaks.
  • Great Divide Mountain Bike Route: One of the most famous bikepacking routes in the world, this 2700 mile epic falls mostly into the gravel and dirt road category, but also includes pavement and a bit of rougher terrain.
  • Carretera Austral, Chile: A stunning mostly gravel route (especially the southern half; northern half has more pavement) through scenic Patagonia.

Best Bikes for Bikepacking Rougher Unpaved Roads and Singletrack

This style of bikepacking is perfect for a sturdy gravel bike or rigid mountain bike. Most riders won’t find a front suspension worth the extra weight here, but it wouldn’t be out of place and would add comfort on long days. A 29er mountain bike with two forks you swap between – rigid for this type of riding and a suspension fork for burlier terrain – is one of the most versatile bikepacking setups out there.

Bikes suited for this terrain can fit tires that are at least 45mm wide, and 29 x 2 or 2.2″ tires would be even better. If they have drop bars, they’re typically wider and flared (gravel style). They might also have flat bars (MTB style) which offer a bit more control on rough surfaces, and they’ll probably have disc brakes. Gearing should be low enough to grind up a steep bumpy climb.

Most road bikes will be in over their head on this type of terrain, mainly due to limited tire width and less stable geometry. A full suspension bike would be overkill, adding unnecessary complexity and reducing cargo space for no real benefit.

Here are the categories and examples of bikes that work best for bikepacking on rougher unpaved roads and smooth trails.

Gravel Bikes (adventure / endurance focus): Gravel bikes are a perfect fit for this style of bikepacking; capable enough off-road but not overburdened by heavier mountain bike features. Here are a few of the best gravel bikes for bikepacking:

Rigid / Drop bar Mountain Bikes: This motley category of bikes is specifically designed for multiday riding on rugged unpaved roads and light trails. Sometimes also called “adventure bikes” or specifically “bikepacking bikes,” these rigs are generally fully rigid, often (but not always) sport wide drop bars, and offer plenty of clearance for MTB tires and lots of mounting points for gear. Here are some popular examples:

Hardtail Mountain Bikes (endurance / cross-country focus): A hardtail mountain bike has a suspension fork in front to smooth out bumps, and no suspension (“hard”) in the rear (“tail”). While not strictly necessary for this style of non-technical bikepacking, the suspension fork adds comfort on long days. The tradeoff is heavier weight, more maintenance and complexity, and potentially less handlebar gear capacity on smaller frames.

If you’re drawn to the more rugged routes in the next section down, a hardtail is probably the right choice for your bikepacking bike. It’s a large category, so look specifically for bikes focused on endurance riding and cross-country trails as opposed to downhill performance. The geometry of the latter will be less efficient and comfy for the climbs and flats, which there will be plenty of in bikepacking.

Examples of hardtail bikes that are good for bikepacking:

Cross / Cyclocross Bikes: Before the category of gravel bikes exploded, people talked about cyclocross racing bikes being good for bikepacking. Their blend of road and mountain biking features filled a similar niche, but focused more on speed over short distances. These days the gravel category offers so many alternatives – many with better cargo capacity, wider gearing, and a comfier ride – that I wouldn’t recommend buying a cross bike specifically for bikepacking. But if you already have one, by all means, load it up and try it out!

Rough 4×4 Roads and Somewhat Technical Trails

This super engaging style of bikepacking is where a lot of mountain bikers start, or where gravel riders end up if they find themselves pulled toward more rugged riding. It includes vast networks of 4×4 roads in various states of disrepair, often perfect for dispersed camping, as well as interesting singletrack trails.

The Vibe

This style offers a ton of rewarding route options in beautiful and remote places. You’ll need to develop some bike handling skills beyond just pedaling, but nothing most people can’t pick up with practice (or you can just get off and walk for a bit). It takes focus and is a more dynamic style of riding; don’t expect to just turn on the tunes and zone out to the rhythm of your pedaling.

Expect a full-body workout from physical riding and some hike-a-bike. You may find yourself walking around the occasional bigger obstacle or dragging your bike up a steep and loose hillside. Pack light and tight, and expect to get dirty. You’ll want to be self-reliant with your outdoor skills and bike repair knowledge, because you won’t meet (m)any vehicles on these types of trails and “roads.”

Here’s what this style of bikepacking can look like:

New Mexico
California (Bones to Blue, Lake Tahoe)

Example Routes

If you’re drawn to bikepacking rough 4×4 roads and moderate trails, here are some routes you’ll enjoy:

  • Fools Loop: Chunky service roads and singletrack through diverse desert landscapes north of Phoenix, Arizona.
  • Tahoe Twirl: Epic loop around Lake Tahoe featuring fire roads and plenty of singletrack, both smooth and rocky.
  • Baldy Bruiser: A burly southern California route with plenty of chunky, sandy, and rocky 4×4 roads.
  • Grand Staircase Loop: Dramatic and varied ride in southern Utah with some smooth gravel and some rougher 4×4 trails.

Best Bikes for Bikepacking Rough 4×4 Roads and Moderate Singletrack

This style of bikepacking is where most riders appreciate a hardtail (front suspension) mountain bike, or at least a rigid mountain bike with beefy knobby tires (29 x 2.3″ or wider). Most of these bikes will have wide flat handlebars for control, except for drop bar mountain bikes which have wide “dirt drop” bars. You’ll absolutely want disc brakes, and many riders like a dropper seat post for rougher descents.

Skilled and persistent riders sometimes underbike these routes on gravel bikes, but it’s not most people’s idea of fun. On the other side of the spectrum, a full-suspension mountain bike isn’t out of the question here, but it’s not necessary and the limited cargo space will have you struggling to fit all your gear.

Here are the categories and examples of bikes that work best for bikepacking on rough 4×4 roads and moderately technical trails.

Rigid / Drop bar Mountain Bikes: This motley category of bikes is specifically designed for multiday riding on rugged unpaved roads and light trails. With wide tires and some skill it can stretch to moderately technical trails, where it offers some of a hardtail’s capabilities without the weight and complexity of a suspension fork.

Sometimes also called “adventure bikes” or specifically “bikepacking bikes,” these rigs are generally fully rigid, often (but not always) sport wide drop bars, and offer plenty of clearance for MTB tires and lots of mounting points for gear. Here are some popular examples:

Hardtail Mountain Bikes (endurance / cross-country focus): A hardtail mountain bike has a suspension fork in front to smooth out bumps, and no suspension (“hard”) in the rear (“tail”). It’s an excellent choice for this style of bikepacking and can also get you down the more technical trails in the next section.

Hardtails are a large category, so look specifically for bikes focused on endurance riding and cross-country trails as opposed to downhill performance. The geometry of the latter will be less efficient and comfy for the climbs and flats, which there will be plenty of in bikepacking.

Examples of hardtail mountain bikes that are good for bikepacking:

Very Technical Trails

If this is your preferred style of bikepacking, you already know it. You probably already have or covet a full-suspension bike and spend your free time practicing drops, lifts, and corners.

The Vibe

This is a mountain biker’s style of bikepacking. You’ll get to enjoy some incredibly rugged and scenic places, but you’ll have to work for the privilege. The riding – and the hike-a-bike – can be physical and burly. This is full-body biking, and you’ll need a light and dialed gear setup.

Riding technical trails takes mental focus (and a taste for a bit of adrenaline), so don’t expect to space out and listen to podcasts all day. You’ll need to enjoy the process of improving your bike handling skills and dealing with obstacles, both loaded and on day rides. It’s smart to have outdoor experience and bike repair knowledge, because you can find yourself in some very remote and hard-to-reach places.

In many areas it’s hard to link up long distances of good technical trails, and it would be exhausting anyway. So riders who enjoy this category tend to also ride less technical terrain on bikepacking trips. But generally they’re the ones who, when faced with some rocky singletrack on an otherwise mostly gravel route, will be saying “Yeehaw!” instead of “Oh crap.”

Here’s what bikepacking technical trails can look like:

California (Tour de los Padres)
California (Bones to Blue)
California (Tour de los Padres)

Example Routes

If you’re into bikepacking the most technical trails, you’ll love routes like these:

  • Colorado Trail: Epic and arduous high-elevation ride between Denver and Durango featuring plenty of technical riding and no shortage of hike-a-bike.
  • Arizona Trail: Another famous long-distance ride from the Mexico border to the Utah border, mainly on singletrack and often rocky.
  • Bones to Blue: Singletrack-heavy double loop around Truckee and Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada including all the bike legal sections of the Tahoe Rim Trail.

Best Bikes for Bikepacking Technical Trails

To ride this terrain as smoothly and comfortably as possible, you want a full-suspension (sometimes called full-squish) mountain bike. Many bikepackers will choose to underbike slightly with a hardtail, for its better cargo capacity and for less technical sections of the route. You can always get off and walk where the trail gets a little too gnarly.

You won’t see gravel bikes out here, and even a rigid mountain bike wouldn’t be very much fun. Almost everyone will want at least front suspension, flat MTB-style handlebars, a dropper seatpost, and 29×2.3″ or wider tires (even wider for 27.5″ diameter).

Consider wearing a backpack to carry some of your gear, both for extra space and to keep your bike lighter for technical riding and hike-a-bikes. Rear suspension and a dropper seatpost, and to some extent front suspension, can really eat into your on-bike gear space.

Here are the categories and examples of bikes that work best for bikepacking on very technical trails.

Hardtail Mountain Bikes (endurance / cross-country focus): A hardtail mountain bike has a suspension fork in front to smooth out bumps, and no suspension (“hard”) in the rear (“tail”). Hardtails can be underbiking on really technical trails, but many bikepackers use them anyway because they’re simpler and more versatile, hold more cargo, and generally cost less.

Hardtails are a large category, so look specifically for bikes focused on endurance riding and cross-country trails as opposed to downhill performance. The geometry of the latter will be less efficient and comfy for the climbs and flats, which there will be plenty of in bikepacking. That said, if you’re on the fence between a hardtail and a full-suspension (see below) you may want to choose a slightly more progressive geometry.

Examples of hardtail bikes that are good for technical bikepacking:

Full-Suspension Mountain Bikes (endurance and cross-country focus): For a smooth-ish ride on the most technical trails, a full-suspension bike is the best option. They’re not the most popular choice for bikepacking due to their expensive price tag, added complexity (more parts that can break), and limited cargo space. You’ll almost certainly need to wear a backpack, but that’s fine because you’ll want to keep the bike light for these gnarly trails anyway.

If you really love technical mountain biking, especially if you want a bike that does double-duty for bikepacking and your regular rides, a full-suspension could be right for you. Here are a few full-squish mountain bikes commonly used for bikepacking:

Multiple Styles

I can hear you thinking: “I want ALL of that! I don’t want to choose.”

It’s very common for bikepackers to enjoy multiple styles of terrain, either on different trips or during the same mixed-terrain route. Many of the best bikepacking routes span a wide range, linking up sections of fun trail and rough backroads with a bit of pavement where necessary.

If your wild bikepacking spirit can’t be confined to a narrow range of terrain, you have a few options.

More bikes: The classic “n+1 problem” is real. Bikepack for long enough and you may end up with a quiver of more specialized bikes to maximize fun and performance on specific types of terrain. The obvious downside: bikes are expensive. So let’s discuss other options.

Compromise bike: This solution looks for the middle of the more bike / less bike spectrum that suits your interests. If you want to ride everything from pavement to moderate singletrack, for example, a burly gravel bike or efficient drop bar MTB will suit you well, especially if you can eventually spring for a second wheelset with wider or narrower rims.

Majority bike: If you can only have one bike, get one that’s well-suited to the type of riding you do most often (including your non-bikepacking rides). Within that category, err slightly on the side of your next-favorite type of riding. For example, if you ride a lot of pavement for your commute but want to sometimes bikepack on gravel, get a gravel-leaning road or touring bike. If you love to ride trails for fun after work but want to sometimes bikepack on gravel and dirt roads, a hardtail is probably the best choice (and you could consider a second rigid fork to swap in).

Versatile bike and extra parts: Some bikes are designed to be highly adaptable. You might be able to swap between 29 and 27.5″ wheelsets so you can run a wide range of rims and tires; perhaps a narrower 29″ tire for gravel and a wider 27.5″ for trails. A suspension-corrected rigid fork can be swapped out for a suspension fork, making a rigid mountain bike into a hardtail (or vice versa). Look for this type of compatibility in the specs as you consider a new bike.

Underbike or overbike: Some folks really love their full-suspension MTB and will ride it anywhere. Some folks insist on shredding singletrack with their racy gravel bikes. It’s a matter of personal style and won’t suit everyone, but it illustrates one of my favorite things about bikepacking: sometimes it’s more about the rider and attitude than the bike.

Buy and sell used: Bikes are expensive, but you can keep costs manageable as your interests evolve by looking for deals on used bikes and selling old bikes that no longer meet your needs. Craigslist and eBay are classic go-to’s, but there are also Facebook groups specifically for bikepacking bikes and gear: Bikepacking Swap Meet and Salsa and Surly Trader are good examples.

Final Thoughts

As you dream about your future bikepacking adventures, I hope this post helps you envision a fun and comfortable bike with which to take them on. Do your best to find a good fit, but don’t get too caught up in analysis paralysis.

Your interests are sure to evolve as you gain experience. Though we all want that magical unicorn forever bike, bikes can be modified and even sold (I know, we don’t like to think about that, but it’s true).

The most important part is to find a bike that suits your current passions, and then get out there and ride it! The rest is all part of the bikepacking adventure.

More Bikepacking Resources

If you’re getting into bikepacking, you might find these helpful:

Or, visit the bikepacking resources page for lots more!

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve traveled over 19,000 miles by bike and still can’t stop planning my next ride (and helping you plan yours). Pavement and panniers or singletrack and seat bag, I love it all. On my bike I feel free. Learn more about me here.

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    11 thoughts on “Bikepacking Bikes: The Best Choice for YOUR Riding Goals (Visual Guide)”

    1. As a long time road touring cyclist, now GDMBR bike packer, I have to say this is THE best summary I have read for folks setting out on their first rides. Your chart is ingenious!

    2. As always, I found your article(s) to be useful, inspiring, insightful and for me – timely. I plan to ride the Great Divide this summer and am looking to buy the perfect bike. Thanks for your guidance.


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