Bikepacking Bikes: A Terrain-First Approach to Choosing Your Steed

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 this type of shenanigan?

To those of us already deep down the bikepacking rabbit hole, this is a complicated question. Asking “what’s the best bike for bikepacking” is like asking “What’s the best car for a road trip?” and being presented with this list: Subaru Forester, Volkswagen Jetta, Dodge Grand Caravan, Ford Mustang…

Well, how do you like to drive? What’s your budget? What are your priorities and personal style? How much stuff do you need to carry? Same deal with bikepacking bikes.

To choose the right bike, you first need to think about what bikepacking looks like to you. Squint into your bikepacking future: do you see long gravel climbs and descents? Twisty forest singletrack? Chunky desert doubletrack? Fast-and-light, or loaded to the gills? All of the above?

Coast handlebars pointing down red dirt road in central Oregon
This is bikepacking.
This is also bikepacking.
Also this.

To help you choose a bikepacking bike, I’m going to walk you through some common sub-genres of this surprisingly varied activity: what they look like, feel like, and the styles of bike that will make them the most fun.

I have a lot of experience with this process! I ride thousands of loaded miles each year on every type of surface and have done so on both “the right bike” and “the wrong bike.” My bikepacking setups span from road touring bike (the one that started it all) to hardtail mountain bike, with a lot of drop bars in between.

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.”

Yes, 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 frustrating and unhelpful answer. When you’re about to make a serious investment in a new bike, you’re going to want some real guidance! You’re in the right place.

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, manufacturers are hopping on the bandwagon and marketing certain models as bikepacking-capable. The Salsa Fargo is a classic example. These bikes do have some nice features out of the box like rack mounts, versatile geometry, all-day ergonomics, and low gearing.

But you can ride those bikes without gear and you can put gear on other bikes, especially with all the clever bag and rack solutions available these days.

Matching Bike to Terrain (Infographic)

Let’s start with a handy visualization I made for this article, which I’m rather proud of:

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

That graphic explains that 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 asks which one they should buy, you should 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 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 having a blast and just bumbling through.

The Less Bike – More Bike Continuum

A big part of choosing a bikepacking bike is dialing in the right amount of bike for your favorite type of terrain. What the heck does “the right amount of bike” mean?

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. The infographic above progresses from less bike at the top to more bike at the bottom.

Features that add to the comfort, capability, and durability of a bike on rougher terrain are “more bike.” Suspension, 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 therefore “underbiking.” You can do it, and some people even like it, but it won’t be as 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 suspension weighing you down, dissipating your power, and adding one more part that needs maintenance on a long trip. You’d be “overbiking” to ride a mountain bike on a mostly paved route. You can do it; it’ll just be slower and more work.

Now let’s dive into each category of terrain and style of bike and talk about why it might, or might not, be your favorite. Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • paved roads and light gravel
  • rough gravel and smooth trail
  • rough 4×4 roads and moderate singeltrack
  • technical singletrack

Paved Roads and Smooth Gravel

In the U.S. we usually use the term “bikepacking” to mean 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

This style of bikepacking is the most approachable: just point the bike forward and pedal. You’re never too far from civilization if something goes wrong, which is great for beginners. You’ll usually 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:

Example Routes

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

Best Bikes for Light Gravel and Pavement Bikepacking

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 and fork, narrower and smoother tires, and usually (but not always) drop handlebars.

Road Touring Bikes: Sturdy, loaded with cargo options, and built for long adventures, road touring bikes are a good option especially for riders who carry lots of gear. They tend to be heavy and they’re not as capable off-pavement as a gravel bike, but they’re strong and comfy and also make excellent commuter bikes. Popular examples:

Road Bikes (adventure / endurance focus): For riders who want a little more zip, a regular road bike can be used for touring / bikepacking on pavement and smooth gravel. Look for models focused on endurance instead of speed for a more relaxed riding posture. Here are a couple popular models designed for long and varied rides:

Gravel Bikes (adventure / endurance focus): Many bikepackers are drawn to more rugged gravel and dirt sooner or later. A gravel bike leaves room to grow in that direction while still being light enough to feel good on pavement. Here are a few gravel bikes popular with bikepackers:

Hybrid Bikes: You don’t hear much about hybrid bikes for bikepacking; they’re more of an entry-level category focused on neighborhood rides. But if you already have a hybrid it can work for light bikepacking thanks to its comfy upright posture, flat bars, and maybe rack and fender mounts. Examples:

Rough Gravel Roads and Smooth Trails

As new gravel riders quickly learn, there’s gravel and then there’s gravel. This category includes unpaved roads that aren’t as nicely groomed. They might be chunky, washboarded, potholed, or rutted, but are still accessible to a normal 2wd car (and more to the point, a gravel bike).

Let’s also throw in smooth 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 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
Idaho
California (Lake Tahoe)

Example Routes

If you get into this style of riding, you have many great route options. Here are some routes that fit this vibe:

  • 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 tiny bit of trail.
  • Carretera Austral, Chile: A stunning mostly gravel route (especially the southern half; northern half has more pavement) through scenic Patagonia.

Best Bikes for Rough Gravel and Smooth Trail

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 MTB-style flat bars for better control on rough surfaces, and they’ll probably have disc brakes. Gearing should be low enough to grind up a steep bumpy climb.

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, but it wouldn’t be out of place and would add comfort on long days.

If you can afford it, I’m a big fan of this setup: a 29er mountain bike with two forks you swap between, rigid for trips with more gravel and a suspension fork for trips with more trail and chunk. This is what I do with my Stella these days and it’s been working great.

Here are the bike categories that work best for bikepacking on rougher unpaved roads and smooth trails, arranged from “less bike” to “more bike.”

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

Rigid / Drop bar Mountain Bikes: This motley category of bikes is perfect for multiday riding on rugged unpaved roads and light trails. These rigs are generally fully rigid, have either flat bars or 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 (suspension fork in front, no suspension in rear) is a good choice for this style of bikepacking, especially if you prioritize comfort over speed or are intrigued by the rougher routes in the next section below.

Look for hardtails focused on endurance riding and cross-country trails as opposed to downhill performance. Downhill geometry is less efficient and comfy for the climbs and flats, of which there are plenty 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 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 is so extensive 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 Moderate Singletrack

This engaging style of bikepacking is where a lot of mountain bikers start, and where gravel riders with a thirst for adventure end up. It includes vast networks of 4×4 roads in various states of disrepair that are perfect for dispersed camping, and isn’t limited by the need to avoid a few sections of harder trail.

The Vibe

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

Pack light and tight, and expect to get dirty. You’ll want to be self-reliant with 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:

Montana
Lake Tahoe, California

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 dirt 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 mix of smooth gravel and rougher 4×4 trails.

Best Bikes for Rough 4×4 Roads and Moderate Singletrack

At this point in the less bike – more bike spectrum, we finally have a bikepacking style that justifies a suspension fork, or at least a rigid mountain bike with beefy knobby tires (2.3″ or wider). 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, but it’s not necessary and the limited cargo space can be a challenge.

Here are the bike categories that work best for bikepacking on rough 4×4 roads and moderate singletrack trails.

Rigid / Drop bar Mountain Bikes: This motley category of bikes is one of the most versatile. With wide tires and some skill they can stretch to moderately technical trails, where they offer some of a hardtail’s capabilities without the weight and complexity of a suspension fork. Popular examples:

Hardtail Mountain Bikes (endurance / cross-country focus): The ideal type of bikepacking bike for this terrain, in my opinion. Again, look for hardtails focused on endurance riding and cross-country trails as opposed to downhill performance.

Examples of hardtail mountain bikes popular with bikepackers:

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 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 “shredpacking” 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. You’ll need to enjoy the process of improving your bike handling skills, 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.

It’s hard to find long stretches of good technical trail, so riders who enjoy this category tend to also ride less technical terrain while bikepacking. But generally they’re the ones who, when faced with some rocky singletrack, 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)

Example Routes

If you’re into bikepacking 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 Technical Bikepacking

To ride this terrain as smoothly and comfortably as possible, you want a full-suspension mountain bike (and the skills to make the most of it). Many bikepackers will choose to underbike with a hardtail for versatility on mixed routes, and larger cargo capacity.

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 (rear suspension and a dropper seatpost, and to some extent front suspension, can really eat into on-bike gear space) and to keep your bike lighter for rough hike-a-bikes.

These are the bikes to consider if you love technical bikepacking:

Hardtail Mountain Bikes (endurance / cross-country focus): As usual, look for geometry that will be efficient on climbs and flats, not over-optimized for downhill. That said, riders in this category may have more developed preferences and a more aggressive riding style, so a slightly more aggressive geometry may be appropriate.

Examples of hardtail bikes that are good for technical bikepacking:

Full-Suspension Mountain Bikes (endurance and cross-country focus): If you really love technical mountain biking, especially if you want a bike that does double-duty for bikepacking and day rides, a full-suspension could be right for you. As with hardtails, look for a cross-country geometry that’s relatively efficient on climbs.

Here are a couple full-squish mountain bikes that work well for bikepacking:

Multiple Styles

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

Many bikepackers enjoy multiple styles, 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.

Compromise bike: This solution looks for the middle of your personal more bike / less bike spectrum. If you want to ride everything from pavement to moderate singletrack, 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 (to expand your tire options).

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 day 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).

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

Buy and sell used: Bikes are expensive, but you can manage costs 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 to take you there. 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 20,000 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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    13 thoughts on “Bikepacking Bikes: A Terrain-First Approach to Choosing Your Steed”

    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!

      Reply
    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.

      Reply
    3. This is awesome, thank you for writing and sharing!

      I’m curious – what are your favorite flat bar options (I much prefer an upright position) that are great for both bikepacking, everyday commuting, and are on the lighter/faster side of things?

      Reply
      • Hey Ryan, I have the SQLab 30X 16deg alloy bars on my mountain bike and they work well for me. The 16 degree backsweep is nice for a comfy wrist angle, and they have a version with some rise for more upright position. The Salsa Rustler Riser is a similar idea. Both also come in carbon if you’re serious about the lighter/faster thing. These are MTB-style bars.

        If you want an especially upright position, you might check out the Jones Loop H-bar. Lots of hand positions, cargo space, and backsweep without compromising too much on stability. Very popular with bikepackers as a flat bar substitute.

        Reply

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