Beginner’s Guide to Bikepacking Bags

Welcome to the weird world of bikepacking bags! These funny-looking pouches and packs might seem odd at first, but together they form a rugged trail-worthy setup that won’t rattle over washboard, break in a crash, or weigh you down (too much) on the climbs.

I’ll be the first to admit that building a collection of bikepacking bags can be daunting. The good news is, you don’t have to figure it all out at once.

I’ve built my bikepacking bag collection slowly over many thousands of miles, and I’m still making tweaks for each new trip. If I’m being totally honest, for me the bag puzzle is actually part of the fun.

In this beginner’s guide to bikepacking bags I’ll walk you through the major categories and their purposes. I’ll also share my recommendations on where to start, what you can do without, and how to save money (all based on over 20,000 miles of bikepacking experience, because I’m totally obsessed with this weird sport).

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Frame Bag

My Rogue Panda custom-fit frame bag

If you’re just beginning your bikepacking bag search, a frame bag is a great place to start. It makes efficient use of an otherwise empty area perfectly located for carrying heavy things. It can be used alongside pretty much any other setup, including traditional rack and panniers if you end up going that route.

Why it’s great: efficient use of space, low and centered location great for carrying heavy stuff with minimal impact on bike handling

Limitations: small bikes and full-suspension bikes have less space here

Styles: full, partial (top half or wedge)

Price range: $40 – $250+

What typically goes in it: heavy things like water bladder, tools, food (not necessarily all at once)

Decisions to make: stock or custom fit, full triangle bag or partial with room for water bottles

Money-saving tip: A frame bag is hard to DIY without sewing skills, but you don’t necessarily need to spring for an expensive custom-fit bag. Check the measurements of stock bags to see if they’ll fit your frame.

Read more about frame bags:

Handlebar Bag

My Revelate Designs Handlebar Harness and Egress Pouch with MLD UltraX Dry Bag

After a frame bag, a handlebar harness / bag is the next investment I suggest for new bikepackers. The right system can handle a wide range of capacities and pair with any back-of-bike setup (seatbag, panniers, etc), so it’s a really flexible piece of gear.

For maximum flexibility I recommend a separate harness and dry bag so you can swap in different capacity bags for different trips, or even hold an un-bagged item like a folding foam sleep pad. I’m also a big fan of add-on front pouches for easy access to small items (sunscreen, snacks, etc) during the day.

Why it’s great: lots of space for light bulky items

Limitations: drop handlebars limit width (most bags can be rolled up to fit), suspension forks can limit bag diameter on small 29er bikes, packing too heavy makes technical riding hard

Styles: integrated bag plus harness, separate harness and dry bag, top-loader, add-on front pouch

Price range: $50 – $250+

What typically goes in it: light but bulky items like sleeping bag and pad, warm clothing, tent

Decisions to make: harness plus separate dry bag or integrated all-in-one, roll closures on both sides (easy access) or just one side, bag capacity, minimalist or burly, optional front pouch for small items

Handlebar Bag / Harness Examples

Money-saving tip: For short rides on smooth terrain you can simply strap a dry bag or tent to your handlebars using rubber Voile straps. Over long distances this can rub on brake and shift housing, but it works fine for short trips.

Read more about handlebar bags:

Seat Bag

My Revelate Designs Viscacha seat bag

A seat bag / saddle bag, usually seen hovering improbably over a knobby rear tire, is perhaps the most iconic of all bikepacking bags. It’s also one of the trickiest to get right, in my experience. It’s important to choose the right size for your gear and bike, and to make sure it’s packed tightly and mounted properly to reduce bouncing, swaying, and drooping.

Seat bag capacity varies widely, from ultralight 6 liter packs to burly 14 liter cargo haulers. Smaller packs are easier to deal with, especially on rough terrain, but are impractical for longer or more involved trips. Seat bags can be notoriously hard to pack droop-free, so premium models often come with a stiff spine and no-slip buckles. If you really get into bikepacking you might end up buying more than one seat bag for different types of trips.

Why it’s great: light and aerodynamic rear storage (compared to panniers)

Limitations: small 29ers, dropper seat posts, and full-suspension bikes all have limited clearance above rear tire

Styles: integrated, harness plus removable dry bag, dropper post optimized

Price range: $40 – $200+

What typically goes in it: clothes, food, electronics, pretty much anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere

Decisions to make: bag capacity, dropper seat post compatibility, removable dry bag or all-in-one

Money-saving tip: You can make your own small “seat bag” by clipping a dry bag (5 to 8 liters usually works best) around your seat post and running a strap beneath it and up through your saddle rails (learn how).

Read more about seat bags:

Top Tube Bag

My Rogue Panda Alamo top tube bag

Moving into the arena of smaller “accessory bags,” a top tube bag offers on-the-go access to all those small items we need during the day. It’s not just for bikepacking either — your top tube bag can do double duty holding small essentials for day rides.

Top tube bags seem simple but there are choices to be made in terms of size and attachment style, and there are tons of options available from big brands and small shops alike. Two main subcategories exist: front-mounted bags that sit against the stem (“gas tanks”) and rear mounted bags that nestle against the seat post (“jerry cans”). Run either, both, or even the rare full-length top tube bag if you have the standover clearance.

Why it’s great: easy access to small items while riding, useful for day rides too

Limitations: larger bags can be wobbly, some strap configurations might conflict with frame bags, shorter riders can have standover clearance issues with larger bags

Styles: front (gas tank), rear (jerry can), full length

Price range: $20 – $70

What typically goes in it: snacks, sunglasses, sunscreen, phone, small electronics, wallet

Decisions to make: bag capacity; front, rear, or both; bolt on (if your bike has top tube eyelets) or straps

Money-saving tips: In my experience there’s a relatively small functional difference between cheap top tube bags and expensive ones.

Read more about top tube bags:

Feed Bag

My two Revelate Designs Mountain Feedbags while bikepacking in Tahoe

Feed bags, also called stem bags, are another handy accessory bag for small items. They’re especially great for holding snacks, hence the name, but can also hold water bottles or any other small items. They nestle into the corner between stem and handlebars, often have small outer pockets, and close with a drawstring cinch cord. You’ll often see them in pairs.

Be on the lookout for a flexible and strong attachment system, especially if you plan to ride rough terrain. Feed bags built for mountain biking usually have a fork crown strap to keep them from bouncing.

Why it’s great: versatile easy-access storage for water bottles or small items

Limitations: too many straps can clutter cockpit, large bags can graze knees for some riders

Styles: fairly standardized

Price range: $20 – $60

What typically goes in it: snacks, water bottle, sunglasses, phone, other small things

Decisions to make: one side or both

Money-saving tips: Stem bags aren’t that expensive, but you can also use a rock climbing chalk bag if you happen to have one sitting around. This may not be stable and durable enough for rough riding, but it’s great for getting started on smoother terrain.

Read more about feed bags:

Cargo Cage + Fork Bag

My Blackburn Outpost cargo cages loaded down with 5 liter RockBros dry bags and extra water.

Though fork bags in cargo cages technically break the rule of “bikepacking bags use soft attachment systems,” they’re such a core part of many bikepacking setups that I can’t leave them out. I use fork bags all the time when I need to add a little more gear or water capacity to my setup, though I do try to avoid them when packing light.

A cargo cage is like an oversized water bottle holder that can hold large bottles and also dry bags, usually between 2 and 5 liters. This system is nicely modular so you can swap out the bags or bottles for different trips, perhaps loading up with 5 liters per side for a long tour and running lighter when it’s feasible. Bags can range from a simple dry bag to a purpose-built bikepacking bag with structured shape and mounting straps or bolts. The same setup can also be mounted beneath your downtube if you have space.

Whatever else you do, strap your dry bags to your cargo cages with two rubber Voile straps. Go long, like 25″, for the most versatility — you can always tuck away the extra tails.

Why it’s great: low position on bike is good for handling, versatile and affordable way to add more capacity

Limitations: harder to mount on forks without eyelets (though still possible), too much weight impacts bike handling

Styles: simple dry bag, specialized bags with webbing loops

Price range: $20 – $60 (plus $30 – $50 for cage)

What typically goes in it: water, clothes, food, stove and fuel, sleeping pad, pretty much anything

Decisions to make: which cage, how to mount cage if no eyelets, capacity of bags

Fork Bag Examples

Any of those bags can be strapped to a cargo cage like the Blackburn Outpost or Salsa Anything Cage.

Money-saving tips: In some cases you might not even need a dry bag. If your gear already comes in a stuff sack, like a sleeping pad or tent, you can simply strap it to a cargo cage. But be aware that your gear is not well protected if you lay your bike down.

Read more about fork bags:

Panniers, Bikepacking-Style

My REI Co-op Link Panniers providing extra capacity in Central Asia

When bikepacking bags first exploded in popularity, they were seen as an alternative to traditional touring panniers. But then people started realizing it was hard to fit everything into a seat bag, and bikepacking panniers made a comeback.

A modern bikepacking-focused pannier is usually a bit smaller, has a very rugged attachment system that might be made from soft (rattle-proof) materials, and aims to be lightweight and low-profile.

Why it’s great: more capacity for when you just can’t fit everything in a saddle bag

Limitations: tempting to overpack, can get in the way during hike-a-bike, often harder to remove from rack than regular panniers

Styles: micro, mini, full size

Price range: $70 – $250

What typically goes in it: anything and everything

Decisions to make: which rack, pannier capacity, mounting style, rack compatibility

Bikepacking Pannier Examples

Budget

Haven’t found any good ones yet

Money-saving tips: Panniers are one of the more expensive bikepacking bags. If you’re on a budget and need more capacity than soft bags and cargo cages can provide, you might look into creative ways to strap dry bags to the top and sides of a rear rack.

Read more about bikepacking panniers:

More Bikepacking Bag Tips

As you can see, choosing your bikepacking bags can be a bit of a puzzle but it’s also pretty darn fun. Here are a few more tips to help you navigate the process.

What’s your preferred riding style and terrain? A singletrack-ready setup for technical mountain biking should be light, tight, and dialed in if you want to have fun. You can get away with a lot more weight, droop, and bounce on gravel or pavement.

Don’t be afraid to bikepack with a backpack if you’re just getting started. Whether it’s a small hydration pack or a larger hiking pack, the added space will take pressure off your bikepacking bag setup while you learn what you need.

Not sure where to start? First decide where you’ll pack two of the largest and most unwieldy items: your tent (ideas here) and your water (ideas here). Then let everything else fall into place around those.

Not every bikepacking trip uses the same gear list and style, in fact there’s a wide range between ultralight and ultra-prepared. My ideal bikepacking bag system is modular and flexible, meaning I can swap components in and out (sometimes just changing the size of the dry bags on handlebars and fork) depending on the style of the trip.

Shorter people have more challenges when it comes to bikepacking bags. Our frame triangles are small and we have to watch out for tire rub on seat and handlebar bags, especially with 29″ wheels. Smaller bikepackers should consider tire clearance, aim for smaller bag capacity when needed, and consider adding a small backpack to their setup. More tips here: bikepacking for shorter people.

Bikepacking bags span a very wide price range, and it can be hard to know where you’ll find the most value. Should you start with something cheap and then upgrade later once you’ve learned what you like? Or should you invest in higher quality upfront and hopefully not have to buy again? Only you can decide how confident you feel in your current preferences. Personally I stuck with cheaper bags until I gained more experience, and I’m glad I did. Two bikes later and I’ve completely changed my riding and gear style, and have much more confidence in my bag choices.

For quality gear at lower prices, I highly recommend buying used bikepacking gear. In the same vein, sell your gear if you decide to upgrade or go a different direction. There’s always another eager bikepacker out there waiting to snap it up.

More Bikepacking Resources

If you found this article helpful, you might also like these:

Or visit the bikepacking section 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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    6 thoughts on “Beginner’s Guide to Bikepacking Bags”

    1. Great comprehensive list of nformation.
      I have 2 sets of Ortleibs.. front rollers and classics for the rear for my road touring 520. Not cheap, but they work!
      I still use a set of Bike Nashbar (remember them?) rear panniers on my IronHorse hard tail dirt bike. (an ‘07 Warrior 5.0)
      They worked well on a rack for my first GAP-C&O blast thru, but you point out some good tips!
      I found a frame bag to be ‘annoying’ to my knees and thighs, hence a rear rack and smaller panniers.
      Thank you!

      Reply
      • Thanks! Interesting point about the frame bag, just goes to show how every body + bike + bag combo is different. I agree about Ortliebs, they were a splurge but I have nothing negative to say about them (for roads at least).

        Reply
    2. For the first 1000 miles on my Cutthroat I had a Salsa Anything cage out front. When I learned how valuable the comfort of aerobars is I returned the Anything Cage to REI and simply strapped a Sea to Summit Dry bag under the aerobars. It turned out to be a great setup for all 2500 miles of the Great Divide.

      Reply

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