While struggling up a nasty section of hike-a-bike on the Idaho Smoke ‘n Fire 400, the phrase “small person penalty” popped into my head.
I weigh 120 pounds, and that day my loaded steel bike weighed 55 pounds – almost half of me! The tall guy up ahead – let’s say he weighed a muscular 180 pounds – wasn’t fighting quite as hard to wrestle his steed up each rocky ledge.
And on the bumpy ride down after that shattering climb, he didn’t keep stopping to adjust his seat bag as it rubbed on his tire, because he had plenty of tire clearance.
No doubt this fellow racer had his own issues to deal with – we all do! But my point is that we smaller and shorter bikepackers face a specific set of challenges, and this post is all about dealing with them.
The issues boil down to three themes: finding a comfortable extra-small bike, maximizing gear carrying capacity, and dealing with the weight of a loaded bike.
To be clear, when I say smaller I mainly mean shorter. I’m thinking of folks around 5’5″ and under, with a special focus on the 4’10” to 5’2″ range. The majority of these people will be women, but this post is for any humans in this range, including men or older kids.
As a 5’5″ woman, I’m actually pretty lucky. Most bike models come in a size that fits me, and I can (just barely) fit a large seat bag on my 29er with only occasional tire rub. Woohoo! But the more I fine-tune my setup, the more I notice my size influencing my gear and packing decisions. Compared to backpacking, which I also love and where overall pack weight is the biggest issue, I find my size impacting my bikepacking experience in subtler ways.
I still haven’t found a good collection of tips and ideas to help small bikepackers, so I decided to create it! The advice in this article comes from my own experience as well as conversations with other riders, discussions in online bikepacking groups, and some careful research to fill in the gaps.
Bikes for Small Bikepackers
The first challenge for smaller riders is finding a bike that comes in a small enough frame size and offers a comfortable geometry. This can be hard because 1) some bike manufacturers don’t offer extra-small frames, and 2) some aspects of bike geometry don’t scale well to extra-small sizes.
Bike Fit Considerations
The details depend on a rider’s relative proportions, like whether their torso is longer or shorter than average relative to their legs. Still, many small cyclists will have a few issues in common.
Standover height is often the most limiting measurement for small cyclists. It’s the distance between your top tube and the ground, and determines whether your crotch will contact your frame when you straddle your bike. So yeah, it’s important. If standover height is less than your inseam length (distance from crotch to floor) plus one inch, things can get… uncomfortable. Smaller wheels and a sloped top tube lead to lower standover.
Reach is the horizontal distance between the top of your headtube and the seat post. In practical terms it affects how far forward you lean to reach the handlebars; a reach that’s too long can cause back and shoulder issues as well as saddle soreness. Reach can be decreased by choosing a shorter stem or different style of handlebars, so it’s less of a consideration when choosing your frame.
Toe overlap is when your toes contact your front wheel as you make tight low-speed turns. This is especially an issue for mountain bikers, who need to make exactly these types of maneuvers to navigate obstacles on the trail. Small bike frames with large wheels are especially prone to toe overlap.
The biggest factor in all of these issues is wheel size. If a frame is scaled down without decreasing wheel size, the geometry gets, well, all wonky. Riding posture and bike handling both suffer. Reach and standover height will be too large for small riders, and toe overlap is harder to avoid.
Though big 29″ wheels are increasingly popular on mountain bikes (and 700c for road bikes), they limit the smaller end of a bike’s size range and make it hard to fit bikepacking bags. Many short bikepackers avoid 29ers in order to get more cargo clearance and a geometry better proportioned to their body size. That said, 29 inch wheels have advantages, and a few manufacturers are putting effort into designing small 29er mountain bikes.
Instead, look for frames designed around 27.5″ wheels (or 650b in road biking terms). Some bikes like the Surly ECR pair 27.5″ wheels with smaller sizes and 29″ wheels with larger sizes of the same model, which makes a ton of sense.
Some frames are designed to take either 29″ or 27.5″ wheels, so you could swap out your 29er’s wheels for a smaller size. This would help with some issues like bag tire clearance and standover, but doesn’t change the geometry of the frame. Ideally a small bike would be designed specifically around smaller wheels.
The once-standard 26″ wheel size is less popular now, but some bikes like these mountain bikes and the classic Surly Disc Trucker still offer them. Larger wheels are popular for mountain biking because they roll more easily over obstacles, but if you mostly ride gravel or smooth trails you’re less likely to notice this difference.
Wheel Size and Standover Example
For example, the Surly ECR offers 27.5″ wheels on sizes XS, S, and M, and 29″ wheels on M, L, and XL. This allows a relatively modest standover height of 726mm (28.6 inches) on size XS.
In contrast, the Surly Krampus uses 29″ wheels across all sizes, and its smallest size has a standover height of 776mm (30.6 in). This bike won’t fit most short riders unless you happen to have really long legs and a short torso.
Down below I’ll give you several more small bikepacking bike models that work well for shorter cyclists. But first, a couple more considerations.
Bikepacking-style bags are more streamlined and lightweight than traditional racks and panniers, but they have one unfortunate property for small bikepackers: a smaller bike frame has less space for bikepacking bags.
Though secondary to riding style and comfort, these factors might be a tie-breaker if you’re torn between two different bike models:
- Frame triangle size: frame bags are great for carrying your heaviest items, and some geometries have a larger triangle than others
- Wheel size and clearance: look at the space between saddle and rear tire (where a seat bag goes), handlebars and front tire (handlebar bag), and down tube and front tire (potential water bottle or gear cage). Larger wheels can make it hard to fit anything meaningful in these spaces, necessitating alternative cargo systems (more on this below).
- Handlebar style: flat MTB-style bars can accommodate a much wider handlebar bag than drop bars. You can always swap out handlebars later if you change your mind on this one, though it can be complicated to also change brakes and shifters.
Weight and Ride Quality
Bike weight matters a lot to smaller riders, since our bike makes up a greater percentage of our overall bike + rider weight. If you’ll be bikepacking on rugged trails and sometimes pushing, lifting, or carrying your bike, this is doubly true!
Usually budget is the biggest factor here, but if you can afford it, a lightweight frame made from carbon or titanium might improve your bikepacking experience.
Frame material and design influence ride quality, specifically how stiff or absorbent the frame feels on bumpy ground. The amount of weight on the bike – rider and gear combined – can have a big impact too.
Ideally smaller bikepacking bikes would be tuned for lighter riders, but you’ll want to pay attention to reviews or ideally try a bike yourself to be sure. My Long Haul Trucker, for example, is intended for heavily loaded touring. It feels too stiff and bouncy for me when lightly loaded, though I’ve heard larger riders say they don’t notice this.
Popular Small Bikepacking Bikes
Below are some popular bikepacking bikes that come in small and extra-small sizes with low standover heights. As you compare models, be sure to check the size charts and geometry diagrams. Even within this extra-small category the geometry and fit can vary a lot. bikeinsights.com is a handy tool for visualizing geometry differences between bike models and sizes.
For folks in the height range 4’10” – 5’2″ we’re usually talking about bike frames in extra-small or even XXS, or 42 – 50cm. Folks shorter than 4’10” may need to look into a step-through bike, or a kids’ bike, folding bike, or custom bike with wheels smaller than the standard 26″ minimum.
This list is focused mainly on bikepacking bikes, meaning those suited for off-pavement adventures. Even within this category there is a huge range of riding styles, so I’ve focused on rigid adventure bikes, burly gravel bikes, and a few hardtails. If you mostly ride pavement or smooth gravel, check out this list of small touring bikes for more ideas.
Note on standover height: different manufacturers measure it in slightly different places along the top tube, which is often sloped, so values are hard to compare precisely across brands.
- Surly ECR (rigid, off-road bikepacking): size XS, 27.5″ wheels, 726 mm standover
- Surly Bridge Club (rigid, all road touring): size XS, 27.5″ wheels, 709mm standover
- Surly Troll (rigid, dirt road touring): XS, 26″ wheels, 720 mm standover
- Surly Karate Monkey (hardtail, dirt trails and rough 4×4 roads): size XS, 27.5″ wheels, 743 mm standover
- Salsa Rangefinder (hardtail, dirt trails and rout 4×4 roads): size XS, 27.5″ wheels, 679 mm standover (measured 5cm forward of bottom bracket)
- Salsa Journeyman (rigid drop bar, all road and gravel): size XS, 27.5″ wheels, 666 mm standover (measured 5cm forward of bottom bracket)
- Co-Motion Ochoco (rigid drop bar, gravel touring): size 42cm, 650B wheels, 665 mm standover
- Co-Motion Siskiyou (rigid drop bar, all road touring): size 46cm, 650B or 27.5″ wheels, 707 mm standover
- Marin Four Corners (rigid drop bar, all road touring): size XS, 650B wheels, 667 mm standover
These are just a few options from well-known manufacturers. Other good small bikepacking bikes certainly exist! Small riders should also look into the broader world of hardtails not specifically designed for bikepacking.
Once you’ve found a small bikepacking bike that fits you, it’s time to fine-tune it. These ideas won’t be necessary for every shorter rider, but a few of them could make a big difference in your comfort.
Crank arm length: The standard length for crank arms (the things your pedals are attached to) is 170mm, but they also come in 165cm or even 155cm. Small bikes may come with shorter cranks already, but if not consider swapping them out. The smaller range of motion feels more natural for many smaller riders and helps reduce toe overlap. It does change your pedaling style somewhat, favoring a higher cadence with less torque, but most casual bikepackers are unlikely to feel strongly about this.
Saddle height and position: If your bike frame is a bit too big, you can compensate somewhat by making sure the saddle is low enough and as far forward as it can go.
Stem and spacers: If you feel like you’re leaning too far forward, try a shorter stem, a stem with a steeper rise angle, and/or add more spacers to your head tube if there’s room. Also consider a different handlebar style (see next point).
Handlebars: Bar style and setup offer yet more ways to modify reach and riding posture. If you’re using flat bars and feel they’re too far away, consider a few degrees of backward sweep and make sure they aren’t too wide for you. If running drop bars, play with the tilt of the bars and the position of the hoods to bring your hands higher and closer, and consider swapping out for drop bars with a shallower drop.
Lever position and reach: Standard brake and shift levers can be too big for small hands, which can lead to discomfort and even danger (if you can’t reach your brakes). Some models are smaller than others, and some offer adjustable reach. If using drop bars, look for those with a shallow drop and try adjusting the position of the hoods on the bars until you can more comfortably reach the levers.
Handlebar extender: Small handlebars, combined with a handlebar bag, can make it hard to find real estate for gizmos (GPS device, bike computer, etc) on your bars. I use this thingy for more space.
Tire pressure: The right tire pressure depends on the weight of bike + rider + gear, so smaller riders will need to run lower tire pressure to get the same bump-absorbing properties as a larger rider. Experimentation is the best way to determine what feels right for you, and tubeless tires can make this easier.
This video is more focused on road cycling, but it’s a good one and many of the same considerations apply to bikepacking too:
Bikepacking Bags for Small Bikes
The unfortunate reality for shorter bikepackers is that small bikes can’t fit as much gear. Bikepacking cargo setups are a creative and varied world anyway, but small riders need even more ingenuity.
If you’re searching for bikepacking bags for small bikes, these ideas will get you started. The common theme is that soft bikepacking-style bags don’t always work, so you’ll need to consider alternatives like racks and perhaps a small backpack, and make the most of all the frame space you can find.
Small bikes have small frame triangles; it’s just a fact of life. I once parked my size small Fargo next to a size large Cutthroat, a model known for its maximized frame triangle space, and could not believe the difference. I think my entire kit could have fit in his frame bag!
There’s nothing you can do about this, so find a frame bag that makes the most of whatever space you have (without being so wide it grazes your cranks or legs) and pack it efficiently. Frame bags are a great place to carry water, but folks with small triangles might need to consider some of these water-hauling alternatives.
Bag diameter: If your handlebars are too close to your front tire, you may have trouble fitting a roll-style handlebar bag without tire rub. Look for bags with a smaller diameter, or consider getting just a harness (without an integrated bag) so you have the flexibility to pair it with a smaller-diameter dry bag. A rigid mounting system like the Salsa Anything Cradle, though heavier, allows for an upward angle to increase space between bag and tire.
Bag width: Flat bars have plenty of real estate for a wide bag, but narrow drop bars can really limit your handlebar gear capacity. Many roll bags can be rolled up narrower if necessary, but this wastes a lot of space.
Potential solutions: Look for a harness system that allows you to strap a second item to the front of the main roll bag, out in front of the bars, which can be wider if necessary (like a tent). A compression sack like the Sea to Summit eVent helps keep the load narrow (or wrap a cinch strap around your bag the long way). Some drop bars are wider than others at the hoods, which is what matters for bag space.
When cargo space is limited elsewhere, it helps to take full advantage of your front fork. Some bikes come with bosses there already, but I’ve also seen hose clamps, electrical tape, and zip ties all used successfully.
Large gear cages, like the Salsa Anything or Blackburn Outpost (I replace my Blackburn’s straps with Voile’s) add space for water, clothes, food, etc. The downside is a front-heavy weight distribution that doesn’t work well for technical riding, but for cruising gravel it’s not a problem.
Small seat bag clearance and tire rub can be frustrating for small riders, especially on 29er bikes. Personally I know this all too well!
Look for smaller capacity bags with well-engineered mounting systems that won’t slip or sag, and learn to pack your seat bag optimally. A stiff-bottomed bag or rigid support system can help prevent tire rub when clearance is miniscule. Here are a few popular small seat bag options:
Racks and Small Panniers
If you have trouble fitting bags or need more cargo space, a rack and mini-panniers can work well for bikepacking. Popular bikepacking racks include models by Old Main Mountain, Tumbleweed, Surly (see the 8 Pack for a modest-sized front rack), and Tubus, particularly the Vega.
With rear racks, some small riders find their heels hit their panniers. Small panniers, short cranks, rack design, and changing pannier position on the rack can all help.
Front racks can also be helpful if you struggle to fit a handlebar bag between narrow drops or above your tire. You can even try a basket or “pizza rack” style, in addition to traditional front racks.
Be sure to dab some Blue Loctite on those bolts so they don’t rattle loose!
Backpacks and Hip Packs
For small riders who need to carry lots of gear and/or water on rugged trails, sometimes there’s no choice but to wear a backpack. Sure, they make your back sweaty, but if you keep it small and lightweight it’s unlikely to bother you too much. Look for something small and close-fitting that won’t bounce around. Some people find hip packs more comfy as they don’t exacerbate back and shoulder fatigue.
Other Nooks and Crannies
Some smaller bikes don’t have clearance for a bottle cage between the down tube and front tire, but you may still be able to squeeze some other stuff down there. Consider a tool wrap or spare tube strap to make the most of small spaces.
Top tube bags can hold a surprising amount of small items in easy-to-reach locations. When I need extra space I sometimes run two, one at the front against the headtube and another in back against the seat tube. Consider your standover clearance when choosing top tube bags.
Loaded Bike Weight
Nobody likes a heavy bike, but smaller and lighter riders might notice the difference even more. Sure, a taller person rides a bigger bike and carries bigger clothes, but that only adds up to a few additional pounds. The difference in bodyweight, however, is substantial. All other things being equal, the ratio of bike weight to bodyweight is larger for smaller people.
I notice this most when dealing with steep hills and rough trails, especially on hike-a-bike and (heaven forbid) carry-a-bike sections. Lifting half of your body weight is hard for anyone, and small people don’t have as much leverage as larger people when it comes to maneuvering our bikes around awkward obstacles.
Of course, not all weight is equal and each body type has its tradeoffs. A strong and lean short person might do quite well climbing hills for example, but has to pedal more on gradual downhills for the same speed.
These tips will help anyone, but short and small bikepackers would especially benefit from:
- Getting strong! Full-body weight workouts can reduce some of the struggle when handling a heavy bike on rough terrain.
- Packing light. Strive to have only what you need and need only what you have. Look into lightweight and ultralight backpacking gear for the lightest and most compact sleeping quilts, pads, shelters, rain gear, stoves, and more.
- Experimenting with weight distribution. Front, back, side to side… What arrangement of gear makes your bike easiest to handle on different types of terrain?
- Considering component weight. When hauling gear it often doesn’t make sense to be a weight weenie, but smaller and lighter riders may find it worth the money to cut weight from their bike as budget allows.
It’s tough to find resources for small bikepackers, but here are a few I’ve collected:
Bikes or Death interview with Emma Flukes: Starting around 11 minutes in, 5’2″ Emma goes into detail about her small bike and bikepacking setup.
Bikepacking.com’s Big Bike Little Person: Detailed walkthrough of outfitting a 29er touring bike for a 5’5″ rider.
Short Cyclists Can Rip on 29ers, Too: optimistic article from the mountain biking perspective, maybe useful for singletrack-focused bikepackers too.
Here’s a fun video with some gear ideas:
Are you a small bikepacker with your own tips and tricks? Please share them in the comments so we can learn from you!
More Bikepacking Resources
I hope this post helped expand your options as a smaller bikepacker. We deserve to get out there and ride just as much as the bigger folks do!
You might also like these other resources for bikepackers of all sizes and shapes:
- Bikepacking Food Ideas
- Where to Carry a Tent on Your Bike
- Riding the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route
- Favorite Apps, Maps, and Tools for Route Planning
Or visit the bikepacking resource center for even more pedal-powered goodness!
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