Loading up for a bikepacking trip is always a puzzle, and even more so when you need to carry extra water. The question for today is, how do you carry enough water on your bike while bikepacking, especially when it’s hot and/or dry?
First of all, forget about those little 20 oz squeeze bottles you might use for day rides. You’re not going to get very far bikepacking in the desert with those! All those tiny bottles are good for while bikepacking, in my opinion, is fending off snarling dogs with a squirt to the face. We bikepackers have bigger and better solutions.
How much water are we talking about? On a normal day of bikepacking in moderate weather you might drink 3-4 liters of water. On hot days it’s easy to go through 6 liters! Often there are places along the way to top up, but not always. If dry camping (no water source nearby) you’ll need at least another liter for overnight, plus enough to get you to a water source the next day…
This means a hot stretch of riding in a dry area can require carrying 6 to 8 liters of water on your bike, or even more! This is not uncommon, especially if bikepacking in the desert during late summer or fall. I’ve done it in New Mexico on the Great Divide, for example, and in Arizona on the Western Wildlands Route.
With a rack and panniers it’s easy to throw in some extra bottles or strap them to the rack. Bike tourers carry a dozen liters or more with this kind of setup. But what about bikepacking bags? A soft-bag bikepacking setup is great for streamlining your load and lightening your bike, but how does it fare when loaded down with water like the apocalypse is coming tomorrow?
It can take a little creativity, but usually it is possible to carry quite a bit of water on your bike, even with a bikepacking setup. Some of these ideas will be helpful to pannier tourers too. So however you like to carry your gear, read on to learn about bikepacking water storage options.
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Tips for Carrying Water on a Bike
First, a few general principles to keep in mind.
Water, at 2.2 lbs per liter, is heavy. Heavy things are best carried low to the ground and closer to the center of the frame to avoid altering your bike’s handling.
It’s good to have multiple containers in case one breaks or leaks.
You want one container you can drink from while riding, usually either a squirt bottle or hydration bladder with hose.
It’s handy to have at least one bottle (as opposed to hydration bladder) for use off the bike: at camp, for cooking, washing, taking into the tent at night, etc.
Your water containers should be compatible with your water filter / purifier system. More on this below.
If you’re not sure how much water you’ll need, start with this advice on estimating water needs.
Now, let’s go through all the various ways to carry more water on a bike.
Bottles in Frame Triangle (2-3 liters)
I’m going to start with this just to get it out of the way, but unless you’re out for a day ride I don’t really recommend it. However, it is where many of us start when putting water on a bicycle, so I don’t want to leave it out.
Your bike likely has one or two places to mount bottle cages inside the frame triangle. This works fine for short rides and touring setups with panniers, because you’re not pressed for space. If you’re feeling creative, you can even mount an extra large bottle cage and carry a couple oversized bottles.
But the minute you transition to a multi-day bikepacking setup without rack and panniers, I guarantee you’ll be looking at your frame triangle first. And when you see all that unused space, you’ll want to switch to…
Hydration Bladder in Frame Bag (2-3 liters)
A hydration bladder in my frame pack is my favorite way to carry water while bikepacking. The frame triangle, being relatively low and centered on the bike, is an excellent place to carry heavy things like water without impacting the bike’s handling.
For most people I recommend a simple Platypus hydration bladder in a 2 or 3 liter size. Route the hose out the zipper and attach it to your handlebars using a clamp like this (I tape it to my bars with electrical tape) for convenient mid-ride sipping. If you’re short on frame triangle space and really want to optimize your setup, check out my review of Apidura’s triangular water bladder.
Capacity varies based on the bike. I’m 5’5″ and ride smallish bikes; my touring bike can fit a full 3 liters, while my mountain bike only handles 1.5 liters. If you’re a big person with a big bike frame, I’m envious! If you’re on a full-suspension bike and can barely fit anything in your frame triangle, don’t worry, you have other options. Read on!
A hydration bladder will impact how you filter or purify your water. I use a Sawyer Squeeze filter with a fast fill adapter kit so I can filter directly into my hydration bladder through the hose, no need to take it out of the frame bag. Combined with a CNOC Vecto bag this is a hands-off gravity system. If you want to use a pump or squeeze filter or UV purifier, think through how you’ll get the water into your hydration bladder before starting your trip.
Pros of bladder in frame bag:
- Efficient use of frame space
- Good location for carrying heavy things
- Easy to drink from while riding
Cons of bladder in frame bag:
- Some bikes don’t have enough space here
- Hard to tell how much water you have left
- Not ideal for electrolyte drink (hard to wash)
- Can be less convenient to fill depending on your setup and water filter system
Bottle Cage Under Down Tube (1 – 1.5 liters)
If your bike frame has room for it, you can mount a standard or even oversize bottle cage beneath your down tube. If your bike doesn’t have bolts in the right place, large quantities of electrical tape can work wonders.
If you do carry a water bottle here, know that it will get covered in dirt and mud. I recommend a covered nozzle or a cap, not the usual exposed quirt nozzle. This 1 liter bottle works well for me paired with some standard bottle cages (can be a tight fit), and Nalgene makes a 48 oz bottle that works with oversized cages (more on cages below). Depending on your bottle cage, you also might want a Voile strap or similar to hold it in place.
Pros of bottle under down tube:
- The ideal location for heavy stuff, won’t impact bike handling much
- Out of the way, don’t have to think about it when fiddling with other gear
- Uses a location that’s hard to fill with other gear (not the best place for delicate items)
Cons of bottle under down tube:
- Small bikes have less space here
- Bottle gets covered in dirt
- Can’t drink from it while riding
- Potential clearance issues when using a suspension fork
Bottles in Stem Bag (1-2 liters)
Stem bags are little bags that go on your stem and look suspiciously like climbing chalk bags, except the bikepacking versions are usually more expensive.
I usually prefer to use my stem bags for snacks, sunglasses, and other small things I access often, but occasionally I’ll carry a water bottle in one of them. This is a great way to have a bottle close at hand for drinking and squirting at the occasional chasing dog. Usually stem bags work best with a standard 24ish ounce or smaller bottle, though up to 1 liter might be possible in some cases.
Pros of bottles in stem bags:
- Easy to drink from while riding
- Handy and accessible bottle for camp, washing, etc.
- Works well for electrolyte drinks or other non-water liquids
Cons of bottles in stem bags:
- Uses prime space that’s great for other things
- Knees can hit bottles for some rider/bike combinations
Bottle Cages on Fork (2-4 liters)
After my frame bag, this is my next go-to way to carry large amounts of water while bikepacking. When I need a few liters of extra capacity for a long dry stretch or super-hot days, I use bottles on my fork blades. To make the most of this space you should use oversize bottles and oversize bottle cages; scroll down to the end for some ideas and recommendations.
What is the maximum amount of water you can carry on your fork? I’ve only used one cage on each side, but some bikes (like my Salsa Fargo) actually have two sets of mounts on each side. If you put a 1.5 liter bottle in each, that’s 4 x 1.5 = 6 liters! Obviously this only works for non-technical riding, as it would make the front of the bike very heavy. I’ve only ever loaded up to 3 liters on my fork, and that’s been mostly gravel and pavement riding.
If your bike doesn’t have bolt holes for mounting cages on your fork, you can DIY it with hose clamps and/or electrical tape. Always be careful when mounting anything to your fork, to make sure there’s no way it could slip and jam your front wheel.
Pros of fork bottle cages:
- Easy way to add several liters of capacity
- Handy to have bottles in addition to a bladder at camp, for drinking / pouring / washing / etc.
Cons of fork bottle cages:
- Impossible to drink from while riding
- Can affect steering if too heavy
- Not all forks have mounts here (though they can be added with hose clamps or electrical tape, even to suspension forks)
- Too much weight here makes it difficult to ride technical trails
Sometimes you want to carry gear or food in your fork cages, and only carry water there occasionally. I’ve had success with temporarily adding bottles (collapsible or disposable) to an already-full fork setup.
This weighs down the front and only works for non-technical riding, but it’s a good way to get through an occasional dry stretch. Be sure to use sturdy rubber Voile straps and check the setup frequently, as bottles have a tendency to settle. Pro top: turn them upside down so the bottom strap can provide upward pressure to prevent downward sliding.
Bottles on Seat Stays (1-3 liters)
If all those options above aren’t enough for you, the last frontier of bike-mounted water storage is to make use of your seat stays. This will demand some mechanical creativity for the mounting, and extra care to make sure the mounts are solid and can’t be knocked into your rear wheel.
For many riders, myself included, mounting cages parallel to the seat stays causes heal clearance problems while pedaling. If this is you, then find a way to mount them vertically.
Cranktank4 (4 liters)
It’s a bold move, but if water capacity is a persistent issue for you (maybe you ride a lot in the desert) then the Cranktank4 might be just what you’ve always dreamed of. It’s a hard-sided container designed to fit in the bottom of your frame triangle, making even more efficient use of space than a bladder in a frame bag.
I haven’t tried the Cranktank personally, but I’ve met bike travelers who like it. I would think it works best for routes where you’ll want to carry a lot of water most of the time. Otherwise, when water needs are varied, I like to have my extra water capacity be foldable (like a hydration bladder) so I have more space for other things. Also, since the container is rigid, check the fit carefully for your specific frame.
Backpack or Hip Pack (3+ liters)
Between the frame bag, fork, stem bags, and optional cage mounts (if your bike geometry permits them), that’s over 10 liters of water capacity! In most climates that would be enough for at least two days of riding with a night of dry camping in between.
However, there are plenty of cases where you would want to add a hydration-style backpack to the mix, especially for riders tackling more technical trails:
- Your frame triangle doesn’t have enough room for a bladder (especially full suspension trail bikes).
- Your fork is busy holding other cargo or is difficult to mount bottle cages to.
- You use your stem bags for other things (all the snacks!).
- You’re riding very technical trail and want to keep your bike’s handling nimble, and/or keep the weight very light for hike-a-bikes and portages.
- You just need a ton of water, perhaps for 3+ days in hot climates where resupply is uncertain.
If you’re going to wear a backpack, you want a close-fitting one that’s no bigger than it needs to be, and is comfortable (or close to it) on long days. For more detail see Bikepacking With a Backpack.
These days I wear a lightweight running vest for bikepacking races like Smoke ‘n Fire or Bones to Blue. It allows me to run more minimalist bikepacking bags and keep my bike light for hike-a-bikes. On long touring-pace rides I prefer to not wear a backpack.
In theory you can carry as much water as will fit in your pack. In practice though, anything over 4 liters will probably not be comfortable. Most hydration packs and bladders are made to carry 2-3 liters with relative comfort and stability, but more than that is a gamble.
Pros of hydration packs for bikepacking:
- Easy to drink from while riding
- Keeps your bike light for those nasty hike-a-bikes
- Extra storage space for snacks, layers, and other small items
Cons of hydration packs for bikepacking:
- Can be uncomfortable on shoulders and back if too heavy
- Can increase saddle sore issues if too heavy
- Complicates layer changes
- Feels hotter and sweatier in warm weather
- Not ideal for electrolyte drinks (bladder is hard to wash)
- Heavy backpacks change center of gravity, which can be an issue for technical riding (hip packs are better)
On a long ride like the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, you may have a few water carries that are much longer than the rest. When I rode the GDMBR in 2021 I carried 2-3 liters for 99% of the route, but in just a couple places I needed 6-8 liters.
How to handle this kind of variability? You certainly don’t want to lug around unused containers for 99% of the route. Of course you can buy an extra bottle or two at a gas station before heading into a dry stretch, but where will you carry it? And what if you don’t realize it’s going to be dry until you’re already away from civilization?
Here are three strategies I use for times like this:
- Pack a stuffable backpack – very handy in general on a long bike trip.
- Pack a couple Platypus 1 L SoftBottles, which fold down to almost nothing when empty.
- If you have a squeeze or gravity water filter setup, don’t forget that your “dirty bag” can be used as extra water capacity. This works great for quickly scooping up water late in the day and filtering it at your dry campsite.
You can strap SoftBottles to, well, almost anywhere. You can fill your dirty bag and carry it in your stuffable backpack. Even better, move something lighter from your fork into your stuffable backpack and put the water bladder or bottles inside the dry bag on your fork. I haven’t tried this but I believe sturdy dry bags could work alone as water bladders, in a pinch!
All these solutions allow you to add several liters of capacity when needed, but take up barely any space the rest of the time.
Rack or Trailer
If you’ve exhausted all these options and still need more water capacity, a true bikepacking setup might not be for you. With all that weight on the bike, it’s not exactly going to shred technical singletrack anyway.
If you swap out the saddlebag for a rear rack and panniers, water capacity is far less constrained. Extra bladders and bottles can go in the panniers or be strapped on top. You’ll want a very sturdy steel rack, and some Blue Loctite on your bolts.
And if that’s still not enough…. Well, you’re going to need a sturdy trailer. And a lot of other things too. Good luck.
Oversize Water Bottles
If you want to make the most of your fork space, you’ll need larger-than-standard bottles. I love these sturdy 1.5 liter bottles from Nathan, especially their convenient cap system that allows for both a small and wide opening. (Update: Sadly Nathan isn’t making these anymore. Nalgene’s 48 oz bottle is the closest substitute I know of.)
An even larger option, and one that comes in insulated versions as well, is the burly 64 liter Klean Kanteen. The double walled ones keep hot things hot and cold things cold, like that cool spring water, or beer, or whatever.
If you have oversize cages that can carry these bottles (see next section), it also means you can carry those 1.5 liter disposable water bottles universally available in shops around the world. Though I always try to avoid using disposable bottles when I travel, it’s nice to have the option as a backup.
Oversize Bottle Cages and Mounts
If your bike has bolts for this purpose, you’re good to go. If not, don’t despair. Here’s a list of ideas, the simplest of which is simply a boatload of electrical tape. I currently use Zefal Gizmo mounts, but twice have had to crack them open to remove the cage when the bolt wouldn’t unscrew after months of riding.
For bikepacking bottle cages, you’ll want something larger than standard if you’re going with 1.5 liter bottles. I love these Blackburn Outpost bottle cages, which are burly enough for large bottles and can also be used to hold stuff sacks when water capacity isn’t an issue. They work even better with a single Voile strap as an upgrade to the originals.
Salsa Anything Cages are another popular solution in this category. If you’re really shopping around, here’s a full list of oversize bottle holders from bikepacking.com. Here’s a similar list of cargo cages like the Blackburn and Salsa, which are also great for holding large bottles.
Filtering and Purifying Water
Whatever containers you choose, it’s important that they work well with your water filtration or purification method.
Consider factors like whether your gravity setup can easily flow into at least one of your containers, whether your treatment method works well with any volume of water (unlike UV treatment for example), and whether you have multiple containers if you’re using chlorine dioxide (so one can treat while the other is ready to drink).
For more detail, see Water Filters and Purifiers for Bikepacking.
More Bikepacking Resources
As you consider your bikepacking water storage options, you might also want to think about these other factors:
- What should go in your bikepacking repair kit?
- Panniers vs. Bikepacking Bags: how to choose?
- 5 ways to carry a tent while bikepacking
- Creative budget bikepacking gear ideas
Or check out the full bikepacking resource center for even more.
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