9 Ways to Carry Water While Bikepacking

Forget about carbon bottle cages and those little 20oz squeeze bottles. You’re not going to get very far trying to camp in the desert with THAT setup! All those are good for while bikepacking, in my opinion, is fending off snarling dogs with a squirt to the face.

So the question for today is, how do I carry enough water on my bike while bikepacking, especially when it’s hot and/or dry?

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 6-8 liters of water on your bike, or even more! This is fairly rare but does happen, especially if exploring dry desert areas in the 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 pretty easy to throw in some extra bottles or strap them to the rack. People carry a dozen liters or even 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. Let’s discuss our bikepacking water storage options.

Related:
Best Water Filters for Bikepacking
Panniers vs. Bikepacking Bags: Pros and Cons

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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.

In areas with aggressive dogs, it’s nice to have a small squirt bottle you can reach while riding. A squirt to the face usually gives them pause. (If that’s not an option, I bark back at them, which works surprisingly well.)

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 one 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 most 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 even 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.

There is so much wasted space in this frame triangle, you could literally fit a monkey in it (touring in Laos in my earliest days of bike travel).

But the minute you transition to a multi-day bikepacking setup, sans 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)

This 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.

I put a Platypus hydration bladder in there and clip the hose to my handlebars for mid-ride sipping. Apidura even has a triangular water bladder that I’ll be testing out soon, which seems promising for those of us with small frame triangles.

Looking ahead down dirt road with flared Coast drop handlebars in foreground, loaded for bikepacking
Hydration hose wrapped around handlebars for easy sipping
Hydration hose running from frame bag to bars

Capacity varies based on the bike. 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!

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 hard 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 bottle works for me, though it’s a tight fit in some standard bottle cages. 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 for really technical riding
This 1 liter bottle has a flip-up lid, because I don’t like drinking mud.

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 like to use my stem bags for snacks, camera, sunglasses, and other small things I access often. But some riders like to use them for water bottles. This is a great way to have a bottle close at hand for drinking and squirting at the occasional snarling dog.

Usually stem bags work best with a standard 24ish ounce or smaller bottle. But I wouldn’t be surprised if you could fit up to a 1 liter bottle in some bags.

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
Stem bag holding a bottle of electrolyte drink during the Idaho Smoke ‘n Fire 400

Bottles on Front Fork (2-4 liters)

After my frame bag, this is my next go-to way to carry 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 ever used one cage on each side, but I believe you could mount two oversize cargo cages to each side (my Salsa Fargo actually has all the bolts for this), and put at least a 1.5 liter bottle in each cage.

So 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 front fork, and that’s been mostly gravel and pavement riding.

Use care when mounting anything to your front fork, to make sure there’s no way it could slip and jam your front wheel.

Nathan 1.5 liter bottles helped me through the hot Sahara desert in Sudan (though the water was unpleasantly warm to drink).

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)
  • If riding technical trails, too much weight here makes wheel lifts hard

Doubling Up

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 rear 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.

This is the first method in this post that I haven’t personally used, so I’ll send you to this post by Joe Cruz and this thread on MTBR for the details.

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 it personally, but I would think it works best for routes where you’ll want to carry a lot of water most of the time. Otherwise I like to have my extra water capacity fold down (like a hydration bladder) so I have more space for other things (mainly food). Also, since the container is rigid, check the fit carefully for your specific frame.

Backpack or Hip Pack (3+ liters)

Between the frame bag, front 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 front 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.

A hydration pack was key for keeping my bike light and nimble on technical sections of Bones to Blue in Tahoe.

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)

Expandable Capacity

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 – they fold down to 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 carrying dirty water that you’ll filter at camp.

You can strap SoftBottles to, well, anywhere they’ll fit. You can fill your filter 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 the sturdy dry bags I used on my front fork 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 extra space the rest of the time.

Platypus SoftBottle on top of handlebar bag
Platypus SoftBottle on top of seat bag
Water bottle strapped to front fork of bikepacking bike
Platypus SoftBottle added to gear cage on fork
CNOC Vecto bag, the dirty bag for my Sawyer filter, holding an extra liter on the handlebars

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. Of course, you do still need to find room for gear…

A 3 liter CNOC Vecto (used as the dirty bag for my Sawyer filter system) strapped to a rear rack for extra capacity in the Kazakh desert

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 front 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.

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 bottle cages, you’ll need 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.

Fork mounted water bottles on bikepacking bike
Nathan 1.5 liter bottles, Blackburn Outpost cages, Voile straps, and a whole ‘lotta New Mexico mud

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 agonize over water capacity for your next bikepacking trip, you might also want to overthink these other factors:

Or check out the full bikepacking resource center for even more.

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa. I’ve traveled over 17,000 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 or say hi.

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    7 thoughts on “9 Ways to Carry Water While Bikepacking”

    1. Great informative website. Do you know anyway to deal with the toxins from blue green algae in reservoirs. Is it a real risk or only very mild?

      Reply
    2. I bike tour with a BOB trailer, so i bungee and net 4 bigger bottles, 2 64 oz. And 2 40 oz. Full with h2o plus 1 40 oz. On my back rack,2 27 oz. In the triangle,2 more 27 oz. On rear of trailer in cages and usually 2 more 64 oz. Bottles empty jusy in case like the loneliest hwy in nevada, where you have 83 and 87 miles back to back with no services… haven’t had problems yet with this set up. Its6all good, and when i meet someone else on the road,they can’t say boo,becausr I’m ot asking anyone to carry my gear…. cars have pulked up and offered h2o, i always say yes…

      Reply
    3. thanks for the info. really like the frame bag for water.
      i will add that a good offroad trailer is a _real_ bikepacking option. i have a Burley Coho XC – single wheel w/ suspension.

      Reply

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