Forget about lightweight 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.
The question for today’s bikepacking Q&A is, how do I carry enough water on my bike while bikepacking or touring, 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 not hard to go through 6 liters! 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. Sometimes it’s possible to top up along the way, but not always.
This means a hot stretch of riding with a dry overnight can require carrying 6-8 liters of water on your bike! This is fairly rare, but it does happen, especially if exploring dry desert areas in the late summer or fall. With a rack and panniers it’s pretty easy to throw in some extra bottles or strap them to the rack, but what about with a bikepacking setup?
Fortunately, the bikepacking gear world has us covered for all but the most extreme expeditions. Some of these ideas will be helpful to pannier tourers too. Let’s discuss our bikepacking water storage options.
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 to avoid altering your bike’s handling, and closer to the center of the frame when possible.
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 hose) 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 filtration / purification 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 here, and carry 2-3 liters this way.
But the minute you start trying to 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 (1-3 liters)
This is my favorite way to carry water while bikepacking, and if I don’t need more than 3 liters this is the only method I use. My Platypus 3 liter bladder fits perfectly in my Moosetreks Frame Bag, and the hose wraps nicely around my handlebars for mid-ride sipping. In the remaining space of my frame bag I carry other dense heavy items, like tools or electronics.
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. A frame bag is a far more efficient way of using this space than traditional bottle cages, which hold less water and also don’t provide any extra space for other things.
Riders on full-suspension mountain bikes, or with otherwise limited frame bag space, will have more limited capacity. Don’t worry though, you have plenty of other options, which we’ll go through below.
Pros of bladder in frame bag:
- Efficient use of frame space
- Good location for carrying heavy things (won’t impact handling)
- Easy to drink from while riding
Cons of bladder in frame bag:
- Some bikes don’t have enough space here.
Bottle Cage Under Down Tube (0-2 liters)
If your bike frame has room for it, you can mount a standard or even oversize bottle cage beneath your down tube; jump to the end for specific mount recommendations. If your bike doesn’t have bolts in the right place, electrical tape can work wonders.
My small bike doesn’t have enough room for a full-size bottle there, so I don’t bother. Instead I carry my repair kit, stuffed into an unusually small bottle, in that location instead.
If you do carry a water bottle here, know that it will get covered in dirt and mud spraying off the front tire. I recommend some kind of covered nozzle, or a cap, not the usual exposed quirt nozzle. Depending on your bottle cage, you also might want a Voile strap to hold it in place.
Pros of bottle under down tube:
- Great location for heavy stuff, won’t impact bike handling.
Cons of bottle under down tube:
- Small bikes have less space here
- Bottle gets covered in dirt
- Can’t drink from it while riding
Bottles in Stem Bag (1-2 liters)
Stem bags are little bags that go on your stem and look suspiciously like the chalk bags rock climbers use, except the bikepacking versions are usually more expensive. I use these from Amazon, one on each side of my stem. They cost $11 each, have a large capacity, and multiple attachment options. Highly recommended!
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-size 24ish ounce bottle. But I wouldn’t be surprised if you could fit up to a 1 liter bottle in some bags, including the inexpensive ones I recommended above.
Pros of bottles in stem bags:
- Easy to drink from while riding
- Handy to have accessible bottle for camp, washing, dogs, etc.
Cons of bottles in stem bags:
- Uses prime space that’s great for other things
- Knees can hit bottles for some rider/bike combinations
Bottles on Front Fork (3-6 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 front fork. To make the most of this space, you should use oversize bottles and oversize bottle cages; jump down to the end for some ideas and recommendations.
What is the maximum amount of water you can carry on your front 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 well 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 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.
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 impact steering if too heavy.
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.
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.
- 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-biking and carrying.
- You just need a ton of water, perhaps for 3+ days in hot climates where resupply is unknown.
In all these cases, you want a close-fitting pack that’s no bigger than it needs to be, and that is comfortable (or close to it) on long days. I don’t personally use a backpack for bikepacking, but the folks at bikepacking.com have tested a bunch of options.
In theory you can carry as much water as will fit in your pack. In practice though, anything over 4 liters is going to be very uncomfortable. 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
Cons of hydration packs for bikepacking:
- Your shoulders might get more tired
- Your back will get sweaty
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…
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, and 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 this post on choosing a water treatment method for bikepacking.
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