Gravel Bikes for Bikepacking: Ideal Terrain, What to Look For, and Popular Models

Gravel bikes and bikepacking are both having their moment in the mainstream spotlight, so naturally many people want to know, “Can I bikepack on a gravel bike?”

The short answer: Yes! You can definitely use a gravel bike for bikepacking. In fact, gravel bikes are one of the most popular types of bikes out there on mostly non-technical bikepacking routes. (What do I mean by that? Keep reading.)

Gravel bikes are light and efficient while still being reasonably capable off-pavement. They’re a versatile choice; many make fantastic bikepacking bikes and work well for day rides too.

There are, however, a few gotchas to keep in mind. The real answer is that some gravel bikes are perfect for some bikepacking routes, some are just an ok match, and some bikepacking routes are best avoided altogether on any gravel bike (trust me, I’ve tried it).

This post answers these questions and more:

  • What kind of bikepacking routes are good for gravel bikes?
  • What to look for in a gravel bike for bikepacking?
  • Which gravel bike models are popular with bikepackers?
  • How to load a gravel bike for bikepacking?

Not yet sure if a gravel bike is right for you? Read about all the options in Bikepacking Bikes: A Terrain-First Approach to Choosing Your Steed.

When you buy through affiliate links in this post, I may earn a small commission. Thanks for your support! I always offer unbiased opinions based on real experience from the road and trail. Learn more.

Are Gravel Bikes Good for Bikepacking?

The original idea behind gravel bikes: maintain (some of) the efficiency and speed of a road bike while adding off-pavement capabilities via features like wider handlebars, bigger tires, and more stable geometry.

These days gravel bikes span a wide range. Some are designed for fast race efforts, some for long leisurely adventures, and everything in between. As you might suspect, the latter is better than the former for bikepacking (more on that below).

An appropriate gravel bike (not too race-focused) has definite advantages when it comes to bikepacking. Most importantly, they:

  • Are lightweight compared to mountain bikes.
  • Have an efficient geometry that doesn’t feel too sluggish on roads.
  • Come with cage mounts on fork and frame for carrying cargo.
  • Usually have drop handlebars, which many bikepackers find comfortable and ergonomic for long days.
  • Hit a versatile sweet spot that’s good for mixed terrain routes with a fair amount of both paved and unpaved riding.

That said, gravel bikes aren’t universally good for bikepacking. Their main drawbacks and limitations:

  • Not suitable for long sections of rough 4×4 roads and technical trails, which limits your choice of routes.
  • Lighter models may not be durable enough for rough roads and heavy loads.
  • More aggressive riding posture can be uncomfortable on long days.
  • May not have low enough climbing gear for heavy loads on steep climbs.

Ideal Terrain for Gravel Bikes

Gravel bikes are great for bikepacking routes with a lot of gravel (obviously), some pavement, and perhaps some short sections of more rugged riding (you can always get off and walk if needed).

They are not usually good for rougher routes with substantial amounts of singletrack or rough 4×4 roads, though they can be made to work by a strong rider with a good attitude (see next section).

Here are some visual examples:

Bikepacker on dirt road in Mendocino National Forest
Perfect for a gravel bike, nice and smooth.
Bikepacking bike leaning against tree with curvy road sign on remote dirt road through forest
A gravel bike can work for this too.
Smooth singletrack trail through burned forest
A bit of smooth singletrack is no problem for a gravel bike.
View over bike handlebars ahead to very rutted rough dirt trail
This is too rough for most people to enjoy on a gravel bike.

Here’s a handy graphic I created to explain the ideal terrain for each bike category. You can see gravel bikes fairly near the top on the “less bike” end of the spectrum, best suited for smoother terrain.

Think you might be drawn to more rugged bikepacking routes and worried a gravel bike won’t be up to the challenge? Take a look at rigid mountain bikes and drop bar mountain bikes, a compromise between gravel bikes and burlier mountain bikes with suspension.

What to Look For in a Gravel Bike

If you plan to mostly ride unloaded and use your gravel bike only occasionally for bikepacking, you should buy a bike that meets your day riding needs. You can always make it work for the occasional bikepacking trip.

But if bikepacking is important to you and you’re choosing a new gravel bike (lucky you!) specifically for bikepacking, here’s what to look for.

Comfortable geometry: Most bikepackers prioritize comfort over aerodynamics and efficiency. We want a moderately upright position that takes weight off hands and wrists, lets sit bones bear the saddle pressure, and reduces strain on neck and shoulders. Generally a shorter reach and taller stack accomplish this, but you can also usually tell from the manufacturer’s description whether the bike is optimized for speed or for comfort.

Wider max tire width: Bigger and knobbier rubber offers more traction and comfort when the going gets rough, so choose a fork and rims that can fit wider tires. Many gravel bikes top out around 45mm tire width, but you’ll find a few models straddling the gravel / “adventure bike” line with room for up to 2″ (switching to mountain bike units) or even wider. Tubeless-ready rims are a big plus.

Lower climbing gears: Gearing discussions can get complicated. As a starting point, look for gravel bikes that have a 1:1 or lower (for example, 0.86:1) gear ratio for the easiest gear. The lower that first number, the easier it will be to spin up steep hills on a loaded bike. In theory you can change cassettes and add lower gearing later, but in practice this can require changing a lot of drivetrain parts.

Durable and reliable: A lightweight racy gravel bike might work for short and simple trips, but for longer and more rugged bikepacking expeditions you’ll want a bike that can take some knocks. Look for a strong frame (steel is a reliable, if heavy, choice), higher spoke count wheels, and durable rims. These features do add weight, but the reliability is usually worth it.

Gear attachment points: Many bikepacking bags can attach to any bike, but mounting points in the right places make life easier. A gravel bikepacking bike gets bonus points for extra mounting points (braze ons, eyelets, barnacles, etc.) on the fork blades or below the downtube for bottle or cargo cages, or at the dropouts and seat stays for racks.

Wider handlebars: Gravel bikes intended for rougher terrain usually feature wide flared drop bars for better control. Changing from one drop handlebar to another is easy, so don’t buy a bike specifically for its handlebars. But bikes that come stock with wider bars may be designed for more rugged riding in general.

Related: How to Choose Handlebars for Bikepacking

Popular Gravel Bikes for Bikepacking

With all that in mind, which gravel bikes are ideal for bikepacking? Here are several popular examples, spanning from affordable and reliable to mid-range and a bit more performance-oriented.

Kona Rove: Available in both steel and aluminum, the Rove is a solidly built and affordable gravel bike or, as Kona refers to it, an “adventure-ready drop bar bike.”

Kona Rove

Kona Libre: The Libre is a higher-end option than the Rove, available in both aluminum and carbon. It offers plenty of mounting points and a comfortable gravel geometry with a performance-oriented focus at a reasonable price point.

Kona Libre CR

Marin Four Corners: Marin markets the steel Four Corners specifically as a gravel bikepacking bike and includes plenty of braze on mount points to back it up. Their thoughtful sizing includes 650B wheels on S and XS, making it a great choice for smaller bikepackers. A tall headtube maximizes cargo space and makes for a comfy all-day riding posture.

Marin Four Corners

Trek Checkpoint: The Checkpoint comes in a range of specs and price points, from “sturdy and capable” aluminum to a “light carbon bike that’s built to perform.” All offer adventure-ready features like lower gearing, tires up to 45c, and a variety of mounts to help with loading gear.

Picture of white Trek Checkpoint ALR
Trek Checkpoint ALR

Surly Straggler: Surly is known for their affordable and bomber steel bikes, and the Straggler is the closest thing to a gravel bike in their lineup. It has mount points for racks and fenders, and can clear up to 42mm tires.

Surly Straggler

Salsa Vaya: The Vaya is Salsa’s “any-road adventure bike” and “capable steel gravel bike.” A carbon fork reduces weight, adds comfort, and includes 3-pack gear mounts, with tire clearance for up to 45mm. Read more: Salsa Vaya vs. Fargo

Picture of Salsa Vaya GRX
Salsa Vaya GRX

Salsa Cutthroat: The carbon Cutthroat pushes the limits of the gravel bike category (clearance for 2.4″ tires!), but in a way that’s perfect for bikepacking. The entire bike is designed around the Tour Divide, one of the most famous long-distance bikepacking races in the world. Bikepacking-specific features include a massive frame triangle and plentiful mounts, and internal wire routing for dynamo lighting. The Cutthroat is probably the most popular “gravel” bike out there for bikepacking enthusiasts. Read more: Salsa Cutthroat vs. Salsa Fargo

Salsa Cutthroat GRX

For a more traditional gravel race bike from Salsa, check out the Warbird as well.

Loading A Gravel Bike

If you have a gravel bike and are wondering how to load it for bikepacking, especially if it lacks extra braze ons and eyelets, these hints will help. For more detail on this surprisingly nuanced subject, see also How to Pack For Bikepacking.

Affordable tricks for beginners: Bikepacking bags work well on most gravel bikes, but if you’re new to bikepacking it can be hard to justify the cost. See Creative Ideas for Bikepacking on a Budget to get started with some low-cost alternatives like dry bags and straps.

Compression handlebar bags: Most handlebar bags and harnesses will work on drop bars, but they need to be rolled up shorter to fit between the drops. A compression dry bag like the Sea to Summit eVent makes this easier. More info: Dry Bags for Bikepacking

Seat bags and racks: If you have adequate clearance between saddle and rear tire, most bikepacking seat bags will work on a gravel bike. If you need more capacity and your bike doesn’t have rack eyelets, check out the PNW Bindle, Tailfin AeroPack, Aeroe Spider, or (my personal favorites) the Old Man Mountain Divide and Elkhorn racks.

Backpack: If you’re just getting started, don’t overlook the humble backpack. A 10-20 liter pack is a surprisingly good way to solve your packing woes without dropping money on a bunch of bikepacking bags you may never use again. Read more: Bikepacking with a Backpack

Protect your frame: Especially if your gravel bike has a carbon frame, apply frame tape in the areas where your bikepacking bags may rub or bounce. This protects your frame from both cosmetic and functional damage.

Keep the load reasonable. Lightweight speed-focused gravel bikes can carry a minimalist bikepacking kit, but a heavy touring load is asking for trouble (and more specifically, mechanicals). Look instead to burlier “adventure bikes” or rigid mountain bikes like the Salsa Fargo and Surly Orge, still fully rigid but designed to handle heavier loads and rougher treatment.

A Word About Underbiking

While gravel bikes are fantastic for certain bikepacking routes, they are easily overwhelmed on more rugged and technical terrain. If a route has long stretches of technical singletrack or chunky doubletrack, a gravel bike can be slow-going and frustrating.

Yet there’s always that one person who asks “Can you ride this route on a gravel bike?”, is told “No,” and does it anyway. That person is “underbiking” and gravel bikes are a favorite choice of bikepackers with a penchant for underbiking.

Underbiking is when you have “less bike” than most people need to comfortably and confidently ride the terrain in question. “Less bike” means fewer features that make a bike capable on rough ground: suspension in front and perhaps rear, wider knobby tires, burlier components all around.

All this to say: how far you stretch your gravel bike’s bikepacking capabilities is up to you. A bit of light singletrack or some rutted dirt road is no problem, just take it a bit slower. On the other hand, navigating technical singletrack on a gravel bike is a pretty fringe activity, but there will always be a few weird people who enjoy it.

Beefing Up a Gravel Bike for Bikepacking

If you have a gravel bike and feel drawn to bikepacking more rugged dirt roads and moderate singletrack, here are some changes to consider. They’ll move your gravel bike a bit closer to the rigid mountain bike category, making your life a little easier on rougher terrain.

Tires: as wide as you can fit, and knobby

Handlebars: Consider swapping to a wider bar, like my personal favorite the PNW Coast. Some bars (including the Coast) also have a shorter reach and shallower drops, contributing to a more comfortable upright posture.

Posture: Does your bike feel a little too low and reachy for all day comfort? If you have room on your steerer tube, raise the handlebars using spacers. If not, try rotating the handlebars back toward you slightly so the hoods tilt up and back (just a few degrees). A shorter stem with a bit of rise can also help.

Dropper seatpost: Not a necessity (you can always adjust your seat manually for long climbs and descents) but dropper posts are a popular way to efficiently encourage better body position while riding more challenging trails. Note that smaller riders on 700c wheels will have trouble fitting a seat bag with a dropper post.

Gearing: This can turn into a rabbit hole, but it’s worth checking whether you could swap in a new cassette and get a lower climbing gear without having to replace your derailleur.

Gravel Bikepacking Routes

So you’ve got a gravel bike and you’re ready to go bikepacking (hooray!). Which routes should you consider? Here are a few popular bikepacking routes that would be perfect for a sturdy gravel bike with 45c or wider tires:

By contrast, routes that focus on technical singletrack (think Colorado Trail or Oregon Timber Trail) are NOT a good fit for bikepacking on a gravel bike.

    The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is 2700 miles of (mostly) gravel riding. Many riders tackle it on a sturdy gravel bike, though plenty also ride rigid or hardtail mountain bikes.

    Of course you can also design your own route, which is lots of fun. Many of the Forest Service and BLM roads that crisscross the western U.S. are perfect for gravel bikepacking, thanks to light traffic and endless dispersed camping options.

    Closing Thoughts

    If you’re thinking about getting into gravel bikepacking, you’re in good company. Many gravel bikes are fun and capable machines perfect for strapping on some lightweight gear and blowing right by that “pavement ends” sign.

    Read next: Bikepacking: Everything You Need to Know

    Pavement ends road sign

    More Bikepacking Resources

    If you’re interested in gravel bikepacking, you might also find these helpful:

    Or visit the bikepacking resources 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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      4 thoughts on “Gravel Bikes for Bikepacking: Ideal Terrain, What to Look For, and Popular Models”

      1. Hi Alissa, great post. It has been very useful and answered a few questions I had. Can i ask you to if your view on hybrid bikes for touring? I like the idea of a drop bar but i am wondering whether a flat bar would be better. Cycling iceland for two weeks this summer. Thanks

        Reply
        • Hi Juan, it really comes down to personal preference and the details of the setup. If possible try to test ride a couple of each (flat and drop bars) so you can get a feel for them, if you haven’t already ridden with them. If you’ll be riding on pavement either would work, but sometimes people find flat bars tough for touring because they don’t offer as many hand positions. Also be aware that “hybrid bike” is sometimes used as a category to describe lower end bikes with less expensive components, so make sure you’re comparing apples to apples and not just looking at the handlebars. All that said, again, I recommend some test rides if at all possible. Have fun, Iceland sounds amazing!

          Reply
      2. Hi Alissa
        My 16 yr old daughter is doing a bike touring trip across Europe- Amsterdam to Vencie- and we need to get her a bike! or possibly fir out her hybrid? I am leaning towards a bike packing/ gravel rig as I see her doing a lot more local gravel than actual paved touring on a day to day.
        Any suggestions?
        thinking COMFY! fairly light because she’s tiny- 5’2″ 115lbs, and versatile…. happyy to drop 1k- 2k as she done growing- any tips would be great!

        Reply
        • Hi Catherine, good for her! I definitely support the idea of getting her a solid gravel bike she can use both at home and on future trips.

          I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but I have an article about bikepacking bikes and gear for shorter riders that might also be helpful: https://exploringwild.com/bikepacking-for-small-and-short-people/

          I’ve heard the Marin Four Corners is good for smaller riders, and it’s affordable. You could also look at Salsa’s gravel bikes like the Journeyer and Vaya. Perhaps the Kona Rove? Those are all in your price range and in theory designed for comfort, but it would be best if she can test ride a couple to see what feels comfy for her.

          If you want to get into more detail on this, feel free to drop me a message through the contact page and we can email about it. Good luck! I hope she has an amazing trip and gets hooked on bike touring forever. 🙂

          Reply

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