Gravel bikes and bikepacking are both having their moment in the mainstream spotlight, so it’s natural that many people want to know, “Can I bikepack on a gravel bike?”
Perhaps you already have a gravel bike in your garage (or living room — I know I’m not the only one whose bikes live inside the house) and want to try an overnight ride. Or maybe you’re eyeing a shiny new gravel machine at the local bike shop and wondering if would work for your bikepacking ambitions.
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 I see out there on mostly non-technical bikepacking routes. (What do I mean by that? Keep reading.)
Gravel bikes are light and efficient while being reasonably capable off-pavement machines. That’s a fantastic start for a bikepacking bike.
There are, however, a few “gotchas” to keep in mind. That’s life, isn’t it? The real answer is that some gravel bikes are perfect for some bikepacking routes, and some gravel bikes are ok for some routes, and some bikepacking routes are best avoided on gravel bikes completely. Read on and I’ll help you sort out those details.
Brand new to bikepacking? When you’re done here, head over to the Complete Bikepacking Guide for everything you need to get started.
Why Bikepack on a Gravel Bike?
The essence of a classic gravel bike is a road bike beefed up for unpaved roads. The original idea was to maintain the efficiency and speed of a road bike while adding more stability and traction with features like wider handlebars, wider tires, and longer wheelbase and slacker head tube.
These days gravel bikes come in a variety of styles. Some are designed to go fast, some to be comfy, and everything in between. Some gravel bikes are better suited for bikepacking than others, which I’ll get into below. But generally speaking, you might choose a gravel bike for bikepacking if you:
- Like to ride gravel, obviously.
- Like to ride gravel and somewhat more rugged roads or light singletrack trail, and don’t mind (or even enjoy) the challenge of “underbiking” — more on that below.
- Prefer the roadie posture and aesthetic to that of mountain biking.
- Pack light and don’t need to carry expedition-worthy loads while bikepacking.
- Prefer a lighter and more efficient bike and don’t mind sacrificing comfort on somewhat rougher terrain.
- Feel most comfortable with drop handlebars.
- Already have a gravel bike. Run what you brung!
That said, there can be challenges to bikepacking on a gravel bike. Here are some potential drawbacks to watch out for. Most of these apply more to lightweight race-focused gravel bikes, and might be non-issues on a more durable and adventure-focused gravel bike:
- May not be durable enough for rough roads and heavy loads; higher risk of mechanicals.
- Not suitable for long sections of rough 4×4 roads and trails; can limit your choice of routes.
- More aggressive riding posture can be uncomfortable on long days.
- May not have low enough climbing gear for heavy loads on steep climbs.
That’s all well and good, but there’s another BIG question we need to answer first before deciding whether a gravel bike meets your bikepacking needs. Here it is…
What Kind of Bikepacking?
Before I can advise on whether you should use a gravel bike for bikepacking, I have to ask you this: What kind of bikepacking do you want to do?
Bikepacking is actually a very broad term. Generally (in the U.S. at least) it refers to multiday riding on mostly unpaved surfaces. A little pavement is fine, but the focus is dirt or gravel.
But what kind of dirt or gravel? That’s where things get interesting!
Bikepacking spans a wide range of surfaces and terrain, from dirt so smooth it feels like pavement (until it gets wet and turns to Death Mud…), to varying qualities of gravel, to rugged and technical trails requiring suspension and skill.
One person might call this bikepacking:
Another person would say this is bikepacking:
And yet another person would say this is bikepacking:
Guess what: all three of those bikepackers are correct! But they would have a tendency to choose very different routes and probably be riding different bikes. It might be challenging to get them all together on the same trip.
To make this even clearer, here’s a handy graphic:
As you can see, gravel bikes (second from the top) span an ideal range that includes smooth unpaved bike paths and roads, somewhat rougher roads, and mostly smooth trails. Can you ride a gravel bike outside this range? Sure! Is it the ideal tool for the job? Probably not, but some people will do it anyway.
What Terrain Do You Enjoy?
Different styles of bikepacking appeal to different riders. If you’re not sure what kind of terrain appeals to you most, here’s one way to think about it:
|Smoother (more gravel bike friendly)||More Technical (less gravel bike friendly)|
|Consistent pedaling rhythm||Constantly changing gears and effort level|
|Spin your legs while getting lost in thought; less mentally demanding but some folks find it boring.||Constantly paying attention to the terrain; more mentally stimulating but some folks find it draining.|
|Less remote, more vehicle traffic; can be annoying but also helpful in case of problems.||More remote, less vehicle traffic; more peaceful but also requires more self-reliance.|
|Less scenic and “pure” in the natural landscape sense; traveling mostly on roads.||Can be highly scenic and feel more like a hiking trail.|
|Moving faster, more miles per day||Moving slower, fewer miles per day|
|Calming and repetitive||Exciting, more adrenaline|
|Less need for bike handling skills beyond the basics||Need to learn and practice bike handling skills for navigating obstacles|
|More options available; find routes almost anywhere.||Fewer routes available; need to find bike-legal singletrack trails.|
Yes, those are generalizations! There are counterexamples, but overall your favorite terrain will come down to how you feel about the left column or the right column. It’s really more of a spectrum, with lots of space in the middle.
Personally, I fall on the left half of the spectrum. I love a good gravel cruise and I’m not an adrenaline seeker, but I enjoy short sections of more challenging trail to keep things interesting.
Many bikepacking routes include a mix of terrain, so it’s common to have a “no perfect bike” situation. The longer the route, the more likely you’ll need to ride pavement to link up dirt trails, or endure sections of rough trail to get between smooth gravel roads. On mixed-terrain routes people will either:
a) Ride the bike they have — we can’t all afford a full stable of options!
b) Choose a compromise bike aimed toward the average of the terrain, even if it’s not perfect for most of it.
c) Choose the bike that’s most fun on the terrain they enjoy most. For example, technically skilled riders might choose a full suspension bike so they can enjoy shorter bits of rough trail, even though it’ll slow them down on the long smooth sections.
What Skills Do You Have?
We get so caught up in talking about bikes for bikepacking that we forget: it’s not just about the bike! It’s about the rider too. More technical trails require more bike handling skill in addition to a burlier bike, and most people aren’t born with these skills (goodness knows I wasn’t).
If you don’t already know that you like riding rocky, rooty, or steep trails, you probably shouldn’t start your bikepacking journey on them. You need to enjoy the process of learning those skills if you want to ride that kind of terrain. Start with some easier gravel or dirt roads and then, if you feel called to shred gnarly trails, try a hardtail next.
Gravel Bikes on Singletrack
You’ll hear me say in this article that gravel bikes aren’t ideal for singletrack, but it really depends on what kind of singletrack. Smooth buff singletrack can be lots of fun on a gravel bike, though it’s hard to find in many places. But technical singletrack — the kind that requires skill to navigate rocks, roots, and ruts — will really challenge a gravel bike.
I have seen skilled riders shred technical singletrack — trails I would struggle to ride on a hardtail — on tiny little gravel bikes! It’s impressive and they get it kick out of it, but it’s not for everyone.
On the other hand, not all roads are good for gravel bikes. Sometimes a dirt or gravel “road” is full of chunky rocks or deep washboarded gravel. Despite the name “gravel bike,” a rider on a hardtail or rigid mountain bike will be more comfortable on that type of gravel road.
Overbiking and Underbiking – What’s Your Style?
In bike lingo we sometimes talk about overbiking (having “too much bike” for the terrain) and underbiking (having “too little bike” for the terrain). What is this unit of “bike” we speak of?
Generally, the more rough and rugged the terrain the more “bike” is needed to navigate it comfortably and confidently. This added “bike” comes in the form of wider tires, suspension in front and maybe rear, and burlier components, all of which add weight. A full-suspension trail bike would be considered “a lot of bike,” with a carbon road bike at the other end of the spectrum.
When your bike offers more of these comfort and confidence features than necessary for the terrain, you’re “overbiking” — think of riding a fat tire bike on the local rec path. It may be comfy, but it’s probably slow and sluggish.
When your bike is lacking in comfort and capability relative to the terrain, you’re “underbiking.” The bike might be fast and light, but it takes work and skill to navigate obstacles and it’s not as comfy as it could be.
Strangely enough, this often seems to come down to a matter of personal identity. Which suits your style? Do you favor comfort over speed, or vice versa? Slow and steady or fast and dynamic? Glide over the rough stuff or take pride in muscling through (or get off and walk if necessary)?
The point of all this: gravel bikes work well for bikepacking on gravel and are sometimes used to bikepack rougher terrain by those with a preference for underbiking. You may or may not enjoy riding your gravel bike on rougher terrain, depending on your style and sense of identity as a cyclist.
Choosing A Gravel Bike for Bikepacking
If you’ve read this far, you must be interested in gravel bikepacking. So what are the best gravel bikepacking bikes to choose from?
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.
Wider max tire width: Bigger and knobbier rubber offers more traction and comfort when the going gets rough, and is one of the easiest ways to stretch your bike’s capabilities. If you want to keep your options open, 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 that straddle the gravel / “adventure bike” line and go 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 the first number, 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.
Comfortable geometry: Most bikepackers prioritize comfort over aerodynamics and efficiency. We spend long hours in the saddle, we’re loaded down with gear, and most of us aren’t trying to win any races. 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 (check the geometry chart) accomplish this, but you can also tell from the manufacturer’s description whether the bike is optimized for speed or for comfort.
Durable and reliable: A lightweight racy gravel bike might work for short and simple trips, but for longer and more rugged bikepacking you’ll want a bike that can take some knocks. You want to load it down with gear, ride through all kinds of weather and terrain, maybe strap it to the roof of a bus every now and then, and still hope to not be stranded in the middle of nowhere with a dire mechanical issue. Look for a strong frame (steel is a good choice), higher spoke count wheels, and durable rims. These features do add weight, but if you want to bikepack seriously they’re well worth it.
Gear attachment points: Many bikepacking bags can attach to any bike, but mounting points in the right places can make life easier and add more capacity. 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 gear and bottle 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.
If you already have a gravel bike and want to expand your bikepacking world beyond just mellow gravel, look to those same points above for ways to modify your bike into a more rugged adventure-ready machine. Specifically:
- 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: 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. Don’t go overboard or you’ll make it harder to ride in the drops; 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 Bikes
With all that in mind, which gravel bikes are ideal for bikepacking? Here are several popular examples of gravel bikes that can work well for bikepacking. You won’t find the raciest models here; these bikes are built to go the distance and handle a load.
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 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.
Trek Checkpoint: The Checkpoint comes in a range of models 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.
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.
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.
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 for gear space, and internal wire routing for dynamo lighting. The Cutthroat is probably the most popular “gravel” bike out there for bikepacking enthusiasts.
For a more traditional gravel race bike from Salsa, check out the Warbird as well.
Loading A Gravel Bike For Bikepacking
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 great on a gravel bike. If you need something more substantial and your gravel bike doesn’t have eyelets for mounting a rack, check out the PNW Bindle, Tailfin AeroPack, or (for burlier bikes that can handle some weight) the Old Man Mountain Divide Rack.
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.
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 gravel bikes can carry a minimalist bikepacking kit, but a heavy touring load is asking for trouble (and more specifically, mechanicals). If you need to carry a five pound tent, six days of food, seven liters of water, and a full set of winter layers, a true gravel bike is likely not a good choice. Look instead to “adventure bikes” like the Salsa Fargo and Surly Orge, still fully rigid but designed to handle heavier loads and rougher treatment.
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:
If you’re trying to figure out whether a route is a good fit for a gravel bike, ask these questions:
- How much singletrack is there? Is it technical?
- What size tire do people use on this route?
- Do I need a suspension for this route?
- What condition are the roads in?
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.
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. Choose routes with suitable terrain, keep the load manageable, and you’re sure to have a great time bikepacking on your gravel bike.
More Bikepacking Resources
If you’re interested in gravel bikepacking, you might also find these helpful:
- How to Carry a Tent On a Bike
- Bikepacking Food Guide
- 11 Mechanical Disasters from my Bike Trips (and Lessons Learned)
Or visit the bikepacking resources section for lots more!
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