Hardtails for Bikepacking: Ideal Terrain, What to Look For, Popular Models

If you love mountain biking and also camping, there’s a good chance you’re intrigued by bikepacking. What’s not to love about the freedom of strapping some gear to your bike and exploring beautiful trails for days on end?

If you like the sound of that, you may be wondering: should you bikepack on a hardtail mountain bike?

The short answer is a resounding YES! You can technically bikepack on just about any bike, but a hardtail (suspension fork in front, rigid in rear) is arguably the most versatile type of bikepacking bike out there.

That said, some hardtails are better for bikepacking than others, and you’ll need to know what to look for. Read on to learn about the ideal terrain for bikepacking with a hardtail, what to look for if you’re shopping for a bikepacking-friendly rig, and some specific hardtail models that are popular among bikepackers.

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

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The Hardtail Sweet Spot

A hardtail is, in my opinion, the most versatile type of bikepacking bike. Sure, you might occasionally find yourself overbiked or underbiked, but a hardtail will get you almost anywhere you want to go while bikepacking. It’s a great compromise between simplicity and technical capability.

Diagram showing types of bikes lined up in order of less bike to more bike

On the “less bike – more bike spectrum” in my above diagram, a hardtail sits between a fully rigid MTB and a full-suspension bike.

Compared to a fully rigid MTB (or a gravel bike – even bigger difference) it’s better at handling technical trails. It’s also more comfortable over the lumps and bumps of rutted dirt roads and washboarded gravel. On the downside, it’s usually a bit heavier.

Compared to a full-suspension mountain bike, a hardtail is less cushy and takes more effort and skill to ride on really technical trails. But it has some major bikepacking-specific advantages, namely more cargo space and fewer moving parts that need maintenance and potentially repair on a long trip. Also, it’s probably cheaper, which is no small matter.

In terms of terrain, hardtails can handle a wide range and serve different purposes at each end. Most people who bikepack on a hardtail are doing it for one of these reasons:

Comfort on gravel and dirt: These folks don’t technically need the front suspension, but their bodies appreciate it during long days on bumpy unpaved roads and occasional light singletrack.

Technical ability on chunk and moderate singletrack: These folks depend on their suspension fork for faster, smoother progress and more confidence with obstacles.

Cargo space and simplicity on very technical trails: These folks love technical riding and would probably prefer to ride a full-suspension bike, but they’re underbiking with a hardtail because of its cargo space, simplicity, and/or cost savings.

Compromise on mixed-terrain routes: Some bikepacking routes include everything from gravel roads to rocky singletrack. A hardtail is a good versatile choice for these no-perfect-bike situations.

Close up of washboard bumps on gravel road
A hardtail isn’t necessary on this washboarded gravel, but it’s certainly more comfortable.
Bike handlebar in foreground with rough desert road ahead
A hardtail offers confidence and smoother riding on this chunky jeep road.
Mountain bike handlebars in foreground with rocky trail ahead
A hardtail is underbiking on this super rocky trail, but it has advantages for bikepacking.

Don’t Forget About Fork Swapping

If you’re on the fence between a hardtail and a fully rigid MTB, keep in mind that forks are easily swappable once the initial install is done. Most hardtails can be transformed into fully rigid bikes by swapping out the suspension fork for a suspension-corrected rigid fork like the Enve Mountain or Whisky No. 9.

Now you have a lighter and simpler rigid mountain bike ideal for smoother dirt and gravel, or for long trips in remote places where simplicity is key. If this works well for your bike’s geometry, it’s almost like having two bikes in one.

I’ve been doing this for years with my Chumba Stella, swapping between a Fox suspension fork when I want a hardtail and my Whisky carbon fork when I want something lighter and faster. The swap takes me about 10 minutes, very easy. Add in a second wheelset and you have an extremely versatile bikepacking setup.

Read More: Best Rigid Forks for Mountain Bikes

Lightly loaded hardtail bikepacking bike leaning against Tahoe Rim Trail sign
Stella in hardtail mode with suspension fork on the Tahoe Rim Trail.

Popular Hardtail MTBs for Bikepacking

Next up, some popular mid-range hardtail models that work well for bikepacking. I see these on the trails quite often at bikepacking events and on popular routes. No need to limit yourself to this list, but it’s hard to go too wrong with any of these options.

Surly Karate Monkey: Surly is known for their bomber steel bikes designed for multiday riding. The Karate Monkey isn’t particularly lightweight or performance oriented, but it’s one of the most popular bikepacking hardtails I see out on the trails. It has mounts and eyelets in all the right places, wide-range 1×12 gearing, and 27.5+ wheels. A fully rigid version is also available (or you could buy two forks and switch between them for an even more versatile setup).

Surly Karate Monkey

Marin Pine Mountain: A steel hardtail 29er designed specifically for all-day epics and bikepacking, the Pine Mountain offers a surprising number of frame mounts for bottle cages or bolt-on bags, and promises “modern trail capabilities” thanks to its progressive cross country geometry.

Marin Pine Mountain 1

Specialized Epic Hardtail: The Epic Hardtail is a lightweight carbon cross country hardtail focused on speedy technical performance while maintaining rider comfort. It’s a bit racier than others in this list, but could be a good fit for someone who’s into both shorter distance racing and multiday adventuring.

Specialized Epic Hardtail Comp

Salsa Timberjack: The Timberjack, and its more affordable and beginner-friendly cousin the Rangefinder, are both solid bikepacking-friendly hardtail options from the bikepacking-friendly brand Salsa. Complete bikes come with several groupset options and choice of 27.5″ or 29″ wheels; there’s even a singlespeed option.

Salsa Timberjack SLX 29

Santa Cruz Chameleon: As its name suggests, the Chameleon is designed for whatever adventures you might want to throw at it. The aluminum frame has extra mounts for bottle and gear cages, including a 3-pack under the down tube, though the frame triangle is a little small when it comes to luggage capacity. The relatively slack geometry is a good choice for more aggressive trail riders, and the mixed wheel size build option is fairly unique (a straightforward 29er option is available too).

Santa Cruz Chameleon

Trek X-Caliber: The aluminum X-Caliber, and its racier carbon cousin the Procaliber, are cross country hardtails designed to be fast yet comfortable. Both have wide-range 1×12 gearing and hydraulic brakes, and the X-Caliber has rear rack mount eyelets.

Trek X-Caliber 9

What to Look For in a Hardtail for Bikepacking

The hardtail mountain bike category is vast, spanning a wide range of styles and budgets. If you’re shopping with bikepacking in mind, here are the most important aspects to consider.

Geometry: Not all hardtails are designed for the type of riding bikepackers tend to do. We want a bike that’s comfortable to sit on all day and efficiently transforms our pedaling effort into forward motion. Look for bikes categorized as Cross Country (XC), which tend to prioritize light weight, pedaling efficiency, and climbing capabilities. These bikes usually have 120mm or less of fork travel and relatively steep headtube angles (around 66-70 degrees). Avoid bikes designed primarily for downhill performance, like the “enduro” and to some extent “trail” categories.

Material: Options include aluminum, steel, carbon fiber, and titanium. All can be reliable if designed and built well. Carbon and titanium are lighter but more expensive. If you want a bomber bikepacking rig that can take some knocks, steel is a popular and reliable choice (or titanium, if your budget is big enough), but it’s heavy. Avoid the lightest of the lightweight racing-focused bikes for both comfort and durability reasons, not to mention cost.

Gearing: Modern mountain bikes typically have a low climbing gear (let’s say a gear ratio of 0.8 or smaller) which is great for pedaling a loaded bike up steep hills. For varied bikepacking routes you’ll also want a decently fast high gear ratio (around 3.0 or higher, give or take) to keep you moving along on flats and gradual downhills. This can be harder to find on a hardtail as compared to a gravel bike, so look carefully for decent wide-range gearing if you plan to ride a variety of terrain. Often you can improve the gear range by swapping chainrings or cassette, but big changes can run into compatibility issues with the rest of the drivetrain.

Fork travel and lockout: It’s good to have a lockout that prevents the fork from squishing when you don’t need it, saving you energy on climbs and smooth surfaces. Some forks have more sophisticated damping profiles that make a lockout less essential. For bikepacking, a short or medium travel fork is ideal, something in the 90 – 120mm range. Shorter riders might want to go with shorter travel to get more cargo capacity on your handlebars.

Mounts: You don’t necessarily need mounts to go bikepacking, especially with today’s creative bags and universal-mount racks, but they do keep your options open. Bikes designed for long-distance riding often have extra mounting points for bottles and gear cages in the frame triangle area, and some even have eyelets for mounting a rack. This is especially helpful for small riders needing to stretch their luggage capacity.

Brakes: Mid-to-high end mountain bikes typically come with hydraulic brakes. They’re generally superior to mechanical brakes in performance and comfort — no more stopping midway down that epic descent to shake out your cramping hands — but also harder to fix and maintain while traveling. Bikepackers are split on this issue, but hydraulics are becoming more popular among all but the most hardcore of bike travelers (those taking multi-month trips in countries where it’s hard to find a bike shop).

Handlebars: Handlebars are usually an easy swap and most people don’t factor them into bike choice, but changing bars can be a helpful upgrade if you’re gearing up for bikepacking. Many bikepackers find that a straight flat MTB-style handlebar isn’t ergonomic for long multiday rides. Consider swapping to a bar with a larger backsweep angle (around 10 – 20 degrees), an “alt bar” like the Jones Loop with multiple hand positions, or adding bar end grips.

Frame triangle space: Definitely not the most important factor in choosing a hardtail for bikepacking, but all other things being equal, bikepackers tend to prefer larger frame triangles for the extra frame bag capacity. Some hardtails, especially those designed with more downhill-focused geometry, don’t have much usable frame triangle space especially on small frames.

Bikepacking Routes for Hardtails

A good hardtail opens up nearly endless options for scenic and interesting bikepacking routes. To inspire you, here are a few popular routes ride great on a hardtail mountain bike:

Some fans of underbiking will ride these on rigid mountain bikes or even gravel bikes, but many feel that a hardtail is more comfortable and fun.

Also worth a mention is the epic and famous Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Though this mostly gravel route is commonly ridden on fully rigid mountain and gravel bikes, hardtails are the next most common choice. Many riders choose them for the extra comfort they provide when riding day after day (after week after week…) on rough gravel roads.

More Bikepacking Resources

If you’re into bikepacking, you might also like these other posts:

Or, visit the bikepacking resources section for lots more bikepacking tips and inspiration.

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 “Hardtails for Bikepacking: Ideal Terrain, What to Look For, Popular Models”

    1. Very informative. I was wondering if my bike would be up to the task as I explore possible bikepacking routes and it sounds like it definitely has potential

      Reply
    2. Did my first Bikepacking trip last week, just an overnight one and doing it again in a week or so with a more refined route. I’m using a hardtail Trek Marlin that I’ve been upgrading. I’ve been researching and buying my bags and kit online. It went well and soon I’ll start doing longer ones as I have strap on bottle cages for the frame and new drop bars attachments and tri bars on order.

      https://strava.app.link/TRP5YF1l4vb

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