Now that bikepacking has exploded into the mainstream cycling scene, many people are asking “Can I bikepack on my road bike?”
Perhaps you’re tired of battling it out with cars on increasingly busy roads and you’ve heard bikepacking is a more mellow activity. Maybe you long for a different vibe than the weekly group ride, something more… adventurous. Or maybe you’ve just heard of this cool new bikepacking thing and want to know if you can get in on it.
All reasonable reasons to be asking if you can you bikepack on a road bike. So, can you?
Short answer: It depends on what you mean by bikepacking and what you mean by road bike. Read on and I’ll unpack that for you.
Want to know more about other types of bikepacking bikes? Read about all the options: Choosing the Best Bike for YOUR Bikepacking Dreams
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Here’s the cold hard truth: a road bike is not a very good fit for most “bikepacking” trips as the term is generally understood, at least in the U.S. But don’t despair just yet! Let me explain.
The word bikepacking can have different meanings:
- Most commonly, bikepacking means multi-day riding with a focus on unpaved roads or trails. A road bike can work for the smoothest of those unpaved roads, but quickly gets in over its head on more moderate to rugged bikepacking routes.
- Sometimes the term bikepacking refers more to a style of luggage than terrain. Bikepacking bags (as opposed to panniers) are a lighter and more flexible way to carry gear on a bike, and though designed with off-pavement travel in mind they work well on road bikes too. In this sense, bikepacking with a road bike is thoroughly reasonable.
There’s also the term “bicycle touring,” which conjures up images of a bike loaded down with racks and panniers, normally on pavement and light gravel roads. If this is what you mean by bikepacking, a road bike is a fine choice as long as you have a way to attach luggage and don’t load it down too heavily.
As you can see, there’s some grey area here. You can bikepack (on rough trails) with a rack+pannier touring setup, or you can tour (on pavement) with a bikepacking setup. When the terrain and luggage style align it’s easy to pick the right term, but when people get creative it can be harder. That’s ok though, creativity is encouraged! Best to not get too hung up on terminology.
For purposes of this article I’ll assume you’re interested in having some kind of multiday adventure on a road bike, ideally as rugged as your bike will allow. I’ll explain how to choose a route, how to choose or modify your road bike to help its bikepacking capabilities shine, and how to load it up and hit the pavement (or well-maintained gravel or dirt).
Why Bikepack With a Road Bike
The purpose of a road bike is to be fast and efficient on, well, roads. Paved ones usually. Road bikes are at the lightest and fastest end of the bike spectrum, and also the least-capable when it comes to dealing with bumps in the road.
Here are some reasons you might choose to bikepack on a road bike:
- You prefer the smooth rhythm of riding pavement over the variety of rougher terrain.
- You enjoy bikepacking or touring in populated areas with ready access to restaurants, motels, ice cream, and beer.
- You appreciate a bike that is light and efficient.
- A road bike is the bike you have. We can’t all afford a whole stable of bikes!
Everything in life comes with tradeoffs though (sigh). Here are the main drawbacks to bikepacking with a road bike:
- Limited to pavement and smooth gravel, which excludes a lot of the most scenic and remote bikepacking routes.
- Lightweight frames and components may not stand up to the rigors of loaded riding; more risk of mechanicals.
- Aggressive forward posture can be uncomfortable for long days.
- Many road bikes lack a low enough climbing gear for hauling a load up steep hills.
Not every road bike will have these challenges, and some will be a bigger deal than others. Let’s go there next.
What Kind of Road Bike?
You say you want to bikepack on a road bike, but what kind of road bike are we talking about? A high-end ultralight carbon bike built for speed over short distances? An all-day endurance machine? The steel workhorse you’ve been commuting on for years?
Here are a few ways to think about where your road bike fits on the spectrum of bikepacking-readiness. At the risk of overgeneralizing, the more a bike is designed for speed (lightweight materials, aggressive riding posture, high gearing) the less well-suited it is to casual bikepacking or touring.
At the opposite end of this spectrum from race bikes are pavement touring bikes, like the cult-classic Surly Long Haul Trucker. We don’t usually call these “road bikes” because the more specific touring focus takes center stage. As you might expect, they’re much better suited to bikepacking but way less fun to ride unloaded.
Comfortable geometry: Most bikepackers and tourers 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 more 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 endurance and comfort.
Durable and reliable: A lightweight racy road bike might work for short simple trips or credit card touring, but in general you’ll want a bike that can handle a load and take some knocks. Look for a strong frame (steel is a good choice), higher spoke count wheels, and durable rims, or plan to limit your load and baby your bike (and have a backup plan in case of a dire mechanical issue).
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 like the idea of taking your road bike on some light gravel, choose a fork and rims that can fit wider tires. Many road bikes top out around 30mm tire width, but if you find a bike that can go up to around 40mm you’ll have the option of wider gravel tires.
Lower climbing gears: Gearing discussions can get complicated. As a starting point, note that most road bikes have an easiest gear ratio of greater than 1:1 (for the first number, for example 1.2:1), which is a harder gear than the typical climbing gear on a gravel bike or mountain bike. 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 chainrings to add lower gearing, but in practice this sometimes requires changing your derailleur too.
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 road 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 and ergonomics. Changing from one drop handlebar to another is usually easy, so don’t buy a bike specifically for its handlebars. But if you’re stretching your road bike’s capabilities onto rougher gravel, you might consider replacing the bars with drops that are wider, shallower, and flared at the ends. Two models I personally like: PNW Coast and Salsa Cowchipper.
What Kind of Bikepacking?
Now that we’ve talked about what makes a road bike suitable for bikepacking, we need to answer another very important question: Where do you want to go bikepacking with your road bike?
As mentioned above, bikepacking refers to a whole spectrum of terrain but the focus is usually unpaved surfaces. Here’s a handy graphic to illustrate the full range:
See the road bike, way up there at the top? Its ideal range includes paved roads or bike paths, and smooth unpaved roads or bike paths. Think recreation paths surfaced with decomposed granite, or very well-maintained unpaved roads.
Take a true road bike onto rougher unpaved roads, however, and you’ll need to be cautious. You’ll feel every bump, your tires might slip or puncture easily, and the bike might not feel stable. You’ll need to watch your speed on descents and may need to get off and walk through tricky sections. If your road bike is more of an endurance-focused machine, an all-road bike with gravel capabilities, or a road touring bike, you’ll probably be fine.
Venture further down the graphic above, onto rougher dirt roads and trails, and you’ll likely reach the “this isn’t fun anymore” point. Even the burliest touring-focused pavement bike can be a struggle on long sections of rough terrain. (I would know, I tried it for several hundred miles.)
If you want to travel further down the spectrum of bikepacking terrain, perhaps for the challenge of learning mountain bike skills or the fun of biking in more remote places, you’ll probably need another bike.
Example Road Bikes for Bikepacking
A full overview of road bikes is well beyond the scope of this post, but here I’ll give some examples of road bikes that have bikepacking-friendly features. Use them as a point of reference while evaluating your own bike for its bikepacking potential or looking for a new bikepacking-friendly road bike.
Salsa Warroad: The Warroad is an endurance road bike with carbon frame and a variety of groupset options. Its geometry isn’t the most relaxed, but it’s a good example of a lightweight road bike designed for long rides on variable surfaces. Tire size can go up to a generous 700c x 35mm or 650b x 47mm, and plenty of mount points (including on fork blades) make it easier to attach bottle and gear cages.
All-City Zig Zag: The Zig Zag is a road bike with steel frame and carbon fork, a popular and durable combo often used for bikepacking bikes. It has clearance for 700c x 35mm tires, a number of nice cosmetic touches, and promises to help riders “go farther, faster, and have more fun.”
Surly Disc Trucker: The Disc Trucker, and its better-known discontinued cousin the Long Haul Trucker, are bombproof pavement touring bikes. With mount points for racks and generous clearance for 26×2.1 or 700x47mm tires, the Trucker has room to grow into a gravel touring machine if you get into that. It’s heavy and not the best choice for folks who want to ride fast unloaded, but if you see a lot of touring in your future it could be just the thing.
Marin Gestalt: Marin says the Gestalt is for endurance riding and all-weather pavement, making it a great choice for road riders who crave the occasional multiday adventure. With clearance for up to 700c x 35mm tires, a bit of gravel should be no problem. The aluminum frame and carbon fork offer a balance of durability and comfort at a reasonable price, and rack mounts make loading up gear easy even without a soft-bag bikepacking setup.
Of course those models barely scratch the surface when it comes to road bike options! Some roadies, particularly those interested in racing, will say these bikes are a bit on the sluggish side. But if you want the option to bikepack on anything besides the smoothest pavement, having a little extra bike is a good thing.
Loading a Road Bike For Bikepacking
So you’ve got a capable road bike and you’re eying a road-bike-friendly route. Let’s talk about how to load your gear onto your bike.
I’ll focus on the lightweight approach: a bikepacking bag setup for road bikes (instead of panniers). This setup often works best since most road bikes lack rack mounts and aren’t built for heavy loads. It’s also probably what most people are picturing when they think about a road bike setup for bikepacking.
I won’t go into full detail about designing your bikepacking setup here, because it doesn’t change much for a road bike versus other types of bikepacking bikes. For all the details like what goes where and in which bags, see How to Pack For Bikepacking.
Here are a few special tips specific to a road bikepacking setup:
Affordable tricks for beginners: Bikepacking bags work well on many road 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 road bike. If you need something more substantial and your 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 road bike has a carbon frame, apply frame tape in the areas where bikepacking bags may rub or bounce. This protects your frame from both cosmetic and functional damage.
Keep the load reasonable. Lightweight road 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 road bike is likely not a good choice. Look instead to pavement touring bikes like the Surly Disc Trucker and Salsa Marrakesh.
Bikepacking Routes for Road Bikes
It can be a bit confusing to sort through the many awesome bikepacking routes being developed these days. If you’re bikepacking on a road bike, you want to avoid getting stuck on a route that’s too rough for your steed. Here are a few examples of road-bike-friendly bikepacking routes to inspire you, roughly in order of how much of a stretch they would be for a classic road bike (easiest to hardest):
- Ohio to Erie Trail: Mostly paved with a few sections of composite. I would call this a “touring route,” but you can ride it with bikepacking bags if you choose, and it’s very well-suited to a road bike.
- Great Allegheny Passage: Also more of a touring route, but also commonly ridden in bikepacking style. Unpaved but well-maintained.
- Steens Mountain Loop: A lot of pavement and a bit of gravel in varying condition. This loop could work on a hardy road bike, gravel bike, or pavement touring bike; they recommend 35c to 38c tires.
- Arkansas High Country Route: With 50% pavement and 50% gravel, this route is ideal for a gravel bike but could be ridden with some caution on a sturdy road bike with wide tires (35c or more). Beware, very hilly!
Of course you can also create your own route. It’s fun! Your road bike will be happy to gobble up pavement miles just about anywhere; just make sure to seek out low-traffic roads for safety and serenity.
If you want to go bikepacking on your road bike, give it a shot! Choose a route with lots of pavement or at least some well-groomed gravel, put on the widest tires you can fit, and try to keep your load as light as possible. Above all, enjoy the adventure!
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