What Makes a Great Bikepacking Shirt?

Today I’ve been rummaging through my clothing bins while packing for a springtime bikepacking trip. These days I have a collection of go-to favorite bikepacking shirts, but only thanks to a lot of trial and error. 

Sure, you can bikepack in any shirt, just like any bike can be a bikepacking bike. No need to overcomplicate things for an overnighter or casual trip. But if you’re looking for the ideal bikepacking shirt – one you can literally live in for days, weeks, or months on end in a variety of challenging conditions – it definitely helps to look for some key characteristics. 

This post shares seven traits I personally look for in an ideal bikepacking shirt. At the end I’ll list a few of my personal favorite brands and models from my closet, the ones I’m choosing between for my upcoming trip.

Related: My Bikepacking Clothes: Lightweight Comfort in (Almost) Any Weather

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.

Comfortable

At the risk of stating the obvious, your bikepacking shirt should be very comfortable. You’ll be spending a lot of time in it, and any minor rubbing or tightness can grow into a major annoyance on a long trip. 

Test your shirt while on the bike in riding position. Is there any tightness in the back or shoulders? Is the hem long enough in back? Are the neck opening and arm holes loose enough? 

I prefer a stretchy material and fairly loose fit. Nothing bugs me more than the feeling of tight fabric bunching under my armpits, or binding across my shoulders when I reach for the handlebars. For this reason button-up shirts usually don’t work well for me, but I know some people like them. 

Any shirt I wear for bikepacking needs to have loose arm holes, stretchy shoulders, and a long back hem.

Temperature Regulating

As bikepackers we often deal with wide-ranging temperatures, from scorching sunny afternoons to freezing overnights at camp (sometimes both in the same day!). A great bikepacking shirt will help you stay cool in the heat and also add a bit of warmth in the cold. 

I’ll be mentioning merino wool a lot in this post, and this is one of its many magical properties. The comfortable temperature range of a lightweight merino wool shirt is larger than any other material I know of. The only time I don’t find merino suitable is in humid or very hot (say 80 degrees F or above) conditions; in those cases I prefer a super-light breezy synthetic.

Merino wool is good at temperature regulation, which is useful in alpine environments like this one where temperatures can fluctuate widely.

Stink Resistant

We all know bikepackers aren’t exactly paragons of cleanliness. Honestly, sometimes I don’t take a proper shower for a week when I’m out on the trail! 

When we’re embracing trail hygiene, it’s critical to have a shirt that doesn’t soak up body odor. Some synthetic fabrics are especially bad at this. After just a single day they can accumulate a stench that resists the most vigorous hotel sink laundry routine. Yet a quality stink-resistant shirt can somehow still smell fresh even when it hasn’t left my body for days.

There are two ways to achieve bikepacking-worthy stink resistance: merino wool and treated synthetics. Merino wool is naturally stink-resistant thanks to some magic superpower of sheep, and is my first choice. You can also find synthetic outdoor shirts with antimicrobial treatments, some of which work almost as well. 

Definitely test the stink resistance of your shirt before a long trip. Your riding companions will thank you!

Getting dirty is an essential part of bikepacking. Embrace it! It helps to have a stink-resistant shirt.

Fast Drying

Sometimes it can feel like bikepackers live in a constant state of dampness. If it’s not rain, it’s sweat, or the result of an informal laundry session. Whatever the cause, it’s common to have a pile of damp clothes at the end of the day. And if you’re packing light you’ll need to put them back on the next morning because you don’t have spares. 

Thus fast-drying fabric is important in a bikepacking shirt. Once again, lightweight merino wool hits the brief (though midweight merino, above around 200 gsm, doesn’t dry as quickly as I’d like). Most synthetic shirts intended for outdoor sports like running or hiking are also quick-drying and wicking, meaning they pull moisture away from your skin to keep you feeling dry. 

Cotton is notoriously slow to dry, and also heavy and bulky, so not recommended for bikepacking or any other outdoor sports.

Bikepacking clothes have a way of getting damp, so fast-drying fabric is important.

Brightly Colored

Most of these other traits are important for outdoor sports in general, but this one is very bike-specific. If you’ll be spending time on roads with cars – and even the most remote bikepacking routes often do for at least short periods – it’s important to be highly visible. 

When choosing a shirt for bikepacking I try to find a bright color like red, yellow, or orange,  something that will stand out against the landscape I’m riding in. 

Of course a bright shirt is no substitute for other traffic safety measures. Personally I like to use a rear blinky, helmet mirror, and often a high-viz triangle somewhere on my bags. It’s not enough to just be visible… The goal is to be unmissable even to distracted drivers.

I chose this eye-catching merino wool shirt for the Great Divide because I wanted to be very visible to drivers.

UV Protective

The forward-leaning posture of cycling leads to a lot of sun exposure on the forearms, shoulders, and back of the neck. These days I try to cover up with long sleeves for all but the shortest trips, but sometimes I’ve even gotten sunburnt through my shirt while bikepacking. 

Some shirts have a UPF rating (similar to sunscreen), which is a nice bonus. At the very least, I choose a shirt with long sleeves or pair UV-resistant arm sleeves with a short sleeve shirt. As much as I adore the feeling of sun on my bare shoulders, I’m getting old enough that I don’t mess around with skin cancer risk anymore. 

For really long trips or very sunny areas, like my recent bikepacking trip in Morocco, I’ve started wearing merino sun hoodies. I don’t always like to ride with the hood up, but it’s great for taking breaks and sitting at camp. 

A buff around the neck helps protect the skin above the shirt collar. Obviously good sunscreen is important for any uncovered areas.

In the sunny Sahara desert I really appreciated the full sun coverage of my Wuru Nuyarn Hoodie.

Durable

If you plan to live outdoors in a single shirt (ok, maybe two) for weeks or months, it needs to be durable! Unfortunately this tends to be at odds with many of the above traits. My favorite merino wool shirts, excellent in all other ways, are quick to develop holes and dirt stains. Ultimately I keep buying them because I like them so much, but the cost can add up. 

Still, some brands and fabrics are more durable than others. Pay attention to buyer reviews and try to treat your shirt gently on the road.

Sadly this merino hoodie (Smartwool Merino Sport Ultralight) never came clean after a month of wear. It’s not the most durable, but it’s nice and cool in hot weather.

The Art of Layering

I’ve mostly been talking about base layer shirts, the one you wear directly against your skin. But in all but the warmest weather, that won’t be enough. To manage your temperature effectively while bikepacking you need to embrace layering. The key is to find items that add warmth while zooming downhill but don’t overheat you immediately when you start to climb.

My favorite way to add warmth to my bikepacking shirt without overheating is to layer on a lightweight wind vest. This blocks windchill to my core area, which makes a big difference in warmth, yet allows plenty of ventilation at the armpits. It’s also very light and compact. 

I carry a midweight long-sleeve merino layer for riding in cooler temps and for sleeping in at night. A rain jacket is obviously key for bikepacking in stormy weather but also adds considerable warmth in dry conditions. Finally, an insulated jacket (often a down puffy) is critical for cool evenings at camp. Try not to ride in it unless temps are really cold, or your sweat will make it damp. 

Layering a lightweight wind vest over a merino hoodie for extra warmth on a cool October day.

My Favorite Bikepacking Shirts

It seems every rider has their own favorite type of bikepacking shirt. You’ll see folks out there in everything from lycra jerseys to flannel button-ups! For me personally, coming to bikepacking from a background of international bike travel and long-distance backpacking, I’m all about lightweight merino wool and the occasional breezy synthetic for super-hot weather. 

Here are a few of my favorites:

If you’re on the hunt for the perfect bikepacking shirt, I hope this helps! Do you have a favorite I don’t know about yet? Please share in the comments below.

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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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    9 thoughts on “What Makes a Great Bikepacking Shirt?”

    1. The Canadian Costco brand, Segments, offer a long sleeve lightweight wool T shirt that I’ve used for thousands of miles.

      They may not be made any more so these days I snag them on eBay.

      Reply
      • Interesting! Never heard of Canadian Costco but that must be a good quality shirt if it’s lasted so long. I also use eBay to grab old favorites that aren’t made anymore.

        Reply
    2. Hi I love these shirts but I’m surprised you don’t mention pockets – having extra space for gels bars phone easily accessible is so handy – definitely love merino . New Zealand brand ground effect are one of my favourites! And also mons royale 😁😁

      Reply
      • Good point! I got into bikepacking from travel instead of cycling, so I’ve never owned a cycling jersey with pockets, but I can definitely see the appeal. Would you trust your phone in those pockets on rougher trails, or is this only for road and gravel? Thanks for the merino recommendations!

        Reply
    3. Very well thought out article. Any merino shirts give me a rash even though I wear Darn Tough socks daily and for hikes. The Patagonia and REI sun shirts are my choice for fishing and photography trips but I’m able to launder after use. Thanks for sharing your vast knowledge and experience.

      Reply
      • That’s a bummer about merino giving you a rash, definitely narrows the options, but luckily synthetic sun shirts are getting better and better. Thanks for sharing your favorites.

        Reply

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