Bikepacking With A Backpack: Convenient Cargo Carrier or Pain in the Neck?

It’s true, the whole point of bikepacking is to let the bike carry the stuff. Bikepackers, tourers, and long distance cyclists of all kinds sometimes turn up our noses at the idea of wearing a backpack. We like to feel the wind at our back, literally, and we’ll do anything to keep weight off our tired shoulders and tender undercarriage toward the end of a long day.

But a backpack can still play an important role in many bikepacking setups. Whether we’re talking about a couple liters of water in a hydration pack or a full set of camping gear in a hiking pack, bikepacking with a backpack is a totally workable gear-carrying strategy.

Personally I’ve gone full circle when it comes to bikepacking with a backpack. When I first started this silly sport, back before I even knew what it was called, I didn’t have all the fancy bags or racks. I just strapped a tent to my handlebars, threw everything else in a hiking pack, and pedaled to a campground and back. Boom, bikepacking! The picture at the top of this post is from that era.

As I took on longer trips, often internationally, I loaded up my bike with a rack and panniers. Why would I carry anything on my body when I have all the space I need on my bike? I carried 12 liters of water across the Sahara and didn’t even consider a backpack.

Related: Panniers vs. Bikepacking Bags: How to Choose

These days I find myself tackling more rugged dirt roads and trails that demand a more streamlined bikepacking setup. With limited space on my small bike frame, I sometimes turn to a hydration pack for extra water and gear space, and to keep my bike lighter for gnarly hike-a-bikes.

So, I’ve tried it all! Big pack, small pack, and no pack. In this article I’ll explain the pros and cons of bikepacking with a backpack, describe the different types of backpacks you might consider, and recommend some of the best backpacks for bikepacking.

By the end you’ll be well-equipped with the knowledge to pedal off into the sunset with everything you need on your bike, your back, or a combination of the two.

New to bikepacking? The Trip Planner Workbook will help you get started, and the Bikepacker’s Companion eBook is your field guide for the road or trail.

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Why Bikepack with a Backpack

There are lots of reasons people wear a backpack while bikepacking. Here are the most common:

  • You’re just starting out and aren’t ready to spend money on bikepacking bags yet.
  • You’re a small cyclist with limited cargo space on your small bike frame.
  • You ride a full suspension mountain bike with limited cargo space.
  • You need space for extra water on a dry trip, extra food in a remote area, or lots of bulky warm layers in cold weather.
  • Hydration bladder hoses are convenient to drink from while riding (though you can also put a bladder in a frame bag for similar benefit).
  • You carry camera gear or other fragile stuff that needs protection from vibration.
  • You’re riding rough trails and want to keep the bike lighter so you can navigate technical sections and push / drag / carry over obstacles more easily.
  • You like the convenience of extra pockets and storage space, such as a safe pocket for your phone or easily reachable snacks, chapstick, etc.
  • You want storage that’s easy to carry with you at stops so you can keep your valuables with you at all times.

With all those reasons, it might sound like wearing a backpack for bikepacking is a no-brainer. So why do some people avoid it?

Related: How to Pack for Bikepacking (So Everything Actually Fits)

Why NOT to Bikepack With a Backpack

Here are a few reasons some people prefer to not wear a backpack while bikepacking:

  • Backpacks put more weight on your saddle area, which can aggravate pain and chafing there.
  • Backpacks can cause your neck and shoulders to fatigue more quickly.
  • Backpacks make you work harder when out of the saddle for climbing or technical riding.
  • Backpacks prevent sweat from evaporating off your back, making you feel warmer in hot weather.
  • A heavy backpack raises your center of gravity and can make it harder to ride technical terrain.
  • A loose-fitting backpack can bounce around and chafe your skin.
  • Wearing a pack can complicate adding or removing layers when temps change.

Sounds bad, right? But keep in mind, almost all those issues depend on the weight of the pack, and to some extent the fit. A small, light, and close-fitting hydration pack will barely be noticeable to most people. A full multiday hiking backpack, on the other hand, is a bigger issue.

It also depends on the length and intensity of your ride. If you’re a beginner and just want to pedal a few miles to a campsite, a large backpack will work perfectly fine. But if you’re an ultra-distance bikepacker riding challenging trails for twenty hours a day, even small fit and comfort issues can become big problems.

A small, close-fitting hydration pack usually won’t cause too many problems and can add valuable water capacity to a bikepacking setup.

Types of Backpacks for Bikepacking

Some types of backpacks are better for bikepacking than others. Here are the main categories along with their bikepacking-specific pros and cons.

Hydration Packs

A hydration pack is a small backpack designed to hold a few liters (usually 1 to 3) of water in a flexible bladder that you drink from with a hose. They often have a bit of space for snacks, layers, or other small essentials, and sometimes a few pockets you can reach without removing the pack.

Though it may seem like they don’t hold much, taking 2 – 3 liters of water off your bike frees up a lot of space! Sure, you can carry loads of water on your bike, but it’s not always the most practical. And water is heavy (2.2 lbs per liter), so if the goal is to keep your bike lighter for technical terrain then a hydration pack helps a lot.

Hydration packs may be designed for specific activities like hiking, mountain biking, or running. Mountain biking packs are, unsurprisingly, a good fit for bikepacking. They often have bike-specific details like helmet straps, tail light hooks, and low-riding water reservoirs to improve balance.

Running packs are surprisingly good too thanks to their close fit and no-bounce design. Of course, some differences just come down to aesthetics and marketing; what matters most is whether the pack fits your body.

Hydration pack pros: small, light, usually fit close to the body and don’t bounce around, convenient to drink from

Hydration pack cons: usually not much room for gear

For specific hydration pack recommendations, keep reading or jump down to Best Bikepacking Backpacks.

A hydration pack, like this running vest, is perfect for carrying a couple extra liters of water in a dry place like here in southern Utah.

Day Packs / Larger Hydration Packs

A day pack typically provides 15 – 30 liters of gear storage and includes a sleeve for a 2 to 3 liter hydration bladder. Thus it functions as a hydration pack but with even more room for gear.

Day packs are the sweet spot of backpacks for bikepacking. They’ll carry your water, but they can also hold a significant amount of gear — enough to make the puzzle of packing your bikepacking bags much easier if you’re short on space. They’re not terribly unwieldy and won’t make your ride too uncomfortable, provided they’re packed carefully.

They’re also perfect for bikepacking beginners. If you don’t want to spend money on dedicated bikepacking bags just yet, you can easily fit a sleeping bag and extra clothes (focusing on lightweight but bulky items) into a day pack along with a couple liters of water. By attaching the rest of your gear to your bike using creative budget-friendly tricks, you can go bikepacking with almost no actual bikepacking-specific gear.

Like smaller hydration packs, some day packs are designed specifically for mountain biking. In theory this means a better bike-specific fit and stabilization, and perhaps some extra back ventilation and easy helmet attachment. Most bike-specific packs in this size come with hip straps to reduce sway.

Hiking day packs can work well too, especially if they have a hip strap. Even better, hybrid “fastpacking” packs – designed to help trail runners carry enough gear for a minimalist overnight – aim for a no-chafe, no-bounce fit.

Day pack pros: hold more gear, not too big, easy to find (you probably already have one)

Day pack cons: can be heavy, may be unwieldy if not a good fit

New Zealand Alps to Ocean bike trip
This 30 liter fastpacking pack made it possible to ride across New Zealand with a rented bike and the teeny-tiny panniers that came with it.

Backpacking Packs

Here’s where things start to get a little unwieldy, but don’t let that stop you! A backpacking pack — usually somewhere between 45 – 70 liters — will carry everything you need and more.

I don’t generally recommend bikepacking with a backpack this big, but I have occasionally seen it done. It won’t be very comfortable and it will definitely affect your balance, but it will get you from point A to B without the need for any bikepacking-specific bags or racks whatsoever.

As with any type of pack, try to choose one that fits you well and keep it as light as possible. Pack the heaviest items at the bottom and closest to your back to improve balance and comfort.

Backpacking pack pros: lots of space!

Backpacking pack cons: likely to be heavy and uncomfortable for long rides, may be too unwieldy for technical riding

Hip Packs

Hip packs are growing popular with bikepackers as an alternative to small hydration packs. They seem especially popular for camera gear thanks to their easy access; gear can be added and removed from a roll-top hip pack while you’re wearing it, unlike most backpacks. They can also carry water, food, tools, and anything else a small backpack could carry.

One obvious advantage of a hip pack: no sweaty back! They’re also worn closer to your center of gravity and thus impact balance less, which is helpful for mountain bikers riding technical trails.

Some people find hip packs more comfortable than backpacks, and others don’t. A wide hip strap often helps, as does thoughtful buckle placement. As with any pack, the most important part is finding a model that fits your particular body and riding posture. Test the pack while riding your bike; the forward-leaning posture may feel very different than simply standing around.

Hip pack pros: low center of gravity, no sweaty back, easier access

Hip pack cons: hip belt can be uncomfortable if not a good fit, bag can interfere with saddle when standing over bike

Stuffable Packs

On long and varied bikepacking routes like the Great Divide, there may be just a few times when you need more food or water capacity than usual. A lightweight stuffable day pack is perfect for this case. When empty it takes up almost no room in your bags, but it’s invaluable for getting through that long dry stretch or food carry.

These packs aren’t made for frequent or long use and don’t have much structure. They’re not particularly durable or comfortable. But they’re a perfect compromise when you don’t want to haul a more robust backpack along just for a few days of use.

A small stuffable pack also comes in handy off the bike. Use it for a side trip, day hike, or just to haul all those groceries back to your motel room.

Stuffable pack pros: super lightweight and compact, perfect for occasional use on a long trip

Stuffable pack cons: not as comfortable as a real backpack

Best Bikepacking Backpacks

If you’re just getting started and looking for a way to save money on bikepacking gear, the backpack already in your garage is the perfect place to start. Skip down to the next section for tips on how to use any backpack most effectively for bikepacking.

For more experienced riders seeking a backpack specifically for bikepacking, this list will get you started. These packs are selected from the best backpacks for bikepacking in each size category.

Note: For those unfamiliar with the backpack sizing system, the volumes in liters below are gear volumes. They typically include space 2 – 3 liters of water in a hydration bladder, and the remaining space is used for gear or food.

Other Tips for Bikepacking with a Backpack

Whatever backpack you choose for your next pedal-powered adventure, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Aim for a close and secure fit to prevent shifting, bouncing, and chafing.

Keep the pack light, especially if it’s contributing to shoulder fatigue or saddle soreness. If your goal is to carry gear that doesn’t fit on the bike, fill your pack with light but bulky items like a sleeping bag and clothing. If your goal is to lighten your bike itself, carry some water and a few heavier items in the pack but don’t go crazy.

Pack heavy items lower in the pack and closer to your back for less impact on balance.

Remove air bubbles from your hydration bladder to eliminate annoying sloshing. To do this, turn the filled bladder so the hose connection is at the highest point, let the air bubbles collect there, then suck out the air through the bite valve.

Waterproof your gear inside dry bags as needed, especially if carrying electronics or clothing in your pack. Consider rain from above and also, for some packs, sweat from your back.

Add warm layers over a small pack or use arm warmers when riding with a backpack. This obviously doesn’t work for big packs, but if you wear a small hydration pack you don’t necessarily need to remove it every time you stop to add or remove a layer of clothing.

More Bikepacking Resources

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa. I’ve traveled over 15,000 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 or say hi.

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    8 thoughts on “Bikepacking With A Backpack: Convenient Cargo Carrier or Pain in the Neck?”

    1. I have used wingnut packs for many bikepacking trips. It sits low like a extended hip pack. See them at wingnutgear.com

      Reply
    2. Great article, as usual. I loved my Sea to Summit packable backpack on our 2021 Great Divide ride, mainly to carry a green salad mix out of town for lunch or dinner. That pack also is known as my “Sun Chips” bag, the perfect bag for a full size bag of Sun Chips.

      One huge benefit of the Osprey hip pack was to carry our valuables: money, credit cards, phone, GPS, etc. Whenever we got off our bikes for any reason all our valuables were already on our bodies and stayed there, for 2500 miles. Perfect.

      Reply
    3. Another vote for the Sea to Summit pack. It’s clipped to my handlebars and occasionally pulled into service when I’ve stocked up on food…the food goes into framebag, and light stuff – raingear, gloves, beanie etc go in the pack until frame bag space opens up again.

      That being said…I’m spoiled by having an XL frame and giant frame bag. So i could see how space constraints on a smaller frame size might steer someone towards a pack.

      Reply
    4. I have been cycling around the world for more than 35 years . First mistake you make when you are inexperienced and young is to try to wear a backpack while cycling long distance . You like it , good for you but please ,to pretend that this is a smart thing to do is preposterous. I have cycled the Sahara with 50 liters of water on my bike , you had 12?? Where were you? This article will make a whole lot of beginner suffer and sweat unnecessarily .

      Reply
      • I was on the eastern side, in Sudan, where the longest dry section is only about 3 days. I assume you were on the west? In any case, there are many different styles of bike travel and this post is intended more for bikepackers (lightly loaded with bikepacking bags, not racks and large panniers) than round-the-world cycle tourers. I’m happy for you that you have a system you like, but recognize that some people have needs that are different from yours (and be nice about it).

        Reply

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