Choosing the best bikepacking handlebars for your setup can feel like a big deal. And it is! Handlebars may well be the second-most important component (after the saddle, of course) for comfort during long days on the bike. Handlebars also impact how we carry our cargo and control our bike, and what terrain our bike is happiest to ride on.
The challenge: we all have different preferences, bodies, and bikes, so there’s no single best handlebar for all bikepacking. The perfect bars for one person’s favorite rides might leave another person woefully underbiked. Bars that make one rider feel comfy and in control can make another rider’s hands go numb.
Generally speaking there are three main categories – drop, flat, and alt – and many options within each group. Which bars make you feel the most comfortable and confident will depend on where and how you like to ride. If you get deep into bikepacking you’ll likely try a few before figuring out your favorite.
My own experience is a classic example. I’ve toured and bikepacked about 14,000 miles with three different models of drop bar. Over time, as I gravitated toward more rugged routes, my drop bars grew wider and more flared. Eventually I accepted the inevitable and started bikepacking with flat bars on my Stella. I’ve learned that both drop and flat bars work for me, but there are clear tradeoffs and the details of a bar’s geometry can really matter.
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Why Handlebar Choice Matters
Before diving into the different types of handlebars, let’s get on the same page about why the choice matters. When it comes to choosing a handlebar for bikepacking (and cycling in general) the two biggest factors are:
- Control and stability appropriate for the terrain
- Comfort of hand positions and riding postures (especially important for back-to-back long days common on bikepacking trips)
Bikepackers have another consideration that day riders don’t. In my opinion, this is secondary to the first two but still worth thinking about:
- Bar space for gadgets (like GPS nav or phone, headlight, bell, etc.) and bags (like a handlebar harness and stem bags)
There are plenty of other minor factors to consider, and I’ll list them all in the pros and cons below. But don’t let them distract you from these most critical considerations.
Terrain and Bike Choice
If you’re shopping for a new bike, handlebar type is generally chosen for you based on the type of bike you choose, which is dictated by the terrain you want to ride. Gravel and road bikes usually come with drop bars, while hardtails and full-suspension mountain bikes come with flat bars. That’s because, all else being equal, drop bars are best for smooth terrain and flat bars are best for rough stuff.
So your first step in deciding what handlebars you want is deciding what kind of bikepacking you want to do. Gravel or singletrack? Smooth or rugged? If you haven’t thought much about this, go read Bikepacking Bikes: The Best Choice for YOUR Riding Goals. That post will give you a feel for the types of routes and experiences in the sweet spot for each bike category.
Here’s a quick visual summary:
Surface: pavement or smooth gravel
Ideal bike type: road, touring, gravel
Common handlebar type: drop, usually
Surface: rough gravel or dirt road, smooth trail
Ideal bike type: gravel, rigid MTB, light hardtail
Common handlebar type: drop or flat
Surface: rough 4×4 roads, technical trail
Ideal bike type: hardtail or full-suspension
Common handlebar type: flat, usually
If there ever was a niche to blur traditional bike categories, it’s bikepacking! Flat bar gravel bike? Drop bar mountain bike? We embrace them all in the wacky world of bikepacking, where factors like cargo capacity and long-haul ergonomics trump category and convention.
This is partly because most bikepackers spend a lot of time on varied surfaces and “in-between” terrain. You can only find so many continuous miles of pristine gravel or technical trail, so many bikepacking routes make liberal use of in-between surfaces: gravel and dirt roads of varying quality. And it’s exactly these types of surfaces that can work well with either drop bars or flat bars.
Thus you may find yourself debating between drop bars versus flat bars for the same style of riding. For example, the two bikes below are both fully rigid, both running 29 x 2.3″ tires, and both well suited to similar routes. One has drop bars and the other flat:
And this, I believe, is exactly why so many would-be bikepackers are curious about handlebar choice. Sometimes knowing your favorite type of terrain isn’t enough. So let’s get into more details about each handlebar type and why you might (or might not) want to bikepack with it.
Drop Handlebars for Bikepacking
Traditionally, drop handlebars were for road bikes. Their narrower and lower profile allows riders to use an aerodynamic position for maximum efficiency and speed.
Today modified versions of drop handlebars are found on gravel bikes and even some mountain bikes. These drop bars are wider and flare out to the sides, offering more stability and control. This makes them somewhat suitable for rough ground (within limits) while retaining one of the big benefits of drop bars for bikepacking: varied hand positions.
When riding all day every day, alternating between upright and forward postures – i.e. switching your grip between the hoods and drops – helps stave off muscle fatigue and nerve issues. For some people, the more externally rotated grip of drop bars (compared to flat bars) solves problems with hand numbness and tingling. Some folks, especially if coming from a road cycling background, just like the feel of drop bars better.
You might worry about fitting a handlebar bag on drop bars. Rest assured most handlebar bags and harnesses work with either drop or flat bars. The difference is in how full you can pack them and whether they’re easy to get into during the day. Drop bars do limit the capacity of your handlebar cargo system, but they don’t have to limit your choice of which system to use.
The basic tradeoff of using drop bars for bikepacking: sacrificing some stability on rough ground in exchange for varied hand positions. There’s a bit more to it though; here’s a full list of pros and cons for drop bars versus flat bars in the context of bikepacking:
Drop Bar Pros
- Varied hand positions decrease fatigue and pain on long days
- Externally rotated wrist and shoulder angle is more comfortable for some people
- Ability to get low and “aero,” not usually a big factor for bikepackers (unless you’re racing) but might come in handy for headwinds or the occasional sprint into town before the burger joint closes.
- May feel more comfortable and familiar to folks with a history of road riding
- Get to be re-wrapped from time to time (so you can choose a new bar tape color!)
- Slightly better body position for hike-a-bike
Drop Bar Cons
- Less stability, leverage, and control on rough ground
- Limited handlebar space for gadgets and bags
- Limited cargo space in handlebar bag
- More forward-leaning position (all other things being equal) can be uncomfortable on long days.
- Need to be re-wrapped from time to time (a bit of extra work)
- Hydraulic disc brake options more limited
- Parts may be slightly harder to find in developing countries where cheaper mountain or hybrid bikes are the norm (but it depends)
Popular Bikepacking Drop Bars
The best drop bars for bikepacking are designed to mitigate some of those cons. They’re wider (for leverage and cargo space), flared and outswept (for leverage and comfort), and may have a shallow drop and even a bit of backsweep and rise for a more upright posture.
It seems a new bikepacking-friendly drop bar design pops up every day! There are many to choose from, but here are a couple favorites:
Salsa Cowchipper: Generous flare and a full range of widths make the Cowchipper a classic bikepacking and gravel drop bar, and one of my personal favorites.
PNW Coast Bar: Gravel-focused drop bars designed to run wide, and a favorite of mine for their comfy shallow drop.
Adapting Drop Bars for Bikepacking
A wide drop bar with some flare and outsweep is a great starting point for all but the most technical routes. To really dial in drop bars for bikepacking, some folks also make these changes:
Thicker bar tape: If your hands sometimes tingle or go numb while riding, they might be vibration-sensitive. Try using extra-thick bar tape, a layer of gel padding underneath, or double-wrapping your bars for more vibration damping.
Stem and stack: If it feels like you have to reach too far forward and down with your drop bars, try moving them closer to you. Two ways: 1) If there’s room on your steerer tube, add some spacers underneath the bars to move them up. 2) Switch to a stem that’s shorter and has a larger rise angle.
Aero bars: Not the most common comfort-related fix, but some endurance bikepackers swear by aerobars as a way to take pressure off wrists and relax tired back muscles on smooth flat stretches.
Bar extender: If you struggle to fit your navigation device, handlebar bag, and headlight on your bars at the same time, grab one of these inexpensive and very useful bar extenders.
Flat Handlebars for Bikepacking
Flat handlebars – also called straight bars or MTB bars – are typically found on mountain bikes. Their wide high-leverage design gives riders ultimate control on the roughest trails. As with gravel-focused drop bars, the trend of late has been wider and wider. If you can fit your mountain bike through the door, your bars are too narrow!
Flat bars have the opposite strengths and weaknesses from drop bars: better leverage and control but fewer and less ergonomic hand positions. Flat bars offer only one hand position, which forces an internal rotation of the forearms and shoulders and can put the wrist joint at an unnatural angle. Fortunately some flat bars are designed with backsweep – where the bars angle back toward the rider slightly – to mitigate this.
It’s worth noting that some people have no problems with the drop bar hand position. Personally I experience less hand numbness and weakness when bikepacking with flat bars as compared with drop bars, though neither is a problem at all unless I’m riding super-long back-to-back days.
Flat bars have some other tradeoffs too, especially when it comes to bikepacking and bike travel. Here’s the full list of pros and cons for flat bars versus drop bars:
Flat Bar Pros
- More stability and control on rough terrain
- More handlebar real estate for gadgets and bags
- More cargo space for handlebar bags
- More upright posture for comfort on long days
- Shift and brake controls are a bit easier and cheaper to maintain and repair, since they’re simpler and separate (compared to integrated brifters used on drop bars)
- Wider range of brake options
- Compatible parts may be slightly easier to find in developing countries (but it depends)
Flat Bar Cons
- Fewer hand positions can lead to pain and numbness for some people
- Internally rotated hand position may be less comfortable for some people
- Posture is less aerodynamic, so you will ride a bit slower on smooth roads or into headwinds
- When traveling by bike, super-wide bars can be awkward in some situations (chaotic traffic, cramped motel rooms, traveling by bus)
Popular Bikepacking Flat Bars
Any flat bars can work for bikepacking, but some are designed with features like backsweep and rise to help with comfort. Here are a couple popular flat bars commonly used for bikepacking:
SQlab 30X 16 degree: A sturdy alloy bar with fairly dramatic 16 degree backsweep for an ergonomic wrist position, and three rise options for dialing in posture. I have this bar on my Stella and find it very comfortable.
Salsa Rustler Riser: Another popular alloy bar with 11 degree backsweep plus upsweep and moderate rise.
Adapting Flat Handlebars for Bikepacking
Beyond choosing a bar with the right amount of backsweep, upsweep, and rise for your setup, here are other ways to make flat bars more comfortable for bikepacking:
Bar ends: I’m a big fan of these, specifically Cane Creek Ergo Control bar ends. They’re an easy addition, offer an extra hand position with more natural wrist angle, improve leverage and shift weight forward on tough climbs, and (bonus) make it easier to lean the bike against a wall. Read more: MTB Bar Ends
Foam grips: Like extra-thick bar tape on drop bars, a pair of fat foam grips can go a long way toward reducing vibration and hand fatigue during long rides with flat bars.
Aero bars: Adding aerobars to flat handlebars is definitely an unusual move. However, a small group of folks (mostly endurance bikepack racers) find them helpful for adding an extra hand position and posture option, as well as the occasional efficiency boost on smooth terrain.
Alt Handlebars for Bikepacking
Still can’t choose between flat and drop? You’re in luck, there’s a third option! Alt (short for “alternative”) bars are designed to offer the varied hand positions and ergonomic comfort of drop bars, but with the leverage and bar real estate of flat bars.
The best of both worlds? They certainly could be, especially if you like technical riding and want the leverage of flat bars but don’t find them comfortable. They’re also popular for folks who require multiple hand positions but don’t like drop bars for whatever reason.
Alt bars use flat-bar style controls, so they’re compatible with the world of mountain bike brakes and drivetrains. This makes them an easy switch if you already use flat bars, but more difficult if you’re coming from drop bars and road components.
The classic alt bar – the one that pioneered the whole category – is the Jones Loop H-Bar. It uses a dramatic 45 degree backsweep for a comfy wrist angle while preserving lots of space for bags and gadgets. Its biggest competitor, the Surly Moloko, goes for less radical backsweep and adds mini bullhorns for yet another hand position. Both of these bars stretch further back and forward from the stem, giving the rider a choice between sitting upright, reaching forward, or somewhere in between as terrain and comfort dictate.
It’s tough to generalize all alt bars that currently exist and may exist in the future. But with the Jones Loop and Moloko in mind, here are the biggest pros and cons:
Alt Bar Pros
- Varied hand positions offer ergonomic comfort and ability to shift postures
- Lots of bar space for bags and gadgets
- Easy switch from regular flat bars
Alt Bar Cons
- Ergonomics may come at expense of control on the roughest terrain (eg: dramatic backsweep)
- Can require extra bar tape or non-standard ways of wrapping bars or mounting bags
- Heavier than simpler bars (all else being equal) since there is more material
- Large and awkward shape is hard to pack in bike box for transit
- Some people think they look funny, but whatever.
That may look like a bigger list of cons, but the pros can be significant. If you’re a rider who can’t quite get comfy on either drop or flat bars, an alt bar can easily be worth the tradeoffs.
Popular Bikepacking Alt Bars
Here are three popular alt bars commonly used for bikepacking:
Jones Loop Bar: Lots of backsweep and available in a ton of options, including fancy carbon and titanium.
Surly Moloko Bar: Tons of hand positions and space for gadgets.
Surly Corner Bar: A weird and wonderful innovation that mimics a drop bar but takes mountain bike controls. I don’t know why nobody thought of this sooner!
Carbon Handlebars for Bikepacking?
Many popular handlebars in all categories – drop, flat, and alt – come in carbon options that weigh a few ounces less and cost a few hundred dollars more. This post wouldn’t be complete without addressing the question: are carbon bars a good idea for bikepacking?
Many people understandably rule them out based on price alone. When dealing with a loaded bike, cutting a few ounces of weight is hardly a top priority unless you’re focused on bikepack racing or need your bike to do double-duty for performance-oriented day rides.
For those who don’t mind spending money on carbon bars, comfort is a commonly cited benefit. Carbon’s material properties allow it to absorb road chatter and dampen vibration – both of which can lead to hand numbness and pain – while still being stiff and strong. Some people swear this makes a difference for them, and others aren’t convinced.
If you want carbon bars and are willing to pay for them, the remaining question is: are carbon bars strong enough to handle the rigors of bikepacking? Carbon fiber is remarkably strong and very unlikely to snap under a bikepacking load, or even during a typical crash. Still, bikepackers should take extra steps to protect carbon bars from abrasions caused by bikepacking bags. And if you travel overseas with your bike and sometimes transport it on the roof of a bus or in the back of a helpful local’s truck, you might find carbon bars aren’t worth the added anxiety.
I don’t have a personal opinion on carbon bars for bikepacking because I’ve never tried them. I guess you could say my opinion is that they’re not worth the cost and potential durability risk. But if I were rich, suffered more from hand issues, and mostly bikepacked closer to home, I might consider them.
How important is it to make the right choice the first time? Can you change your bikepacking handlebars later if they’re not working for you?
Generally it’s easy to switch between bars of the same type (drop to drop or flat to flat) as long as both use standard size tubing. You’ll simply move over your current brake and shift controls and (if drops) re-tape the bars. You may want to make stem or stack changes if the new bar has dramatically different geometry, but otherwise no new parts are usually required.
It’s more complicated and expensive to switch between different types of bars (drop to flat or flat to drop). This requires also changing your shift and brake controls, which may require other changes like brake calipers and derailleurs, or getting fancy with adapters. There can be a whole cascade of compatibility issues if you go down this rabbit hole, though it’s usually possible if you’re determined enough.
Switching between flat and alt bars is fairly simple, since alt bars (all the ones I know of at least) take the same MTB controls as flat bars. You may have a few bike fit and cable routing changes to make, but shouldn’t need a bunch of new parts.
Switching between drop and alt bars is more complicated and expensive. You’ll have the same compatibility issues as switching between drop and flat bars.
In short, you definitely can (and many riders do) experiment with different handlebar models. Can’t get comfy on your drop bars? Try a model with more flare and shallower drops. Getting wrist pain from your flat bars? Try more backsweep or switch to an alt bar. But if possible, choose the right broad category of bars (drop versus flat / alt) from the start.
Other Tips for Choosing Bikepacking Handlebars
Test ride (rent, borrow, ask at your local bike shop) a few bikes if you can, especially if you’ve never ridden with a particular category of bar before. It’s hard to understand the intricacies of drop bar hand positions, for example, without trying them yourself.
That said, small differences in bar design and bike geometry can make a big difference in feel and comfort, even within the same general category. Handlebar geometry and bike geometry interact with body geometry to determine what’s comfortable, so the whole system needs to be considered together. Two helpful tools for visualizing differences if you’re comparing options: whatbars.com for handlebar comparisons and bikeinsights.com for bike comparisons.
Don’t underestimate the importance of bike fit when it comes to handlebar comfort (and any other kind of comfort). A different stem or change in seat position could turn a painful posture into a workable one without any changes to your handlebars. It’s worth talking to your local bike shop if unsure about your bike fit.
If you’re still on the fence about bikepacking handlebars, don’t stress. Though drop bars and flat bars (and alt bars) each offer different advantages, many bikepacking routes can be comfortably ridden on either as long as you’ve dialed in your bike fit.
Unless you already know your comfort preference, my final advice is to let terrain be the deciding factor. Do you fancy yourself a singletrack shredder or feel drawn to the ruggedest of 4×4 “roads?” Flat bars will help you reach your full riding potential. Otherwise, drop bars are the natural choice and offer the most hand positions, but flat bars and alt bars could work too.
Whichever way you go, pay attention to geometry details designed to maximize comfort. There’s a reason so many bikepacking bikes rock wide flared drop bars and backswept flat bars. Don’t be afraid to experiment as you gain more experience and get a grip on (so to speak) your handlebar preferences. 🙂
More Bikepacking Resources
If you found this article helpful, you might also like these:
- Revelate Handlebar Harness Review After 4700 Miles
- The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route: Essential Q&A
- How to Find Riding Partners for Bikepacking and Touring
Or visit the bikepacking section for lots more!
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