So you’ve got your bike. And you’ve got some bikepacking bags, maybe, or just some stuff sacks and straps. And you’ve got a big pile of gear: sleeping bag, spare socks, tent poles, hydration bladder, favorite stuffed animal, flask of whiskey…
And now you’re looking at those weird triangle-shaped bags and cylindrical stuff sacks and thinking: how the HECK is THIS supposed to work?
Here’s the secret: there is no secret. Well ok, there are some secrets (which we’ll get into below) but you’re still going to have to get creative. Bikepacking is a full-participation sport, and that starts with packing the bike.
Packing for a bikepacking trip is half art, half science, and another half brute force. It’s a work in progress, a constantly evolving process of trial and error, a long series of what-if-I-put-that-there, let’s-see-if-this-fits-here, maybe-I-don’t-need-this-after-all experimentation.
Honestly, learning how to pack for bikepacking is, in my opinion, part of the fun! But there are a few time-saving tips worth knowing in advance. So to get you started I’m going to walk through each component of a typical bikepacking setup and explain what types of gear you might want to stuff / wrestle / wedge into it, and the best way to go about that.
Don’t forget though: ultimately you’re the only one who can craft your perfect bikepacking setup. Every combination of bike, rider, gear, and route is unique. If you find a way that works better for you, then roll with it and don’t look back. Rules are made to be broken, and bikepackers are a rebellious lot, aren’t we? 😉
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What are all these bags called?
Before we can talk about how to pack for bikepacking, first we need to get on the same page about the names of all those funny-shaped bags. A picture is worth a thousand words, so here’s one of my earlier bikepacking bag setups, a bit scrappy and heavily loaded for a monthlong trip:
Here’s another example, slightly more put-together on a different bike of mine a few years later, also for a monthlong trip:
Don’t have all these bags yet? No worries. If you’re still compiling your collection or working with a small budget, you can still go bikepacking and this article will still help you pack. See Creative Ideas for Bikepacking on a Budget for some clever gear hacks and affordable bags.
Now that you know the pieces of the puzzle, let’s talk about which awkwardly shaped pieces of gear you should be trying to shove into which awkwardly shaped bags as you pack for your bikepacking trip.
General Packing Tips
Regardless of which particular bag you’re packing, keep these key principles in mind as you load up your bike for bikepacking.
Pack for the terrain. After experimenting with everything from road touring to technical singletrack over the years, I’ve learned to let the route influence my gear list and packing system. If you’re cruising gravel roads you can get away with a lot of things, packing-wise, that become a major headache on rougher terrain (loose straps, awkward weight distribution, saggy overloaded bags…).
Pack as light as possible. The more rugged the terrain, the more this matters. Think technical singletrack, fallen trees across your path, or steep and slippery hike-a-bikes. Ideally you should be able to lift your bike over thigh-high obstacles and carry it for short distances if necessary. If you’re just cruising gravel roads this doesn’t really apply, but your legs will still thank you on the climbs. Read more: How to pack lighter for bikepacking
Pack heavy things low and close to the center of the bike, which keeps it free to be the nimble singletrack-shredding machine it yearns to be. Heavy things packed elsewhere will affect your bike’s handling more, especially if they’re far to the front (on your handlebars) or far to the back (very back of your seat bag). This matters more on rough and technical terrain than on smooth gravel.
Pack things you’ll need during the day more accessibly, and things you’ll only need at camp less accessibly. This can be harder than it seems. For the first 2.5 days of your first trip the thing you need will always be at the very innermost corner of your fully stuffed seat bag. Don’t worry, it’s normal.
Assume ANYthing can rattle loose when the riding is rough enough. If you’ve strapped anything you’d like to see again to the outside of your bags, tether it with a backup cord. Watch out for buckles, straps, sleeves, or anything else that could slip and get caught in your wheels, sending you into a graceful unplanned somersault over your handlebars.
Practice riding your loaded bike before leaving on your trip, and I don’t just mean around the block. Go ahead, hit your local trails and bask in the pride of your badassery as the local dog walkers glance quizzically at your loaded rig. Also, get used to how it handles and find out whether your knees hit your stem bags or your thighs graze your frame bag.
Know what’s waterproof and what isn’t. Unlike a backpack, where you can just throw a pack cover over the whole thing, a bikepacking setup needs to be waterproof in each and every component. Or at least you need to know which components are actually waterproof, so you can put your must-stay-dry items (sleeping bag, warm layers, electronics) in the right places when the sky opens up.
Shorter riders have less cargo space. I know this all too well, unfortunately. If you ride a size small or XS frame, this post on bikepacking for smaller people is full of helpful ideas.
Next, let’s look at each type of bag and how to best pack it for bikepacking. For each section I’ll give a few common options at different price points, but I’m not focused on specific gear reviews and recommendations here. This post is more about the practical nitty-gritty of putting things in the bags. You can find more detail about each type of bag in my bikepacking bags post.
I usually recommend a frame bag as the first bikepacking-specific bag new riders purchase. It’s the perfect place to carry weight without impacting handling (low and centered), fills frame space efficiently, and is hard to imitate with a budget substitute. It even works great in combination with panniers for a touring-style setup if you decide to go that route.
There are budget frame bags (I’ve had good luck with Moosetreks), high-end custom frame bags (love my Rogue Panda), and many in-between options (Revelate Designs makes good ones). The most important part is to make sure the bag you choose will fit your particular frame. You probably don’t need a custom fit (unless you want one of course) but you might need to measure carefully and shop around.
Frame bags come in several styles, from full-size (covering the whole frame triangle) to small wedges and partial bags that leave space for water bottles or rear suspension. Personally I prefer a full frame bag, because my rigid frame triangle is pretty small and I want to make good use of every inch.
What goes in a frame bag? Since it’s low and centered, it’s a great place to pack heavy things. It’s also easily accessible, so it’s a handy place to put things you use often.
Here are some items commonly carried in a frame bag (not all at once unless you have a HUGE frame triangle — jealous!):
- Hydration bladder with hose routed up to handlebars for mid-ride sipping*
- Water filter, near the water bladder for convenience*
- Repair kit, spares, chain lube, pump*
- Spare tube, protected in plastic at the very bottom of the triangle*
- Cooking kit and fuel, if small enough
- Electronics, like a Kindle or power bank (be sure to use a waterproof bag if you also have your hydration bladder in there)
- Paper map or other big flat things that don’t fit anywhere else
- Small cable lock, if riding in populated areas*
The “*” marks the items I personally carry in my (fairly small) frame bag, in case you’re curious.
Frame bag space varies a ton by size and style of bike. If you’re a small rider on a mountain bike, especially a full-suspension one, you won’t have much to work with. If you’re a tall rider on a gravel bike, you could probably fit my entire bikepacking kit in your cavernous frame bag.
A handlebar bag, in the bikepacking context, is a cylindrical dry sack that attaches to your handlebars via straps or a harness system. If you run flat bars the bag can be quite wide, nearly the full width of your bars. Most models can also be rolled up shorter to fit between drop bars albeit with lower capacity.
Handlebar bags come in two main flavors:
- all-in-one bag and attached mount (whole thing stays on your handlebars), example: Revelate Designs Sweetroll
- harness plus detachable dry bag, example: Revelate Handlebar Harness (my favorite)
After experimenting with many different handlebar bag styles, I strongly prefer a harness with removable dry bag. The first time you need to set up camp in the pouring rain you’ll appreciate being able to pack and unpack the bag inside your shelter.
Many setups also allow an additional item to be strapped into the harness. This is key for packing large bulky items, like a tent or accordion-fold sleeping pad, that don’t fit anywhere else. In my experience you can really load a sturdy handlebar harness pretty heavily with tent, food pouch, etc. as long as you’re running a rigid fork and riding roads (paved or unpaved).
What goes in a handlebar bag? Light-ish but bulky things are best. Too much weight up there will affect the bike’s steering. Things people commonly pack in a handlebar bag / harness (* indicates my typical setup):
- Sleeping bag or quilt*
- Puffy jacket*
- Clothing: midlayers, gloves, rain jacket
- Sleeping pad
Some systems offer add-on pouches (Revelate Egress) for easy access to snacks, sunglasses, sunscreen, etc.
Let’s talk dry bags for handlebar harnesses. On flat bars I love a roll closure on each end like the Revelate Saltyroll or MLD UltraX for access to small items like a jacket and gloves during the day (sleeping quilt stays stuffed in the middle). On drop bars it’s harder to get into the bag while it’s loaded, so I prefer to make the most of limited space by using a compression stuff sack like the Sea to Summit eVent.
Running a suspension fork? Try to keep handlebar weight down and adjust fork pressure to account for the extra load. Small riders on 29er bikes, watch out for tire rub. See bikepacking on a hardtail for more detail, but essentially you’ll need to choose a smaller-diameter bag and/or a rigid mount that can be angled upward.
Budget-friendly tip: a handlebar bag is one of the easiest items to DIY if you’re just starting out. Simply strap a cylindrical object (or two) to your handlebars, like this:
Seat Bag / Saddle Bag
There’s no more distinctive component of the bikepacking look than that funny-shaped triangular-ish thing sticking way back behind your butt. At this point in your packing process I know exactly what you’re thinking: so this thing is supposed to hold basically all the rest of my stuff?
Fortunately a seat bag is a very versatile piece of gear. A larger one can hold all kinds of odds and ends: food, tools, toiletries, clothes… The key is to arrange them so the heavy things and items you won’t need until camp are at the inside, near your seat post. This could be dinner, toiletries, or evening electronics (headlamp etc).
Light stuff that you might need during the day, like warm layers, should go at the back. Try to avoid packing heavy stuff at the very back where it can lead to drooping and swaying.
What should be packed in a seatbag? It seems everyone has a different list, but here are the most common (* indicates my typical setup):
- Food for camp*
- Extra clothing*
- First aid kit*
- Toiletries kit*
- Small sleeping pad
Bikepacking seat bags range from roughly 6 to 16 liters in size. That’s a big difference! Again (are you seeing the pattern here?) the larger packs work best for smoother and less technical riding. For singletrack your gear mantra should be “light and tight” and that definitely applies to seat bags.
If you’re running a dropper seat post (and want to actually be able to use it) you’ll need to consider clearance for your seat bag. Some seat bags, like the Rogue Panda Ripsy and Revelate Vole, are designed to be used with a dropper. They have seat post straps that work well with a Wolftooth Valais and rigid plastic on the bottom in case you accidentally drop your seat bag onto your tire.
Smaller riders often struggle with tire clearance for larger seat bags. With no dropper post a 14 liter seat bag just barely fits on my bike. With a tiny 6 liter Revelate Vole I can actually use my dropper seatpost, at least partially, but taller riders will have a much easier time with this setup. (I’m 5’5″)
I’m a big fan of seat bags with shock cord on top, and there are other clever ways to eke out a bit more storage capacity. Side straps can be buckled through camp sandals, a jacket can be stuffed in shock cord, or an inflatable sleeping pad can slip beneath a cinch strap. (Be sure to tether carefully!) The Olliepack has a clever bottom mesh pocket perfect for snacks or short tent poles.
How to Pack a Bikepacking Seat Bag
Maybe it’s because I’m a shorter person with a 29er bike, but I find seat bags to be the hardest part of the bikepacking setup to pack well. Without very precise packing I inevitably end up with a saggy, droopy, tire-rubbing nightmare. Fortunately some newer seat bags, like the Revelate Spinelock and Rogue Panda Ripsey, come with rigid bottoms. But if you’re working with an older or flimsier model, here are my tips for how to pack a saddle bag:
- Ditch the stuff sacks. Instead, smush all the soft stuff together into a single solid mass.
- Those straps that go around your saddle rails, leave them a bit loose until after you’re done stuffing the bag. Then tighten them up and let them help compress everything.
- If your bag is still droopy, you may need something stiff to give it structure. This could be two camp sandals positioned along the sides or a piece of cardboard on the bottom.
- Tire rub can be a frustrating issue for shorter riders on 29er bikes. If careful packing and secure buckles (some buckles on cheaper models tend to loosen over time) don’t help, you may need a different seat bag or a more creative option.
Feed / Stem Bags
So named because they attach to your stem and are often used for snacks, these little bags are super convenient for easy access. You don’t even have to stop pedaling to open the drawstring top, reach in, and grab for your gummy bears.
Stem bags are a fairly straightforward piece of gear. There’s still a wide range from cheap to fancy (currently loving my Revelate feed bags) but most are a similar size and shape. Personally I like stem bags with extra side pockets to help organize all the tiny items I would otherwise constantly misplace.
Items commonly carried in stem bags include (* indicates my typical setup):
- Snacks (it can’t be a coincidence that stem bags are perfectly shaped to hold a roll of mini donuts)*
- Sunglasses, when not worn
- Camera or smartphone
- Extra water bottle
- Bear spray, if applicable
Top Tube Bags
A top tube bag is another excellent place to tuck small items for easy access while riding. They generally come in two styles: “gas tanks” that mount up front against the stem, and “jerry cans” that mount back against the seat post. Many can be mounted in either spot as long as they fit.
Depending on your body and bike geometry, watch out for standover issues especially with jerry cans. You don’t want a bag to bulge out and graze your thighs while pedaling, and you definitely don’t want it in the way of any important anatomy when you’re standing over your bike. Otherwise, top tube bags are fairly straightforward pieces of gear.
Good items to put in a top tube bag:
- Sunscreen, chapstick
- Power bank, if used while riding
- Lights, helmet mirror (when not in use)
- TP / bathroom baggie (you do pack out your used TP, right?)
If all your bags are full and you still have more essential stuff to pack (and you’re sure you really need it), it’s time to involve your fork. For this you’re going to want bottle cages or, ideally, cargo cages (which are basically oversized bottle cages that can also hold dry bags of various sizes). I like Blackburn Outpost Cargo Cages for their versatile shape, but there are a number of options. Whatever cage you use, I recommend rubber Voile straps.
I make heavy use of fork cages whenever I need to add more capacity to my bikepacking setup, especially for consumables like food and water. A fork cage can hold a water bottle, a full or partly empty bag of food, or nothing at all. This versatility makes them especially great for rides with occasional long food carries and/or dry stretches. They’re also nicely shaped to hold a rolled up sleeping pad or cook kit.
Some bikepacking-focused rigs already have bolts on the fork blades that are perfect for easily mounting a bottle or cargo cage. If your bike isn’t so well-equipped, you have some other options, including good old fashioned electrical tape. Whatever you choose, do make sure there’s no possible way it could come loose and jam your front wheel.
Items that work well in fork cages:
- Water bottles
- Inflatable sleeping pad
- Cook kit and fuel canister / bottle
- Bag of food
- Small dry sack with clothing, tent fly, etc.
It can be really tempted to load down your fork with ALL the things, especially if it has cage mounts and the rest of your setup is space-constrained. You can get away with this for riding gravel and pavement, but it will interfere with your bike’s finesse on rough and rocky terrain. I try to avoid it, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do if you want to cross deserts and whatnot.
I get it, sometimes a seat bag just doesn’t cut it. On longer international trips I’ve always used panniers, even when the terrain is rough. These days there are plenty of bikepacking-style panniers that are smaller, sleeker, and use rattle-free soft attachments more appropriate for bumpy riding. I like the affordable REI Co-op Link Panniers.
Panniers make it much easier to pack for bikepacking. Their straightforward shape and larger size usually means you can pack whatever you want in them. You also get some extra space on top of the rack to strap a big bulky thing like your tent. The main guidelines are very intuitive:
- Pack heavy stuff and camp-only items toward the bottom
- Pack frequently used items near the top
Honestly I often ignore that first rule and pack heavy things, like water, up high on my rack. It’s not a big deal. Try to be consistent every morning with what goes on each side, so you aren’t constantly opening the wrong pannier (how can the cheese always be in the side I open last?).
Backpacks and Hip Packs
Shifting a bit of gear from your bike to your body can be a key packing strategy, especially for bikepackers with smaller frames or full-suspension rigs. Keeping the bike itself light will benefit everyone on technical trails and nasty hike-a-bikes.
Not everyone likes bikepacking with a backpack. Weight on your back can contribute to saddle soreness and muscle fatigue, and on hot days it makes your back really sweaty. I only do it for technical rides and fast-and-light bikepacking events, my pack of choice being the 12 liter Osprey Salida. Some people say a hip pack works better for them than a backpack.
Backpacks are also fantastic if you’re new to bikepacking and don’t have all these bags yet. Just strap a tent to your handlebars, throw everything else in a 30 liter day pack, and off you go!
Common items to pack in a backpack or hip pack include:
- Water bladder
- Food and snacks
- Layers for warmth or rain
Still wondering how to pack for bikepacking?
I know, I didn’t actually tell you exactly what to put where. As promised, I left plenty of room for individual creativity. But if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed and wondering where to start packing for your bikepacking trip, here’s what I would suggest:
- If you have a tent, figure out where to pack it first (ideas here). Often the handlebars are the best / only place for tent poles.
- Figure out your handlebar situation next. What fits best there? Can you easily carry two items – say sleeping bag stuff sack and tent – with a good handlebar harness or some creativity and extra straps?
- Figure out your water plan next. Here are a bunch of ideas.
- Put as much heavy stuff as you can fit into your frame bag, including water if that’s part of your water plan.
- Stuff clothing and remaining sleep items into seat bag, see how much room is left over.
- Find easily accessible storage for the small odds and ends. Maybe a top tube bag and a stem bag or two.
- What’s left? Look for items that can be easily attached to other items or put in dry bags in cages on your fork.
- Go through your packing list, remove any non-essential items, and repeat the process until it all fits.
Handlebar / Cockpit Space
Once your bike is all loaded up with a handlebar bag and stem bags, you may find that handlebar space is sorely lacking.
If you run a GPS navigation device, phone mount, headlight, or other handlebar gizmos, you might appreciate this handlebar extender. It gives you a few extra inches of space above your actual handlebars, which is especially handy for elevating a headlight so it isn’t blocked by bags. For me it’s essential when bikepacking with drop bars, but I prefer to go without it on flat bars where I have more space.
Bikepacking Pack List
It’s hard to give a definitive bikepacking gear list without specifics of terrain or climate, but here’s a basic general checklist for 3-season conditions. Some of these items are optional if the weather is mild.
Tent or other shelter
Sleeping bag or quilt
Base layer shirt
Mid-layer warm shirt
Mid-layer warm tights
Down or fleece jacket
Details: My Bikepacking Clothes List
Buff or bandana
Food and Water:
Stove and fuel
Pot and/or mug
Water bladders and bottles
Water filter or purifier
Navigation device: phone or GPS
SPOT or Garmin satellite communicator
Ear buds, if desired
Spare batteries, as needed
Details: electronics for bikepacking
Toilet paper and plastic waste baggie
Other personal items
Details: what’s in my lightweight toiletries kit
Odds and Ends:
First aid kit
Tools and spares (full list here)
Helmet mirror, high-viz clothing, other safety items
Wallet and ID
Paper maps or backup navigation
Ziplock baggies and trash bag liners for waterproofing gear
Bike lock, if needed
In closing, lest this post give you the impression that packing for bikepacking is an exact science, let me show you something personal. Here’s a progression of my own bikepacking setups, from my very first try to my current best:
Yes, that last setup is snazzier and more fun to ride (and, I must admit, more expensive). But the first one worked too, and I had a blast riding it all over the place for many thousands of miles. If you’re just getting started with bikepacking, you have many miles ahead of you and plenty of time to refine your setup and packing skills. I wish you tailwinds, adventures, and minimal tire rub.
More Bikepacking Resources
If you’re trying to solve the packing puzzle for your upcoming bikepacking trip, you might find these helpful too:
- 4 Epic (Mostly) Gravel Bikepacking Routes in the Western US
- Bikepacking Food Ideas
- Bikepacking the Great Divide: Essential Q&A
Or visit the bikepacking section for lots more!
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