Bikepacking has become one of the most exciting forms of cycling in recent years and it’s closely associated with the rise of gravel bikes, but bikepacking was actually first developed with mountain bikes to provide the ability to carry supplies on mountain bike frames with no provision for racks and panniers which are commonplace on drop bar road bikes.
So if you have a mountain bike and want to give bikepacking a go, this guide will show you how easily you can convert your bike into the ultimate bikepacking machine!
At a glance: Turn your MTB into a bikepacking machine
- Any mountain bike is the right bike for bikepacking
- The wheel size is a matter of personal preference
- When bikepacking, the major focus is usually on having enough low gears for the climbs
- Bikepacking bags are now widely available
- The number of bags required is determined by the scale of your adventure
- The longer your journey, the more cargo capacity you’ll require
What’s the best bike?
The good news is that any mountain bike is the right bike for bikepacking. You can use a rigid bike, a full suspension bike, a fat bike. People will have their preference and the terrain and landscape you are riding over will to a certain degree dictate the ideal bike. What you choose for an Alaskan adventure would be different to an Australian outback adventure, to use extreme examples. But you get the idea.
But in reality you can use the bike you already have. If it’s a bike you’re used to and that you can pedal comfortably for several hours or days, well it’ll be just fine. The rougher and more technical the terrain the more a full suspension bike would be preferable for the extra comfort on those long rides. How much suspension you choose depends on the terrain but the more travel you have the more it’ll handle the unexpected rough stuff. So XC and trail bikes are a good option. You might want to adjust the suspension once the bike is fully laden to account for the extra weight.
Suspension or Rigid?
Hardtails and rigid bikes are good options as they are generally lighter and having a lightweight platform to then add bags is a good starting point. Regular rigid frames without rear suspension will often be easier to fit the various bikepacking bags too, especially frame packs as there won’t be a rear shock to get in the way. The downside of hardtails and rigid mountain bikes is reduced comfort which can be a factor when you add a lot of weight with your clothing and camping equipment. So think carefully about your tyre choice and maybe go to the widest tyre you can, and definitely use tubeless to let you employ lower pressures than you regularly run.
Frame material is down to personal preference, there is no right or wrong. Carbon fiber is lighter which is good when heavily laden with bags, but not as easy to fix in a remote village as a steel frame.
Wheel size is down to personal preference but if you are aiming to cover long distances at a reasonable speed then 29” is commonly the fastest setup. Whatever wheel size you opt for, think about the tyre width. The wider the better when it comes to bikepacking for the extra comfort they provide. Many bikes come with 2.3 to 2.5” tyres but 2.6” is becoming standard. And there are even some bikes that let you fit up to 3” or wider tyres for dealing with soft terrain like sand and snow.
Gearing choice is also important. 1x is increasingly the most common gearing setup on modern mountain bikes and advances in cassette technology make it well suited to bikepacking. It’s also very simple with fewer moving parts to potentially go wrong. The main focus with bikepacking is typically to ensure you have enough low gears for the climbs and the extra weight of the bike. So think about downsizing the chainring and fitting a bigger wider range cassette to ensure you don’t get caught out on steep gradients.
When it comes to actual bikepacking bags, there’s a huge market now for them and they cover the full spectrum from small top tube bags to huge seat packs. The number of bags and the size of the bags you use depends on the scale of your bikepacking adventure. The most common setup is a seat pack, frame pack and handlebar bag, with an optional top tube bag for easy access food. Most bags use velcro straps so they are easy to fit and you can choose from many designs and volume capacities to suit the specific requirements of your frame and adventure.
Backpacks are also a good option as well for mountain biking. Hydration packs make it easy to stay hydrated on the move and might be necessary if your mountain bike frame won’t accommodate both water bottles and a frame pack. Backpacks also make it easy to get access to food and snacks. Be careful about overloading it though as excessive weight can place an undesired strain on your back and neck on longer trips.
What to bring with you?
The longer and more epic your adventure the more cargo capacity you’ll need. Also if you plan to camp and cook food you’ll need more bags to carry your tent, sleeping bag and stove whereas if you are staying in overnight accommodation you can travel much lighter and use fewer and smaller bags.
The gear you carry depends on what ambition of your trip. If you’re camping you’ll need a tent or bivy, sleeping bag and optional sleeping mat. You’ll need some spare clothes for riding and off the bike as well, and include a big coat for chilly evenings and a wooly hat. Unless carrying prepared food you’ll need a stove to heat water for drinks and cooking up some pasta. You’ll also need a source of water too.
And don’t forget essential gear like lights, mosquito and bug spray, a first aid kit and spares for you and the bike such as spare tubes, chain links and cables as desired.