An Introduction to Bikepacking Bags

I’ve been back in the UK since early March, and the weeks and months are flying by.  There will be more photographs and words to come from Baja and Greece (I know, I frequently say this but, you know…life).  For now, here’s something a little more practical.

I was excited to give a presentation on bikepacking with Ben Smith at the Cycle Touring Festival this past weekend. We talked a packed room through the differences between bikepacking and more traditional cycle touring, what it means in practice, the pros and cons, and a few different types of setup. We then each unpacked our loaded bikes in the room, to demonstrate how we manage to pack enough gear to survive into a space much smaller than that of your average touring cyclist setup.

We didn’t have a lot of time left for questions at the end of the talk, and quite a few people stayed on afterwards to look at the bikes more closely and ask specific questions about some of the key pieces of gear – particularly ‘where do you get this stuff?’.  I guess that when you’ve been bikepacking for a while, you become fairly aware of who is making what, and the latest innovations, but if you’re just starting to consider the benefits of a bikepacking setup, then a lot of the smaller companies that make this gear might not be on your radar.  So I agreed to put together some information on the key bits of equipment that we covered, and some suggestions of a number of brands that offer them.

Firstly, a quick point about waterproofness. Unlike many traditional panniers, bikepacking bags have generally not been fully waterproof until fairly recently. The material itself has been fairly good at keeping rain out, but seams and zips have meant that sustained rain or submersion would mean damp contents, unless packed within drybags inside. Lately, many brands have introduced properly waterproof products, using welded seams and in some cases, by finding alternatives to using zips. These include roll-top frame bags and top tube bags with flaps, which aren’t meant to be submerged in water but will keep out the rain.

Bikepacking bags can generally be split into 4 basic categories based on where they fit on the bike: handlebar bags, frame bags, seatpacks, and accessory bags (which often fit on or around the top tube).

Handlebar bags

These take the form of a dry bag or ‘nearly-dry’ bag that usually attach to the handlebars with two straps, with a third strap looping around the headtube for stabilisation. Some designs use a couple of straps attached around the fork crown for stabilisation instead.  There are two basic designs of handlebar bags.  The lightest and simplest option is where the drybag attaches to the bars directly using straps that are stitched or welded to the bag itself.  The alternative is where the drybag sits in a separate harness, and the harness is attached to the bars.  Whilst this latter design can be heavier and bulkier, it allows the drybag to be removed and reinstalled easily and quickly which is great when you want to bring your gear inside your tent or hotel room without having to faff  too much unstrapping everything. This design also allows you to carry other items in the harness (e.g. a tent in its own bag) instead of, or as well as, the main drybag.

Most brands also produce a separate pocket that either clips into dedicated clips on the main bag or harness, or that can be attached by itself directly to the bars when not using the main bag / harness.  Usually the design allows you to carry small items like a waterproof shell or tent poles between the main bag and the pocket. The main bags range in size from roughly 9-14 litres.  Alpkit also offer drybags in a range of sizes with loops to accommodate separate straps to hold them directly on the bars. These come in larger sizes – up to 20 litres.

As these bags mount on the handlebars, its best to try to keep the contents light to avoid impacting too much on the steering.  I tend to put gear that I’ll only need in camp, and that I definitely need to keep dry in mine: down quilt, down jacket, merino wool baselayer, spare socks and perhaps some additional clothes that I won’t need in the day, if I have them.  On a mountain bike with front suspension, its often not advisable to get the largest size, as the diameter of the bag is so large that it can rub the front wheel when the suspension compresses.  But with flat handlebars, as is usual on a mountain bike, there is no limit on the width of the bag used, so a smaller capacity bag can be fully filled. Conversely, on a rigid drop bar bike it could be better to get a larger sized bag. The drop bars will mean that a bag can’t be filled to its full width, but the lack of fork compression reduces the likelihood of the bag rubbing the front tyre, and so the increased diameter of the bag maximises the available capacity in this situation.

Frame bags

These fit within the main triangle of the bike frame, secured with straps to the top tube, down tube and seat tube. There are generally three types. Partial frame bags only fill the top part of the main triangle, often still allowing the use of water bottle cages. Its pretty easy to find the right size to fit your frame.  Full frame bags fill most of the space in the main triangle, and need a bit more care to find the correct fit.  Many brands make two different sets of full frame bags, each designed to fit common mountain bike or road bike geometries, and each in a range of sizes.  Some brands also offer custom frame bags, which are made to specifically fit your bike, based on a cardboard template that you provide.  This is particularly useful if you have an unusual frame, or for example, a full suspension mountain bike. Frame bags are a good place to carry heavy gear, as the weight will be low and central, minimising the impact on handling.

The majority of frame bags use zip closures, but several companies now make roll top bags, which helps keep the water out, and gets rid of the zip, which often fail first. Full frame bags often allow the main compartment to be split into two horizontally or vertically, and have a slim pocket on one side. Most have ports to allow water reservoir hoses to exit the bag and be clipped onto the bars for easy access on the go, or for battery cables to connect to lights or dynamo hub outputs.

Seatpacks

Mirroring the handlebar bags, these generally come in two designs, with the bag either strapping directly to the saddle rails and seatpost, or sitting in a harness.  Seatpacks can have a tendency to waggle when loaded, especially on rough terrain, and much of the design is focused on minimising this movement. Some innovative models include the use of a minimal metal rail clamped to the seatpost to support the bag and prevent any movement. Recent models have also been released which work with dropper seatposts. Similarly to handlebar bags, seatpacks generally range in size from around 8-15 litres.

Accessory bags

These generally fit along the top tube, either against the seatpost or head tube (often known as Gas Tank / Fuel Pod / Top Tube bags) and have  zip closures.  They’re good for storing things you need frequently, such as phones, small cameras and snacks.   Also useful are draw-cord closure bags which are suspended at the apex of the stem and handlebars (known as Feedbags, Stem Bag/Cells or Food Pouches) and are great for carrying water bottles or lots of snacks.  Lately, alternative closure mechanisms such as flaps or drybag style roll tops have been introduced to reduce the need for zips and improve water resistance.

A few manufacturers also make bags to fit in other locations, such as under the downtube (either attaching directly to the frame, or sitting in a large bottle or cargo cage), or suspended in the centre of Jones bars, as well as bags designed to carry specific gear (for example,  cameras).

Bag Manufacturers

This isn’t going to be a comprehensive review of all the options, but an overview of some of the key companies that I’ve come across or would recommend, with a particular focus on those that are readily available in the UK.  Tim Moss, who runs the Cycle Touring Festival with his wife Laura, has an exhaustive spreadsheet of all the bikepacking bag providers, as well as weights, price and sizes on his website here. Alee at CyclingAbout also has a nice page with a comprehensive list of all bikepacking bag manufacturers and products (from late 2015) here.

Alpamayo Designs – A young company, Alpamayo Designs is run by Paul and Sam, who met in South America and rode the Andes together. Their gear is made in a small workshop in Peru, but they normally have stock available in the UK for immediate dispatch.  They currently have a relatively small range, but it’s really good quality and reasonably priced. I’m using their handlebar setup on my Dragonslayer, and it’s my favourite so far – really solid, hard wearing, waterproof and stable.

Alpkit – The UK outdoor gear manufacturer started making value for money bikepacking gear a couple of years ago and now offers a big range of bags and accessories, including custom frame bags and many waterproof options. Their range includes cheaper but effective options based around simple drybags designed to be strapped directly to the bike.  I have a one of their large top tube bags and a couple of stem cells, though neither is in use just at the moment.

Apidura – Established about 4 years ago, Apidura produce a comprehensive range of gear, and have recently introduced completely waterproof harness and seatpacks.  The gear is manufactured in the Far East, but distributed globally, so delivery is quick. I currently use a waterproof handlebar bag, and a partial frame bag on my Genesis Croix de Fer.

Ortlieb – The  stalwart of traditional touring gear has turned its expertise to bikepacking gear in the last year or two, making a small range of solid, waterpoof bags.

Porcelain Rocket – One of the original manufacturers, run by Scott Felter. They are a small operation of just 2 people, and have recently decided to scale back their range, no longer offering custom items with long lead times in order to focus on a smaller range of innovative products: seatpacks and a waterproof, roll-top framebag. I’ve included them here as I love their gear, but based in Calgary, Canada, the downside is that you can only order direct from them, which means paying international postage and potentially import duty, if you’re based in the UK.  I currently use their Mr Fusion seatpack (which has lightweight steel rails clamped to the seatpost to avoid any bag movement) and custom framebags on the Dragonslayer and my Surly Ogre (currently sat unused, awaiting resurrection!).

Restrap – Based in Yorkshire, Restrap make a small but uniquely designed range of bags from their family run workshop.

Revelate Designs – The other original manufacturer of modern day bikepacking gear, Eric Parsons’ company make a comprehensive range of products, and continue to innovate with waterproof bags, elasticated fabric around framebag zippers to reduce stress, and micro panniers for extra capacity when needed. Manufactured in Anchorage, Alaska, you can order direct or through a number of suppliers in the UK and Europe, although sometimes finding stock can be an issue.  I currently use a Gas Tank and two Mountain Feedbags on my Jamis Dragonslayer, their Terrapin seatpack on my Genesis Croix de Fer and previously, their Harness/Saltyroll & Pocket handlebar setup.

Wildcat Gear – The UK’s first custom bikepacking gear company, Wildcat are a small company based in Wales (very soon to be Scotland), run by Beth and Ian Barrington. They have a full range of gear with innovative designs, including custom framebags, and seatpacks and handlebar setups based around the use of waterproof drybags.  I’ve used their Lion harness, a custom framebag on a full suspension bike and also have their Tom Cat bag for my Jones bars on the Ogre.

In addition to the above brands, you can tell that bikepacking is hitting the mainstream as Specialized, Blackburn, and Topeak are all developing their own ranges.  As well as ordering direct, many of the above brands are available at PannierBackcountry Biking, Charlie the Bikemonger, Keep Pedalling, and Always Riding.

 

Information and Inspiration

It’s also worth mentioning that there are a few websites that provide a wealth of information, reviews and inspiration for all things bikepacking. My favourites are here:

Bikepacking.com Comprehensive, beautifully written and photographed, this site has some of the most experienced bikepackers in the world providing content – Logan Watts (founder), Cass Gilbert, Joe Cruz, and Nicholas Carmen, to name but a few.  New content is added constantly, with bike and gear reviews, epic route guides and inspirational stories.

Pannier.cc Beautifully designed and illustrated by Stefan Amato, Pannier provides a UK- and European-focused collection of stories in their Journal, sells cycle touring, bikepacking and camping gear in their online store, and have started to run tours and events. They also provide gear hire – a great way of trying before you buy.

Bearbones Bikepacking Stuart Wright, founder, organiser and chief tea drinker of the Welsh Ride Thing and Bearbones 200 bikepacking events hosts a very active online forum that gives access to a wealth of information and knowledgeable bikepackers in the UK. A great place to trawl for information or ask for advice, and to arrange to meet strangers in a wet field in deepest Wales.  Stu also reviews gear, and sells a small selection of gear.

Bikepacker US based magazine style site, full of reviews, reports, news and films from all over the world.

I’ll add another post at some point in the next few weeks, with information on some of the other gear that drew a lot of questions at the festival – lightweight shelters, sleeping bags / quilts, cooking gear etc.  In the meantime, if you have any comments on the gear mentioned above, or recommendations of your own, please just add them in the comments below.

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7 Comments

  1. Thorough, informative and extremely helpful, thank you. Great photos too. Good to know that you can fit so many tasty decent sized treats into a Porcelain Rocket frame bag.

  2. Hi there, looking to get the handlebar pack from apidura for my croix de fer, do you mind me asking which size you have in the picture above, what can you get in it and did you have to change your bars from the standard drops that come on it to fit it?

    • Hey Stuart, I’ve got the 14 litre Dry Handlebar Pack and the Dry Accessory Bag. On the bars that came with the CdF (shown in the pictures), I had to roll each end of the pack pretty tight so that I could change gear without the levers getting stuck on the bag. I think that I still managed to get my Enlightened Equipment quilt, Haglofs Essens down jacket, merino long sleeved top and bottoms, & spare socks in there (I can’t remember exactly as I’ve only used it a couple of times so far, but thats normally the minimum I’d pack up front). Its a tight squeeze with those bars though. I’ve recently replaced the bars with some Salsa Cowchippers. I haven’t used the pack with them yet, but will do soon, and expect to be able to leave the bag packed wider, as the bars are wider and the drops are flared…

      • That’s great cheers, I’m sold on the bigger one as you say can always roll it down and if I I change the bars at a later date I’ll have more room. I already have the apidura saddle pack and top tube and they are very well made. Thanks again.

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