Bikepacking: the joys of travelling lean and light.

(For the purposes of this post, I’m defining ‘bikepacking’ as lightweight touring with a slant towards off road trails, even mtb-style singletrack)

The more I travel, the less I enjoy being confined to the busy claustrophobia of paved roads. And the more I explore dirt trails, the more I find myself drawn to the notion of travelling lean and light…

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The Surly Ogre in ‘bikepacking’ mode, as this style of minimal setup has become known. It’s loaded with everything I need for a few days camping in the mountains, and everything I’d need for travelling in South America – bar a computer. Handling feels great on both rough trails and singletrack: the weight is snug to the frame and nicely balanced across the whole bike. There are no panniers or trailer to snag or clatter around.

Travelling light. 

When shorter timescales are involved – anything up to a few weeks – there’s no debate that bikepacking is my preferred modus operandi. It’s refreshing to carry so little. 

For longer periods on the road – I’m talking months – it’s not quite so clear cut. I try to follow at least a semblance of fresh, healthy diet, rather than relying solely on packet noodles. That takes up space. In my case I’m also hamstringed by my reliance on a laptop. It’s just too big to fit in my framebag and I’ve never enjoyed carrying a backpack for long days on end – that’s when a set of rear panniers or a trailer can work best for me. 

But… If you’re happy with more compact computing – like a tablet, a smart phone or (shock, horror) just internet cafes – long distance bikepacking should be well within the realms of reason. With a few considered gear choices, travelling light should be do-able, without the associated gram-shaving obsession. This holds particularly true if you’re  biking in a part of the world where food is readily available, or it’s warm enough to do without winter clothes, or even stove. 

Pros and cons of ‘bikepacking ‘

+ The main upside to travelling light (and this is a big one) is the freedom to roam… almost anywhere! Explore the backcountry you might otherwise have grudgingly passed by. Take the most interesting road, whatever the terrain. Reduced capacity limits you to carrying only the very essentials – a good discipline! (less to think about = less to worry about) Covering bigger distances is considerably more pleasurable. There’s a knock on effect on your bike too. It handles better off road. Plus, less weight means wear and tear, so you can run a lighter, livelier wheelset – and even frame. 

 Limited cargo space requires tetris-like packing precision, which doesn’t suit everyone. This reduced space also encroaches on how many days (and thus miles) you can ride between resupplies. Unless you can confidently to pull off big distances, it can put pressure on getting to places: planning becomes all-important. It’s easier to bikepack in a more controlled environment, where you have access to reliable information about where you’re riding. And, for overseas travel especially, a full framebag kit isn’t as straight forward as unclipping a pair of panniers and storing them in your guesthouse. If you’re expecting prolonged rain, be aware that soft bags are invariable water resistant, but with so many seams involved, not completely waterproof. Lastly, as with any lightweight kit, you need to take more care with soft bags – ensuring there are no contact points and zips are kept clean. 

Joe Cruz, who spent 6 months travelling this way in South America – without even the need for a backpack – made a really well balanced argument for bikepacking here.

Here’s some weight comparisons:

  • Seatpack – 310g
  • Handlebar ‘sausage’ and bag – 340g
  • El Gilberto Frambag (a burly, heavy duty model) for a large frame – 480g
  • Total: 1130g
  • OrtliebBackroller Plus (the lightest models): 1700g
  • Ortlieb Ultimate 5 Plus bar bag (the lightest, M in size): 680g
  • Tubus Cargo rack (light but strong): 650g
  • Total: 3030g

The capacity of a rear panniers and bar bag setup is 47L. A bikepacking setup is roughly 25L, plus whatever a framebag is (which really depends on frame size). Let’s call it 7 litres – making 32L (without a backpack).

My rig

The setup in the pictures below includes 2-3 days of food. Weather-wise, I’m prepared for most mountain conditions, bar the coldest of temperatures. Water carrying capacity is 3.5l. The folding packpack and bladder can expand this by a few litres on the days I really need it. There’s even a spare tyre too, and my Panasonic GH2 camera and lenses. 

From my experience, a light tent (think Tarptent, Big Agnes or similar), a minimal cookset (denatured alcohol) and a more compact camera system make all the difference to being able to travel this way. At just a few ounces, a vapour barrier (unfortunately no longer stocked here) is a good way of boosting your sleeping bag too, without extra bulk. This is what Joe carried in South America – he later even jettisoned the backpack – and here’s what Gary was packing on our New Mexico ride. 

On a budget

Currently, the two main framebag players are Revelate Designs, up in Alaska, and Porcelain Rocket, out of British Colombia. It’s not a prerequisite to run these kind of semi-custom bags to travel light, but they do help. The best initial investment is probably an expandable seat pack, though traditional Carradice saddlebags can work well too – once you figure out a way to support them.

More homegrown methods include simply cinching waterproof role bags to your handlebars – tape anything that rub against the brake levers or frame with the likes of gorilla tape. Or, fit lightweight front/rear racks, and strap role top bags to them. Hoseclamps are great inventions too for attaching extra water bottle or Anything cages. The more creative can even try and make their own framebag – ideas can be found here


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Cockpit view: front pouch and handlebar ‘sausage’. This space holds my sleeping bag, puff jacket, clothes and potset. All this gear is bulky but relatively light. 

The front pouch carries a mirrorless camera and a couple of lenses. An REI Flash 18 packpack is rolled away for longer distances between resupplies.

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During more remote trips, there’s the option of cinching a spare tyre below the pouch too. Closer to home, a Park Tool tyre boot and repair kit (piece of old tyre, Shoe Goo and needle/thread) should do fine.

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The seat pack carries my tent, Thermarest, clothes and flip flops, with expansion room for extra food. The bulk of the heavy food is carried in the framepack, along with tools and spare tubes. The heavy stuff is low and centred.

The top tube pack fits a headtorch, multitool, knife, spork and snacks. The gear I like to get to easily.

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One side of the fork has a Salsa Anything Cage (with matching Porcelain Rocket bag), the perfect spot for layers I like to keep handy – waterproofs and warm gloves.

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The other leg has a 1.2L Klean Kanteen, held securely in place with a Profile Kage.

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I like to carry plenty of water. This 1.5 lire bottle lives under the Ogre’s belly. A Profile Kage would work well here too, with a Klean Kanteen or 1L MSR fuel bottle.

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An 800ml, easy-to-reach bottle resides on the stem, thanks to a King Cage Top Cap Mount.

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The rougher the trails you ride, the lighter it makes sense to travel. The lighter you travel, the more sense it makes to bikepack…

My setup for a 3 week tour of Cuba.

From the archive… ‘Bikepacking’ in Northern India, 2006: a multi day, singletrack ride, following a hiking path from Leh to the Morei Plains. 4000m-5000m elevation mountain biking!

39 thoughts on “Bikepacking: the joys of travelling lean and light.

  1. gypsybytrade

    I’m probably wearing out the Carradice soapbox and the largest of their bags probably requires a support, but the Camper model that I use is claimed to be 24L, which could seriously augment the capacity of a bikepacking setup without affecting the ride off-pavement. The potential for overpacking via the “longflap: and the D-rings adds some additional space in a pinch. Of course, the wooden dowel and the canvas/leather construction are a bit heavier than Scott or Eric’s seatpacks, but weight isn’t my immediate goal. Ride quality is most important for me.

    The Profile Design Kage comes in two versions: one has the upper bottle retention tab designed for most plastic bike bottles, while the other is flush and is better suited for Klean Kanteen bottles. Of course, the tab can be cut or filed to better fit the KK bottle, and to allow it to sit nearer to the frame. Unfortunately, sources never specify which Kage is in stock.

    Wolverine front tire?

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Ha, spotted on the Wolverine. Though I bet you didn’t intuite that it’s a 26! Just slotted it in there to see if it would fit.

      I figured you’d pipe up for Carradice (-; I like the various Longflaps too; great capacity. I seem to remember, though, that regardless of size, I needed the support so they didn’t rub against my legs (I guess this depends on seat angle/saddle combo). And I did break the Bagman support I had on a bumpy bikepacking trip in Scotland (later repaired).

      Depending on the width of the saddle, the back of my thighs can rub just a touch with the PR seat pack too, but I barely notice it.

      Reply
      1. gypsybytrade

        I get very little contact between my legs and the bag, but I use zero-setback seatposts with my saddle all the way forward. I have done this for years, as I find it improves my position on bikes with slack ST angles, especially when riding with drops. Nano on the front, or is that a Wolverine as well? Any thoughts on Nano v Small Block and other micro-knobbies?

        Reply
        1. While Out Riding Post author

          Tyre choice has recently been semi-dictated by funds. I found the Small Blocks for $20 (it’s the beaded one) and I have to say, so far, so good. Seem to be wearing nicely, and the tread rolls well too. I’ve heard the sidewalls are pretty tough too.

          On the front, I have Exiwolfs (2.3s) which came on the bike. I wore the back out pretty quickly, but the front is holding up fine. Considering how well it grips, I think it rolls ok on the road. A nano rear/exi front would probably work well.

          Vee Rubber are doing some interesting stuff. I read their designer is the same one who did the Small Blocks, and you can see the similarities. A bewildering amount of block choice there too.

          Reply
          1. While Out Riding Post author

            I just got my hands on a set of Schwalbe Duremes, 29×2.0. They look like a great all round tyre. 635g: not too puny, not too heavy. I’d want something with more volume for technical mountain biking, but for all round, fast dirt riding – great divide etc… – they look really good.

    1. While Out Riding Post author

      That one is made by BBB. It holds a 1.5L bottle. I’ve got the older version of this Topeak one too, similar capacity – though I think I managed to cram a 2l bottle in there at one point. It sits a little lower than the BBB version, so it depends on the position of the frame’s eyelets.

      There’s pros and cons compared to the Klean Kanteen, which is only a little smaller at 1.2L. I prefer the robustness and non-leeching properties of a stainless steel bottle, but have a habit of losing water bottles – and the Kleen Kanteens are $30 a piece…

      Reply
  2. Stijn

    Great setup, I have to confess, I’ve nicked a few of your idea’s ;-). Love the Salsa cages and I order some bags for them from Scott. Are you ditching the Rohloff for the SA trip? I’ve gone 29’er on my latest bike incarnation, but my rear rim is giving me trouble. Any suggestions for disc specific nimble but tough rim?

    I think Walmart has a SS Kleen kanteen rip-off for a less.

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Common sense says I should take the Troll, of course. But I do love riding the Ogre…

      I’ve only come across the Rigida Grizzly and Andra that are available Rohloff-drilled (incidentally, I can’t fine the Rigida site any more – maybe they’ve gone out of business?). Are the spokes breaking at the nipple, or the eyelet pulling through? I’ve had that issue with 26in Rohloff wheels, but was hoping the larger wheel size would make for a shallower angle where the spoke enters the rim, and take the stress off that part of the spoke.

      It might be worth dropping Cycle Monkey a line, as they build up plenty of Rohloff 29ers – I expect they’ve come across this issue before:
      http://cyclemonkeylab.blogspot.com/2012/01/rohloff-equipped-surly-ogre-29ertouring.html

      One reason I haven’t moved the Rohloff over to the Ogre is that I’m not sure what rim I’d use. I bought a cheap set of factory built Rhyno Lites on Deore because I really like those rims, but I’ve seen issues with Rohloff compatibility in the 26in version.

      btw, the Anythings are cool, just a little delicate if you press them from the sides – transporting the bike, for instance, or laying it down on the ground. What 29er??

      Reply
      1. While Out Riding Post author

        I was just doing some searches, and came across this quote on the SJS forum from one of their sales staff, in reference to spoke breakages on a DT Swiss XR4.1d rim.

        “If you’re careful you can bend the eyelets by inserting a steel rod into them and twisting to the correct angle, we do this on these rims when built for Thorn bikes”

        Reading further down the thread, seems that Sapim may do some spokes that are Rohloff designed – they’re stronger at the elbow, not sure about elsewhere. Cycle Monkey mentions these too in the previous link.

        Reply
        1. While Out Riding Post author

          btw, turns out Rigida was renamed Ryde, and they were bought out by the owners of Sapim. Still loads of Rigida stock about though in Europe.

          Neil at Cycle Monkey mentioned that he pre-bends the spokes a little, so they don’t break at the threaded end.

          Reply
  3. gyatsola

    What do you do with your tent poles? Or are you using a trekking pole? I love my Tarptent Scarp, but I find the poles a bit of a pain when packing, they are such an awkward load.

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      That’s the one aspect I don’t like about Tarptents for cycling: the poles are so long – too long even for Ortliebs. I’ve got a pole sleeve from Scott that velcros onto the sausage. My frame is just long enough on the downtube that I could put them in there too, but the sleeve works well.

      Reply
      1. gyatsola

        Oh, nice idea – I was thinking that if I ever got a frame bag for my road bike I’d ask Scott to put a compartment in for the poles.

        BTW, I just got my copy of Adventure Cyclist, your Guatemala pictures look lovely. I’ll go read it now.

        Reply
      2. gyatsola

        I reckon you and Scott should get together sometime and design the ‘perfect’ bike touring tent. I know Topeak made an attempt a few years back, but its way to heavy. There must surely be a way to use the bike itself to make a roomy, lightweight tent that will fit neatly under a top tube or under the handlebars.

        Reply
  4. Scott

    What handlebars do you have on your Ogre in the pictures? I don’t recognize them. Given the shim, I’m guessing they’re titanium.

    Reply
  5. Graeme

    I wanted to tour New Zealand with my lightweight MTB so thought ‘bikepacking’ gear would be ideal to spread the weight around off the frame. Bought a Sling, Tangle, and large seat bag from Revelate (they have a better website for shipping abroad). All work very well, even on proper offroad trails.

    Also, used your advice and bought two Salsa Anythings for the front suspension forks. Thermarest on one and a dry bag with clothes on the other. If only the straps were an inch longer they would be perfect. Impact on handling is minimal.

    Using a small rucksack as well, I have managed four days away with gear for nights down to about 0C.

    As you say packing is a bit of a faff, but you get used to it. For a bike that handles well it is a small price.

    Thanks for the advice. Your blog and Joe Cruz’s have been very helpful in getting this set up.

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      That’s great to hear!

      Agreed, the straps on the Anything straps could be longer. Did the cages hold out ok? I’m curious how they’ll handle long term use. I’ve been trying out Scott’s Anything Bags, and they’re a lot quicker to fit. And they offer some protection too from scuffs.

      Reply
      1. Graeme

        I’ve only used them for about 7 weeks so far so not a long test but I have been on some bumpy tracks. The suspension probably helps too. They are also only cable tied on as they arrived only a couple of days before I left.

        I’ve found that as long as the ties are kept tight, they stay in place no problem. They also seem well made and can easily handle the sort of weight you would want to put there. I wouldn’t use them for anything heavier than clothes or mattress.

        I think they are an excellent piece of kit that makes multi-week touring in warmer places possible without a full pannier setup.

        Reply
        1. JefA

          Have you tried using old inner tubes, cut, and feed them threw plastic fasteners? They have a little stretch to them and are very adjustable. I use them for bungees on racks and even around the house. I would make a belt but people would laugh
          at me. Ha!

          Reply
  6. digaaron

    Great to see that you’re seeing the “light” Cass. Been fun to watch your gear evolution over the last few years. Obviously a bikepacking setup is a bit trickier on long-term rides, but, as you note, it sure is fun off-road.

    I’ll just add that Jeff Boatman of Carousel Design Works is actually the one who invented this style of bikepacking bag. Porcelain Rocket modeled their bags directly on Jeff’s. Jeff is still making bags—www.carouseldesignworks.com—and they’re absolute works of art.

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Hey Aaron, how are you doing?
      I’m well aware of Carousel’s gear, and the stuff I’ve seen has really impressed me. But I’d got the feeling Jeff wasn’t doing too much in theway of framebags anymore. The two main players at the moment seem to be Revelate and Porcelain Rocket, though there are several smaller-scale makers swimming about too.
      I’m looking forward to another blog post!

      Reply
      1. digaaron

        I’m great Cass. Have a broken foot, but that will heal. Looking forward to some bike-assisted spring skiing in Glacier Park, then onto full-time bike season sometime in June or July. Latest kick is biking to old fire lookout towers on mountain tops and spending the night. You can link them across northern Montana for some spectacular trips. Come back some time and I’ll show you.

        Wasn’t sure if you knew about Carousel. He’s still making custom bags, and they’re masterful.

        Will get to that blog someday. It’s neglected, I’m afraid. Will have a whole new website and blog and photo gallery setup coming soon…

        Reply
  7. MIchal Klimek

    hi
    what are those Ti handerbars you currently have on Ogre? Not sure if i can get them in Europe, but will try. otherwise i will probably go for Surly Torsio for time beeing.
    i curently build 2 Ogres with Alfine 11 hubs for me and my girl friend for trip in Albania, Romania and for nexr trip to Asia.
    I am taking a LOT of inspiration from your blog.
    Regars Michal

    Reply
    1. While Out Riding Post author

      Glad it’s been useful Michal.

      My handlebars are made by AMPeirce. But handlebars are pretty personal things – you may want to find out what sweep/angle you like best before springing for titanium. Mine are 22 degrees. Less is better if you want to run bar ends, but I’m ok without.

      Do you mean the Surly Torsion bar? Those are 15 degrees, so noticeably less then what I have.

      There’s loads of options around. There’s some more info on handlebars in the ‘gear‘ section.

      Reply
  8. Andrew Priest

    Thanks for the post. Very interesting reading as I look to lighten up my setup and probably go the way of a fat-bike for touring.

    I must admit I read with envy your comment on your water capacity being 3.5 litres … I wish :) Even on my last week’s touring in the rather developed south-east part of Western Australia, trying to avoid towns/highways had me carrying 24 litres of water (allowing six per day) and food for the same period.

    I want more of a bikepacking setup but need to come up with a solution for the water situation. Maybe a rack for would meet that need (without panniers).

    My heaviest water load has been 35 litres plus 15 to 20 days food which called for an Extrawheel trailer but as it was part of a 3,000 km ride it meant it got pulled for a lot of those kilometres without being really utilised.

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      In New Mexico and Arizona, I’ve carried up to 10L at a time with a standard bikepacking setup. Much more than that, and I think you’re out of the bikepacking realm! On the other hand in Ecuador, I only need a water bottle at a time – there’s rivers and stream in the mountains almost everywhere you look!

      A rack and water bladders may work best. Andi tied two large MSR dromedary bags to a rear rack for our Bolivia ride, in addition to his bikepacking bags. Seemed to work pretty well, though he had to adjust them here and there to keep them from rubbing when the terrain got bouncy. You might need to fabricate some kind of protective divider?

      Reply
      1. Andrew Priest

        Once I get my Salsa Mukluk built I will look more into options. For the next year or so I think I will be doing shorter rides so the water situation will be less of an issue. My next planned ride should only require four days of water to be carried unless, fingers crossed we get good rains during winter and the gnamma holes will have water in going into spring.

        Reply

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