bikepacking bike

The characteristics of a bikepacking bike | explained in 5 easy steps

A bikepacking bike is a bicycle with specific characteristics and capabilities, designed for self-supported off-road, short- and long term bike travel.

characteristics of a bikepacking bike
Toby Elliot’s bikepacking bike (Bombtrack Beyond), www.rockandroam.org

Theoretically, you can equip any kind of bike with bikepacking bags and name it a bikepacking bike. Even road bikes, which are not engineered specifically with bikepacking in mind. As a result, in general, the term bikepacking isn’t specified for one sort of bike. However, there are bicycles that are specifically designed for bikepacking on unpaved roads.

A bike equipped for bikepacking adventures is different from a classical touring bike. Both are made for short and long term bike travel, but have very different characteristics. This article is written with that specific sort of bicycle for unpaved roads in mind. It’s a niche in the bicycle market, but more and more manufacturers offer one. Mostly, they are small companies specialized in making bikepacking bikes of all sorts. 

What defines a bikepacking bike

A bikepacking bike is basically a mountain bike or gravel bike rigged with bags. You can have the same fun as you’d have with your regular mountain or gravel bike, but instead of going home after six hours of riding, you can bring your home with you. Tent, sleeping bag, cooking gear, food, you can take it all with you. This way you can stay out for days, weeks, or months on end.

Because it is engineered for unpaved roads the geometry, tire width and size, mounting options for bags and drivetrain are different in comparison to a touring bike. In this article you will read what the most important characteristics of a bikepacking bike are and why. 

Frame

Frames of bikepacking bikes are mostly made out of steel. It’s the most forgiving and comfortable material for bicycles. However heavier than aluminum, carbon or titanium, steel provides some shock absorption, is very durable, and is easy to weld when broken. These characteristics of steel make it the go-to material for many manufacturers. 

Steel

Steel is especially practical for long term bike travel and even more so for bike travel in remote parts of the world. In even the tiniest villages, all over the world, you will be able to find someone who can weld. 

The downside of steel is weight. When speed is of less importance, a heavy bike is not really an issue. During hike-a-bikes a heavy bike is definitely an issue. There are people who, for that reason, choose a different material. 

Carbon

The lightest material is carbon. It is lightweight, stiff, strong, but expensive and difficult to repair. Carbon is a more fragile material and is more likely to damage when being transported. It doesn’t handle sideways impact as other material does, consequently, it does increase the risk of unrepairable damage.

It is possible to mend cracked or ripped carbon, but specialists are not widely available. In North America and Europe, it won’t be a problem to find a specialist in carbon repair, but in other parts of the world, it will be a problem. Therefore, there aren’t that many bikepacking manufacturers making carbon bikepacking bikes. Otso Cycles, a highly respected and innovative manufacturer created by the engineers of Wolf Tooth Components, makes high-quality carbon bikepacking bikes. It might be the go-to material of the future because of its qualities.

Titanium

Titanium is like carbon. Beautiful material, but very expensive and more difficult to repair. It is however lightweight, stiff and does provide a very comfortable ride. On top of that, titanium is even more durable than steel. People who ride on titanium frames often will stick with that material for the rest of their lives. Titanium welding is an expert skill and will be difficult to find in most parts of the world.

Aluminum

Aluminum is the cheapest of the four materials. It is relatively light, and can be strong and stiff when the alloy is of premium quality. Although it is difficult to weld and needs a specialist to do so, aluminum welders are relatively easy to find all over the world. Not many bikepacking bike manufacturers will name aluminum their preferred material.

Wheels and tires

The thing that defines a bikepacking bike the most, is probably wheels and tires. They are usually big and wide with some form of tread.

Tyre Width 

There are bicycles with 3,6 inch wide tires, so-called ‘fat bikes’. These are perfect for beach or snow bikes. More common however, are sizes 2,4 to 3 inch wide tires and 2 to 2,4 inch for gravel bikes. These wider tires make a huge difference when cycling on sandy, rocky or bumpy dirt roads.

Wider tires have a bigger surface contact and thus provide more traction. When desired, lowering the tire pressure the surface contact increases and creates even more traction. Knobbies, nobbles or nobbies create grip on slippery surfaces or when cornering. Steering at low speed, knobbies help prevent the front wheel from slipping away from under you. This makes the bike actually go in the direction you want it to go, even at low speed.  

Wide tires also absorb bumps in the road better than thin tires. The wheels will not bounce as much which not only provides a more comfortable ride, it also increases contact time with the surface. In turn, more contact time increases traction, control over steering, and handling.

Wheel Diameter

As a rule of thumb, smaller wheels accelerate faster and provide better handling of the bike on one hand. On the other hand, they need more revolutions per distance in comparison to bigger wheels. This has a negative influence on speed, which means it will take more energy to cruise on a certain speed. Bigger wheels provide a more comfortable ride, have bigger surface contact, and need less energy for keeping a certain speed in comparison to smaller wheels.

Modern bikepacking bikes are fitted with either 27,5+, 29 or 29(+) inch tires. These numbers are the diameter of the outside of the tire. 27,5+ is actually comparable to 28 inch tires and are recommended for the smaller frame sizes to fit the geometry of the bike better.

29(+) wheels are noticeably bigger. They are recommended for larger frame sizes to fit the geometry of the bike better. They absorb bumps and obstacles better, which will certainly make the ride smoother.

Geometry

The geometry of a bike defines its configuration. Meaning, the geometry of a bicycle defines how the bike behaves on specific terrain. When cycling unpaved, for instance singletrack, a bike with fast steering and nimble handling capabilities while still providing a stable ride going downhill is a necessity. To create this behavior, the geometry of a bikepacking or gravel bike has some specific features.

bicycle geometry
geometry definitions

Slack front end

A slack front end is best explained as the angle the head tube makes. The wider the angle, the slacker it is. The biggest advantage of a slack front end is gain in riding stability. A disadvantage is the loss of steering speed. By using a short stem length, the loss of steering speed is compensated. The reason being, a short stem length results in fast steering.

Stack and reach

Sounds like a cartoon right? The Ren and Stimpy or Beavis and Butthead of bike geometry. But what are they? They are terms to universally measure bike sizes. With this method, you can get quite a good idea of what bike size you need per manufacturer.

Because the geometry for every brand and bike is different, just your body- or leg length won’t suffice to accurately measure the size of bike you need. Knowing your desired stack and reach can better help you in knowing which size of which brand is best for you.

It is difficult to measure your stack and reach yourself and therefore advised to get a professional bike fitting. They will tell you your desired stack and reach for let’s say a touring bike, gravel bike or bikepacking bike.

Stack: The vertical distance from the centre of the bottom bracket to the central point at the top of the head tube.

Usually you want a more upright position on your bikepacking bike. This means a relatively high stack. Because bikepacking bikes are more and more built with a slack front end, the bike will need a higher head tube to compensate for the loss of head tube height. This way, a high stack is still maintained.

Reach:The horizontal distance from the centre of the bottom bracket to the central point at the top of the head tube.

For a comfortable riding position the reach on bikepacking bikes is often relatively short. An aerodynamic position is not important, and upright is much more comfortable.

Bottom bracket height

The distance measured from the floor to the center of the bottom bracket. Bikepacking bikes usually come with a relatively high bottom bracket height and the reason is obvious; To avoid hitting rocks with pedals or chainring when riding rocky roads or cornering.

Handling

The handling of the bike is an important aspect of riding dirt roads. As mentioned earlier, gravel and bikepacking bikes have slack front ends. This has a negative influence on steering speed and therefore affects the handling of the bike.

To compensate for the loss of steering speed, handlebars of bikepacking bikes are often quite wide and stems are short. The bigger leverage close to the head tube creates faster steering capabilities. Gravel bikes with dropbars have less options to compensate. One option is the flared out dropbars. In effect, these make the handlebar just a bit wider than conventional dropbars. The stems however, same as the bikepacking bikes, are often shorter than those on road bikes. 

Bags & mounts

A bikepacking bike should have tons of options on the frame and front fork to mount all kinds of bags. If there aren’t any, on a classic mountain bike for instance without mounting options, specific straps, like Voile straps, are available to fasten bags to your frame.

loaded bikepacking bike
lots of bag options, one of the characteristics of a bikepacking bike

Typically, a bike would have a handlebar bag, frame bag, front fork mounted dry bags or water bottles, maybe small rear panniers and a seat post bag. Fully loaded, the packing volume is usually less than a pannier setup, exceptions aside of course.

The bags are mounted in such a way that it affects the handling of the bike less than it does with panniers. There are way less things sticking out sideways and everything is tucked away neatly in-between and on the frame. Also very convenient for riding on narrow bushtrails. The bags will not get stuck behind branches or trees. 

Drivetrain

A bikepacking bike is usually fitted with either a Shimano or SRAM drivetrain. Over the last few years, both of them have put so called 1x chain ringed drivetrains on the market, instead of the more conventional 2x or 3x chain ringed drivetrain. 1x drivetrains are the majority of choice nowadays on new bikes.

shimano logo

The advantages of these are obvious. Less weight, only one shifter, no problems with the front derailleur, more freedom of frame design for manufacturers, and less chain drops at the front. The disadvantages are similarly obvious. With less gear ratio span and a bigger difference between the gears being the most important. 

sram logo

Unmistakenly important is a granny gear (4 km/h gear) or even a nuclear gear (<4km/h). It’s the ultimate resource for tackling steep dirt roads and still be able to cycle. Hike-a-bikes can be fun, but cycling is more fun. That’s the reason why most bikepacking bikes are equipped with a granny gear, more so than gravel bikes and touring bicycles. 

Bikepacking or bicycle touring

There you have it, the characteristics of a bikepacking bike. If you’ve enjoyed reading this and are interested in the same kind of article on the characteristics of a touring bicycle, you might find this article interesting. Or maybe you are in doubt what kind of bike travel you want to do and what suits you most. A quick questionnaire might provide the answer. 

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