Best bikes for bikepacking: A buyer's guide

Included in this guide:

best bikepacking bikes
(Image credit: Getty Images/Katja Kircher)

With the stratospheric rise in the popularity of bikepacking, there is an increasing number of bikes that are designed specifically to best meet the demands of this style of riding.

Although you could put a frame, handlebar and giant saddle bag on any kind of bike and head out on a multiday adventure, purpose-built bikepacking bikes incorporate design elements that make the whole experience that much better.

A more relaxed and upright geometry, combined with the ability to run wider tyres, both serve to make a long day in the saddle a lot more comfortable. To save you from grinding away every time the gradient tips above a certain level, lower gears can make your trip a lot less fatiguing.

A lightweight frame really helps compliment the benefits of bikepacking over traditional cycle touring, while bikepacking bikes have extra mounts for attaching bags and other things to your bike makes it easier to bring all you need.

Bikepacking bags weigh a lot less than a full pannier set up and - in being more in line with the bike, rather than sticking out to the sides - they are significantly more aerodynamic. This allows you to travel further and faster, enabling you to see more of the world when out on your trip.

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best bikepacking bikes

Reasons to buy
+Versatile+Great balance
Reasons to avoid
-Empty List

Maximum tyre size: 700 x 47c / 650b x 2.1 inch

Extra mounting points: Downtube, toptube, forks

A feature unique to Specialized, which really helps with bikepacking, is the SWAT storage system in the downtube. Accessed by a discreate hatch, it allows you to make use of the space inside the frame for storing your tools, food, or whatever else you fancy. Also unique to Specialized is the Future Shock 2.0, which provides 20mm of hydraulically damped suspension, helping to reduce fatigue on rougher terrain.

There are plenty of mounting points dotted across the carbon frame, including a set of bottle bosses on the underside of the downtube and on the top tube. The fork comes with a couple of mounting points too. Although the frame can handle 700x47c, the bike comes specced with a set of 38c semi slicks, offering a good balance for on- and off-road riding.

The versatility of this bike for riding on and off road impressed our reviewer, earning it a 9/10. The 2x11 Shimano GRX groupset provides a good range of gears and smaller jumps between them than a 1x set up, ensuring that this bike is very well suited for a bikepacking adventure with an even mix of gravel and roads.

best bikepacking bikes

Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
-Not the best at gravel climbing

Maximum tyre size: 700 x 42c / 650b x 2.1 inch

Extra mounting points: Downtube

As you would expect from the bike brand that has been ridden to five Tour de France victories, they have a focus on speed. The full carbon frame shares a similar aerodynamic profile to the Grand Tour-winning Dogma F12, but can accommodate far larger tyres.

With a relatively tight range 1x12 drivetrain, there are small jumps between gears, although this is at the sacrifice of overall range, so isn’t the best choice for a heavily laden winch up gravel climbs.

There are significantly fewer mounting points on this bike compared to others, with a set of bottle bosses on the underside of the downtube the only addition over the standard two inside the mainframe. But, on a bike as fast as this, you’re going to want to go for a pretty lightweight set up to really capitalise on its strengths - so the fact there isn’t room for bringing the kitchen sink isn’t much of a loss. It's a bikepacking bike for the minimalist.

Cannondale Topstone Carbon Lefty 3

(Image credit: Cannondale/ Cycling Weekly)

Reasons to buy
+Lightweight+Good on multiple services
Reasons to avoid
-Not much tyre clearance

Maximum tyre size: 700 x 37c / 650b x 47mm

Extra mounting points: Downtube, toptube

For greater comfort and control on rough terrain, Cannondale’s carbon Topstone with a lefty fork and Kingpin rear suspension system give 30mm of travel. The needle bearings of the fork make it very supple and subject to far less stiction than other suspension systems. On a more practical level, in doing away with the right leg of the suspension, you don’t even have to remove the front wheel to fix a puncture!

The rear suspension works essentially as a leaf spring. There’s a pivot at the point where the seatstays meet the seattube, which allows the chainstays to flex vertically. This mechanically simple solution means there is not much to wrong and it doesn’t add much weight—two things you want when bikepacking.

However, there isn’t as much tyre clearance here compared to other bikes, which is a bit of a shame as it would be great to really double down on the ability to handle the rough stuff. But even so, it is definitely the bike to pick for a gnarlier multiday adventure.

best bikepacking bikes

Reasons to buy
+No batteries to charge+Better steering
Reasons to avoid
-Gearing a bit on the narrow side

Maximum tyre size: 700 x 45c

Extra mounting points: Rear rack

A bike doesn’t have to cost the earth to function well for bikepacking. Although the fancy aero tube shapes of other bikes are absent on the Kinesis G2, this robust aluminium frame will serve you faithfully for many trips to come. There is plenty of clearance for wider tyres, so off-road adventures are definitely on the cards.

The gearing is a little on the narrow side, being only 1x11, but there are benefits in simplicity here. Not only is there no front derailleur to go wrong, there’s also no batteries to forget to charge as well. The geometry of the bike is designed to be a little more upright and offer controlled steering.

best bikepacking bikes

(Image credit: Tobias R. Dürring Fotograf)

Reasons to buy
+Lightweight+Efficient pedalling
Reasons to avoid
-Empty List

Maximum tyre size: 700 x 40c / 650b x 2.1 inch

Extra mounting points: Downtube, toptube

The large amount of space in the main triangle means this bike is well suited for a half - or full - frame bag. Although it can take very wide rubber, the frame has been designed to still function well with tyres as narrow as 28c, making this an incredibly versatile bike that will be able to handle all forms of bike packing.

The carbon frame is very lightweight but pleasingly this hasn’t been at the sacrifice of pedalling efficiency, as the dropped chainstay on the driveside maximises bottom bracket stiffness while retaining a narrow Q factor. It combines to make a bike that is well suited to travelling the distances typical of a bikepacking trip.

Best bikepacking bike

3T Exploro

Reasons to buy
+Good for on- and off-road
Reasons to avoid
-Large jumps between gears

Maximum tyre size: 700 x 40c / 650b x 2.1 inch

Extra mounting points: Downtube, toptube

For the ultimate in dropbar 1x gearing range there’s a SRAM AXS ‘mullet’ set-up, with road shifters paired with a mountain bike cassette and derailleur. This gives you enough range to not spin out on the road and still be able to turn the pedals on the steepest of gravel climbs. The wide spread means there are large jumps between gears, so if you are particularly sensitive about your cadence, this is not the set up for you.

Our reviewer found that the aero features of the frame really do translate into real word speed. This, combined with the capacity for chunky tyres, means you aren’t limited to bikepacking adventures that are wholly on- or off-road.

best bikepacking bikes

Reasons to buy
+Greater road focus
Reasons to avoid
-Better bikes for off road

Maximum tyre size: 700 x 35c

Extra mounting points: None

For bikepacking adventures that focus a little more on the tarmac side of things, this is a fast and uncompromising option from Giant. The endurance geometry means that you will be in a comfortable position for an all-day ride, while maintaining aero features such as a dropped seatstay and kammtail tube shapes.

The gearing is pretty wide with a compact chainset paired with an 11–34 cassette giving you a 1:1 bottom gear, which should be enough to cover everything the bike is designed for. With a maximum tyre size of 35c, a bit of light gravel can be dispatched without a problem. But if you plan on extended periods off road, there are other bikes that are perhaps more suitable.

There aren’t any extra mounts aside from the standard two bottle cages, so this isn’t a bike for a heavily loaded trip. But for a short and fast jaunt, the greater road focus really helps speed things along.

best bikepacking bike

Reasons to buy
+Fully housed cables+Great for heavy loads

Maximum tyre size: 700 x 50c / 650b x 2.1 inch

Extra mounting points: Downtube, toptube, rear rack

Available both in aluminium and titanium, there are options for those on a budget as well as those looking for a dream build. Regardless of the chosen material, both frames feature the same design elements that make this an incredibly practical bike.

The cables are external and fully housed, making them well-sealed from any grime degrading shifting quality. They are also a lot easier to work on should you be unfortunate enough to be subject to a mid-ride mechanical.

Downtube bottle bosses, mounting points on the carbon front fork, discrete mounts for mudguards and the ability to take a pannier rack make this bike capable for carrying large loads. Keeping the steering under control and inspiring confidence on technical descents are the slack head angle together with the long wheelbase.

Bikepacking considerations

What mounting points you'll need

There’s a dizzying array of different ways to attach your luggage to your bike. One of the most common is a set of downtube bottle bosses. This is a great place to keep a tool keg, as the space where you might normally keep your tools (behind the saddle) will be taken up by a giant saddle bag. Storing them under the downtube keeps your tools accessible and the weight low on your bike.

Top tube bosses are a nice to have, but not a must, as toptube bags generally do a pretty good job of staying in place. A more significant addition is a set of bosses on the front forks to fit an ‘anything cage’. With the size of giant saddle bags, it’s quite easy to end up with a lot of weight quite far back on the bike. Being able to mount things on the fork is a good way of evening up your weight distribution and makes the most of available space - even if it is a bit less aero.

Lightweight bikepacking bags are good for a fast and quick trip, but the classic combination of a rack and panniers is a good way for carrying more things in a longer and more relaxed trip. If you aren’t a fan of rubbing your knees on frame and top tube bags, this can be a good option for keeping your kit out of the way.

If you are heading off road, a set of conventional mudguards (fenders for our US friends) isn’t the best option. But for those who are bikepacking mainly on roads, keeping the spray off can make a journey far more pleasant. You don’t have to use them but going for a frame with that capability keeps your options open for the future.

What tyres suit the surfaces you’ll be riding

Wider tyres are more comfortable and - as is broadly accepted now - don’t hamper rolling resistance too much, actually being faster in some circumstances.

32c tyres are fine for bikepacking on mainly roads, but if you are going to be mixing roads and gravel, 38c makes a better option. If you’re going mainly off-road 700 x 45c - or even as far as a 650b x 2.1 inch MTB tyre - will provide better comfort and control.

Watch: Bikepacking on the Isle of Wight

Tread pattern is also an important consideration. If you are going to be ridding in deep loam or sloppy mud, you’ll need a tyre with knobs to dig in and provide some mechanical grip. On the road, tread pattern is less important, with the size of the contact patch being the greatest determinant of grip. For mixing road and gravel, a semi slick will be the best option, providing low rolling resistance in the centre of the tyre, but with knobs that will dig in when cornering on soft surfaces.

What gears suit the topology you’ll be riding

With the extra weight of your luggage, you’ll need lower gears than you’d normally ride. When bikepacking on mainly roads, you’ll want a low gear somewhere around a 1:1 ratio. This can be achieved using a 50/34 crankset with an 11–34 cassette, but there is a number of other combinations that will provide an equivalent low gear.

With the extra resistance and steeper climbs that you’re faced with off-road, easier gears are needed. Having at least one gear smaller than a 1:1 ratio is advisable. A SRAM AXS 2x12 set up with a 43/30 crankset and 10–36 cassette or a Shimano 46/30 crankset with an 11–34 tooth cassette will both provide small enough gears. Increasingly, we’re seeing SRAM 12 speed mountain bike cassettes paired with drop shifters, providing a massive spread of gears but using only one chainring.

Frame material: lightweight and expensive or robust and cheaper

What frame material is best for a bikepacking bike depends on your budget and your intended use. A carbon frame will be lighter and can be made very compliant, thanks to the control manufacturers have with the carbon layup. If you want to travel light and fast, carbon is a good option as it can also be moulded into aerodynamic shapes.

Aluminium is cheaper, but not as light nor as aero. A lot can be done to improve the ride quality, with tubes of varying in thickness down their length and with different cross-sections. However, even with that, aluminium tends not to have as good a ride quality as carbon. But it is more robust. If you are going to be demanding a lot from your bike, with rocky off-road excursions, this could be the better material.

Steel and titanium have their own benefits, a unique ride quality combined with robustness and - in the case of titanium - pretty lightweight as well. But there are fewer bikes made from these materials.

Rider position and frame geometry

You will want quite a relaxed riding position, one that is suited to many hours in the saddle. A higher front end and shorter stem can help facilitate this. It also takes more pressure off your hands, which can be very important as riding for a long period with your weight going through your hands can damage the ulnar nerve in your wrist. So common is this issue, that the condition also goes by the name ‘cyclists’ palsy'.

In terms of frame geometry, something that has a more relaxed head angle and longer chainstays will make you feel more in control and will make the steering feel more planted, just what you want when you’re tired from riding all day.

Stefan Abram
Stefan Abram

Starting off riding mountain bikes on the South Downs way, he soon made the switch the road cycling. Now, he’s come full circle and is back out on the trails, although the flat bars have been swapped for the curly ones of a gravel bike.

Always looking for the next challenge, he’s Everested in under 12 hours and ridden the South Downs Double in sub 20. Although dabbling in racing off-road, on-road and virtually, to date his only significant achievement has been winning the National Single-Speed Cross-Country Mountain Bike Championships in 2019.

Height: 177cm

Weight: 67–69kg