Are you unsure which bikepacking bags and gear you need to buy for your first trip?
Don’t know if you should go for a dynamo lamp or rechargeable one?
Or maybe you want to try out aero bars but have 0 idea how to actually use them (or even which ones to buy among the 24,952 versions currently on the market)?
You’ve come to the right place – I’ll be answering all of those questions (and many more) right here, in this article.
1. Bikepacking bags
In 2 years and over 20,000 km, I tried all shapes and forms of bikepacking bags, mostly on roads, sometimes on gravel. I have my favourite, but I’ve also come to the conclusion that there is no good or bad bikepacking bag. They all cater to different needs, depending on how long you’re going for, the size of your bike, the terrain, and of course your financial capacity.
Without further ado, here is The List™: the good, the bad and the ugly in the bikepacking bag world!
(NB: I won’t talk about the bags you hang from a rack at the back of your bike, because I have never tried them)
The saddlebag is, as per its name, situated right under the saddle, above your rear wheel. Its capacity ranges from 7 to 20L.
Pros: it’s great for most bike sizes (yes, even xxx-tra small) and most terrains: road, dirt, tracks… Some brands make them specifically for off-road cycling, in really robust fabric. You can very easily access your gear in a saddlebag, as long as you tidy it up a bit (most used gear on top, less used at the bottom, etc).
Cons: you will have to make a choice between balance and volume. You either fill it up to its maximum capacity, and it will move around when you go uphill or when it’s windy… or you take less stuff and it will be tightly held onto the saddle, and won’t move around. Although I’m saying this as the owner of a 2019 saddlebag, things may have changed since then??
Conclusion: in my opinion, the MVP of bike bags. Ideal for short and long trips, potential to carry plenty of stuff or play the minimalist game, and fits well on the majority of bikes. What more do you want?
This bag goes across your frame, where you would usually have your water bottles. It has a capacity of 7 to 14L, either as a full frame bag or half frame bag.
Pros: the most aero bag, and I know it matters to some of us. It’s very easy to access while you are riding, and super easy to organise as you don’t need to empty it out every time you need something. Its position at the centre of the bike also lowers the centre of gravity, which can also help you increase your stability while riding.
Cons: the biggest downside to this bag is that it takes up your water bottle’s space. A half-frame bag can do the trick, but if you’re on a S/XS bike, chances are you will have to find another spot for your bottles. Unfortunately, the frame bag is best for bigger frames.
Alternative: a half frame bag is not a bad idea if your frame is not toooo small and can still fit one bottle under the half frame bag. It’s a good compromise and I can vouch for it – this is the option I picked to ride across Australia!
This one goes on your handlebar, in between the drop bars. It has a 5-15L capacity but it’s recommended that you don’t carry more than 1.5-2kg in it.
Pros: honestly, I struggle to see any pros to this one. I’ve used a handlebar bag for 5-6 months and I did not like it. So let me know if you see any pros to it and I’ll add them here!
EDIT: one of you mentioned that it’s a good bag to put your bivvy: you can roll your sleeping bag into your mattress, and put everything in the bag. I also know that some riders attach it to their aero bars instead, which sounds like a safer way to attach it, but I’m not sure whether it would be inconvenient while on the bars?
Cons: as a starting point, it’s an awkward bag; I found that it was almost always in the way of my drop bars, and sometimes even when I had my hands on the top of the handlebar. You are also limited in terms of how much weight you can carry with it, unless you like the sound of your bag rubbing on your tyre. I’ve found it difficult to attach to the handlebar in a way that’s not annoying me. And last but not least: you almost always have to empty it out completely to find something, which is very annoying and non-efficient. Definitely not my favourite bike bag, especially in terms of organisation.
Conclusion: not the most efficient bike bag in my opinion, especially on a road bike. It might be better suited for mountain bikes, or at least flat handle bars.
Top tube bags
Your top tube bar goes right on your top tube, and it usually has a small capacity (0.5 to 5L).
Pros: for small bike frames, the 5L top tube bag is a great alternative to the frame bag in my opinion! Otherwise, it’s also a great bag to store snacks, super easy to access while riding and very aeroooo.
Cons: I have heard people complain that their legs rub on this bag while riding. It can also move around a bit if you carry too much stuff and you have a round top tube (instead of a flat one). However, this may also have changed since I bought mine (2019), and most of these issues are often due to the bag not being secured/attached properly.
Conclusion: a very versatile bag that goes well with all frame sizes – one of my favourites!
Those are the small bags (similar to a chalk bag in climbing) with a capacity of 0.5 to 5L.
Pros: undeniably the most useful bag to store snacks, or even water bottles. They are right there, under your eyes at all times, and you don’t even need to get off the bike to reach out for food. Also, great for storing your phone/charger, or anything you might need during the daytime. Honestly a great addition!
Cons: can’t see any really. Is this the ultimate bike bag?? Probably.
Conclusion: a must-have as far as I’m concerned. My food pouch literally lives on my bag, I never take it off.
Downtube bags and fork bags
Downtube bags are attached at the bottom of your frame, underneath the downtube. They have a capacity of 1-2L, and fork bags have a capacity of 3-8L.
Pros: the downtube bag is ideal for big frames to store your tools, or even to add an extra water bottle. Like the frame bag, it also lowers the bike’s centre of gravity. The fork bag is a bit more versatile as it can go on all sizes of frames.
Cons: as you can imagine, the downtube bag is not adapted for small frames. As for the frame bag, it can destabilise your bike if you store too much stuff in it, as it is attached near the front wheel.
Conclusion: all in all, I find that they are both a little awkward to use and only suit a small amount of cyclists. If I had a big frame though I would probably use a downtube bag – that space under the frame is a bit wasted, and it’s a good place to store items that you will only use occasionally.
So, which bikepacking bag should I get?
It depends on how long you are travelling or racing for.
Length of the trip
For a 2 or 3 day trip, you won’t need many bags. I would say one saddlebag or frame bag and a food pouch at the front should do the job.
For a 7+ day trip, you can fit everything into two bags (eg, saddlebag and frame bag), or even into 1 bag depending on the type of person that you are ahah. If you’re planning on camping or cooking, you’ll obviously need to carry more stuff, and may need more bags. A lot of people use fork bags to stock food on the road.
Speed / duration of the trip
Now, if you want to go fast and far (I’m talking thousands of kms), then the less stuff you carry the better it is. Not just in terms of weight, but also in terms of time: the more gear you have, the more time you spend looking for something.
You probably know the Parkinson’s Law: your work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion. Well, it’s the same in bikepacking. The less bags (and therefore room) you have, the less stuff you take, and vice versa: your list of ‘necessary items’ always seems to grow to fill up whatever space you have in your bags.
And if you don’t care about time and distance, or anything else really, then you can take as much stuff as you want, as long as you can carry it! One caveat though: I would not recommend carrying your gear in a backpack. When I went on my first bike trip ever, I did not know bikepacking bags were a thing, and I used a hiking backpack. My back and my bum hurt a LOT.
Although it can be a good idea to carry a small foldable backpack to carry extra food every now and then!
2. Quick guide to the different brands (and prices) for bikepacking bags
Apidura bags: €€€
We all know them, and they’re not overrated. They were among the first to create a range of bags dedicated to bikepacking, and they’re expensive (from $60 all the way to $280), but worth the pennies. Their bags are just great quality. Great material, great fabric, rainproof, almost heavy duty sometimes. If you have the money for it, it is a great option and it won’t disappoint you. Although they do not have a range of bike rack bags.
I have had their food pouch for the past 4 years now and it is as new. For $60, it will literally last for years.
Ortlieb bags: €€€
Another really well known brand in the bikepacking world, with a price range similar to Apidura. They have a larger choice of bikepacking bags, with a lot of different bike rack bags and some backpacks. You can’t really go wrong with that Deutsch qualitat!
Topeak bags: €€
Another really popular brand with great quality bags. They are waterproof and very resistant, while being cheaper than Apidura or Ortlieb. Though according to comments and reviews, their bags do last a little less and tend to deteriorate over time.
I tried their handlebar bag (frontloader) (8 L) and although I did not like the experience, the quality was indeed excellent. The fabric was often rubbing on my front tyre (due to my poor strapping) but it remained intact!
Vaude bags: €€
A German brand, and obviously some great quality bags. There is a 5-year warranty that comes with all their bags, which is pretty cool. They also have a very wide range: bike rack bags to travel or commute, bikepacking bags for adventuring, courier bags… AND they are cheaper than Apidura and Ortlieb. A great compromise!
I have their bike rack bag Silkroad Plus that I use on my every day bike at home, and just like my Apidura pouch, it looks as new.
Restrap bags: €€
Restrap bags are well-known in the cyclotouring world, with a lot of bike rack bags and some bikepacking bags (their series ‘carry everything‘). Restrap bags are stocked on most online retailer websites in Europe (Alltricks, Wiggle, Cyclable, Probikeshop) and some in Australia too.
The cheaper options for bikepacking bags
When I started bikepacking, I quickly realised how expensive this sport can get in terms of gear. It’s a relatively new sport and brands are taking advantage of this, offering really high-end, expensive gear. It’s also probably due to the demographic of cyclists.
I know it is tempting to buy all the gear and have all the pretty bikepacking bags, but I also like the idea of cycling being accessible to all budgets.
My first bikepacking bag was a €15 saddlebag bought on eBay – it lasted 5 years and travelled across Australia with me. I also bought a second-hand top tube pouch for €6. They have both done over 20,000 km in all weather conditions, and I only bought a new saddlebag last year because I needed a bigger one.
If you have a tight budget, eBay and Facebook marketplace are your best friend (as well as Gumtree for the Aussies!) SO many people are selling almost brand-new bags over there, at a very low price.
3. Bikepacking gear: the full list
My #1 rule is to only carry the bare minimum. Firstly because as a relatively small human, I like to travel light. And secondly because the less you take, the less you will have to think during your trip (more on that later).
I have cycled in all conditions, from the Australian desert in 40 °C heat to Norway in the dead of winter. Those lists are pretty good in my honest opinion, however they are not exhaustive, and most importantly they suit my needs. They can make a great guide for your next trip but don’t take it as gospel.
I have tried to gather as much information as I could, but make sure to add anything else that you would need on the road. For example, if you run tubeless tyres don’t forget to take whatever you need to fix a flat tyre. Or if you plan on camping, add some camping gear to my list. And so on!
A list of the gear I take no matter where I go and how long I go for.
- Bikepacking bags (whichever ones you use)
- a small rear mirror (to attach on your helmet or handlebar)
- a helmet
- a bike pump
- 2 spare tubes
- a multi-tool
- link pliers tool
- 2 x 2L drink bottles (minimum)
- chain lube
- a roll of electrical tape
I am no mechanic expert, and I only take what I know how to use (I need to level up, I know). If you know more than I do, take more stuff like spare spokes, lock ring remover…
- dynamo light at the front
- 2 rear lights + charger (or batteries)
- phone + charger
- powerbank + charger
- wall plug
- your Garmin / smart watch + charger
- 2 singlets
- 1 or 2 sports bra
- bib shorts
- a jacket, ideally in a bright colour
- 2-3 pairs of socks
- a rainjacket (and rain pants if needed)
- 1 pair of shorts (for the evening)
- sun sleeves / neck warmer
- cycling shoes
All other gear
This list has all the other gear that you will need depending on the duration and destination of your trip (i.e., ou won’t take the same gear if you go to Iceland or South Africa).
Hygiene / care products
- emergency blanket
- a bar of soap
- a towel
- a toothbrush
- a small stove
- pot, pan, fork, knife etc
- sealable sandwich bags (that you can reuse)
- water tablets (to purify water)
- a lighter
- a tent
- a sleeping bag
- a mattress
- a air pillow
- warmer clothes for the night
- head / hand torch
Winter gear (cold and/or humid weather)
- waterproof bike bags
- cycling overshoes
- winter bib
- base layers
- warm socks
- studded tyres (for snow / ice)
In winter, humidity is the enemy. This is a limited list, and other people on the internet provide very comprehensive lists for your winter bikepacking trips!
Summer gear (hot and/or dry weather)
- lip balm (super important)
- sun sleeves
- une casquette
- a pair of thongs + your swimsuit!
4. Q&A bikepacking bags and gear
What kind of bike should I use?
Road bike for the road, mountain bike for the track… But what if the terrain changes throughout the trip?
In bikepacking, the general consensus seems to be the gravel bike. You can use it in literally every situation: travelling, commuting… It is genuinely comfortable no matter where you ride: on the bitumen, on gravel roads, on pavements… You can use bikepacking bags or paniers, add a rear rack and child seat at the back or a panier at the front, it is incredibly versatile and you can customise it in any way you want. And the best part: you can fit tyres up to 50mm for some gravel bikes!
However, if you are racing and trying to perform, a road bike will be better suited. You will only need to detour when the road turns to gravel. I personally love road bikes for bikepacking, although I have recently bought a gravel bike and I must admit that it is great. I’m not that confident yet on gravel roads, but gravel bikes are a good option even on bitumen.
Aero bars or not?
I like to think that aero bars have several purposes.
Firstly, being aero obviously. It creates a mini wind tunnel when you’re riding and you can remain in that position for a while. That’s why so many triathletes use them for long distance triathlons. I find it fascinating and I could go on about it for hours, but for the purpose of this article (bikepacking) we don’t really care about being aero.
Their second purpose is to provide comfort. This is where it gets interesting for us. When you are riding 6-10 hours per day for several days in a row, your hands will get messed up from being in the same ‘grip’ position for hours. Aero bars allow you to move your hands around in a different position and alternate. You can also take a break every hour or so to rest your hands, but aero bars are good if you don’t want to stop too often (or if you’re racing). For races such as the BikingMan series, the TCR or the Race Across France, they are a must-have.
Finally, they are great to hold your stuff. You can attach your bottle cage on them (see photo below), your food pouches, your Garmin (like here), or even your handlebar bag (see photo below). It’s a bit of a ‘catch all’. Honestly I don’t see a downside to having them, so just add it to your list for your next trip and try them out, alright?
WARNING: once you have tried aero bars, you will never be able to ride without them again. Ever.
Dynamo or rechargeable light?
Pros: the main advantage of the dynamo light is that you don’t need to recharge it. Don’t need to bring an additional charger, don’t need to worry if you are going to spend a few days in the wild with no access to power… It frees your mind big time. With some dynamo lights, you can also recharge other stuff, such as your phone. You can also plug in a rear light in your dynamo hub, though it will dim both your front and rear lights.
I have been using the Busch & Müller since 2019 – at €160 (AUD 240), it has the two options I talked about just before and its beam is honestly as good as a car’s beam. The dynamo hub is usually more expensive, but it is a worthy investment. It will last for years if you take care of it and the peace of mind it gives you is just priceless.
Cons: if it breaks down, you need to have a back up option, so you will probably have to take a rechargeable light just in case. As I also said above, the dynamo hub is pricey – I bought a SON Dynamo hub for €250 (AUD 380) in 2019 and it was the best quality hub on the market at the time. You can find some cheaper ones but either way, you will need a pro to build it into your wheel, which will also cost money. You can also buy the wheel and dynamo hub together, I believe it is a bit cheaper.
Pros: good rechargeable lights are much more accessible and cater for all budgets, with prices ranging from €60 to $250+ (AUD 90-380). The Lezyne Micro Pro Drive is a really good option for €70. They usually have enough autonomy for most cyclists who will only ride 1-2 hours at night (when they leave early in the morning for example). More expensive ones can last hours and hours.
Cons: their autonomy are limited when you use the highest setting / beam, and the eco mode is not great for a full night of riding. It can also take a long time to recharge, depending on the model, and you need to have access to power every day. I find them stressful and not adapted for racing or fast bikepacking, but I know many ultra-cyclists use them, so just try them out and see how you find it!
What gear should I take?
As I said earlier, the gear you take depends on where you go and what the weather will be like. You will need a lot more gear in winter, and a lot less in summer. However you will need to carry more water in hot weather, so your summer set up might actually end up heavier. You can also decide to take all your food with you or to buy food along the way, camp in the wild and carry all your gear or sleep in hotels every night…
If you want to travel light: I have noticed that the more available space I have (in my bags), the more stuff I will take. I tend to fill in whatever space I have. My trick is to have less bags, and therefore less available space, to force yourself to cut down on your non-essential gear and make smart choices.
Bivvy or hotel?
How much comfort do you want? What performance are you after? If you want to go fast, power naps are a must, in which case bivvying is a good option (I talk about this at length in my article on sleeping while bikepacking). If you are touring, you can pick any option: bivvy or camping, staying at hotels or B&Bs, or even better, using the Warmshowers community to meet other cyclists who will welcome you for a night (free of charge). You just need to remember that camping/bivvying means you will need to carry more gear.
How should I pack my bags?
There are a few rules to follow when you organise your stuff:
Heavy gear go at the bottom of your bag, or in the middle. It is best to store them in your saddle bag (close to the seat post) or me bag.
Light and voluminous gear can go in your saddle bag (near the opening), in your handlebar bag or if you top tube bag.
Your most important gear, the stuff you need to access quickly and often (food, water, electronics…), go in your top tube, food pouch or frame bag.
Your least important gear (stuff you will use occasionally and when you stop riding) go in the handlebar bag or at the bottom of your saddle bag.
Bikepacking bags & gear: conclusion
That’s it for this article on bikepacking bags and gear. I have tried to make it as complete as possible, but feel free to put in the comments anything I have missed!
I hope it will help you for your next trips. Don’t forget to organise your bags, you will thank me later. Try your gear before your leave, make sure everything is working as it should. And if you can, try out different bike bags to find out which ones are best for you.
See you in the next article!