A BEGINNERS GUIDE TO BIKEPACKING BAGS

There are so many ways of carrying stuff safely; it's about finding the right systems for you and your bike. Being a perpetual fettler (and some would say deviant/misfit) I mix things up a bit, which works for me and my machines. Bike packing luggage can, in some instances prove practical for the weekday commute, too. Here are Michael Stenning's thoughts.

Bike Packing Luggage

Pros: Makes excellent use of the frame’s “empty space”, doesn’t adversely affect bike handling.

Cons: Need particularly careful loading, not compatible with all frame/sizes.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock these past few years, you can’t help but notice the emergence of bike-packing, which swept in, alongside gravel and an evolution of free road (an evolution of the cyclo cross bike from 2008). These were characterised by Two or more sets of bottle, rack and mudguard mounts, so you could tour, commute and train on.

Now, bike packing luggage is designed to use the bike’s “empty spaces” and to some extent, turn the bike’s frame tubes into a giant rack. This also means you’re not limited by rack mounts or needing to add P-clips/similar, to run a 3/4point rack to attach panniers, top bags etc.

Caveats about correct loading/weight distribution aside, decent bike packing luggage does not impair the bike’s handling, ort profile, say when tackling tight sections of trail/singletrack, which could also translate well to the urban jungle. However, certain configurations might be better for commuting. 

Seat-post/Saddle Packs (£39.99 Upwards)

These are arguably the staple of the modern bike packing ensemble and will manage up to 20 litres of kit. Regardless of volume, these are best for lighter, bulkier stuff, such as spare clothes, lightweight jacket etc. Smaller models, including this Passport Seat Pack  are better suited to Singletrack and mixed terrain shenanigans, whereas the bigger volumes are for more epic journeys. The base is designed to double as a splashguard, so you’ll be spared a soaking, even if your bike isn’t.

As with other luggage, price will to some extend dictate how rugged/weatherproof it is.  Something made from a waterproof, wipe-clean laminate with welded seams would probably be the best route/budget allowing. Some fabrics may well be waterproof but stitched construction will mean they’re water-resistant, in the real world. 

As a starting point, I’d look for 210 denier nylon outer with an inner dry sack, as a starting point. Most designs employ a roll-top closure, which also does a decent job of keeping the weather out. However, a light/fluro sack is handy for spotting stuff-especially in low light.

Ditto a side pockets/entry point, should you just want to pluck something free, without tipping everything out. 

 

Seatpost mounted bags, especially the bigger types are prone to sway, which is one of my pet peeves. Experience suggests a frame mounted to the saddle rails can overcome this (and some compatibility woes with dropper posts). I Otherwise, I look for two Velcro straps, since these, and a rubberised “foot” affords best tenure to the post. Softer bags, such as the Passport   and Merida Travel have proven compatible with Cane Creek Thudbuster ST and Redshift Sports Shockstop suspension posts.

Now, most posts are standard these days 27.2 or 31.8. However, there are a small but growing number of folks who have converted 90’s mountain bikes to gravel bikes.

   

Not that you should be packing heavy stuff in here but start with the heaviest bits and then get sequentially lighter. There’s a good argument for putting your tent and matt here and use them to provide a structure for clothes. This is great since the walls will also expand, to accommodate.

A cargo net is also handy for capturing overspill, say a pair of sports sandals and not forgetting a light tab, since they consume a fair amount of post. Models including Carradice Carradura Maxi Saddlepack make excellent transition between touring, commuting and indeed, bike packing.

Frame Bags (£20 Upwards)

These are where you want the heavier stuff. Full frame bags are where you’ll want to pack camping stove, mugs, pans and other utensils Stove, pots, pans, cups and spork/similar cutlery. Me personally, I like the comfort of knowing my pump is riding shotgun on the bottle bosses. However, it's another good place for pump, tubes and other tooling you might need easy access to. Where possible keep tools and similar essentials in a pencil case and keep tubes bound tightly. On the subject of tooling whatever you take has to work on every one of your bike’s fasteners.

Aside from integral chain tools, those with valve adaptors are another boon, should you need to borrow a pump, or use a garage airline. A single. CO2 inflator can be useful if you’re tired and possibly cold.  Much the same rules apply in terms of materials and fitting. Strong Velcro at the top, down and seat tube to keep everything rock steady, especially since riding bow-legged not only looks silly, and feels awkward, it also robs your cadence. As a rule, travelling in a group, share/split tools/other kit between you. 

Measure carefully too, since some designs will literally consume the main triangle, including your bottle mounts.  (although in some instances, this can be overcome, using side entry cages, or Fidlock Twist . 

 

Because my Univega’s main triangle is so small, it precludes anything larger than this 3 litre Topeak mid frame pack. I’ve also had to prune the excess downtube strap by several inches.

As before, attachment needs to be user friendly and very solid. Velcro is the obvious choice and generally reliable. However, some designs can prove a bit inflexible in their location and it’s well worth putting some helicopter/similar clear vinyl tape (such as Zefal Skin Armor Roll ) where they connect with the frame’s finish. Otherwise the combination of minor sway, rain (and indeed, gritty mud) can cause swirling and unsightly tan lines.

Zippers can be another potential trouble spot, so best not to fill bags to the proverbial gills. This will not only produce cadence robbing bulk, it runs the risk of straining the zipper, resulting in failure when you least expect, ort indeed, need it.   

 

Bar Bags (£19.99 upwards)

Bar bags have been with us, long before the advent of bike packing but they’ve evolved a bit too. Sizes vary, from this bijoux See Sense Handlebar Bag   (Its 1.9 litre capacity is arguably better suited to audax) to those offering 7litres upward. Big flared drops have been a thing for a good while now, which mean you can slot much bigger bags between.

Again, weight needs to be kept low so as not to impair handling. I’ve traditionally used bar bags to port camera and similarly sensitive equipment. However, in a bike packing context, it’s a more obvious place for a sleeping bag/related equipment. Keep things like waterproof jackets, spare gloves, cap/buff etc within easy reach, so no drama should hail descend.

On smaller framesets (especially on a mountain bike biased build with suspension forks) check there’s sufficient clearance between the front tyre. Also consider the mounting of lights and other creature comforts, and the mounting system, carefully.

Velcro is the obvious, universal option. However, some mounting brackets are only compatible with round, not “aero” patterns. Ensure your intended design/model doesn’t compress gear/cables since this can impair shifting/braking performance. Those with a “stabilizer”/support will address this. The only minor downside to these (also applies to post mounted bags) is increased vulnerability to damage-in the event of a bad tumble.

“Tank” & Top Tube Bags (£14 upwards)

 

These vary in size, capacity and mounting system. Some nestle behind the stem, strapping to it and the top tube, others bolt on to dedicated frame bosses. Either way, they’re designed to keep things such as phones, snacks, USB chargers and similar essentials within easy reach. I often keep a multi tool, patch kit and tube here and snacks in a jersey pocket. 

Price denotes quality and waterproofing. Cheaper models may have waterproof fabrics but stitched construction, which is not ideal, if you’re carrying electricals. Either way, it needs to be easily accessed, single handedly, on the move. Now, while relatively expensive, it employs excellent design and materials I’ve been very impressed by this Apidura Racing Bolt on Top Tube Pack, which is fully waterproof and employs a magnetic closure. Steve’s also been quite impressed with Zefal Z-Adventure T1 Top Tube Bag , as well as the  UPSO Tebay  and the Passport Top Tube Pack .

 

Accessories

Utility/storage cages that will swallow large, soft items, through to bottles of wine and bottled water/similar have been around a few years. These can be fitted at several points around the bike, including the fork legs. Weight capacities. Using the Free Parable Gorilla Cage . I’ve even managed to haul a small, disposable welding gas bottle (1.2 kilos) on the fork (courtesy of their Gorilla Clip) without things turning whippy. Topeak Versacage is another popular model that follows this narrative.

    

Other Little Essentials?

Head type torches: even if you run a high-power dynamo system, such as the K-Lite Bikepacker Ultra , a second, rechargeable light that you can mount atop a helmet - 300 to 500lumens should cover most bases. Aside from tending trailside mechanicals, rummaging through luggage and pitching tents etc, It can spare you some indignity when finding a suitable place to heed nature’s call. 

I love the USB charging capacity of the K-Lite-it's great for charging lights, phones etc. If you didn’t fancy this, a power bank system, for fueling phones/GPS etc might be the way forward. I get that some of you may want to be away from all forms of technology but there may be a scenario when you may need to call on your phone, or GPS, especially if you’re miles from civilization, or getting lost causes arguments/stress.

 

PET Bottle Cages 

Sometimes it's better to carry food, such as oats and dried milk in bottles, rather than water. A large 1.5 litre PET bottle, such as the BBB Fuel Tank XL  is a better choice for carrying large amounts of bottled water. Frame size may make fitting a little tricky and if you are mounting beneath the downtube, you’ll need to consider how you protect the cap and mouth from mud, dung and amalgamated crap thrown up by the front wheel.

 

Commuting Potential

Everyone’s commute is different. However, unless you are lucky enough to park your bike next to your desk, chances are you’ll want to whip luggage on/off and carry it with minimal faff/inconvenience. In this context, there’s a lot favouring a four-point rack and 20litre pannier with Klick Fix attachments. Such as this UPSO Potters Pannier

However, panniers can reduce the ability to sneak through tight gaps in traffic. In terms of bike packing luggage, I’ve tended to go for a half frame bag and then, given I’m running an alloy post, pair this with the Carradice Carradry SQR  . A ten-kilo payload, 14.5 litre (expands to 18.5) and a 3 lite frame pack. Indeed, this setup, when loaded carefully also works very well for mixed terrain day rides/weekend touring. 

For example, a frame fit bag and something like this SQR Tour might be a more convenient setup than Bike packing seat packs. True, these are a good bit heavier (1390g. Compared with 450/500g) and you do need a decent amount of post exposed. However, the SQR Tour and Carradice Carradry remains my preferred option, when everything’s considered is more secure, laden with similar payloads.

The quick release system has a definite edge when it comes to convenience-removing them when locking up or heading home. The wide profile isn’t overly problematic when snaking through twisting forest trails, or indeed, lines of stationary traffic. I’m more conscious of the weight, when powering away from the lights, or winching along a climb. 

 

This also has a slight effect upon handling but not adversely so and something that didn’t take long to acclimatise to. Something like the Merida frame fit bag and the SQR Tour/Carradry, might be the perfect combination, with a small fuel tank bag riding on the top tube, or maybe a bar bag, such as this See Sense  if I was wanting to carry a little more within easy reach.

No sooner had I thought this, Topeak’s UK importer sent me a 3 litre mid loader frame bag to play with.  Measuring 37.5 x 12 x 6 cm. The 3 litre is the smallest of the mid loader family - there are a 4.5 and a 6 litre siblings but my Univega’s 41cm frame means there’s little room in the main triangle.

Apparently, the maximum payload is 6.5 kilos, which is impressive, especially given the 3 litre version weighs less than 197g. Staying with Topeak, courtesy of their Versamount (review to follow), I’ve will also port the Apidura bolt on top tube bag to my Univega.

Remember to wrap some clear “helicopter” tape or something similar, such as this Zefal Skin Armor Roll where the straps touch the frame, since some minor movement is inevitable, and this can leave unsightly “tan lines”/similar marks in the lacquer/paintwork, especially when wet mud/dirt and grit are involved.

Obviously, the same applies to racks/pannier frames, where the luggage touches, although high quality electrical tape seems the best remedy. Doing so prevents premature and unsightly wear, which can also lead to corrosion and other problems. When all’s said and done, I like pack-packing luggage and its arguably the right solution for lightweight camping/touring.

However, it’s not the only one, nor is it optimal for all conditions. A good quality rack and single 20 lite pannier can be a more practical, stable solution for commuting, or general riding where you want a rigid load bearing system. One where the bag can detach and refit in seconds and carried conveniently, in one, to the office/destination.

Given there’sno middle cable for the front mech, there’s sufficient room for the mount component, without it, or the bag fouling the brake and gear inner wires. The bag’s bolt on design also seems to eradicate any the Velcro stabiliser. I’ve slipped it inside the bag for safe keeping. About bars, here’s my long-term review of the Acros Silicone bar wrap handlebar tape, which is rugged, grippy and easily rewound and reapplied, should you need to replace a control cable, miles from civilisation.

PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 2020

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