There was a time when most bikepackers were literally backpackers with bikes, hoisting top-heavy, backbreaking loads on their shoulders while riding mountain bikes through the woods. These days, mountain bikers have several different options for hauling camping gear, from traditional racks and panniers to trailers.
However, racks and panniers are more difficult to adapt to suspension systems on mountain bikes, and also increase the profile of the bike, which can make it more difficult to maneuver through tight singletrack and heavily forested trails. Trailers are more versatile, but also add another layer of difficulty and weight to technical terrain. Also, as with any mechanical component, racks and trailers are just another thing that can break or otherwise fail — a problem you want to avoid when traveling far away from civilization.
Among ultralight bikepackers, there is a growing trend to use custom bags that are engineered to fit the contours of the bike, adding packing space without significantly increasing the profile or weight on the bike. The two leaders in the custom bike bag industry are Carousel Design Works and Revelate Designs, two independent companies that design and custom-build innovative seat post bags, frame bags, and handlebar harnesses.
Frame bags are the best place to start when acquiring a bikepacking kit. The frame triangle is the most under-used space in any bicycle. It’s literally the core of your bike — low-profile, centered and has the space to hold a fair amount of gear, even on some full-suspension mountain bikes. Full-size frame bags are a great, highly accessible place to store heavier items such as food, batteries, repair kits and other accessories.
Great additions to custom frame bags are top tube bags such as the Epic Designs gas tank and Carousel Design Works top tube pack. This can be used with or without a frame bag, and utilizes an often overlooked space on the frame. Similar to a gas tank on a motorcycle, the position of these bags makes them a convenient and readily accessible place to store snacks for fueling on the go.
The two companies also offer seatpost bags that are engineered to hold vast quantities of gear in a sturdy but flexible position above the rear wheel. Revelate Designs offers both water-resistant and waterproof versions. These are superior to a rear rack because they’re not only much lighter, but also provide rear-carrying capacity on full-suspension bikes. A well-designed strap system keeps the bag from rubbing the tire, but these often need to be packed to their full capacity to achieve the intended shape.
Finally, various front harness and handlebar bag systems can accommodate everything from a sleeping bag to a tent to a full-size winter sleeping bag. The drawback to handlebar bags is a change in the bike’s handling, but it’s often no worse than the addition of front panniers.
I’ve been using Revelate Designs bags ever since the company first launched, as Epic Designs, in 2007. A combination of quality materials, durable zippers, and brilliant craftsmanship keeps me coming back for more, and I’ve fully outfitted my snow bike and mountain bike for year-round bikepacking. I’ve become such a big fan of these bags that I even use them on my pavement tours these days, despite a full set of panniers and racks that now sit unused in my shed. I like the lightness and simplicity of Revelate Designs bags, and also the limited space that forces me to take only the gear I really need.
I don’t have any personal experience with Carousel Design Works, but have a number of friends who attest to the bags’ quality. They’re a great place to start for any mountain biker who wants to take their riding even farther.
Photos courtesy Revelate Designs
BIKEPACKER is written by Jill Homer, deputy editor for Adventure Cyclist magazine. It appears the 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month.