If you plan to travel fast and light, or just don’t like clutter, bikepacking bags are the modern alternative to panniers for multi-day rides.
For decades the standard way for travelling cyclists to carry gear has been in panniers: bags that hang on racks, usually have internal reinforcing, and stick out from the sides of the bike.
In the last few years a new category of bike luggage has emerged out of the long-distance racing and off-road touring scenes. These bags strap directly on the frame, seatpost or handlebar and sit in line with the rider. They mostly rely on their contents to give them shape, though a few have minimal internal reinforcement.
Both off-road touring and long-distance racing need bags that are light. Off-road touring inevitably involves unrideable sections. Manhandling a bike across a boulder field is much easier if the combination of bike and bags is as light as possible. Long-distance racers want kit that’s as stripped-down as possible because every gram has to be carried up the mountains where organisers inevitably put checkpoints.
With no racks, very little in the way of attachment hardware and the bare minimum of internal reinforcement, bikepacking bags are substantially lighter than panniers.
For racers taking part in events like the TransContinental, aerodynamics is another significant advantage. Sticking out of the sides of your bike, panniers increase the frontal area of rider and bike. In wind tunnel tests, Jan Heine of Bicycle Quarterly found that reducing frontal area is far and away the most effective way of reducing drag. Heine didn’t test bikepacking bags aganst panniers, but his results are consistent with constant-power riding tests performed by Alee at cyclingabout.com, who found a consistent increase in speed using bikepacking bags rather than panniers.
The total capacity provided by a set of large bikepacking bags is about the same as a pair of rear panniers: around 40 litres. That’s plenty of space for ultralight camping gear if you plan to use a bivvy bag as your overnight shelter, and you should be able to cram in a lightweight tent if you choose the more luxurious camping option.
If you prefer your accommodation to have four walls and a roof, then you’ll have more than enough space for clothes and toiletries, and almost certainly won’t need a full set of bags.
What you don’t have is enough space for an ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ camping style. If that’s how you roll, then stick to regular panniers. You might still find bikepacking bags useful to redistribute weight around the bike or to add extra capacity.
There are four main locations for bikepacking bags: under the saddle; on the handlebar; in the frame’s main triangle; and along the top tube. A few manufacturers also offer small bags that fit in handy niches such as the fork blades or under the down tube. Let’s take a look.
Roadie purists look away now: a large seatpack is the hallmark bikepacking bag and the available packs cover the full size range from big to frikkin’ enormous.
Most bikepacking seatpacks attach to the saddle rails and seatpost with Velcro straps, have roll-up closures to seal out the wet and provide size adjustability, and have extra straps to cinch them down if they’re not completely full.
A key design aim is to stop the pack from swaying and sagging, especially when you’re out of the saddle. Internal reinforcement with stiff plastic sheets also helps, and a few designs go the whole hog and include an aluminium frame for support and rigidity.
Seatpacks often have extra straps and bungee cords so you can carry a jacket and the like on them, attachment points for pockets and loops for rear lights. Capacity ranges from six litres to twenty litres.
The handlebar is a favourite place to carry light, bulky items like a sleeping bag, bivvy bag or the fabric parts of a lightweight tent. Bikepacking bar bags are usually tailored for this and comprise a waterproof stuffsac with some way of attaching it to the bar. Look out for valves for squishing out excess air and extra pockets so you can keep cash and passport easily to hand.
Some bar bags simply strap to the handlebar, others have built-in spacer blocks to make room on the bar top for your hands, while still others have a separate bag and ‘holster’ so the bag can be easily removed from the bike.
Handlebar bag sizes range from three litres up to twenty litres.
There’s plenty of space between your knees in your frame’s main triangle, but it’s impossible for bag makers to make one bag that will fill every possible frame. Almost all of them therefore offer a range of sizes, and generally advise that you should choose the smaller if it looks like two sizes will fit. It’s better to have a bag that sits tightly in place than one that can flap and move around.
Some frame bags only use some of the space under the top tube to get around the issues of fitting the whole frame. This can be a good compromise that still gives a useful amount of storage space.
Since a frame bag is a relatively simple shape, some bikepackers make their own so it completely fills the available space. If you’re not handy with a sewing machine, Alpkit will make you a custom frame bag with a range of optional extras including a port for a water bladder so you can drink on the go, replacing the water bottle mounts the bag covers.
Off-the-peg frame bags come in sizes from three litres to around ten litres.
Top tube bags
Rather than hanging under the top tube, these small bags sit on top of it, just behind the stem. Triathletes have been using bags like this for years, but don’t let that put you off; they’re a handy way to carry snacks, gels and the like so you can fuel without stopping.
Limited space means top tube bags can’t be large; they typically have a capacity of around a litre.
If you can find a bit of unoccupied volume anywhere on your bike, chances are someone makes a bag that’ll sit there. The most common location is the fork legs, at least on bikes that have the appropriate mounts, but there also stem bags, that sit at the side of the stem, and Revelate makes a small bag that sits in the space between your top tube and seatpost.
Who makes bikepacking bags?
Here are some of the brand names you should keep in mind when shopping for bags
Alpkit: Direct-to-customer outdoor equipment company has a keenly priced selection of bags
Apidura: UK company with a wide range of bags, founded by an experienced endurance racer
Arkel: This Canadian bag maker mostly focuses on conventional panniers, but its range includes two large seatpacks with aluminium frames
Blackburn: Known for racks, lights and a vast range of other accessories, Blackburn recently launched a suite of bikepacking luggage
Passport: Value-for-money accessories brand with a small range of bags. Ison Distribution
Restrap: Hailing from Leeds, Restrap makes a range of strappy outdoorsy softgoods including well-regarded bikepacking bags
Specialized: Some clever designs from bike manufacturer that has embraced adventure riding with its AWOL, Diverge and Sequoia models.
Wildcat Gear: From Perth, Scotland comes this range of British-made bikepacking bags.
If you need to carry up to 14 litres of luggage but don't want to use a rack, the Restrap Saddle Bag Holster is an excellent choice. Unconstrained by frame design or bottle cage placement, it will work for just about any bike.
Assuming black is the new black (again), the Holster is bang on the minimalist, pseudo-military-utility trend in adventure kit. Made from 1000D Cordura wrapped over a plastic hardshell to maintain its shape, swathed in nylon webbing and held together not by stitching but instead tough cord through metal eyelets, the Holster looks like it will take a real beating year after year. At well over half a kilo it's definitely no lightweight, but what price durability and peace of mind?
Smartly-positioned internal reinforcements stiffen this pack from British bikepacking specialists Apidura, so despite its large capacity, it barely sways when you're riding even if it's not fully loaded. Despite being pretty light for a saddlebag this size, the areas of high stress and abrasion appear to be well reinforced and able withstand the rigours of life on the (off)road.
The roll-top closure and side straps make for a very flexible system that can accommodate a wide range of loads – from the full fourteen-litre capacity down to around six litres – without too much excess fabric flapping about.
There's also a bungee cord some bungee cord webbing on the of the pack – useful for keeping a spare layer close to hand – and two rear light attachment points that can be used depending on how full the bag is. All in all, the quality of construction and the thought that's gone into the details is very impressive.
It's likely that a saddle bag is the first bit of kit you're going to look at buying if you want to get into bikepacking or light touring, and Topeak's BackLoader would be a good investment. It's a versatile piece of luggage that will serve you well when attached to a racing, commuting, touring or mountain bike.
The BackLoader is really easy to use and its simple hook and loop attachment helps to keep weight down. It has its cons, but is certainly worth considering for a credit card tour or the like, and it's excellent value.
The BackLoader is available in three different sizes: six, ten and fifteen litres. All come with an internal waterproof bag with a valve so you squeeze out surplus air.
This easily mounted sausage-shaped roll pack is perfect for a lightweight off-road tour, offering 'complete element protection' and quick access to kit. It's ideal for a sleeping bag or substantial spare kit, while the optional Accessory Pack provides easy access to valuables and detaches quickly to double up as a handy shoulder bag.
It's very similar to the Apidura Handlebar Pack, but Ortlieb's is designed to be suspended slightly from the bar using spacers. They share the same limitations regarding use with drop bars; both are better suited to flat-bar touring bikes.
With the new improved Food Bag topping a well-thought-out design made from super-strong materials, there really isn't anything to fault on the Restrap Bar Bag Holster/Dry Bag/Food Bag ensemble. For £85 total you get a system that will quickly fit pretty much any modern bike, carry as much kit as you'd really want up front short of using proper panniers, and will no doubt last you many, many adventures on and off the road.
The Apidura Mountain Frame Pack is designed to sit inside your bike's main triangle, maximising storage space by running the full length of the top tube while still allowing two water bottles to be used. It works well, although you might need to change to side-entry bottle cages.
With all the straps tightened, the pack is rock solid, and even when heavily loaded doesn't negatively affect the bike's handling. At 227g it's not a huge weight penalty, which makes it something you can just leave attached to the bike all the time.
The Midloader comes in two size options, a three-litre version ( £27.76) and this four and a half litre option, which holds a surprising amount of kit securely and sturdily.
The Midloader is 12cm deep, which leaves just about enough room to get at a down tube bottle when fully loaded. Access to the Midloader is via a long zip on both sides which is protected from the elements by a storm flap. The whole thing takes just a couple of seconds to fit thanks to its hook and loop fasteners with two large straps on the top tube and thinner straps for the seat tube and downtube. Even when the going gets really rough the bag doesn't move one bit and doesn't affect the handling of the bike at all except in really strong crosswinds.
The Restrap Top Tube Bag attaches to your bike at two points – a two-inch-wide rubberised Velcro top tube strap at the rear, and a three-quarter-inch Velcro strip at the front around your head tube. It slopes from front to back, starting out about 6cm tall and ending at 3cm. Inside it's about 3cm wide, and with careful packing doesn't bulge to knee-swiping dimensions. In practice, the fully-loaded Top Tube Bag stayed put over the roughest of terrain. The straps were easily adjusted and once set stayed put.The most-used feature of any top tube bag will be the zip. Restrap has used a waterproof YKK zip – surely the Rolls Royce of such things.
The Restrap Top Tube Bag isn't the cheapest forward-mounted luggage option – you can get them from around a tenner – but it has to be one of the best.
This is a decent, inexpensive example of a top tube bag; it doesn't bring anything dramatic to the party, but it does the job.
We haven't reviewed this combination of bag and rack, but it's unarguably both intriguing and clever. The rack mounts on a fork that has Salsa's trio of bottle cage bosses, while the bag straps in place, providing 4.5 litres of extra storage. The system's been well-received in bikepacking circles.
Almost every bag maker has something like this in its range: a simple drawcord-topped cylinder that'll take a water bottle, a compact stove, extra snacks, a phone or whatever else you want to keep easily to hand. This one's made in the UK and gets extra props for the name.
The top tube/seatpost bag we mentioned earlier, filling probably the last bit of spare space on your bike.
Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.