Before we start, I think it is fair to say that close to any bike can be a good bikepacking bike, but not just any bike can be a gravel bike. Bikepacking is a way of travelling and its essence lies in the use of bikepacking vs classic touring bags.
The best gravel bikes, well they are just a type of bicycle. So, the good news is that if you don’t want to own too many bikes, the ideal bikepacking bike is one you may already have in your garage. Maybe that old old touring bike for example? If that is the case, the next important step is choosing the right bikepacking bags. The subject of bikepacking bags is a very wide topic and more information can be found here.
On the other hand, if you are a keen cyclist who loves to dig deeper and has the perfect bike for every occasion, it is important to know that bikepacking bikes have different sides. In my opinion, there are two major ones: a “long” one and a “rough” one. Let me explain.
The essence of bikepacking is to carry lighter loads to avoid the use of bike racks. This way, the bike feels more stable on rough terrain and is more aerodynamic which adds up over the length of the ride. And I think that it is in this aspect that we can find the answer to our original question regarding the difference between gravel and proper bikepacking.
Gravel bikes are perfect for those bikepackers who are looking for long distance adventures. They handle perfectly on tarmac but also allow you to enjoy some forest roads and single tracks. Cyclists more into mountain biking type terrain that stay off-road as much as possible need a different bike – a hardtail or a rigid MTB. If a full suspension mountain bike is all you have, they provide a comfortable ride, but it comes at a heavy price, literally. They weigh more than pretty much any other kind of bike and the idea is to go as light as possible, right? That’s up to you.
Rigid vs hardtail mountain bikes for bikepacking?
I think these are the perfect bikepacking machines for very rough adventures and rides. Riding mountain bikes mean better gearing for technical terrain, climbing up steep hills and bigger tyres for clearance. Both these traits make taking on unknown terrains, even muddy ones, easier. MTBs have a longer wheelbase which makes them more stable, especially when loaded and on rugged terrain. They come with flat bars instead of drop bars, which means more handlebar real estate for storing gear.
Gravel bikes for bikepacking?
Compared to the above category, gravel bikes are perfect for covering long distances and enjoying mixed and more technical terrain. They are evolving at the speed of light and, in just a couple of years, went from being simple road and cyclocross bikes with slightly wider tires for dirt roads or touring bikes with drop handlebars to amazing niche bicycles with dedicated technology and off road capability.
Some examples include the use of carbon forks and other dedicated frame elements designed for vibration damping, wider tyre clearance, a longer wheelbase, more mounting points for racks, fender mounts, and the possibility for more than two bottle cages. Gravel bikes also allow for more hand positions, which comes in handy (pun intended) as bikepacking adventures mean riding long hours. So, they are great bikepacking companions if you accept the following facts.
There are limitations regarding the terrain you can ride with a fully-loaded gravel bike. If you hit a very rough patch of the road, aside from it being dangerous, expect to be very sore after, especially if you are riding several days in a row. You could improve the off-road riding comfort by mounting wider tyres as they absorb more shocks and create a smoother ride. If your bike frame does not allow it, you could use 650b wheels or tyres with bigger sidewalls. You could also install wider handlebars, which will give you more stability (and room for packing more handlebar bags).
You cannot load a gravel bike as much as a hardtail/rigid bike. For my gravel bike, I use the rule of thumb I learned from its builder. Even if the frame is very sturdy, components have limitations, especially wheels. So it is advised to not load the bike with more than 105 kg if you have carbon wheels, and 115 kg in case of aluminium wheels.
The gearing is almost road bike-like although this is also changing quickly and Shimano’s GRX 1x drivetrain was once a great novelty. On average, though, the gearing is usually too high. A way to fix or at least help this problem is to put a smaller chainring up front if you have a 1x drivetrain, or a larger cassette on the back if you have a 2x drivetrain.
In the past, I suffered from knee pain after a few days on my fully loaded bike over rough trails, some single track and several steep climbs, but once I changed the gearing to include more granny gears, the problem disappeared.
Gravel bike geometry is similar to road bike geometry. This means that the top tube doesn’t slope much, giving you more space for a frame bag (bags) or water, it also means potentially not being in the most comfortable position for riding.
You can improve this by installing a riser stem that will put you in a more upright riding position, or by using a shorter one – or both. You can also use aero bars. Personally, I use them when I do ultra-rides like, for example, the Rando Imperator where there is quite a lot of tarmac and white roads, and I find them to be super comfortable.
So, to conclude, I am a big fan of gravel bikes because they are incredibly versatile and a lot of fun too. While road bikes can intimidate the average cyclist, gravel bikes have the same element of speed but are much safer because of the stability provided by the wider tyres. They also allow you to enjoy mixed terrain making them the perfect for commuting and leisure riding.
The gap between gravel bikes and hardtail MTBs is shrinking every day, considering that gravel bikes are starting to come with integrated suspension elements (carbon fork, headset, classic front suspension, rear triangle). And last but not least, because some of them can be quite light, more and more people (including myself) have two sets of wheels so you can still enjoy a quality road bike ride with friends from time to time.
It’s clear that the gravel sector will continue to grow in the upcoming years. My bike, a custom Festka Rover is a performance road bike (not even 7 kg) when mounted with road bike wheels, but when I want to go for a gravel ride or a bikepacking trip, I swap the wheels for something in the 28 to 40 mm range and it is a game-changer without even tipping 8 kg on the scale.
With the same bike, I have done week long bikepacking trips fully loaded. I rode all the major iconic Giro d’Italia mountain passes, and I use it every day to commute to work thanks to a small waterproof handlebar bag where I can put my computer. In my entire cycling career, I have never enjoyed a bike as much as my gravel!