Both bikepacking and gravel biking are booming but, sometimes, it is hard to understand the nuances within such an ever-changing market as the cycling one. I hang around a lot of bikepackers and gravel riders (the same people most of the time) so I have observed that most of them are struggling when faced with buying a new bike. Working in the bike industry, I get to try a lot of bikes, change my ride every year, and meet field experts. I would like to share with you what I have learned the hard way so far. Hopefully, it will be useful so you could find the perfect bike.
Before we start, I think it is fair to say that any bike can be a bikepacking one but not every bike can be a gravel one. Bikepacking is a way of travelling and its essence lies in the use of bikepacking vs classic touring bags while a gravel bike – well, it is a type of a bicycle. So, the good news is that if you don’t want to own too many bikes, the best bikepacking ride is the one that you already have in your garage. In such a case, the important part is to choose the right bikepacking bags, which is a very wide topic in need of a dedicated article.
On the other hand, if you are a keen cyclist who loves to dig deeper and has a perfect bike for the right occasion, it is important to know that bikepacking has different sides, two major ones, in my opinion: a “long” one and a “rough” one. Let me explain. The essence of bikepacking is to carry lighter loads, avoiding the use of bike racks. This way, the bike is more stable on rough terrain and more aerodynamic. And I think here 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 as they handle perfectly on tarmac but also allow you to enjoy some forest roads and single tracks. Those who are more into mountainous terrain and stay off-road as much as possible need a different bike – a hard-tail or a rigid MTB. Let’s see the characteristics of each bike in detail.
Hard-tail and rigid MTBs for bikepacking?
I think these are the perfect bikepacking machines for very rough adventures and rides. They have better gearing for climbing up steep pitches. They have bigger tyres for clearance, which makes taking on unknown terrains easier, and also bigger mud clearance. They have a longer wheelbase making them more stable, especially when loaded and on rough terrain. They come with flat bars instead of drop bars so you can load more stuff on the handlebars.
Gravel bikes for bikepacking?
Compared to the above category, these are perfect for covering long distances and enjoying mixed terrains. Gravel bikes are evolving at the speed of light and, in just a couple of years, went from being just road bikes with slightly wider tires or touring bikes with drop handlebars to amazing rides with dedicated technology such as, for example, vibration damping, wider tyre clearance, longer wheelbase, and the possibility to add more than two water bottles. They also allow for more hand positions, which comes in handy (pun intended) when 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, you will feel very sore after the ride, 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 make your ride smoother. 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 have learnt from its builder. Even if the frame is very sturdy, components might have limitations, especially wheels. So better not to 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 GRX was a great novelty. On average, though, the gearing is usually too high. A way to fix or at least help this problem would be 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 started to suffer from knee pain after a few days on my fully-loaded gravel bike but once I have changed the cassette and put some more granny gears, the problem disappeared.
Gravel bike geometry is similar to road bike geometry. While this means that the top tube doesn’t slope much, giving you more frame space for bags or water, it also means not the most comfortable way of riding. You can improve this by putting the stem in an upright 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 love them as they are super comfortable.
So, to conclude, I am a very big fan of gravel bikes because they are incredibly flexible and can be a lot of fun. While road bikes are very niche-y and can be scary to ride by the average cyclist, gravel bikes still have the element of speed but are much safer because of the wider tyres. They also allow you to enjoy mixed terrain making them the perfect bikes for commuting and leisure riding. And the gap between gravel bikes and hard-tail MTBs is getting more narrow every day, considering that they are starting to even have small suspensions (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 and can still enjoy a quality road bike ride with friends from time to time.
I think gravel bikes in general (but also this last variation which I call “road bikes with muscles) will get increasingly popular in the upcoming years. My bike, a custom Festka Rover is a top-performing 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 mm to 40 mm range and it is a game-changer (and still not even 8 kg). With the same bike, I have done very long bikepacking trips (over 100 km) 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 all of my cycling career, I have never enjoyed a bike as much as my gravel!