So, what does a bikepacking set consist of? A bikepacking set typically consists of a handlebar bag or a harness, a saddle bag, a frame bag and top tube bag(s). On top of that, you can also add a series of smaller bags that can be attached to the fork, the frame or the handlebars and can be useful in multiple ways such as, for example, to carry cooking gear, store your camera, food and, last but not least, to spread the load equally. Let’s go into details.
A saddle bag is attached to your saddle rails and to the seat post. It comes in different sizes and can be compressed so, if in doubt, get the bigger one. It is the bag I use the most as it is not only great for travelling but also for commuting to work as I can put spare clothes and shoes there, and it also works perfectly as a mudguard. It is very aerodynamic and does not swing around when on tough terrain. It also makes bike handling easier compared to the traditional touring panniers. Definitely your best travelling friend. I use it primarily for storing the apparel I might need quickly (rain gear, for example) or use more often (arm and leg warmers, a windbreaker) because it is very easy to access.
A frame bag goes inside your frame triangle. Although some universal-size bags fit most bikes, pay attention so you get an optimal one for your bike. In the frame bag, I normally store the heaviest things to help keep the bike balanced. Things like the pump, the chain tool, spare parts, other tools, etc. My gravel bike doesn’t have many extra holes in the frame to accommodate water bottles elsewhere than inside the frame triangle, so I rather use a partial frame bag instead of a full one. Also, I use this bag only for very long trips. Otherwise, I like a large top tube bag placed upside down instead.
Top tube bags
These come in different sizes and are easy to access while riding, and are great to store snacks, mobile phones, power banks and all those things you want “right now”. Normally, I use two: one closer to the saddle and another to the handlebars. For shorter trips, I also place one in the frame triangle instead of a frame bag because when you have a half-full bag, you tend to fill it up with unnecessary stuff so I rather have a smaller one.
Handlebar roll bag and harness
This bag I call “home” because in it I store all those things I use to build and enjoy my basecamp. The sleeping bag, the mat, the hammock, the towel, sandals etc. There are two different kinds of handlebar bags: roll and harness. I have a narrow-drop handlebar because mine is a very particular hybrid gravel bike that can be used also as a road bike by swapping the wheels (I described this kind of bike in detail in my previous article). If I use a handlebar bag, I find it hard to put on even when not fully loaded. Also, to open it during the day without removing the bag is out of the question. So, if you, like me, have a similar handlebar situation, I recommend getting a harness so you only need to remove the bag frontally. In my experience, the main difference between the two is that a roll bag can be thinner, which is sometimes crucial, e. g., if you have a bike with front suspension.
Other bags & accessories
As I mentioned before, there are many other bags and accessories available on the market. Each biker develops his/her own setup through trial and error. I have never seen two bikes set in the same way. I find it incredibly useful to use a bike bottle bag attached to the handlebars as a regular storage place. I put my action camera and my phone there, and I can take it out in a second without having to open a zipper.
One of my travelling friends is in charge of the coffee and he uses a fork bag to carry all he needs to accomplish the task. I also use a strap to bind one spare inner tube to the down tube, which also serves as a protection from flying stones. Another accessory I use is a strap anchor that I screw onto my fork. It is perfect for attaching tent poles with Voile straps. I also have a mini ultralight foldable backpack made from parachute silk nylon that I use, for example, when I stop to buy food I am going to eat soon and don’t want to lose time packing it.
Mixing bikepacking bags and classic touring bags
I have learnt that, sometimes, mixing the two kinds could be a good idea. One of my friends is a part of the project Bike to Tokyo. The group rode from Greece to Japan going through many remote areas in Asia. They needed to be totally self-sufficient, which meant carrying an important amount of food. For that, they used front panniers. Perfect for the task but smaller than the classic touring bags so they don’t drag much wind.
Are bikepacking bags waterproof?
Well, not by default. Many bikepacking bags are water resistant, which means that the membrane is waterproof but the seams are not. This way the producers can push the price down because not everybody needs waterproof bags. A way to easily fix this issue is to buy drybags. Also pay attention to the product description when choosing your bags because, for example, my Acepac bags are water resistant but they come with a drybag inside that can be attached with velcro and you don’t even know it is there.
Is expensive better?
Bikepacking bags can be pricey but there are also cheaper options out there. So, what is the difference? For example, let’s take the bags made by Lidl, the German budget supermarket.
They cost about 12 euro each vs almost 120 euro for a top-class bag. Ten times cheaper! And they are even waterproof. I had the chance to hold them in my hands and I think they are pretty fine for occasional bikepackers but they could create problems if used often and in harsh conditions. In particular, the problem is in the seams and straps. Seams may fail if bags are heavily loaded. Straps on cheaper bags tend to be more difficult to tight so the bags could swing about on rough terrain and I am not sure how long they could withstand the stress caused by a particularly bumpy trail. So, in a nutshell, I would say that if you are an occasional bikepacker and you mostly ride on asphalt, you might consider cheaper options, otherwise play it safe.
Protect your bike!
Bags are strapped to the frame and if you are not careful, they can damage your paint job and even the frame itself by abrasion. I truly recommend applying bike frame protection, especially if you have a carbon bike. You can buy a set of protection stickers or if you want to go low budget, you can just tape the frame or wrap an old inner tube around it and use zip ties to secure it.
As you could see, there are endless options and many more manufacturers compared to when I started bikepacking almost 10 years ago. The average quality level of products is very high so, lately, I am choosing my bags mostly based on the look and the feel, and the budget I have. There are many big brands with a wide range of bags (i.e. Apidura, Ortlieb, Topeak) but also small local brands trying to do a good job for a reasonable price (i.e. Acepac, Miss Grapes). I hope you will build your perfect set of bags and find my tips useful. See you on the road!