From single-day rides between hotels to monthlong singletrack assaults, these five bags will help launch you into bikepacking.
Bikepacking is a rewarding way to tackle big miles on a short budget of time. And the sport has come a long way in the last 15 years.
Once doable only through the help of monstrous, gear-eating panniers, today’s bike bags spread the load over a half-dozen bags that strap inside the empty spaces of the bike frame.
From tarmac to trail, we’ve spent the year pedaling bags around the world. These five bike bags rose to the top.
But first, a little primer on bags.
Bikepacking Bags Explained
Instead of a big bag swinging off the side of a rack, the current era of bikepacking bags is lashed to the bike’s frame, taking advantage of otherwise unused space. The shift in load distributes the weight, increases usability, and stabilizes the bike.
Modular by design, bags can flex to the needs of every ride. Going short? Lash a single bag. Add more bags to meet distance and load requirements.
The following are common bike bag components that you’ll find available when sleuthing for a kit.
The monster load-hauler of bike bags, the frame bag sits inside the bike frame’s triangle, where you want to pack heavy items.
Full-frame bags fit inside the entire triangle and often have a divider, splitting the space into a top and bottom half. This allows some organization and keeps you from having to dig for supplies while on the trail.
Half-frame bags ride just under the top tube and can fit a 2L bladder or a weekend’s cache of food. Depending on the frame size, they can allow enough space to still access two water bottles bolted to the frame.
Because the bag needs to sit inside the frame of the bike, the fit is king. Some bike bags are made to fit specific bikes. Others need to be carefully measured ahead of time for a proper fit.
Pro tip: Consider a frame bag with a bright-colored liner, shedding light on the storage space.
Seat bags strap around the seat rails and lash to the seatpost. They come in a variety of sizes that meet the needs of different pursuits.
The key is to choose a bag that matches the ride. Smaller bags are for short or sporty rides and often ride better on singletrack. Reserve bigger bags for long-haul adventures that take you deep into the wild.
Some seat bags are modular, with a holster that remains strapped to the bike. The gear fits in a removable roll-top bag. This solves the sometimes annoying process of unpacking and re-weaving the seat bag to the bike.
The biggest issue with seat bags is sway. The larger the bag, the more tail wag you can feel on the bike. Some companies offer a rigid frame that clamps to the seat’s rails. This coordinates with dropper posts and helps stabilize the load and your ride. In general, the more technical the ride, the smaller the seat bag should be.
Another annoyance is trapped air. Most of the seat bag systems have a roll-top closure. And although the dry-bag design keeps your equipment from getting soaked, it also packs air.
Newer bags have an air-release valve that allows air to escape as you cinch your load. This keeps the load where you want it — close to the bike.
Pro tip: Pack heavier items that you may not need immediately under the seat in the bottom of the bag and stuff lighter or high-use items near the back.
Budget tip: Snap a waterproof stuff sack around the seatpost and lash the rest of the stuff sack to the seat rails.
Handlebar bags strap under the handlebars and behind the head tube. They often roll up like a burrito and snap shut on both sides.
The benefit is that they keep your kit dry and can fit between the drops of a road bike. Larger loads can fit under flat bars. The key is to find a system that fits the bars without crushing the bike’s cables.
Once lashed, these loads can be difficult to access. So consider packing handlebar bags with camp gear, like sleeping bags, pads, and camp clothes.
Some companies offer a harness system that can lash bulky items like a packraft. A harness can also hold a stuff sack.
Top-tube bags are one of our favorite accessories. As the name implies, they ride on top of the top tube, keeping high-use items close at hand.
Regardless of the ride, we almost always keep this bag strapped to the bike. On shorter rides, they can hold a phone or repair kit. On longer rides, the bag allows quick access to food or high-use gear.
A good top-tube bag is easy to open with one hand. Most ride up front, behind the bike’s stem. Others can ride in back by the seatpost.
Another great accessory is the bar bag. These pouches can strap to the handlebars or top tube and are a perfect place to tuck an extra water bottle, food, a small camera, discarded gloves, or even a cup of coffee.
Some pouches are tighter than others. While these can secure a bottle from bouncing, they can make it difficult to put the bottle back in the pouch.
Bags are most often fastened to the bike with Velcro straps. A few can be bolted to the frame with water bottle or accessory braze-ons. Some are lashed with complex lacing systems or rubberized gear straps. A few new models now strap to the frame with thick rubber bands.
Removable straps allow you to service bags to the bikes in the field — provided you have a replacement strap. All that said, we’ve never seen Velcro fail.
Best Bikepacking Bags of 2020
Now onto the bags. Throughout the year, we’ve tested bags on road, gravel, singletrack, and mixed terrain. While there’s an abundant number of cottage companies producing fine bike bags, they often sell out quickly. So we’ve primarily kept this list to kits you can readily find available to purchase.
And while most brands offer a suite of bags, some bags excel better than others. Below, we outline our favorite brands for each category of riding as well as the best bag in that line. Feel free to mix and match to meet your specific bikepacking needs.
Best Gravel Bags: Apidura Expedition
London-based Apidura offers Race, Backcountry, and Expedition bike bags. All bags are lightweight and have a gorgeous aesthetic design.
We’ve been using Apidura’s Backcountry series for a few years now. The bags are lined with a light-colored material to brighten up the interior — a plus when digging through your kit.
The material is robust enough to endure scuffles with brush and gravel but light enough to not weigh the bike down. Zippers have a clever one-finger pull to allow you to unzip and rezip bags without interrupting your ride.
We found the bottle-holders a little too snug for multiuse. It’s not quite big enough to holster a camera larger than a point-and-shoot.
Apidura bags can be expensive, and we’ve seen a zipper blow out on a top-tube bag after a handful of seasons. But overall, Apidura strikes a balance of durability and low weight, ideal for long gravel rides.
Our favorite bag from Apidura: Expedition Frame Pack ($118)
Best Singletrack Bags: Revelate Designs
In the mid-2000s, Eric Parson blew up bike forums with a bike rafting trip along the wild Alaskan Kenia coast.
Rafting open water, pushing bikes through brush, and riding over an isolated, boulder-strewn coastline, Parson’s carried his gear in a set of custom bags made in his basement. That trip launched an industry and led to the current state of bikepacking as we know it.
Always innovating on how to make a good thing better, Revelate Designs consistently works and reworks the details. The trends it incorporates one year become mainstream in everyone else’s lineup the following year.
While Revelate Designs offers kits for every range of cycling (road, ultra, daily), its bags are the most durable in the batch — using Hypalon slings, robust clips, and durable, abrasion-resistant materials — and are built for true backcountry bikepacking.
We’ve been testing the Shrew this summer, a small-ish, 3L seat bag that holds the bare essentials for those long, single-day pushes in the backcountry. It’s perfect for twitchy trails.
Our favorite bag from Revelate Designs: Shrew Seat Bag ($57)
Best for Mountain Bike Camping: Blackburn
Though Blackburn has only recently joined the bag market within bikepacking culture, the company has years of experience under its tires — and its bike bag kits show it.
Blackburn offers two lines of bags, the Outpost and Outpost Elite. Though it’s one of the more fussy systems to install, the unique innovations found in the Elite lineup make it a notable consideration.
The bags are welded from waterproof material and paired with a watertight zipper, keeping the contents of the bags dry. And because the bags are so big, there’s really no limit to what you can pedal into the woods.
The brand offers the full-frame bag in three sizes to help dial in near-custom fit, and it lashes to the bike with a set of Velcro straps. A divider helps organize the contents and minimize any lateral bulge. A pair of slim, external pockets can hold food, wrappers, or a map.
Turning to the seat and handlebars, things get a little funky. Both the seat bag and handlebar “harness” system are mounted to the bike with metal hardware clamps that bolt around the seatpost and handlebars. Each has a pairing, removable bag that you can take into the tent or hotel after the ride while leaving the harness on the bike.
Both the seat and handlebar bags have a release valve to let air out. We found the handlebar bracket will fit only round bars and will not pair with oblong, aero diameter bars.
Overall, Blackburn brings a well-thought-out kit that is functional, durable, has clean lines, and goes light on the wallet to boot.
Our favorite bag from Blackburn: Outpost Elite Handlebar Bag ($175)
Best for Going Fast on the Road: Roswheel Road Series
Roswheel offers three bag collections: Touring, Road, and Offroad. All of the bags have welded seams and roll tight for waterproofness. Rubberized TPU-coated zippers keep water from soaking through the bags and into the load.
We tested the Roswheel Road Series in Slovenia this fall and fell for the fast-and-light road rides.
What differentiates the Road Series from the rest of the crop are the proprietary lightweight rubber bands that strap the bags to the bike. Velcro straps are tried and true, but the hook-and-loop system can pull at Lycra, damaging an expensive kit. Roswheel ships all Road Series bags with an assortment of “fast-fix” rubber bands that allow bags to bungee around nearly every size frame.
The downside, of course, is if you lose a band, you’ll need another. So you’ll want to bring an extra set in case you lose or blow a band.
The Road series is available in a saddle bag, a seat bag, a frame bag, a top-tube bag, a handlebar bag, and an accessory bag that straps over the handlebar bag. And the frame bags are available in small, medium, and large to fit nearly every frame size. The Road series comes in black but has reflective strips for night visibility.
The bags are clean and simple but don’t have a bright liner like other bags, so it can be hard to find a dark pair of tire irons buried in the bottom. A clever ventilation strip allows air to push through roll-top bags so your load is always tight and clean.
Our favorite bag from Roswheel: Top Tube Bag ($29)
Best for Heavy Loads: Porcelain Rocket
We would be remiss not to share one of the first bags on the market, Porcelain Rocket. The man piloting the Rocket, Scott Felter, is an American expat living in Canada and is the only cottage industry bag manufacturer to make our list — but for good reason. Eschewing new fads and zippers, PR embraces fail-proof roll-tops and clean, functional designs.
The bags are expensive, and yes, you may need to wait until next season to snag one. But the bags are exquisitely made by hand in Felter’s Calgary shop.
Our favorite bag: One rises to the top that’s worth mentioning — the Microwave Panniers ($203). They’re small, portable, modular, and can carry a 12-pack of beer. The holster remains in the bike, and the removable dry bag can serve as a grocery bag or an easy way to ferry gear from the bike to camp.
Have a favorite bike bag we missed? Let us know in the comments for future updates to this article.