Best Beginner Bikepacking Bike: Choosing the one for you


When it comes to bikepacking, the old saying “ride the one you got.” is definitely true. Certainly, most of my first bikepacking trips were on the old mountain bike in my garage. But if you’re looking to upgrade your bike to one more suited for bikepacking, or don’t even own a bike yet, working out which type of bike to get for bikepacking can be tricky! So how do you decide which is the best beginner bikepacking bike for your needs?

42% of bikepackers recommended the Salsa Journeyman as the best beginner bikepacking bike, making it the most popular option. It has low gearing, wide tires, and a comfortable upright seating position. However, if you will be cycling on very rough terrain you may want to consider getting a mountain bike instead.

So, we’ve established that the salsa Journeyman is the most popular suggestion for a beginner bikepacker, but how do you know if the most popular option is the right choice for you? Take a look at the resource below to help you choose, and read the rest of the article to understand better how to use it.

How to choose a bikepacking bike for a beginner?

BikePrice
Salsa Timberjack£1870
Calibre Bossnut£1100
Kona Hei Hei£2100
Sonder Frontier SX Eagle£849
Kona Sutra£1799
Surly Bridge Club£1400
Salsa Journeyman£1199

Personal factors

When it comes to purchasing your first bikepacking bike, there are a few key questions you should ask before you start to shop around.

How much gear do you plan to take?

Are you someone who packs light, or someone who likes all their creature comforts? How do you plan to carry the gear you are taking?

Some bikes are better at carrying gear than others. For example, mountain bikes have smaller frame triangles and so are less good at carrying lots of gear in a frame bag, if you are planning to use a soft bag (bikepacking bag) setup, then there may be better options out there.

Do you plan to use panniers, if so, you need to make sure that the bike you get is compatible with panniers in the first place.

If you are a backpacker, then you likely know which camp you fall into (get it!), but if you don’t already know how much gear you’ll want to take on a trip, try collecting all the gear you plan to take, and packing it into one of these plastic storage boxes (most people have one of these at home already).

These are great as they clearly label their volume in liters and allow you to estimate how much space you will actually need.

What terrain will you be cycling on?

What surfaces do you plan to cycle on? While you may have a clear picture in your mind of your bikepacking trip, this is very different for each person.

To some, bikepacking involves a few tarmac roads that lead onto a fire road in the woods, where you’ll set up camp, enjoy a beer and head back in the morning.

To others, bikepacking involves harsh single track on a full-suspension mountain bike, taking minimal food, let alone a drink.

Whichever type of cycling you plan to do is completely alright, what matters is that the bike you choose works well for the routes you want to do.

We’d suggest taking a look at a route planning app such as Komoot to see what types of bikepacking routes people are doing in your area.

If this doesn’t work you can always pop into your local bike shop, which I’m sure would be more than happy to talk about the types of cycling that are common in your area.

What type of bike style do you want?

While you might not have any preferences if this is your first bike, you may find there are things you like or dislike about bikes in general that play a key part in your decision-making.

For example, some bikes have flat handlebars whereas others have “drop handlebars”. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but knowing if you have a preference is important.

Do you have a preference for the material that the frame is made from, bikepacking bikes can be made from many different materials, each with its own advantages, disadvantages, and costs.

If you are unsure which type of bikepacking frame material you would like, take a look at our article on the pros and cons of each.

Either way, you may not know what bike styles you like now, but this is important before you buy a bike. If you already know, that’s a good start, but if you don’t then the best bet is to go to your local bike shop and try some out.

General Factors

Once you’ve answered the questions above, it is important to make sure the bike you choose has some of the general elements that are important for all bikepacking bikes.

Low Gearing

Low gearing means that the bike has gears that are good at going up hills. The lower the gearing, the easier it is to pedal but the less speed you will get. When it comes to bikepacking, your focus is not typically on speed, but instead on comfort and the journey.

Making sure you have gears that are suitable for a steep hill, especially when you may be carrying lots of gear and be 3 days into a cycle, is very important.

Good tire clearance

While you may have a specific type of bikepacking route in mind, having some versatility in which tires you can use on your bike is important.

The tire clearance is the measure from the tire itself to the “non-wheel” part of the bike. The larger the tire clearance the larger tires you will be able to fit onto your bike.

Some types of bikes such as road bikes have very low tire clearance, only fitting tires that are 28mm wide, on the other hand, large mountain bike tires can be up to 63mm wide. This has a huge impact on the comfort of the ride as well as your grip and stability.

Brakes

While they tend to be more expensive, most bikepackers recommend a bike with disk brakes rather than rim brakes.

Disk brakes are better at breaking in wet or muddy conditions, and also give you the ability to modulate how much you are braking (gently squeezing the brake will only slightly reduce your speed).  

The most popular beginner bikepacking bikes

The Salsa Journeyman

We asked a bikepacking community which bike they would recommend to a beginner bikepacker. Obviously, many of the responses asked for more details on your specific conditions but overall it is clear there are a few options that are commonly accepted as the best beginner bikepacking bikes.

A bar chart showing the most popular suggestions for a beginner bikepakcing bike

The best budget beginner bikepacking bikes

Surly Bridge Club

Overall – An amazing all-rounder, especially if you are looking for a sturdy frame that has a decent amount of attachment points.

We’ve listed the Surly Bridge Club as our budget pick for a dropped handlebar bikepacking bike, as well as our “high-end” pick for a flat handlebar bikepakcing bike. This bike is a great choice if you plan to cycle on a lot of gravel routes such as fire roads, or if you plan to mix off-road cycling with road cycling.

The surly bridge club is made from steel, making it a strong and durable option for bikepacking, it’s renowned for being comfortable to ride and a great versatile option.

The Surly Bridge Club comes with either drop or flat handlebars which enables you to choose your handlebar type based on your preference.

On the other hand, the Surly Bridge Club has a smaller frame geometry than other bikes of this type, which can limit the size of bikepacking bags you can use with it.

Sonder Frontier SX Eagle

Overall -The best value hardtail mountain bike, with lots of areas to attach bikepacking bags, and a durable aluminum frame, this will make a great choice for someone who wants to do bikepacking on rough terrain suited to a mountain bike.

The Sonder Frontier SX Eagle is our pick for a budget Hardtail mountain bike, it comes with suspension on the front fork which can be used to make your downhill or single-track bikepacking much more comfortable

The Sonder is made by the UK company Alpkit and can come with or without front suspension (make sure you pick the one that comes with it).

It’s made from aluminum which gives it good versatility for trail cycling and is very good value for money.

Another advantage of the Sonder is that it has a large frame triangle which allows you to carry a larger frame bag, helping to make up for the lack of carrying capacity on mountain bikes in general.

The Sonder has a good comfortable riding geometry and flat handlebars to make your long-distance bikepacking trips more comfortable.

Calibre Bossnut

Overall – Very good at what it does. For a short bikepacking trip on mountain bike routes, where you don’t mind packing light to enjoy the cycle, this will make a perfect beginner choice.

The Calibre Bossnut is our pick for a budget full-suspension mountain bike for bikepacking. This will make a great choice if you plan to bikepack on very rough terrain such as single-track or downhill mountain bike routes. The extra suspension will make this much more comfortable and fun, on the other hand, it will make gravel or tarmac riding less efficient.

At £1100, this is a great value option for a first full-suspension mountain bike. It comes with a great specification for the money. It is comfortable to ride and I don’t think you’ll be able to find a better full-suspension option for this price.

The main disadvantage of the Bossnut is the position of the rear suspension. As you can see, the rear suspension takes up a majority of the frame triangle, meaning that taking a frame bag will be almost impossible. That’s why we’d only recommend this bike if you are planning to pack very light!

As with all full-suspension mountain bikes, the Bossnut also lacks any attachment points for pannier racks which will again limit your long-term packing ability.

On top of the lack of packing space, the Bossnut is heavy, coming in at 15.2kg. This is again, a general feature of all full-suspension mountain bikes, however, it is something to consider if your bike requires a lot of carrying or pushing on your planned trip.

The best high-end beginner bikepacking bikes

Kona Sutra

Overall – A really great choice if you know your bikepacking trips won’t take you onto rough terrain.

The Kona Sutra is our pick for a high-end dropped handlebar bikepacking bike.

The Kona Sutra came in as the second most popular bike in our survey for a beginner bikepacker, and there’s a reason for it. This bike is designed with bike touring and bikepacking in mind.

It has multiple different attachment points, is durable, comfortable to ride and if you have the budget, makes a great choice for a bikepakcing bike.

On the other hand, the Kona Sutra will struggle with rough terrain, even though it is made from strong steel material, the bike itself is not designed for mountain bike riding and will make the roughest single track almost impossible without causing some damage (to you or the bike).

Salsa Journeyman

Overall – A great choice for those who want to go bikepakcing. Well built for gravel paths and can tackle even some of the rougher terrain designed for mountain bikes, however a bit sluggish when road cycling.

It didn’t come as a surprise to us that the salsa journeyman came in as the most popular bikepacking bike. It’s almost impossible to meet a group of bikepackers without spotting at least one of these knocking around.

The Salsa Journeyman is made for bike adventures. With great tire clearance, a low gearing set that makes inclines as easy as they can be, and multiple attachment points for bags, gear, or panniers.

While the salsa journeyman is advertised as a “jack of all trades” bike, it really does have some areas where it excels, and some where it does not. For gravel paths such as fire roads, or paths off the beaten track, the salsa journeyman is your best option.

However, if your route will predominately be on tarmac or road cycling, then the salsa journeyman can feel sluggish and slower than expected.

Kona Hei Hei

Overall – A really fast and lightweight full-suspension mountain bike, which perfectly meets its “fun country” tagline.

The Kona Hei Hei is a full-suspension mountain bike that has some great advantages for bikepacking. Firstly, the location of its rear suspension allows a frame bag to more easily fit into the frame triangle, helping to compensate for the general lack of packing ability on full suspension mountain bikes.

This bike is made from carbon fiber, which traditionally is not used in bikepacking. However, in this case, the bike is made to ensure its durability, and if bought directly from the manufacturer comes with a lifetime warranty.

This carbon fiber frame helps to bring down the overall weight to 14.2kg, which may sound heavy but is actually very low for a full-suspension mountain bike.

Full-suspension mountain bikes also offer more versatility than hardtail mountain bikes in some situations. For example, being able to lock off the rear suspension effectively makes the Kona into a hardtail mountain bike, with the option to change if required.

Salsa Timberjack

Overall – A fantastic choice if you want a hardtail mountain bike for bikepacking.

The Salsa Timberjack is an aluminum hardtail mountain bike that comes with multiple mounting points, has a frame shape well suited for bikepacking, and makes a great combination for a first bikepacking bike.

While expensive, the Salsa Timberjack is good value for money coming with great brakes and a good low gearing set.

However, the Salsa Timberjack does suffer from feeling heavy, especially noted by some to feel heavy at the rear end, which can make inclines a bit trickier (as your front wheel has less traction on the ground).

Also for the price, this bike still comes with an aluminum frame, which is less durable and less forgiving than other alternatives such as titanium.

Overall

While the salsa journeyman was the most popular choice for a beginner bikepacking bike, this does not mean it is the right choice for everyone.

I myself like bikes suited for gravel and road bikepacking most of all, with drop handlebars, but this is because I live in a city and have to spend a lot of time cycling before I can hit the “fun off-road” cycling part of my journey.

Mark Holmes

30-year-old doctor with an interest in cycling, bikepacking, and statistics.

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