When I first got into bikepacking, I was confused about which type of bike you could use for a bikepacking trip. Recently, I’ve heard of more people using fat bikes for bikepacking (rather than traditional bike touring trips), and so I wanted to explore how good they actually were for this. So, can you use a fat bike for bikepacking?
Fat bikes can be used for a bikepacking trip, in fact, they are very well suited for bikepacking trips on the most extreme types of terrain (including snow, sand or boggy mud). However, on the average bikepacking trip, a traditional mountain bike may be a better option.
So, now we know that fat bikes can make a good option for bikepacking, but what type of fat bikes are best for this? I take a look at this, as well as the best tips that you can use to prepare for a bikepacking trip on a fat bike in the rest of the article.
Which type of fat bike is best for bikepacking?
What is a fat bike?
A fat bike is a type of off-road bike designed to take on the hardest terrain. Fat bikes have extra-wide tires, which range from 3.7″ to 5.2″ wide. These tires sit on 26” or 27.5″ wheels which together help fat bikes to ride easily over sandy or snowy terrain where they excel.
Because of their wide tires, fat bike tires are able to run their tires at much lower pressures than other types of bikes (going as low as 5 psi). This again helps the bike to ride over surfaces without much grip and stops the bike from sinking in loose ground.
Some fat bikes have suspension on the back wheel (called a hardtail fat bike), others have no suspension at all, and very rarely, fat bikes have suspension on both wheels (called full-suspension fat bikes).
What are the different types of fat bikes?
There are a broad range of bikes that are technically classified as “fat bikes”. The type that you will want to use for a bikepacking trip will be very different from the ones designed for cross-country racing.
Adventure touring fat bikes
This is the original “fat bike”. They have a large tire clearance, lots of mounting points and large frame triangles to fit bikepacking bags. They tend to focus on reliability and easy maintenance over speed and weight.
Racing fat bikes
These bikes are designed for cross-country racing. They are made to be as light and fast as a fat bike can be. To do this, they tend to be made from carbon fibre, have a smaller frame and so have fewer mounting points.
Trail fat bikes
These are fat bikes designed for trail riding (fast downhill technical trails). These bikes have a frame shape suited to aggressive positioning of your body for cornering or jumps.
There are a few fat bikes with full suspension (suspension on the front and back wheels). In comparison to normal full-suspension mountain bikes, the suspension has less travel due to the size of the wheels. These bikes are very heavy.
Cargo fat bikes
These are fat bikes designed for carrying cargo (parcels, children, shopping etc). They have an extended frame and cargo rig at the back. While these bikes can carry a lot of gear, their turning radius is very poor due to the longer frame size
What are the best fat bikes for bikepacking?
As you might have guessed, the best types of fat bikes for bikepacking are the adventure touring fat bikes. These are well suited to the type of terrain you might encounter on a bikepacking trip, are more comfortable to ride and prioritise durability which is key for a bikepacking trip.
Examples of good bikepacking bikes include the Salsa Mukluk, Surly Pugsley and the Rocky mountain blizzard.
Is a fat bike good for bikepacking?
Fat bikes have some very distinct advantages and disadvantages that make them good for bikepacking in very specific situations.
What are the advantages of a fat bike for bikepacking
They can ride well on rough terrain
Fat bikes are far and away the best type of bike for riding in the worst terrain. If you have a bikepacking trip planned in the snow, a desert or a bog, then a fat bike is the bike for you. This is because the extra wide tires stop you from sinking into the ground and also help with grip and traction on these types of surfaces.
They are very stable
The larger tires of a fat bike have much more rubber, while this has its disadvantages (that we’ll look into below), it does result in you having much more traction than a normal bike. For terrain with poor grip, for example, sand or very loose gravel, fat bikes can improve your stability and reduce your risk of slipping.
They are versatile
While fat bikes have some distinct advantages on certain types of terrain, they are also capable of tackling almost any situation. While they will certainly not going to be as good at riding on the road as a road bike would be, they are able to do it.
What are the disadvantages of a fat bike for bikepacking
They are heavy
Fat bikes are much heavier than normal bikes. This is because they have to use much more material for the wider tires, as well as to make the frame larger to accommodate these.
This makes fat bikes much harder to carry if ever you have a situation where you need to lift your bike over an obstacle (for example a fence or river crossing).
They are slow
Because fat bikes weigh more and have wider tires, they are much slower. This not only comes from the extra weight but also from the extra air and ground resistance from the wider tires.
They are worse at most types of terrain
While fat bikes excel at certain types of terrain (for example deserts or snow) and are capable of tackling almost all types of terrain, they are much worse at normal terrain than almost any other bike.
Due to their size and weight, you will have to put much more work into pedalling a fat bike on normal terrain than you would on normal types of bikes. For the average bikepacking trip, you’ll be better off with a normal mountain bike.
They are expensive
Fat bikes require much more material to make and are also far less common than traditional mountain bikes. Because of this they are not able to take advantage of economies of scale as well as other types of bikes and so cost more to purchase.
They are hard to repair
Fat bikes can be harder to repair due to their specific design (extra wide tires, heavier parts, fiddly tires, wider Q-factor cranks, wider forks, worse toe overlap etc.). This is made worse by the fact that not all local bike stores will sell replacement parts for a fat bike (for example not all stores will sell tires suitable for a fat bike, something you don’t have to worry about for a mountain bike).
They are loud
Because of the extra wide tires, fat bikes can be very loud to ride. The tires themselves make a loud noise as they rotate and this can be distracting on longer trips.
How to use a fat bike for bikepacking
So, you’ve decided that you want to use a fat bike for a bikepacking trip, but how do you actually do it?
Pick a route suited for a fat bike
If you are picking a fat bike for a bikepacking trip, make sure to pick a route that takes advantage of its strengths and minimises its weaknesses. This means you should pick a trip on very tough terrain (preferably sand, snow or ice) and avoid one that has long sections of road or simple gravel paths.
Plan for less mileage each day
We’ve already established that fat bikes are slow and heavy, because of this I would suggest you try and pick a route that requires you to do less mileage each day. Appreciate the benefits of a fat bike (the comfort and stability), and don’t try to push yourself to go as far as you normally would.
Adjust your bike
If you have time before your trip, there are a few adjustments you can do to make your trip easier.
First of all, try to adjust your tire pressure to fit the terrain you will be cycling on. Low tire pressure is great when you want to ride on terrain that might cause you to sink, but can make cycling on tarmac almost impossible.
Another step you can take with your fat bike before a bikepacking trip is to adjust its gearing. This can make the actual cycling on your trip more enjoyable, as you will be able to better match the effort you spend turning the pedals to the terrain you are on.
The final adjustment you can make to a fat bike before a bikepacking trip is to move to tubeless tires. Repairing or finding a replacement for fat bike inner tubes can be harder than for normal bikes while on a bikepacking trip, by riding tubeless you can reduce your risk of getting a flat in the first place.
Go for a test ride
While I generally suggest going for a test ride on any bike before a bikepacking trip, this is especially important when you are bikepacking on a fat bike. Particularly if you haven’t used one before.
If this is the case, try renting one for a day and riding your local trails, getting used to the feel of the bike with and without gear.
It’s also worth practising how to get on and off the bike. Fat bikes loaded with your bikepacking bags can be very heavy (weighing 80lb or more). Bikes this heavy can actually be hard to keep hold of as you get on and off.
When bikepacking on a fat bike, I’d suggest you try and pack as light as you can. This is in part because of the practicalities of getting on and off a bike, but also due to the high starting weight of a fat bike. If you overpack on a fat bike you are really going to notice those hills.
Check your bikepacking bags fit your fat bike
The final step to take before planning a bikepacking trip on a fat bike is to ensure that your bikepacking bags or racks fit onto the fat bike frame. Fat bikes have different proportions than regular bikes to account for their larger wheels and tires, so don’t presume that any bags you use for other bikes will fit.
As you can see, bikepacking on a fat bike is definitely possible, however, I’d suggest you only do it in certain situations where you can take advantage of the benefits of a fat bike. Otherwise, you may find that a normal hardtail mountain bike is better suited to your plans.