Gravel bikes have become much more popular in recent years. With so many riders now owning one, many bikepackers are starting to wonder whether or not they can use a gravel bike for bikepacking trips. As someone who has used a gravel bike for multiple bikepacking trips, I wanted to help you out and clarify things. So, can you use a gravel bike for bikepacking?
In general, gravel bikes make a great option for bikepacking. When bikepacking on a gravel bike you want to pick a route with lots of gravel and forest paths while avoiding routes with single track. You also want to try and pack light, as gravel bikes are unable to carry as much gear as other bikes.
So, now we know that gravel bikes can be used for bikepacking, but how do you actually do it? I take a look at the best ways to bikepack on a gravel bike, as well as the best types of gravel bikes to take on a bikepacking trip in the rest of the article.
Can you use a gravel bike for bikepacking?
What is a gravel bike?
A gravel bike is a mix between a road bike and a mountain bike. They aim to combine the speed, weight and aerodynamics of a road bike with the stability, durability and comfort of a mountain bike. Because gravel bikes take features from many other types of bike bikes, they are often thought of as the “jack of all trades” when it comes to cycling.
Can you ride long distances on a gravel bike?
Riding a gravel bike over long distances is definitely possible, but how easy it will be will depend on which type of gravel bike you have. It will also depend on the type of terrain you are cycling on.
A gravel bike will do well over long distances when cycling on the road (on tarmac) or while cycling on gravel paths (fire roads, woodland paths etc). However, on rougher terrain, you may want to consider using another type of bike, for example, a mountain bike, for long-distance trips.
Can you ride singletrack with a gravel bike?
Whether or not you can ride a gravel bike on a single track will depend on multiple factors.
Gravel bikes fall on a spectrum between road bikes and mountain bikes, whether or not you are able to ride on single track with a gravel bike will, in part, depend on if the gravel bike you have is more like a road bike or more like a mountain bike.
It would be very difficult to ride on technically challenging single track if your gravel bike has tires thinner than 45 mm, and even with wider tires (50mm and above), you can expect punctures. Not only this, but wider tires can help to absorb singletrack vibrations and keep you more stable.
Your riding ability
As with all single-track riding, your skill in the technical sections will impact how well you can handle them. Some skilled riders can tackle even the hardest technical singletrack on a gravel bike (even the stuff I couldn’t do on a full-suspension or hardtail mountain bike).
The single track
Some single track is harder than others. Tackling an easier section of single track (for example smooth, clean, wider tracks) would definitely be possible on most gravel bikes, however, the more technical areas (rough routes with lots of rocks, roots, and tree trunks) will be more of a challenge.
Which type of gravel bike is best for bikepacking?
Due to the level of versatility seen in gravel bikes, the actual design of a gravel bike can fall onto a wide spectrum, with some manufacturers making bikes much more akin to road bikes, with others effectivity making slightly more aerodynamic mountain bikes.
This means that when you are picking a gravel bike, there are certain key things you should look for. Picking a bike with these features ensures that the bike you get is best suited to bikepacking and not other types of cycling.
Comfortable frame shape
Bikepacking is about the journey, not how fast you get there. As such, picking a gravel bike with a comfortable seating position and frame design is very important. Gravel bikes take some elements of road bikes, and so you will find that some gravel bikes have very aggressive riding positions. I’d advise looking for a gravel bike with a more upright frame geometry (one that is not so aggressive). This helps to take pressure off of your hands and can reduce back or neck aches on longer rides.
A durable frame and design
Road bikes are much less durable than mountain bikes, and so more “road bike-like” gravel bikes are less durable than other “mountain bike-like” ones. When picking a gravel bike, try to find one that is made of durable materials (for example steel or titanium), has thick frame tubes, and has multiple wheel spokes, all of which make a bike more durable. Pick a gravel bike designed for durability over speed.
Gravel bikes take the drop handlebars of road bikes, but this does not mean that they all have the same handlebar shape. Try to find a gravel bike with the widest handlebars you can. Wider handlebars can be more comfortable on your wrists, giving you more positions to place your hands, but also makes the bike more stable and easier to handle. If possible, also try to get flared drop bars, which make this even easier.
When picking a gravel bike for bikepacking, it is helpful to find one with the widest tire clearance. This gives you the most versatility on which types of trips you can take your gravel bike on. Wider tires are better at giving you more stability, while thinner tires are designed for speed.
Gravel bike tire size can be measured in traditional road bike units (millimetres) or mountain bike tire sizes (inches). Try and find a bike with a tire clearance over 45mm.
One of the best upgrades I’ve ever made to my gravel bike was putting tubeless tires onto it. Tubeless tires do not use an inner tube, instead using sealant to inflate the tires. However, as my bike wheels were not tubeless-ready, I had to spend a lot more money upgrading my bike wheels first. When looking for a gravel bike for bikepacking, try looking for ones with “tubeless-ready rims”
Gravel bikes on the “road bike” side of the spectrum tend to have a gearing set-up designed for speed rather than ascending. Picking a gravel bike with a low gearing ratio means that more of the gears are designed for easy pedalling on tough climbs, which can be very helpful on a bikepacking trip. Try to get a gravel bike with a 1:1 gear ratio or lower.
Multiple attachment points
Different gravel bikes come with a range of different attachment points. When it comes to bikepacking, the more attachment points the better. This is because the more attachment points you have the more options you have for storing your gear on a trip. Try to find a gravel bike with as many attachment points as you can.
What are the best gravel bikes for bikepacking?
So, we now know what features to look for on a gravel bike for bikepacking, we want a well-built bike, geared for ascending steep inclines, that has good handling and can carry lots of gear. Should be easy right…
While there are hundreds of different gravel bikes, I would suggest taking a look at the following gravel bikes when you first start looking, all of these are well-reviewed by bikepackers generally and have many of the features I would look for.
Are gravel bikes good for bikepacking?
|Very stable||Never the best option|
|Good in all weather conditions||Not the best on rough terrain|
|Lots of different storage options||Poor carrying capacity|
|Versatile||Not the most durable|
|Requires minimal maintenance|
Gravel bikes can make a great choice for a bikepacking trip, but deciding which trip you should take them on involves knowing their specific advantages and disadvantages.
Gravel bikes have a longer and wider wheelbase than some other types of bikes (for example road bikes). This makes the stable and more comfortable to ride for longer distances. Gravel bikes also can fit very wide tires to help with rough terrain.
Good in all weather conditions
Most gravel bikes come with disk brakes, which work much better than rim brakes in wet weather, this is especially important when descending steep declines in the rain.
Lots of different storage options
Gravel bikes often come with multiple attachment points, which means that you can carry more gear and have more options for how to store that gear, allowing you to add baskets, cages or even rear racks.
Gravel bikes are also good at storing more gear in frame bags when compared to full-suspension mountain bikes. Gravel bikes have no front suspension and so have more of this frame triangle left to store gear.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of gravel bikes is their versatility. Gravel bikes are more than capable of riding on the road, gravel paths, or even single track (as we’ve already established). While gravel bikes are not the best option for any one terrain (apart from perhaps gravel), they can take on almost any challenge.
This can be particularly helpful if you only plan to have one bike which serves multiple different purposes, for example, road riding in the week and bikepacking at the weekend.
Gravel bikes tend to be faster than other types of bikes, including mountain bikes, touring bikes and fat bikes. This is due to a combination of factors, including gravel bikes’ lower weight, their aerodynamic shape and the lack of suspension on gravel bikes (suspension can make pedalling less efficient).
While preferring drop or flat handlebars will always be down to personal preference, drop handlebars can be very good for longer rides, offering you more hand positions throughout the day (which can reduce repetitive strain on the wrist and hand bones).
Gravel bikes also have wider tires which can absorb more of the vibrations from the road, making the ride more comfortable and enjoyable.
Gravel bikes tend to be easier to maintain than other types of bikepacking bikes, particularly mountain bikes. This is because they do not have any suspension on the front or rear wheel, which can be a reason for technical problems during a ride and which require extra maintenance.
Never the best option
The main disadvantage of a gravel bike for bikepacking is that it is such a generalist bike (jack of all trades). This means that it is never the best at any type of riding. A gravel bike is not as comfortable as a mountain bike, not as good at carrying gear as a touring bike and not as fast as a road bike.
Not suited to the roughest terrain
As gravel bikes have less tire clearance than mountain or touring bikes, they are less good at tackling the toughest bikepacking terrain. If you are on a very slippery gravel path, on snow or on the sand, then a gravel bike will really start to struggle in comparison to a mountain or fat bike. This can be frustrating as it can limit your choice of bikepacking routes.
Riding a gravel bike in these conditions will also be less comfortable than if you were using a bike better suited to those conditions.
On top of this, some gravel bikes come with gearing more designed for “road-like” conditions. And so can struggle with tougher ascents.
While gravel bikes are stronger and more durable than road bikes, they are not as strong as mountain bikes. They tend to be made from materials such as carbon fibre or aluminium, which can be very strong but are still less durable than other materials such as titanium.
This is also added to by the fact that wheels on gravel bikes are not as durable as the wheels of mountain bikes. Having thinner rims and not having as many wheel spokes.
Low storage capacity
There are multiple factors that contribute to gravel bikes having less storage capacity than other types of bikes (specifically touring bikes which excel at this).
First of all, gravel bikes have drop handlebars, which can make fitting handlebar bags onto the front of your bike more tricky.
As well as this, gravel bikes have a more aggressive frame shape than touring bikes, and this means that the top tube of a gravel bike tends to be slanted, reducing the space available within the frame triangle to fit a frame bag.
Finally, as gravel bikes are less durable than mountain or touring bikes, the weight limit on a gravel bike will be lower than that of a touring bike.
How to use a gravel bike for bikepacking
Pick a route suited to a gravel bike
If you are using a gravel bike for a bikepacking trip, I’d advise picking a route that makes the most of a gravel bike’s strengths. For example, pick a route based predominately on gravel or off-road paths. Try and find a route that you can cycle to on tarmac roads (especially if you normally wouldn’t be able to) and try to avoid a route that involves you tackling the toughest single track.
We’ve already established that gravel bikes aren’t the best at carrying lots of bikepacking gear. In order to overcome this you need to plan to pack light. Lightweight gravel bikes are very good at carrying a minimalist bikepacking kit, but a heavy touring load is asking for trouble.
Take a look at my bikepacking gear checklist for ideas on what you might be able to cut from your packing list.
Adjust your bike
While there are lots of different features I’ve suggested that you look for when purchasing a new gravel bike, there are also some adjustments you can make if you already own one.
Get tires that suit the type of riding you will be doing. This normally means getting wider tires with grip, that are more suited for off-road riding.
Try swapping out your normal handlebar for a wider version (up to 50cm wide), this will help with the bike handling and make the ride more comfortable. When buying new handlebars, consider getting flared ones.
You can also try raising the handlebars using more spacers or flipping the stem of your handlebars so that they are in more of an upright position.
Finally, consider adding some aero bars to your handlebar set-up, these can help to give you more hand positions as you cycle and also add more attachment points for bags, lights or a GPS.
If you purchased a bike with gearing more designed for road riding, you can swap these out yourself. This can be a bit tricky, and you need to make sure that any components you buy are compatible with the rest of your bike (particularly your derailleur), but can make a bikepacking trip on your gravel bike much more fun, and easier on the knees.
Check your bags fit
It is worth double-checking that your bikepacking bags fit onto your gravel bike. While your saddle bag should have no issues, your frame bag may struggle to fit into your frame triangle, and your handlebar bag may not fit within your drop handlebars.
If this is the case, consider purchasing a compression dry bag (like this one on amazon) and storing your gear inside the compression bag inside the handlebar bag. This might make it compact enough that it fits within the handlebars without you ending to purchase a whole new one.
Protect your bike frame
Especially if your gravel bike has a carbon frame, consider putting frame tape (like this stuff on amazon) over the areas of the frame where bags and gear are likely to rub. Rubbing on a ride can damage your paintwork or frame material and this tape can help to prevent this.
As you can see, bikepacking on a gravel bike is definitely possible. In fact, I use a gravel bike as my bike of choice (mostly because of how versatile it is).