Can You Use A Mountain Bike For Bikepacking: How and why?


I know when I got into bikepacking, it all seemed very confusing about which type of bike you could use for a bikepacking trip. With so many different types of mountain bikes, it can often be hard to work out if the bike in front of you can be used for bikepacking.

Mountain bikes are a great option for bikepacking. They are durable, have wide tires, low gearing, and a relaxed seating position for long-distance bikepacking trips. If you plan to use a full-suspension mountain bike you will need to increase the air in your tires and the pressure in your shocks.

So bikepacking on a mountain bike is possible. But how do you do it, and what are the advantages of a mountain bike over other types of bikes you might use?

What types of mountain bikes are there?

There are 2 main types of mountain bikes, “hardtail mountain bikes” and “full-suspension mountain bikes”. Both of the bikes can be used for bikepacking and have their own advantages or disadvantages.

Mountain bikes come with large grippy tires, an upright and comfortable sitting position, as well as low gearing to help with climbing hills and inclines. 

The main thing that differentiates mountain bikes from other types of bikes, is that they come with suspension. The two main types of mountain bikes are differentiated based on if they have suspension on one or both of their wheels.

Hardtail mountain bikes only have suspension on the front fork (the bit that attaches to the wheel), whereas full-suspension mountain bikes come with suspension on the front as well as the back.

Full Suspension Mountain Bikes

Full-suspension mountain bikes are better for very rough terrain. The extra suspension means that the bike can accommodate more of the bumps in the terrain.

Not only does the extra suspension make it more comfortable, but this type of bike can also improve the efficiency of your cycling on the toughest terrain. This is because, on a full-suspension bike, your wheels are able to more effectively move up and down with the terrain means, transferring more of your effort from the pedals into traction.

Hardtail Mountain Bikes

Hardtail mountain bikes have their own advantages.

As they are only made with suspension on the front of the bike, they can be cheaper to buy.

Hardtail mountain bikes are also better on “less rough” terrain. On these types of trails, too much suspension can make the pedaling less efficient as more of your energy if put into moving the bike suspension rather than your speed.

Is a mountain bike good for bikepacking?

Can you put your gear on it? If so, you can bikepack with it. But just because it’s possible doesn’t mean you should.

Both hardtail and full-suspension mountain bikes have their own advantages and disadvantages, however, overall, mountain bikes have some key features that make them a great option for bikepacking.

We asked a group of bikepackers if they would use a mountain bike for their bikepacking trips. As you can see the vast majority of bikepackers were in favor of using mountain bikes. In fact, many of the participants noted how it is their “go-to” bike of choice for a bikepacking trip, especially hardtail mountain bikes.

Of those who would not use a mountain bike for bikepacking, the main reason noted was that they do a large amount of tarmac or road cycling as part of their bikepacking trips, they noted they would not use a mountain bike for this type of riding and instead used a gravel bike or touring bike.

Advantages

Mountain bikes are designed for off-road cycling and so have many features that will come in very useful on a bikepacking trip. 

They have good clearance on the tires, meaning you can fit wide, grippy tires that are great for bikepacking. 

On top of this, they also have low gearing, another key feature when carrying lots of gear up hills and in bad conditions.  

Mountain bikes have a nice relaxed geometry, this is great for bikepacking trips where you will be doing very long periods of riding. In bikepacking trips, comfort is often more of a priority than speed.

Being designed for off-road cycling means that mountain bikes are very durable. They have wide tube framing and are made of strong materials such as aluminum, steel, and titanium.

Disadvantages

On the other hand, mountain bikes do have some areas where they have distinct disadvantages when bikepacking.

Some mountain bikes come with a type of saddle post (the bit that the saddle attaches to) called a dropper post. These are designed to easily adjust the height of your saddle as you cycle. In mountain bike routes these are particularly helpful as you can tuck your saddle out of the way while tackling tough downhill singletrack.

However, these types of saddle posts are incompatible with many types of saddle bags (a common type of bag that people use for bikepacking). While some companies produce dropper-specific bikepacking saddle bags, in my experience these do not always work as well as advertised.

If you don’t manage to find a bag that will work with your dropper post then you will be very limited on how much bag space you have, even to the point you may have to consider taking a backpack. If you end up doing this take a look at our article on how to take a backpack bikepacking.

Another key issue is that mountain bikes tend to have different shaped frames than touring or gravel bikes. The frames on mountain bikes tend to have a smaller frame triangle, which can again limit your choice of frame bags!

Highlighted Frame Triangle

Companies like Bedrock Bags will custom-build a frame bag (I haven’t used these before but have seen them suggested by other bikepackers). However, they may not actually be that useful if you have no room in the frame triangle in the first place.

Can you bikepack with a full-suspension mountain bike?

Full suspension mountain bikes can be used for bikepacking, particularly if you plan your route to be on very rough terrain.

“When we did the 7 mile singletrack descent back to civilization, I was having a blast.”

You will have to pack very lightly if you plan to take a full-suspension mountain bike on your bikepakcing trip. This is for a few key reasons.

Firstly, with all the extra components, full-suspension mountain bikes tend to weigh more than their hardtail counterparts.

On top of the extra weight, full-suspension mountain bikes typically have smaller frame triangles than hardtails, again limiting how much packing space you have.

Not only does this impact what you can’t take, but it will mean that you need to resupply more often.

As you have smaller frame bags and no saddle bag, you will have to front-load the bike, this can have an impact on the handling, so we’d recommend testing out your fully loaded bike before setting off on your journey.

Full suspension bikes aren’t exactly the most reliable bikes, and so on top of being able to take less, full-suspension mountain bikes will require you to take more gear for bike maintenance.

These types of bikes tend to require more maintenance than others (twice as much suspension means that there are twice as many parts that can go wrong). Some people we spoke to even packed a shock pump on their bikepacking trips.

The other factor to consider with full-suspension mountain bikes is their overall pedaling efficiency. In most situations, a hardtail or gravel bike will do better in this department than a full-suspension mountain bike.

Overall, full-suspension mountain bikes are definitely an option for a bikepacking trip. They will be very comfortable to ride and will excel on the roughest terrain, however, you will have to pack very lightly and may not be able to cover as much distance as you would with other types of bikes.

Can you bikepack on a hardtail mountain bike?

Hardtail mountain bikes are a great choice for bikepacking. They are a good compromise between bikes gravel and full-suspension mountain bikes. This is because they are a very versatile option.

A fully loaded hardtail mountain bike can handle routes designed for gravel bikes, as well as most routes designed for full-suspension mountain bikes.

While all mountain bikes have smaller framer triangles, hardtail mountain bikes tend to have a larger triangle than full-suspension options, allowing you to carry more gear in a frame bag.

They also tend to be lighter (as a result of only having front suspension), which makes carrying more gear a more feasible option.

Hardtail mountain bikes are a very common bike, meaning that many people own one of these bikes already, this makes them a great choice for many people who are looking to get into bikepacking.

Finally, hardtail mountain bikes are much cheaper than full-suspension mountain bikes. While there are still some very expensive hardtail mountain bikes, you can get budget bikes for less than £400, and in fact, a hardtail mountain bike is what we chose for our article on a full bikepakcing set-up for less than £500.

How to use a mountain bike for bikepacking

If you plan to use a mountain bike for bikepacking then it’s important to make some key adjustments before you leave.

Firstly, make sure to adjust your suspension to compensate for the extra weight you will be carrying on the bike. This will likely involve adding around 10 psi to your shocks.

You may also want to pump up your tires more than you normally would for trail riding, again to adjust for any extra weight. However, this may make your ride less comfortable than you are used to.

It’s important to remember that if you plan to use your mountain bike for bikepacking, then you will not be riding it in the same way you would for trail riding.

You will have to load your bike with gear in such a way that gear and other items such as water bottles will get in the way. If you place them on your fork (as many other types of bikepacking bikes will), then your bike may well be too wide to work well on a single trail and will be harder to control.

Finally don’t forget, with such large wheels, you will require a mudguard. On prolonged trips, you will find that your tires will be throwing mud up at you and your bikepacking gear. Not only can this be annoying, but over time you may find this damages your gear, for example, the bags or camping equipment you are carrying.

Overall

Mountain bikes make a great choice for bikepacking. While I prefer hardtail mountain bikes over full-suspension mountain bikes, it does not mean that either of these will work well for a trip.

As long as you plan ahead, and plan a route that will fit the style of bike you are taking on your trip, either of these will give you a great bikepacking experience.

If however, your trip is likely to involve a load of road cycling, then maybe look at getting yourself a gravel or touring bike, as these are better suited for this type of terrain.

Mark Holmes

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

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