What Wheels For Bikepacking: Your guide to upgrades and repairs


I think buying wheels for your bike can be one of the most confusing purchases you will need to make for a bike, especially a bike you plan to use for bikepacking. While many upgrades or replacements for your bike have a “best option”, when it comes to wheels, there are far too many factors to take into account. I’ve made this resource to try and help you choose the right wheel and tires for bikepacking, so hopefully, you don’t have to spend as long researching as I did.

In general, bikepacking wheels need to focus on durability over other factors such as weight. They should aim to have at least 32 spokes as well as be at least 25mm wide. You also need to ensure the wheel you buy is compatible with your bike frame, freehub, and the type of brakes you have.

If you need a bit more help in deciding which wheels to get for your bike on your next bikepacking trip, take a look at the rest of the resources below. It is important to remember that what is the best type of wheel will be dependent on the type of cycling you are doing, as well as the quality of the wheel manufacturer.

What type of wheel does my bike need?

The basics

First of all, it may seem obvious to some of you, but I need to clarify that wheels are not the same as tires. Wheels are the metal or carbon bit that attaches directly to your bike. The tire attaches to the wheel and is the rubber bit on the outside that you can replace more easily.

Before you go looking into the type of wheel you want, the first thing to do is to look at which types of wheels are compatible with your bike. There are 3 key areas to look into when deciding if a wheel is compatible with the bike you already own.

The size of the wheel that fits onto your bike

Your bike will typically have a set wheel size that it works with. There are a range of wheel sizes, all the way from 24 inches up to 36 inches depending on the bike you own.

The best way to work out which wheel size you need, is to look at the wheels already attached to the bike.

Most wheels come with their size printed on them. If this isn’t on your wheels you can look at the manufacturer’s website for your bike, or even measure the wheels if needed.

While wheel size will be set by the bike frame you already own, there are some generalizations about wheel sizes that are sued when bikepacking.

Wheel SizeAlternative NameUsesPros and Cons
26 inchNAUsed to be the industry standard for mountain and road bikes.
The fastest turning and nimblest wheel.
Worse stability over choppy roots or rocks which can reduce your speed.
27.5 inch650BThe current standard wheel size for bikes generally.
Smoother and more stable than 26-inch wheels but less nimble
29 inch700CPreviously only used for cross country mountain biking but over recent years has increased to be used on more types of bikes such as downhill mountain bikes. This is the biggest and heaviest wheel
Most stable over rough terrain
Smoothest ride
Less agile than the smaller wheels

The type of brakes you have

Once you’ve established what size of tire you need, it’s important to clarify what types of brakes you have.

Different bikes either come with rim brakes or disk brakes, and the type of wheel you purchase needs to be compatible with this.

Not all wheels are compatible with all types of brakes as different types of brakes require different sizes of axel for them to attach to, not only this but the different wheels attach to different points on the fork dropout.

Wheel compatible with rim brakes are easy to look for, simply check on the product page if the wheel itself is “rim brake” compatible.

It can be a little more confusing with disk brakes. There are 2 main types of disk brakes; 6 bolt disk brakes and centerlock disk brakes. When looking for wheels for your bike, make sure to get one that is compatible with the type of disk brake you have.

As you can see below, the centerlock disk brakes have one large area that teaches to the wheel whereas the 6-bolt disk brakes attach with 6 bolts…who’d of guessed.

Centerlock Disk Brake
6 bolt Disk Brake

The type of freehub that you have

The freehub sits in the middle of your rear wheel and is the part of the wheel that converts your pedaling power into the wheel spinning.

While freehubs look very similar, as with all things on a bike, there are many different types of freehub, some of which cost a lot more than others. With more expensive freehubs the main difference is how long they will last, with cheap “stock” hubs deteriorating more quickly than expensive hubs.

There are many types of freehub and many different manufacturers, so it is important to check if the wheel you are planning to buy is compatible with whichever hub you have.

Shimano Freehub

The most popular types of freehub are made by Shimano, SRAM, or Campagnolo.

On top of this, you will also have to ensure that the wheels you get are compatible with the cassette you have attached to your freehub. The cassette is the piece of the bike that changes you between different “speeds” or gears.

While most wheels are compatible with most cassettes. Certain specialized cassettes such as 12-speed cassettes (which can sometimes be used for bikepacking) require a specific wheel.

A bike cassette

How to decide which wheel to get?

So, you’ve established the size of the wheel you need, as well as which parts of your bike it needs to be compatible with. But what should you actually look for in the wheels you are going to buy?

When it comes to bike wheels in general, there are 3 key areas that you can look for; Weight, aerodynamics, and durability.

These three areas are all made up of a variety of different factors making up the wheel. Be that the material the wheel is made from, the number of spokes it has, or how wide the wheel rim is.

While a carbon fiber road bike made for racing would prioritize weight and aerodynamics in its wheel choice when it comes to bikepakcing, you will want to prioritize durability most, then weight, and then aerodynamics.

This is obviously a generalization and your actual preferences will be based on the type of riding you will be doing, as well as if you use the bike for any other types of cycling, but this is a good place to start.

How many spokes for a bikepacking bike wheel?

Bike spokes are the pieces of material that connect the rim to the hub in the middle of the wheel. Most bike spokes are made from aluminum, but in some cases, they can be made from materials such as carbon fiber.

A common question about bikepacking wheels is how many spokes for bikepacking? Many forums have posts full of “Is 28 spokes enough for bikepacking?” or “Is 24 spokes enough for bikepacking?”.

Bikes tend to have between 24 and 36 spokes. Typically it is said that the more spokes you have, the more structural integrity the wheel has.

On the other hand, the more spokes you have, the slower your bike is going to be, this is a result of increased weight and reduced aerodynamics. As well as this, studies have shown that having too many spokes can impact the structural integrity of the rim itself (the more holes in the rim for spokes the weaker the rim itself will be).

The optimum wheel design must compromise between maximizing cross-sectional stiffness and spoke count.

Mínguez, José & Vogwell, J. (2008). An analytical model to study the radial stiffness and spoke load distribution in a modern racing bicycle wheel. Proceedings of The Institution of Mechanical Engineers Part C-journal of Mechanical Engineering Science – PROC INST MECH ENG C-J MECH E. 222. 563-576. 10.1243/09544062JMES802.

When it comes to bikepacking, most people recommend that you aim for 32 spokes on your wheel. You might get away with a 28 on the front wheel and 32 on the rear, however, as a general rule I aim for 32.

Sure, you may be a little slower, and less aerodynamic, but there is a benefit to having some peace of mind on a bikepacking trip. Knowing your wheels are more structurally secure, especially when you might be carrying a lot of weight than normal is a definite bonus that cannot be overlooked.

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In reality,y the extra spokes may in fact save you time on longer bikepacking trips. For example, some bikepackers I have spoken to told me stories of how running too low on a spoke count meant they had to constantly perform maintenance on their wheels after rides, meaning they set off later some days and were much slower than if they’d had the suggested amount of spokes.

Even if a few extra spokes do weigh a little more, in general, spoke weight is marginal (especially when you consider how much unnecessary gear you’re probably carrying). For both wheels, the extra weight you are looking at is around 50-100 grams. Certainly, in my mind, this weight saving is not worth the increased risk of a spoke breaking, even if 28 spokes is theoretically strong enough.

While you may not plan routes that will put much stress on the wheels, situations occur when you get lost, go off track, or want to use your bike for a different type of trip. Any force on the wheels such as a pothole or badly placed rock will put extra force through the wheel which can damage it.  

It is important to clarify that spoke count is not the only factor of a spoke you need to consider. The spoke gauge and spoke nipple material will also have an impact on the overall strength of the wheel and need to be taken into account.

What matters as much as all of these factors is the manufacturer of the wheel. Having an experienced wheel builder or a reputable manufacturer is just as, if not more important than how many spokes you have.

How wide should a bikepacking wheel be?

Modern bike wheel rim widths range from 20mm in road bikes up to 30mm internal width for mountain bikes. The width of a bike wheel is important for many reasons. Generally, when bikepakcing you will use wheel rims that are narrower than mountain bikes but wider than road bikes.

Strength of the wheel itself

A wider rim gives more material to help make the wheel itself more durable. A wider rim is less likely to be damaged by a large drop, pothole, or curb.

The comfort of your ride

Not only this, but the wider wheel rims have more space for air next to the inner tube. This means you will get a smoother ride on a wider rim than a narrower one, even with the same size tire.

As well as the increased comfort of a wider rim in general, wider rims also allow you to run your tires at a lower pressure. Lower pressures mean again, more comfort, and can also help to compensate for the increased road resistance the wider rims cause.

Tire Size

The size of the wheel rim will decide what size tires you can use on that wheel.

As a general rule, you should use the ratio of 1.4 to 2.2 for how much larger your tires are than the wheel itself (with 1.8 being the ideal).

For example, if you have a 25mm wheel rim width, you will want to look at a tire that is between 35mm and 55mm.

This is based on a very thorough article by Sheldon Brown on tire width, take a look if you are interested in more details.

So how wide should bikepacking tires be?

Typically for bikepacking, you will want to look for tires that suit the type of riding you do.

Wider tires will lead to more resistance on the road, which will increase your grip but slow you down. As well as traction, wider tires will give you more stability and will make long bikepacking trips more comfortable.

Not only do you need to make sure that the tire width you plan to use, will fit the wheel itself, but you also need to ensure that your bike has wide enough clearance to fit the tires. Clearance is the width between the fork of your bike.

Below is a rough estimate of different tire sizes based on the type of cycling you will be doing.

Type of cyclingTire Width
Road cycling25mm-30mm
Gravel cycling30-50mm
Singletrack or mountain bike routes50-60mm
Rough terrain/Snow100mm

What should a bikepacking wheel be made from?

Most bike wheels are made from aluminum or carbon fiber. Most bikes will come with aluminum as the standard as carbon fiber wheels are much more expensive.

Typically mountain bikes or gravel bikes (the common types of bikes used for bikepacking) will use aluminum wheels, however, in recent years, carbon fiber wheels have become more common. This is the result of cheaper manufacturing processes reducing their price while also increasing their durability.

Typically, aluminum is a tried and trusted material. It is fairly lightweight, strong enough to withstand a few knocks, and offers excellent braking

Carbon fiber wheels are much lighter and give you huge advantages in aerodynamics and stiffness. However, they are much more expensive and very ineffective when used with rim brakes (rim brakes do not grip well onto the carbo material of the wheel rim).

Can you bikepack on tubeless tires?

When it comes to bike wheels, it is important to consider if you will be running with tubeless or clincher tires.

All wheels can use inner tubes, however not all wheels can use tubeless tires. Wheels that are not designed to use tubeless tires are called clinchers.

Clinchers have an outer tire that sits outside of an “inner tube”, this inner tube is inflated and if you get a puncture you need to replace the whole inner tube.

Tubeless tires do not use an inner tube at all, instead, they use a special tire sealant that allows you to pump up the tire directly.

Wheels using inner tubes are the most common however tubeless tires have some huge advantages.

“Going tubeless is the best thing I’ve ever done to my bikes”

Due to the way they are designed, tubeless tires can self-seal punctures as you ride. The sealant used to inflate the tire initially will sit inside the tire as you ride, if you get a small puncture it will flow into the hole, sealing the leak.

On top of this huge advantage, tubeless tires have less resistance when cycling. This is because tubeless tires can be run at lower pressures, reducing friction and improving comfort.

Tubeless tires are versatile whereas clincher tires are not. You can always use an inner tube on a tubeless tire if you get a puncture that is too big for the sealant to fill, but you cannot use sealant on tires that require inner tubes.

The only disadvantage of tubeless tires is that not all wheels are compatible with tubeless tires, and they have a slightly higher upfront cost (but then again you’ll have to less inner tubes).

Apart from this, the only thing to consider is that setting up a wheel with tubeless tires can take a little while and be a messy process.

Finally, if you don’t ride your bike often, the sealant inside can coagulate, meaning you need to change it every 6 months if you are not riding frequently.

How much do bike wheels cost?

It is generally recommended that if you are looking to upgrade your bike, the wheels will be one of the best areas for value for money. Especially if you are starting with a very budget bike like the one we used for our £500 total bikepacking set-up.

The wheels that come with factory-made bikes are typically heavy and an upgrade here can have a large impact on comfort, stability, and speed.

Wheelsets typically come in a few key price categories. Below is a small summary of what you should expect within each price range for the wheel you are looking at.

Wheel Set CostFeatures
Less than £500Weigh less than the stock wheels
Typically made of aluminum
Better wheel hub compared to stock hubs
Some options will be tubeless compatible
£500 to £1000Stiffer and lighter aluminum wheels than the category below
Can get some entry-level carbon fiber bike wheels, these will be heavier than the aluminum options but more aerodynamic
More than £1000Able to purchase carbon fiber options more easily
Not mass-produced as with the set below
More refined builds and typically more durable
More aerodynamically designed
Lighter than other price categories without compromising on durability

Overall

There are many factors that come into play when choosing which wheels to get for your bike. In general, for bikepacking, you will want to choose wheels and tires that are well suited to the type of ride you are doing.

For me, this is a set of tubeless 35mm tires for my gravel bike that allow me to enjoy on-road cycling, while still getting off-road when I can.

Mark Holmes

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

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