What Types Of Bike Are Good For Bikepacking


When getting into the world of bikepacking, working out which type of bike you should use can be a daunting task. It is an important choice, as a better-suited bike can make your trip a lot more fun, which after all, is the whole point of going bikepacking in the first place!

Mountain bikes and gravel bikes are the best types of bikes for bikepacking. While any bike can be used for a bikepacking trip, mountain and gravel bikes are specifically designed for the type of riding you will be doing, and so picking one of these can lead to an easier, and more fun ride.

Over recent years with the rise in popularity of bikepacking, there has been a huge increase in the range of different bikes available, all of which have their pros and cons.

The most common types of bikes used for bikepacking are Gravel bikes, Hardtail mountain bikes, and Full-suspension mountain bikes, with our survey results showing that gravel bikes were the most popular option of these three. While each of these bikes would be great for any first trip, choosing which one is best suited for you will depend on a few things. For example, the terrain will be cycling on, the “gearing” you want on your bike, the level of suspension you need, which tire size you need, as well as the material the bike is made of. Below we take you through the key differences between the most common types of bikes used for Bikepacking and give you a few suggestions about which might be right for you. 

Gravel Bikes

What is a gravel bike?

A gravel bike is a mix between a road bike and a mountain bike, combining the drop-down handlebar and “speedy” geometry of a road bike with the wider tires and stability of a mountain bike. Gravel bikes have become much more popular over the last few years, as manufacturers have found ways to make them almost as light as their road bike counterparts.

What gearing and suspension do gravel bikes have?

Gravel bikes, unlike mountain bikes, have no suspension and so can lead to a bumpier trip when on bad terrain.  Unlike road bikes, gravel bikes also borrow mountain bikes “lower gearing”, which means that the ratio on the gears is more tuned to help you cycle uphill. On the other hand, this does mean that you run into situations where you “run out of gears” when you are going too fast.

What material are gravel bikes made of?

Most gravel bikes tend to be made from aluminum (a very common material for all types of bikes), but more expensive versions can be made from carbon or titanium (both of which are more expensive but come with their own benefits – Being lighter or stronger for example).

What tires can gravel bikes use?

Gravel bikes are designed to handle wider tires than road bikes, allowing for more grip on slippery surfaces and more stability. This helps to improve your speed on wet terrain as well as your comfort when riding.

What are gravel bikes best for?

Of the 3 main types of bikepacking bikes we have talked about here,  gravel bikes are the most suitable for cycling on the road, but this means they can struggle on the roughest bikepacking terrain. This makes a Gravel bike a good compromise for someone who wants a bike that can go bikepacking at the weekend but also cycle to work during the week. Another good reason you might pick a Gravel bike is if you are looking for a “one bike does it all” option, due to budget or storage constraints.

What are the best gravel bikes?

If you think a Gravel bike is the right choice for you, consider taking a look at the Boardman range of Gravel bikes, with the Boardman ADV 8.9 winning Bike of the Year for 2021. For a more “high-end” option, take a look at the Canyon Grizl CF SL8.

Hardtail Mountain Bikes

What is a hardtail mountain bike?

Hardtail mountain bikes are the next step up from gravel bikes. These bikes are a type of mountain bike with full suspension on the front fork, but no suspension at the back. Hardtail mountain bikes have flat handlebars, allowing for more control and a more upright seating position than gravel bikes, making them more comfortable but less aerodynamic. Hardtail mountain bikes tend to be heavier than gravel bikes, but lighter than full-suspension bikes.

What gearing and suspension do hardtail mountain bikes have?

Hardtail mountain bikes only have suspension on the front fork, this means that they offer a more comfortable ride than Gravel bikes, while still making pedaling more efficient than on full-suspension bikes. The lack of rear suspension also means these bikes tend to be cheaper than full suspension counterparts and easier to maintain. Hardtail mountain bikes typically have “lower gearing” than Gravel bikes, making these options even better for routes with steep hills, but on the other hand, make them worse on flat or downhill paths.

What material are hardtail mountain bikes made of?

The most common material for hardtail mountain bikes is aluminum and carbon, with carbon versions being lighter but more expensive. All the bikes on this list typically come with “disk brakes” as opposed to the rim brakes you see on many cheaper bikes. Disc brakes are more expensive than rim brakes but are really useful when riding on harder terrain where you might have to brake more sharply or in wet weather.

What tires can hardtail mountain bikes use?

Hardtail mountain bikes can handle thicker tires than gravel bikes, making them more comfortable but less effective when cycling on the road.

What are hardtail mountain bikes best for?

As Hardtail mountain bikes are cheaper and lighter than full-suspension mountain bikes, participants of our recent survey suggested that these would make the best starting bikes for a beginner or someone looking for a compromise between a Gravel bike and a Full-suspension mountain bike.

What are the best hardtail mountain bikes?

If a hardtail mountain bike takes your fancy and you’re on a budget, consider the Voodoo Braag, which can be found for as little as £550. For a higher spec option, take a look at the Canyon Stoic 4.

Full-Suspension Mountain Bikes

What is a full-suspension mountain bike?

Full suspension mountain bikes are a type of mountain bike with suspension on the front fork (Like a hardtail mountain bike), but also have suspension at the back. This means that you have increased stability over bumpy ground and aren’t as likely to hurt yourself if you make a mistake! Full suspension mountain bikes are the best bike for difficult trails with a lot of rough terrain. Full-suspension bikes tend to be more expensive and heavier than Gravel or Hardtail mountain bikes.

What gearing and suspension do full-suspension mountain bikes have?

Because of the full suspension on these types of mountain bikes, these bikes are the best for trips where you will be tackling the worst terrain. The rear suspension also means that the rear wheel can adjust to bumps on the track, making the ride smoother, especially when standing on the pedals. As is the case with hardtail mountain bikes, full-suspension mountain bikes typically have “lower gearing” than Gravel bikes, making them better suited for sharp inclines but worse on descents.

One note about Full-suspension mountain bikes is that the suspension at the back requires maintenance work and is another part of your bike that can “break” on your trip, which can put some people off from using them.

What material are full-suspension mountain bikes made of?

Full suspension mountain bikes come in a range of different materials, including steel, aluminum, titanium, and carbon fiber which again come at a range of different price points.

What tires can full-suspension mountain bikes use?

Full-suspension mountain bikes can handle the same larger tire size as hardtail mountain bikes, and have the same flat handlebar style, allowing for a more comfortable ride.

What are full-suspension mountain bikes best for?

Full-suspension mountain bikes are the best option for someone looking to tackle hard bikepacking terrain, they can however require more maintenance and have a higher upfront cost than the other options on this list, so they may not be the best option for a beginner.

What are the best full-suspension mountain bikes?

For a great full suspension mountain bike that doesn’t break the bank, take a look at the Calibre Bossnut. At the other end of the spectrum is the Vittus Sommet 29 CRS, which while expensive, is a great value for money!

Touring Bikes – The best of the rest

What is a touring bike?

Touring Bikes are what you might think of when you imagine a “typical bike”. These bikes tend to have a long wheelbase, a comfortable sitting angle, and flat handlebars (but not always). These are all designed to make long-distance cycling comfortable, especially for extended trips.

The other main advantage of a touring bike is the multiple attachment points they come with. Touring bikes often have pannier racks attached to the bike that can help carry some of your gear more easily than bike bags, and also means you can distribute the weight more evenly over the bike, making you more balanced as you cycle.

What gearing and suspension do touring bikes have?

To make up for their increased weight, touring bikes also have wide gear ranges to reduce some of the strain that the increased weight might take. As with gravel bikes, touring bikes have no suspension, which can make rough terrain more uncomfortable.

What material are touring bikes made of?

Touring bikes tend to be made from steel, which means that they are very durable and can easily be repaired on the road. This same ethos is taken with their components, which tend to be more focused on durability than weight.

This helps to reduce maintenance work required on a long bikepacking trip but does make the bike heavier, which will impact how far you can cycle each day, and might make those inclines a bit too tough if you aren’t used to it.

What tires can touring bikes use?

The main problem with using a touring bike for bikepacking is that they have typically been designed for cycling on roads and tarmac. While they are very durable, comfortable to ride, and can travel long distances with ease, touring bikes often don’t allow for the larger tires you will find on Gravel or Mountain bikes and aren’t as suited for off-road cycling.

What are touring bikes best for?

If you’re planning a long-distance bikepacking trip where you will keep to country roads or smooth surfaces, a touring bike might be the perfect option for you. This might explain why no one in our recent survey used a touring bike as their main bikepacking bike.

Overall

The best bike for bikepacking will depend on what trip you are planning, your budget, and what you already have!

If you live in the middle of a city and have to do a good proportion of your trip on the tarmac before you get out onto any of the “off-road” fun, then a gravel bike might be the best option. This might well be the reason that our recent survey showed gravel bikes to be by far the most popular option. On the other hand, if you’re looking to do some extreme off-road adventuring, a full-suspension mountain bike might be better fitted to your needs.

No matter what you choose, the most important thing is getting out there and trying bikepacking. At the end of the day, any bike can be used for a bikepacking trip! Grab a bike bag, stick it onto the old road bike that’s gathering dust in the shed, and off you go (just make sure to pick a route that isn’t too bumpy!). You might not know what your preferences are until you’ve done your first trip and found what you liked, and more importantly, what you didn’t like.

If you’re looking to get a bike for bikepacking, take a look at our article on whether an electric bike could be right for you.

Frequent bikepackers preferred bike type

Personally, I prefer to use my gravel bike, which would put me in the majority of the data we collected. But if you want a closer look into the differences between Gravel bikes and Mountain bikes, take a look at this video from GCN where they pit both types of bikes against each in a long-distance adventure trip paired with a series of adventure challenges.

Mark Holmes

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

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