The Best Types of Bikepacking Bikes: Which Is Right for You?


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.

What is the best type of bikepacking bike?

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

An example of a gravel bike

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 aluminium (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

An example of a hardtail mountain bike

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, which means that they offer a more comfortable ride than Gravel bikes, while still making pedalling 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 aluminium 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

An example of a full suspension mountain bike

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, aluminium, titanium, and carbon fibre 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!

Hardtail vs Full-suspension mountain bikes

Hardtail Mountain BikeFull-suspension Mountain Bike
Suspension only on the front wheelSuspension on both wheels
CheaperMore expensive
LighterHeavier
More versatileThe best on the roughest terrain
Less maintenanceMore maintenance

Touring Bikes – The best of the rest

An example of a touring bike

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.

What other types of bikes can you use on a bikepacking trip?

While the following bikes aren’t the best choice for a bikepacking trip, you can make them work. I’ve been bikepacking on road bikes, fixies and even a tandem!

Cyclocross Bikes

A cyclocross racer carrying a cyclocross bike

Cyclocross bikes are designed for cyclocross racing

Cyclocross bikes are designed for riding cyclocross. Cyclocross is traditionally a sport done by road cyclists during winter (when they aren’t able to as easily do their regular road cycling due to poor weather conditions). It consists of multiple laps of a short course with very varied terrain (a mix of pavement, woods, grass and other obstacles you have to carry your bike over).

Cyclocross bikes are very similar to road bikes

Because cyclocross racing was normally done by road cyclists, cyclocross bikes tend to be very similar to road bikes but with a few adjustments made to make them more suitable for the mixtures of terrain and obstacles you might encounter in a race.

As is the case with road bikes, cyclocross bikes tend to have very narrow wheels, as well as being very lightweight. This is especially useful for the areas of a cycle where you have to carry your bike over an obstacle such as a fence or sandpit. As well as this, cyclocross bikes keep the drop handlebar design of a road bike and are made with similar lightweight materials (such as aluminium or carbon fibre), again to prioritise speed.

Cyclocross bikes have a higher clearance

There are however a few areas where road bikes and cyclocross bikes differ. The first is that cyclocross bikes tend to have a slightly higher clearance than road bikes. This allows the cyclocross bike to perform better in rough terrain and helps to limit any rocks or tree stumps from hitting the bottom of your bike as you cycle.

Cyclocross bikes keep their “clipless” pedals

As opposed to almost all other types of off-road bikes, cyclocross bikes are one of the few that keep their clipless pedals. This is likely because road cyclists are so used to clipping into and unclipping from their road bike pedals that they do not run as much risk of hurting an ankle or falling off the bike while still clipped in.

Cyclocross bikes are losing popularity

While cyclocross bikes tended to be very popular 10 or 20 years ago, in recent years they have fallen out of favour. This is predominately because of the rise in popularity of the gravel bikes.

Road Bikes

An example of a road bike

Road bikes are designed to be fast

Road bikes are the classic bike you see people cycling on if they are wearing Lycra or riding in the Tour de France. They are designed to be fast, lightweight, and aerodynamic. They prioritise speed over durability and comfort. Because of this, they have a very low-to-ground design, and the frame design forces you to sit in a hunched-up position to reduce your wind drag.

Road bikes work best on the road

As the name suggests, these bikes are designed to be used on the road and will struggle with any off-road terrain. In fact, gravel paths or cobblestone roads may even give you a challenge on this type of bike. This is partly because they are made with weaker materials (such as carbon fibre), as well as being designed to prioritise speed over strength.

Road bikes have drop handlebars

Road bikes come with drop handlebars (meaning the main area of the handlebar that you hold is below the handlebar itself). These can be hard to get used to at first, but in the long run will help your aerodynamics, as well as give you multiple different options of where to place your hands during long rides.

Road bikes are expensive

Because these bikes focus on speed and are used by biking enthusiasts, they tend to be more expensive than many other types of bikes, with some costing as much as £10,000 (although you can still get a decent one for around £1000).

Road bikes have thin tires

Road bikes come with thinner tires (normally less than 30mm), this is again to prioritise speed, but can make them less stable in poor conditions such as wet or icy paths. It is also one of the reasons why they suffer so badly when attempting off-road cycling and means that you will be feeling more vibrations caused by small bumps in the road.

Road bikes have lightweight wheels

As with the frame of a road bike, the wheels on these types of bikes are very lightweight, but as a result, they are more fragile. In order to increase aerodynamics and cut down on extra material, they come with fewer spokes which can make damaging your wheel more likely than on other types of bikes (for example hitting a pothole or curb badly can irreparably damage your wheel). Almost all road bikes come with 700cc wheels (a specific size of wheel).

Road bikes are harder for new cyclists

Because of the drop handlebars and thin tires, newer riders can find road bikes harder to cycle on than other types of bikes, especially if they have learnt to ride on a mountain or hybrid bike. Road bikes can feel more unstable, and certain skills such as changing gear or signalling take some getting used to with drop handlebars.

Road bikes are made from lightweight materials

Due to their prioritisation of speed, road bikes are normally made from the lightest materials, specifically carbon fibre or aluminium, with carbon fibre being used in top-end road bikes. This not only helps to reduce the weight of the bike, but these materials are also very efficient at transferring energy from your pedal to the wheels.

Road bikes have a high gear ratio

As with all other components of a road bike, the gears are designed to help you go faster. Road bikes come with a high gear ratio, meaning they have gears that prioritise speed over how easy it is to pedal. This helps you to pedal when you are already cycling at high speeds. They also tend to have lots of gears to help you pick the right gear for the speed you want. Road bikes tend to come with integrated gears (meaning they are built-in into the brake levers).

Road bikes have clip-in pedals

People with road bikes often use pedals that you clip your shoes into as you cycle, helping you to increase your speed by pedalling the bike with both the up and down motion of your pedal. These require specific cycling shoes to work and also require a bit of practice to get used to clipping into and out of. Just to be extra confusing, the name of these types of pedals is actually “clipless pedals”

Electric Bikes

An example of an electric bike

All types of bikes can be electric

Electric bikes (also called e-bikes) are a subcategory of bikes. This means that all of the different bikes we saw above, can either come in an electric or non-electric form. The most common types of bikes that are used in an electric form are mountain and hybrid electric bikes.

Electric bikes have a built-in motor

In electric bikes, there is a motor that kicks in (normally when you start to pedal). This motor makes it easier to cycle, helping to power the bike against a headwind or uphill. Most electric bikes will add in a certain percentage of extra power based on how hard you are pedalling, for example taking your pedalling power and increasing it by 300%. These motors charge through your usual wall outlet just as your would a phone or a laptop.

Not all electric bikes need to be pedalled though, in a minority of electric bikes, you can actually control the power of the motor by using a throttle. To clarify, these bikes are not the same as electric motorbikes. Their range, power and speed are limited compared to a motorbike, they are street-legal without a licence and most won’t work unless the pedals are moving.

Electric bikes are heavy

As electric bikes have to carry multiple other components such as a motor and battery, they weigh much more than a non-electric bike alternative. In fact, the battery alone can weigh as much as 9kg (20 pounds). Because of this, if you ever forget to charge the battery of the bike or it dies halfway through a cycle, it can then be much harder to cycle the bike like a normal bike.

This extra weight also means that any commute that requires you to lift a bike (for example if you live in a basement flat), will be more difficult than with a regular bike.

Electric bikes are great for mountain biking

Apart from commuting, electric bikes really are at their best when mountain biking. Many mountain bikers go out riding for the adrenaline-filled downhill racing that you can get on mountain bike single track, and often see the climb to the top of the route as a necessary evil.

Electric bikes completely solve this problem, speeding up your ascent and saving your energy for the more intense downhill sections later in the trail.

Electric bikes are great for injuries

The other area where I feel electric bikes work best is when it is used for riders suffering from an underlying medical condition, returning from an injury or cycling with much faster riders. In these situations, the electric bike can take on some of the extra strain or effort from your recovering body, and help you improve your strength to the point when you might plan to start using a regular bike again.

It is important to check with your doctor before you start cycling, especially if you have an underlying health condition or injury that may require specialist advice.

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.

A graph showing which type of bike a poll of bikepackers preferred to use for bikepacking trips. Gravel bikes were the most popular.
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.

Joe Dalloz

Hi! I'm Joe a 30-year-old doctor, cyclist, and bikepacker who's spent thousands of hours in the saddle and written hundreds of articles about riding bikes!

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