No Stupid Questions: Backpacks, Frame Luggage Or Trailers For Off-Road Bike Tours?

A reader writes:

Hey Tom 

It’s not an upcoming trip, rather it’s a failed bike trip experience that concerns me. Some detail: 

Hardtail steel frame 29er MTB (Cotic Solaris Max). The route – King Alfred’s Way (UK), in four days. Off road route, easy not technical. Gear – backpack only. 

Day 1 OK. 
Day 2 sore bum.
Day 3 more sore bum. 
Day 4 escape trails and ride back to start point on the roads because bum just too painful for more off-road riding. 

The weight of the backpack did it. I’m used to racing 7 day XC events across Appennines or French Alps with no sore bum issues, and have been riding bicycles enthusiastically all my life (52 now). 

My riding partner for the trip used packs supported / attached to her bike frame. No backpack for her. Wise and experienced. But she’s a very cautious and timid MTB rider. Whereas me… if the trail gets a little exciting, I like to shred it at max speed. So having weight tied to the bike frame is terrible. But having weight pressing down on my bum was just as bad. 

So – what about trailers?  Do bikepackers use them? Are they OK off road, at speed? 

Thanks so much for the question! Your experience got me thinking, because it’s strangely reminiscent of my first multi-day bike trip from Inverness to Fort William back in 2006.

The route was long, circuitous and self-designed. I was riding a full-suspension mountain bike on a mix of asphalt, gravel roads and technical singletrack (which in retrospect I really shouldn’t have been riding on). 

Out of sheer naivety, I carried all my gear – camping equipment included – in a massive army-surplus backpack. And – like you – I was soon too sore to remain seated because of the weight of that backpack.

After a couple of days of attempting to continue riding out of the saddle, I gave up, stopped at a hardware store, bought a load of bungees and Gaffa Tape, and spent a couple of hours tying as much of my gear to the bike frame as possible. 

To my surprise, I found that if I was careful to distribute the weight evenly, it didn’t really affect the handling of the bike. Yes, I could feel a bit more overall weight, but because I myself was no longer so top-heavy I found that the bike handled better than it did unladen.

(You’ll notice in the photos above that one of my riding partners had fitted a seatpost-mounted carrier rack and panniers. While he didn’t get saddle sore, he also couldn’t throw his bike around on the trails because the weight distribution was all wrong.)

Nowadays, of course, bikepacking frame luggage is so commonplace you can buy it at Sports Direct or Decathlon. And I know it might not look appealing to a hardcore mountain-biker, but I’m wondering if you’ve actually taken such a bike for a spin? If you look at the way some bikepacking minimalists approach packing, it’s pretty incredible how agile these bikes can be. Looking at what the frontrunners of prominent bikepacking races are riding is an interesting place to start (here’s such a piece from the inaugural Ascend Armenia race in 2023). Watch out for that rabbit hole, though.

I do understand the urge to shred. I too came to bikepacking from mountain-biking – nothing beats a good bit of flowy singletrack! Yet I suspect you’ll find technical riding on a well-thought-out ultralight bikepacking rig less cumbersome than you imagine.

Lots of businesses in popular trail-riding areas now rent out bikepacking bikes and gear (Alpkit are one of the more prominent). There are also outfits like Sisters In The Wild who run introductory bikepacking courses for women and gender minorities in this still very male-dominated space. So you should be able to test the theory before taking the plunge (or not!), and find a supportive community to help you do so.

Let’s touch briefly on trailers, which I’ve previously written about here (the comments are also well worth reading).

I’ve used a variety of single-wheel trailers over the years, all from Polish manufacturer Extrawheel, and get on very well with their handling and stability, both on- and off-road. Ground clearance was sometimes an issue, but later models of the Extrawheel did much to rectify that, and now there’s a whole range of mature products to choose from.

This was back when a single-wheel trailer like the Extrawheel, or more likely the B.O.B. Yak or Ibex, was almost mandatory on long off-road cycling expeditions. I’ve still got my original Extrawheel Classic, but I rarely take it out these days. I suspect many riders – myself included – moved away from them as frame luggage and outdoor gear evolved.

I personally reached “peak trailer” when crossing Mongolia in 2010. My riding partner and I were carrying about a month’s worth of instant noodles and cereal bars, but we still needed a bike that could handle dirt roads and cross-country riding. Being able to spread out an expedition’s worth of gear across three wheels made all the difference on that trip.

But if I was setting off on a four-day ride in the UK with plenty of resupply stops, such as the one you’ve described, I’d almost certainly go with a two-wheeled, frame-luggage-centric setup like this one I built a couple of years ago to lead a bikepacking group in Armenia, and most of my group members did likewise.

It’s worth mentioning that the evolution of ultralight gear means ever lighter and more nimble bikepacking bikes are possible (even if actually packing and unpacking the weird-shaped bags is always a bit of a faff).

It’s also worth mentioning that a small, lightweight backpack can still be handy on rides like this – just in addition to your main luggage solution, rather than instead of it. I prefer to carry a 3‑litre hydration pack on my back, for example, rather than encumbering the frame with dense, heavy water. Others use small day-packs for snacks, waterproofs, extra layers, and the like.

In short, then: I’d first suggest taking a lightweight bikepacking bike out on the trails, just to understand how frame luggage feels to ride. If it really isn’t for you, a single-wheel trailer might be another viable option.

Hope this helps!