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Best bikepacking kit: Lightweight luggage, camping accessories and tents for your next adventure

We tested a variety of equipment – tents, pillows, and snack bags – to make your excursions more pleasurable

Suzie McCracken
Friday 10 September 2021 14:56
<p>You may already own camping items, but getting “ultralight” versions will help you fit more on your frame</p>

You may already own camping items, but getting “ultralight” versions will help you fit more on your frame

There’s nothing like bikepacking for that feeling of self-sufficient freedom. Lash some kit to your trusty frame and simply start to pedal towards somewhere beautiful. What could be simpler?

Well, quite a lot. Despite its popularity, this mode of travel is more complicated than Instagram would suggest, and that’s down to the huge amount of kit-based decisions a burgeoning bikepacker has to make.

A whole industry that has popped up in the past decade to cater to those with suspension forks or carbon frames that can’t make use of more traditional touring racks and panniers, but who still wish to have multi-day adventures on two wheels. These sorts of setups also tend to be more minimal and, well, let’s face it, cooler-looking than the classic “German cyclotourist” vibe.

If you want to have a go you’ll need luggage (normally a combination of a bar bag, saddle bag, frame pack and stem bags), and kit that’s small enough to go into said bags. You may already own camping items, but getting “ultralight” versions will help you fit more on your frame. When you get things right, nothing feels quite as fabulous as having the exact amount of gear you need to maintain a segment-winning pace in the day and stay cuddly in the evenings.

It is also a hobby that requires a lot of fettling – we’ve tested our picks on a range of bikes and on different kinds of rides, and not all of it will suit everyone. All of these brands are real leaders in the field, so, particularly when it comes to luggage, you may find that a Restrap frame bag (£74.99, Restrap.com) is more appropriate for your geometry than the Ortlieb version recommended below (£94.49, Cyclestore.co.uk). We’ve chosen our favourites from testing, but you’ll need to decide what’s most important to you before you make your purchases; whether that’s the ability to get to items quickly, or the certainty that a bag’s contents will be safe in an entirely waterproof shell.

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How we tested

We tested all of these items on a variety of short and long rides on multi-day trips, from the rolling hills of the Suffolk countryside to the dramatic landscapes of the Outer Hebrides. We tried them in a mix of weathers… but thankfully mostly sunshine.

We were looking for high-quality gear worth the often eye-popping pricetag. We’ve also tried to mention entry-level options where we know of good alternatives, from many years spent cycle touring and bikepacking on a budget. We’ve also tried out some of the latest trends on the market, from quilts to fork packs.

The best bikepacking kit for 2021 is:

Big Agnes 2021 copper spur HV UL3 bikepacking tent

Best: Bikepacking tent

Tents made for hiking with backpacks are fabulous things, and they have served cycle tourers and bikepackers well for many years. But US brand Big Agnes has taken a giant leap forward in terms of making their already very well-regarded tents even more handy for those of us who prefer travelling on two wheels. The company has given their copper spur HV UL a bike-friendly makeover for 2021 to create the bikepack edition – and it’s got loads of extra features specifically for us dorks.

Shorter poles than the regular model mean that they can easily slip into bike bags (pannier, frame, saddle), and the really fabulous bag that the whole tent comes in is designed to be carried on your handlebars. It clips onto flat bars with no hassle, and onto all but the most narrow of drop bars easily. The case also has a number of clever buckles and loops that enable you to attach accessory pouches for on-the-bike access to snacks and suncream.

The tent itself is stupendously light at less than 1.7kg. This is an “ultralight” tent, which means it is not the most durable on the market and you will have to give it a bit of TLC a groundsheet (£89.99, Ultralightoutdoorgear.co.uk) is advised for longer trips. But for a careful bikepacker, it should strike the perfect balance between weight and robustness.

We tried the positively palatial three-man version, which we’d recommend for those who enjoy a little more wiggle room – it was perfect for a fortnight-long trip for a couple. It comes in at just less than the weight of this reviewer’s previous two-man model (£179.99, Decathlon.co.uk), so it felt incredibly luxurious to have such a bump in space for no weight penalty. Unlike many tunnel-style hiking tents, the pole constructuction of the copper spur gives you enough room to sit up – a saviour should one of your days of adventuring get rained off, and you find yourself with nothing but an old card game for company. When we tested it, being able to change in the tent without having to lie down was enough to convince us of its glory.

Extra details like daisy-chain webbing on the top of the tent (to stuff your just-washed kecks into for drying at camp), an elasticated home just for your helmet (not a piece of equipment you want to misplace under heavy stuff) and generous porches that you can convert into awning-like areas are genuinely lovely additions that make you realise that Big Agnes loves bikepacking as much as we do. You can, of course, buy a serviceable tent for less than this, but if you are planning to spend long periods in your saddle, there’s no better place to catch those much-needed Zs.

If you can’t wait for the UL3 to come back in stock, the two-man version is currently available at Absolute Snow (£424.95, Absolutesnow.co.uk).

Therm-a-Rest womens neoair xlite sleeping mat

Best: Sleeping mat

If you’ve ever been drawn into an extensive chat about camping mats (yes, they do happen), then you’ll know that when the conversation turns to Therm-a-Rest products, the tone becomes hushed. That’s because, quite simply, this brand makes the best beds you can imagine. And the neoair xlite is the big daddy when it comes to a lightweight place to plonk your noggin.

For just 340g – that’s a bit more than a pack of rich teas and a bit less than a pack of digestives – you get a mattress that’s genuinely akin to sleeping on a bed, but for the outside. Even side sleepers can enjoy the comfort afforded by this mattress, as you don’t touch the ground when you turn over. Is it clear yet that this is a rave review?

Putting it up takes a little longer than with “self inflating” versions, but no more than three minutes of filling and decanting air from the superbly designed pump sack (so you don’t get your spittle inside the mat itself). Then simply lie down and drift off.

We love that the women’s version of the mat is the same weight as the men’s regular version (£144.50, Outdoorgear.co.uk), but is shorter (perfect for this 5ft 4in reviewer) and, crucially, warmer. It’s R value is 5.4, rather than the men’s 4.2 (for comparison, similar weight mats from competitors typically hover around the 3.5 mark). This makes sense because women, generally, get colder, quicker. It’s the kind of smart design we love to see.

It’s pricey, but no other mat offers such a great balance between warmth, weight and durability. And it’s yellow. Who doesn’t love yellow?

Ortlieb fork-pack

Best: For bikes with straight forks

If you have a steed with straight forks – most likely suspension forks on a mountain bike – that you want to take bikepacking in tougher country, then Ortlieb has recently launched these fun alternatives to Salsa’s long-loved “anything” cages. These frankly adorable (and, more importantly, waterproof) bags look like dolls’-sized versions of the brand’s touring panniers (from £80, Ortleib.com), and allow for a bit more flexibility – cages just don’t have the “stuffability” that these little packs provide, and they can be easily removed for storage inside your tent or under your tarp while you sleep.

We mounted them to a set of RockShox pike forks with relative ease and found they could accommodate a sleeping mat, gas canister, tent (sans poles), camping towel, some accessories and a spare layer. They rattled a bit over rocky terrain, but on the whole they were much simpler than other luggage solutions for forks without mounting points. They’re certainly a welcome new addition to the bikepacking luggage market, and, happily, they come with a five-year warranty.

Exped air pillow UL

Best: Pillow

When every gram counts, a pillow becomes a ludicrous luxury. Making do with clothes bundled into a dry bag is the most common approach... but we can confirm that upgrading to a real pillow is seriously worth it. This ultralight example is from Exped – a camping brand known best for its sleeping kit.

This particular model is only 65g, has a soft-touch coating on the plastic so you don’t feel like you’re on a lilo, and is totally tiny - it fitted perfectly at the bottom of our Apidura expedition saddle pack (£126, Apidura.com), using up that extra bit of capacity that nothing else was small enough for.

The shaping is thoughtful, with one chunkier end allowing for a pleasant slope for the head, or a more sizeable neck prop, should you be a side sleeper. After spending the night on this, we were awoken by the blazing sunshine at 5.03am, and not by the usual pain in our neck. Highly recommended.

Apidura expedition saddle pack

Best: Saddle bag

Apidura was one of the first companies in the UK to really get bikepacking, and it’s built a reputation as a go-to brand for clever, sleek-looking luggage. For this review we tried out the latest 14l expedition saddle pack, which has welded seams, making it completely waterproof, and therefore a safe home for your valuables (and snacks) when undertaking an overnighter or even a long audax.

Unlike some saddle packs we’ve seen while riding, this one doesn’t swing manically back and forth the minute it’s got your sleeping bag in it – the attachment system feels robust. We love that the rolltop means the capacity can grow with your demands (and snacks), and that there’s a light attachment point to make up for the fact the pack obscures the back of your seat post. It’s a wonderfully thought-out piece of kit.

The model we tried was from the company’s new Revive store, which takes gear that’s seen better days and gives it a new life. Ours had a repair patch on it that managed to look aesthetically pleasing while reminding us that the company isn’t chucking samples and returns in the bin. Props all round.

Alpkit cloud cover quilt

Best: Quilt

If you are going to a warm place for your ride, then it is possible to forgo a sleeping bag entirely and take a quilt instead. The thinking is that if your sleeping mat is good enough (and if you go with the Therm-a-Rest women’s neoair xlite, it certainly will be), you don’t actually need all that insulation that would normally be under your body in a tube-style bag. You’re depressing the materials, rendering it pretty useless anyway, and so a quilt should suffice.

There are a number of incredibly expensive mountaineering quilts on the market, but this recently launched example from fabulous British outdoors brand Alpkit is an excellent example that nails the basics. It is somewhat bulky in its case, so be sure to measure any bike luggage or panniers before buying – but it’s the weight where it really sings, providing 750 fill power (the same as the brand’s pipedream 400 sleeping bag, which we have previously recommended, £199.99, Alpkit.com) for only 450g. It’s also a fabulous way to bulk out a summer sleeping bag, if you want to continue to bikepack as the weather begins to turn. We loved the flexibility of the poppers and the fact that it made going for a pee a doddle.

Ortleib frame-pack top tube

Best: Frame bag

Another entry from the German brand, Ortleib’s top tube frame bag gets our vote for its absolute waterproofing, and therefore the absolute confidence that it gives you when you’re bombing down a mountainside in the driving rain.

Designed to fit on a wide range of bikes (do check the dimensions of yours, however), we found it was as at home on a racey Cervelo as it was on a vintage steel-frame steed. In both cases it became home to technology - plugs, cameras, phones - that our testers were particularly worried about exposing to the elements. To make it weatherproof, the brand has had to include a pretty stiff zip, so it’s not the place to store quick-draw elements. But we found the quality to be reassuringly high, and the material to be totally impregnable. It’s a highlight in the brand’s growing bikepacking range, as it seeks to transform itself from a heritage touring staple into a modern luggage maker.

Wizard Works voila! snack bag

Best: Cockpit bag

With the proliferation of kit made to sit between your handlebars (like our best buy tent), many bikepacking bag makers have turned their attention to the cyclist’s “cockpit” in recent times. Having your suncream, snacks, phone and wallet nearby is going to make your life a lot easier on a trip – and will ensure you don’t miss the perfect ‘gram cause you couldn’t be arsed to dig your camera out of your saddle pack.

So, enter snack or stem bags. We like the offering from Wizard Works in south London – a small company offering well-considered bags that come in a range of super fun colours. We especially loved the quick-pull closing mechanism, which made us feel smooth and efficient during our rides, and we got plenty of compliments on the fun camo material.

The only thing to note is that the bag isn’t fully waterproof. As with all bikepacking gear, good accessibility always results in slightly depleted weather resistance, but since you’ll be reaching for the items here so regularly, we think the design provides the perfect balance.

We also liked the recently launched, speedy-looking go-go (£60, Wizard.works), which sits on your top tube and has well-placed holes to allow for you to connect an enclosed battery pack to a wheel dynamo system, if you have one. As always, be sure to measure up before you buy – this model will look best on bikes with plenty of spacers, due to its height.

Restrap bar bag large

Best: Bar bag

There are a number of different designs out there for bar bags, and they all offer their own pros and cons. But we really love Yorkshire company Restrap’s version – the dry-bag-in-mount solution offers flexibility not only with what items can go into it, but also by enabling you to quickly detach just the dry bag when you get to camp, meaning you don’t have to fiddle with all the straps as the sun quickly retreats behind the nearest hill. It works best with soft, squidey cargo - your sleeping bag, for instance – and its multiple mounting points instill confidence in even the most blustering mountain biker.

We had varied feedback concerning the printed instructions, but Restrap provides a very clear YouTube video to remedy any confusion. The snack bag gives you plenty of quick-draw flexibility, and the stylings offer something a little, well, sleeker than brands whose designs highlight the technical nature of the fabrics. We also love Restrap’s saddle pack, which we recommended in our guide to the best.

Petzl actik core headlamp

Best: Head torch

A head torch is a must for bikepacking – especially if you plan to do some wild camping as part of your trip, which may involve you needing to set up stealthily. We love this lightweight option from Petzl for a number of reasons, but mainly its adaptability: you can recharge the battery using a micro USB cable (which plugs into the battery itself, meaning you could buy two and use your headlamp while the other battery juices up), or stick some bog-standard AAA batteries in it if you find yourself somewhere more remote, where a shop is easier to find than an outlet.

The strap is comfortable, the brightness is impressive and, unlike Petzl’s extremely lightweight offering (the bindi), it offers a red-light mode – this enables you to walk to the toilet at 2am without ruining your ability to see in the dark. For these reasons, we think it’s worth the 50g of extra weight, at 75g. Overall, our experience tallied well with that of our reviewer of the best head torches. We also adored the noctilight (£15, Wiggle.co.uk) accessory, which turned our headlamp into a lantern for hanging at the top of the tent. You shove it in, strap and all (SO EASY), to create a more diffused light for an evening spent inside.

Our only qualm was that the bike mount (£12.99, Wiggle.co.uk) was very stiff – with cold fingers, it would be incredibly difficult to extract your headlamp from the holder. We preferred just wearing the torch on our head when riding from the pub back to our camp.

Quad Lock bike kit

Best: Phone mount

We’ve previously used more temporary solutions to mount our smartphone to our handlebars – the low-profile Finn (£12.99, Halfords.com) is an ingenious Austrian invention that we always keep in our barbag for around town.

But if you are planning on bikepacking offroad, then nothing comes close to the Quad Lock system, which offers unrivalled security for attaching your phone to your bike, either via a sturdy stem attachment or an “out-front” mount.

Yes, you have to add the Quad Lock case to your phone (in our case, a 2020 iPhone SE), but we were impressed by how unobtrusive it was when browsing #ultralight feeds after setting up camp. On the bike, we were staggered by how much it improved our navigation experience. We coupled it with Komoot (from £3.99, Komoot.com) – our favourite app for short getaways – and loved how it kept all our stats within easy reach.

Your phone isn’t going anywhere – the system means your gadget satisfyingly pings in, and you need to push up from behind to dismount. Hurtling through a rainstorm? No problem: the see-through “poncho” keeps your beloved scroller safe and you can even still operate the phone through it… although in a somewhat clunkier manner than normal.

Although bike computers are a great option, and are designed to be less demanding in terms of battery power when on multi-day rides, the recent drop in prices for solar-charging technology, and the increased availability of dynamo hubs for bicycles, means that going “phone only” is an increasingly viable bikepacking option – especially with a Quad Lock in tow.

The verdict: Bikepacking kit

Nothing has affected how pleasurable our bikepacking trips are more than the Big Agnes copper spur UL3 bikepack tent. It’s simply the biggest step up in terms of kit we’ve ever experienced, allowing us to stretch out in a way our previous tiddly tents never could. That, coupled with the Therm-A-Rest womens neoair xlite, have made us feel like we could go anywhere in the world and sleep so soundly that we might even smash some PBs the next day. They are our top recommendations for any excitable cyclists wanting to ride off into the sunset.

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Want to camp out on your next trip? Check out our best cooking essentials for camping

IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.

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