Turn your mountain bike into a long-distance machine with these well-designed haulers
When I started bikepacking nearly a decade ago, it was such a marginal part of the cycling market that few people even knew the word. “Don’t you mean backpacking?” they'd often ask.
But now, thanks to the efforts of a small cadre of dedicated riders and companies who have scouted and raced routes and created buzz for the adventures (Scott Morris’ TopoFusion tracking software has driven major interest by allowing those back home to follow his progress), the segment has exploded.
Salsa Cycles in particular has been part of that driving force, with dedicated bikes, sponsorships of bikepacking athletes, and marketing to get people psyched. “Interest in bikepacking and adventure cycling is growing because people are embracing the incredible possibilities that bike travel provides,” says Mike Riemer, Salsa’s marketing manager. “Bikepacking takes a bicycle and turns it from a toy to a very powerful tool capable of changing and enriching your life. The heart of adventure riding, as I see it, is to go to new places, see amazing things, meet cool people, and immerse yourself into incredibly rewarding experiences.”
With that in mind, this week Ortlieb launched a line of out-of-the-box packs for bikepacking that should make it easier for even more people to get out on two-wheeled adventures. Not long ago gear like this was available only in small, hard-to-get quantities from custom makers. To be clear, these are not the first stock packs to market: Salsa already sells an excellent line that includes frame bags and Blackburn launched a few pieces last year. But Ortlieb’s packs are notable for their high quality and smart designs, and it’s nice that there’s an increasing range of choices for consumers.
Ortlieb’s bikepacking bag line includes three packs: the 16.5-liter compression Seat-Pack, the 15-liter Handle-Bar Pack, and the 3.5-liter Accessory Pack. All are fully waterproof, use laser-cut patterns and welded seams, and include metal hardware and reflective detailing for visibility when riding after dark. The company has a frame pack in the works for next season, though that's harder to buy off-the-shelf since every interior frame space is different.
Prior to the official launch, I received a setup of the new packs and put them to the test on a weekend out. They’re incredibly built, as you’d expect from Ortlieb, which makes some of the toughest gear on the market. The designs are basically a retread of the products out there by Revelate Designs and Salsa, which might not sound like an endorsement, but actually is: those products work damn well.
One big downside: the burliness of these bags comes with a weight penalty—the two main packs weight around 50 percent more than my existing Revelate gear. And while a few hundred grams here and there might not seem like a lot, when you’re hefting gear up a singletrack, every ounce counts. Then again, these bags seem significantly more waterproof than my current setup, so if I were headed to wet climes, I’d take the weight for the added protection.
The premium price might be an issue, too: $370 for a setup (not including a frame pack) is steep and around 30 percent more than other brands. Still, these are super high-quality bags that should hold up indefinitely (I’ve had my custom Revelate bags for nearly a decade), so it’s a one-time investment. If you live or tour in places with sloppy weather and need the utmost protection in a time-tested design, you can’t go wrong with the Ortlieb line.
Below is a piece-by-piece appraisal of each pack based on a three-day, two-night trip in Arizona. Of course, durability will have to be tested in the long term, though based on the materials and finish, longevity shouldn't be an issue. If anything, these bags are overbuilt.
This telescoping pack (430 grams) is huge: it swallowed a stove, pots and pans, a three-liter water bladder, and sundry clothing, with room to spare. It’s tailored with a wide flaring mouth, making it easy to pack odd-shaped items like pots. It’s still easy to collapse, however, and Ortlieb wisely included a valve for venting air when you compress it. The yoke has super stiff Velcro attachments for the seat post and is reinforced with Torx bolts. (Those seem like a good idea for durability, but I’ve never had any issues with my existing packs, so the design might just add unnecessary heft.) There’s also an elastic utility cable on top that’s perfect for strapping on a raincoat or other soft item, and the laser-cut tabs at the back hold a SPOT tracker out of the way.
Handle-Bar Pack ($130)
Wider than any other bar pack I’ve used, this cylinder (417 grams) was large enough for my tent, sleeping pad, bivy sack, sleeping bag, and some thermal gear, including a puffer and long underwear. If anything, it’s almost too big as I didn’t really want that much equipment on the bars on technical singletrack. The tube is compressible, but the burly waterproof nylon makes well-spaced packing difficult, and the whole thing gets a bit floppy if you try to strap it down too much. The bag attaches by Revelate’s tested three-strap system, with one around the head tube and two at the bars, including foam spacers to keep the pack off your hands. Ortlieb’s waterproof coating on the inside of the bag is slicker than others I’ve used—a boon as it avoids the usual binding and straining of stuffing gear.
Accessory Pack ($70)
Perhaps my favorite of the bunch, this small satchel (206 grams) straps to the front of the Handle-Bar Pack with webbing and aluminum buckles. The roll-top design is waterproof and easy to batten down, making this the optimal spot for maps, electronics, a compass, and anything else you might need to access quickly. Whether or not I use Ortlieb’s Handle-Bar pack moving forward, I’ll definitely add this little guy to my standard setup.