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The Cycle Life

Tested: The Best New Bikepacking Bags

This segment of the bike world is growing rapidly, so we called in all the new stuff and took it camping in the New Mexico backcountry

Bikepacking is surging in popularity and big brands are getting into the game. (JJAG Media)
Adventure

This segment of the bike world is growing rapidly, so we called in all the new stuff and took it camping in the New Mexico backcountry

Bikepacking used to be a fringe activity. These days, it’s about as commonplace as sidewall tears in the rocky desert. There are drop-bar and flat-bar bikes built expressly for it, videos about it, and it’s even popping up in the New York Times. And, unlike a decade ago, when only a few tiny companies sold made-to-order bags, some of the biggest brands in cycling have started building packs to make it easier to get out and camp overnight on a bike.

Those tiny brands, such as Apidura, Nuclear Sunrise, Oveja Negra, and Porcelain Rocket, continue to innovate and create excellent products. Heck, for the most part I still mainly use my ten-year-old packs from Revelate Designs—the stuff is that good. At the same time, the mom-and-pop shops haven’t always kept up with burgeoning demand, which is partly why I love that big companies like Specialized and Blackburn have gotten into this space. As with bikes, some people will be happy waiting a bit longer and paying more for boutique manufacturers, and others will be glad they can walk into a store and purchase a big brand off the shelf. Choice is never a bad thing.

To find out how some of the newer gear stacks up, I’ve been testing kit from four of the more easily recognizable brands: Blackburn, Salsa, Specialized, and Topeak. These are in addition to Ortlieb’s excellent, if overbuilt, bags from last year. The test period culminated in a multiday tour of northern New Mexico, starting in Santa Fe, climbing up to the Valles Caldera, and ending with a smashing descent of Los Alamos’ Pajarito Mountain. This being monsoon season, we had rain, flash-flooded arroyos, mud, and lots of humidity—all of it perfect for putting the gear through its paces.

Blackburn Outpost Bags

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Blackburn's Seatpack and Drybag, Frame Bag, and Handlebar Roll and Drybag. (JJAG Media)

Blackburn now runs its Ranger program (essentially a group of brand ambassadors) and needed good product to support its efforts. The company has (mostly) succeeded.

The 11-liter Seatpack and Drybag ($120; 470 grams) employs our favorite design in saddlebags, with a harness system that stays onboard and a drybag that slips in and out for easy packing and unpacking. The shape is narrow and angles upward, which kept it clear of rear tires, though it became missile-length long when fully loaded and, accordingly, needed longer straps. The Frame Bag ($65; 390 grams) is the standout in the line, with a zippered, telescoping design that allows for water bottles when closed but expands for more space (from 5.25 to 7 liters) when opened. We also loved the daisy-chain perimeter for ultimate frame connection options. The top-tube-hugging design doesn’t play well with many full-suspension bikes, but there’s nothing better for hardtails and road frames.

The only piece in the line that’s difficult to recommend is the Handlebar Roll and Drybag ($100; 939 grams). Once you have it attached to the bike, it works well enough, but the mounting system is convoluted, and it weighs almost as much as Topeak’s complete range of bags. We weren’t able to test the Top Tube Bag ($45), but it looks weather sealed and well-designed.

Salsa EXP Series

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Salsa's Anything Cradle Plus Dry Bag, Seatpack, Top Tube Bag, and Spearfish Frame Bag. (JJAG Media)

Perhaps the best established and most influential brand in bikepacking, Salsa has long provided excellent gear. Its bags were originally crafted by Revelate Designs, but Salsa launched its own gear, the EXP Series, a couple seasons back. Some of it takes cues from the original stuff, other pieces bring smart innovation, and all of it is worth considering.

I was initially wary of the front-mount Anything Cradle Plus Drybag ($170; 610 grams) due to its weight—more than double my standard Revelate setup—but the simplicity and tidiness makes this the standout upgrade of anything I’ve used. Two forged-aluminum arms with easy-mounting swivel clamps connect to a snowplow-shaped nylon cradle, the combination of which keeps gear and straps away from your hands and cables and makes lashing the included drybag simple. I easily fit my tent, pad, sleeping bag, puffy coat, and merino long underwear into the bag, and once it was lashed on the bike, I never had to fuss with it again. The only slight niggle is that the drybag doesn’t have an air purge valve, which would make it easier to vacuum it tighter. It’s not a huge deal, but Salsa does sell the Cradle alone ($110), so you could mix and match with another bag. In the same vein, the company’s Anything Cage ($35; 152 grams) bolts to three-bolt water bottle mounts (or the two-bolt variety, plus included straps) and is perfect for lashing anything from tents to sleeping bags and pads.

The rest of the line isn’t as revolutionary as the front system, but it’s all still good. The Seatpack ($120; 404 grams) is cut from a super-burly waterproof fabric that proved 100 percent impervious. The connection points are solid, the elastic guy cord on top allows access easy for items you need (like a rain jacket), and an air purge valve means reducing volume is a cinch. When loaded with water, the bag’s shape did seem worryingly down-pointed, and I had issues with tire rub. Additionally, the lashing straps are too short, especially with the plastic organizing keepers on the end, which made it difficult to get the bag tight and stable. The Top Tube Bag ($60; 144 grams) is constructed for the same husky fabric, and it’s the only one with eyelets for bolt-on mounting. That’s certainly the most secure option, but unfortunately, if your bike doesn’t have such mounts, this bag doesn’t have a strap forward enough to keep it from slopping around.

Salsa is the only brand I know of that has offered a noncustom frame bag—the Spearfish Frame Bag ($120; 230 grams)—that works with some suspension bikes. It’s built for the company’s short-travel machines, but I’ve used it, with some modifications, on everything from Specialized Epics to Rocky Mountain Elements. The bags are difficult to find these days, but Salsa promises a new EXP version soon.

Specialized Burra Burra

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Specialized's Stabilizer Seatpack 10, Drypack 13, and Top Tube Pack 0.75. (JJAG Media)

The Big S launched its bags, along with the revised Sequoia bike, at a 1,350-mile bikepacking race across Sweden last summer, where the equipment stood up to a major beatdown. The gear is mostly good, though it’s definitely on the portly side, which can become an issue when you’re already loading up lots of weight.

The best of the bunch is the Stabilizer Seatpack 10 ($130; 546 grams), which hangs the wedge bag on an aluminum frame to prevent sway. The tradeoff for the stability is the extra heft, which might not be worth it in this smaller bag. But if you need lots of capacity, the 20-liter version would carry weight better than anything else here. We did feel the bag needed some slight detailing: The aluminum clamp would have been easier with a hinged opening and needed some beveling on the inside so as not to mar carbon seatposts; the snaps at the saddle rails constantly came free and should be eliminated from the design; and the bag itself, while cut from a waterproof fabric, had some leaking issues at the seams.

The Stabilizer Harness ($90) and Drypack 13 ($40) use an aluminum frame like the seat bag and had similar issues. The clamps were hard to get on and, even with the bolts completely tightened, still slipped down with road vibration. At 532 grams, it’s also heavy. But unlike the Salsa Cradle, the weight doesn’t gain you any benefit. With some modifications, this could be okay, but as is, there are better options.

The strip-style Framepack 5 ($100; 283 grams) worked well with rigid frames and comes in three sizes for fit. The rubberized straps and weather covers on the zippers were a nice touch and kept our gear dry. And the .75-liter Top Tube Pack ($50; 144 grams) was one of the more stable of the bunch once we modified the front strap to fit the chunky head tube section of a mountain bike. (My suggestion: Specialized should make those fitments longer to start and allow users to cut them to fit.)

Topeak Bikepacking Series

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The Topeak Frontloader 8, Backloader 10, and Toploader .75 shown with the Salsa Spearfish Frame Bag. (JJAG Media)

This is some of the newest gear to market, and Topeak has clearly done its design due diligence. This gear is not only light and functional but also the least expensive by a significant margin.

Both the eight-liter Frontloader ($80; 313 grams) and ten-liter Backloader ($100; 435 grams) employ a harness system that stays on the bike paired with a drybag inner that slips on and off. This is an excellent design because it allows packing and unpacking when you arrive at your destination without having to rerig each time. The fabrics in both are soft and have a nice hand, and the drybags are built with air purge valves, which makes it easy to really tighten things up and batten them down on the bike. The Frontloader was fiddly during the first install but proved easier once we got the hang of it.

The gas-tank-style .75-liter Toploader ($40; 163 grams) was simple and effective, and though not waterproof, there is a built-in rain cover that slides out of a Velcro pocket to cover the pack should you need it.

The Midloader, which comes in two sizes to fit frames without suspension—a three-liter ($56; 256 grams) and a 4.5-liter ($66; 297 grams)—is probably the only piece we’d skip. Like the other packs, the detailing is good, with sturdy plastic zipper pulls and weather flaps over the zippers. It’s also sewn from the same soft, durable fabric as the rest of the line, but there’s no waterproof lining, meaning gear that was stowed inside ranged from damp to wet on several of the rainy days we tried it.

Burley Nomad

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The two-wheeled trailer can carry up to 100 pounds while being remarkably maneuverable. (Courtesy of Burley)

If you plan to ride only on roads, a trailer is a reasonable alternative to packs. On our tour, a couple friends couldn’t make the entire trip but came in for one night of camping. Their ride was down a steep forest road and then along a dirt two-track; they pulled the Burley Nomad ($339) fitted with the 16+ Wheel Kit ($189). This little trailer hauled an incredible amount of gear, including two tents, sleep gear, lots of cookwear, a hammock, and a bottle of wine and bourbon, and that didn’t even approach the 100-pound capacity. The connection is a simple metal bracket that slides between a thru-axle and frame and allows the load to be attached and detached quickly and easily. The weatherproof cover slips on and off easily and kept everything dry despite the evening rain.

I’ve used single-wheel trailers, including the BOB Ibex, in the past, and though that’s the best option for singletrack, I was struck by the convenience of this two-wheeler. The load is stable and doesn’t dump when you lay the bike down, and the knobby three-inch tires had good grab. I was even able to piston back up the steep, loose climb to my friend’s truck with 50 pounds of cargo behind me. The Nomad wouldn’t work for a lot of backcountry touring, where you’d need a tighter footprint for trails, but on dirt-roads trips, the convenience can’t be beat. The Nomad should also be excellent for bike hunting later this season.

So, What Should You Really Buy?

The truth is that all of these packs work at least adequately. However, the only complete system we’d likely buy is the Salsa setup: A few of the bags have slight shortcomings, but overall the gear is seriously rugged and well designed. Except for the frame bag, the Topeak gear is also very well put together and would be a good option for those on a budget.

Having said that, to get the optimal system, you’d probably want to mix and match. For a front bag, the Salsa Anything Cradle is the standout. For rear bags, we’d choose the Topeak Backloader or Blackburn Seatpack and Drybag for light duty and shorter tours, and the Specialized Seatpack 20 for long tours or if you really needed to haul a lot of gear. The Salsa Top Tube Bag is the obvious choice if you have mounting eyelets, and if not, the Topeak is the way to go since it’s the least expensive of the bunch. For frame packs, the expandable Blackburn is the most innovative and coolest design of the bunch.

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