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Best Bikepacking Bikes | Buyer’s Guide

Gravel bikes are adventure-ready machines that make for the best bikepacking bikes – here’s why

The beauty of bikepacking is that you can do it on just about any bike. Just strap on your bikepacking bags and hit the road, whether you’re riding out on your local lanes or embarking on an off-road epic. Having said that, the growing popularity of bikepacking has also been accompanied by the rise of the gravel bike. Gravel bikes (sometimes referred to as adventure bikes) are designed to combine road speed with off-road capability, sitting in a sweet spot that opens up a wide range of riding. As such, gravel bikes are now widely seen as the best bikepacking bikes.

“If you were to own only one bike, chances are you’d want it to be a gravel bike”

“Going faster, further and deeper into the unknown is made easier with a bit of bike specialisation,” says Callum Nicklin, brand manager of Mason Cycles. “An adventure bike should allow you to cover ground quickly, both on and off-road, while still being comfortable enough to ride all day.”

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If you were to own only one bike, chances are you’d want it to be a gravel bike. These drop-handlebar, knobbly-tyred machines are capable and versatile. We’re going to take a closer look at what makes a gravel bike and why they’re ideal for bikepacking. We’ll then showcase three of our favourite machines.

Gravel bikes are typically made from aluminium, steel or carbon fibre. Some exotic – and expensive – titanium frames are also available too. While carbon fibre is the go-to material for many high-end bikes, aluminium is ideal for gravel and bikepacking thanks to its durability and affordability.

One brand’s definition of a gravel bike can vary significantly from another’s. Some lean more heavily towards the road, others are akin to the fully-rigid mountain bikes of old. But understanding the key features of an adventure-ready machine will help you pick the right bike for your style of riding.

Relaxed Geometry

Gravel bike geometry can vary depending on the bike’s manufacturer and its intended use. However, a typical adventure bike will have a more relaxed geometry than a road bike. This usually results in a longer wheelbase to improve stability over rough terrain. A taller front-end also provides a more relaxed position on rides that are often counted by the day, not hour. The frame angles are also likely to be slacker than a road bike, again to provide more sedate handling.

Disc Brakes

All gravel bikes have disc brakes. Budget models sport cable-actuated discs and mid to high-end machines come equipped with hydraulic discs. “Stopping in all conditions with a heavily loaded bike is way easier with disc brakes,” says Nicklin. If your budget allows, go for hydraulic discs. They offer significantly improved performance over cable-operated stoppers.

Wide Tyres

Here’s where gravel bikes begin to look noticeably different from road bikes. Wider tyres improve comfort and enable you to venture off-road. Most gravel bikes accommodate 35mm-45mm rubber. “The gnarlier the terrain, the fatter you’ll need to go, so make sure your bike can accommodate wide tyres if it needs to,” says Joshua Cunningham, author of Escape by Bike: Adventure Cycling, Bikepacking and Touring Off-Road.

Many gravel bikes are also compatible with smaller diameter 650b wheels, boosting tyre clearance again and increasing versatility. “That gives you the ability to switch wheelsets, so you have a road-focused one, and then a smaller wheelset with larger tyres for an off-road adventure,” says Nicklin. Tubeless wheels and tyres further improve grip and ride comfort, while also reducing the likelihood of punctures.

How To Choose The Right Tyres

Tyres make a big difference to how your bike rides. Provided your frame has the necessary clearance, they can be easily upgraded to suit different types of terrain. “Modern tubeless road tyres, around 28-32mm in width, will cover a huge range of conditions and are certainly good enough for all road riding and lots of gravel/bridleways in Europe”, says Nicklin.

“Larger volume gravel tyres will extend how far off-road you can go. It’s common to see chunky 650b x 45-50mm tyres in place of traditional road rubber, with riders sensibly prioritising grip and comfort over speed on rough terrain.”

Credit: Mason Bikes

Low Gearing

Gravel bike gearing is normally lower than a road bike but not quite as forgiving as a mountain bike. Expect to see a compact (50-34t) or sub-compact (48-32t) chainset with two chainrings, or a single-chainring setup with a wide-ranging rear cassette. Regardless, if you’re planning a lumpy bikepacking route, make sure your bike is geared accordingly. “Remember that your bike weighs more when you’re bikepacking,” says Nicklin. “Gear it for the climbs.”

Cunningham adds: “Make sure you give yourself a good enough gear ratio for the terrain you plan on riding. For a weekend in Essex this might be a regular road groupset, but for an off-road Himalayan epic you’re going to need much smaller ratios.”

Accessories

Versatility is at the heart of gravel bike design. Expect to see plenty of mounts across the frame. As well as the regular bottle cage mounts on the downtube and seattube, many gravel frames have a third set of drillings on the underside of the downtube. This is for an additional bottle or tool caddy.

You may also find additional mounts on either side of the fork to increase the bike’s carrying capacity. There may even be a dynamo mount on the fork crown. “A dynamo makes life easier on the road,” says Nicklin. “You can charge a battery pack or your devices in the day, and light the way at night.” Most gravel frames are also compatible with mudguards, making them ideal for all-weather commuting.

What Is The Best Bikepacking Bike?

So what’s the best bikepacking bike? The answer is: there isn’t one. Every bikepacking ride is different. That’s where a gravel bike’s inherent versatility comes in, according to Nicklin. “Your bikepacking steed becomes an expression of your intent and your character,” he says.

“There is no ‘perfect’ bike but the setup you ride is in a state of constant change, endlessly adapting to your ride, and will work best for you alone. It’s only through first-hand experience that you’ll really learn what bike you need for bikepacking.”

Bike setup is a major part of the planning of any long bikepacking ride. This is especially true if you’re venturing far afield into unchartered territory. Obsessing over tyre choice and the gear you’ll need on the road is all part of the fun.

“Prepare the bike to best suit the majority of the ride,” advises Nicklin. “For example, don’t put big 650b or MTB tyres on if they are only ideal for ten per cent of the ride. I would use the best setup for 90 per cent of the ride and be prepared to walk if I have to.”

Best Bikepacking Bikes

We’ve picked out three of the most versatile gravel bikes available on the market right now. If you’re serious about bikepacking, all of these are well worth a look.

Mason Bokeh GRX

Price: £3,175
Weight: 9.2kg
More info: masoncycles

British boutique brand Mason Cycles describes the Bokeh as an ‘Adventure Sport’ bike. This is a bike to take you off the beaten track, but it’s also a machine designed to be ridden quickly.

This is the second iteration of the Bokeh, launched back in June 2019. The custom-formed aluminium frame is made in Italy. It has been paired with an all-new carbon fibre fork, which now features internal routing for a dynamo wire. It also has additional cage mounts. There’s an added cage mount on the underside of the downtube too.

The frame and fork have clearance for 700c x 45mm or 650b x 50mm tyres. That’s plenty of room for chunky off-road rubber, opening the Bokeh up to some seriously spicy adventures. If you need to go wider still, Mason’s ISO 29er has more clearance, all the way up to 650b x 2.8” tyres.

The Bokeh’s versatility is further increased by discreet mudguard mounts. However, what we like most about this bike is the attention to detail across the entire frame. This includes the beautiful finish. This particular model comes specced with Shimano’s all-new, gravel-specific GRX groupset.

Canyon Grail AL 7.0

Price: £1,349
Weight: 9.4kg
More info: canyon

Direct-sales brand Canyon has a reputation for producing top-quality bikes at bargain prices. The bikes are sold through the Canyon website, cutting out the middleman. The Grail AL is the German company’s aluminium gravel bike.

Because it’s made from aluminium, the Grail AL is ready to handle the demands of rough-and-ready bikepacking, while also offering excellent value for money.

This is a bike designed to be as capable on the tarmac as it is off-road. Canyon has opted to spec 40mm Schwalbe G-One Bite tyres that balance relatively low rolling resistance with plenty of grip. As we’ve come to expect from Canyon, the rest of the bike is impressively specced, too. Shimano’s workhorse 105 groupset takes care of shifting and braking duties.

The frame itself has mudguard mounts, so you can dress the Grail AL with fenders for winter training or commuting. Canyon also offers a range of bikepacking bags for when you decide to hit the open road.

Specialized Diverge Comp E5

Price: £1,949
Weight: 9.8kg
More info: specialized

The Specialized Diverge is laden with tech that makes this one of the most capable gravel bikes out there. While the Mason Bokeh and Canyon Grail AL are based around an aluminium frame, the Diverge upgrades to a lightweight carbon fibre chassis.

The key talking point is Specialized’s Future Shock micro-suspension. This suspends the handlebar above the headtube with a spring that offers up to 20mm of travel. It ensures a cushioned, confidence-inspiring ride on rough terrain.

Throw clearance for 700 x 42mm or 650b x 47mm tyres into the mix and the Diverge is very capable indeed. It can even take on the kind of trails that veer into mountain bike territory. The frame’s geometry also balances the stability required off-road with the playfulness that brings a road ride to life.

In this Diverge Comp spec you have the precise shifting offered by Shimano’s second-tier Ultegra groupset. You also benefit from the all-weather stopping power of hydraulic disc brakes.

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