Editor’s note: Have you ever dreamed of ditching your high-stress work week for a few days in mountain bike paradise? Bikepacking is one of the best ways to do just that. We reached out to former MBA assistant editor and world explorer Clayton Wangbichler to see what it takes to build a dream bikepacking rig. If a weekend in the backcountry sounds like your ultimate getaway, following these tips will be paramount for your next journey.
Read through the bullet points of your typical trail bike dream build and you’ll likely be overwhelmed by a list of the lightest and most sought-after components providing maximum performance with minimum effort from the rider. Carbon rims, ultralight bolts, paper-thin tires, svelte brakes and the best-looking numbers promise quantitatively undeniable superiority; however, other factors take precedence when the dream build will be ridden through very remote foreign lands rather than on a local trail loop. The desire to minimize weight is replaced by the need for the utmost durability and serviceability. The newest and hottest technology found on traditional dream bikes is therefore irrelevant, as there is a greater need for components with proven durability and the ability to be repaired or replaced in a remote corner of the world.
I’ve spent considerable time bikepacking internationally and often find myself compromising at some point on every trip when it comes to either the performance, durability, serviceability or practicality of the bike I choose to bring along for the ride. Top-shelf bikes feel great on the trail but are either unable to carry an adequate amount of gear, or their svelte carbon frames are unlikely to survive the 10 hours of rubbing on the roof rack of the Jeep that is often required simply to reach the start of a route. The natural solution for most bikepackers is a steel hardtail that provides maximum carrying capacity and durability, but where is the fun in schlepping your bike to the other side of the world just to feel constantly under gunned and uncomfortably bounce your way down trails? If I find the time and money to spend two weeks riding a bike through somewhere as magnificently rugged as the Himalayas, it better be on a machine that is as capable as possible without sacrificing practicality. With these priorities in mind, I built my dream bikepacking rig to provide uncompromising performance and reliability that won’t let me down, regardless of where in the world it goes.
Stiffness becomes increasingly important when a loaded bike can weigh more than double the weight of an unloaded bike. While most bikes with 120mm of rear travel are typically paired with a fork along the lines of a Fox 34, I chose a Fox 36 to provide ample stiffness for the rowdy trails I hope to encounter while bikepacking. Think endless boulder fields typically only trafficked by foot or pack animal.
FRAME: MARIN B-17
The shock-mounting arrangement within the main triangle of the B-17 provides the greatest amount of storage space compared to other production bikes in the same short-travel 27.5+ trail bike category. This is the most crucial storage area, because it provides the lowest center of gravity for the heaviest items. While 29+ has become the most common format among seasoned bikepackers, I chose a frame designed around 27.5+ tires because it provided the most clearance between the rear tire and seat pack when all 120mm of suspension was fully compressed. I drilled holes in both the down and top tubes, then installed rivet nuts to allow for mounting of a Nalgene bottle cage on the underside of the down tube and an easy-access camera bag on the top tube.
With future aesthetics in mind, I installed polished metal crankarms, because pushing the bike through boulder fields will ensure that the crankarms are the first component to see countless scratches (and the lack of paint will hide the marks). If a 28-tooth chainring seems puny, please know there are still times when I’m searching for a lower gear that doesn’t exist. It’s important to note that you must have a direct-mount crank/chainring setup if you want to run anything smaller than a 30-tooth chainring.
DRIVETRAIN: SHIMANO XT 1X11 WITH WOLF TOOTH COMPONENTS 49T GC COG AND WOLFCAGE
Bikepackers are facing a bit of a dilemma right now in terms of drivetrain options. We certainly want the 500-percent range of a SRAM Eagle setup, but we also want the more compatible nature of a drivetrain that uses a traditional Shimano Hyperglide driver body. Think about it; you’re riding in the ever-present clouds of the high Andes and blow up a rim or hub. Are you more likely to find a wheel with an XD driver body or one with a Hyperglide driver body that has been the primary standard since the late 1980s? In order to use a Shimano drivetrain with a range that comes close to competing with SRAM Eagle, I installed a Wolf Tooth 49-tooth GC cog to give it a 445-percent gear range. Pairing it with an 11-46 cassette rather than the suggested 11-42 provides two granny gear options rather than the benefits of a more evenly spaced gear range.
SEATPOST: FOX FACTORY TRANSFER 150MM
Many bikepackers will gasp at the sight of a dropper post on a bikepacking bike, but it’s a welcome addition if you’re hoping to own the descents and have an experience as similar to trail riding as possible. Reliability is key when you’re days away from any type of support. The Fox Transfer has continually proven itself to be the most reliable, infinitely adjustable dropper post on the market. The high-volume seat pack of a fully loaded bikepacking rig can weigh upwards of 10 pounds, making it increasingly important to ensure the dropper post is one you can rely on.
Some of the smallest and most overlooked components of a bikepacking build are often the most difficult to deal with on the trail. Believe it or not, I’ve been on a trip where a buddy overtightened and cracked his seatpost clamp, which left him standing up for the remainder of the afternoon and then pulling out of the trip at the end of the day. DKG clamps are CNCmachined and provide a level of quality that won’t let you down on the trail.
SADDLE: WTB VOLT 142 PRO
Comfort is king when it comes to saddle choice. Features and materials aside, make sure you spend time finding a saddle that fits you before heading out on a trip. The medium-padding thickness and slightly curved tail of the WTB Volt work well for me. Regardless of what saddle you choose, make sure you steer clear of carbon rails. Bikepackers often choose saddles with titanium rails to minimize weight while still benefiting from the durability of metal. Personally, I choose chromoly steel rails due to the material’s tendency to bend rather than break when under excessive stress. It’s always easier to pedal out with a bent saddle rail than one that is sheared clean.
HANDLEBAR: THOMSON TITANIUM MTB RISER
You’re probably catching on to the reoccurring theme of heavier weights and increased forces when talking about bikepacking compared to trail riding on an unladen bike. This concept transfers to the handlebars as well and often causes my hands and arms to be the most fatigued portions of my body on long bikepacking trips. Titanium bars eliminate harsh feedback and vibrations from the trail, thereby increasing comfort and reducing fatigue during a seemingly endless day of riding.
GRIPS: WTB WAFEL
The big blocks of squishy rubber keep my hands happy all day/week/month long. Similar to saddles, this is a highly personal component, so it is very important to test out various models to figure out what works best for you.
Similar to how braking power is almost always the limiting factor when towing with a truck, it’s easy for brakes to become the weakest link on a bikepacking rig. The four-piston design of Hope E4 calipers is paired to front and rear 200mm rotors that deliver stopping power on par with any World Cup downhill bike. I also run Hope brakes because they use DOT 5.1 fluid, which tends to work better than mineral oil in the cold temps I often find myself riding in. I also know it would be easier to find DOT fluid in remote regions due to it being used in the brake lines of automobiles and motorcycles.
Pro tip: Mineral oil can often be found in first-aid kits and at medical clinics due to it being an affordable and easy way to treat constipation.
SHOCK: FOX FACTORY DPS
You may be wondering why I chose to pair such an aggressive fork to a shock without a reservoir. It simply comes down to the amount of space it would take away from storage capacity. While an external damping reservoir does indeed improve sensitivity and reduce heat on long descents, I don’t find the benefits to be worth the amount of space it takes away from storage in the front triangle. Shock reservoirs may appear small and compact, but omitting them allows room to store an entire weekend’s worth of stove fuel in the frame bag.
PEDALS: HOPE F20 FLATS
Throughout the years I’ve strayed to and from using clipless pedals on bikepacking trips; however, I recently exacerbated an Achilles overuse injury by being clipped in, and it has made me realize that the various foot positions allowed by a flat pedal are better at reducing strain on muscles and ligaments in the ankle. It’s also worth pointing out that the most rewarding trips typically involve a considerable number of hike-a-bike sections, which are substantially more doable in shoes/boots without cleats.
RIMS: WTB KOM TOUGH I45 27.5″
The internal dual-beam supports of KOM Tough rims make them durable and dependable enough for me to trust in challenging terrain. What more could I ask of a rim? I prefer the widest available internal width of 45mm, because it provides the greatest tire volume and also flattens out the profile of the tire.
HUBS: DT SWISS 240
There are two key points that make DT Swiss 240s one of the best choices for bikepacking. First, the star-ratchet engagement system used by DT Swiss is incredibly reliable. I carry a spare star-ratchet mechanism in the bottom of my frame bag regardless of trip length, but I’ve yet to need one. Second, the driver body can be pulled off a DT Swiss 240s hub without removing the cassette. This eliminates the need to carry a cassette tool and makes it considerably easier to replace a drive-side spoke or service the star-ratchet mechanism. I chose a six-bolt rotor attachment because it’s highly unlikely you’ll get your hands on a centerlock tool in the middle of nowhere, yet every multi-tool includes a T25 Torx key.
Regardless of all the various puncture protection technologies on the market, there is nothing that competes with the reliability of the dual-ply, 60-tpi casing found in TCS Tough tires from WTB. While many plus-tire connoisseurs are now leaning towards a 2.8 width for trail riding, the 3.0 width is still ideal for bikepacking because the additional volume translates into a more forgiving ride while also providing ample traction to keep the weight of a bikepacking rig in check.
Though his shop has now grown to include a few other like-minded artisans, Scott Felter is the endlessly talented craftsman behind Porcelain Rocket. I only provided two words of inspiration on a note that accompanied the frame template I sent him: “Mylar blanket.” I was fortunate enough to also receive a bolt-on camera bag that allows my mirrorless camera to be secured in an easily accessible location on my top tube. Porcelain Rocket isn’t accepting many custom jobs due to constantly increasing production demands, but they do provide a wide selection of fully waterproof frame bags and seat packs in various sizes that are likely to fit any bike.
Final thoughts: This dream build may be a bit excessive for most riders looking to try out bikepacking, but many of the concepts discussed will transfer to a build of any level. Speaking of which, this is a good time to note that I often size up when building a bikepacking bike. This can cause standover and reach issues on some bikes, but I choose to deal with those issues in exchange for more frame storage and improved handling stability when the bike is fully loaded.
BOTTOM BRACKET: WHITE INDUSTRIES BSA
Everything already seems to be against me when I’m bikepacking, so there’s no sense in running a cheap bottom bracket that will inevitably become contaminated and create drag. Threaded bottom brackets are still the most commonly used standard throughout the world, and therefore it’s best to choose a frame with a threaded bottom bracket in case you need a replacement somewhere along the route.
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