When I first discovered bicycle touring and bikepacking about 5 years ago, I immediately knew that it was something that I wanted to try. After researching bikes, bikepacking bags, panniers, racks, and all of the camping equipment I’d need, I was kind of turned off by the price. A decent luggage setup costs over $500 alone. That’s a lot of money to spend on something I didn’t even know if I’d like. After some research and trial and error, I put together a functional setup for a fraction of the price. In this guide, I explain how to put together a low budget bikepacking or bicycle touring luggage setup for around $100.
One piece of gear that this article doesn’t cover the bike. For info on building a budget touring bike, check out my guide: How to Convert an Old Mountain Bike into a Touring Bike. With a few basic bicycle tools and an afternoon of work, you can have a capable touring bike for under $200.
You’ll also need to put together a tool kit to make basic repairs and do maintenance during your tour. For help, check out my Ideal Bikepacking or Bicycle Touring Tool Kit.
Bikepacking Bags Vs. Panniers and Racks for a Low Budget Touring Setup?
You can put together either setup on a budget. I decided to go with a bikepacking style setup for a number of reasons. To help you decide which type of setup is best for your style of touring, check out my bikeapacking bags vs panniers pros and cons list.
I recommend bikepacking bags over panniers for the following reasons:
- You can reuse some gear you probably already have- This saves money.
- The bikepacking setup is compatible with pretty much any bike- No braze ons or rack attachments required.
- This setup is cheaper- The gear you will need to purchase is not bicycle specific with the exception of one optional bag.
If you prefer a panniers and racks bicycle touring setup, skip to the second half of this article here.
Another third luggage option is a cargo trailer. Check out my panniers vs trailer pros and cons list for more info.
What Bags Will I Need for a Budget Bikepacking Setup?
The premise of a bikepacking setup is to attach your gear directly to the frame of the bike. This is achieved with three main bags: A handlebar roll, seat bag, and frame bag. Below, I’ll describe how to create each on a budget. I’ll also suggest what types of gear you should pack in each bag for the most efficient setup.
Budget Handlebar Roll or Harness on a Budget
The handlebar roll or handlebar harness is a way to attach gear to your handlebars. This is usually done with a series of straps and a dry bag. A purpose-made handlebar roll from a major bikepacking company usually costs around $80-$100 or more depending on features and quality. You can achieve the same thing for much less with a bit of DIY. Here’s how:
- Start with a dry bag or compression sack of around 15-20 liters- For example, this Sea to Summit eVENT Compression Dry Sack or this Sea to Summit Lightweight Dry Sack would be perfect. The compression sack will be better for carrying soft items like clothes. The dry sack will be better for anything else. These bags are great because they keep your gear completely dry in even the heaviest rain. Other companies sell comparable bags for a bit less, but I’ve had good luck with the quality and durability of Sea to Summit gear.
- Use some straps to attach the bag to the handlebars- Most bikepackers prefer Voile Straps. They are sturdy and easy to use. Another option is to buy some cheap straps from Walmart. If you’re on an extremely tight budget, you could probably get away with rope or any other kind of strap you have around the house. Simply wrap the straps around the bag and tightly attach it to the handlebars.
- Attach additional gear- If you have space, slide your tent or poles between the straps and the bag. Tuck your rain jacket under the straps. Attach your cooking pot by running the strap through the handle. There are a lot of options for storing gear.
Your handlebars are an excellent place to haul a lot of gear. It takes a bit of trial and error to get this set up just right. Try to position your cables in a way that they aren’t affected by the weight of the bag. Depending on the strength of your straps, you should be able to carry around 15-20 pounds of gear on your handlebars pretty easily without compromising handling too much.
In your handlebar roll, I recommend you carry:
- A jacket
- An extra shirt
- An extra pair or pants
- Sleeping bag
Tip: You can also use this simple strap system to attach your sleep setup to the handlebars. Instead of a dry bag, bundle your sleeping bag, tent, and sleep mat into a roll and use the straps to attach them to the handlebars. This takes care of storing the bulkiest part of your touring setup.
Handlebar Harness Compatibility Issue
The one drawback to the handlebar harness is the fact that it may not work with some types of cantilever breaks. The reason is that the cable is connected directly from the stem to the brake caliper and must be kept under tension in order to function. Your harness needs to rest against the frame of the bike and would interfere with the cable.
There are some workarounds for this problem. For example, you may be able to install a handlebar extender like this one from Gub KBROTECH to hold your bag away from the cable. If you’re creative, you can rig it to work somehow.
Budget Bikepacking Seat Pack
Bikepacking seat packs are small dry bags that attach to the saddle and seat post without a rack. They usually accommodate 10-17 liters of gear and cost around $150 from a major bikepacking bag manufacturer.
Personally, I’m not a fan of seat packs. They look cool but leave a lot of space wasted. I prefer to use a rear rack with a bag sitting on top. This allows me to carry a lot more gear at the expense of a bit more weight. The setup is also significantly cheaper than buying a specialty seat pack.
Which kind of rack you should go with depends on the attachment points your bike has. Racks are fairly universal but you’ll want to check before buying just in case.
If your bike has braze-ons for a rear rack, I recommend the Ibera Bike Rack from Amazon. It’s sturdy and reasonably priced.
If your bike has no rear rack braze-ons, you can most likely use something like this West Biking 110lb Almost Universal Adjustable Bike Cargo Rack. These racks are designed to attach to your seat post and frame without the need for dedicated attachment points.
Next, find a bag to attach to the top of the rack. I recommend a bag of around 25-30 liters. Any kind of bag works including duffel bags, dry bags, backpacks, etc. There is really no need to go out and buy a specialty bag. Any kind of bag that you already have should work just fine. I use my old Jansport backpack that I used in school.
Use straps or bungee cords to attach the bag to the rack. You can make any straps work. You could also use the same type of Voile Straps that I mentioned for the handlebar roll. Make sure all straps are tucked away from the wheel so they don’t get caught and cause damage.
The only problem with this setup is the difficulty of accessing gear. Every time you want to get something from the bag you have to undo the straps. To solve this problem, I try only pack gear that I’ll need only in the morning and evening in the rear rack bag or gear that I won’t need often.
Some items to carry in your rack bag include:
- Sleeping bag
- Cooking gear
- Extra water
- Foods that need to be cooked
- First aid gear
- Shoes or sandals
- Tools and spares that I don’t need often
- A book
- Anything you don’t need during the day or don’t need often
Tip: Wrap the bag in a tarp, your tent, or a groundsheet to keep it dry. My backpack isn’t waterproof. I use a cheap tarp that I bought at Walmart. I use the same tarp as my groundsheet under my tent.
My Rear Rack Bag Recommendation
To me, a backpack is the most convenient to use for a rear rack bag. It gives you an easy way to carry gear while you’re off the bike. Sometimes I put my valuables in the backpack while grocery shopping and carry it into the store with me. That way I don’t have to worry as much about theft.
This is also a nice option if you like to hike. You can easily strap a small hiking backpack onto the rack, lock the bike up somewhere safe, and go for a hike.
Budget Frame Bag (Optional)
The frame bag is the one piece of specialty bikepacking gear that you’ll have to buy though it is not necessary. Between the handlebars and the rear rack, you should be able to haul around 50 liters of gear. If that’s not enough, consider a frame bag. Most frame bags accommodate between 8 and 15 liters of gear depending on the size of your bike’s frame.
I bought the Moosetreks Full Frame Bag on Amazon. For a low-cost bag, it’s held up pretty well so far. I have no complaints. Check out my full review here. A custom made frame bag from a bikepacking company is expensive. This bag costs significantly less.
If you’re handy with a sewing machine, you can also save a lot of money by sewing your own frame bag. Check out this excellent guide from Mtbr.com for step by step instructions.
I would like to try sewing my own bag some day but my sewing skills may not be up to par, I’m afraid. If you end up sewing your own, comment below with your results. I’d be interested to hear about the process.
Some things you can carry in your frame bag include:
- Tools that you need to access often like your multi-tool and patch kit, for example.
- Tent poles and stakes
- Extra spokes
- A small laptop, tablet, or e-reader
- Fragile foods like fruits and veggies
- Extra water
- Your camera
- Chargers for electronics
- Any small, fragile, or heavy items
I recommend you splurge on a frame bag if you have space in your budget. It’s a great place to store heavy gear, fragile gear, and things that you need to access often. Plus, they look pretty cool.
The only drawback is the fact that the frame bag occupies the space where water bottle cages traditionally go. This isn’t that big of an issue because you can easily store water bottles or a water bladder in the frame bag. You can also carry water in some ways that I describe below.
Budget-Friendly Ways to Carry More Gear on your Bike
The above three bags will give you 50-60 liters of space to store your gear. If you pack light, this should be enough for any length of trip. If you still have more stuff that won’t fit or you are traveling in a region where you need to carry a lot of water, here are some options to carry more gear.
These are an excellent, low-cost option for carrying bulky items or extra water. Fork cages are small, metal frames that mount directly to either side of the forks and include straps for attaching dry bags or bottles. You can easily mount a 5-8 liter dry bag or 2-liter water bottle to each side. You could also use the cages to attach your tent or sleeping bag to the fork.
I bought the Blackburn Outpost Cage from Amazon and am really happy with it so far. The cage is durable and can haul a significant amount of gear.
The problem is that most bikes don’t have the proper braze-ons for easy mounting. Luckily there is an easy DIY solution:
How to Mount Fork or Water Bottle Cages to a Bike Fork Without Braze-Ons
For this project, you need hose clamps, an old bike tube, and electrical tape.
Step 1: Cut the old bike tube to size
It should cover the entire area on the cage that comes in contact with the fork. I recommend using at least 2 layers. The bike tube acts as a cushion to protect the fork, cage, and hose clamp from fatigue. It’s best not to have metal on metal contact.
Step 2: Attach the cage to the fork with electrical tape
To do this, simply wrap the tape around the fork and part of the cage that comes into contact with it. Don’t forget to put the pieces of bike tube that you cut in step 1 between the fork and the cage. For a short tour or light load, electrical tape alone is probably enough to keep the cage in place. You can also just carry extra in case it starts to come loose.
Step 3: Install the hose clamps
2 or 3 hose clamps per side works best. 3 inch diameter hose clamps usually work best but the size depends on the diameter of your fork. Install one on the top and one on the bottom and one in the middle if your cage has space.
Tip: For even more carrying capacity, you can mount water bottle cages to the seatstays or your rear rack using the same method. Large water bottle cages can easily carry 1 liter of water on each side. I have seen some cyclists carry spare folding tires or tubes in water bottle cages.
This mounting method is very secure. It is not recommended with carbon forks however as it can weaken them and cause damage over time. I use my fork mounted cages to haul extra food and water if I’m going through a region where I won’t have access to services for a number of days.
Top Tube Bag
Top tube bags attach with Velcro straps onto the top tube just behind the stem. These small bags generally hold around 1 liter of gear. This is a great place to store your phone, wallet, snacks, small tools, and anything you need to access often. This Rhinowalk Top Tube Bag would be a good option.
These handy little bags hang from your handlebar and stem with Velcro straps. You can attach to each side. They accommodate between 1-2 liters of gear each. Feed bags are an excellent place to store water bottles or foods. You can easily snack as you ride. I bought the Bushwhacker Shasta Black on Amazon.
To save a bit more money, many riders have had success converting chalk bags which are made for climbing into bicycle feed bags. Chalk bags cost a fraction of purpose-built bikepacking feed bags and are just as durable.
For some pictures and ideas of how to convert the bag, check out this informative thread on bikepacking.net. It’s basically just a matter of sewing or tying some straps onto the feed bag to attach it to the bike. A simple sewing kit is all you’ll need.
How to Pack your Budget Bikepacking Setup
Packing a bikepacking setup takes a bit of trial and error. Even if you have purpose-built bags, space is limited. The bags also have odd shapes which add to the difficulty. These are the main drawbacks of this setup. Packing is like putting together a puzzle. Your goal is to pack everything in a way that utilizes the space that you have as efficiently as possible.
For example, while packing try putting your sleeping bag in your handlebar roll, rear rack bag, and fork cage to see where it fits best. Try packing your tent poles separately from the tent to save space. Maybe the poles fit in your frame bag so you can stuff the tent in your handlebar roll. If you move your stuff around enough, you’ll find the ideal way to pack your gear. Once you have your system sorted out, packing your bike is pretty quick and easy.
Here’s my packing process:
- I start by packing large or bulky items like my sleeping bag, tent, sleep mat, and clothes. These take the most space and are the hardest to pack. Getting them out of the way first allows you to pack smaller gear around them.
- Next, I pack smaller or heavy items like tools, some foods, etc. I try to pack heavy items as low as possible to keep the center of gravity as low as possible.
- Finally, pack fragile items like my camera, laptop, and some foods. I use clothes and other soft items to help cushion them where possible.
Tip: Take into consideration how often you’ll need to access different items. You don’t want to pack your multi-tool in the bottom of your rear rack bag where it is difficult to access. You don’t need to pack your spare cables in the top of your frame bag because you’ll rarely need them.
I recommend you pack the gear that you know you’ll need first and leave gear that you’re on the fence about until last. That way, you know you have space for all must-bring items. You can leave unnecessary items at home if you run out of space while packing your bike.
Drawbacks to a Budget Bikepacking Setup
This setup isn’t perfect. It has two main weaknesses:
- You are using a rear rack- Some bikepackers would say that you aren’t a purist if you’re using a rack. It also adds a considerable amount of weight. To me, the benefits of having a rear rack outweigh the drawbacks. You can haul a greater volume of gear using a bag that you already had. The rack is also a great place to attach additional water or spare parts. Bike racks are pretty cheap as well.
- Budget bikeapacking bags aren’t the most durable- The budget frame bag that I bought has held up great so far, but I’m not sure if I’d trust it for an around the world expedition. It’s better for weekend warriors. The same goes for low-cost top tub bags or handlebar harnesses. When you buy a bag from a mainstream bikepacking company, you know it’s built to last. That comes at a cost though. So far my setup has been pretty durable though.
- Packing takes more time- Finding the optimal place to store each piece of gear is a challenge. After you have your system sorted out, packing gets easier.
Budget Bicycle Touring Setup
If you prefer panniers and racks over bikepacking bags, this setup is also possible on a budget. The benefits to using panniers are that it is much easier to pack and you can carry a greater volume of gear. This is ideal for longer trips or if you like to carry luxury items like pillows or chairs.
To put together a budget bicycle touring setup, you have two options.
1. Buy low cost or used racks and panniers
If you keep an eye out for sales or used gear, you can put together a quality setup on a pretty tight budget. My friend bought these Ibera PakRak Clip-on Panniers from Amazon and he is really happy with the quality and durability so far. The company Axiom also makes some nice, low-cost panniers. Cheap racks are pretty easy to come by. I bought a nice one in a bike shop in Tijuana for about $10 brand new.
If you keep an eye on eBay and Craigslist, you can also come by some good deals on lightly used gear. Oftentimes people buy a nice bicycle touring setup with plans for a big trip but never get around to it. They end up selling it off pretty cheap. Situations like this offer a great opportunity to score quality gear on a budget.
2. Make your own panniers
This is a fairly involved DIY project but I have seen some excellent results. If you’re handy, you can make a set of panniers that are more durable than store bought for just a few dollars in supplies. The best material for homemade panniers is a pair of simple plastic buckets.
How to Make Bucket Panniers
All you need for this DIY pannier project is two square 4-gallon buckets with lids and a few various clips, straps, nuts, bolts, and washers. You will also need a sturdy rear rack to mount the panniers to.
I have not yet tried this project but hope to in the near future. Here are a couple of detailed step-by-step guides I plan to follow when tackling this project myself:
If done right, bucket panniers look pretty cool and cost next to nothing. They are also incredibly durable. These 4-gallon buckets are made of a thick plastic that can take a beating. If you do happen to crack one, you can buy a new bucket for a couple of dollars and build a new pannier within a couple of hours.
There are 3 drawbacks to bucket panniers:
- You can’t collapse them or roll them up- This makes flying with your bike a bit more difficult.
- The square shape catches a lot of wind which makes the bike much less aerodynamic- This costs you speed and efficiency.
- They look funny to some people– Generally, bicycle tourists are pretty cool and understand frugality. Some other cyclists may make fun of your creation. To non-cyclists, bucket panniers could make you look homeless. Some people care about this type of thing and some don’t.
How to Save Money with Budget Camping Gear
Panniers also help you cut costs in another, unexpected way. Because panniers are more voluminous than bikepacking bags, you can buy lower cost, bulky camping gear rather than expensive ultralight gear. Cheap camping gear is just as durable as higher cost gear; it’s just heavier and bulkier. Past a certain price point, the only thing you are paying for is lighter weight materials.
For example, you can buy a basic 0 degree sleeping bag at Walmart for $40. The drawback is that the bag may weigh 12 pounds and cant compress very small. You can buy an ultralight 0 degree down sleeping bag that weighs 4 pounds. The only problem is that the lighter bag costs 6 times the price. Both bags last just as long and keep you just as warm. If you have more space in your luggage, you can save money by buying the cheaper bag and just deal with the extra weight. Tents and sleep mats work the same way. Cheap gear works fine but doesn’t pack nearly as small. If you don’t already have camping gear, using panniers is a great way to cut costs even further.
Final Thoughts on Building a Low Budget Bikepacking or Bicycle Touring Setup
These low budget setups are a great way to get into bicycle travel without spending thousands of dollars on new gear. If you shop around a bit, make some of your own gear, and aren’t afraid to buy used, you could put together a capable touring setup for less than $300 including the bike.
If you have some basic mechanical skills, you could easily ride a budget setup across your state or even country. For an around the world expedition, these setups wouldn’t be ideal but people have done it. Bicycle touring doesn’t have to be expensive.
More from Where The Road Forks
- How to Carry a Laptop While Bicycle Touring or Bikepacking
- 700c Vs. 26 Inch Wheels for Bicycle Touring: My Pros and Cons List
- Review of My First Bicycle Tour
- Touring with a Folding Bike: Pros and Cons
- Drop Bars Vs. Flat Bars for Bicycle Touring: Pros and Cons
- Winter Bicycle Touring and Bikepacking Tips
- Are Walmart Bikes Any Good? Pros and Cons of Budget Bikes