Not everyone wants to ride with a big ‘n’ heavy backpack, so we’ve been testing a variety of different options for the minimalist mountain bikers out there, including waist packs, frame bags and mini-packs.
Words Antony de Heveningham
Mountain biking packs are a bit of a love/hate thing. One of the joys of riding with a bag is being able to preload one with all your tools and spares, then grab it as you head out of the door, minimising the faffing time before a ride starts. But a lot of riding packs are designed with the assumption that you’ll be off for a mega day in the hills, and lugging a big old rucksack round your local loop might seem a bit excessive. Enter, then, the micro-bag – a minimalist packing solution, designed to carry what you need, yet be more comfortable in use than a full backpack.
Is less more? If you’ve got a bigger bag, there’s always a temptation to take more stuff than you need, although there are some essentials that it’d be unwise to set off without (more of which in a moment). Weight, in a sport that relies on self-propulsion, undeniably matters, and the psychological boost you get from a neat minimalist carrying solution is probably just as important. Smaller bags are potentially more versatile, too. You can feel the part when you line up for the start of a race with a smaller pack, and they can cross over well to other sports (I used some of these bags for fell runs too, to really check how stable and secure they were). And in warmer conditions, not having a big slab of foam covering your back can really make a difference to how pleasant the ride is.
In a sport which places a big emphasis on self-reliance, small bags can be viewed with suspicion. There are folk out there who ride with nothing at all (you’ve probably lent one of them some tools at some point), and there are also people who are happy to forgo things like a jacket in the name of unencumbered riding.
Without wanting to sound like Captain Bringdown’s boring lieutenant, I don’t think this is a good idea. Bikes are capable of taking you a lot further into the wild than your little pottering feet. If you suddenly find yourself having to walk, or worse still, completely immobile, because your ride buddy, your bike or your body are crocked, not having some spare kit could turn a disappointment into a proper misery-fest. So when we picked these bags, we wanted to make sure that they stored a certain amount of stuff. Tools, a pump or inflation device, a spare tube, water, a snack and a small packable jacket were the bare minimum, which ruled out some of the more pared-down carrying solutions out there.
As someone who normally prefers riding with a bigger pack, I’ve tried really hard not to judge these bags on what they can and can’t carry beyond these minimum requirements. There is a huge variation in what each can lug, which bears little relation to the number of litres printed on the label, but they all fitted the basic kit, give or take. I’ve tried to focus on which bags make the most effective use of space, strike a balance between organisation, capacity and ease of use, and simply feel most comfortable.
Step inside my wardrobe
There is a bewildering array of smaller bags available these days, and we’ve picked a representative snapshot from three main categories.
First off, we have the micro-packs – basically, a backpack, only smaller. These strip down the classic riding rucksack to its bare essentials, often adding maximum ventilation and a very secure harness along the way to make something that, in theory, you can forget you’re wearing. The capacity of these packs varies dramatically – some are big enough for a day ride, and some are barely more than a bladder with a pocket on the front.
Then there are bum bags. Sorry, hip packs [Ed – Or is it ‘waist packs?’ Or ‘fanny packs’?]. My very first riding bag was a bum bag – in hot pink, natch. Perhaps inevitably, once they were christened as such, bum bags quickly became a comedy punchline, and for a while I thought they’d been banished to the less fashion-conscious reaches of the running world. But it was inevitable that they would return – the lure of riding sans sweaty shoulder blades was just too much. The new generation of enduro-bustles are much cleverer beasts than the fashion carbuncles of yore. The bags we tested all had improved retention systems, to make them less likely to end up round your ankles, more organisational potential, and at least a bottle’s worth of water carrying capacity.
Finally there are the frame bags. Again, these have been around since the dawn of mountain biking, when a colourful isosceles triangle of pressed steel multifunction wrenches and loose jangling Allen keys were as essential as bar ends or toe clips. And again, like waist packs, they underwent a period in the wilderness, before long-distance off-road riders started to look for alternatives to racks and panniers, and bikepacking became a buzzword.
The frame bags in our test have all come from the bikepacking world, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t use them for everyday rides too. Keeping weight lower down, riding completely free of bodily encumbrances (unless your beer belly counts), and being able to strap a specific set of kit to a specific bike are all good reasons to consider frame-based storage. Long-distance riders will also appreciate them – if you need to eat on the move, it’s much easier to reach in front of you than behind. For these bags, it’s assumed that your bike will be sporting a cage and water bottle too, although some of them also have on-board hydration potential.
Each type of bag seemed to have its own pros and cons. The rucksacks all do the job you would expect, but they can also feel a bit like you’re just wearing a regular pack with less in, which might not satisfy the bag-o-phobes out there.
Waist packs, meanwhile, are generally quite sensitive to body shape, and as a more, ahem, ‘apple-shaped’ individual, I found it harder to get them all to stay up. Careful packing and adjustment matters more with these bags, and any attempt to overstuff them can make them want to head south. If your abdomen is more like an hourglass than a space hopper, you will probably get along with them much better, but be aware that trying before you buy (perhaps via a spot of vigorous jumping up and down) may save some disappointment.
Frame bags are the rarest out on the trails. Most tend to be a single compartment with a side pocket, making their contents harder to organise without a tool roll or similar. Their position under your bike’s downtube means that they tend to be more suitable for hardtails, and there seems to be a lot of variation in sizing, even with measurements on websites.
With the rules of the test set out, let’s bring on the bags.
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This article was originally featured in Singletrack Magazine. Keen to read more? Then make sure you check out all the stories and reviews in Issue #118 right here!