Bike packing refers to multi-day bike tours that can either be completely off-road or on mixed terrain while carrying all your camping equipment on a bike. It gives riders the freedom to explore further and go almost anywhere without worrying about getting back home on time. In this guide, I will discuss mountain vs. gravel bikes.
Choosing between a mountain or gravel bike for bike packing depends on different factors, with terrain often being the most important. Both mountain and gravel bikes are good options for landscapes with mixed surfaces. Gravel bikes are arguably a better option if you travel mostly on both tarmac and gravel roads. Although generally heavier and slower, a mountain bike is a suitable option if you plan on spending most of the time on dirt roads and challenging terrains where you need stability and comfort more than speed and efficiency.
What is a Mountain Bike?
Also known as all-terrain bikes (ATBs), mountain bikes (MTBs) are purpose-built for challenging terrains and off-road adventures. MTBs are mean machines meant to conquer mountain trails and other types of unpaved roads such as fire roads. There are many subtypes of mountain bikes with some variations, but they have some common characteristics, including:
- Strong rims and overall heavy-duty built for handling challenging terrains
- Large knobby tires and durable wheels
- Lower gear ratios (needed when riding up steep grades)
- Powerful brakes
- Straight handlebars
- Except for rigid mountain bikes, almost all other MTBs come with a front and or rear suspension that can absorb the shocks produced when traveling on rough terrains (up to 200mm suspension travel)
Who Should Buy an MTB?
Mountain bikes are suitable for people who plan on off-roading and bike packing on challenging terrains such as narrow dirt trails. Since MTBs are designed for better stability and comfort on challenging terrains, they have to compromise speed and efficiency. The higher the suspension travel of an MTB, the more it will waste pedaling power.
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What Type of MTB Should You Buy?
That’s another vital question to answer when making a long-term investment in cycling because quality bikes don’t come cheap. Each type of MTB has been designed for a different riding style and terrain. Understanding the key differences between different types of MTBs help make the decision easier and help you pick the right bike.
Trail Mountain Bikes
These are also known as the all-rounder and swiss army knife of MTBs, making them a great choice for riders who want a balanced ride for various terrains, including climbing up and rolling down. These bikes offer an excellent balance between comfort, speed, and stability. If you measure the ride’s quality in terms of fun instead of seconds and numbers, then a trail bike might be the right choice for you.
These bikes are about finding the right balance. If you want better speed, consider cross-country MTBs, and if you are looking for better endurance, Enduro MTBs make more sense.
Cross-Country Mountain Bikes
Also known as CX bikes, cross-country MTBs focus more on speed and efficiency. Being lighter than other MTBs, these bikes work well on almost all terrains and provide a sweet spot between stability and speed. However, CC MTBs are also less puncture-resistant because of lesser rolling resistance, which can be a problem in very challenging and rocky terrains.
CC MTBs are designed for uphill crushing and better pedaling performance, making them suitable for riders who don’t plan on frequently riding very tough terrains and steep downhill sections.
Enduro Mountain Bikes
Enduro bikes are also known as all-mountain bikes, and as the name suggests, they are designed for the most challenging of terrains and aggressive/steep riding. These beefier bikes (usually come with full suspension, both front, and rear) can take the beating while still offering decent steep climbing performance.
These bikes are suitable if you cover many downhill sections and are into technical trails. Because these bikes are heavier and bulkier than other types of MTBs, you need to spend more energy when climbing uphill. Downhill MTBs are a more specialized version of MTBs for those who only want to buy a bike for downhill racing and want something specifically for adrenaline-fueled descents (not a good option for most situations come to bike-packing).
Fat Mountain Bikes
Fat MTBs are for fun-seekers who want outstanding traction on soft, unstable terrains such as snow, mud, and loose rock. However, these bikes are suitable for only a handful of terrains and situations such as picking and sticking to a line. The main reason these bikes have gained popularity is that they can make bike packing a year-round affair and open up new possibilities. There are regions and terrains where a fat bike is the only realistic option, especially in winters.
What is a Gravel Bike?
Gravel bikes can be considered a middle ground between road bikes (designed for maximum speed and efficiency) and mountain bikes (designed for better stability and comfort on rough terrains). The basic idea was to enable road cyclists to get off the road and explore gravel and dirt roads without losing a lot in performance. Some key characteristics of gravel bikes include:
- Perform well on both gravel and tarmac roads
- Good handling and a comfortable upright position
- Steady ride
- Can handle challenging terrains
- Can accommodate MTB wheels (650b) for off-roading
- Built-in attachment points for bike packing
Gravel bikes are also designed to accommodate front and rear bags, which is a must when backpacking, which translates into an obvious advantage over mountain bikes. Cyclists have to make some modifications to their mountain bikes to accommodate bike packs. Gravel bikes are a great option if you want good road performance and stability, and comfort on challenging terrains.
Which Bike Should You Buy for Bikepacking?
After deciding between a mountain and gravel bike comes the stage of narrowing down your search and picking the right one. That’s when things start to get trickier because of different factors such as your budget, where to buy, used vs. new, and which brand to choose. On a tight budget buying a used quality bike is generally a better option than buying a no-brand bike coming from China for obvious reasons.
Not only the quality of the bike might be questionable, but it’s also a gamble, and finding spare parts in the future can be a hit or miss. If you plan to buy a used bike, you should stick with reputable brands such as NORCO, GIANT, TREK, Cannondale, GT Bikes, and Specialized.
Official retailers can save you from a lot of hassle as they guarantee their bike’s condition, and you often get a generous return policy. There are many trusted online marketplaces, such as Cycling Avenue, which offers a selection of refurbished mountain and gravel bikes from trusted brands.
Like most other things in life, the answer to mountain bike vs. gravel bike for backpacking is: it depends. If you plan on riding mixed surfaces and already have a gravel bike, you won’t gain much by spending a ton of money on a mountain bike and vice versa. The differences start becoming more obvious as you start traveling more on similar terrains.
Gravel bikes are recommended for most bike backpacking and bike camping trips because of the balance they offer between speed, stability, and comfort. Built-in rack attachment points mean you don’t have to do a lot of modifications to your bike. On the other hand, there is no alternative to a mountain bike when dealing with challenging terrains that require more stability and a heavy-duty built. In the end, it all comes down to the terrain, your riding style, and of course, your budget.