I know, it’s a shocking concept, but I’m here to argue that it is, in fact, possible to ride your mountain bike without strapping on a backpack to hold your water, snacks, extra layers, tools, and emergency supplies. How is this possible and why should you consider it? Read on to find out.

How to Ditch the Pack

For mountain bikers, hauling water is of primary concern, and hydration packs offer a convenient way to carry up to 100oz. of the wet stuff. But water is heavy–100 ounces tips the scales at about 6.5 pounds. which is close to what most bike frames weigh. And you want me to carry that on my back while whipping up and down the trail? No thanks.

I’ve found water bottles hold enough liquid for average rides in average temperatures. The largest water bottles hold up to 28oz. so with two, you’re more than halfway to 100oz. Also, the weight is off your back and on your bike, where your wheels can do all the heavy lifting.

For epic rides, getting enough water without a pack takes a bit more strategizing. You can sag yourself by planning your route to loop back by your vehicle to re-supply, or you can carry a small filter, UV pen, or sterilization tablets if you know there’s a water source along your route.

Water is absolutely necessary on any MTB ride, and so are a few key emergency supplies: a pump, spare tube/patch kit, multi-tool, and other doo-dads (like a chain quick link and derailleur hanger). I use a small saddle bag to carry these essentials and it’s amazing how much I can actually cram into one of these things. Make sure your saddle bag is strapped on securely so it’s not bouncing around, and you’ll forget it’s even there.

Ok, water and tools are stored and I still have nothing on my back! Now I’m not completely opposed to carrying items on my back, but I try to limit those items to things I can fit in my jersey pockets. The jersey pocket is a great place to stash things I want to grab quickly or things I don’t want scratched and bounced in my saddle bag. Keys, cell phone, ID, snacks, and batteries for night riding work well here.

That’s it for the essentials, but there are other items (such as extra layers, a DSLR camera) I really like having on some rides. For that, I’ve started riding with a fanny pack (or as I once overheard a redneck kid call it, a “butt bag”). I’ve found the fanny pack is super convenient for grabbing my camera on the trail because I can just rotate the pack, unzip, and start shooting. It’s also a good spot for snacks for the same reason, and keeping an extra layer inside helps pad the camera. Yes, this is added weight on my body, but it’s not nearly as constricting as a backpack and the weight is low and off my shoulders.


Now that I’ve convinced you it’s possible to ditch your pack, let me quickly list some of the benefits to riding free:

  • Less weight on your shoulders/back. This improves your comfort and form and prevents an unbalanced load from harshing your ride.
  • It’s cooler. Riding without a pack I sweat less, especially here in the Southeast where the weather seems to stay hot and humid most of the year.
  • Gear is easier to access when it’s not buried in a pack. Now, I’ll admit, swigging from a water bottle isn’t as easy (or even as sanitary) as slurping from a hose, but I love being able to grab a tool, snack, or my camera without completely taking my pack off.
  • No pack means no extra junk. For me, anyway, I found I would take too much stuff on a lot of rides just because I had room for it. Now I stick to the essentials and tend to lose less stuff.
  • Easier to breathe. No sternum strap to constrict your chest on those lungbuster climbs.
  • Easier to clean. No funky reservoir to try to keep clean.
  • Save money. Ok, going without a hydration pack may not save you a ton of dough over water bottles, a saddle bag, and a fanny pack, but each of these items is much less expensive than a good hydration pack.

Unless you’re planning an overnight trip, I say ditch your hydration pack for your next ride and see just how freeing it can be!

# Comments

  • mtbgreg1

    I will agree with you that riding without a pack is very liberating, and I also think that I need to setup one of my bikes like this for quick, afterwork jaunts. This is also one reason I love riding my road bike: I feel like I need to carry less stuff because it’s easier to resupply along the way.

    However, in general I’d rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it. This applies to extra water, extra clothing, extra parts, and extra food. Sure, it adds weight, but I’ve found that if I always carry roughly the same amount of weight, I forget it’s there.

    I think a lot of the choice depends on where and how far you’re riding. If you’re doing a short urban ride on a heavily-traveled trail system, that’s one thing. But if you’re heading out into the wilderness, or are riding a long ways, I definitely prefer to take a pack. Here in Colorado (and even in North Georgia), even a relatively simple ride can turn into a life-threatening situation very quickly. Simple, easily-preventable things like not having a rain jacket or enough layers, or running out of water with no easy place to refill can quickly become dangerous.

    Anyhow, that’s my two cents! Like I said, for after work jaunts on next-to-town singletrack, I really need to purchase another saddle bag and some bottle cages for a more liberating ride!

    • BushyAR15

      Excellent points! I too live and ride in Colorado and when I’m in the areas away from the Front Range and I know its going to be a long ride I carry enough “stuff” just in case I’m stuck overnight in the wilderness.

      But agreed, when I ride something like Ridgeline there is no need for all the gear/water as you can indeed loop by your car or should you have some failure you are never more than a couple miles from a road…

  • rcraft6826

    I think i’m in the same boat as Greg here, living in the front range of Colorado i’ve found that more often than not, you need more water than expected, the weather turns for the worse, or you run through a patch of goat heads and get a flat. I’ve kinda tried to just train myself to be used to wearing a pack for every ride, regardless of how long or short. While I do notice I sweat alot more wearing one, I do like having the security of knowing I have all the essentials if something were to go wrong.

  • dgaddis

    I used to only ride with a pack, my old Anthem only had room for one small bottle, so a pack it was. Now that I’ve seen light of 29er hardtails I can carry two 24oz bottles on the bike, and I hardly ever ride with a pack.

    Also, instead of stuffing your jersey pockets full or using a fanny pack (REALLY JEFF?!?!?!) use a small frame pack. I have both of these and they’re super handy and awesome:



  • maddslacker

    Wow, where to begin .. out here in the southwest, almost no rides are conducive to sag drops or trailhead loops/laps. Also, being a semi-arid, high elevation state, encountering water along the trail is the exception rather than the rule, and of course those same conditions suck the hydration right out of your body at a stunning rate. Add to that the fact that my bike has but one water bottle cage, and suddenly I have about enough hydration range for a 45 – 60 minute ride. (Unless I strap on those bottle cages that the tri-people use) On really high elevation trails, we can even go from sunny and 70F to 30F and snowing over the course of an hour or two.

    Now don’t get me wrong, I too have been doing some packless rides using my single water bottle, a seat pack, and jersey pockets, but these have been mostly after work rides that are shorter, and not as hot due to time of day. They are also group rides so I guess technically I’m forcing others to carry what I might need. Also, in the event of a fall or crash, the hydration pack can be some added protection from landing on rocks on your back.

    Anyway, the bottom line is that I am reminded of this post:

    And don’t even get me started on the fanny pack. Michael and I attempted to transport his Nikon dSLR that way at Outerbike last year and it was just horrible, and those aren’t even very technical trails.

    On the flipside, mtbgreg1 packs for a trans-continental epic on every single ride I have ever been on with him. There is definitely a balance, and after a while you get a feel for what you need for particular rides and pack accordingly.

    • jeff

      Not saying its possible to ride without a pack on every ride, just that we don’t need them as often as we think. Most of us do many more accessible rides than true epics if we’re honest.

      Admittedly it takes a bit more planning but I enjoy the challenge. 🙂

  • maddslacker

    On a related note, the new Osprey Raptor 6 pack that I got in for review has a removable tool pouch that wraps up and cinches down with an attached bungee cord. It has room for C02, small parts, two co2 cannisters, a multi-tool, etc, and it is the perfect size to pull out of the pack and shove into a jersey pocket.

  • brianW

    Started riding in ’92 and got my first hydration pack in ’01. Within the last two years I have dropped the pack and went back to the old ways. Enjoy it much better. Only long rides require a pack and I am looking into either a frame bag or mountain feed bag. This is just my personal preference. Ride your own ride. Have fun. Adventure by Bike.

  • MTI

    I can’t imagine a ride without my pack. I am so pathetic when it comes to taking a water bottle out when riding it is outright dangerous! I agree with Jeff however of way added weight on a 3L pack. I usually just fill it to 2L and have my H2O bottle with some Gatorade or something like that and that is enough for me for a tough paced 40 mile ride in the heat. It is certainly a preference and I don’t think Jeff is trying to tell people to go unprepared or under-prepared (is that a word?). Clearly he fits all his tools, nutrition in other places like his saddle bag and Jersey pockets and even goes so far as to mention sterilization tablets along with two bottles of liquid which for me at least would be sufficiant for most rides. Good article overall it prompted a good discussion.

  • afullsodacan

    Good article, I love to ride without the constricting, heavy pack when I can. Of course, mid-summer here in Florida on longer rides, I still have to wear it, but when I am going on shorter rides, I feel so much better when I don’t have to wear it. I feel like I can get around better on the bike, too.

  • stumpyfsr

    Nice article! I like the idea of riding without a pack. I’d ride pack-free on the short rides on the familiar trails, but riding with pack on my every ride instead. Lightweight Osprey Zealot holding up to 100oz of water, has removable tool pouch and provide some back protection in case of bad crash. Ventilation ain’t bad neither. And it can keep my extra layers and food if needed too. I’m just so used to riding with it, that don’t even feel this on my back.
    For many people, who use seat-drop, seat-bag is not a perfect option. And if riding in a desert, two bottles won’t provide enough water even for a moderate ride. Also I found myself in a few situations when I ran out of water because new to me trail appeared much longer then I expected. So, there will be many riders who won’t ditch hydration packs.
    I’m not trying to critique, but showing an other side. I see your tips, @Jeff, are very usefull.
    @dgaddis, +1 on frame bags – I use one from Relevate too and really like it.

  • Jennyv

    Riding in the 90s (pre-Camelback days) in Seattle, we would ride with bottles as well, but the mud/gunk that got on our bottles was pretty gross. Frankly, I don’t mind the mud, but in the mouth it tastes pretty disgusting. So, when the Camelback came out we rejoiced!

    Now living in Colorado we run into problems with cattle ranging on the trails. Just a roll through a puddle can splash some pretty nasty stuff on the mouth of a bottle…including…giardia. Yep, got it and NEVER want to go through that again. Great for losing weight prior to a wedding, but not fun when you’re trying to get out on a ride.

    Also, another thumbs-up on the Raptor (although for me it’s the Raven) from Osprey.

  • radavis3

    Great write up Jeff. Been riding with a Camelback since the original came out in the early 90’s, so I have just gotten use to it. I think I still have that Camelback in the closet somewhere, but use a newer model with all the pockets now. This article has me rethinking it’s use, at least on shorter rides. As many have mentioned here, riding at higher and drier elevations, a couple of water bottles isn’t enough for rides of more than an hour regardless of how much hydrating you do in the days preceding your ride.

    • jeff

      I have done plenty of rides out west at high/dry elevations without a Camelbak and can often get by with just two water bottles. Of course that doesn’t leave me with a lot of margin if things go wrong but then again, mountain biking is risky in a lot more ways than one. 🙂

      Honestly I sweat a whole lot more in humid conditions so I don’t think riding in the west is any more thirst-inducing than anywhere else. For example, at the Dahlonega Dirty Thirty (30 miles, about 4 hours, and about 80 degrees with 70% humidity) I made it without a pack thanks to staging some water jugs at the 12 mile mark. Again, it takes planning (and even some extra leg work) but to me it makes the ride itself much more enjoyable.

      Mountain biking is one of the only sports I can think of that utilizes hydration packs to such a degree; heck, even road bikers don’t use ’em and they often go on long/hot/remote rides too. But somehow they make it work.

    • mtbgreg1

      I think the difference with road biking is that there are generally plenty of places to refill water bottles and even buy more food. There are gas stations, water spiggots, and springs spread along all sorts of paved roads. However, on a few hundred-mile road rides in North GA this winter/spring while training for Cohutta, I wore a small pack just to hold extra layers. Sometimes I added layers, sometimes I dropped layers, but I was often glad I had the pack. Still, I’ll grant you that not many roadies in GA wear packs… but I’ve seen several here in CO that do.

    • mtbgreg1

      Heh, but maybe I’m just addicted to backpacks…

  • bonkedagain

    For me it depends on the ride. For any ride that is under a couple hours I use bottles. If it is a longer ride, or I could only ride during the heat of the day, I strap on a 3L hydration pack. I really like not having something strapped to my body when riding. So, guess I agree with Jeff.

    I’ve also used a fanny pack that has pockets on each side for water bottles, but I never really liked it. Felt awkward and I had more sweat build up on an already sweaty ass, so if I want to carry stuff I use a pack.

  • Twiddles

    Learn to ride with a Pack and you will never notice the added weight and never find yourself in a situation where you needed the items and don’t have them. Posts like this always stress the ease of minimalistic practices and never cover the dangers.

  • jeff

    Apologies if the article gave the impression that I’m suggesting it’s a good idea to be less prepared for mountain bike rides. Really this was meant to showcase alternative ways to carry everything we need for a ride. So yeah, if 2 water bottles isn’t enough, then slap another bottle cage on (fork mount anyone?) or carry a bottle in your jersey pocket. Heading into the back country and need a ton of tools and extra layers? Get a bigger saddle bag or a frame bag (both of which were mentioned).

    I do think having a hydration pack can give folks a false sense of security sometimes. It’s hard to see how much water you have in your pack mid-ride plus the largest mainstream reservoirs top out at 100oz which is just more than 3 bottles. Many packs have even smaller, 2L reservoirs which are closer to 2 bottles worth.

  • blueflyer83

    Got a better idea; why don’t people stop being a bunch of weight weenies? I could say more, but I keep coming back to my above statement. If you’re going to bust out the “I’m too old to carry that kind of weight” then you may want to consider road biking instead. You can survive 3 days without water and considering MOST people aren’t survivalist…just bring your damn water bladder and quite your damn whining! Don’t know how many people I’ve helped with my tools because they decided to go “minimalist” and leave their gear at home. As MtBGreg said, “Here in Colorado even a relatively simple ride can turn into a life-threatening situation very quickly.” Though I appreciate the “minimalist” lifestyle, stuff like this is very bad advice for MOST people…not all, just MOST people. I’d rather have it and not need it, rather than the other way around.

    • jeff

      Again, the idea isn’t to eliminate weight–it’s to find a new place to carry the weight. For me, I’d much rather let the bike do the heavy lifting than my back.

  • shawnskee22

    I think this will resonate more with guys like me who don’t have epic wilderness in their backyard. All of our trails here in Dallas are 20 miles at max, still short enough to grab two bottles and go. I would dare say that choosing bottles over bladders is the more common choice here.

  • Curtis Stolaas

    I’m trying to ditch the pack, but really a first kit should be a must as well. Better to take care of your body than a bike.

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