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A mountain bike may seem like a large, unwieldy object when it comes to shipping or flying cross-country, but if you know what you’re doing, you can easily pack your mountain bike into a nice, neat box. Here’s a step-by-step article to show you how.

1. Get a box.

If you saved the box your bike originally shipped in, +1 for you. If not, don’t worry–you can usually find a bike box at your local bike shop, and oftentimes they’ll even give you one for free (if not free, then for a nominal fee). Boxes come in all sizes based on the bike type, so look for a box that held a mountain bike your size or larger.

I ride a size XL 29er, which means boxes are hard to come by locally but I’ve found hybrid bike boxes usually work, as long as they’re meant for a size XL bike.

2. Prepare for disassembly.

Shift your rear derailleur to the largest cog on your cassette to tuck the derailleur in as much as possible. Grab all the tools you’ll need and make sure to keep them together; if you’re flying, you’ll need these exact tools on the other end of your trip.

3. Begin disassembly.  

The idea is to disassemble your bike as little as possible while fitting the bike in the box as securely as possible. Remove your front wheel. Pedals will almost always need to be removed; in fact, many airlines require this step.

Next, remove the seat post (leave the saddle attached). Remove the stem (with handlebars still attached) from your fork. Remember to bolt your stem cap back on so you don’t lose any hardware.

At this point you can test to see if your bike will fit in the box lengthwise. If not, it’s time to make more room!

4. Continue disassembly.

Note, this is only required if your bike didn’t fit after completing all the items in step 3. Remove the air from your rear tire to gain an extra inch or two in length. Remove the tire entirely if you could use even more room.

If the bike still won’t fit (but it’s close), try turning your fork around 180 degrees. Your disc brake caliper may be jutting out, so remove it if necessary (I don’t like to do this but in my case, it was necessary).

Bike still doesn’t fit? You need a longer box.

5. Pack the box.

Slip the front wheel and seatpost/saddle inside the box wherever they will fit and rest your handlebars over the top tube of the frame. The hybrid bike box I’m using isn’t super wide, so fitting my front wheel in beside the frame is a no go. To make it all work, I removed my tire from the rim and folded the tire up on top of the bike (extra padding!). The rim fit in beside the bike no problem. If your wheel uses a QR skewer, you may need to remove this to fit the wheel beside your frame.

Keep all the hardware you removed, including pedals, caliper bolts, and skewers, in a ziplock baggie, and tape it to the inside of the box. If you’re bringing tools, I suggest placing those in a bag too and taping them inside the box.

6. Pad the bike.

Ideally your bike will be shipped upright (and not on its side); most bike boxes are marked “this end up,” but that’s no guarantee. For this reason, padding is key.

First, identify any punch points–places where the box looks like it’s bulging near the rear derailleur or fork. Slip styrofoam between the bike and the box at these points and add tape to keep the packing materials in place.

Many bike shops will give you packing materials along with the bike box, so just ask! For example, many bikes ship plastic bits to protect QR fork mounts and rear axles, so pick these up if you can find them.

Next, look for any items that might rub together in transit. Metal on carbon fiber isn’t good, so add padding to any parts or loose items that might cause problems.

Finally, identify any spots where the bike might have an opportunity to move up and down or side-to-side in the box. Pack lightweight materials in to keep the bike as stable as possible. When I’m traveling, I like to put some of my clothes in the box as padding, which also saves me from checking (and paying for!) a second bag at the airport.

Parting Shot

If you choose to use a cardboard box, you should be able to get at least a couple round trips out of it… but throw the box away if it becomes damaged. If you plan to fly with your bike on a regular basis, several companies sell hardshell, pre-padded bike boxes. But at hundreds of dollars in cost, you definitely have to be flying on regular basis to justify the expenditure!

It’s pretty easy to pack a bike in a box, and the whole process should take less than an hour. Reassembly is often even faster–just reverse the steps above and ride away!

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# Comments

  • mtbgreg1

    I always find steps 5 and 6 to be the most difficult. Generally, I just start getting frustrated trying to discern a logical way to put the bits in the box, so I just start shoving things wherever they fit, throw in some padding willy-nilly, and hope for the best. I get a lot of review bikes shipped directly to me from the factory, and they’re always packed so nice and neat! Yeah, they never go back quite as neat… I have no idea how those guys do it.

  • fleetwood

    I’ve never shipped my bike, but when I got my current one a couple of years ago I stashed the box and packaging in my crawlspace. Looks like I will be shipping it next summer for a trip out west. Step 1 is done!

  • tridiesel

    Padding is really the key, nothing sucks more than unpacking your bike to find out it was damaged

  • jeff

    Yes, padding is an artform and is really specific to the bike and the box. I haven’t had any issues flying but shipping–where the bike is in transit for days instead of hours with multiple transfer points–is much riskier.

  • delphinide

    Great article…I’d like to point out of couple of things I’ve learned shipping my bikes.

    1. If you use a normal sized bike box (not for DH, tandems, etc..) and you have or know someone with a FedEx account, you can generally ship your bike via FedEx for around $60 each way. This is sometimes cheaper than paying excess baggage fees on airlines if you exceed the size and/or weight limit. It is even easier for road bikes. UPS and USPS typically cost a lot more…as much as $258 I have learned…the hard way.

    2. Bonus: if you are friends with your local bike shop, THEY usually have a FedEx account. If you bring in your carefully boxed bike to ship, along with a six pack of local suds, they can often ship it for cheap.

    3. If you able and willing to disassemble the bike even further than what Jeff did in the article above, most 26ers will fit into a box that is 62 linear inches and will meet the airlines requirement for normal luggage…and leave you a weight allowance to pad it up nicely and throw in a few pieces of gear and tools. You may have to ‘make your own box’ to fit the 62 inch dimensions…but so worth it.

    4. I would reiterate what he wrote above: make sure you take special tools along to reassemble your ride. I once shipped my bike for a month long trek around Argentina, disassembled completely as I just mentioned, and forget to bring a crank tool. I could not find a shop that had one when I got there, so I had to get creative.

    5. To get more life out of your bike box if you put an extra piece of cardboard on the sides, on the inside of the box. If you really want to package it fancy-like, then package the bike zip-tied to a piece of cardboard that fits one of the side walls…then just slide it in. You can put the wheels, separated by another sheet of cardboard, and your bike is really protected this way if you pad the stanctions and tender bits with PVC pipe insulation.

    6. Having tried the $400 bike boxes, they are more of a pain, and more expensive than the cardboard box. I’d stay away from them and follow Jeff’s advice. The reinforced cardboard box is just as sturdy and requires the same amt of dis-assembly…and easier to replace.

    • bravesdave

      The other problem with the fancy $400 bike boxes is that they weigh too much. There is no way I can stay under the 50lbs limit with the airlines and avoid the hefty overweight fees with one of those fancy boxes. With the corrugated cardboard box, I can get my bike in along with my camelback, tools, etc. and still be under the weight limit.

    • bravesdave

      I will have to try out the idea of adding extra siding. That could not only protect the box but also the bike. I also reenforce all the corners and glued seams extra tape. One other tip, especially for first timers, do not carefully tape down the lid of the box before the airport. Most of the time the airport worker has to look into your box because it is too large to scan. So if you tape down the lid extra well initially like I have in the past, then you are just wasting your time (and tape). I usually bring a little extra tape to the airport and then ask the worker worker when he or she is done if I can tape up the lid. They will do it for you, but probably not as good as you would.

    • robinsegg

      With regards to the extra cardboard to reinforce: I used to order that stuff in 4×8 sheets, 1/4″ thick, and it was burst rated to 350lbs…best of all, it was only $7 a sheet. If you can get your hands on some (just call local corrugated cardboard companies) your reinforced box will stop almost anything anyone can throw at it!

  • delphinide

    That IS a good deal if they honor that and you can keep it under 109 inches. Thanks for the tip Jeff.

  • barrygxnz

    Water pipe foam insulation works great for padding the frame tubes, forks, crank arms. I always take my derailleur off the frame. Likewise, I have a bunch of the plastic spacers for the front and rear dropouts, which I duct tape in place. As I get two free checked bags on Airtran, I usually pack wheels in one box, the rest of the bike in another. Other airlines can be more expensive, or restrictive. I sometimes end up renting a bike at my destination, if it works out to be more economical, and live with a bike that may not be perfect but perfectly acceptable.

  • bravesdave

    Nice summary Jeff. For those who have never pack their bike, just remember it gets easier each time you do it. One concern I saw in your picture is that you have the disc of your brake flush with the wall of the box. I personally would never expose my disc to a potential direct impact. I can confirm with Jeff that Frontier Airlines allows you to check your bike in as one of your two regular checked pieces (no over-sized charges as long as you are under the 50lbs limit and 109″. I have done this multiple times. And as Mark has stated below, some airlines will also do this if you are traveling internationally. I know this is true for Korean Air (if you flying to East Asia). I have checked in my bike multiple times as one of my two checked pieces for no fee while traveling internationally. Sweet deal. Love having my own bike in a foreign land. I also recommend using an extra large bike box, even for a 26er. They are usually under the 109 or 110 linear limit. I use a 105″ extra large box. The extra large box makes it soooo much easier to pack.

  • bravesdave

    One word of warning traveling internationally. The airport workers in some countries are notorious for opening luggage and stealing items. I fly in East Asia a lot, and China is terrible about this. I have had various items stolen over the years. So I will not fly my bike to or through China.

  • lescott

    Don’t know about China, but my greatest fear are the so-called “Security-Inspectors” at US Customs…Something about my box must look like it contains a terrorist bomb, for on three separate occasions (from Hawaii, Japan and New Zealand), US inspectors have literally ripped open my box and failed to seal it back up. I am missing a bike shoe, a computer, shirts and shorts (to help stuff and complete the sixty pound limit) and even tools–any of which they may well have stolen. One thing I have learned: carry a roll of duct tape with you–inspection or no inspection!

    • jeff

      Yes, I’ve noticed this too. The good inspectors will at least try to re-tape the box with the official Homeland Security tape.

  • stumpyfsr

    Gret tips. As other mentioned, it’s a good idea to take a derailer off. I had broken hanger once when bike arrived.

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