Bikepacking: Hardtail vs Full Suspension vs Fully Rigid


Depending on where, how long and when you want to go bikepacking you might need a different type of bike. In general, a hardtail mountain bike is a safe choice for bikepacking but what about full suspension and fully rigid bikes?
You can’t have everything, there isn’t a single solution for everything. As much as I wish I could afford all types of bikes, at some point, you need to make a choice.

This article will go into the different types of setups mainly focussing on a hardtail, full suspension and fully rigid bikes. So let’s kick off with different types of bikes and their strengths and weaknesses. After that I’ll go into different types of terrain and modifications.

hardtail vs full suspension vs fully rigid mountain bike

Bikepacking on a Hardtail MTB

In general, a hardtail mountain bike is always a safe choice. The front suspension can deal with trails you’ll encounter and perform well in different circumstances like forests and gravel roads.

Hardtail MTB’s are also more suitable for installing rear racks, you’ll have a harder time mounting a rear rack to a full suspension but nothing is impossible. There are tons of modifications possible you just have to do a bit of research.

With a little bit more air in the fork to compensate for the extra weight your MTB is carrying and slightly more volume tires can go a long way. If a hardtail also has a lockout system, you’ll be able to ride comfier on normal roads and have the benefit of suspension in less forgiving areas.

Hardtails aren’t as complex as full suspensions and less likely to break down. Always bring an emergency repair kit, not bringing any spare parts is foolish.

Pros:

  • Great all around, especially with a lockout system
  • Less prone to mechanical issues
  • Ability to mount a rear rack
  • Performs well in forests, gravel, and trails
  • Lockout system on the front suspension

Cons:

  • Hard to mount a front rack
  • fewer options to mount bottles on the front
  • Take more effort on asphalt and pavements

Hardtail Compared to a Full Suspension and Fully Rigid

Compared to a fully, hardtail mtb has front suspension where a rigid lacks suspension entirely. A full-suspension obviously has both front and back suspension. A hardtail is more suitable for trails and bumpy roads compared to a rigid where a fully offers maximum comfort given the circumstances.

The front suspension means less room for bags or bottles unless you find a workaround. There are many options to solve this, but I’ll go into that some other time. Rigid forks come with a lot of bolts where you can strap or attach much more stuff. Tents, large water bottles or anything you can come up with.

Bikepacking on a Fully Rigid Bike

A rigid bike is the choice of many bikepackers and for good reasons. The chassis has more space for framebags and other packing options because of the lack of shock and linkage systems.

The forks and rear triangle of a rigid bike are solid and don’t absorb shocks. Rigid bike frames are often made of steel or aluminum.

It’s less prone to break down because of their simple design. The lack of complex parts makes them more reliable, efficient, and durable. Fewer components to worry about and they are often lighter (depending on materials and age).

A rigid bike is a good option when you encounter a mix of terrain. A variety of dirt roads, mellow trails, asphalt, gravel, and pavements a rigid bike is an excellent choice.

Think about swapping your wheels for plus wheels which is a huge improvement on ride comfort. They are better at handling rougher terrain and are a huge benefit.

Pros:

  • Less prone to mechanical issues
  • Cheaper than hardtails and full suspensions
  • Usually la lot lighter than a suspension fork
  • More front bar bag capacity because there’s no suspension travel. No chance of any rubbing your bags. Same goes for the rear
  • Allows for a rear and front rack which isn’t possible on a FS.
  • Manage load more predictably (no suspension travel)

Cons:

  • Climbing might prove difficult when you have a single-speed bike
  • Takes time to get used to, a bike needs to fit properly
  • Not very comfortable and less performance on technical trails
  • Can get pretty grim on rocky surfaces, not to mention your hands aching
  • More rim impact because of the lack of suspension

Rigid bike compared to a FS and hardtail

It mostly comes down to reliability as a rigid bike lacks many components hardtails and especially full-suspension bikes have. A rigid MTB’s biggest advantage is control and precise handling because there’s no suspension travel. No suspension means less bouncy and no compression on obstacles. This is a disadvantage on technical trails though.

A full suspension and hardtail will perform better on trails but if your rigid has a few shifting gears this shouldn’t be a problem. It will feel bumpier because of the lack of suspension. Since you’re probably not riding trails all the time a rigid will do fine.

As for durability, suspension in MTB’s is complex. Lots of moving parts, pressure systems, hydraulics etc. As aforementioned, these parts can fail and not having them means less chance of breaking up your trip early.

The simple construction of a fully rigid MTB/bike just makes it very reliable. Some even remove the derailleur and convert it into a single-speed bike. You’ll need strong legs when climbing hills, so this isn’t always recommended.

Rigid bikes are cheaper and cost less to maintain and repair. There are no complex systems or expensive parts to maintain making it a solid choice from a financial perspective.

Fully rigid bikes are ideal for long distances and riding for several days. A rigid frame won’t compress and bounce allowing you to carry more weight (like camping gear). They also have more room available for bags and bottles, not to mention allowing mounting a front and rear rack.

Bikepacking on a Full Suspension

A full suspension for bikepacking is probably the least favored amongst bikepackers. But in certain situations, it makes a lot of sense. For rough trails and routes where you encounter a lot of technical riding, a full suspension is a good option.

While these are circumstances where a full suspension is justified, in many situations it’s not.

If you’re about to pick a rougher route like the Colorado or Arizona trail (for example), riding a full suspension isn’t a bad idea. Although packing becomes a bit tighter at some routes it’s just the best choice. Usually, it’s a good idea to adjust the air pressure for the extra weight your carrying.

More gentle gravel roads and mellow trails aren’t really meant for a FS. In this case, it’s better to go with a hardtail or a fully rigid (road) bike.

If you don’t need to carry much and you’re riding in the right season a full suspension is fine. A single overnighter doesn’t require much, ditch the tent and use a tarp for example.

Make sure to have extremely compact and lightweight gear, get a custom frame bag that fits. If you don’t have any other options you might have to carry a backpack even though this can be extremely uncomfortable (pack it with light stuff!). If you do, pay extra attention to how your backpack ventilates and distributes weight.

Though packing is more limited there are still plenty of options to bring stuff along. Think about frame bags, handlebar rolls, saddle bags, etc. It’s even possible to install a rear rack such as the Thule Tour RackOpens in a new tab.  (link to Amazon). This rack prevents contact and friction because it’s directly attached to the seat stays or fork.

More parts means more that can cut your trip short. I’d suggest you know at least the basics on how to fix your full suspension to keep it going in case anything goes south. Also, keep in mind that bikepacking often involves hiking. A full suspension is heavier and dragging your bike for a mile can be exhausting.

If you encounter a lot of singletracks while bikepacking and you suffer from a bad back, a FS makes a lot of sense.

Pros:

  • Great when you will encounter lots of technical tracks
  • More comfort when bikepacking in rougher areas
  • Great for people with back issues, the suspension is way more forgiving.

Cons:

  • More prone to mechanical issues
  • Much more expensive in maintenance and retail prices
  • Heavier compared to rigid and hardtails
  • Less carrying capacity but getting creative helps
  • More chance of friction make sure you adjust your suspension air pressure according to the weight you carry
  • Harder to mount racks, but it’s possible (at a price)
  • More bouncy and bumpy making control less predictable
  • Climbing is harder especially with all the extra weight you carry

Full Suspension vs a Rigid and Hardtail

The main reason for not going for a full suspension when planning a bikepacking trip is reliability. FS mtb’s have tons of moving parts that can break down but a well maintained FS should hold up fine.

A hardtail also has more moving parts, but the lack of rear suspension takes away a lot of risks where a rigid will hardly give you any worries.

A full suspension is the right choice for technical bikepacking trips, lots of technical trails and rocky roads will be much more comfortable on a full suspension. Somewhere in the middle, a hardtail is an option and a rigid will prove to be a bad choice considering the circumstances.

Many people swear by full suspensions and for good reasons already mentioned. Just make sure to pack smart and efficient. Bring the minimum and if extreme cases bring along a backpack.

Dedicated Bikepacking Bikes

For some time now a couple of well-known brands have started to jump aboard the bikepacking hype train. Trek, for example, offers a bikepacking bike that has almost everything you need.

These bikes are a bikepackers dream but you’ll think twice if you look at the price tag. Dedicated bikepacking bikes are very expensive but could be worth it if you have the budget.

The Trek 1120 is designed for bikepacking. It’s features both a front and rear rack to store luggage and allows you to attach bottles everywhere. The frame is made of carbon, and the fork consists of aluminum. The big tires and wheels make this bike even better and it might be the ultimate bikepacking bike.

It comes at a price obviously, and it isn’t the answer to all types of terrain, it mainly falls short on the extremes. Check out this reviewOpens in a new tab. on bikepacking.com  if you’re curious, I wish I could get my hands on this bike someday

Other Types of Bikes for Bikepacking

I noticed I mainly focussed on mountain bikes but there are many other great options out there. A road bike will do fine as long as the tires and rims are wide enough. If not you can swap the tires and rims to deal with rocky roads, gravel, trails, etc.

Fat bikes are also very popular on technical rides and in cold environments. Their tires are huge (4 inch plus) which helps to deal with rough roads, gravel and technical parts of your journey. It takes a bit more effort but a solid choice when riding deserts, snow, coastal areas, and dunes.

It can be any bike really, as long as you keep it together and make sure to modify the bike where possible.

Bike Choice and Terrain Types

The bike you pick for bikepacking should be suitable for the terrain you ride. Bikepacking terrain usually consist of a combination of gravel and trail or vast rough terrain. Terrain can have a huge impact on performance and demands a lot from your gear, you don’t want anything to break down halfway that you can’t replace on the spot.

There are riders that encounter mixed surfaces, it really depends on where you live, let’s go into the types of terrain and what kind of bikepacking bike is the best choice.

Mixed Terrain

If you’re going to encounter dirt roads, pavements and asphalt you need something that’s all around. It’s a tough one; gravel bikes are great on chunky and loose gravel because of better traction. The knobby profile on the tires provide a lot of grip and you’ll feel way more confident on fast descents compared to a touring bike.

Sure, it depends on how you modify your bike but in general, a gravel bike wins. A rigid MTB will require you to put more energy into pedaling on roads but will perform great on dirt roads.

Gravel Roads and Forest

If your trip mainly consists of forest and gravel roads the choice becomes a bit easier. Of course a gravel bike would be your top choice but don’t rule out a hardtail MTB or a rigid MTB.

Rigid and hardtails are usually a bit heavier than gravel bikes but are more comfortable on loose and rocky descents. They provide more stability at higher speeds which is necessary because all the weight you carry.

Singletrack

If your trip consists of trails or you planned to visit a few singletracks on your trip, go with a hardtail mountain bike or a rigid. A full-suspension could be an option on more technical trails mainly because they are more forgiving.

I already addressed the downsides of fully’s, the more complex parts your bike carries the more risk something breaks down. Breaking up your trip and hiking for miles with a heavily packed bike isn’t the kind of experience you want, it happens though.

In any case, a hardtail is a safe choice. The front suspension provides a smoother ride making it easier to ride a single track. A rigid bike will feel uncomfortable on tree roots and rocky parts of a trail.

Lastly, you could consider a Fatbike. It isn’t as complex as a full suspension and the wide tires provide a smooth riding experience.

Gearing & Bike Modification

Just like photographers like to say, the best camera is the one you’re carrying and the same goes for a bikepacking bike. The best one is the bike you already own but some modifications are often needed in order to make yourself more comfortable during your rides.

A short 1- or 2-day trip doesn’t require much but longer bikepacking trips require a bit more preparation and modifications to your bike. In general it’s better to not have complex gear that can let you down. A couple of speed gears will come a long way helping you climb and ride at an easier pace when you’re getting tired.

It doesn’t require you to be a geek or hardcore bikepacker. Some easy modifications can make all the difference. Easy gears are always better than hard gears, like using, for example, a 1×11 instead of a 2×11. You probably don’t need a 2x anyway and having no front derailleur takes a bit of weight off your bike and there’s less chance of stuff breaking down.

Front and Rear Racks

I think one of the biggest advantages is to attach racks. A fully rigid bike can carry both a front and rear rack and there are rear racks available for both hardtails and FS.

Racks allow you to carry much more when going for long-distance bikepacking trips. Sure it adds more weight so make sure to bring what you need for your trip. What you need can vary depending on terrain, duration, and weather and you’ll learn what to bring from experience.

Bottle Mounts

Again depending on the type of bike you can attach lots of water bottles to your bike. There are bottle cages available that can carry up to four bottles on your fork. It’s harder to reach them and a bit risky so for an easy grab you could consider a saddle bottle cage. Many can fit two bottles and are easy to grab without any risk.

Bags

As for bags, there are many options: seat bags, frame bags, handlebar bags, food bags, etc. Depending on your type of bike you may or may not able to attach them so make sure they fit before you buy.

Some even attach panniers to racks to bring even more stuff along but not everybody is a fan because of weight distribution. Too much weight in front or back can make handling a lot harder. Make sure to distribute the weight properly. Most of the weight should go in the center to keep your balance. If you carry too much on your fork and handlebars you’ll run into steering issues.

Don’t Overthink but Be Prepared

Now that I addressed most of the main differences, it’s time to take a step back and be realistic and practical. Overthinking usually leads to bringing too much stuff and you should really keep it at the basics. Proper preparation and safety are half the battle.

Just ride what you have and make the appropriate modifications were possible along the way. At some point, you know how to get the most out of your bikepacking trip. Bikepacking isn’t exactly new, as long as there are bikes people made extended trips carrying what they needed.

Old and heavy bikes without handbrakes or any advanced tech didn’t stop people back in the ’80s from going on a bike tour. Prepare and take the essentials depending on how long you’re planning to ride but don’t make it any more complex than it has to be.

The bike you currently own is probably fine, there’s no such thing as the best bike as terrain and circumstances vary a lot. Just make sure to check your bike before you go, bring it to your local bike shop for maintenance and carry an emergency repair kit for starters.

Be creative when it comes to packing efficiently, there are tons of examples out there of people being creative and they come up with great solutions. You don’t need to buy expensive stuff, save money where you can and spend more where it’s needed.

There’s no such thing as the perfect bikepacking bike, even though the dedicated come close. The ideal bike is the one with the least amount of parts that can break while still allowing you to get from spot A to B whether it’s a full suspension MTB, a hardtail or rigid bike.

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Ruben

I always had a thing for bike sports and love almost anything that involves bikes and boards. I work part-time as a designer in the tech industry and work on my blogs whenever I can.

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