The Ultimate Cargo Bikepacking Guide: Adventure Fully Loaded
Today's cargo bikes are engineered for adventure. Equipped with the right bike and knowledge, you can revolutionize your approach to bikepacking. This guide offers an intro to the types of cargo bikes, how to choose one, tips from real-life cargo bikepackers and more.
Bikepacking, dirt touring, adventure cycling, or whatever you’d like to call our long-distance adventures, should be as simple as stuffing a few bags full of things, strapping ’em onto our bikes, and heading into the wild blue. However, the cycling industry enjoys spouting the hype that lighter is better and smaller is better. If that’s the case, then smaller and lighter must be the best right? While I love to play “Bikepacking Tetris” with new space-age trinkets, squishing them into sleek torpedo-shaped bags with engineering precision to achieve the same density as a cube of recycled metal, I have to admit that I don’t like playing that game morning after morning. If one thing is out of sequence it could lead to catastrophic consequences. Cargo bikes can reduce that pressure and open up a whole new box with enough room to bring your pet or child along for the memories. You could even bring a full-sized frying pan and make fluffy pancakes in the morning for everyone! Let’s unpack that idea.
Confession: I don't own a cargo bike now, but as a bike messenger 35 years ago, I alternated between my 1988 Off-Road Toad and a home-built cargo bike for the company's "large package" route. Riders rotated for a fair share of the bonuses, but dang, it was hard work. On Fridays, the crew pooled money to load it with a small Hibachi BBQ and a kegger of beer for a beach cookout. I've used various cargo bikes since, but never needed one, even with young kids. Our adventures required conventional transportation. Lately, I've seen a growing trend of riders embracing cargo bikes for extensive journeys, such as completing the gruelling 1800+km Silk Road Mountain Race. This sparked my interest in cargo bikes for significant adventures. Before delving into this idea, let's gather some knowledge about cargo bikes.
1. Types of Cargo Bikes
During the Industrial Revolution, cargo-carrying bicycles emerged in Europe and urban North America at the turn of the 20th century. The "freight tricycle" was developed by Pickford & Co. in Britain and Columbia & Pope in the US. In Denmark, Smith & Co. crafted two-wheeled cargo bikes, while the Dutch built three-wheeled Bakfiets, named for the large box in front of the rider (Bak+fiets translates to Box+Bicycle). Since then cargo bikes have evolved into various designs.
These cargo bikes resemble regular bicycles but feature an elongated, robust rear frame for simplicity and versatility. The extended frame accommodates various cargo accessories, such as crates, seats, or two sets of panniers, with ample room for strapping items on top. Notable examples include the Kona Big Dummy [photo] and Salsa Blackbarrow [photo]. When equipped with a standard front rack, these frames can efficiently carry substantial loads, commonly used by dogpackers. A slightly scaled-down version is known as a Midtail.
These bikes boast a front rack or cargo platform extending from the frame, separate from the forks. While maintaining a design akin to traditional bikes, they are recognizable by the smaller front wheel, which lowers the cargo mass for better handling. Bikes like the Omnium or Hase Gravit Dust [photo] excel at carrying significant loads while preserving familiar handling characteristics.
Originating in 1929 from Danish mechanic Morten Rasmussen Mortensen, the Long John features a long, low-slung cargo platform behind a small front wheel. These workhorse bikes can typically carry over 100 kg payload, commonly used by parents transporting their kids to and from school. Ideal for narrow streets and uneven paths. Modern versions, such as the Larry Vs Harry Bullitt [photo] and Triobike Cargo [photo], come in varying cargo lengths and steering designs.
Bakfiets (aka Box Bikes)
Modern Bakfiets refer to box bikes where cargo is supported by two wheels, with a third wheel behind the rider. These bikes are designed for heavy loads. Steering designs vary from a simple mid-frame pivot point to more intricate front- or rear-wheel steering. Due to their wide design, exemplified by the popular Babboe brand [photo], they have limited options for adventure travel, as urban cycling infrastructure often determines their suitability. Tricycles which carry the load behind the rider, boast the highest payload capabilities but sacrifice handling, much like Bakfiets, making them less suitable for adventures.
If you're interested in digging deeper into the brands who make great cargo bikes for adventure, check out Adventure Awaits: 29 Cargo Brands for Explorers.
2. Choosing The Right Size
Choosing the right size for your cargo bike involves considering your specific needs. Do you require just a little extra space for fishing gear or your small dog, or are you looking for the minivan equivalent of bikes? A Longtail design, only marginally longer than a regular bike, can be stored similarly, while a Long John frame may take up a significant portion of your garage. The choice depends on how you plan to use your cargo bike, and size becomes a factor if you need to transport it to different locations or during emergencies. Can it fit on a car, bus, train, or even a plane? Some bikes, like the Gravit Dust [photo] with its telescopic frame, are designed to fit a typical hitch rack, and others like the Yoonit [photo] and Muli [photo] cater to apartment dwellers. Larger frames may have considerations for flying or taking a train, but long-tail, mid-tail, and smaller cycle trucks like the Omnium Mini-Max [photo] or Ten:07 Unicorn [photo] should not pose an issue. Weight also plays a role; while they may be heavier, they allow for greater packing capacity, so consider this in your route planning. Ultimately, it's about making smiles, not just miles.
3. Leg-Power vs. E-Power
Addressing the electric aspect, cargo bikes have seen a surge in electric models due to market demand. While some manufacturers have shifted entirely to electric models, there are still options for those who prefer leg-powered bikes. For example, Bikepack Canada's Sarah Hornby and Kyle Messier enjoyed an overnight trip with their dog Loki on a Larry vs Harry eBullitt, finding it an excellent rig that easily kept up despite the load. Others, like Michi Ricks, use an eBullitt for overnights with her dog Friedrich, enjoying the eclectic-assist convenience on hilly terrain. This guide will focus on leg-powered cargo bikes for those planning extensive adventures, but if you are set on going electric, check out Urban Arrow or Riese & Müller. This is the only time I’ll mention these outstanding bike brands, however, they do not offer any pedal-power models.
4. Cargo Bikes IRL
People have varied reasons for getting a cargo bike, and most use them for weekly chores and weekend adventures with family, pets, or extra gear. Some seek the ultimate globe-trotting machine where space outweighs speed. Check out some of the people that we admire who are pushing the boundries of what a cargo bike can do.
Allan Shaw (Cycle Truck / Omnium)
Between Allan’s ambitious cycling adventures, and his cycling apparel brand Gay’s Okay Cycling he is a hard guy to track down. But I would be remiss to talk about cargo bikes and not mention Allan. He is the first person to attempt & complete the Silk Mountain Bike Race on a cargo bike, and not a small half-ass bike either—a full-sized Omnium Cargo. Originally from Scotland, Allan has a decade of delivering packages behind him and a raft of bike messenger championships under his pedals. He is no stranger to cargo bikes. He is an accomplished ultra-distanced bikepacker who completed the Tour Divide, Silk Road Mountain Race, Atlas Mountain Race, and Baja Divide. Allan had a dream of completing the Silk Road Mountain race on his cargo bike but opted to use his gravel bike in 2021, but the instant he crossed the finish line, he exclaimed "I totally could have done that on my cargo bike!". So that’s exactly what he did in 2023. After suffering a brutal fall descending from Kegeti Pass that required him to get transported to a local town for stitches. He returned to the race route to finish #57th. That’s some Salty Grit! In his words, he describes the Omnium Cargo bike as, "a game changer made by passionate cyclists for passionate cyclists." Many Omnium owners describe this as potentially the only bike. So much fun and so versatile. 📸: Mads Madson
Brett Davis (Mid-Tail / Salsa Blackbarrow)
When I bought my first Blackbarrow, which I two have now, it inspired me to start thinking "out there" because of its increased carrying capacity. I can go deeper into the wilderness with more supplies, or combine multiple sports. It’s been the backbone for multiple, remote expeditions in the wilds of Alaska. Longtail bike designs creativity in trip planning allowing its user to be in remote corners for longer than a week and carry enough gear to experience the land by other means than just by pedaling. From desert canyoneering and exploration to multi-week ski mountaineering trips, my “beast-of-burden” has provided some unique and memorable human-powered experiences. However, wrangling a 40kg (85lb) bike is a bear to manage and move through terrain that requires pushing, and is impractical if there is any chance of hike-a-bike sections. However, they have a yin and yang. The ability to carry all the creature comforts of home isn’t always a good thing.
Jean-Christophe & Basquiat (Cargo Truck / Omnium)
I think what is fun about riding an Omnium Mini-Max WIFI is the versatility of the bike. It is not far from what riding a regular bike feels like. My approach with this bike is basically to ignore the cargo section when it comes to loading luggage on it. It’s just a bike, with a dog on it. I load the same way I would any other of my bikes; a Tailfin rack, a full frame bag, and a big handlebar bag. I keep the cargo section only for Basquiat. He jumps in and out as he pleases. I make sure this is fun for both of us. Basquiat will usually run next to the bike for about 50% of the time and whenever he runs I almost completely forget I am riding a cargo bike. I like to keep it minimalistic and do everything the same way I would with a “regular” adventure bike; dropper post, big tires, and comfy handlebars. Everything after that is simply cycling to me; pack it up in a random cardboard bike box, fly somewhere fun, push through the hard bits, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Just enjoy the ride!
Kyle Messier & Loki (Long John / Larry vs Harry eBullitt)
My new eBullitt was an awesome bike for a recent overnight ride to Banff. I used to tow Loki in a two-wheeled trailer which was too wide for some places and I felt was not the safest spot as I couldn’t keep an eye on him. He’s a champ though and we made the trailer work for years. As good as the training was with this setup, we love having the eBullitt. I enjoy my rides with Loki way more and have more energy for my “real” rides. It has also opened up going on overnights (like we did) when I work the next day. No stress of making it on time, or being completely exhausted once I get there. For now, we will keep to local camping areas to access charging access and may get a second 500W battery. The bike is great for crushed/ packed gravel trails, but not an off-road machine. The eBullitt makes for a great dog-packing machine. My $25 Canadian Tire bin holds Loki perfectly and I can still put a rack on the rear to hold all our stuff. Should I need more capacity I can also attach up to four panniers to the Loki bucket. It’s great having so much room because I can bring all the comforts that I can’t when bikepack racing.
Lehi Cano (Cargo Truck / Omnium)
The first obvious challenge I faced when beginning was the size of my Omnium cargo bike. The places I like to camp often require singletrack, so the added length of the bike makes maneuvering tricky sometimes, though not impossible or bad enough to stop having fun. Overloading is easy to do, but one of the biggest benefits is not having to worry about what bag goes where. A couple of dry bags and a few old inner tubes to hold my gear on the rack, and I’m ready. The bike itself serves as a table or chair at camp! I bought a titanium Omnium frame and then pieced together the drivetrain, built the wheels (with a Dynamo hub], and a custom Rockgeist frame bag. I think with a long-term cargo bike, it's worth putting in the money to ride the exact bike you want.
Michi Ricks & Friedrich (Long John / Larry vs Harry eBullitt)
The eBullitt is for me like the VW Bus. It’s a camper, a transporter, an icon. I chose an eBullitt because I moved into a hilly area of Germany and it was clear, that my dog Friedrich would go on many rides with me, which adds another 15-20kg to my bike. I didn’t want to struggle getting up hills, I just wanted to have fun on the bike! Before I had the eBullitt, he rode in a crate on the back of my regular bike but he would constantly push his way between my arm to watch everything going by. The eBullitt offers him a grandstand to see the world—possibly the best spot for a dog. I can keep a watchful eye on him while riding. My first cargo overnighter with him was just before winter to a campground I knew that had power. It was mostly bike lanes, but I also enjoyed some secluded trails in a little forest. I also race gravel bikes, so I'm not afraid of loose and slippery surfaces and I pushed the eBullitt to its limits on these trails. The benefit of having a Bullitt for such trips with your dog is that everything fits easily in the cargo area. The dog, the tent, your clothes, everything. It has a sporty riding position which many Long Johns don’t have. But why a Bullitt and not an Omnium or something different? Stability! I can get off the bike with it fully loaded and flip down the centre-stand. Friedrich can jump in or out without the fear of it falling over. That’s something I just can't trust with an Omnium. I can fit the eBullitt into my van if I want to go explore somewhere else, so there is no need to change to something smaller. If you have a pet, you can share your passion, be outside, run, go camping, and have the best time of your life.
5. Repairs & Maintenance
We believe that all bikes are just bicycles, and repairs can't be that challenging, right? However, when it comes to cargo bikes, there are a few considerations. For instance, steering mechanisms, some of which use linkages underneath the bike, are susceptible to damage if struck on a curb or immovable rock. While the chances of breaking one are slim, bending or misalignment might become an issue when you're far from help. If you have cable steering, it's essential to bring extra cables and know how to replace them. For recumbent riders, dealing with weird and wacky-sized wheels is familiar, and cargo bikes are no different. Stick to standard sizes like 29” (700c), 27.5” (650b), 26” (559) for the rear, and 20” (406) for the front to make obtaining tires and tubes easier. However, if your frame can fit larger tires and you want to run tubeless, be aware that there are limited choices for 20” off-road tubeless-ready tires.
Regarding tires, Schwalbe Rocket Ron and Big Betty are the primary tires most people run, however, Brood Bike Co. (Squamish, BC) offers a 20 x 2.20” DH tubeless tire named Mataxtion, but running some tires as tubeless "out-of-spec" may yield varied results. Moving on to wheels, specifically hubs, it's noted that very few cargo bike makers fully embrace thru-axles. Some may offer interchangeable dropouts in the rear but still run a 9mm quick-release up front, which may disappoint some riders.
6. Availability & Cost
When it comes to availability and cost, cargo bikes are still considered specialty bikes with limited availability and higher costs. Most cargo bikes are made in Europe, and availability can be restricted depending on your location. Some makers have a reasonable global network of dealers, while others do not. Finding the right bike for your needs may require patience. While the price may seem high, ranging from $5000-$8000 (USD), it's essential to consider the long-term savings, especially as the rising cost of fuel can be mitigated by using a cargo bike for daily tasks like picking up groceries or taking kids to school. Additionally, the market is starting to see used cargo bikes for sale as kids grow up and parents no longer feel the need to keep the bike.
No matter where or how you ride, there’s a cargo bike design that can carry you—and your stuff—on your next adventure. I can see the merits of each cargo bike design for trips. From the Long John style to carry me and my dog along rolling country roads day after day. Or the versatile Cycle Truck to tackle rough roads into my favorite fishing spot. It’s not an easy choice but I am armed with more information to start looking for the right bike. In Part II of The Ultimate Cargo Bikepacking Guide, I’ll closely examine over 30 cargo bikes to see what’s best for me, my dog, and my full-sized frying pan.