Gear Review: Bikepacking Bags Put To The Test

bikepacking bags review
Liam and his bikepacking setup.
When Andy asked if I’d like to write a review of the Revelate Designs frame bags, I figured why not? Having just got back from a 10-day trip around the top of the South Island, I’ve had plenty of folks ask me about my bike set up.

Revelate Designs, founded in Anchorage Alaska in 2007, was created by a fellow named Eric Parsons in order to address a growing need for ways to carry equipment on a variety of lightweight adventures, chiefly the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Since then, the popularity of the bags has grown and Revelate Designs has made a name for themselves amongst offroad cyclists. They also continue to design new, innovative products to meet the needs of bikepackers.

It was about a year ago when I first laid eyes on a Viscacha seatbag, thanks to a fellow Canadian and good friend of mine, Ben Shillington.
He was anxiously awaiting the delivery of a seatbag to make an ultralite cycle trip to France a possibility. He intended to carefully pack this one seatbag with everything he’d need for the journey.

The benefit of the seatbag over a backpack was obvious: minimizing weight on his back would add to the overall comfort of the ride. He’d be keeping the weight of his gear lower and more in line with his bike, plus the bag would be lighter than a rack and pannier setup, which was paramount. I was impressed with the setup and the Viscacha performed perfectly as planned for him.

Shortly after I left for New Zealand and put my Revelate Designs dreams on hold. Andy can attest to my excitement when I walked into the Natural High shop and sure enough there was the Viscacha! It wasn’t too long before I had pretty much ordered the whole setup for myself.

Why did I decide to invest my cold hard cash in a frame bag setup as opposed to using any one of the dozens of racks and panniers we have available?
An accountant would probably say it’s because I’m afraid of saving money… but I had a better reason then that. I wasn’t planning on doing a lot of road touring here in NZ – I wanted to use my hardtail XC mountain bike to really explore some off-the-beaten path places. We’re talking rough roads, narrow single track, big hills and sometimes completely destroyed “hike-a-bike” sections, where I needed my bike to perform as close to possible as it does unloaded. The frame bag concept of carrying gear allows for this because the weight of your gear is evenly distributed across the frame. The bags also weigh less and by their inherent capacity limitations, ensure you aren’t travelling too heavy.

bags for bikepackingThe Revelate products I bought were the Viscacha, Harness, Frame Bag, Jerrycan, Gas Tank and small pocket that mounts on the front of the harness.
A standard bikepacking luggage system will consist of a seat pack, frame bag and handlebar bag so I snagged a few extras on top of this. All these mount directly to the bike – no racks are needed. I was immediately impressed with the quality of construction and the way they all attach to the bike. The straps are even offset in ways that allow everything to fit together nicely when you’re using multiple Revelate products.

Packing at first was a bit of a challenge, being used to the increased space of panniers and all, but after a few rounds of gear-Tetris everything had its place.
It meant a few things were left behind, but since I never missed them once I was on the trip I obviously didn’t need them in the first place!

I had the Harness loaded to capacity but this was due to the extra size of a two- person tent and a -30 sleeping bag. (Needed in Canada, not so much in New Zealand.) Clothes, rain gear and on occasion, food, were kept in the Vischacha seatbag. With the addition of a small bungee I was able to attach my solar panel to the top of the Viscacha. With a max capacity of 14 litres, this seatbag can swallow a lot of gear.

The middle frame bag handled all of my cooking supplies, snacks, food, first aid, PLB and other odds and ends. In the front pocket, I kept my maps, toiletries, headlamp and a small shortwave radio. The Jerrycan was great for all my spare bike parts: levers, small pump, patchs, allen keys, tube, lube, spare pads etc. The Gas Tank was great due to its easy access on the top tube. I kept things I’d need throughout the day in this bag, like my notebook and wallet. All in all, once I had established a packing order, I really enjoyed having these different compartments to organize my things.

Having used the bags now on some longer trips and shorter overnights I’ve noticed a few small nitpicks but honestly they don’t take much away from the Revelate products.These aren’t things that are wrong with the products themselves, but are points to be aware of.

Velcro taps and straps attach the bags to the frame. I never once had anything come off or even loosen but be aware that if grit gets in between these straps and the frame, or if the Harness rubs against your headtube when you turn, you will slowly but surely loose paint off the frame. The easy remedy is to wrap frame tape or rubber tubbing at these wear points before you attach the bags. The trouble I had was the harness wearing on my headtube. This occurred while cycling the Rainbow Road on a pretty nasty day. The rain and grit got between the harness and my frame and by the end of the day had worn through my paint job. Again, easily fixable with a tire boot stuck to my headtube for protection, but it never occurred to me this could happen so quickly. Rookie mistake!

The rear Viscacha saddle bag which attaches directly to the seat post and saddle rail bars, was a little tricky when it came to threading the straps through the saddle rails, but this is easily overcome with a bit of practise, having the straps loose and doing one at a time then tightening. Again, nothing major, just something to get used to.

The bags are made of a tough 210 denier Xpac fabric, which I found to be highly water resistant and very durable.
I did, however, find the Viscacha leaked a little in a full day of rain, but considering the spray coming off the back tire directs towards the bag all day long (essentially serving as a fender), I think it held up really well. I would recommend having all your gear in a waterproof gear bag, just to be doubly sure. This double bagging kept all of my clothes bone dry for the entire trip.

I also managed to separate a bit of the zipper from the fabric, likely from overpacking the Frame Bag on a day when it served double duty as a grocery bag. With a needle and sewing kit I could easily sew the zipper back to the fabric and away I went. Essentially, with a sewing kit you can pretty much fix anything that can go wrong with these bags.

Am I happy with the investment? Hell yeah!
Anytime I’m doing an overnight single track ride I use these bags. And because they’re modular, you don’t have to use all of them at once. For example, if it’s a ride into a hut instead of a fully self supported trip, I can easily fit my lightweight sleeping bag, some clothes, food, stove and emergency gear between the Viscacha and Frame Bag.

It’s amazing how much you can fit in these bags – and attach to them. You can see from some of my pictures that sometimes I’ve had more then I really needed hanging off them. Despite the beating I gave them, they stood up well and I’d recommend them to anyone looking for a great way to carry gear in the backcountry.

Like to try out a frame bag next time you’re touring? We have both the Pika and the Viscatcha seat bags available for hire. Head here to find out more >>