Ditching the mtb backpack – research notes

Now lets be clear, I love how efficiently my hydration pack carries everything I need for a days riding. Up to 3 litres of water, clothing to deal with the days temperature fluctuations or precipitation and a selection of spares to allow me (and riding buddies) to finish rides despite unexpected mechanicals and there is a first aid kit in there too.


Riding ‘sans pack’ feels great, like going commando. Free-er, cooler, looser, lighter.


I HATE pushing a bike just because I haven’t got the stuff to mend a puncture trailside.

So I’ve been looking at different options for carrying what I need on the bike rather than on me. Just the very basic bits and bobs needed for riding 1 to 2 hour local rides or uplift days at Thredbo for example.

Here is my minimum list

  • Water bottle
  • Inner tube, tyre lever & CO2 canister
  • Multi tool (I need at least an allen key to remove the front wheel)
  • Phone and car key

I’ve been trawling the internet for options and here are the results along with some thoughts all compiled into one post for easy reference.

Before we start there are a couple of things that need taking into account:

  1.  I really don’t like the way saddle bags make my bike feel so this is not an option.
  2. Any weight needs to be carried as low and central in the frame as possible to minimise its effect on my bikes handling.
  3. I don’t want to wear a cycling jersey with rear pockets fully of stuff bouncing around. Defeats the object of the exercise.
  4. Likewise I’m not interested in ‘bumbag’ options either, been there done that back in the days before hydration packs. Didn’t carry well then, won’t now. Heavy around the waist, bounce around and horrible to fall onto.
  5. I want a side loading bottle cage as I have it on good authority they are the best way to avoid bottles being ejected on braking bumps and the like.

OK then, lets get started:

First off there a couple of ranges of products designed specifically for this purpose. SWAT from Specialized (to be fair they kinda invented it) and Ninja from Topeak. I’ll look at the relevant individual solutions separately below.

Electrical tape to frame

This ultimately ghetto solution seems to have been made popular by the Enduro racers taping inner tubes to their frames. Its an excellent temporary solution for racing as its super light and costs nothing. Its not an acceptable long term solution (for tubes) for me as the UV and trail shite degrades the rubber making it highly likely the tube will not hold air when I most need it.

It is super handy for some other spares though. A quicklink taped to the cables/hoses is a great way to ensure you always have one to hand. I’ve also now taped my spare deralieur hanger to my frame so its ‘just there’ if I’m ever unlucky enough to need it.

Credit – Pinkbike SWAT Your Bike article

Gels taped across the top tear off easily for a fast food hit.

Credit – Pinkbike SWAT Your Bike article

An upgrade to electrical tape is to use a purpose designed strap. The Mutherload Strap from Backcountry Research seems popular and well rated.

Mutherload Strap from Backcountry Research

I considered this a re-useable version of the electrical tape. A quick attach option for having a spares bundle that could easily be attached to the frame for short rides and then removed and bunged in my pack for longer rides. Its not a permanant solution because of the UV and trail shite that would inevitably damage the spares/tools

Tools that hide inside your frame

Squirreling away some useful bits and bobs out of sight inside the bike seems to be a great idea. My the first in this list is an excellent getto solution from Enduro World Champion Jerome Clementz:

“I’ve a tyre plug hidden in my fork if I have a flat on a long stage I can remove the tape, plug the tool in my tyre and finish the stage without losing all the air (if it works). It’s easy to access and quick to use!”

Credit – Bike Rumour article Every Day Carry: What does enduro champ Jerome Clementz take with him?

I really like this idea. Plugging a tubeless tyre quickly is a classic ‘stitch in time saves nine’ solution.

Another (less ghetto and more costly) solution I quite like is Specialized’s Top Cap Chain Tool

Credit – Bermstyle Article Ditching the Pack Part II

Another idea I liked when I saw it was a less ghetto verstion of Jerome’s tyre plug hack, the Sahmurai Sword tubless tyre plugs that replace bar plugs.

Credit – Pinkbike SWAT Your Bike article

Unfortunately the reviews I’ve seen have not been good with stories of people losing one of them on their first ride or breaking one on first contact with a tree. I’m likely to go with Jerome’s ghetto solution I think.

Another bar end tool insert is Topeak’s Ninja C chaintool but that seems quite roadie. I also think that putting weight out at the end of bars will make a difference to the bikes feel and goes against the low and centered principal.

A tool that is certainly carried low and centred is the very neat Italian designed All In Multi Tool which lives in your hollow crank axle attached by magnets.

Credit – The Radavist Article The All In Multitool and MAGNETS!

This in combination with the Specialized Top Cap Chain Tool could be a very neat long term solution. According to the website All In have a chaintool in development, if it is part of one unit that hides in the BB then fantastic, I’m going to keep an eye open for that coming out. My only concern would be about how corrosion resistant the tool and its bits would be. Bottom brackets get thrashed by any water on a trail or during cleaning.

Instead of the BB Industry Nine have looked at the front axle for their Matchstix.

Credit – Pinkbike Article Industry Nine MatchStix Multi-Tool Axle – Review

Looks like a neat beautifully made tool with lots of functionality including a chain tool. Pricing looks quite steep but more of a problem is its only available for 15mm front axle types. I have a 20mm front axle with Fox’s pinch bolt set up so it wont work for me. I’m also not convinced about adding unsuspended weight, this doesn’t help the performance of a bikes suspension at all.

Water Bottle Cage Storage

Obviously anyone looking to ride without a backpack/hydration pack is going to have been looking at carrying water in a bottle mounted in a cage. Fortunately there are some excellent products out there that add additional functionality and storage to the humble bottle cage helping significantly in this quest.

There are a number of options to mount pumps to the base of bottle cages. In this article I’m going to ignore these as I’ve only had bad experiences with them. The pumps I used to mount there all died a slow painful death drowning in trail shite and were invariably binned after frustrating trailside scenarios where they failed at their intended task. For 10 years or more I’ve always carried my pump (the awesome Topeak Mountain Morph) inside my hydration pack and in that time I’ve only had one pump and it has worked everytime I needed it. So bottle cage mounted pumps go the same way as seatbags and cycle jersey pockets…..NAH!

First up we have the very old skool the Kargo Cage from Tallac with its retro audax like styling.

Credit – Bermstyle Article Ditching the Pack Part III: 5 more ways to carry stuff without a pack

Retro styling is not always a bad thing though and this looks like it could carry plenty of kit nice and low in the frame.

Fix It Sticks are another similar solution utilising standard easily available replacable tool bits. Using their mounting bracket that fits under a bottle cage provides another neat option.

Credit – Gravel Cyclist Article Tool Review: Fix It Sticks with Bicycle Mounting Bracket

The big advantage with all of these modular options using standard tool bits is they can be customised to suit your bikes needs. I’ve noticed a big difference in the tools I’m using on my SRAM eqipped Strive in comparison to our Shimano equipped bikes. E.g. the brake levers need a T25 bit to adjust them, there are plenty of other torq bits needed elsewhere too like the rear derailleur bolt. I have found the standard bits from hardware shops to tend to rust easily and this might be a problem.

Specialized and Topeak both have excellent looking options for bottlecage mounted multitools. First up Specialized’s EMT Cage Mount MTB Tool fits really neatly onto their excellent Zee Cage as part of their SWAT solution range.

Credit – Pinkbike Article Specialized SWAT EMT Tool – Review

The side loading Zee cage (available in left and right) has a great reputation for holding bottles in the rough stuff while providing access to water even on tight frames. I find the specs of the tool a bit underwhelming though. Sure it will be light and made well blah blah blah but I’m not convinced on the paired down 8mm allen key and the lack of a chaintool (but its designed to pair with their Top Cap Chain Tool so I guess that’s fair enough).

Topeak’s TC Ninja Mountain cage and multitool combination looks the other way around, a quality & comprehensive tool with a not so good cage.

Credit – Factory Jackson Article Topeak Ninja Hidden Tools Review

The Topeak tool is available as an option to mount with any cage and I think the Zee cage combined with this could be an awesome part of a complete solution. I like the fact the case is water proof protecting the tool from the trail shite and washing plus it has a chain tool too. I’ve used Topeak multitools for years and they are really really good.

Another seemingly popular bottlecage with integrated multi tool is the Syncros Matchbox Tailor Cage.

Credit – Flow Article Long-Term Test: One Year Of Shredding, The Canyon Strive CF Race

This could be a good option for bikes where the Topeak tool wouldn’t fit. In this case the multi tool slides neatly underneath the bottle into a drawer in the base of the cage along with a separate chaintool. The cage and tool seem to be a good quality but I’ve seen very poor reviews for the pump that attaches too but as I’ve already said I wouldn’t use that anyway.

Something that seems to solve a lot of what I’m looking for is Specialized’s SWAT MTB XC Box.

Integrating with the Zee cage this triangular plastic box neatly hides away a lot of the basics I want to carry (just over half a litre of water, tube, CO2, lever & (very) small multi tool) protecting stuff from UV and trail shite meaning they might actually do the job when needed.

In a similar vein something that caught my eye while doing this research was The Piggy from 76Projects

Credit – Pinkbike Article Check Out – April

It seems to be reasonably new and has popped up on several ‘NEW This Month’ articles in the mags for April. It seems to be a cross between a SWAT XC Box and a Mutherload Strap. What caught my attention was there is a neat looking bag option to protect my ‘precious get out of jail kit’ form all that nastyness I keep mentioning. You can use your favourite bottle cage with it and it does look like something I would like to try.

So we are nearing the end of this epic post. Just one more option to look at and thats:

Mini Frame Bags

Frame bags!! Frame bags I hear you exclaim dismissively and in a distainful tone! Thats not very Enduro is it, frame bags are the reserve of the bikepackers surely, not RAD or light or fast at all!!

Well that was the case until Giant Team rider Josh Carlson started rocking one of the neatest, most Enduro framebags ever seen

Credit – @joshcarlson on Instagram #frotherbag

Custom made for him by his team mechanics Dad (@dirtdancedesigns) its proven so popular, judging by the instagram hashtag, the other Giant team members are now rocking them too.

Getting a custom ‘Enduro-bro’ frame bag made up by one of the custom bike bag makers like Bike Bag Dude has got to be a good solution for this sans backpack conundrum. Kedan’s solution, The Dunce, can round up this long list of products I’ve found while doing my research

Credit – Chainslap Mag Article Ways to Carry Stuff: BBD Dunce


So what I’ve found are some great solutions, now I need to pick one. Here’s my shortlist

  1. SWAT XC Box with Zee Cage and possibility of AllInTool in the bottom bracket and SWAT Top Cap Chain Tool in the headset
  2. Zee Cage / Topeak Ninja MTB Tool / Mutherload Strap combo
  3. Enduro-bro micro framebag from BBD

This weekend (using electrical tape as a temporary solution) I’ve been experimenting with the mountain bike equivalent of going commando for some local rides and I’ve got to say its felt guuuuud.

PS – a key problem I don’t feel I’ve found a solution to is that of carrying a phone. Until I do it will be in a pocket in my shorts but this article makes me nervous as hell

‘A mini bomb’: Mountain bike rider suffers third degree burns after his iPhone exploded in his pocket and became stuck to his leg following a minor fall

#seekingnewtrails #seekingadventure #seekingflow

9 thoughts on “Ditching the mtb backpack – research notes

  1. Hi Ian. This a really good article. Looks like you’ve done lot of research. It kinda shows what a lot of people want is to get weight off their body.

    1. Absolutely, I agree. It feels great to be unencumbered by a pack. But I think its also important to carry any additional weight on the bike in the right place to prevent the handling being more adversely affected than needs be. The aim should always to keep things as low and a central as possible. There are some great solutions out there to do this now

      1. couldnt agree more. the scenario we mention alot is; why spend $10000 on a flashy aero road bike that then has a saddle bag attached. with this lump of weight the bikes handling has been instantly altered from a weight distribution and aero perspective. Ok, so this is different on a mtb but the principle is still the same. With todays more capable bikes the way we ride is different as it requires us to move around the bike more. a body with lots of dead weight moves slower.

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