From a sniper’s distance, all bicycle touring is of a piece. You need a bike, some bags, gear to keep you more or less self-sufficient and, finally, a willingness to forego the pleasantries. By pleasantries, I mean daily showers, dry shoes and an endless parade of clean chamois in which to swaddle your most nether of regions. So, that’s the big picture. However, the differences between fully loaded road touring, credit card touring and bikepacking are like the differences between an SUV, a family sedan and a quad runner.
For our Blackburn Ranger Camp I got to ride the Santa Cruz Highball, a carbon fiber 29er hardtail. Put another way, a category of bike I’ve ceased to have much interest in. It’s a tired category to me because there’s so little variation between so many of the bikes and there’s so little they do that can’t be topped by another kind of bike. Multistrada/Adventure bikes can do everything a 29er hardtail can do when it comes to fire road, though it might be slower on the drop. A full-suspension cross country bike will be faster in technical terrain and will almost always climb better on really steep terrain. There’s no doubt they are faster going down. And most of them, honestly, have too much trail and too long a wheelbase to be really playful in a way that takes advantage of their low weight.
All that said, the Santa Cruz Highball was the most fun I’ve ever had on a hardtail 29er. It reacted with the sort of immediacy I’d come to think of as the domain of 27.5-inch bikes. But it descended better thanks to the larger wheels. And for the record, any time someone wants to say that 27.5-inch wheel rolls over stuff as well as a 29 does, I give them the number of the local head examiner. Bigger is always better, at least in that regard.
Though a few other bikes have more bottom bracket drop, the Highball benefits from chainstays and wheelbase shorter than some of its competitors which really contributes to the nimble feel the bike had. With a dropper post, this thing would be a ripper on really technical terrain.
The hardtail was helpful from the standpoint that when fully loaded, all you needed to do was lock out the front suspension. With rear suspension, clearance for the seat bag can become an issue. Hose clamps on the fork held the cages in place for my clothing and sleeping pad; a fork like the Rock Shox RS-1 wouldn’t work too well.
While the flat bar can seem a bit limiting, position-wise, for long rides, the flat bar allows much more to be packed into the handlebar bag than you can with a drop bar, which can allow a rider to carry a warmer sleeping bag, more clothes or maybe a bigger tent.
Both the handlebar bag and the seat bag have a variety of loops that allow for more items to be hung off the bags to increase overall carrying capacity. The two bags follow the same basic format in that what attaches to the bike is a skeleton that holds a dry bag. If your load increases (say you pick up another jacket along your trip, not that I’ve ever done that), the bags are expandable.
The frame bag has an expandable pleat and movable dividers attached with Velcro to allow for better organization. It was perfect for carrying my eating utensils, jacket and some snacks as it was easier to access during the day than other bags (save my hydration pack). It also features a port so that you can pass a hydration tube out and simplify drinking.
While on the trip we used one additional bag, a variation on the Bento box. Ours carried two blinkies, a small headlight, the micro USB cable necessary to charge each and a new multitool from Blackburn that I’ll be reviewing separately. It closes with a zipper and has several outside pockets perfect for carrying a phone or gel.
As I mentioned previously, carrying as much weight as possible in plane with the frame makes the bike handle better. Nowhere is that more noticeable than if you’re on singletrack. What I also came to appreciate is that having more weight in plane with the frame reduces side loads on the wheels, cutting down on wear on the wheels and tires.
What follows is the inventory of bags we used from Blackburn:
Outpost Seat Bag (11L capacity): $119.99
Outpost Handlebar Bag (11.5L capacity): $99.99
Outpost Frame Bag: $64.99 (large)
Outpost Top Tube Bag: $44.99
Outpost Cargo Cage: $24.99
Final thought: Putting the out in “getting out there.”