Introduction: Bikepacking Bags and Setup on the Cheap - How to Repurpose a Vintage Laptop Bag
Backpacking and mountain biking are two of my favorite activities. I absolutely love heading off into the forest and just disappearing for a while and absorbing everything around me (quite Emerson-like, right?). I have always had an interest in combining both activities, and although I have done some long road biking trips I was never 100% satisfied with the level of adventure. Bikepacking always seemed like the route to combining my two favorite activities but purchasing the necessary bags came with quite a hefty price tag. Using the pannier bags and rack for my road bike wasn't an option since I planned on still riding tight trails such as singletrack and the bags would quickly catch on brush along the side of the trail. Wearing a backpack is fine to a degree, but having 30 - 50 pounds of gear on your back while biking is both uncomfortable and hazardous. The best option is to attach bags "inline" to the bike so that the bike's footprint isn't much wider than it currently is. Since this was my first bikepacking experience I decided to opt for making my own bags in lieu of spending nearly $500 on them. A friend and I poured over maps (digital of course) to determine the best route from my house and we came up with a 150-mile round trip with a mix of singletrack, doubletrack, forest roads, dirt roads, and some pavement. I had to have adequate space to accommodate a two night, three day trip and the bags needed to be rugged enough and firmly affixed to the bike with some significantly rough terrain.
I checked out a number of videos and instructables to gather up some inspiration before diving into this project:
For the back bag I used this instructable
To build all of the bags I was able to use nearly 100% materials that were already around my house. The only thing I had to purchase were some hook-and-loop straps. Better yet, the main component was a 20+ year old IBM laptop carrying bag that was destined for the trash... more on that later. I am going to give the supplies list below but will elaborate on what I used with each step of the instructable.
Step 1: Thinking About the Thinkpad Case...
I was all set and ready to just purchase the list of materials described in the first video I listed in the previous step but once I added everything up in my cart I realized I was going to be spending around $60.00 just to buy the materials. This coupled with the fact that I am not much of a seamster left me questioning my motives. I was taking out the trash and forgot that I had thrown an old laptop case on top of the trash can. Although, I wasn't planning on throwing it out, I had, after holding on to it for 14 years, decided it was time to pass it on to someone who might find a use for it. That was when the sunlight hit the bag just right and I had an idea (cue Eureka music). The bag looked like it could fit perfectly in the triangular frame of my hardtail bike after some modification. Lo and behold it was nearly the perfect size, but with rectangular proportions. I figured that I could "easily" cut off a corner and maybe not so easily put it back together to resemble a triangular frame pack. It worked! And it works well too! And to boot, I was able to repurpose some of the material removed from the bag to create my rear bike bag sling.
Step 2: Let the Dissection Begin! - and a BONUS!!
The first thing I had to do was dissect the interior of the bag and remove some of the inessential components that would just take up space and add unnecessary weight to the bag. There is a bumper that is made of a type of extruded foam behind a zipper. That quickly was unzipped, cut, and then pulled out. I then cut out the stiff organizer pocket that separates the main compartment from files, notebooks, and what not. The organizer pocket was two pieces of nylon with a stiff plastic (ABS?) between. The nylon is sewn right to the plastic and I figured that the plastic would work great for a couple of functions; first to seal up the bag once I cut a corner off of it, and second, to make a flexible sling for the rear bag to be attached to my bike seat post. I had to remove all of the thread between the plastic and the nylon, but it was well worth it... waste not, want not!
Step 3: Make a Form
The easiest way to get the bag to the correct proportions was to create a cardboard form. I cut up a box we had kicking around and then created something out of the cardboard that fit neatly into the triangle of the frame. I used this form with the next step.
Step 4: Snip, Slice, Dice, and Extract
The form was used to determine the exact size of the bag so that it would fit tightly into my bike's frame. I first used a sharpie to mark the area that need to be cut then I used a pair of strong wire/cable cutters to cut the steel wire that goes around the border of the bag and keeps it rigid. I then used a box cutter to cut through all of the layers of the bag (man were there a ton of them!). I pulled out the foam, cardboard, and other unnecessary components in the bag and then checked it for fit in my bike frame. It fit perfectly, which is good since it would have been a pain to try and cut the bag a second time. Now the only problem is that you know longer have a bag but rather a chute with zippers, on to the sewing!
Step 5: Sew Little Time Before the Big Trip...
I am no seamster, but I think I did a fair enough job sewing the bag back together. I used nylon thread and a typical sewing needle. I also used the plastic top of a spray bottle as a thimble to help push the needle through the thick layers of materials. The first thing I did was sew up the zippers so that they wouldn't open up (actually, I didn't do this first and I had to get the zipper back together again, so make sure you do it first). The exterior of the bag is made of a waterproof vinyl material. I first folded this layer over and stitched it over so that I had a nice clean edge. Next I pinned together the layers and did an overhand loop stitch to put each pocket together. The only section of the bag now that is open is the large section where the computer would go. So how do we close that up?
Step 6: Waste Not, Want Not - Closing Up the Main Body of the Bag
Remember that piece of plastic we extracted from the initial dissection? It was flexible, yet stiff, and thin and light. A perfect candidate to act as the closing strip for the bike bag. Better yet, the plastic will act as a fantastic splash guard due to the shape and quality of the material. Now, pushing through the umpteen layers of fabric and now a sheet of plastic might seem intimidating at first but I was honestly able to do it with the same needle and thread I was using previously. I once again used my plastic cap thimble, which worked like a charm. I first cut the plastic so that it would fit the contours of the sewn bag. Then I began doing an overhand loop stitch to bring together the bag and the plastic strip. I tried keeping the stitch somewhat close together and continued to pull it tight while I stitched onward. There were a few tricky spots and I did not get it 100% sealed up but I was planning on putting my cookstove, fuel, water pump, and other items that can handle getting wet inside the bag. I decided to take advantage of the metal wire surrounding the bag that was now protruding ever so slightly from their housings. I drilled holes so that the metal wire could stick through the plastic and then sewed them into place. This really stiffened things up nicely.
Step 7: Bag #1 - Complete!
It's no piece of artwork, but it definitely fits the bike nicely and looks pretty cool, considering it was once a 20+ year old IBM thinkpad case. A friend told me it looks like a massive gun case... hopefully I don't get pulled over while biking :)
Step 8: Attaching the Frame Bag Tot He Bike
I had left the carrying handle on the bag along with the two "D" loops for the carrying strap so that I could utilize them as anchor points to the frame. I also planned on using my bike bottle bosses to pull the plastic strip to the frame. The first step was finding the exact locations for the holes to line up with the bike bottle bosses. I first rubbed some chalk on the screw heads of the bike bottle bosses. I then opened up the bag and pushed down on the plastic strip so that it would make contact with the chalked screw heads in order to leave a mark. From there I was able to drill a hole that would fit the machine screws. I used two fender washers inside the bike bag along with the screws from the bosses and then attached the two screws to the frame (see the pics for clearer info).
I had purchased a large assorted pack of hook and loop strips and was able to use the 8" ones to attach the remaining anchor points to the frame; two on the upper strap, one on the back D ring, and one on the front D ring. With all of the anchor points in place, the bag would not budge at all.
Step 9: Waste Not, Want Not, Take 2! - Making Bag #2 for the Back
I had mentioned at the start of this instructable that I used another maker's idea on the back bag. The beautiful thing is that I was able to use the remaining piece of the plastic I scored from the initial dissection. The remaining plastic was about 17" long and 5.5" wide. It would be a sling to hold a dry bag on the back of my bike attached to my bike's saddle and seatpost. The dry bag was about 9L in size and would be used to hold on to clothing, a sleeping pad, and other things I wanted to stay dry. I first cut the corners off of the plastic with scissors so that it would fit more readily behind my saddle. I then cut out six rectangular holes using a box cutter to allow 1" straps to pass neatly through them on their way to my saddle and around the dry bag.
Step 10: Duct Tape to the Rescue!
I was pretty certain that the whole thing would stay together nicely, but I didn't like how thin the plastic was with the straps pulling up through them. I used some heavy-duty gorilla tape to take any mote of doubt out of my mind. I laid two 4" strips around the entire sling and then recut the rectangular notches out.
Step 11: Scraps Into Straps
I used some leftover webbing for the straps along with some plastic buckles I recovered from a disassembled bike trailer I found on the side of the road (that one is going to be built as a commuter trail at some point for my electric bike I built... only if time grew on trees). I first measured the webbing to the proper length by filling up the dry bag with towels and what not to make it filled to capacity and passing the webbing through the rectangular slots around the bag with 4+" extra length to pull on the strap. After cutting the straps and sealing them up with a lighter I used the nylon thread and a needle to sew the buckles on the straps. I needed to make two straps that go around the girth of the bag, one of which will pass over the rails of my saddle. I also needed to make a strap that would go through the back slot on the sling and pass through the rails on my saddle to pull the bag up vertically and prevent swaying. Finally, I needed a little piece of strap to make a loop that would attach it to the bike seatpost.
Step 12: Final Setup and Attachment of the Sling
Next, I passed the two straps (black) that will cinch onto the dry bag through the rectangular slots (see first photo). I sewed up the small piece of strapping (red) to make a loop on the very front of the sling. Then I passed the large lateral strap (blue) through the back slot. The red strap was attached to the seatpost with a piece of 6" hook and loop fastener. The black strap closest to the saddle was passed through the rails of the saddle, the other black strap was not. The blue strap was also passed through the saddle. I pulled the black strap that holds onto the bag and did not pass through the saddle rails as tight as it can go first. Then I pull the blue strap as tight as possible, finally I pulled the black strap that goes through the saddle rails as tight as it could go. I found things to be tight but they did sway a bit from side to side. I used two 36" hook and loop straps that came in the pack I purchased to act as side stabilizers holding the entire thing together tightly.
Step 13: Outfitting the Bike With the Bags
Once I finished up all of the bags I attached them to the bike to prepare them for our first trip. I had purchased a one-man tent from a company called snugpak, which was attach to the front of my bike. I also attached another dry bag to the front which you will see in the next step. I inserted the 9L dry bag into the sling and tightened it down completely and then added my sleeping pad to the top of that (I ended up changing this later in the trip). Finally, I had the frame bag completely attached to the frame and ready to be loaded up.
Step 14: Filling the Bags and Getting the Bike Ready for the Journey
The trip I had planned out involved a friend of mine and I spending two nights camping and a total of 150 miles of mountain biking on mixed trails; singletrack, doubletrack, rail trails, dirt roads, forest roads, and some pavement. I first laid out all of my necessities for the trip so that I could assess where they would go.
- Cookstove and fuel
- Cooking pot
- Waterpump / filter
- Bike light and headlamp
- Extra paracord and patch kit
- Raincoat and poncho
- Toilet paper of course
- Sleeping pad
- Sheet for sleeping (should have brought my sleeping bag, it was cold)
- Food for the trip
I was able to load up items that could handle getting a bit wet into the frame bag; stove, waterpump, ziplocked food, etc... I then loaded up all of my clothes and the sheet into my large dry bag on the bike seatpost. Finally, I put items that were needed more often or during the ride in the front dry bag on top of my tent; headlamp, food, raincoat. I also attached a small bike bag to the top tube and headset which was originally intended for the back of a bike (see pics). In this bag I kept a bit of food, my phone, some cash, and a small light.
Step 15: The First Ride - Testing the Bags Out... the Results Are In!
For our first ride we plotted out a track from my house in Oakham, MA through the forest to Keene, NH. From Keene we headed down through Winchester, NH to Warwick, MA then to Erving and Wendell, Orange, and then back home to Oakham. I included the map in the photos but this is only the preliminary route and not the exact track we ended up following, in case you are interested in a similar route.
There was some significantly rugged terrain on the route we followed, which was perfect for testing out the function of the bags for future trips with even more rugged terrain. I am going to break it down into bulleted form to help summarize the successes and areas that need improvement:
- The frame bag stayed in place the entire time and did not shift at all
- The plastic cover / fender on the bottom of the frame bag worked awesome for shedding water. We got stuck in a two-hour rain storm and the bag stayed dry on the inside. I might have been shedding a fair amount of water away from the bag since I was hunched over it, but nonetheless, I was impressed with how dry it stayed.
- There was plenty of room in the frame bag for everything I needed to bring, including tools that were in the outside hook and loop pocket.
- The rear bag stayed 100% dry throughout the trip and did not slip out at all. It was easy to adjust and attach to the back of the bike.
- The rear bag did not interfere with riding at all and was mostly unnoticeable while on the bike.
- The front bag and tent stayed tight to the handle bars and did not interfere with the movement of the bike and use of brakes, shifters, etc...
- The bike was balanced overall and although, it was 30# pounds heavier, it rode well and I was able to climb steep, rocky singletrack, and descend on similar terrain with no problem.
Areas of improvement:
- The zippers on the frame bag are definitely zippers for a laptop case. Although, they are relatively hearty in laptop bags, they might not hold up to the rigors of bikepacking over time. Only time will tell on this one.
- With the frame bag filled to the brim my calf rubs against it during biking. I had to use some hook and loop straps to pull the bag tight, wrapped around the entire bag, to prevent rubbing.
- There are some wear marks on my frame from where the hook and loop buckles and metal buckles on the frame bag rubbed against the frame. I will probably use some old inner tubes to act as guards next time.
- The rear bag, if not properly secured, had a tendency to swing back and forth. I found that it was very important to get the rear bag to be fully secured and tight before riding. This involved pulling on the straps one at a time and going around and retightening until they were 100% secure.
- I had to have a couple of iterations on how to attach the front (clear) dry bag to the tent on my handlebars. I ended up changing things about halfway through the trip, using a long strap wrapped around the tent and handlebars to pull the clear bag into place on the very front. This worked perfectly for the final 75 miles of the trip.
Overall the bags were a success and saved me well over $500 if I was to buy bikepacking-specific bags. I hope that you give it a try.