Bike Hacks: Local Mountain Biker’s Hip-Bag Trick Has Handlebar-Bag Makers Furious


Bike Hacks: Local Mountain Biker’s Hip-Bag Trick Has Handlebar-Bag Makers Furious

No, we haven’t devolved into publishing clickbait articles. And no, we’re not saying a hip pack can be made into a reasonable replacement for a handlebar bag. But Travis Engel has a very clever, very temporary way to get the weight off his back for long boring climbs, and then easily put it back on for quick fun descents. The trick is kinda just for the uphill, it’s a little ugly, and it won’t work on every pack or every bike. But what do you want from us? That’s why they call it a hack.

I wonder if the whole packless-lifestyle pendulum will ever swing back the other way. If top-tube bags and down-tube storage will ever become as passé as my black and purple 2004 Camelbak Trans-Alp. That’s not to say I’m pushing for it. I’ve grown fond of riding with only the wind on my back and whatever I can fit in my homemade frame bag. But it does get tedious sometimes. Space is limited on my low-standover full-suspension bikes, especially on days I need extra layers, extra water, or both. I’ve spent many an evening trying to cram a 10-hour ride into a bento box and a Voile strap, only to eventually give in and grab a pack. But when I do, it’s so luxurious. Like putting my parents’ dishes away in their palatial kitchen. I don’t have to strategize what goes on top of what, or where I need easy access. Everywhere has easy access. Even if all I’m bringing is a hip bag, it feels like the trunk of my parents’ Lincoln Continental.

Then, I sit down for the first long climb of the day, and within five minutes, I feel … it. The pressure around my waist, the sweat on my lower back, and the constant added weight forcing bum against saddle. I don’t know about you, but I like to be comfortable when I climb. I peel off my baggy shorts and go chamois-out for every long ascent. Sometimes I’ll even bungee my helmet to my bars if safety allows. But I’m doomed to suffer if ever I get seduced by my hip pack’s alluring convenience.

Funny, though. Wearing a hip pack doesn’t bother me the slightest when I’m out of the saddle. Sure, I do feel more free if I don’t have it, but I’m not uncomfortable. I’m not slower. I’m not hindered.  That mostly applies to the downhill, but also to dynamic, technical uphills. Basically, if my brain is busy, my body’s not bothered. It’s only on long, mindless climbs when my hip pack starts to annoy me. And we have a lot of long mindless climbs here in the Angeles National Forest. But then, in early 2022, after 28 years of mountain biking—19 of which in actual mountains—I had an epiphany.

Any hip pack with a substantial hang loop above its main compartment actually has the capacity to be mounted securely to a handlebar. The idea probably got into my head when I saw the Swift Industries Ardea Pack, which integrates some clever loops along its upper seam specifically to allow it to double as a handlebar bag. If you like where I’m going with this, and are in the market for a clever, compact, U.S.-made hip bag from an awesome, small, female-owned manufacturer, there you go. The Ardea retains the look of a pretty elegant, purpose-built handlebar bag once you have it all mounted up, and stays just about as stable. My hack very much does not. It’s ugly, and a little floppy on rough terrain. But on my mostly-fire-road climbs, it gets the job done. Even a well-designed handlebar bag with this much capacity is going to flop around a bit in aggressive riding. Also, for fun and flickability purposes, I like to keep my total bike weight as low as possible. That’s why a temporary approach to the handlebar bag is perfect for my application.  I can’t overstate the relief I feel knowing that the weight that’s on my bars is not on my bum. By the way, that’s the last time I’ll use the word “bum,” so you can let your kids back in the room.

So, here’s the method: I start by shortening the waist straps a bit. Exactly how much I shorten them depends on the pack’s geometry. Narrow packs need them shorter, while they’ll stay a little longer on wide packs like my Osprey Savu 5. The goal is to have minimal droop once it’s all latched up. The latching-up process starts by laying the straps over the handlebar, wrapping back underneath it, and bringing each together in front of the stem. Then, buckle them together through the pack’s storage hang. It’ll sag a bit, but you can adjust that slightly by tuning how much you tighten the waist strap.

As you’re getting situated, there are a few things to pay attention to. Like with pretty much any handlebar bag, this hack might play rough with your cables, chafe your head tube, and / or get dangerously close to your front tire. I recommend experimenting at home with a fully-loaded pack before you put it in practice on a ride. There are a lot of variables that will make this more or less viable for you. Handlebar width, brake lever position, shifter orientation, and even cable type will all play a role. Experimenting on my grocery-getter bike, I found that non-compressionless brake housing is flexible enough to bend sharply under a bag’s weight and make braking a little labored. But on my mountain bikes, the brake levers were spread wide enough, and their hoses flexible enough to seem quite unbothered by the weight. And my traditional underbar shifters keep the cables completely out of harm’s way, and I can shift freely and unencumbered.

To be clear, I’m not pretending this is a perfect, clean, slam-dunk of a hack like John’s silver seatpost maneuver. But I don’t think it’d feel unprecedented for anyone who’s done any sort of bikepacking. There always comes a time when we’re tucking a jacket under a strap, or tying a plastic bag to a saddle rail or, of course, dangling a coffee mug off a carabiner. Sometimes you gotta go a little Beverly Hillbillies to get things done. And this method absolutely gets things done. Again, on a calm, steady climb without many interrupting downhills, it actually kinda does feel like a slam dunk. There are those enormous comfort benefits, but on the flipside, there’s that liberating feeling of actually having a place to put things. Given the right route, I’m way less hesitant to bring a pack with me. Preparing is easier, riding is easier, and climbing is easier. Plus, I’ll be ahead of the curve if packs ever come back in style.