DIY: How to Make A Simple Frame Bag
Fundamentally, the frame bag is the most basic and practical piece of bike luggage. It’s also the easiest to make… and only requires a consumer sewing machine and a little skill. Here’s how to plan, design, and construct a simple frame bag.
Virginia and I began our first bike tour in Latin America with too many panniers overstuffed with things we really didn’t need. Along the way we got rid of things that we didn’t need (which was a lot) and upon returning we sold our racks, ditched our giant rear panniers, and realized the joy of a scaled down kit for off-road bikepacking.
In my opinion, the frame bag is the crux of such a kit. Because of it’s location, the frame bag is ideal for carrying heavier items tp maintain a low center of gravity. Some might argue that carrying water in the frame triangle accomplishes the same thing, but I would argue that a frame bag can make better use of the entirety of that space.
Honestly, there are now plenty of quality and relatively inexpensive frame bags on the market (see our full bikepacking bag guide for a list), so the only three reasons to make your own are: 1. you really like making stuff; 2. you want something slightly different (color, pockets, etc.); 3. you are really counting dollars.
There is a wealth of information, tutorials, and posts out there about DIY framebags, so instead of adding to the clutter, I wanted to compile a few resources to make this as informative and useful as possible. At the very least this will point those interested in the right direction and provide links to materials and other tutorials.
DIY Framebag Materials List
This list contains the minimum order at Rocky Woods to make one frame bag. However, in the ideal scenario you’d be making two bags and this list would also be enough (although the 2” sew-on tape may come up a tad short — but, see below under straps for an alternative). This total materials list costs just under $60.
Main triangles and top
1 Yard VX21 Terrain X-Pac (19.99)
Bottom, back, staps, and zipper panel sides
1 Yard 1000 Denier Coated CORDURA® Nylon Fabric (11.49)
8″ scrap cord (I used some from a Big Agnes tent)
1 spool Coats & Clark Extra Strong Upholstery thread (100% Nylon)
Or, if you want to make moveable One Wrap straps, see boxout under process.
Tools and Other Materials
Rotary cutting tool
Decent fabric scissors
Cloth measuring tape
Clear acrylic ruler
The process of planning and making a frame bag is relatively simple, but still time consuming. It took me three or four hours to put this bag together. The best advice I could give is to measure several times and cut once. Note that I am still not the most neat seamster, and I made this in a rush, so there are some ugly stitches here.
1. Make a template
A piece of cardboard or poster board will do. First, trace your triangle to the exact shape, possibly leaving out the bottom corner if you feel your chainrings or derailleur might interfere. Once you have the piece cut, you can use it to sketch where your straps should be placed so they don’t overlap the derailleur mount or other accessories (options such as the strap for a ‘gas tank’). Here’s a how-to make a template video by Scott at Porcelain Rocket.
2. Cut the triangles and sides
The first step is to cut out the triangle side pieces of X-Pac. Do this by tracing your template on the back of the Xpac, then enlarging it by about 3/8” on every side (for seam allowance).
The top panel will also be made from X-Pac while the bottom and back can be made from Cordura to help with abrasion resistance; the X-Pac doesn’t seem to abrade too much, but Cordura is a little better. I made my side panels 3.5″ to have a finished size of about 2.75″.
3. Make the Zipper and Panel
A lot of people simply cut a space into the panel for the zipper, but I prefer the method of making a zipper strip that will replace a certain amount of vertical space for the full width of the panel. Also, I mount mine on the left… that is just a personal preference. To make the zipper strip, first find out your desired length of the zipper and then cut it about 1.5″ too long (you will leave about 3/4″ hidden on each side. Now make two pieces of Cordura the same height as the zipper and sew them on to the ends with the finish edge overlapped (over the pieces of cordage).
Cut the triangle in two pieces where the zipper will be mounted. The height of the zipper strip is 1.5″, and the finished panel will expose about 3/4″ of the zipper. So, that leaves 3/4″ (3/8″ on the top piece of triangle and 3/8″ on the bottom) of the triangle material to eliminate to maintain the correct dimensions. We don’t actually cut this away, but over lap it to hide the stitch (see the middle photo). The finished triangle should look similar to the third photo below.
4. Make the straps
The straps can be made much simpler by using only the velcro tape and not having an outer Cordura layer. However, for color accents and ruggedness I make these by sewing the velcro into a Cordura outer. This is the most time consuming part of the process… and again, not necessary; many professionally made frame bags use just the tape. The finished sizes are in the captions under each thumbnail below. Each cordura outer should be made about 3/4” wider and an 1.25″ longer in order to finish the edges properly by folding the sides under the velcro, and double folding the outer end. The inner end of the strap can be left unfinished as this will be sewn into the bag at about 1/2″ seam allowance.
In hindsight (updated 2017)
Some folks might ask why I put the main zipper on the left (non-drive side). That was just personal preference. No change there. However, there is one major change you should consider if following this tutorial. Instead of using sewn in ‘fixed’ straps on the back, top front, and downtube panels, consider using a daisy chain and Velcro OneWrap. Many frame bags are being built this way and it will make stitching and construction easier and cheaper. In addition, moveable straps make using it with other bags – such as a Gas Tank — easier.
To accomplish moveable One Wrap straps, you will stitch a strip of one-inch nylon webbing to each of the panels you wish to use this method. I would recommend the back, bottom and the front half of the top, making the only fixed strap the large one not he top panel. To do so, ‘bar tack’ the webbing in 1.25″ increments (if using one inch One Wrap) or 1.75″ increments if using 1.5′ One Wrap. Either will do.
5. Make and mount the dividers (not necessary)
These dividers are mounted on the inside panels of the frame bag to add stability and organize the space. They also keep the panels from ballooning outward when overpacked. I use mine to separate a sleeping pad, mess kit (in the Vargo Bot), and the remainder of contents. The dividers are mounted to each side so that the velcro can be attached once the bag is folded right side in.
6. Sew the bag inside out
The great thing about making a frame bag is that it’s all sewn inside out, then there’s the reveal at the end. Of course this get’s a little complicated when you are adding the straps between the panels. Just think it through before putting the pedal to the metal. I would recommend marking on the inside of each triangle panel where the straps go so that as you are sewing, you can add the straps to the stack. UPDATE: As Paul mentioned in the comments, “One additional step I do is sewing the velcro straps in place before sewing the panels together, laying the stitching down on the velcro straps about .25” from the edge of the panel. This way you don’t have to worry about fiddling with the strap placement as you’re sewing the side panels to the tubing panel. And it reinforces the straps, too. Just be very carful to have them pointed in the right direction before tacking them on; it’s easy to get confused working inside out.
Make sure to double check all of your stitches. I usually run back over them and even double stitch some areas to ensure that they are locked and ready for abuse. Then the final step is to unfold the back right side in, and hope that you didn’t mess anything up. Good luck!
Other Useful links
Here are 5 links that I had bookmarked when making my first frame bag. The first video is very comprehensive and really all that you will need:
A tutorial by Ruby Two Birds
A tutorial on Bikepacking.net
JD Finley’s tutorial
A tutorial on MTBR
Recommended bag makers
Porcelain Rocket: Alberta, Canada.
Bedrock Bags: Colorado bag maker
Oveja Negra Threadworks: Salida, CO
Nuclear Sunrise: El Paso, TX
Wanderlust Gear: Missoula, MT