Published Somedays

How To Box Your Bike

Shipping your bike may make the best sense.

4/1/05 -- If you're like me you like riding your own bike, especially if you're going someplace where there are awesome trails. What better way to enjoy them than on your own trusty steed?

Of course, there are many reasons you may not want to bring it, for example, if your bike is not worth it, or you're going to a location where you need equipment better suited to the terrain, or you just don't want to worry about it. Other things you need to consider as well include having to assemble/disassemble it, remembering to bring tools and tape, where to ship it, and how long you'll be staying.

So whether you fly with your bike, rent, or ship your bike really depends on your particular situation. I'm going to show you how you can box your bike inexpensively and very securely, and hopefully take some of the worry and intimidation out of packing and shipping your bike, so that you may actually choose to ship it next time you go on a trip.

First, you don't have to spend $250 or more for a bike case when you can get bike boxes for free that work just as well or better, especially if you end up buying one of those lower-end clamshell type cases. I find these cases to be too flimsy, with latches, handles and wheels that can easily be ripped off by some hamfist or caught in conveyor equipment. Moreover, if you take a case like this on an airplane, you can't lock it due to inspections; so you run the risk of the case coming open and parts falling out or not being closed properly by baggage inspectors, risking damage to your bike. I suppose you would have the same problem with a bike in a box, however, boxes open at the top so they can inspect it from there and there's less chance of something falling out or getting squashed.

But more importantly, you don't even have to deal with the airlines at all if you ship your bike, and it's actually less expensive to do so. In the US, some airlines charge $50 each way to handle a bike, however, most charge $80. Rarely does it cost nothing. I've read about some of the things people try to do or say to try to sneak their bike on the plane for free. These include:

  • Curb checking your luggage and handing the guy a $20.
  • Telling the airline employee it's tradeshow equipment, art, an inline wheelchair, or something similar.
  • Removing a part like a crank arm or pedal and saying it's "bike parts" and not a bike.
  • Packing the wheels and frame separately in slightly smaller boxes.
  • Trying to avoid human contact by using the e-ticket kiosk and waiting for things to get busy hoping they will just grab your case and put it on the conveyor.

Guess what? They've heard and seen it all before, so don't bother. You may even get by the check-in counter but they'll get you when they x-ray it. The fees are to cover the extra handling they incur because it's oversize and often a person has to hand carry it to the bag claim area. That's a bunch of bullshit but you can't do anything about it. So just suck it up and pay the fee.

However, you can ship your bike across the country for as little as $35. I shipped two bikes from Irvine, CA to Wilmington, NC for about $35 each, insured. I shipped a bike from Wilmington to Miami for $20, and recently I shipped my bike from Wilmington to Phoenix for $46 including $3000 worth of insurance. The box weighed 50lbs, too. I ship all my bikes Fedex Ground, which I highly recommend. Fedex is a lot less expensive than UPS and even cheaper than DHL. They're also faster than UPS and if you use Fedex Home Delivery (what they call it when you ship to a residence) they will even deliver on Saturday no extra charge. And they will come and pick up the box from your home or business, or you can give it to a driver if you know where they're going to be. Most importantly, Fedex has handled all my bikes with care. I did not have any scratches, puncture holes or smashed corners on the boxes - they were clean like the day I shipped them.

Another advantage of shipping your bike rather than flying with it is that you don't have to worry about it missing a connection or getting mishandled or lost. If I had brought my bike on the plane for my trip to Phoenix, it would have not made the connection just like my luggage, and I would not have received it until a day later or worse, which would have really sucked. This can happen even without any connection because the flight may be too full and they may have to put it on a later flight (and later is relative to an airline). They also need extra handling time so if you have a tight connection, you're running an increased risk of your bike not making it, especially considering that airlines are running really lean on manpower these days. You really need to call the airline and tell them in advance you'll be bringing a bike to try to avoid any problems.

Also note that you cannot bring tools in your carry-on, including multi-tools and allen wrenches.

Furthermore, you also need to make sure your vehicle will be able to hold your case or box, or figure out how you're going to get it to and from the airport. Putting it on top of the car may be the solution, but reaching up out the window and holding it with your hand is probably not a good idea.

Ok, back to the original topic: how to box your bike. If you go to a bike shop and go around back to where they throw away all their bike boxes, you may find a gold mine of all sorts of boxes in different sizes. Sometimes shops will cut up or flatten the boxes before tossing them. In that case, try another shop. If there's no alternative, you may be able to tape the panels back together. The key is to find two boxes, one just slightly larger than the other. Your bike will go in the smaller box first, and then this box will go inside the larger box. You will end up with a double-boxed bike that is super strong and secure.

Also, keep any packing materials that you find with the boxes. Bubble wrap and cardboard sleeves which are used to protect the tubes are useful.

So, materials you will need include:

  • Two cardboard bike boxes, one that can fit inside the other
  • Packing materials such as cardboard tubes, paper, and bubble wrap
  • Duct tape
  • Reinforced packing tape (to repair the boxes if necessary)
  • Two rolls of clear packing tape (to seal the boxes, cover the label, and one for the return trip)
  • Metric allen wrenches (if you have a modern mountain bike)
  • Crank puller
  • Ziploc bags

First, use the reinforced packing tape to repair any damage to the boxes. Remove the large staples from the open flaps as well.

Next, start taking your bike apart. Here's what you're going to need to remove:

  • Wheels
  • Seat/seatpost
  • Front brake lever off of handlebar
  • Stem/handlebar
  • Fork
  • Pedals and drive-side crank
  • Chain
  • Derailleur

Note: these instructions mostly apply to mountain bikes built within the last 10 years or so. I will be adding step-by-step pictures in the future. Also note: I ride a large full-suspension bike. It's a tight fit getting everything in the box even with both wheels off. If you ride a smaller bike or a hardtail you may be able to leave the rear wheel on. Try it before removing the rear wheel.

  • First remove both wheels (make sure you're in the smallest gear in the back).
  • Next remove the seat/seatpost.
  • Then unclamp the front brake lever.
  • Tape it to the fork with duct tape.
  • Undo the top cap screw and remove it.
  • Remove the stem/handlebar combo keeping the handlebar attached to the stem.
  • Pull out the fork.
  • Take any spacers and slide them onto the fork steerer tube.
  • Slide the top part of the headset onto the steerer tube.
  • Put the top cap onto the steerer tube and snug the bolt (this keeps everything together and in the right order)
  • Next remove the pedals (you may want to keep these with you, just in case you arrive before your bike and you need to rent something).
  • Remove the entire drive side crank (you may need a crank puller for this - make sure you bring this tool with you).
  • Remove the chain (if you have a SRAM chain, you're in luck. Shimano - you need a chain tool) and stick it in a ziploc bag.
  • Unscrew the derailleur hanger bolt and tape the deraileur to the chainstay with duct tape so it doesn't flop around.

Prepare for packing:

  • For the wheels, remove the QR skewers and put in a ziploc bag.
  • Let most of the air out of the tires so that the wheels will fit in the box better. No need to remove the tires. They will protect the rims.
  • For the rear wheel cassette, take duct tape and tape the cassette, covering it completely with several layers of tape. These teeth are very sharp. The last thing you want is the teeth digging through the box or into your frame.
  • Cover the ends of the axles of the wheels with duct tape, using several layers so they don't poke through the box.
  • If you have disk brakes, fold some thin cardboard or cut carboard tubes over the rotor edges and tape with duct tape.
  • Put the stem bolts into the stem and tape over them so they don't fall out or at least put them in a ziploc bag.
  • Cover the fork stantions with cardboard tubes to protect them.
  • Wrap the fork in bubble wrap.
  • Wrap the seatpost in bubble wrap.
  • Wrap the drive-side crank in bubble wrap. Take care here - the chainring teeth are sharp.
  • Protect the bike frame with cardboard tubing, or foam wrap, or bubble wrap - whatever you can find.

Note: You don't have to go all out with extra protection, especially if your bike doesn't cost more than your car. Just stuff some bubble wrap in the box and make sure there's no metal-to-metal contact.

Once you have everything protected to your liking:

  • Line the bottom of the smaller box with paper or bubblewrap.
  • Grab the stem/handlebar and bike frame and place it into the smaller box. Keep the stem/handlebar vertical in front of the frame.
  • Place the fork in the box, in between the rear triangle, where the rear wheel would go.
  • Put the front wheel in first, toward the front of the box where the front triangle is. If you have a disk brake, you can face the rotor away from the frame.
  • Put the rear wheel in, cassette-side facing away from the frame, on the same side and behind the front wheel, overlapping the front wheel a little.
  • Then put some more bubble wrap over the frame, and put the seatpost/seat on top.
  • Place the crank arm in there, QR skewers, chain, and any other loose hardware, making sure you either tape it to the side of the box or placing everything in a small box, and taping it shut before putting it in. That way nothing will be floating around in the box, risking damage or getting lost.

Here's how it should look when everything is in there:

Snug as a bug in a rug

Now that the bike is in the first box, stick a piece of paper with your adress in there, then tape it up good with lots of packing tape, and then throw the roll of tape in there as well.

Check how much taller the larger box is. If it's more than a few inches, place some paper or bubble wrap in the bottom of the larger box first. Then take the first box with your bike in it and insert it into the larger box. Shove it in there - it will probably be a tight fit. Once it's in there, it's not going to want to come out easily. Before you tape up the second box, stick another piece of paper with your address in there, in case something happens to the label on the outside. Now your are ready to tape up the second box.

The two boxes before getting merged

The nice thing about double boxing besides the added protection is if the outer box gets damaged you still have a good inner box for the return trip. You can just lose the outer box or tape up any damage without having to worry about whether it will hold together.

Now you can weigh it on a bathroom scale, measure the outer dimensions, and go online to and print your own shipping label.

This entire process will probably take two hours to complete. Reassembling the bike goes a lot quicker. Don't forget to bring your tools and a pump! Keep all the packing materials when you unpack it to reuse for the return trip.

If this sounds like too much to handle, you can pay a bike shop to box your bike. They charge around $25 or so to box your bike. They can ship it for you too. There are also companies that will ship your bike for you as well, such as Sports Express.

Good luck with whatever method you choose.

And finally, here's one airline cheat that might just work. It may only work for small to medium size full-suspension bikes. You just need to go out and buy two of the largest airline regulation-size suitcases you can find. You disassemble the bike, including the rear triangle. You may be able to remove a pivot bolt and fold up the chainstays. The frame, fork and other bits goes in one suitcase and the wheels in the other. You can use a wheelbag instead of a second suitcase, but you need to put your clothes in there as well. It's a pain, but if you can do that, you can bring your bike on the airlines for free.

-Sir Bikes-a-lot