8 Reasons To Choose the Santa Cruz Chameleon for your Bikepacking Bike

Female bikepacking pedaling along remote doubletrack on the White Rim Trail in Moab

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Choosing the perfect bike for bikepacking can be a daunting task. There are so many factors to consider and so many great options out there to choose from! Which bike is ‘the one’? While I can’t answer that question for you, I do have quite a bit of experience with bikepacking and I used the Santa Cruz Chameleon as my bikepacking bike for several years.

In this post, I share eight reasons why you might want to choose this bike for your next big adventure as well as a few reasons why you might not.

Ready to get started? Here are 8 reasons why the Santa Cruz Chameleon is a great choice for your bikepacking adventures.

2022 update

In early 2022, I sold my Santa Cruz Chameleon after riding it across Washington, taking it on the White Rim Trail in Moab, doing the Cathedral Valley Loop, among other adventures.

Why did I sell it? Not because it wasn’t a great bike for bikepacking. If you keep reading through this post, you’ll see that it’s actually a great choice for multi-day biking adventures.

I sold my Chameleon because I’m the kind of person who wants the perfect bike for every adventure. I know, I’m a princess!

Since I ride bikes to earn my living with this blog, I prefer to have multiple bikes that are specific for each type of adventure. For example, a dedicated gravel bike, a short-travel mountain bike, a mid-travel mountain bike, and so on. Yes, a quiver of bikes.

The Santa Cruz Chameleon is a great all-around bikepacking bike that can handle a variety of terrain from singletrack to gravel roads. If you’re looking for the ONE bikepacking bike that does it all, the Chameleon (as its name suggests!) could be a really great fit.

On the other hand, if you’re like me and you want to have a quiver of bikes, the Chameleon is good for a lot of adventures but it doesn’t excel at them all.

Two female mountain bikers posing behind loaded bikepacking bikes on beach in Washington at start of cross-washington mountain bike trip
I pedaled my Santa Cruz Chameleon 630 miles across Washington!

Why I chose the Chameleon

1. It’s a hardtail

The Santa Cruz Chameleon is a hardtail, meaning that it doesn’t have rear suspension but it does have front fork suspension.

Hardtails can feel more efficient than full-suspension bikes on climbs but unlike a fully-rigid bike, hardtails still absorb trail/gravel chatter thanks to the front fork.

Another benefit to hardtails is that they can be loaded with bike bikepacking bags more easily than full-suspension bikes because you don’t have to fit bags (primarily the frame bag) around the rear shock.

The Chameleon comes with a 130mm fork which is perfect for both pedaling uphill and descending down moderate singletrack tech.

Santa Cruz Chameleon mountain bike

2. You can Choose Your wheel size

One of the features I really liked about my Santa Cruz Chameleon for bikepacking was that I could choose either a 29″ wheelset or a 27.5+ wheelset depending on the type of trip I was going on.

Unfortunately, for 2022 Santa Cruz has done away with the 27.5+ Chameleon. Now you can choose from either a 29″ model or mixed wheel model with a 29″ in the front and a 27.5″ in the rear (aka a mullet).

It’s still cool to have the choice of what wheel size you want to run, thanks to the dropout technology, but you are a bit more limited by not being able to put a 27.5+ wheel on the front.

3. It Comes in an aluminum frame

For bikepacking, an aluminum frame can be more durable than a carbon frame. The Chameleon now comes in only an aluminum frame, which is:

  1. Aluminum is cheaper and
  2. Aluminum can take wear and tear better than carbon

Carbon may be lighter, but when you start strapping bags and things to a carbon frame the friction between bag and frame can start wearing away the carbon material which, you might guess, is no bueno.

So for me, aluminum is the way to go when doing hard and rugged bikepacking adventures.

(As a side note, a lot of diehard bikepackers will argue that steel frames are the best choice for bikepacking because they can be welded back together in times of dire need and they’re a more comfortable ride. But steel frames are also quite a bit heavier and slightly more expensive not to mention there are far fewer choices to pick from).

Close up shot of Santa Cruz Chameleon top tube

4. The geometry is great for long days in the saddle

This is perhaps the most important consideration for a bikepacking bike, right? If you’re spending hours upon hours, days upon days in the saddle it better be comfortable AF. And the Santa Cruz Chameleon delivers on that front.

When I first bought my Chameleon I went on a 26-mile, 3700ft+ pedal close to home to test it out and the only complaint I had was that the handlebars need upgrading to ones that have more hand positions.

Since then, I’ve gone on several overnight and multi-day bikepacking trips and the Santa Cruz Chameleon is one of the most comfortable bikes I’ve ever ridden.

The head tube angle has just the right amount of slackness/steepness to make steering a breeze and the reach is long and comfortable.

Santa Cruz Chameleon geometry chart

5. It comes with a 12-speed eagle drivetrain

I will never again buy a bike without a 12-speed drivetrain. If you’re not sure what this means, it means that pedaling uphill is so much more pleasant than it used to be.

12-speed refers to one rear derailleur with 12 speeds and a single front chainring. The 12th gear is a super high ‘eagle’ gear that allows you to easily pedal up (most) hills.

Whatever bikepacking bike you choose to buy, be sure that it’s a 12-speed.

(There are bikes with even more gears, but you’ll be adding weight with a front derailleur). Most bikes these days do come with a 12-speed cassette but double-check just to make sure.

I did end up swapping the stock front ring (I think it was a 30T?) with a 28T oval chainring to make pedaling uphill even more of a breeze.

Becky riding bike to the summit of dirt road with tall snow-capped peaks in the distance

6. You can make it a singlespeed

Another really cool feature of the Chameleon is that should something catastrophic happen to your derailleur or drivetrain while way out in the middle of nowhere, you have a real shot of transforming it into a functional singlespeed.

To do this, pick the gear that you want to pedal in, reattach the chain, and then adjust the dropout position to tension the chain.

I’m sure there’s a YouTube video that will walk you through it better than I can explain it in words. (Also make sure you have a multi-tool with a chainbreaker).

7. It’s easy to load with bags & Weight

The Santa Cruz Chameleon is easy to load with bikepacking bags and has plenty of options for strapping on bags, bottles, and cages including an underside down-tube water bottle option.

I also successfully attached the Thule Pack n’ Pedal Rack to the rear of my Chameleon so that I could carry even more stuff in panniers and on the rack top for longer-distance rides.

If I were to use a rack again, I’d go with an Old Man Mountain Rack.

Becky pushing fully loaded bikepacking bike up steep switchback in Washington

8. Santa Cruz has a lifetime frame warranty

Yup, that’s right. Santa Cruz guarantees a lifetime warranty for their frames.

Now that doesn’t mean they’ll replace a frame that was dented from a gnarly crash with a tree, but they will replace a frame that has cracked or broken from ‘normal’ use.

Santa Cruz also provides free bearings, which is another big perk.

Challenges of the Chameleon as a bikepacking bike

Of course, there’s no ‘perfect bike’ and despite all the great features above, the Santa Cruz Chameleon does have some limitations when it comes to choosing it as a bikepacking rig.

These challenges include:

  • It’s on the heavier side at 31 lbs for the D model
  • It’s expensive compared to some other hardtail mountain bikes
  • It doesn’t come in a size XS
  • The frame triangle is smaller than it used to be, which will affect how much you can pack in your frame bag

For a more in-depth review of the updated 2022 Santa Cruz Chameleon as a bikepacking bike, head over to bikepacking.com.

Ready To Buy Your Chameleon?

If the Santa Cruz Chameleon sounds like the perfect bikepacking rig for you, here are a few places to shop around for the best prices:

Fully loaded Santa Cruz Chameleon bikepacking bike propped up on a rock on the White Rim Trail in Moab, Utah

Have you used the Santa Cruz Chameleon as a bikepacking bike? What do you love/hate about it? Leave a comment below!

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  1. Hi –
    Thanks for the tips! I just got back from doing the White Rim on my SC Chameleon – but it was w/ truck support for our gear etc. I am looking to go back and do it bikepacking style this time and appreciate all the info above.
    A few questions – when you upgraded the handlebars for one with more hand position options – what did you choose and how are your liking them?
    Do your have pics of your Chameleon fully loaded with the Moosetrek set-up (frame bag, handlebar roll, seatpost bag, and top tube bag ) plus the Thule Pack n’ Pedal Rack?

  2. Very cool. I have a ’98 Chameleon that has been through a few alterations, from single speed, to downhill racer, to trail bike, to towing a trailer with gear and surfboard up and down the California coast for a couple months. It’s now just beginning to enter a full-blown bikepacking/touring phase. I’m putting Surly 27.5 ECR forks up front (27.5 to compensate for any suspension fork sag) combined with Surly Moloko handlebars. Since both forks and bars are chromoly I’m hoping they’ll dampen any harshness. I’ll probably put a fatter tire up front too. The bummer about older Chameleons is that the rear triangle really limits your tire sizes. I’ve squeezed a 2.25 in there, but a 2.1 is the safe limit…

    Anyways, I’m rambling. It’s good to see another "lizard lover." Enjoy your rides and may the wind always be at your back!!

  3. I have a 2014 Chameleon with the Thule Pack & Pedal rack, which has worked great. You can remove the rack and just leave the strap structure on the chainstays if you want as well. Also used that rack on my Yeti SB95 as a super bikepacking-racing-fun bike through Cambodia in 2013.

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