(Last updated on April 12th, 2023)
There’s something extra special about bike touring or bikepacking. Loading up your gear and heading out on a two-wheel adventure is an amazing experience. And while you could turn just about any bike into a touring bike, you may want to choose a specific bike for your two-wheeled adventures.
The best touring bike is the one that suits the terrain, distance, and location that you will be traveling. It also needs to be well-suited to your body type and fitness, the amount of gear you’ll be traveling, and of course, be a bike you enjoy riding.
I will discuss choosing a touring bike for your next cycling adventure in this article.
I’ll talk about what kind of touring you’ll be doing, the gear you’ll carry, and the specifics of your bikes and budget. I’ll even recommend some of my favorite touring bikes.
Let’s get started!
- How to Choose a Touring Bicycle
- Bike Details
- Fitness Details
- Types of Bikes Commonly Used for Bike Touring
- Final Thoughts on Touring Bikes
- Frequently Asked Questions
How to Choose a Touring Bicycle
1. Will Your Trip Be Short or Long-Term?
There’s a big difference between a single overnight trip and a trip across the country. When I rode to a hotel about 50 miles away, I loaded my regular road bike with an extra-large saddle bag and a handlebar bag. It became a road touring bike for the trip and worked just fine.
But the aggressive positioning on a road bike wouldn’t be comfortable if I rode a hundred miles a day for a couple of weeks. So I would want a slightly more upright one with a longer wheelbase and cushier tires for comfort.
Long trips mean carrying more gear, too, so I would want a bike with extra mounts and even a rack to hold some panniers to carry all the extra items, such as a sleeping bag, tent, and food.
2. Will You Be On-Road or Off-Road?
If you stick to paved roads and bike lanes, a traditional touring bike with road wheels might be perfect for your ride. On the other hand, if you are riding on gravel roads, you might want to take a gravel or hybrid bike with wider tires to handle the loose rock.
On the other hand, Ryan Duzer, known for his impressive bike touring in the Great Divide, rides a hardtail mountain bike with belt drive on many of his adventures because it’s better suited to the terrain he rides the most. And the belt drive holds up well to dirty and dry conditions.
3. Where Will You Bike Tour?
If you’re touring in the United States, you’ll probably have easy access to standard bike components like tubes and tires. But if you are riding in other countries, you need to consider what equipment they have available.
For example, you won’t find the exact size tires that we typically ride in the United States in some countries. So you may want to equip your bike with tires that are easy to find wherever you’ll be riding or make sure you bring along enough supplies for emergencies.
Depending on where you are touring, you might be able to stay in a hotel occasionally. In other places, you might be camping alone for the entire trip. Again, it depends on where and how long you will be going.
You can make almost any bike into your bike touring bike, especially if you are going on short trips. But if you’re looking into longer, more complex touring rides, you’ll want to hone in on the bike details to tailor your bicycle to what you’ll be doing. So here are a few aspects I consider when planning a bikepacking or touring trip.
Frame and Geometry
Geometry describes the shape of the bike in relation to the rider. For example, a race bike will have a very aggressive position to reduce the wind forces on the rider – but it isn’t comfortable for long rides. Depending on how flexible you are and how many miles you’ll be riding at a time, you’ll want something slightly more upright.
Endurance road bikes are more upright than race bikes. Hybrid bikes are even more upright, and gravel bikes fall somewhere in between. The upright position of a touring bike will be comfortable for long days in the saddle.
You may also want a bike with a long wheelbase for stability – this will help you carry more gear without the bike feeling unstable.
You’ll also want to consider the frame material. Steel makes for a very comfortable and affordable ride, but it’s heavy, so it might not be the best option if you are doing some hill climbs. Aluminum is affordable and lightweight, but it offers a harsh ride feel, so if you are riding anything but smooth payment, you might not like this option.
On the other hand, carbon frames are lightweight and absorb much road vibration, making them the most comfortable for long trips. However, carbon can be pricey, so it might not fit your bike touring budget.
Wheels and Tires
The wheels and tires you choose for your bike touring depend primarily on the terrain you’ll be riding. If you are sticking to the pavement, you’ll probably want to stick to 700c wheels with wide tires – such as 28s – for comfort.
On the other hand, if you’re touring off-road or on roads that aren’t nicely paved, you’ll want some gravel tires. Size 700c by 40mm makes for some very comfortable tires riding on gravel. Of course, you’ll want even wider tires if you hit some single-track or rooty trails. You’ll want to consider a mountain bike tire that is 27.5 by 2 inches wide.
Drivetrain and Gearing
Your drivetrain and gearing will also vary depending on the terrain you will be riding. You’ll most likely want a 2x setup, meaning you’ll have two chainrings on your bike with a large cassette.
Remember that you’ll be carrying extra gear, so you always want to err on the side of gears that are too easy rather than too hard. If you have too many hard gears on your bike, you won’t be able to get that extra weight uphill, and you’ll have to get off and push.
The larger the cassette, the more gears you’ll have to work with.
Type of Saddle
You might think that a squishy saddle is better for long hours on the bike, but actually, that isn’t true. Instead, you’ll need a saddle that supports your sit bones and is wide enough not to chafe your legs.
For some, this means a saddle with a cutout in the center. For others, a plain saddle feels better.
Pedals: Flat or Clipless
Clipless pedals help keep your feet attached to the pedals, so you don’t have to think about where your foot is. They also help transfer more power from your legs to the bike. They’re an excellent choice for smooth pavement, but if you’re doing singletrack, you’ll probably want flat pedals.
If you’re in between, you’ll have to choose depending on your comfort zone.
When I go bike touring, I like to use pedals that are flat on one side but have SPD clips on the other. For shoes, I wear mountain bike shoes with SPD cleats. This way, I can easily clip in when the road is smooth, but if things are dodgy, I can keep my feet out and still pedal.
The mountain bike shoes have a sneaker-like feel, so if I end up hiking a bike, I have done that plenty of times! – it’s easier to walk than with a pair of stiff gravel shoes.
Handlebars: Drop bars, flat bars, or trekking bars?
Flat bars are perfect for mountain bike-level touring. They are wide and have thick rubber grips for comfort. The extra width gives you better control over steering and helps prevent you from oversteering. They’ll also balance out some of the bike’s weight, especially if you’re loaded with gear. And they give you lots of room for a large handlebar bag.
For gravel and road, though, I prefer flat bars because they give me plenty of different hand and body positions to make long rides more comfortable. There’s still enough room for a good-sized handlebar bag, but I can put my hands in the drops, tops, hoods, and combinations. Most standard touring bikes have regular drop bars.
If you need additional hand positions, you can add clip-on aero bars for extra comfort. However, they aren’t great for steering, especially on a heavy bike.
Trekking bars have a large butterfly shape, which gives you even more hand positions and a more upright configuration. They may seem cumbersome initially, but you’ll get used to them with a little practice.
Finally, you might prefer kitchen sink bars. Kitchen sink bars are short-reach gravel bars with an extra loop in the middle. This gives you extra hand positions, making your ride even more comfortable.
Not all bars are compatible with all bikes, so you might have to research the type you like for the bike you will ride.
Accessories: Mounts, Racks, and Fenders
One of the drawbacks to riding my road bike as a touring bike is that it doesn’t have a lot of space for extra racks and mounts, and there isn’t room for a frame bag. It just doesn’t hold enough luggage.
A good touring bike will give you lots of mounting options. For example, it will have lots of braze-ons on the frame and forks so you can attach bags, bottle cages, and tools.
If you are taking many long trips, you’ll want to invest in a rack for your bike. This will hold your panniers. If your bike doesn’t have mounts for a rack, you can purchase mountless racks that clip onto your seat tube, but you might not want to use them on a carbon bike.
You might also consider fenders for your bike. Fenders will cut down on the road spray that hits you when your tires kick up water, dirt, and mud. Road bikes don’t generally have fenders, but many hybrid and touring bikes do.
Bike Gear and Luggage
How much gear will you be carrying on your bike? Will your bike feel stable when loaded with a rack and panniers, extra bags, and other items attached to it?
Make sure the panniers you wish to use are a good fit on your bike because if they’re too big, your heel can catch on the bags when you pedal, causing you to fall.
How Fit and Flexible are You?
Another thing you must consider when choosing your touring bike is how fit and flexible you are. If you aren’t strong, you may want to consider an e-bike or a bike with very easy gears that will help you keep up with your group.
On the other hand, if you are very strong and flexible, choosing an upright bike won’t be as critical for you, and you may want to look at other priorities.
How Many Miles Can You Ride in a Day?
Your bike and tire choice will affect how many miles you can ride daily. If you have the wrong bike for the terrain, you’ll end up walking more and riding at a slower pace. For example, gravel bikes are slower than road bikes – unless you are actually riding on gravel.
How Much Weight Can You Carry on Your Bike?
Not all bikes are built to carry heavy weights. So you’ll want to ensure that the bike you choose is sturdy enough to handle your weight, plus all the bags and cargo you’ll be bringing. Otherwise, you may damage the bike or, at the least, be predisposed to getting a lot of flat tires.
Finally, budget is a consideration that we can’t ignore. Not everyone can run out and purchase a new bike for bike touring – you might have to adapt a bike you already have or one you purchase second-hand.
Types of Bikes Commonly Used for Bike Touring
Now that we have looked at the different characteristics you need to look for in a bike let’s talk about some of the bikes often used for bike touring.
Gravel bikes are commonly used as touring bikes because they’re really all-road bikes. You can take them on paved roads and even some very mild singletrack (depending on your skills). Gravel bikes typically have many braze-ons or mounts to hold all kinds of gear. You usually add fenders, too.
The Canyon Grizl makes a great touring and backpacking bike. It has various options, so you can choose which suits you best. You can get a two x setup with Di2 or mechanical, hydraulic disc brakes, and plenty of mounts to stow all your gear. If your budget is tight, you can opt for an aluminum version, but if you have a bit more breathing room, go for the carbon.
The nice thing about a gravel bike is you have clearance for wide tires if the terrain is really rough, but you can also put on a set of road tires if you’ll be hitting the pavement instead.
Hybrid bikes combine road and mountain bikes -giving you the best of both worlds. You’ll find flat bars, rugged tires, and all-day geometry. You can take these bikes just about anywhere you want to go.
The Trek 1120 is a rugged touring bike built to withstand gnarly trails and long rides. It has built-in front and rear racks, extra rugged tires, and wide bars for control. And if you happen to bust up your derailleur, you can easily switch it to a single speed to get you to your destination.
Cargo or E-bike
If your fitness level isn’t as good as the distance you need to travel, you may want to consider an e-bike. You’ll have pedal assist in giving you extra strength and mileage and helping carry all your gear. In addition, most cargo e-bikes have a big rack and can handle plenty of weight.
The downside to an e-bike is that you must pedal a heavy bike if your battery dies. So you may want to plan shorter rides or carry a spare.
The RadRover 6 has a 45-mile range, but you can double that with a spare battery. It’ll help you get up those stubborn hills and is long and stable to handle plenty of gear.
Touring bikes are designed specifically for touring. They include plenty of mounts, space for wider tires and fenders, and often have racks and drop bars.
The Surly Disc Trucker has a triple chainring to give you plenty of gears for climbing up hills and rolling fast on the flats. In addition, it has loads of mounts to haul all your gear and disc brakes for lots of stopping power. What I like about this bike is that the geometry was designed to feel more stable under load but still turn easily.
This disc trucker has knobby tires that are great for paved surfaces and light off-roading.
Final Thoughts on Touring Bikes
When I go bike touring, I typically ride a steel gravel bike equipped with extra gears, a rack and panniers, and nice wide tires to go off-road. Also, since it’s a gravel bike, it has a longer wheelbase, making it slightly sturdier under a load of all my gear.
Sometimes I ride on paved roads, gravel trails, or just from city to city, depending on the trip, so a versatile bike is important. But, of course, you might prefer the versatility of a gravel bike, too, or the durability of a mountain bike or the comfort of a touring bike.
But the type of bike you choose will depend on your terrain, location, the length of your trip, and what feels comfortable to you.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Touring bikes are designed to carry heavier loads and have wider tires and mounts for racks. They are more comfortable and upright than road bikes and may have specialized handlebars.
Touring bikes aren’t any more expensive than other types of bikes. You’ll find prices ranging from $600 to $6000 dollars, depending on the components and frame material.
Technically, you could use your road bike for touring, but you might not want to. Your road bike might not be designed to carry enough weight and is built for speed rather than long hours in the saddle.
Yes, there are all kinds of racks, fenders, bags, and panniers to choose from to outfit your bike.
I personally prefer tubeless tires for bike touring and bikepacking because they are less susceptible to flats. You can also use a lower tire pressure, which is more comfortable and offers more traction. You can always carry spare tubes in case you have an issue the sealant can’t fix.
Amanda Whittington is an expert writer, impassioned cyclist, and musician. Coming from a diverse educational background, Amanda discovered a deep-rooted passion for encouraging others through her love of all things cycling, writing, and inspiring hope.
You’ll likely find Amanda pouring over bike specs, comparing the hottest cycling tech, and sporting the latest jerseys while juggling the demands of her editorial calendar, training schedule, tiny homestead, and 6 busy kids.
She spends her free time absorbed in her own gardening and fitness, cycling, and reading, all while encouraging adoption and foster care, championing the underdog, and of course, working with her chickens and goats.