Skip to Content

Gravel Bike Vs Touring Bike: What’s the Difference and Pros and Cons

Gravel bikes and touring bikes are both designed for exploration and adventures. They are made for different types of riders. Touring bikes are ideal for long-distance, fully-loaded trips on mostly paved roads. Gravel bikes, on the other hand, are ideal for adventure riding on rougher gravel and dirt roads while carrying a lighter load. They’re perfect for exploring dirt and gravel roads, gentle mountain bike trails, and bikepacking. In this guide, we will outline the differences between gravel bikes and touring bikes. We’ll also list the pros and cons of riding a gravel bike vs touring bike. We’ll cover frame geometry, gearing, speed, efficiency, and much more.

I got into bicycle touring about 10 years ago. A few years back, I decided to get a gravel bike so I could give bikepacking a try. I’ve toured for thousands of miles on both bikes. In this guide, I’ll share my experience. Hopefully, this guide helps you choose the best touring or adventure bike for your riding style.

A gravel bike
Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure policy for details.

What is a Gravel Bike?

A gravel bike is kind of a cross between a road bike, a touring bike, and a mountain bike. Gravel bikes feature drop bars, a rigid frame, and a sporty frame geometry, like road bikes. They also feature wide grippy tires, wide and low gearing, disc brakes, and stable geometry, like a mountain bike. In addition, most gravel bikes also come with mounting points for racks and panniers, like a touring bike. Gravel bikes are sometimes called adventure bikes. The terms are interchangeable. 

Gravel bikes are designed for riding a wide range of surfaces. With a gravel bike, you can ride gravel roads, dirt roads, forestry roads, bike paths, pavement, and some gentle single track and mountain bike trails. They are surprisingly capable off-road. Gravel bikes are also fast and efficient while riding on-road. 

There is a spectrum of gravel bike designs. Some models are more road-oriented. These bikes are designed to be mostly ridden on smooth gravel and dirt roads as well as pavement. Some gravel bikes are much closer to mountain bikes. These models can handle more technical trails and single track but are less efficient on the road. Some gravel bikes are designed for long-distance bikepacking. These models are very similar to touring bikes. 

What is a Touring Bike?

A touring bike is a bike that is designed for multi-day rides with racks and panniers full of gear. Depending on the distance and route of your tour, you may carry a tent, sleeping bag, cooking gear, clothing, as well as multiple days worth of food and water. With a touring bike, you could ride across your country, across a continent, or around the world.

Touring bikes look very similar to road bikes of the past. Most touring bikes feature a steel frame, drop handlebars, a long wheelbase, 700c wheels, wide-range gearing, and bar-end shifters. Touring bikes have wider tires than road bikes. Most touring tires measure 28-40mm. 

A touring bike loaded with panniers
A fully loaded touring bike

Touring bikes have plenty of attachment points for luggage and accessories. Traditionally, bicycle tourists carry their luggage in panniers that mount to front and rear racks. The racks bolt directly to the frame and fork. For more capacity, some cyclists add a handlebar bag, top tube bag, saddlebag, and other accessory bags. Touring bikes also include mounting points for multiple water bottles, spare spokes, a pump, etc. Many touring bikes also come with mudguards. 

Touring bikes are designed to be comfortable. They feature a more relaxed and upright riding position than road bikes. They also feature a stable geometry with a long wheelbase. This allows you to cruise along comfortably for hours at a time for days on end. 

Touring bikes are also designed to be durable, long-lasting, and low maintenance. They feature heavy-duty steel frames and strong 36 spoke wheels. They need to hold up under the stress of heavy loads of gear and abuse from travel. 

A cyclist riding a gravel bike down a gravel road

What is the Difference Between a Gravel Bike and Touring Bike?

Gravel bikes and touring bikes share a similar design. Both usually have drop handlebars, rigid frames, wide-range gearing, and disc brakes. They may share some of the same components. Both types of bikes use a mix of mountain and road components. They are also both designed for long-distance cycling adventures while carrying a load of gear. There are a few key differences between gravel and touring bikes. 

One major difference is the tires. Touring tires usually measure 28-40mm wide. Gravel tires usually measure 38-50mm wide and have a more aggressive tread pattern. Gravel bike frames have more clearance to accommodate wider tires than touring bikes. 

The gearing is also different. Touring bikes have a wider gear range and more gears than gravel bikes. Most modern touring bikes have a triple chainring groupset with an 8, 9, or 10 speed cassette for a total of 24-30 gears. Most gravel bikes use a 1X or 2X groupset with a 12 speed cassette.

Touring bikes are also built to be a bit more durable than gravel bikes. They have strong steel frames and 36 spoke wheels that can handle a heavy load. Gravel bikes often have slightly less robust components. As a result, touring bikes tend to weigh a few pounds more than gravel bikes. 

The surfaces that both bikes are designed to be ridden on are also different. Touring bikes are designed to be ridden mostly on pavement with the occasional gravel or dirt road. Gravel bikes are designed to be ridden mostly on unpaved roads. They can also handle pavement and some mountain bike terrain. 

Some gravel bikes and touring bikes blur the line. There are touring bikes with clearance for 47mm tires on 650B wheels. There are also gravel bikes with mounts for racks and fenders. Sometimes, the only difference between a gravel bike and a touring bike is the marketing. 

Gravel Bike Vs Touring Bike

Bicycle tourists riding on a road

Tires

Gravel bikes and touring bikes use different types of tires. The tires play a major role in ride quality, traction, and handling, on different types of terrain as well as the bike’s efficiency. 

Gravel tires are designed for riding on rough unpaved dirt and gravel roads. They are wider and more voluminous than touring tires. Gravel tires usually measure 36-50mm wide. The most common gravel tire widths include 35mm, 38mm, 40mm, 42mm, and 45mm. 

Gravel tires also have a more aggressive tread pattern than touring tires. Most gravel-specific tires have a light file or diamond tread pattern. This pattern provides excellent traction on dry unpaved surfaces as well as pavement. Knobby gravel tires are also available for those who want to ride more rugged terrain, such as mountain bike trails. 

Gravel tires are run at lower air pressure than touring tires. Most gravel riders run their tires at 20-50 psi depending on the terrain. The lower tire pressure improves traction and comfort. 

The wider gravel tires have a larger contact patch with the ground. The lower air pressure allows the tire to deform so more tread touches the ground. This way, the tire creates more friction with the ground, which improves traction. 

The wider and softer tires can also deform around obstacles and absorb some bumps and vibrations. This improves comfort while riding on rough surfaces. 

If you want to ride in wet or rugged conditions with a gravel bike, you can install wider tires with a more aggressive tread pattern for even more traction. You can even install knobby mountain bike tires on a gravel bike, as long as your frame offers sufficient clearance. 

Bike tires

Touring tires are designed to roll efficiently on pavement. They are also designed to handle the occasional unpaved road. 

Touring tires are narrower than gravel tires. Touring tires usually measure 28-40mm wide. The most common touring tire widths include 32, 35, and 38mm. 

Touring tires also have a less aggressive tread pattern than gravel tires. They are not slick like road tires. They do have a bit of tread. This gives you traction while riding over loose or slippery surfaces. 

Touring tires are also run at higher air pressure than gravel tires. Most touring tires are run at 60-85 psi. The firm tires roll efficiently but can make the ride feel harsh. 

Touring tires are also designed to be durable and long-lasting. They are made from hard and thick rubber that wears slowly. Many models can last 4000-6000 miles (around 6500-10000 km).

Most touring tires also include some kind of built-in puncture resistance. This is a 3-5mm thick strip of Kevlar or other hard material that is layered inside of the tire. Nails and broken glass have a hard time piercing the hard puncture-resistant layer. 

Narrow touring tires with minimal tread run at high pressure have less rolling resistance than gravel tires. This allows you to ride faster and more efficiently on smooth paved roads. Touring tires also have enough traction to handle some unpaved roads and easy trails.

These days, gravel bikes usually come with tubeless tires. Most touring bikes still come with tubes. For bicycle touring, bikepacking, and gravel riding tubeless tires are usually the better choice. 

Tubeless tires make flats much less common. Tubeless tires are filled with a sealant that automatically fills small punctures. If you run over a thorn, nail, or piece of broken glass and puncture a tire, you can just keep on riding. You won’t even notice it because the sealant patches up the hole before the air leaks out. Riding tubeless also allows you to run your tires at lower pressure because you don’t have to worry about pinch flats. This increases traction. 

The main drawback to tubeless tires is that they are slightly harder to set up and repair than tubed tires. Some riders still prefer tubed tires because they are simple to set up and repair on the side of the road. For more info, check out my guide to tube vs tubeless tires. 

Tire Clearance

Gravel bike frames are designed to fit much wider tires than touring bike frames. Most gravel bikes can accommodate tires that measure up to 45mm wide. More off-road-oriented gravel bikes can accommodate tires that measure up to 60mm wide. 

Tire clearance seems to be increasing on newer gravel frames. The wide tire clearance allows you to mount a wide range of tires to your wheels including road slicks, touring tires, gravel-specific tires, or knobby mountain bike tires. This increases versatility. 

Touring bikes don’t offer quite as much tire clearance. Most models can accept a maximum tire width of around 38-40mm. Some newer models can accept 45mm tires. Tire clearance is trending up on newer touring bikes. Some newer models have almost as much clearance as a gravel bike. 

The front tire of a bicycle
This tire has plenty of clearance around the fork and brake arms

When choosing wide tires for your bike, it’s important to consider the frame clearance. Ideally, there should be at least 3mm of clearance between the tire and frame. If the tires are too large for your frame, they’ll rub. It’s also easy for debris to get stuck between the tires and frame. 

It’s also important to note that the size indicated on the side of the tire isn’t really accurate. A 45mm tire from one company could be a couple of millimeters larger or smaller than the same sized tire from another company. Before buying tires, it’s a good idea to measure your frame clearance and measure the tire to make sure they’ll fit.

Wheels

The wheels on touring bikes and gravel bikes are usually pretty similar. There are a few differences to consider. 

Touring bike wheels are designed to carry a heavy load. Touring bikes need strong wheels to support the weight of heavy panniers full of gear. They also need to be durable and reliable so they can put up with the long distances. 

Most touring wheels have 36 spokes. To compare, most gravel bike wheels have 32 spokes. The extra spokes on touring wheels help to better distribute the weight of the load across the wheel. This reduces the likelihood of broken spokes. Wheels with more spokes are stronger They can take more of a beating without bending, warping, or cracking. Higher spoke count wheels also tend to stay true longer. The drawback is that the extra spokes add a bit of weight. For more info, check out my guide to 32 vs 36 spoke wheels. 

Gravel bikes usually come with slightly wider rims to accommodate wider tires. Most gravel bikes have an internal rim width of 21-26mm. Touring bikes have slightly more narrow rims. The internal rim width is usually 19-23mm.  

Most gravel bikes and touring bikes come with 700c wheels. These have an ISO size 622mm. 650B wheels are also becoming common these days. These have an ISO size of 584mm. 650B wheels are 38mm or about 1.5” smaller in diameter than 700c wheels. For more info on these wheel sizes, check out my guide: 700c Vs 650B wheels. 

A 700c gravel wheel

Some gravel bikes come with 29” wheels (also called 29er). These are mountain bike wheels.  These wheels have the same diameter as 700c wheels (622mm). The difference is that the rim may be wider to accommodate wider 2.4”+ tires. These bikes are basically a cross between a mountain bike and a traditional gravel bike.

Some touring bikes come with 26” wheels (ISO size 559mm). 26” wheels are popular for bicycle touring because this size is more common in some parts of the developing world. This makes spare parts easier to find. In some remote regions and developing countries, 700c and 650B wheels and tires can be hard to come by. If you’re planning to tour in much of Africa, Central Asia, or Latin America, you may be better off with 26” wheels. Touring bikes with 26” wheels are sometimes referred to as expedition touring bikes because they are designed for long trips through remote areas. 

Touring bikes with 26” wheels can also fit wider tires up to around 2”. This improves traction. 26” wheels are also structurally stronger because the rim is smaller in diameter and the spokes are shorter. 26” wheels can handle heavier loads and harder hits without sustaining damage. For more info on this wheel size, check out my guide to 26” Vs 700c wheels.

When choosing your wheel size, it’s a good idea to consider your height and bike frame size. Generally, smaller wheels are preferable for smaller bike frames. They fit the frame geometry better. If you run 700c wheels on a small frame, your toes can also rub the front wheel as you turn. This is known as toe overlap. Taller riders are generally better off with larger-diameter wheels. They may fit the frame geometry better. 

One benefit of using smaller wheels is that you can fit wider tires. This is because the stays and fork arms widen as they approach the hubs. A 650B gravel bike may be able to accommodate 50mm tires. The same frame with 700c wheels may only be able to handle 40mm tires. Another major benefit of smaller wheels is that they are structurally stronger. They can handle harder impacts without bending, warping, or breaking spokes. 

Frame Material 

Touring bike frames are almost always made from steel. Aluminum touring frames are also common. Titanium touring frames are available but they are much less common. 

Gravel frames are available in a number of different materials including steel, carbon fiber, aluminum, and titanium. For bikepacking, steel frames are the most common. For general gravel riding aluminum and carbon fiber frames are common. In this section, I’ll outline a few benefits and drawbacks of each frame material.

Steel frames are incredibly durable and long-lasting. Steel can take a beating and keep going for decades. A steel frame can be scratched or dented and still maintain structural integrity. It can handle hard sudden impacts without cracking. Steel frames can also handle heavy loads. They can also be equipped with lots of mounting points for racks and accessories. Steel is a tough and forgiving material. Steel also doesn’t fatigue like some other frame materials. This is because it has a fatigue limit. A steel frame can withstand stress below its fatigue limit an almost infinite number of times without failing.

For bicycle touring and bikepacking, a major benefit of steel frames is that they are easy to repair. If your frame cracks, pretty much any welder can fix it. Steel also offers a comfortable ride quality that many cyclists enjoy. The material offers some flex, allowing the frame to absorb some vibrations. All of this makes steel frames ideal for touring bikes and gravel bikes. 

One major drawback of steel is that it can rust. Steel is also the heaviest bike frame material. The extra weight reduces efficiency. 

A steel framed touring bike fully loaded with panniers.

Aluminum is probably the second most common frame material for touring bikes and gravel bikes. Aluminum frames are lightweight and stiff. They offer excellent efficiency and performance. Aluminum frames are also generally the most affordable. In addition, they don’t corrode. 

The main drawback is that the ride quality can feel a bit harsh due to the rigidity of the frame. Bumps and vibrations can transmit through the frame into your body. Aluminum frames can also fatigue because aluminum doesn’t have a fatigue limit. They don’t last as long as other frame materials. Aluminum is also difficult to repair if it cracks. This can be an issue if you’re touring in a remote region. Aluminum is a great frame material for gravel bikes but not ideal for touring bikes. For more info, check out my guide to steel vs aluminum frames. 

Carbon fiber frames are common on higher-end gravel bikes. Carbon fiber frames are lighter than aluminum. They also offer excellent performance due to their rigidity. One major benefit of carbon fiber is its customizability. The material can be optimized for handling, comfort, efficiency, aerodynamics, and more. Manufacturers can make the frame laterally stiff so it rides efficiently and vertically compliant so rides comfortably. Carbon fiber does an excellent job of absorbing vibrations. This makes it an excellent frame material choice for gravel bikes. 

Touring bikes never use carbon fiber frames for durability reasons. Carbon fiber is a brittle material. It can crack during an impact. It also can’t handle the weight of heavy racks and panniers. Most carbon frames don’t have any attachment points. It doesn’t hold up well under the abuses of bicycle touring. For more info, check out my guide to carbon fiber vs titanium frames. 

If you’re looking for a premium or custom-made gravel or touring bike, you might consider a titanium frame. Titanium frames are durable, long-lasting, and comfortable, like steel. They also offer excellent ride characteristics, like carbon. 

The main drawback is that they are very expensive. They are also harder to repair if they break. For more info, check out my guide: Titanium Vs Steel Bike Frames. 

Frame Geometry

The frame geometry plays a big role in the stability, handling, comfort, and maneuverability of the bike. A few important frame measurements to consider include the length of the wheelbase, the length of the chainstays, the angle of the head tube and fork, the height of the bottom bracket, and the reach. Generally, gravel bike and touring bike frame geometry is pretty similar. Both bikes are designed to be stable and comfortable. There are a few differences. 

Touring bikes offer a relaxed geometry. They are optimized for stability. This geometry allows you to cruise along in a straight line without constantly having to correct your steering. The steering is not twitchy. Touring bikes also feel balanced. This is important when you’re carrying a heavy load. 

Touring bikes usually have a long wheelbase and long chainstays. This wheelbase is the distance between the two axles. The chainstays are the tubes that run from the bottom bracket to the rear dropout. 

Having a long wheelbase and long chainstays improves stability. The long wheelbase and chainstays also make the bike easier to balance. The long chainstays also reduce the likelihood of your foot striking your rear panniers as you pedal by moving them further away from your feet. 

Touring bikes also have a slack head tube angle and high trail. The head angle is the angle that the fork sits at relative to the head tube. Trail is the horizontal distance that the tire contact point sits from the steering axis. The slack head tube angle and long trail help to increase the stability of touring bikes while carrying a load on the front. 

The bottom bracket height of touring bikes is also low. The bottom bracket height is the distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the ground. This lowers the rider’s center of gravity. It also reduces the distance from the saddle to the ground. The lower bottom bracket also helps to improve stability and balance. 

Touring bikes also have a somewhat short reach that is usually combined with a riser stem. Reach is the horizontal distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the center of the head tube. The riser stem raises the handlebars up a couple of inches. This geometry gives the bike an upright and comfortable ride position that allows you to spend hours in the saddle. Of course, the handlebars also play a big role in the ride position. More on that later.  

A gravel bike with bikepacking bags

Gravel bike geometry is fairly similar. Gravel bikes are designed to be a bit more maneuverable than touring bikes. This helps you avoid obstacles while riding off-road. At the same time, gravel bikes are also optimized for stability and comfort. They are designed for endurance riding. 

Gravel bikes have long chainstays, a slack head tube angle, a low bottom bracket height, and a shortish reach, like touring bikes. This helps to keep the bike stable and balanced. Stability is important for gravel riding. 

On some gravel frames, the seat stays and chainstays are designed to have some flex. This can help reduce shocks and vibrations while riding on rough gravel roads. Most gravel bikes don’t have suspension. The frame is rigid. There are exceptions. Some gravel bikes come with a suspension fork.

The wheelbase on a gravel bike is typically shorter than a touring bike. This helps to improve maneuverability. The head tube angle of gravel bikes is also steeper than touring bikes. The trail is longer. This also helps to improve maneuverability. You can turn a little more quickly with a gravel bike. 

Gravel bike frames also offer more tire clearance than touring frames. This allows you to mount wider tires. Most gravel bikes can accommodate tires that measure 38-50mm wide. Most touring bikes can only accommodate tires that measure 35-40mm wide. 

Bike frames are also optimized for a particular wheel size. Installing a different sized wheel can affect the geometry, which affects the ride characteristics. For example, installing smaller wheels lowers the bottom bracket. For average and larger sized frames, 700c wheels are ideal for both touring and gravel bikes. This is the standard wheel size. For smaller frames, 650B wheels may fit better. If your wheels are too large, you could experience toe overlap. This is when your toes rub the front tire when you turn. 

Gearing

Gravel bikes and touring bike use slightly different gearing. Touring bikes are designed to be ridden long distances on a range of grades with a heavy load. 

Touring bikes usually have a wider gear range than gravel bikes. They have a lower low gear and a higher high gear. In other words, the difference between the lowest and highest gear is greater. The gear range is usually over 500%. This allows you to ride all types of terrain including steep climbs and fast descents. 

The gearing on touring bikes also tends to be lower than gravel bikes. This allows you to climb steep hills while carrying a heavy load of gear. The lowest gear on a touring bike usually has a gear ratio lower than 1:1. 

A bike cassette

In addition, touring bikes have more gears than gravel bikes. Most modern touring bikes come with a triple chainset. A 3×10 drivetrain gives the bike a total of 30 gears. Some modern touring bikes come with a double chainset instead. These usually have 20 gears (2×10). These offer the same gear range with fewer gears. Having more gears allows you to spend more time riding in the optimal gear. You can always find the perfect gear for the conditions. 

Touring bikes usually have smaller steps between gears than gravel bikes. In other words, the percentage change from one gear to the next is smaller. The gear steps are determined by the number of teeth on the cogs.

A touring bike with 3X gearing will have smaller steps between gears than a gravel bike with 1X gearing. A touring bike might have a 12% change between gears while a gravel bike might have a 15% change between gears. 

Tighter gearing is preferable for riding at higher speeds on roads because it makes it easier to maintain your cadence while shifting through the gear range. Your cadence doesn’t slow down as much when you upshift. You spend more time in your optimal cadence. This increases efficiency. 

Gravel bikes are designed to be ridden mostly on flat unpaved roads at higher speeds. They are not designed for climbing steep grades or carrying heavy loads.

Like touring bikes, gravel bikes also have wide-range gearing. Just not as wide. Gravel bike gearing also tends to be higher than touring bike gearing. Usually, the lowest gear is around 1:1. 

Gravel bikes also have fewer gears than touring bikes. Most gravel bikes come with a 1x or 2x groupset (1 or 2 chainrings). They have 12-22 gears. Touring bikes usually have 24-30 gears. 

For an example of common a gearing setup, an average touring bike may come with a 26/36/46 triple chainset with an 11-36t 9 or 10 speed 11-36t cassette. To compare, a gravel bike may come with a single 42t chainring and a 10-42t or 10-52t  12 speed cassette. 

In this example, the highest gear on the touring bike is 46t-11t. This gives you a gear ratio of 4.18 (46/11=4.18). The highest gear ratio on the gravel bike is 42t-11t. This gives you a gear ratio of 3.82 (42/11=3.82). In this case, the touring bike has a higher high gear. This allows you to cruise at higher speeds and reach a higher top speed. 

The lowest gear ratio on the touring bike is 26t-36t. This gives you a gear ratio of 0.72. The lowest gear ratio on the gravel bike is 42t-42t. This gives you a gear ratio of 1. In this case, the touring bike has a lower low gear. This allows you to climb steeper hills with a heavy load. Some gravel bikes don’t have low enough gearing for steep climbs. 

The gear ratio represents the number of times that the rear wheel turns for each revolution of the cranks. For example, a gear ratio of 1 means that for every rotation of the cranks, the rear wheel makes 1 full revolution.

Both gravel bikes and touring bikes often use a mix of road and mountain bike components. Oftentimes, the rear derailleur and cassette are mountain bike components. The crankest and shifters are often road bike components. Sometimes touring bikes use a full road groupset. Sometimes gravel bikes use a full mountain bike groupset. Sram and Shimano also offer groupsets that are specifically designed for gravel riding. 

Drivetrain Components

Probably the biggest difference between gravel and touring bike groupsets is the number of chainrings. Most gravel bikes are 1X or 2X. Most touring bikes are 2X or 3X. 

1X gearing eliminates the front derailleur and shifter. This simplifies your shifting. You only have one shifter to think about. You just shift up or down. There are also fewer parts to maintain. There are several drawbacks. The steps between gears are larger. There are fewer gear gears. They are also less efficient because the chain runs at an angle in some gears and creates additional friction. 

2X and 3X gearing gives you more gears and a wider gear range and more gears. There are also smaller steps between gears. These drivetrains are also more efficient because the chain line stays straighter. 

These days, all of the major bicycle drivetrain manufacturers offer gravel-specific groupsets. Shimano’s gravel range is called GRX. Sram’s gravel range is called XPLR. Campagnolo’s gravel range is the Ekar. Many gravel bikes come with one of these gravel-specific groupsets. Sometimes some mountain bike components are mixed in as well. 

A touring bike

Most touring bikes use a mix of road and mountain bike drivetrain components. For example, the crankset, rear derailleur, and cassette may be mountain bike components. Shimano Alivio is a common choice for these components. The front derailleur and shifters may be road bike components. Shimano Sora is a common choice for these components. 

Touring bike drivetrains are optimized for durability and longevity. Most models come with mid-range components that are tried and true. Having the newest or lightest weight drivetrain isn’t important. 

Touring bikes also usually have more universal drivetrain components that use older designs. This improves parts availability while traveling through remote regions and developing countries. For example, most modern touring bikes use 9 or 10 speed components. These are more common than 11 and 12 speed components. If your 9 speed cassette wears out while you’re touring through a rural town, there is a good chance you can find a replacement at the nearest bike shop. 

If you’re not happy with your bike’s gearing, you can easily customize it to better suit your needs. A range of chainring and cassette options are available for every groupset. If you want to lower your gearing, you can install a cassette with a larger cog or a smaller chainring. If you want higher gearing, you can install a cassette with a smaller cog or a larger chainring. 

Oftentimes you can mix and match gravel and mountain bike components. For example, Sram allows you to install a 10-50t wide range mountain bike cassette on their gravel groupset. This setup is called a ‘mullet.’ The extra low gear may be useful if you need to climb steep hills, ride technical terrain, or if you plan to load your gravel bike up with heavy bikepacking bags. 

Some gravel bikes and touring bikes use internal gear hubs instead of derailleurs. These offer a number of benefits including reducing drivetrain maintenance. Some models also come with belt drives to further reduce maintenance.

Terrain and Purpose

The main purpose of a gravel bike is to ride on rough surfaces, such as gravel and dirt roads. Gravel bikes also handle pavement pretty well. They can also handle some more technical mountain bike trails, depending on your level of skill. Gravel bikes are very versatile. 

With a gravel bike, you can plan multi-terrain adventures. You can link together different routes with varying road textures. For example, you could start out from your home riding on pavement and then explore the rural unpaved roads on the edge of your city. You could link together your favorite unpaved paths and gravel roads with some pavement sections in between. You could also challenge yourself with some gentle mountain bike trails. Ride to and from the trails on paved roads. With a gravel bike, you can explore. 

Gravel bikes are also great for lightweight touring and bikepacking. You can load some ultralight camping gear into a frame bag, handlebar bag, and seat pack and have a bikepacking adventure. Most models also have mountain points for racks and panniers. Gravel bikes are ideal for short tours such as overnighters, weekend trips, and even weeklong excursions. They are not ideal for longer trips because they are not designed to carry as heavy of loads as touring bikes. 

Two cyclists gravel riding
Perfect terrain for a gravel bike

The purpose of touring bikes is to travel long distances while carrying a heavy load of gear. You can load your touring bike up with racks and panniers and 50kg of gear and travel for weeks, months, or years on end. You can ride a touring bike across continents. Touring bikes are ideal for long-distance travel due to their robust build, comfort, and stable ride characteristics. 

Touring bikes are made to be ridden on paved roads. Modern touring bikes tend to have wider tires than traditional touring bikes from the past. The wider tires allow you to tour some unpaved sections of road. Some touring bikes can even handle gentle singletrack trails, if you’re careful. 

A gravel bike or touring bike can also make a great commuter bike, urban bike, or utility bike. You could ride either of these bikes to work or school. If you install some studded tires, you could ride your gravel bike or touring bike during the winter. These bikes handle pothole filled city streets very well. You could also install a pannier and use your gravel bike or touring bike as a grocery-getter. 

Weight

Gravel bikes are lighter than touring bikes. A gravel bike weighs 18-26 lbs (around 8-12 kg). To compare, a touring bike usually weighs 26-33 lbs (12-15 kg). On average, a gravel bike is around 3-5 lbs lighter than a comparable touring bike. 

Touring bikes are heavier because they are designed to handle a heavy load. They are built with beefy steel frames and strong 36 spoke wheels. Gravel bikes often have much lighter aluminum or carbon frames. Many touring bikes also come with racks, which add a considerable amount of weight. 

Two bicycle tourists

Lighter-weight gravel bikes are more efficient to ride. It takes less energy to move a lighter bike around. The lighter weight also makes the bike faster. You can accelerate or turn quicker while carrying less weight. Touring bikes are slower and less sporty.  

Handlebars

Most gravel bikes and touring bikes come with drop handlebars. Gravel bikes and touring bikes use slightly different types of drop bars. Touring bikes usually come with standard drop bars, like you would find on a road bike. Gravel bikes usually come with flared drop bars.

Flared drop bars have the same general shape as traditional drop bars. The difference is that the drop section is bent out to the sides at the ends of the bars. Most models are flared 6-20°. This makes flared drop bars wider than standard drop bars. 

Most gravel drop bars measure 460-520mm wide. To compare, standard road drop bars usually measure 400-440mm wide. Gravel drop bars also have a shorter drop than standard drop bars. For more info on flared drop bars, check out this great guide.

Flat bar versions of both gravel and touring bikes are also available. Flat bars are simply a flat tube. They are wider than drop bars. Most measure 580-600mm wide. Riser bars are also common on both types of bikes. Riser bars are flat bars that curve up a couple of inches from the stem. This lifts the bar ends. Riser bars are wider than flat bars. Most measure 685-700mm+ wide. 

Drop bars and flat bars both have their own benefits and drawbacks. For most gravel riders and bicycle tourists, drop bars are the better choice. The main reason is that they offer three distinct hand positions. You can grip drop bars on the brake hoods, on the tops of the bars, and in the drops. Having multiple hand positions allows you to vary your grip while you ride. This greatly improves comfort. 

Drop bars also allow you to adjust your riding position. You can grip the brake hoods or the tops of the bars for a comfortable upright ride position. You can grip the drops for a more aerodynamic ride position. This is helpful while sprinting, descending hills, and riding into headwinds. Wider flared gravel drops give you more leverage for turning the wheel quickly and precisely. This is helpful while riding off-road. 

Drop bars on a bike
Bicycle Touring

There are some drawbacks to drop bars. Sometimes you have to move your hands to shift or brake. Drop bars also don’t give you as much leverage as flat bars. There also isn’t as much space for mounting accessories. 

Flat bars are much wider. They give you more leverage for steering. This allows you to turn more quickly and precisely. It’s also easier to keep the bike balanced at low speeds. Flat bars also place you in a comfortable upright position with your arms spread wide. 

The drawback to flat bars is that they offer one grip position. During a long day of riding, your hands tire out and become numb because you can’t vary your grip. The upright ride position also offers poor aerodynamics. This reduces efficiency. 

For more info, check out my guides to flat bars Vs drop bars.

Some touring bikes use trekking bars (also called butterfly bars or touring bars). These look kind of like a figure 8 mounted horizontally. They are designed to give you a wide range of hand positions to keep you comfortable on long distance rides. They use the same shifters and brake levers as flat bars. Trekking bars are popular on European touring bikes. 

For more handlebar options, check out my guide: 17 different types of bike handlebars. Also, check out my guide to handlebar grips. 

Accessory Mounts

Touring bikes have more mounting points for luggage and accessories than gravel bikes. There are mounting points on the frame and fork for front and rear racks. Touring bikes also have mounting points for mudguards. Some models have a mounting point for a dynamo-powered headlight. You might also find a mounting point on the frame for spare spokes and a pump. There are also multiple water bottle mounts. Most touring bikes have 3. 

A touring bike parked on the side of the road
Touring bikes have plenty of mounting points for luggage and accessories

Gravel bikes also usually have some luggage and accessory mounts. Just not as many as touring bikes. Most models have mounts for racks and panniers. Some don’t. You’ll usually find some gravel bike specific mounts. For example, many models have a top tube mount for a small accessory bag. Some gravel bikes also have multiple mounting points on the forks for small racks or extra water bottles. Of course, you’ll also find one or two water bottle mounts. 

Some frames have fewer accessory mounts than others. Carbon fiber frames tend to have the fewest mounts. This is because carbon fiber is fairly brittle. It can’t handle the weight of heavy racks and panniers. Steel frames usually have the most mounts. 

You can also mount accessories to the handlebars. For example, you can mount a cycling computer, your phone, a GPS, a bell, or a handlebar bag. Generally, drop bars don’t offer as much space for mounting gear as flat bars. 

Many gravel cyclists use bikepacking bags rather than panniers for hauling gear. These bags don’t require any mounting points. They attach to the bike with hook and loop and straps. They offer better weight distribution than panniers. This helps with off-road riding. If you need to haul a lot of heavy gear, you can also use a cargo trailer. Both gravel bikes and touring bikes are capable of pulling a trailer. 

Brakes

These days, pretty much all gravel bikes and touring bikes come with disc brakes. Rim brakes are becoming pretty rare. 

For touring and gravel riding, disc brakes are preferred over rim brakes. There are several reasons for this. First, disc brakes offer more stopping power. This is helpful while descending a steep hill with a fully loaded touring bike. It takes a lot of braking power to stop a fully loaded touring bike. This is helpful while gravel riding on dirt roads. Disc brakes also perform better in wet weather conditions. If your rim gets muddy or sandy, you can still stop reliably. The braking surface (the rotor) also stays cleaner because it’s raised up off the ground, away from dirt and grime. For more info, check out my guide to disc brakes Vs rim brakes. 

There are two types of disc brakes: hydraulic and mechanical. Most touring bikes and lower-end gravel bikes come with mechanical disc brakes. Mid-range and Higher-end gravel bikes come with hydraulic disc brakes. Hydraulic disc brakes use fluid to transmit braking force from the levers to the calipers. Mechanical disc brakes use cables, like rim brakes. Both systems have benefits and drawbacks. The best brake choice depends on where you ride. 

Hydraulic disc brakes on a bike

Hydraulic disc brakes offer more stopping power because the hydraulic system gives a greater mechanical advantage. They are also easier to actuate and modulate. You can brake precisely with hydraulic brakes. Hydraulic disc brakes are ideal for riding more technical terrain. 

The main drawback is that hydraulic disc brakes are a bit harder to maintain. They need to be bled every couple of years. They are also harder to repair. If a hydraulic brake line gets severed, you can’t easily fix it. This can be an issue when you’re touring through the middle of nowhere. 

For touring and long-distance gravel riding, mechanical disc brakes are preferred. This is mostly because they are easier to maintain and repair. They can be repaired on the side of the road. You’re less likely to get stranded as a result. This is important while touring through remote areas. Mechanical disc brakes do require a bit more frequent adjustment. For more info, check out my guide to hydraulic vs mechanical disc brakes. 

Some expedition touring bikes still come with rim brakes. Rim brakes can be preferable if you plan to ride through remote regions of the world because parts are easier to come by. Parts availability is excellent all over the world. You can find brake pads for rim brakes at any bike shop. Even in small villages. Calipers and levers for rim brakes are also easy to come by in every part of the world.

In some parts of the world, disc brakes are uncommon. Disc brake pads and replacement components can be hard to come by. If you bend a rotor or tear a hydraulic cable, you may have trouble finding a replacement. 

Suspension

Touring bikes and gravel bikes usually don’t have suspension. They have rigid frames and forks. Some gravel bikes come with a suspension fork. These are pretty rare. 

If a gravel bike does have a suspension fork, it will be short travel. Most suspension forks designed for gravel bikes have 20-40mm of travel compared to 100mm+ of travel on mountain bikes. 

If you want suspension on your gravel bike, it is also possible to install an aftermarket suspension fork. A handful of companies offer gravel-specific suspension forks with low travel. Some examples include the FOX AX fork, Lauf Grit fork, MRP Baxter fork, and RockShox Rudy. For more info, check out my guide to air Vs coil forks.

Touring bikes don’t need suspension because they are ridden mostly on smooth pavement. Gravel bikes usually don’t need suspension but can sometimes benefit. On smooth gravel roads, the wide tires do a good job of absorbing most vibrations. On rougher mountain bike terrain, the ride can feel a bit harsh and handling can suffer without suspension. If you plan to ride your gravel bike on more technical terrain, a suspension fork can improve comfort and handling. 

The benefit of not having any suspension on a touring or gravel bike is that it improves efficiency. A rigid frame efficiently transmits power from the pedals to the rear wheel. No energy is lost compressing and decompressing the suspension unnecessarily. This allows you to ride further and faster. Not having suspension also reduces maintenance. 

Versatility

Gravel bikes are extremely versatile. With a gravel bike, you can ride both on-road and off-road. Gravel bikes can handle dirt and gravel roads, pavement, and even some light single track and mountain bike trails. You can load a gravel bike up with bikepacking bags or racks and panniers and do some light touring. Gravel bikes also make great commuter bikes. They can be ridden year-round. They also make excellent recreational bikes. You can ride a gravel bike through your neighborhood, on bike paths, and along boardwalks. You can also use a gravel bike for training and exercise. They can even be used for racing. Gravel events are becoming increasingly popular. These are truly do-it-all bikes. 

Gravel bikes are also compatible with a wide range of components. If you want to make your bike more road-oriented, you can install skinnier tires and make the gearing higher. If you want to make your gravel bike more off-road oriented, you can install wider tires with more aggressive tread, lower the gearing, install a suspension fork, and switch to flat handlebars. For touring with your gravel bike, you can mount racks and panniers. Gravel bikes are incredibly customizable. 

A cyclist riding a gravel bike

Touring bikes are also incredibly versatile. They can handle heavy loads and long distances. Touring bikes also make excellent commuters due to their durability. They also make great utility bikes. You can load your touring bike up with a couple of panniers and go grocery shopping. You can also mount a child seat on the rear rack and carry your kids around. Touring bikes also work well for road riding. They are also good for exercise and training. If you only have the space or money for one bike, a touring bike is a great option. 

Touring bikes are probably slightly less versatile than gravel bikes because they are less capable off-road. They also are not suitable for any type of racing. Touring bikes are also a bit less customizable. 

It’s also important to note that the ride quality of touring bikes can feel a bit harsh when the bike isn’t loaded with gear. This is because touring frames are built to be extra stiff so they can handle the extra weight of your gear. When unloaded, the frame is overly stiff. You can overcome this stiffness by installing wider tires or a suspension seat post. 

Durability and Longevity

Touring bikes are optimized for durability. Most models feature a heavy-duty steel frame. The wheels usually have a high spoke count to improve strength. Most touring wheels have 36 spokes rather than the standard 32. The wheels are made from aluminum alloy and are double or triple wall. The hubs are well sealed to reduce the likelihood of contamination. These days, many touring bikes come with tubeless tires and rims. These greatly reduce the number of flats. Tough drivetrain components are also selected. Most models come with mid-range components that are tried and true rather than the newest and lightest drivetrain technology. 

A quality touring bike will last for decades. It can handle tens of thousands of miles of use and abuse. Touring bikes are some of the most durable and longest lasting bikes available. If you plan to keep your bike for a lifetime, a touring bike is a great choice.  

Gravel bikes are not quite as durable. They are designed to be lighter and faster. They have lighter frames and less robust wheels. The drivetrain components tend to be lighter weight more modern as well. Many gravel bikes use a newer gravel-specific groupset. 

These parts are all very durable. They are just a bit less durable than touring components. A gravel bike probably won’t last quite as long as a heavy-duty touring bike. For most riders, this doesn’t matter. Most riders replace their bike well before it wears out. Durability is rarely an issue on gravel bikes. 

Technology

Gravel riding is one of the newer and more popular categories of cycling. There are new gravel components and frames coming out every year. Gravel bikes use the most modern equipment in cycling including electronic shifting, 1X gearing, carbon fiber frames, hydraulic disc brakes, thru axles, etc. If you enjoy using the newest cycling technologies, a gravel bike may be a good choice for you.

Touring bikes tend to use older designs. The frame geometry is similar to that of a vintage mountain bike. Touring bikes usually come with older and lower-tech components as well. For example, many touring bikes use 3x drivetrains, rim brakes, 26” wheels, and quick release axles. Many cyclists consider these components to be obsolete. These components are used because they are commonly available. Touring bikes are durable and reliable but heavy and slow. They can also feel somewhat outdated. 

A cyclist with a fully loaded touring bike

Are Gravel Bikes Good for Touring?

Yes. Many gravel bikes are built with long-distance off-road touring in mind. These are often marketed as adventure bikes or bikepacking bikes. A gravel bike is an excellent choice for mixed-terrain touring or bikepacking. They can also make great lightweight road touring bikes. 

If you plan to use your gravel bike for touring as well as gravel riding, look for a model with chainstays that are around 430-450mm long. The longer chainstays improve the ride quality and allow you to mount panniers without your heels rubbing. 

Also, look for a bike with a stack-to-reach ratio of over 1.5. Stack is the vertical distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the top of the head tube. Reach is the vertical distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the top of the head tube. Bikes with a higher stack/reach ratio offer a more upright ride position that is more comfortable on long days in the saddle. The ride position on some gravel bikes is a bit too aggressive for touring. 

Also, make sure the bike has all of the necessary attachment points for your gear and accessories. Look for braze-ons for racks, fenders, and water bottles. You don’t need to mount racks and panniers to tour with a gravel bike. You could use bikepacking bags instead. It is nice to have the option. 

It’s also a good idea to consider the durability of the bike as well. Look for a model with strong wheels, a steel frame, and reliable drivetrain components. For touring, reliability is more important than performance. You don’t want to get stranded. 

Not all gravel bikes are ideal for touring. Some are much closer to cyclocross bikes or road bikes in their design. These models are optimized for speed and aerodynamics. They are less comfortable and reliable while riding long distances. Some gravel bikes lack the necessary attachment points for touring accessories such as racks and fenders. 

Some gravel bikes are not suited for carrying heavy loads of gear. This could be due to the geometry. A heavy load reduces handling performance on some frames. Some bikes also can’t handle heavy loads due to the frame material. For example, carbon fiber frames can’t handle as much weight as steel or aluminum. 

A gravel bike can be an excellent choice for shorter-distance and lightweight tours. They may not be the best choice for long expedition-style tours because they are a bit less robust than purpose-built touring bikes. You certainly can tour with a gravel bike. 

A cyclist riding down a gravel path

Can you Ride a Touring Bike on Gravel?

Yes. Touring bikes are designed to be ridden on the occasional unpaved surface. If you encounter a gravel or dirt road during your tour, you don’t have to turn around. Touring bikes have strong wheels and sturdy frames that can hold up under the stress of riding on unpaved surfaces. Wider touring tires that measure at least 32mm offer enough grip to safely ride on gravel. The ride may not be the most comfortable, but the bike can handle it.  

If you plan to regularly ride gravel roads with your touring bike, try to choose a model with clearance for wide tires. Some touring bikes can accommodate tires that measure 38-45mm. Touring bikes with smaller 26” or 650B wheels can usually accommodate wider tires. Sometimes up to 50mm. Wide touring tires offer plenty of traction while riding on loose surfaces, such as gravel. They also absorb some bumps and vibrations to improve comfort. 

If you plan to ride mostly on pavement but still want to have the capability of riding the occasional gravel or dirt road, a touring bike is an excellent option. The bike won’t perform as well as a gravel bike on unpaved surfaces but it will get you where you need to go. Even while you’re carrying heavy racks and panniers. 

Who Should Ride a Gravel Bike?

Gravel bikes are ideal for those who want to ride mixed terrain. They can be ridden on a wide range of surfaces including gravel and dirt roads, pavement, and even some singletrack mountain bike trails. These bikes are specifically designed to handle rough surfaces with ease, thanks to their wider tires, sturdy frames, and relaxed geometry. Gravel bikes offer a smoother and more stable ride on uneven terrain compared to traditional road bikes.

Gravel bikes also work well for bikepacking and light touring. They can handle multi-day rides loaded with touring gear. Most models come with mounts for racks, fenders, and extra water bottles.

A gravel bike can also make a great do-it-all bike for those who want to use the same bike for multiple purposes. You could use your gravel bike for commuting during the week and trail riding on the weekends. You can also use the same bike for exercise and grocery shopping. If you can only afford one bike, a gravel bike is a great choice. They are extremely versatile bikes. 

Off-road enthusiasts may enjoy riding a gravel bike. If you love exploring unpaved roads, dirt trails, and rocky terrains, a gravel bike is the perfect choice for you. These bikes are specifically designed to handle rough surfaces with ease, thanks to their wider tires, sturdy frames, and relaxed geometry. Gravel bikes offer a smooth and stable ride on uneven terrain.

Cyclists who are seeking variety may also consider a gravel bike. If you’re bored of riding the same routes and want to expand your horizons, a gravel bike can open up a whole new world of possibilities. With the ability to tackle a wide range of terrains, you can diversify your rides and explore roads less traveled.

A gravel bike can also be a good choice if you want to get into racing. The sport is quickly increasing in popularity. 

Who Should Ride a Touring Bike?

Touring bikes are ideal for anyone who wants to ride long distances Touring bikes are specifically engineered for comfort and stability during long rides. They feature a more relaxed frame geometry, drop handlebars, and wider tires to ensure a smooth ride on various surfaces.

Of course, touring bikes are also ideal for bicycle tourists. If you plan to take multi-day or multi-week cycling trips and explore new regions and cultures along the way, a touring bike is the perfect choice. These bikes are designed for carrying heavy loads. They offer mounting points for racks and panniers, ensuring you have ample space for your gear and supplies. This is the type of riding touring bikes are built for. You can load your touring bike up with 100lbs of gear with racks and panniers and ride across a continent

Touring bikes also make great commuter bikes and utility bikes due to their durability. If your daily commute involves carrying substantial cargo, such as groceries or work equipment, a touring bike’s ability to support additional weight makes it a practical choice. With numerous options for attaching racks and bags, you can easily customize your bike to suit your needs.

Those who are looking for a simple and dependable bike should also consider a touring bike. Touring bikes are built to withstand the rigors of long-distance travel. They feature durable components, robust frames, and reliable braking systems. If you prioritize dependability and low-maintenance, a touring bike is an excellent choice. A touring bike last for decades. 

Road riders who prefer a more relaxed and upright riding position may also want to consider riding a touring bike. Check out my guide to choosing a touring bike for more info.

A touring bike with panniers

How to Choose?

Both of these bikes are ideal for exploring your surroundings. Both have their own advantages and disadvantages. The choice between a gravel bike and a touring bike really comes down to the terrain you plan to ride, the distances you plan to ride, how much gear you need to carry, and your personal preference. 

When choosing between a gravel bike and a touring bike, think about the types of roads you want to ride. If you plan to stick mostly to paved roads, a touring bike is the better option. If you want to explore unpaved roads and have the ability to do some off-road riding, a gravel bike is the better option.

Also, consider what you’ll be using the bike for and the distances you plan to ride. If you plan to take a multi-month bicycle tour across Eurasia, a heavy-duty touring bike may be the better choice. If you want to take multi-day or weeklong tours around your home, a lightweight gravel bike might be ideal. For commuting and riding around town, either will do. 

It’s also important to think about how much gear you need to carry on your bike. If all of your camping equipment is ultralight and fits in a set of bikepacking bags, you might be better off riding a lightweight gravel bike. If you need to pack a heavy load with months’ worth of all-weather gear and days’ worth of food and water, a touring bike may be the better choice due to the larger carrying capacity. 

Also, think about your future plans. If you want to get into off-road racing, a gravel bike is the only choice. If you dream of traveling long-term on your bike, a touring bike may be the better option. 

My Experience

For my style of riding, a gravel bike is the best choice. I love being able to explore unpaved roads and trails. I get tired of riding the same routes all the time. While riding around town, I also appreciate the efficiency of drop bars and relatively narrow tires. I can use my bike for transportation and recreational riding. Once in a while, I will load it up with some bikepacking bags and take a short tour. I don’t really take extended tours these days. I do enjoy taking some camping trips near home. 

If I were to plan a multi-month-long tour through a remote region, I would buy a dedicated touring bike for the job. I wouldn’t want to take my gravel bike anywhere too remote. Some of the components may be a bit hard to find in the developing world. 

Two touring bikes leaned up against a pole

Final Thoughts

Gravel and touring bikes are designed for riding different types of surfaces. Gravel bikes are made for riding mostly on unpaved roads including dirt roads, gravel roads, and forestry roads. Touring bikes are made for riding mostly on paved roads with the occasional unpaved road.  

Both bikes are also made for adventures. Gravel bikes are ideal for adventure riding and lightweight bikepacking. Touring bikes are made for fully-loaded, long-distance touring. Whichever type of bike you choose, I hope this guide has helped you in making your decision. 

Do you ride a gravel bike or a touring bike? Share your experience in the comments below!

More from Where The Road Forks

Sharing is caring!

Federico

Saturday 16th of September 2023

That was an amazing article, helped me a lot in understanding the difference between Gravel and Touring, since I want to buy one but since now I've only had an old Bianchi MTB.

I'm not very experienced, but I think I'll look for a touring... the most comfortable position thing and the fact that I alone weight more than 90kg, plus the fact that I mostly want to go on concrete roads made my choose that.

Cheers from Italy

wheretheroadforks

Saturday 23rd of September 2023

Thanks for reading. Yeah, if you mostly stick to the roads, a touring bike is a great choice.

Disclosure: Please note that some of the links in this post are affiliate links, including links from the Amazon Serivices LLC Associates Program. At no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you make a purchase through these links. I only recommend products and services that I use and know. Thank you for reading!