How to Choose a Touring Bike

by wheretheroadforks

Adventurers have ridden around the world on everything from penny farthings to folding bikes to unicycles. Pretty much any bike can tour. Having said that, some bikes are better suited for long-distance fully loaded riding than others. This guide outlines the different features and components available to help you choose a touring bike. Hopefully, it helps you pick the best bike for whether you’re buying a new bike, upgrading your current bike, or building a bike.

What Type of Tour are you Planning? Considerations When Choosing a Bike

Before making any decisions, you want to consider how you’ll be using the bike. These choices will help you determine the features and types of components to look for when choosing a touring bike.

  • The type of terrain you plan to tour on- Do you plan to tour on-road or off-road? If you plan to stay on the pavement, a more road-oriented bike with skinny tires and drop bars may be a better choice. If you plan to spend your time riding trails and dirt roads, you may be better off with a more off-road oriented bike with wide tires and wide handlebars, like a mountain bike.
  • Your touring destination- If you’re touring in developed countries like the US, Western Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, or South Korea, you can use any components you wish because replacement parts are readily available. This means you can use modern, high-end gear like hydraulic disc brakes, 700c wheels, and a carbon frame. If you’re touring in the developing world, spare parts can be hard to come by. You’ll want to choose a bike that uses standard sized, low tech parts that are durable, easy to find, and easy to repair and maintain. Examples include 26 inch wheels, rim brakes, and a steel frame.
  • Your budget– Most of us are limited by a budget. Used touring bikes that are in decent condition run around $200-$1000. Entry-level touring bikes run around $800-$1200. Mid-range options run $1400-$2000. High end touring bikes start at around $4000 and the sky is the limit from there.
  • How long you plan to tour- If you’re going on a 5 year round the world expedition, you’ll want the most durable and reliable touring bike that you can get. If you’re just riding a couple of hundred miles, you may wish to optimize your bike for weight and speed. You could also get away with a used or low-end bike.
  • How much gear you need to carry- Are you an ultralight tourist or do you prefer to tour fully loaded? If you eat in restaurants and stay in hotels every night and don’t need camping gear, you can get away with a lightweight frame and small panniers. If you tour fully loaded with camping gear and 10 days worth of food, you’ll need a heavy-duty frame, racks, and wheels that can handle the weight.
  • Comfort- Because you spend so many hours in the saddle while touring, you need the bike to be comfortable. Touring bikes generally have a more relaxed geometry that allows you to sit more upright. Other factors that determine comfort include your saddle, handlebar type, grip type, and tires.
  • Touring speed- Do you care about how many miles you cover per day? If so, you may wish to optimize for weight and efficiency. Lightweight carbon framed bikes with aerodynamic handlebars can greatly increase your average speed. This comes at an added cost. Heavier components slow you down but are often more reliable.
  • Your body type- You may need to take your height and weight into consideration. For example, if you’re on the heavier side, you may need a touring bike with a strong frame and wheels that can handle the weight. If you’re particularly short, you may find smaller wheels more comfortable.

Types of Touring Bikes

Touring bikes come in a wide range of designs. They all include strong frames and wheels that are designed for carrying a load. Frames offer plenty of mounting points for racks, water bottle cages, and accessories. Touring bikes can be separated into three categories depending on the type of terrain they are designed for. 

Road Touring Bikes

road touring bike

A bike set up for road touring

At first glance, these look just like standard road bikes. They have the same general frame shape and typically use drop bars. There are a few key differences. The frame usually has a geometry that allows for a more relaxed upright riding position and increased stability. There are braze-ons for attaching racks and panniers. Most road touring bikes include strong 700c 36 spoke wheels with tires that are slightly wider than traditional road tires. These allow you to handle the occasional dirt road when necessary. Road touring bikes are an excellent choice if you plan to mostly stick to the pavement.

Off-Road Touring Bikes (Bikepacking or Adventure Bikes)

an off road touring bike

A bike set up for off-road touring or bikepacking

These bikes are designed for touring on rough terrain and off-road. They closely resemble mountain bikes with a few differences. Off-road touring bikes usually do not have suspension. The frame and fork are rigid. They include wide or knobby tires that allow you to ride dirt and gravel roads and trails. The wheels are usually 650b or 29er. Off-road touring bikes are an excellent choice if you plan to spend most of your tour off the pavement.

Expedition Touring Bikes

These bikes are designed for hardcore, extremely long-distance rides through remote regions. This is the type of bike you would ride from Cairo to Cape Town or from Alaska to Argentina. Expedition touring bikes use durable, long-lasting, and standard sized components such as steel frames, 26 inch wheels, and rim brakes. These parts are common and relatively easy to find all over the world. Expedition touring bikes can be built for predominantly on-road use, off-road use, or somewhere in between.

 

Touring Bike Frames

Touring bike frames need to be comfortable and made from durable materials that can handle high mileage and heavy loads. They also need to fit the components that you plan to use. This section outlines touring bike frame geometry and materials as well as component and accessory compatibility. 

Soma Double Cross frame with 700c wheels and drop bars

Image: “Loaded Touring Bicycle”, by Keithonearth, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Frame Geometry for Touring Bikes

Most touring frames have a geometry that puts the rider in a more upright riding position than standard road bikes. This is achieved by placing the handlebars higher in relation to the seat. Sitting upright puts less stress on your back and wrists. It also allows for more efficient diaphragm breathing. Your neck also sits in a more neutral position.

Having a long wheelbase is also preferable for touring because it improves the bike’s stability. The wheelbase is the distance between the front and rear hubs. Having a long wheelbase makes the steering a bit less sensitive. This allows you to sit back, pedal, and enjoy the view without having to constantly correct your steering.

Many touring bikes also have long chainstays. The chainstays are the bars that run from the bottom bracket to the rear dropout. Long chainstays allow you to use large rear panniers without having to worry about your heels hitting them while you pedal. This feature is particularly important for taller riders.

Frame Material for Touring Bikes

Steel is the most common frame material for a number of reasons. First, steel offers excellent ride quality because it isn’t completely rigid. The material flexes a bit which allows it to dampen vibrations and shocks. This makes for a smoother ride. Steel also incredibly strong and durable. A steel frame can handle tens of thousands of miles without fatiguing and cracking. If the frame does break, it’s easy to find a steel welder to repair it pretty much anywhere on earth.

The main drawback to steel is that it is inefficient. Steel is heavy. Heavy steel frames take more energy to accelerate and maintain speed. Steel also flexes. When the frame flexes you waste energy that could be used to drive you forward. The reduced efficiency causes you to ride at a slower average speed. Steel can also rust which can ruin the frame if left untreated.

a bike frame at the bottom bracket

A lugged steel frame

Aluminum framed touring bikes are also popular these days. The main advantage aluminum has over steel is the weight. Aluminum is lighter because it has a lower density. A lighter bike is more efficient and faster. Aluminum is also more rigid than steel. This also helps to increase efficiency. Steel is the cheapest frame material.

The main drawback to aluminum is that it tends to fatigue more quickly than steel because the material is harder and more rigid. The frame probably won’t last quite as long. The rigid material is also less comfortable because it doesn’t absorb vibrations as well as steel. Another drawback is repairability. Aluminum isn’t easy to weld so you may have trouble finding someone who can repair it if your frame cracks.

Higher-end frame materials include titanium and carbon fiber. Titanium is expensive but incredibly strong and durable. Carbon fiber frames are not recommended for bicycle touring because most cannot accept racks for mounting panniers. They are also less durable than metal frames. 

For more info, check out my guide: Steel Vs Aluminum Bike Frames.

Bike Frames and Component Compatibility

Regardless of your frame material and geometry, you need to consider which components you plan to use before committing to a frame. Not all components are compatible. You must decide on:

  • Disc or rim brakes- The frame needs the proper mounting points for the brakes that you prefer. I’ll talk more about brake options later on.
  • Internal gear hub or derailleur- Pretty much all frames are compatible with derailleurs. If you plan to run an internal gear hub, make sure the frame has the proper mounting points for the chain tensioner.
  • Wheel size- Frames are designed to work with one specific wheel size. If you fit a different wheel size, your bottom bracket could be too low or too high. There are exceptions to this. Some frames can work with multiple wheel sizes.
  • Tire width- Your frame determines the maximum tire width that you can install. If you plan to do a significant amount of off-road riding, make sure your frame can at least accommodate a tire that is 2.5 inches wide.
  • Thru-axles or quick release- Thru-axle frames use different dropouts than quick release. For more info, check out my thru axle vs quick release pros and cons list.

Braze-Ons (Bosses or Rack Mounts)

Braze-ons are threaded fittings that are welded onto the frame. They allow you to mount racks, water bottle cages, fenders, and other accessories. At a minimum, you’ll want braze-ons on the sides of the fork and seat stays. These allow you to mount racks and panniers. You’ll also want braze-ons inside of the triangle for mounting water bottle cages.

Some touring bikes include a multitude of braze-ons all over the frame and fork for mounting additional water bottle cages, pumps, fork cages, and more. For touring, the more braze-ons the better. They just give you more options in terms of the types of luggage and accessories you can mount.

 

Wheel Size for Touring Bicycles

700c wheel

A 700c wheel

When it comes to wheel size, you have three main choices for touring. Listed in order of smallest to largest, they include:

  • 26 inch (ISO: 559mm)- This is the classic mountain bike wheel size. 26 inch is the most common bicycle wheel size found around the world. These are common on expedition touring bikes because spare tires, tubes, and rims are easier to find in remote regions.
  • 27.5 or 650b (ISO: 584mm)- Both of these have the same diameter. The name depends on your region. This size is increasing in popularity among bicycle tourists and bikpackers. It’s a nice mid-size between 26 inch and 29er wheels.
  • 700c and 29er (ISO: 622mm)- These both have the same rim diameter. The difference is that 700c refers to road bike wheels while 29er usually refers to mountain bike wheels. 700c rims are more narrow. 29er rims are wider so they can accommodate wider off-road tires.

The best wheel size comes down to whether you’re touring off-road or on-road and where in the world you plan to tour. Generally, if you’re touring in the developed world on road, 700c is the best choice. If you’re touring through remote regions or the developing world, 26 inch is the better choice. 

In the following section, I’ll outline 700c, 26 inch, and 650b wheels. I also made this video which contains much of the same info. 

 700c (and 29er) Wheels

700c is the best and most common wheel size for road touring. 700c wheels offer a comfortable ride. They easily roll over obstacles like potholes and stones due to the large diameter. They are also more efficient because larger wheels have less rolling resistance. 700c wheels also offer the most options in terms of tires, rims, and frames because it is the most popular size tese days. In the developed world, parts availability is excellent.

One drawback to 700c wheels is that they are structurally weaker than smaller 26 inch wheels. The spokes are longer due to the larger diameter. This means you’re more likely to suffer broken spokes. The wheels can’t handle quite as heavy of loads either. Parts availability is not as good in the developing world. You may have trouble getting a new tire or rim in remote regions. 

29er wheels have the same benefits and drawbacks as 700c. The difference is that they are designed to fit wider tires for off-road use. These wheels are great for riding on rough terrain because they easily roll over rocks, branches, and other obstacles due to the large diameter.

26 Inch Wheels

26 inch wheels are preferable while touring through remote regions because parts are much more widely available. If you destroy a wheel, you’ll probably be able to find a new rim or spokes. Even in undeveloped areas. Tires and tubes are easier to come by as well. 26 inch wheels are also structurally stronger than 700c wheels because the spokes are shorter. This means they can handle more weight and take a bigger beating without breaking.

The main drawback to 26 inch wheels is that they ride a bit rougher due to the smaller diameter. They don’t glide over obstacles. You’ll also have fewer options in terms of tires and frames because this size has fallen out of favor in the developed world. Manufacturers are mostly focusing on larger wheel sizes these days.

650b (27.5 Inch) Wheels

650b wheels fall somewhere in between 26” and 700c in terms of strength and performance. For some riders, 700c is too large but they still want the benefits of a larger wheel. In this case, 650b is an excellent compromise. Some riders find that 650b wheels perform better off-road than the other sizes.

The biggest problem with 650b wheels is parts availability. This is probably the least common wheel size around the world. If you’re traveling through Central Asia and you crack a rim, you may have to have a new one shipped in or fly home to buy a replacement.

Wheel Strength and Number of Spokes

With all of the extra weight you carry while touring, wheel strength is almost as important as wheel size. Your wheel strength is determined by the number of spokes, the spoke pattern, the quality of the wheel components, and the build quality.

For touring, 36 spoke wheels are ideal. The extra spokes give your wheels the strength to carry the extra weight of all of your gear. They also allow you to handle rougher terrain. You’ll suffer fewer broken spokes or cracked rims with 36 spoke wheels. At a minimum, your touring bike wheels should have 32 spokes.

A touring bike with 36 spoke wheels

A fully loaded touring bike with 36 spoke wheels

The spoke pattern is also important. Wheels with spokes that cross are stronger. If the spokes cross multiple times, they’re stronger yet. 

The quality of your hubs, rims, and spokes also play a major role in the strength of your wheels. The wheels are one part of your bike that you don’t want to cheap out on. Look for double-wall rims, steel spokes, quality hubs made by major manufacturers. A quality set of wheels can last over 20,000 miles.

You also want to make sure that your wheels are properly built. If the spokes aren’t tensioned properly or if the lace pattern is wrong, you’ll suffer broken spokes. Before setting off on a tour, consider getting your spokes tensioned or check the tension yourself. If you’re buying new wheels, make sure that they were built by a quality wheel builder.

To read my complete analysis on touring bike wheel sizes, check out my guide: 26 inch vs 700c Bicycle Wheels.

 

Touring Bike Drivetrain: Derailleurs and Internal Gear Hubs

This is the most mechanically complex part of a touring bike. The drivetrain transmits power from the pedals to the rear wheel. It also shifts the gears. A bicycle drivetrain consists of cranks, chainring(s), rear cog(s), a chain or belt, and derailleurs or an internal gear hub.

With all of the hundreds or thousands of miles you’ll be pedaling, the drive components need to be reliable and durable. Touring takes its toll on components. You want to choose parts that can stand up to heavy use so you don’t have to spend your time making adjustments and replacing worn-out parts. This means avoiding lightweight and high tech components that are designed for racing. You want to choose heavy-duty parts that are tried and true

For touring, you’ll also want a wide gear range with at least one very low gear. The gear range is the difference between the lowest and highest gear. A wide gear range allows you to handle the varied terrain that you encounter while touring.

Low gears, which make pedaling easy, are particularly important for touring. As you can imagine, they come in handy while pedaling your heavy, fully loaded touring bike up a steep mountain pass. For fully loaded touring, 20-100 gear inches is a good range.

When it comes to touring bike drivetrains, you have two options for your gearing: derailleurs or internal gear hubs. Below, I’ll outline both and explain a few of the main benefits and drawbacks.

Derailleur Drivetrains

rear derailleur

Derailleurs are the most common gear shift system for touring. Most touring derailleur drivetrains have a triple crankset and 8-10 speed cassette for a total of 24-30 gears.

These days, some bicycle tourists are moving toward a single chainring and 11-12 speed cassette because no front derailleur is required. This further simplifies the system. 

The main benefit of using derailleurs is simplicity. Derailleur drivetrains are easy to repair and adjust with simple tools that you can carry in your tool kit and some basic bicycle knowledge. Replacement parts are also much easier to find. Even small-town bike shops in remote locations carry derailleurs, cassettes, shifters and cables. If something wears out or breaks, you can usually find replacements and get back on the road. This brings peace of mind. Derailleur drivetrains are also inexpensive, lightweight, and efficient.

There are some drawbacks. Derailleurs require quite a bit of maintenance. In order to keep everything running smoothly, you need to regularly clean and lube the chain, adjust the derailleurs, and replace the cassette and chain when they wear out (usually every 5,000-10,000 miles). Derailleurs can be a bit temperamental. Because the system is open, they can easily get contaminated with sand, dirt, and other debris. In poor weather and dirty conditions, they need frequent cleaning. 

Internal Gear Hubs

Internal gear hubs house the gears and gear change mechanism inside of the rear hub. They change the gear ratio with planetary gears. The best internal gear hubs for touring is the 14 speed Rohloff Speedhub. These are popular for their incredible reliability, longevity, and smooth performance. 

The main benefit internal gear hubs offer over derailleurs is that they are very low maintenance. To keep them running, you just have to change the oil every 5000 km and keep the chain clean and lubed. Because all of the moving parts are sealed away in the hub, they are also durable and long-lasting. Some riders have gotten over 100,000 km out of their hub. Other advantages internal gear hubs offer over derailleurs include the ability to shift while stopped and shift multiple gears at once. You can also use a belt drive which makes the drivetrain virtually maintenance-free.

Of course, there are several drawbacks. The biggest being the cost. An internal gear hub that is suitable for long-distance touring costs as much as a complete touring bike with derailleurs (around $1600). Another issue with internal gear hubs is the fact that they are not easily repairable. In fact, most bike shops won’t touch them outside of doing routine maintenance. If your hub fails, you usually have to ship it to the manufacturer to have it repaired or replaced. Finding replacement parts can prove problematic as well. You need the proper oil and sprockets when the time comes to do maintenance. These aren’t available everywhere. You may need to carry them with you through certain sections of your tour. Internal gear hubs also offer fewer gears and a smaller gear range than most derailleur drivetrains.

To read my complete analysis, check out my guide: Derailleur Vs. Internal Gear Hub.

 

Brakes for Bicycle Touring

As you can imagine, it takes an enormous amount of braking force to stop 300 pounds worth of touring bike, gear, and rider while speeding down a steep mountain pass at 30 miles per hour. Needless to say, you need reliable and powerful brakes for touring.

When it comes to bike brakes, have two choices: rim brakes and disc brakes. Most touring bikes these days come equipped with mechanical disc brakes. These are a great choice for off-road touring, riding in mountainous regions, and riding in poor weather. Rim brakes are ideal for expedition touring through the developing world. Below, I’ll outline the benefits and drawbacks of each touring brake type.

Rim Brakes for Touring

front rim brake

A road-style rim brake

These are classic bike brakes. Rim brakes apply braking force directly to the flat sides of the rims with calipers that mount to the frame and fork. Rim brakes are actuated with steel cables that run from the brake lever to the calipers.

The advantages of rim brakes are that they are cheap and simple to maintain and repair. If something goes wrong, you can tear the whole caliper apart on the side of the road with a few simple tools. You can easily see the pads to observe wear. If you need a new caliper or pads, you can easily buy them anywhere in the world. Rim brake parts are incredibly common. Additionally, rim brakes are easy on forks and wheels because the braking force is transmitted through the rim. They are also lighter than disc brakes.

The main disadvantage of rim brakes is that they offer less stopping power than disc brakes because they provide less mechanical advantage. Rim brakes also don’t work as well in wet or muddy conditions. When the pads and rims get wet, friction is reduced. This increases your stopping distance which can be dangerous. Rim brakes also produce heat in the rim that can cause blowouts if they get too hot. Rim brakes can also limit your max tire width if you’re using wide knobby off-road tires. The rubbing of the pads wears out the rims over time. 

Disc Brakes for Touring

disc brake

Disc brakes apply braking force to rotors that are attached to the hubs. The calipers mount to the fork and chainstay or seatstay, near the axle. When you pull the brake lever, brake pads in the caliper squeeze the rotor to create friction and slow the bike down.

There are two types of disc brakes. Mechanical disc brakes are activated with steel cables, just like rim brakes. Hydraulic disc brakes use fluid-filled lines in a pressurized system to press the brake pads against the rotor.

Hydraulic disc brakes are not recommended for bicycle touring because they can’t be serviced in the field. If the fluid leaks out for whatever reason, you’re stuck. Parts are also hard to come by in much of the world. For more info, check out my hydraulic vs mechanical disc brake guide.

The main benefit disc brakes offer over rim brakes is that they provide more stopping power because they create more mechanical advantage and have a larger stopping surface. This reduces your braking distance and improves safety. Disc brakes also stop more reliably and quickly in wet weather. Additionally, heat buildup is less of an issue with disc brakes because they don’t heat up the rim. Disc brakes also allow you to run wider tires.

The main argument against using disc brakes for touring is that parts are harder to find in some parts of the world. If you bend a rotor or a caliper fails while you’re riding through Central Asia, you may not be able to find a replacement. Disc brake parts are also harder to service because they are more mechanically complex. They are also more expensive and heavier.

 

Tires for Bicycle Touring

knobby bike tire

A knobby bike tire for off-road touring

The tires are one of the most important components. After all, they are the only point of your bike that makes contact with the ground. Tires greatly affect the handling and ride quality of your bike. When it comes to choosing tires for your tour, consider the following:

  • Tire width- The ideal tire width for your touring bike depends on the types of surfaces you intend to ride. Wider tires handle better off-road. They get better traction and absorb shocks and vibrations. Narrow tires are preferable for road touring because they produce less rolling resistance, allowing you to ride faster and more efficiently. For road touring, the minimum size recommended is 28mm. Many bicycle tourists choose to ride 35mm-40mm wide tires because they are wide enough to handle some gravel roads. They also make the ride more comfortable. For bikepacking or off-road touring, most riders prefer 2-3” wide tires.
  • Puncture protection- Some tires are built with a strip of Kevlar or similar durable material inside which reduces the likelihood of punctures. Staples, nails, tacks, and other debris can enter the tire but don’t make it all the way to the tube. Of course, you can still pick up a flat if you hit a large enough piece of debris to puncture the tube. Puncture protection adds weight to the tire but saves you from having to stop and patch your tubes.
  • Durability- This is determined by the material that the tire is made of. Tires made of harder compounds last longer. Tires made of softer materials usually wear more quickly. Generally, harder tires don’t offer as much traction as softer tires. Touring tires, like the Schwalbe Marathon, can last 6,000-12,000 kilometers or more depending on the type of surfaces you’re riding.
  • Tread pattern- The tread pattern plays a role in the tire’s traction. Knobby tires with deep tread maintain traction on loose gravel, mud, and dirt. They are ideal for off-road riding and bikepacking. Slick road tires are more efficient for road riding but can lose traction on loose surfaces. Most bicycle tourists use tires with a simple tread pattern that can provide grip on a variety of surfaces.
  • Tube or tubeless- Some tires are designed to be used without tubes. These use special rims and an internal sealant that makes them airtight so a tube isn’t needed to hold the air inside. The main benefit of tubeless tires is that they patch themselves when they are punctured. They seal puncture with a special sealant that is sprayed in the tire during installation. Some tourers make it 10,000km or more without a single flat while running tubeless. For more info, check out my tube vs tubeless guide.
  • Your frame and brakes- The max tire width that you can use is determined by your frame and rim brakes. If your tires are too wide, they can rub on the fork, chainstays, or seatstays. They may also be too wide for your rim brake arms to reach around them. In this case, the tires will rub. Fenders can also limit your tire width. You’ll need to measure the max clearance before buying wide tires.
  • Folding or non-folding- Some touring tires can fold up, making them easy to carry as a spare. Some tires have a wire bead inside that cannot be folded. When the tires are installed, it doesn’t matter whether or not they can fold. This only matters for spare tires that you’ll be carrying. 
  • Price- High end touring tires are pricey. You can spend up to $100 per tire if you want the best. If you’re on a budget, you can buy low-end tires for $10-$20 per tire.

Touring Tire Recommendation

One of the most popular tires for bicycle touring is the Schwalbe Marathon Plus. These touring tires feature a Kevlar belt for puncture resistance. The Marathon Silica compound is incredibly long-lasting. They come in a wide range of sizes and widths.

 

Handlebars for Bicycle Touring

The handlebars play a major role in the comfort, handling, and efficiency of your bike. After all, they are one of only three points that your body comes into contact with the bike.

Touring bikes usually come with either drop bars or flat bars. Drop bars are traditionally used for road touring while flat bars are usually used for off-road touring and bikepacking.

bike with drop bars

Another popular handlebar option for touring is trekking bars. These are usually installed as an aftermarket part.  Trekking bars work great for mixed-terrain touring and expedition touring.

Each style of handlebars has its own set of benefits and drawbacks. In this section, I’ll outline the three most popular touring bike handlebar options. I’ve also made this short YouTube video comparing drop bars and flat bars. 

Drop Bars

Drop bars offer multiple hand positions. This improves comfort by allowing you to move your hands around so you use a different set of muscles. You can ride longer without your hands going numb or cramping up. Drop bars are also efficient. They achieve this efficiency by allowing you to crouch down into an aerodynamic riding position. This reduces drag. You can ride further using the same amount of energy and maintain a slightly higher average speed. Drop bars also give you more leverage for climbing hills. 

The main drawback is control. The narrow profile of the bars doesn’t give you quite as much leverage to steer quickly or accurately as a wider flat handlebar. For this reason, drop bars aren’t ideal for technical off-road riding. Another drawback is that drop bars offer less space for mounting accessories like a cycling computer, light, GPS, your phone, bags, a bell, etc. Parts are also slightly more expensive and hard to come by in some regions. You may also have to move your hands to a different handlebar position to use the brakes. This can increase your stopping time. 

Flat Bars

a flat bar touring bike

A touring bike with flat bars with bar ends

Due to the wide profile, flat bars offer precise control. This is ideal for technical off-road touring. Flat bars also offer a more upright riding position that many riders find more comfortable. Visibility is better as well because the upright riding position allows you to look ahead instead of toward the ground. Shifters and brake levers for flat are also cheaper. Parts are more widely available in remote regions.

The biggest drawback to flat bars is the lack of hand positions. You really only have one place to hold on. The solution is to install bar ends. Another problem with flat bars is the fact that they reduce efficiency. The upright riding position increases wind resistance. When you’re sitting upright, your chest acts as a sail. This slows you down and takes energy to overcome. You burn more energy while riding flat bars. Climbing hills is also slightly harder because you can’t shift your weight as far forward.

To read my complete handlebar analysis, check out my guide: Drop Bars Vs. Flat Bars.

For even more touring handlebar options, check out my guide: 17 Types of Bicycle Handlebars.

Trekking Bars (Butterfly Bars)

These large, figure 8 shaped handlebars are popular among bicycle tourists due to the endless number of hand positions that they offer. Another benefit of using such large handlebars is that you can easily attach all of your accessories. Trekking bars also offer excellent control and the cockpit feels very roomy with the large and wide bars.

The biggest drawback is the weight. Trekking bars are wide and heavy. The large bars also tend to flex. Some riders find that the shifters and brake levers are too close together which makes the bike feel a bit unstable.

A Note About Handlebar Grips

bike grips

The grips play a major role in the handlebar’s comfort and affect your ability to steer, shift, and brake. Bad grips can cause numbness, blisters, and fatigue. To help you choose the best style for your touring bike, check out my guide to the different types of bike grips. Also, check out my lock-on vs slip-on grip guide for more info. 

 

Pedals for Touring Bikes: Flat and Clipless

Your choice of pedals mostly comes down to personal preference. In fact, many touring bikes don’t even come with pedals because many riders prefer to choose their own. When deciding which pedals to install, you have three choices: flat pedals, clipless pedals, or clips and straps.

Based on the bicycle tourists that I’ve met and my research, it seems that bicycle tourists are pretty evenly split between flat and clipless. If you’re an avid cyclist and you already ride clipless, you’ll probably prefer riding clipless while touring. If you’re more of a traveler than a cyclist, you may prefer riding flat pedals.

To read my complete analysis, check out my guide Flat Pedals Vs. Clipless Pedals. Below, I’ll outline a few of the most important points.

Clipless Pedals

Clipless pedals allow you to attach the bottoms of your shoes to your pedals. The idea is that your foot stays in the ideal position and prevents it from sliding around while riding at a high cadence. The clipless mechanism allows you to easily attach your shoe by stepping on the pedal and detach your shoes by rotating your heel out. A clipless system consists of the pedals, special cycling shoes, and cleats, which bolt to the soles of the shoes.

clipless pedal

A Shimano SPD clipless pedal

clipless shoes with cleats

Clipless shoes with cleats

Clipless pedals offer a few advantages over flat pedals. First, they improve efficiency for some riders by encouraging better pedaling technique. This is helpful if you’re a sloppy pedaler. Next, clipless pedals give you more control. When you’re attached to the bike, you can use your lower body to help maneuver the bike and lift a wheel. You can also pull up on the pedals with clipless. This can help you complete a steep climb by allowing you to use a different set of muscles in your legs. Additionally, clipless pedals reduce knee stress, improve comfort, and allow you to ride at a higher cadence without risking your feet slip off.

The biggest drawback is that it’s easier to injure yourself while riding clipless. This is true for two reasons. First, if you improperly place your cleat, you can cause yourself joint pain or damage. Secondly, if you forget to unclip when coming to a stop, you can just tip over. Another drawback to clipless is the cost. Pedals are more expensive. You also have to buy specialty shoes to ride in. One problem with touring with clipless is that you have to pack a second pair of shoes to wear off the bike. Clipless shoes aren’t very comfortable for walking.

If you’ve never ridden clipless, I’d recommend you give it a try. Most people that I’ve met seem to prefer it once they switch.

Flat Pedals (Platform Pedals)

These are the basic pedals that you grew up riding. They are platforms without any bindings. Flat pedals usually have some kind of nonslip design to prevent your shoes from slipping around. They are made of metal or plastic.

flat pedal

A large flat pedal

Flat pedals are cheap and easy to use. You don’t have to adjust cleats or do anything to set them up. They also don’t require that you wear special shoes. You can wear any athletic shoes or sandals that you already own. This saves space in your panniers because you don’t have to pack a second pair of walking shoes while touring. Flat pedals also make it easier to get on and off the bike. You can just put your foot down.

One drawback is that flat pedals offer less control. It’s harder to lift a wheel over an obstacle or manhandle the bike when you’re not attached. Some bicycle tourists ride slower with flat pedals because they don’t allow you to produce quite as much power. Riding at a high cadence of 80-100 RPM is also harder because your feet tend to slide on the pedal. Your feet can also slip off the pedals while riding on rough or slippery roads. When your feet slide off, you can cut and bruise your shins.

Clips and Straps

Before clipless pedals were invented, there were clips and straps. These attach to flat pedals to create a cage that holds your foot in place on the pedal. The clip is a rigid piece that holds your foot in the proper position. The straps secure your foot with a buckle or Velcro.

Clips and straps offer many of the benefits of clipless pedals without requiring special footwear. They are also cheaper than clipless pedals. Straps also allow you to pull up on the pedal.

The main drawback is that clips and straps are a bit difficult to get in and out of. They can be dangerous if your foot gets stuck or if you overtighten the strap. 

 

Luggage for Bicycle Touring

When it comes to choosing your luggage, you have three options: panniers and racks, bikepacking bags, or a trailer. Which luggage system you choose depends on the terrain you plan to ride on and how much gear you need to carry.

Bikepacking bags are a better choice for riders who plan to spend most of their time riding off-road. They are also an excellent choice for minimalists who don’t carry much gear.

Panniers tend to work better for riders who stay mostly on the pavement. They also work well for those who need to carry a lot of gear, like expedition riders.

Trailers are a less popular option that can be used instead of or in addition to panniers or bikepacking bags. They can accommodate a large amount of gear.

Below, I’ll outline each type of touring luggage and list a few of the major benefits and drawbacks.

To read my complete analyses, check out my guides: Bikepacking Bags Vs Panniers and Panniers Vs Trailers. For some budget tips, check out my budget bicycle touring setup. 

Bikepacking Bags

Bikepacking bags are soft bags that attach directly to your bike’s frame with straps and Velcro. They don’t require metal racks or braze-ons.

bikepacking bags

There are three main bikepacking bags including:

  • Handlebar roll- This is a dry bag that straps to the handlebars. Handlebar rolls accommodate 15-20 liters of gear. Most models have straps where you can lash bulky gear. Some handlebar rolls are a simple harness that you can use with your own dry bag. 
  • Fame bag- This is a triangular bag that fits in your bike frame’s triangle. They attach to the top tube, seat tube, and sometimes downtube with straps. Frame bags are often custom made to maximize space. Most models hold 8-15 liters of gear and close with zippers or buckles. The capacity depends on your frame size.
  • Seat pack- This teardrop-shaped bag attaches to the seat post and saddle rails. Most models work like compression bags. This allows you to compress your clothing and sleeping bag so you can hold more gear. Most seat packs accommodate 8-17 liters. Many models also have straps on the outside where you can lash additional bulky gear like sands or a cooking pot.
  • Additional bags and accessory bags- There are a number of smaller bags that can accommodate an extra 1-5 liters each. Accessory bags include top tube gas tank bags, handlebar-mounted feed bags, handlebar roll bags, and fork-mounted cages. These are a great place for storing small gear and food that wouldn’t fit in your main bags.

a touring bike with bikepacking bags and rear panniers

The main benefit of bikepacking bags is that they are aerodynamic and efficient. The streamlined design causes less air resistance than panniers. This allows you to ride at a slightly faster average speed and use less energy. Bikepacking bags are also about 25-50% lighter than panniers and racks. You can mount bikepacking bags to any bike because they don’t require braze-ons. They also improve handling and allow you to ride rougher terrain because your gear is held tightly against the frame. This balances your load and prevents it from bouncing around too much.

The biggest drawback to using bikepacking bags is the limited carrying capacity. An average bikepacking setup only has 40-60 liters of space for all of your gear and food. That’s about 20 liters less than comparable panniers. Because of the limited space, you’ll have to use expensive ultralight camping gear. This increases the cost of your gear. Some riders have to wear a backpack for extra storage as well. Due to the odd bag shapes, it can also be harder to pack and access your gear with bikepacking bags. Packing up in the morning can take longer. The straps also make removing and replacing the bags a bit of a hassle.

Panniers and Racks

Pannier are soft, rectangular bags that attach to metal racks on the front and rear of the bike. They attach with a hook system. Most bicycle tourists use 4 panniers, 2 in the front and 2 in the back. Rear panniers usually hold 25-70 liters combined. Front panniers hold 15-30 liters combined.  

touring bikes with large panniers

The racks bolt directly to braze-ons on your bike’s frame and fork. They are made of steel, aluminum, or titanium. Some racks have a flat top where you can attach bulky gear like your sleeping bag or a duffle bag for more storage space. Steel racks are the best choice for touring because they can easily be welded together if they crack.

The main benefit panniers and racks offer over bikepacking bags is the volume of gear that they can accommodate. An average setup, like those from Ortleib, holds 65 liters of gear. Extra-large panniers and a duffel bag on the rack can hold up to 120 liters. Strong steel racks can hold over 100 lbs. Due to the rectangular shape and large top openings, panniers are also easy and efficient to pack. You can even carry a laptop in a standard rear pannier. The mounting system also makes panniers fast and easy to mount and remove. They clip and unclip in seconds. This makes it much quicker and easier to pack and unpack at camp. 

The biggest drawback of using panniers is the loss of efficiency. You’re less aerodynamic with large rectangular bags sticking out on the sides. Panniers are also heavier. An average pannier and rack setup weighs around 4.5 kg while bikepacking bags weigh around 2 kg. The reduced efficiency means you burn more energy while riding the same distance. You’ll also ride slightly slower so you can’t ride quite as far every day. Another drawback is the handling. Particularly while riding off-road. Panniers just aren’t as well balanced as bikepacking bags. They also tend to bounce around while riding on rough roads. Panniers can’t be mounted to every bike. They require the proper braze-ons.

Bike Cargo Trailers

Bike trailer designs vary widely. They attach either to the rear axle or seat post with a quick-release mechanism. Trailers come in one and two wheel versions. Some have large wheels and suspension for riding off-road. Some have small wheels to make them packable and lightweight. Most trailers are designed to carry a waterproof duffel bag that holds 60-100 liters of gear. For more info, check out my guide to the different types of bike trailers.

A touring bike with a single wheel cargo trailer

Image: “Fully Loaded Ride”, by Kevin Teague, licensed under CC BY 2.0

A major benefit of using a trailer is excellent handling and maneuverability. Because the weight of your gear sits on the trailer instead of the bike frame, the bike rides almost like it’s unloaded. Trailers also allow you to haul large and bulky items like a hiking backpack. If you use a trailer, you can tour on pretty much any bike because a trailer puts very little extra weight on the bike’s frame. Many of your bike’s components will also last longer because the bike doesn’t have to hold as much weight. Some riders find it convenient to use one large bag for hauling gear instead of multiple smaller panniers or bikepacking bags.

Trailers have a lot of drawbacks. First, they are heavy. An average trailer weighs about 6 kilos. That’s 1.4 kg heavier than panniers and racks. Trailers also add more parts to maintain and repair. There is another wheel that can get a flat or broken spokes. It can be hard to find replacement parts as well. Another problem is that the size of trailers makes it hard to fly with your bike to your touring destination. The trailer wheel(s) can also hit potholes and other obstacles, making the ride a bit rougher. 

 

Saddle for Bicycle Touring

Comfort is key for touring. If your saddle is uncomfortable, you can’t put in the miles. You can also develop saddle sores. The most important factor determining saddle comfort is the fit. It needs to fit your sit bones properly.

leather brooks bike saddle

A leather saddle with a suspension seatpost

Bike saddles come in a variety of widths. Which width you need depends on the distance between your sit bones. Narrow sit bones measure less than 100 mm. Medium sit bones measure between 100 mm-130 mm. Wide wit bones measure more than 130 mm. You can measure your sit bone distance in most bike shops. You can also measure it at home.

Check out this thread from Bicycles Stack Exchange for some ideas on how to measure your sit bones.

Saddles are measured across the top. Most manufacturers sell a small, medium, and large size. If you can, it’s best to test them out in a bike shop before you buy.

The saddle material is another important consideration. This mostly comes down to personal preference. You have two main options: leather and synthetic. I’ll outline each below.

Leather Saddles

Leather saddles are probably the most popular style for touring. Over the course of 500 or so miles, they form to the shape of your butt, creating a custom-like fit. They are firm and supportive. Leather saddles also last for decades if properly taken care of.

One of the more popular saddles among bicycle tourist is the Brooks B17. This is the saddle that I use. Check out my full review of the saddle here.

The biggest drawback to leather saddles is that it can get ruined if they get wet. If you choose a leather saddle, you’ll want to cover it up while you’re not riding. I use a plastic bag for mine. You can also buy a cover.

Leather saddles also require a bit of maintenance. You’ll have to rub them down with proofide every once in a while to keep the leather soft and supple. If you don’t, it may crack and ruin your saddle. You also have to tighten the leather occasionally. There is a small bolt on the front of the saddle you turn with a wrench to tighten the leather.

Synthetic Saddles

Synthetic saddles don’t require any maintenance. They aren’t affected by water or sunlight. These are great for bicycle tourists who don’t want to have to pay any mind to their saddle.

The drawback is that these saddles don’t last as long. Synthetic materials like foam and gel break down more quickly than leather. They’re also generally less comfortable because they are too soft. After 20-30 miles they start to cause pain. They don’t offer enough support. Sometimes they begin to rub and cause or a rash. Of course, comfort is subjective.

Many cyclists like to pair a firm saddle with padded cycling shorts. This combination gives you a bit of padding while still offering a good amount of support. Padded shorts also help to prevent saddle sores.

 

Touring Bicycle Prices

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have unlimited funds to spend on our new touring bike. To choose the best possible touring bike for your budget, you may have to make some compromises. Below, I’ll outline a few price ranges and what to expect for each.

Mid-Range Touring Bikes

An average off-the-shelf touring bike cost around $1400-$2000. For that price, you’ll get a nice steel frame with durable, mid-range components. Some mid-range touring bikes include racks and fenders. Many offer a nice saddle like a Brooks B17. You get the best bang for your buck in this price range.

A few popular mid-range touring bikes to consider include:

Most major bike manufacturers offer at least one touring model these days. 

Low-End Touring Bikes

If you’re on a tight budget, your best option is to buy used. You can get some excellent deals on the above bikes if you keep an eye out. Plenty of people buy touring bikes with big tour plans in mind. They set their bikes up with nice racks and panniers then never get around to using them. Some people buy a whole touring setup for just one tour then sell it at a major discount. You could probably find one for less than $1000 if you shop around on Craigslist, eBay, and Facebook marketplace.

If you want to buy new, there are some great touring bikes available in the $800-$1200 price range. These use most of the same components that you find on a mid-range bike with a few exceptions. Manufacturers cut a few corners are cut to meet the lower price point. For example, some of these bikes use rim brakes or slightly lower-end derailleurs, cranks, etc. The bikes are still perfectly suitable for light touring. A couple of popular lower-priced options include:

  • Fuji Touring Bike
  • Marin Four Corners
  • Cube Travel
  • Dawes Galaxy
  • Ridgeback Expedition

I owned a Fuji Touring and loved it. Read my full review here.

If you’re on a tight budget, a great option is to convert an old mountain bike into a touring bike. You can start with a vintage bike from the 80s or 90s with a nice steel frame, clean it up a bit, and install a few upgraded components. For just a $200-$300, you can build yourself a durable touring bike that is capable of crossing a continent. This is what I did with my Schwinn High Sierra.

My Schwinn High Sierra with a budget bikepacking setup

High-End Touring Bikes

If money is no object, the best route is to go custom. You can have a frame made to fit your body and riding preference. You can handpick the exact components that you want. Expect to spend around $4000+ for a bike with a custom made frame with high-end components fitted.

The sky is the limit in terms of price. It would be pretty easy to spend over $10,000 if you want a titanium frame, Rohloff hub, S&S couplers, and top-end components.

 

A Few Touring Bike Accessories

After buying a touring bike, there are a few additional pieces and parts you’ll probably want to add. You’ll need:

  • Fenders- These are pretty much essential for touring. They prevent water and mud from splattering all over you and your bike when the road is wet. Fenders can limit your maximum tire width. Your frame must also have the proper mounting points. Pretty much all touring bikes accept fenders. 
  • Bottle cages- While touring, you need to stay hydrated. You should carry at least 2-3 water bottles. Some cages can accommodate larger bottles than others.
  • Lights- Your lights alert drivers that there is a cyclist. They also help you see where you’re going when it gets dark. You’ll want a bright headlight mounted on the handlebars. It should have a flashing mode. Your rear light should be a bright red light that flashes. Your lights should be waterproof as well.
  • A bike lock- Unfortunately, bike theft is a common problem all over the world. Make sure you get a good lock to keep your new touring bike safe. 
Folding touring bike with panniers

A Bike Friday folding touring bike with racks and panniers

 

My Ideal Touring Bike

If money was no object and I was building myself the perfect touring bike, it would include the following features:

  • Custom titanium frame- with S&S couplers installed.
  • 700c wheels- As a taller guy, I prefer the geometry of a bike with larger wheels.
  • Rohloff Speedhub 14 speed internal gear hub- This is Rohloff’s flagship product. It is probably the most reliable and precise IGH on the market.
  • Trekking handlebars- I’m not really a fan of drop bars. Trekking bars offer plenty of hand positions and space for mounting accessories.
  • 45 mm mixed-use tires- I tour mostly on-road but I like having the ability to explore trails and more scenic routes when they’re available.
  • Flat pedals- I’m kind of undecided whether flat or clipless is better for touring. I like riding in my normal shoes and sandals on flat pedals.
  • Firm leather seat- I love my Brooks saddle. After I broke it in, it became incredibly comfortable.
  • Bikepacking bags- I’m an ultralight traveler. I prefer the balance that bikepacking bags offer.

 

Final Thoughts: How to Choose a Touring Bike

There is no perfect touring bike but you can get close. Some of these decisions depend on the type of touring that you plan to do. Some come down to personal preference. Hopefully, this guide has helped you out with the decision making process.

Another thing to remember is that you don’t have to go out and spend thousands of dollars on gear to go on a bicycle tour. You can always go on the cheap. Pretty much any bike is capable of taking you across a continent as long as it fits and is well maintained.

Which features and components do you prefer on your touring bike? Share your experience and tips in the comments below!

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