When I first started getting interested in bicycle touring, the one thing holding me back from taking my first tour was the high initial cost of a touring bike and gear. I was hesitant to spend thousands of dollars on a bike and panniers not even knowing if I’d enjoy it. After some research, I found that vintage mountain bikes make for excellent budget touring bikes. This guide explains, step-by-step, how to convert an old mountain bike into a touring bike.
This article just covers the bike. For info on luggage, check out my guide: How to Build a Low Budget Bikepacking or Touring Setup for less than $100.
Why Use an Old Mountain Bike for Touring?
Vintage mountain bikes from the early 80’s to the early 90’s make perfect touring frames for a number of reasons. Most importantly:
- The frames are made of high-quality steel- This material is durable, strong, long-lasting, and easy to repair.
- The frames offer relaxed geometries and long wheelbases- This makes them comfortable for long days in the saddle. The riding position is upright and the long wheelbase makes the bike very stable. Vintage mountain bike frames are surprisingly similar to modern-day touring frames.
- Most old mountain bike frames include braze-ons- This allows you to easily mount racks and panniers as well as fenders.
- They are durable- These old mountain bikes are built to take a beating. The frames and wheels are particularly strong.
- They are cheap- You can find these bikes at thrift stores, garage sales, or on craigslist. You can easily find a decent old mountain bike for less than $100. If you’re lucky, you might snag one that needs a bit of work for $10.
How to Choose a Mountain Bike to Convert into a Touring Bike
It is important to start with a solid bike that’s in decent condition. Because these old mountain bikes are so abundant and inexpensive, it’s not really worth the time or money to buy a beater and completely overhaul it. Look for one that is in good condition.
Before purchasing, the main things to inspect are the frame wheels. The frame is the main reason you’re buying the bike. The wheels are expensive to replace. Wearable parts like tires, the chain, handlebar grips, and cables are less of a concern. In this section, I’ll outline what to look for while shopping for a vintage mountain bike. For more help choosing a bike, check out my guide to buying a used bike.
I recommend you look for a bike manufactured between the early 80s to early 90s. You’re looking for a frame with the following characteristics:
- Steel frame- Chromoly 4130 and Reynolds 531 are two of the best steel alloys that were used to build bicycle frames in this era. Both materials are strong, durable, and easy to work with. You can’t go wrong with either. Eliminate any bikes with aluminum frames. Aluminum is more difficult to repair if it breaks while you’re on tour. Steel can be fixed by pretty much any welder anywhere in the world. For more info, check out my guide comparing steel and aluminum frames.
- No suspension- Suspension adds unnecessary weight and complexity to the bike. It’s something else to worry about breaking. A rigid steel fork won’t break. Suspension also makes each pedal stroke less efficient because some of the energy will end up compressing the suspension instead of propelling you forward. If you find the perfect frame but it happens to have a suspension fork, you can swap it out for a rigid steel fork.
- Braze-ons- If you plan to use panniers and racks, make sure the frame and fork have the necessary braze-ons for mounting them. Most old mountain bikes have braze-ons. If you plan to use bikepacking bags, braze-ons aren’t required. For more info on bicycle touring luggage, check out my guides: Bikepacking Bags Vs. Panniers and Trailers Vs. Panniers.
- Your size- For maximum comfort and efficiency, the bike has to fit you. If it’s too small, you might feel cramped. If the frame is too large, you might have trouble controlling the bike. For help, check out this guide to bike sizing from Bicycle Guider. If the size is slightly off, you may be able to make it work by installing a different size stem or handlebars.
- Good condition- Once you find a suitable frame, inspect it for damage or defects. Make sure there are no cracks, dents, or major rust. If there is anything wrong with the frame, keep shopping.
Another reason these old mountain bikes make great touring bikes is the wheels. They are durable because they are built to handle off-road use. Look for wheels with the following characteristics:
- 26-inch wheels- Most mountain bikes of this era use 26-inch wheels. These were built before 29ers became popular. The main reason that 26-inch wheels are preferable to 29ers is wheel strength. Smaller diameter wheels have shorter spokes. They can take a greater beating without bending or breaking. 26-inch replacement parts are also generally cheaper and easier to find. For more info on wheel size analysis, check out my guide, 700c Vs. 26 inch Wheels for Touring or watch my Youtube video.
- double-wall rims- These are stronger than single wall. They can handle the extra weight of your gear.
- 36 spokes- Most bikes use 32 spoke wheels. The 4 extra spokes add a considerable amount of strength to the wheel. This allows you to carry more weight without worrying about breaking spokes.
- Cup and cone style hubs- These last pretty much indefinitely if they are maintained. They also allow you to replace parts as they wear instead of replacing the entire hub.
You also want to make sure the wheels are in good condition. After all, wheels are one of the more difficult and expensive parts to replace. First, give the wheels a spin and make sure that they are reasonably true and running smoothly.
The easiest way to check that the wheel is true is to look where the rim touches the brake pads. While the wheel is spinning, you can usually see a wobble or hop. If it is severe, you may want to consider looking for a different bike. A minor wobble will be expected for an old bike and is fine.
Next, each spoke to ensure that none are broken or loose. To do this, just wiggle them back and forth with your finger. If you find a loose one, make sure that it’s not pulling out of the rim. At this time, you should also inspect the rim for cracks. You need to replace cracked rims.
Finally, check that the sidewalls of the rim are not too worn from the brakes. Some rims have indicators to tell you when they are worn out.
Drivetrain and other Components
Before buying the bike, you want to make sure that the components are in good working order and that they are of decent quality. For a touring bike, durability is valued over performance. You’ll want to consider:
- Shifters and Derailleurs- Make sure they move smoothly. If the derailleurs are old and gummed up with grease, you can probably just clean and re-grease them. Most old mountain bikes have 18 speeds with 3 in the front and 6 in back.
- Brake levers and calipers- Any style of brakes is fine. Most old mountain bikes have cantilever brakes. Make sure they operate smoothly.
- Crankset- Most old mountain bikes have 3 chainrings. Inspect the teeth to make sure that they aren’t too worn or bent. Cranksets are fairly expensive so make sure that yours is in good condition. For more info, check out my guide to 1x vs 2x drivetrains.
Chances are, something will need to be repaired or replaced. Many of these old bikes have either been sitting around for many years or were heavily used.
Luckily, most replacement parts are affordable and easily available. You can often find used parts on eBay. If you want to buy new, there is usually a modern-day equivalent that will also fit.
One problem you may encounter with old bikes is that some of the components may not be manufactured anymore. This is the case with many Suntour components. Sometimes another brand is cross-compatible and sometimes you can find a used part. I’m a big fan of Shimano components.
Don’t worry about consumable parts that wear out such as brake pads, tires, freewheel, and cables for example. Most likely, they will have to be replaced anyway. The same is true of moving parts that need periodic maintenance such as the headset and bottom bracket. They might need to be greased if they aren’t operating smoothly.
Converting Your Old Mountain Bike into a Touring Bike
After selecting a bike, You’ll want to make a few upgrades to make it more comfortable for touring. A few changes you may want to make include:
- Install road tires. Old mountain bikes usually come with 2.5 inch wide knobby tires. These work fine off-road but just slow you down on road. Swap these out for some touring tires to increase efficiency and reduce the likelihood of flats. One of the most popular options is the Schwalbe Marathon HS Wire Bead Tire. They come in widths ranging from 1.25 inch to 2 inch. I have 26X1.5 tires on my bike.
- Swap out the handlebars or install bar-ends. Mountain bikes usually come with flat bars. The problem with these is that they only offer one hand position. While touring, it’s useful to have a second hand position. This improves comfort during long rides. The simple solution is to install some bar ends like the Profile Designs Boxer Bar Ends. Alternatively, you could install different handlebars. Trekking bars are a popular option.
- Install fenders. These help to keep you, your bike, and your gear clean while cycling on wet roads. They can also increase the life of your drivetrain by keeping it cleaner.
- Install racks. The easiest and least expensive way to haul your gear is with a rack and pannier setup. I like the Ibera Bike Rack. It’s well made, affordable, and works with a large variety of bikes.
- Upgrade the saddle. Because you’ll be spending so much time in the saddle while touring, you might want to replace it with a more comfortable option. Leather saddles are popular for touring. I like the Brooks B17 Standard Saddle. You can read my review of here.
- Install a mirror. This is a great safety item to have for touring. It’s comforting being able to see cars approach as they pas. I like the Mirrycle MTB Bar End Mirror. You can read my full review here.
- Add lights. Even if don’t plan to ride at night, you’ll still want to have lights. They are necessary for safety.
- Add water bottle cages. You’ll drink a lot of water while touring. The more you are able to carry, the better.
- Install platform or clipless pedals. To improve efficiency, you may want to swap your pedals out for clipless. You could also install large platform pedals for more comfort if you prefer them. To help you decide, check out my flat pedal vs clipless guide.
Of course, you could tour on your bike as-is. The above parts will just make your bike a bit more comfortable and efficient for long-distance rides.
Repairs and Maintenance That You May Need to Make Before You’re Ready to Tour
Most of these old mountain bikes are pretty bombproof. With a bit of bicycle mechanical knowledge, a few basic tools, and a few hours of your time, you should be able to get your old mountain bike riding like new. Here’s what I recommend you do before setting out on tour:
Step 1: Clean the Bike
Once you purchase your bike, you will want to give it a good cleaning before starting any repairs. When everything is clean, you’ll be able to more easily determine what needs to be done as far as maintenance and repairs.
Step 2: Grease the Bearings
Because we most likely don’t know the history of the bike and we are going to be putting a lot of miles on it, I recommend you at least grease the hubs. You may also want to check for play in the bottom bracket and grease it or replace it if necessary. Check the headset and grease it as well if necessary.
Step 3: Inspect and Replace Wearable Parts
Next, you’ll want to inspect the chain and cassette. If there is excessive wear, replace them. If not, thoroughly clean and oil the chain.
You’ll then want to inspect and test all cables to make sure that they are running smoothly. Adjust the derailleurs and brakes. While adjusting the brakes, inspect the pads and replace them if they are worn.
Step 4: Inspect the Tires and Tubes
Finally, you’ll want to take a look at the tires and tubes. If the sidewalls are cracked or the tread is worn low, you’ll want to replace them. If the tubes look old and have a bunch of patches already, you may want to consider replacing them.
For tires, I recommend Schwalbe Marathon Plus Touring Tires. They are known as the best touring tires. The reason they are so popular is that they are incredibly durable and offer excellent puncture protection. I have heard of people touring for thousands of miles on them without a flat.
Tools and Spares for the Tour
On these old bikes, parts could fail at any time so it’s best to always carry spares and tools while touring. At a minimum I like to carry:
- 1 spare brake cable
- 1 spare shifter cable
- Tire Levers
- 1 spare tube
- 1 spare chain or link
- Mini pump
- Patch kit
- Multi tool with a chain breaker. I like the Crank Brothers M19 Bicycle Multi-Tool.
For a complete list, check out my ideal bicycle touring tool kit and spare parts list.
My Old Mountain Bike that I Converted into a Touring Bike
I bought this mid 80s Schwinn High Sierra on Craigslist. The bike is in good shape and rides well. My only real complaint is that it came equipped with roller cam brakes. These brakes are no longer in production and are a hassle to adjust. I would prefer v-brakes or cantilevers but they are not compatible with the frame.
After buying my old mountain bike, I did the following:
- Greased the hubs and bottom bracket
- Installed road tires (26×1.5)
- Replaced the rear brake pads
- Adjusted the derailleurs and brakes
- Replaced the seat
- Installed a rear rack.
- Adjusted the seat and handlebars for my height
- Installed a mirror and lights
I am thrilled with the way the bike turned out. So far I’ve put about 500 miles on it and haven’t had a single problem. More importantly, found that I absolutely love bicycle touring. This bike gave me a relatively cheap way to get into the hobby as well as learn a bit about bicycle maintenance along the way. In the near future, I will probably upgrade to a new touring bike but my Schwinn should last me many more miles in the meantime.
Have you converted an old mountain bike into a touring bike? Let me know how it went in the comments below!