How to Convert an Old Mountain Bike Into a Touring Bike

by wheretheroadforks

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. 

My Schwinn High Sierra from the 80s that I converted into a touring bike

My Schwinn High Sierra from the 80s that I converted into a touring bike

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. 

The Frame

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. 

Wheels

 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.
crankset

Biopace crankset on my old mountain bike

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.

brakes

Roller cam brakes on my old mountain bike

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

Schwinn High Sierra mountain bike

My Schwinn High Sierra ready for a tour

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!

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19 comments

Mike Almond June 21, 2019 - 4:47 am

In 1994 I bought a Bridgestone MB1 mtn. bike and did my first bike tour from Vancouver, Washington to Mexico. Bridgestone put sealed bearings in their hubs, and while I was somewhere in Baja the rear bearing went out. Standing still the wheel would flop over, but while riding it stayed true.
In Mazatlan, I found a place that had every kind of bearing known to man – except mine. It wasn’t until in got to Calif. that I found a Bridgestone dealer that carried the bearing I needed. The broken bearing held out for 3,000 miles before
I was able to replace it, so I have no complaints about what turned out to be slight anxiety over a broken part. And Mexico es bueno!

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wheretheroadforks June 21, 2019 - 11:27 am

Great story! It’s amazing that you made it so far on a broken bearing. These old mountain bikes just keep rolling no matter what happens.

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John Connah July 16, 2019 - 3:12 am

I’ve got a 2000 Specialized Hardrock that I use for just about everything, commuting, shopping, touring. It’s now got north road handlebars, an Alfine 8 speed rear hub, Dynamo lights, mudguards and a tortec stainless steel rear rack.
Although I’ve also got a Surly disc trucker, it’s surprising how often the hardrock gets used, even for extended trips to France, the Netherlands and the Scottish islands. It’s comfy, stag as anything and I dint get to precious about the paintwork or worry about the discs being damaged on trains or ferries.

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wheretheroadforks July 16, 2019 - 4:25 pm

That Specialized Hardrock is the perfect ‘do it all’ kind of bike. I like the idea of using an internal gear hub. That may be a future upgrade on my High Sierra.
Earlier this year I was at a bike shop about to buy a Long Haul Trucker. It’s a beautiful bike but I realized that I didn’t really need it. My old mountain bike does just fine for now. It’s probably not as fast or efficient, but it works. Not having to worry about damaging an expensive bike gives peace of mind as well.

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Scott August 19, 2019 - 7:50 am

My 1989 Giant “Rincon” was given up for dead, spruced it up for touring for it’s 30th anniversary and have put about 500 miles on it this summer.

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wheretheroadforks August 19, 2019 - 9:39 am

Nice, those vintage bikes just keep going if they’re maintained.

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Mike December 3, 2019 - 9:07 pm

Nice article on your setup. A mountain bike has other advantages over expensive modern road frames. You can put 1-3/8″ or 1-1/2″ road tires on those rims and have a great road bike for summer. I have a couple of road frames and a couple more mountain frames, one of which I’ve been using since I purchased it new in 1995 (Giant Boulder). My current road bike is a pre-1975 Nishiki Custom Sport which I got for $15 at a junk shop or flea market (I love these places!) and it also still is good as new.

One thing you should do immediately is replace that rear gear cluster/freewheel with something that has a 34 or 36-tooth gear on it. I’m sure you’ve learned by now that going uphill is far more important than going fast. Get a new cluster. I’ve gotten a few at bike shops for $10, and I’ve seen many for less than $20. It’s a joy to keep my ample rump on the seat while I keep peddling uphill. By the way, my racks are from Bike Nashbar, and you can get them pretty cheap online. They have cheap and durable bags for far less than most places, too. Enjoy your rides.

By the way….I enjoyed seeing a video of you being interviewed about your van. Nice ride, also.

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Holle December 9, 2019 - 3:29 pm

Nice article! Fine to see that there are other people who have fun with good old stuff.

In 2006 I bought a Sunn 5000 (1995) and Iˋm very happy with this bike. I used it as a race-bike in a mountain-triathlon, for many tours and also every day. 100€ and 13 years of fun … some photos of the bike here … https://heldvomerdbeerfeld.de/2006/04/03/sunn-5000-stahlschlampe/

In 2020 I will make a tour from Germany to the Nordkap. Maybe I’ll change from 3×8 to 2×9, I need new chainrings and all that stuff so it’s a good opportunity to give the bike an upgrade.

I like your website and will read some more articles the next days or weeks 🙂

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wheretheroadforks December 10, 2019 - 12:31 pm

Nice bike! Looks like it’s in perfect condition. I think old mountain bikes offer some of the best value in cycling. As long as you keep replacing components as they wear out, the bikes last pretty much forever. Good luck on the tour. I would love to take the ride to Nordkap someday.

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Holle April 27, 2020 - 12:53 am

Oh yes … I’ve got a second one for a friend. I changed the drive to 2*9 on this “new” bike and I’m excited 🙂
Its the left one on this photo … https://heldvomerdbeerfeld.de/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/sunn.jpg

Another bike for €100 + used/new parts for about €100 for the drive (XT and LX) + €60 for LX V-Brakes and brake handles.

Also an update for the Nordkap-Tour … A friend and his daughter and me, we will start at home (near Stuttgart) and we’ll ride to Rostock, if possible we take a ship to to Denmark, ride through Denmark, take a ship to Sweden and continue as far as we can further on to the north … we have 3 weeks for the tour and we will continue the tour in 2021, if possible 🙂 Thats the plan.

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wheretheroadforks May 6, 2020 - 4:57 pm

Great looking bike! Really clean for its age. I think you got a good deal for €100. I like the chrome look as well. Sounds like an awesome route you have planned for the tour.

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Harmon January 24, 2020 - 3:28 am

I recently converted a 1990’s Trek 930 Singletrack in to a touring bike. I replaced the fork with a Surly LHT, to get more handlebar height. I also added fenders. I also, really like the Brooks B-17, and Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires. I have toured on this bike thousands of miles without a problem. The frame is extremely stiff, even when touring with heavy loads. The frame is made with Ox True Temper, a favorite of custom frame builders, that’s no longer available.

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wheretheroadforks January 24, 2020 - 2:43 pm

Great idea about replacing the fork for more handlebar height. I might have to do that on my Schwinn someday.

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Juan Manuel Vazquez August 31, 2020 - 7:20 pm

Hello i just want to share with you my Cannondale 1997 F500 conversion into a Monster Gravel bike..https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yne27ZV9k7M

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wheretheroadforks September 1, 2020 - 11:51 pm

Awesome conversion. Good call on switching to drop bars. It looks great.

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Holle September 16, 2020 - 4:35 am

Great conversion!

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wheretheroadforks September 16, 2020 - 11:56 am

Thank you!

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Frank September 16, 2020 - 1:19 pm

Hi, since this blog seems to be still frequented 🙂 and I have the same bike – my bottom bracket started to creak, at the ball bearings it developed pits – polishing them out worked just for a little while – and I need to replace them – I’m wondering if you or anybody has looked into getting a replacement bottom bracket assembly for this bike and what type this actually is ? Also I’d like to get a sealed type bearings replacement part if possible – because overall its a great bike.. and repairing is much cheaper and economy friendly than just buying a new bike.The bike shop in my area wasn’t really much help, I guess they did not smell money on this and just said “oohh, a vintage bike..!!”

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wheretheroadforks September 18, 2020 - 8:42 pm

It’s most likely a standard bottom bracket with English threading and a 68 mm shell. The spindle length you’ll need depends on the cranks you’re using. You should be able to replace it with a sealed bearing bottom bracket if you can find the exact size. If you take the old bottom bracket to a bike shop, they should be able to match it up for you. Sounds like the bike shop you went to just wasn’t very friendly. If you can’t find the right size, you could just buy new bearings. That would be cheaper yet.

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