There are so many elements to a touring bike and different models each have their pros and cons. So how do you choose a touring bike that’s perfect for you and the demands of your touring style?
This comprehensive guide outlines the questions you need to ask yourself, as well as the different components and design factors to consider when choosing a touring bike.
Considerations when choosing a touring bike
In order to choose a touring bike that would be perfect for you and the demands of your tour(s), you should consider the following questions:
- Will you be touring short-term or long-term?
- Is your route mostly on-road or off-road?
- Where in the world will you be touring?
- How much gear will you be carrying?
- What’s your budget?
Let’s take a look at how your answers to these questions will impact the kind of touring bike you should buy.
Will you be touring short-term or long-term?
This question determines how durable and reliable your bike needs to be.
For short tours – perhaps a week or so – just about any bike will do. If you’re planning a longer trip, there’s a stronger case for using a higher quality bike that won’t fail under strain.
Is your route mostly on-road or off-road?
This question determines the type of tyres and handlebars you should use.
If you’ll be sticking mostly to paved roads and tarmac, you can really use any tyre width, although skinnier tyres will enable you to cycle faster and more efficiently. ‘Classic’ touring bikes, such as the Trek 520 Disc, are typically designed for long-distance cycling on mostly paved roads.
If your route will take you off-road a lot, perhaps on dirt paths or gentle forest trails, you’ll want wider tyres with more tread. You may also want to consider flat bars for added control and stability over bumpy ground, and perhaps even a suspension fork. Depending on just how off-road you’ll be going, a mountain bike or even a fat bike may be better suited to your tour.
Where in the world will you be touring?
This question determines whether you’ll need to think about the availability of parts.
If you’re touring in a remote location where access to bike repair is infrequent, there’s a stronger case for investing in a quality bike that is unlikely to break down and leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere.
If you plan to cycle in Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, you can worry less about the components of your bike because spare parts and repair shops are readily available in these parts of the world.
However, it could be challenging to source spare parts in developing countries. In this case, you might want to ensure your bike is equipped with standard components that can be found/fixed almost anywhere:
- Rim brakes are more readily available worldwide than disc brakes.
- 26-inch wheels are the most common size worldwide.
- Welders can be found worldwide, so steel frames are easier to repair than aluminium or carbon fibre.
If you’re planning to cycle around the world, you’ll no doubt want a 26-inch wheeled, steel-framed touring bike. Your buying options are then dramatically reduced, as many modern touring bikes come with 700c wheels. The Ridgeback Expedition and Surly Disc Trucker come with 26-inch wheels, and Thorn also fits 26-inch wheels to their bespoke bicycles.
How much gear will you be carrying?
This question determines how tough and durable your bike needs to be.
You can choose to tour fully loaded, with camping gear and outdoor cooking equipment packed onto your bike. Or, you can opt for what many cyclists call credit card touring, where you stay in hotels throughout your trip and therefore only really need to carry clothing and toiletries.
Decide where your touring style sits between these two extremes.
If you’re embarking on a completely self-supported tour, then you’ll need a strong bicycle capable of carrying a heavy load, with lots of fitment points for attaching luggage. The Trek 520 Disc and the Surly Disc Trucker, for example, are renowned for their packhorse-like capability.
There is no need to buy a super strong and heavy bicycle if you never plan on camping or cooking outdoors. Opt for a light touring bike that prioritises speed instead of weight-bearing, as this will make pedalling easier and more efficient.
What’s your budget?
As with most things, your budget will ultimately determine the quality of the bike you can get.
Budget touring bikes start from about £800, while premium touring bikes typically cost upwards of about £1200. If you have the money to invest in a brand new touring bike, check out my post on the very best touring bikes currently on the market.
If you’re not willing to splash out on a brand-new touring bike, you have a couple of options:
- Buy secondhand: Charity shops, eBay and Facebook marketplace are all good places to look for a secondhand bike. I’ve seen Dawes Galaxys on eBay for about £200 – a classic touring bike loved by many.
- Buy a gravel, mountain or hybrid bike: Non-touring bikes typically start from about £300 and can absolutely be used for touring (more on this below). I cycled from London to Istanbul on a hybrid, and it served me just fine. Hybrids, mountain bikes and gravel bikes can all be used for touring.
While quality is important, don’t let your budget hold you back. A nice bike is just that: a nice bike.
Choosing components for your touring bike
When choosing a touring bike, you’ll want to consider its components and design.
There are some incredible technologies available for bicycles these days, such as hydraulic disc brakes and internal gear hubs. These modern components typically make the mechanisms of the bike more efficient and much less likely to break.
However, some parts of the developing world might not have the resources to repair these modern components if they do break. While it’s nice to use disc brakes, you may struggle to get them fixed or replaced in remote areas. A breakdown could mean that you are stranded while waiting for parts to arrive.
You’ll have to decide if the risk is worth it for you, and might prefer to opt for standard components if touring in developing regions like Central Asia or West Africa.
Frame material: steel or aluminium?
Steel is the most commonly used frame material for touring bikes due to its toughness and durability. Steel frames can take much more of a beating compared to other materials; they can be deeply scratched, dented, and even bent without losing their structural integrity.
A steel frame is particularly ideal for touring in the developing world because welders can be found pretty much everywhere, whereas it could be challenging to find someone who can repair cracked aluminium.
There is an argument for touring with an aluminium frame, though. It’s a lighter material than steel, and because I’m not the strongest person, I like to shave weight off my touring bike wherever possible. On average, a steel bike weighs 1-2 lbs more than an aluminium bike. Aluminium frames are also cheaper and don’t rust.
Brakes: rim brakes or disc brakes?
There are two main types of braking systems for bicycles: rim brakes and disc brakes.
A decade or so ago, almost all touring bikes came with rim brakes as standard. These days, most are equipped with disc brakes. Disc brakes provide much better braking power, especially in wet or muddy conditions. They also don’t wear down your rims, and your brake pads will last much longer. Most cyclists would agree that disc brakes are superior.
However, the availability of spare parts for disc brakes is slightly lacking in some parts of the developing world. This means it may be difficult to get them repaired in, say, remote Central Asia. So if you’re touring in the developing world, you may want to consider rim brakes, as parts for these can be sourced across the globe.
Wheels, spokes and tyres
When considering your wheels, you’ll want to think about:
Wheel size: The most common wheel sizes are 700c, 650b and 26-inch. If you’re touring on paved surfaces in developed countries, 700c tyres are the better choice. But if you plan to tour outside of Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, I recommend opting for 26-inch wheels, as this size is the standard across the globe. You’ll be able to find parts to repair your tyres, tubes and spokes just about anywhere if needed.
Spokes: With all the gear you’ll be hauling on your touring bike, you’ll want to consider the strength of your wheels. More spokes typically mean stronger wheels, and you’ll want to choose wheels with at least 32 spokes. If you’re going to have a lot of gear and/or will be riding on rough terrain, 36 spokes is better.
Tyres: Most cycle tourists choose tyres that are at least 35mm wide, which allows for a more comfortable ride than skinnier road bike tyres. Be sure to also opt for tyres that are resistant to punctures; this will add weight but will reduce the number of flats. I tour with Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres and love them. The tread is grippy enough for bike paths and packed dirt paths but if you’ll be cycling on rougher terrain, you’ll need tyres with better traction.
Gears: internal gear hubs or derailleurs?
Internal gear hubs are becoming quite popular, particularly on touring bikes. Because the gearing system is enclosed, the hubs can’t be damaged by water or dirt and are therefore very hard-wearing. Rohloff hubs, for example, should get you through roughly 100,000km of cycling before failure, and many have been known to last even longer.
The only maintenance you need to do is change the oil every 5000km and keep the chain at the right tension. Derailleurs, on the other hand, require frequent cleaning and adjustments, and periodic replacements of the chain and cassette.
The downside of internal gear hubs is the cost. A Rohloff hub costs roughly £1000, and in the unlikely event that something does go wrong, you’ll probably have to send the hub back to the factory to be fixed. While it’s unlikely that a good quality hub would randomly break, it’s for this reason that some cycle tourists prefer to stick with a derailleur, as bike mechanics across the world would be able to fix it.
Check out this article for a pros and cons list of touring with a Rohloff hub.
Handlebars: drop bars or flat bars?
There are a few different handlebar styles to choose from, but the two most common options are drop bars and flat bars. Each has its pros and cons, and it’s really down to personal preference.
Drop bars offer three different hand positions: on the hoods, on the bars and on the drops. This is ideal for long-distance cycling, as it allows you to change your hand position frequently to avoid discomfort. Drop bars also allow you to ride in an aerodynamic position, so you can pedal quickly and efficiently.
Flat bars provide more control of the bike when riding off-road and have easier access to the brake levers. They also accommodate an upright riding position, which many people – myself included – prefer. The downside is that they only really offer one hand position, which can cause discomfort in the wrists.
Can you tour on a non-touring bike?
There are some major advantages of using a designated touring bike when embarking on a long-distance ride where you’ll need to carry luggage.
Touring bikes are specifically designed to provide comfort over long distances and have the ability to carry heavy loads. For example, they typically have a tough, easy-to-repair steel frame, fitment points to add racks and panniers, and a shape that allows for maximum comfort and stability. The issue is that because of the way they’re built, touring bikes are a lot more expensive than other types of bikes.
However, you’ll be pleased to know that almost any bike can be used for touring. Your budget needn’t hold you back. Gravel bikes, mountain bikes and hybrid bikes can all be toured on, and Thomas Stevens even cycled the world on a penny-farthing in the 1800s. People have covered great distances on bikes that didn’t look up to the job.
If you already have a bike in your garage, then why not use it? As long as it has fitment points so you can carry some luggage, is in good working condition and is comfortable, there’s no reason why you can’t tour on it.
Just bear in mind that long, fully-loaded rides are likely to be a strain on a bike that’s not designed for touring, and/or less comfortable for you. You’ll want to consider this when planning your route. For example, if you’ll be using a gravel bike, you might need to tour with less gear. The positioning of mountain bikes means that they can become uncomfortable after a long day in the saddle, so you may want to plan shorter riding days in this case.
Thank you for reading! If you found this post useful, I’d be grateful if you would consider using the affiliate links below when planning your travels. I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you. This will help me to keep this blog running. Thanks for your support – Lauren.
Hotels – Booking.com
Hostels – Hostelworld
Cheap flights – Skyscanner
Travel insurance – World Nomads
Outdoor gear – Decathlon / GO Outdoors
Cycling gear – Chain Reaction Cycles
Alternatively, you could buy me a coffee to say thanks!