Photo: Ben Herndon/TandemStock

How to Choose the Best Touring Bike

The Best Touring Bikes: How to Choose the Right One

Want to see a lot of scenery in a short amount of time? Bike touring is the way to go. It combines riding and camping in a perfect combo, letting you cruise through the landscape with all of your gear on board. For most people, bike touring means pedaling on paved country roads (as opposed to singletrack trails and rough dirt roads, which is more commonly referred to as bikepacking). Some bike brands make models specifically for touring, but don’t get hung up on labels. What distinguishes a good touring bike is comfort over long miles.    

Questions to Ask Yourself

What else will I use this bike for?  

If you’re getting a bike for touring as well as commuting, take both activities into consideration. If it’s a full-time touring rig, that allows for more focused choices. 

What kind of terrain will I encounter?  

If you know you’ll stick to smooth pavement, for example, that will help you choose the most efficient tires. Exceptionally hilly terrain? You want the lowest gearing.   

How will I carry my gear? 

Make sure your bike has rack mounts that accommodate the panniers or other bags you plan to use.  

Key Features

Frame

Go for metal, either aluminum or steel. Carbon is sexy, but it’s not durable enough for a bike you’ll be riding all day for days on end, parking at gas stations and restaurants and campgrounds, and pounding over unpredictable terrain. Aluminum is lighter than steel but more expensive. Steel is easier to repair if you manage to break a weld. 

Tires

You can change a bike’s performance quite a bit by changing its tires. To have the most flexibility, get a front fork with enough clearance for the biggest wheel and tire combo you might want. The wider a tire, the more stability you’ll have on rougher roads. But by increasing the width (and traction), you’re decreasing efficiency on pavement. If you want to primarily go faster on pavement, choose thinner tires (30mm to 50mm). 

Drive Train

If you thought climbing hills on a bike was hard enough, try adding panniers and camping gear. More weight means you want lower, or easier, gearing. A single or double chainring should provide what you need while saving a little weight. Your lowest gear should be between 20 and 25 inches (that’s how cyclists express “easiness”). 

Handlebars 

You’re going to spend a lot of time on your handlebars. And while cyclists love to debate the merits of dropbars (like you see on most road bikes) versus flat bars (like mountain bikes have), only one thing matters: comfort. Dropped bars are more aerodynamic and offer more hand positions, while flat bars place your hands farther apart for better control on bumps, and they allow a more upright body position that many riders find more comfortable. 

Accessory Attachment Points

You need plenty of mounts for attaching panniers and other bags. Look for small threaded mounts in the metal; the more the better, as they give you more flexibility in outfitting your bike for packing a balanced load. 

Longer Chainstays

Stretching out the distance between your pedals and rear axle distributes the weight of your panniers better and puts them in a place where they’re less likely to bang on your heels. 

Suspension

While you can turn anything into a touring bike, a full-suspension mountain bike is going to be heavy and inefficient for road touring. But consider a carbon fork—it will be better at absorbing shock than metal, transferring less of the bumps into your hands. 

A Good Fit

Nothing else matters if the bike isn’t comfortable and efficient. Spend some time at a local bike shop testing out frames to decide exactly which size you need. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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