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Choosing A Bicycle for Touring and Bikepacking

Want to extend your range and expand your horizons? Multi-day bikepacking trips are the answer!

You are loving the freedom of cycling. Between road bikes, gravel bikes and mountain bikes you have the frame geometry, gearing, and tire options which allow you to ride virtually anywhere. Now you find yourself wanting more and longer adventures – the opportunity to explore new areas, roads, and trails more than a day’s ride from home. Bike touring is your next step.

You are not alone. The popularity of bicycle touring has never been greater. Search Facebook and you will find that the “Bikepacking” group has over 48,000 members, while “Ultralight Bikepacking” adds another 10,000 subscribers searching for information and ride reports.

bikepacking and bicycle touring
Bikepackers in 1898

Of course, bicycle touring is far from new. The “safety bicycle” dates to the 1880’s. Almost immediately, the “Bicycle Touring Club” was founded in Britain, followed shortly by the League of American Wheelmen. In July of 1896, three friends set off from their homes in Britain and were the first to travel around the world on bicycles. Their expedition covered 19,237 miles over 26 months, spanning 17 countries on three continents.

Military use of the bicycle dates to 1886. Initially, bicycles were employed by couriers, and then scouts and infantry troops. The U.S. created the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps which later became known as the “Buffalo Soldiers”. In the summer or 1896, 20 members of the 25th Infantry set out on a 1,990-mile route from Fort Missoula, Montana to St. Louis, Missouri. The objective of the expedition was to study the feasibility of using bicycles in the military rather than horses - which were much cheaper to obtain and required no food, water, or rest. Each soldier’s supplies weighed over 50 pounds and included a shelter half, bedroll, change of underwear, socks, toothbrush, a two-day ration of food, tools, a rifle, and 50-rounds of ammunition. Roads were few and crude, but the soldiers completed the journey following wagon trails and foot paths in 41 days – on their single-speed bicycles!

bicycle touring
Headed to the Klondike by bicycle - on the Yukon River

Gold-seekers turned to bicycles to reach the Klondike region of Alaska in 1897. While most of the greenhorns traveled by foot, cyclists made better time on the 400-mile Dawson-to-Whitehorse trail down the frozen Yukon River. When their gold claims didn’t “pan out”, they traveled to new gold strikes near Fairbanks and Nome, including bicycling across the frozen Norton Sound at temperatures reaching -40-degrees!

Your modern, lightweight gravel bicycle is truly “space age” in comparison to these historic bicycle travelers. You also have access to countless books, articles, videos, and maps for information and guidance on bicycle touring. An invaluable resource is the Adventure Cycling Association. This organization was founded in 1973 as “Bikecentennial” to celebrate the bicentennial of the United States by promoting a cross-country group ride. In 1976, more than 4,100 cyclists took part in the event, riding all or part of the coast-to-coast, 4,250 mile “TransAmerica Bicycle Trail”. Following this enormous success and the exploding awareness of bicycle touring, Bikecentennial developed many other bicycle routes, eventually changing its name to the Adventure Cycling Association, which now has over 50,000 members.

bicycle touring
Cross-country bicycle touring on the Transamerica Trail

Traditionally, “bicycle touring” has included combinations of front and/or rear racks and panniers. The bike tourist has room for everything they need to go camping on the weekend, cross the U.S. on the TransAmerica Trail or circle the globe. Tom Allen literally wrote the book on bicycle touring. He writes in How to Hit the Road: A Beginner’s Guide, “Cycle touring is about enabling one to live on the road.” Tom writes from his experience touring more than 40 countries by bicycle.

Tom also maintains the website which is dedicated to bicycle touring and bikepacking. He makes the distinction between these two subcategories of bicycle travel. “The last few years have seen a boom in the use of the term ‘bikepacking’. Once an obscure synonym for cycle touring, its meaning has become much more specific, describing a faster, lighter, often dirt road-oriented, exploratory type of bike trip.”

Ultralight bikepacking - luggage by Ortlieb

He continues to contrast traditional bicycle touring and bikepacking by saying, “The bikes look different. The stuff people strap to them looks different. The places people ride often look different.”

Summarizing the motivation for bicycle touring, Tom says, “One type wants to go traveling.” Indeed, many bicycle tourists carry everything they need for weeks or months on the road. The bicycle is the vehicle, as opposed to trains, buses, hitchhiking, or backpacking.

In contrast, Tom writes, “But bikepacking is primarily a way of riding your bike self-sufficiently for longer. Bikepacking therefore attracts people for which riding is the main attraction.”

bicycle touring
The JOURNEY is the goal in bicycle travel!

Bicycle touring in the U.S. used to mean primarily paved road cycling. I used to tour on a racing frame complete with “sew-up” tubular tires. We went out of our way to avoid any unpaved roads, and even hitched rides in passing pickups if we encountered road construction. But the dawn of long-distance mountain bike adventures created the “bikepacking” niche. Gravel bikes split the difference, falling between road bikes and MTBs, and are capable of adventures with a mix of paved and unpaved roads.

You may lean toward one category of bicycle travel or another – or all the above at different times. Don’t get intimidated by the sub classifications. It is true that a tour of rough trails in the mountains will require a different set-up than a road tour across the U.S. But the same bike may be outfitted for paved roads or unpaved rail trails or backroads – or a blend of both. Many mountain bikes and gravel bikes can adapt to nearly any route. That is, the same bike may be capable of running 700c and 650b wheels, with tire choices ranging from 28mm slicks to 50mm knobbies.

bikepacking in Wisconsin
Touring bike with a "hybrid" of rack and frame bags for gravel touring

Of course, this versatility also means compromises. Gravel bike frames aren’t as strong and comfortable as heavier touring models. For example, my touring bike has a rear pannier rack, longer wheelbase, 36-spoke wheels, and a supple steel frame. The 700c wheels are shod with 28mm road slicks on most tours but can accommodate 32mm or 35mm tires and handle hard-packed gravel easily. My gravel bike has a lighter aluminum frame matched with a carbon fiber fork and 32-spoke wheels. I run 38mm x 700c tires on hard-packed gravel and 47mm x 650b tires on more demanding unpaved routes. But the gravel bike is built for speed and the aggressive “race-ready” geometry is more tiring on long rides. Even with the wide 650b tires, no gravel bike can match a mountain bike with suspension on serious off road trails.

bicycle touring
Road bicycle touring versus bikepacking requires choices

So which style of bike is right for you and your planned adventures? Round-the-world tourists often favor a long wheelbase, steel frame, and wider 650b (that is 27.5”) or traditional 26-inch wheels and tires – especially traversing developing countries. These bikes typically have mounts for front and/or rear racks, as well as accessory mounts on the front fork for fuel or water. The components on these bikes are usually traditional (that is, what some would call old-fashioned but also “bombproof”) threaded bottom brackets, rim brakes, and clincher rims with inner tubes.

My mountain bike (and my "fat bike"!) has much lower gearing with wider tires for steep climbs over rough terrain. While my touring bike has a triple chainring crank and 27 closely spaced gears, today most mountain bikers favor the simpler single front chainring and 10 to 12 rear cogs which eliminates the front derailleur, shift lever and cables.

Gravel bikes tend to fall in the middle, with road bike style frames, but geometry to accommodate wider tires and MTB gearing. The photo below shows five different bags attached to a gravel bike for fast and light bikepacking:

Ultralight bikepacking. Revelate Designs photo

There is no right or wrong. Your travel goals, destination, route, and terrain may determine whether your next trip is bicycle touring or bikepacking. The GOOD NEWS is that some bike luggage is adaptable to different bikes so that you can be ready for anything – if you own more than one type of bike. Plus, many bikes can accommodate different tire sizes and treads, and sometimes different wheel sizes.

Erick Cedeño has a passion and love for traveling and adventure by bicycle. His philosophy? Explore everything. He has set out to do just that but on two wheels. Known by many as the face of “Bicycle Nomad”, Erick has traveled more than 40,000 miles via bike in the past 10 years.

Erick chose a customized steel-framed State Bicycle 4130 gravel bike for his style of bicycle touring. “Personally, I wanted a bike that was a gravel bike, touring bike, bikepacking bike and a commuter and this is it.” says Erick. He recently traversed the 2,008-miles Underground Railroad Route (mapped by the Adventure Cycling Association), a self-supported trip from New Orleans to New York.

See “Bicycle Nomad” and hear his philosophy for bicycle travel in this feature video:

Even if you prefer traditional bicycle touring on paved roads, going lighter and embracing the new standards of bikepacking (pioneered by endurance mountain bikers) has many advantages. Justin Lighter and Justin Kline are the authors of Ultralight Bike Touring and Bikepacking. They have toured the world by bicycle, combined with tens of thousands of miles of hiking and backpacking experience. They acknowledge that bicycle tourists have circled the globe. But they emphasize that a lighter rig simply travels further and faster on less effort. They write, “Racks, panniers, trailers, and backpacks all have their place for bicycle touring, but when you are looking to cover more ground, turn the pedals over more easily, and enjoy the simplicity and freedom of a compact setup on your bike, then an ultralight/bikepacking configuration, utilizing only frame bags is the way to go.”

lightweight bikepacking
Lightweight bikepacking on the Tour Divide in the Rocky Mountains - Nemo Equipment photo

Recreational tourists have adopted the ultralight designs and mindset developed on long-distance, self-supported races on routes like the Colorado Trail, Arizona Trail and the 2,768-mile Tour Divide race. Justin Kline is a Tour Divide veteran and writes, “Carrying less weight means you can cover more ground, have less fatigue on your body and bike, and enjoy a better-handling bike, which is especially important when exploring single track.”

The lightest load will be most appreciated on the roughest routes, steepest climbs, and highest elevations. This is true regardless of the route, and ultralight bikepacking equipment paired with a lightweight gravel or road bike has made long-distance touring fun and accessible to older adults and novice adventurers!

Ryan Van Duzer has adopted the same bikepacking methods of ultra-endurance racers to comfortably tour thousands of miles by mountain bike. Here is a recap of how he packs for the long adventures like the 2,768-mile Great Divide Mountain Bike Route and the 1,700-mile Baja Divide:

Finally, there is still another category of “bicycle touring” that is a perfect match for your gravel bike – and that is organized, supported tours. These tours include scenic and historic destinations around the world. Some tours follow specific routes, such as those mapped by the Adventure Cycling Association and may include knowledgeable tour guides. Supported cross-state routes like the legendary RAGBAI across Iowa also fall in this category. These supported tours focus on bike riding, with all luggage transported by a vehicle from day to day. The nightly destinations may be hotels, remote cabins, or campsites. Participants only need to ride. The route and logistics are handled by the tour organization.

bicycle touring
Bicycle Touring Pro in Andorra

Darren Alff is “the Bicycle Touring Pro”. Since 2001 he has been traveling the world by bicycle and teaching people to do the same. Darren has biked across the U.S. in every direction SIX times! He is an author of several how-to books, has a YouTube channel with hundreds of videos and maintains his website at where he discusses all forms of bicycle touring.

Darren writes, “Bikepacking is backpacking with a bicycle. Bikepacking is also bicycle touring. In fact, bikepacking is just one of many different types of bicycle touring. Bicycle touring doesn’t just mean road riding and bikepacking doesn’t just mean off-road riding. It’s not uncommon to hear the two terms (bicycle touring and bikepacking) interchanged with one another.”

Fast, ultralight bikepacking defines a more minimalist approach to bicycle travel – regardless of crossing the Continental Divide or the corn fields of Iowa. Bicycle touring often means more equipment attached to racks to support travels for weeks at a time – or more luxuriously for shorter tours. Then some bicycle tours only require a toothbrush and credit card! It is possible for one bike to serve both styles of touring. The choice is yours – but the benefits are the same: immersion in the local communities, access to the best scenery, along with self-discovery that is impossible to match.

Bicycle touring is a worthy goal and creates memories that last a lifetime. Your bicycle is up to the challenge. The rest is up to you!


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