Best touring bike: how to choose the right one for you

Old-school tourer, new-school gravel bike or flat-bar city hopper? We help you decide

If you want to do multi-day cycle trips, you're probably looking for something strong, reliable and comfortable, with a wide range of gearing. Something you can load up with panniers or bags and ride out into the unknown. So with drop-handlebar 'adventure' bikes rocketing in popularity, are they now the best touring bike for your money? 

The classic steel-framed British touring bicycle still has many fans, due to its clean lines, rugged design and emphasis on comfort. But the emergence of disc-brake-equipped gravel bikes that come fully loaded with rack mounts and mudguard fixings has blurred the lines considerably.

Many people still love flat-bar hybrid bikes, more often seen zipping through city traffic, which can be fitted with a pannier rack and pressed into service – perfect if you don’t plan to venture far beyond bike paths and country lanes close to home. E-bikes (the 'e' stands for electric, as these are motor-assisted) commonly fall into this category too.

Finally, there’s something called 'expedition touring bikes'. Designed to survive being ridden for long periods of time in the less developed parts of the world, they'll often feature 26in wheels for maximum compatibility, cantilever brakes and other components that are strong, light and easy to replace.

So which is the best touring bike for you? Let's find out…

Classic touring bikes

Classic steel-framed touring bikes look great and do the job they're designed for very well:
Classic steel-framed touring bikes look great and do the job they're designed for very well:

These emerged with the growing popularity in Britain of cycle touring as a pastime way back in the 19th century, which led to the formation of the oldest national tourism organisation in the world, the Cyclists' Touring Club (recently rebranded to Cycling UK).

Looking similar to an old road bike, a traditional touring bike will often have a steel frame, leather saddle, extra water bottle mounts, full mudguards, front and rear pannier racks, a broad range of gearing, and wide touring tyres. Their classic good looks have many fans, and the steel frame they can be repaired almost anywhere.

The position is usually less backside-up than on a road bike, making them easier to ride on busy streets, and there is a weight penalty compared with more modern machines. They aren't as widely available as they used to be, but there are a few companies still making them.

Three classic touring bikes to consider

Adventure bikes

The specialized awol is one of the most capable adventure bikes out there: the specialized awol is one of the most capable adventure bikes out there
The specialized awol is one of the most capable adventure bikes out there: the specialized awol is one of the most capable adventure bikes out there

Next we come a much more modern (and fashionable) type of bike that goes by many names – gravel bike, adventure bike, all-road bike, enduroad. What they all have in common are modern frames, disc brakes, wide tyres and off-road capabilities.

Related to cyclocross bikes but usually with slacker, more stable geometry, they’ll feature drop handlebars and a bombproof design that can be ridden for days on end over rough roads without complaint. The best adventure bikes will balance predictable handling with an exciting ride, yet can still be comfortably laden with all your expedition gear.

You’ll find a range of frame materials on bikes in this category, from advanced steel tubing through modern alloys, up to light-but-crazy-expensive carbon. There’s even a smattering of titanium bikes to be found, usually by boutique builders and out of reach to many.

The appeal to many people of these bikes is that they offer huge versatility – they can be fitted with a set of slicks and keep up with most road bikes, or the tyres can be swapped out and mudguards fitted to take you on a month-long backpacking tour. Or they’ll serve admirably as a reliable commuter.

Three adventure bikes to consider

Flat-bar hybrid bikes

The specialized cirrus is one of the most popular flat-bar hybrid bikes: the specialized cirrus is one of the most popular flat-bar hybrid bikes
The specialized cirrus is one of the most popular flat-bar hybrid bikes: the specialized cirrus is one of the most popular flat-bar hybrid bikes

Very popular with tourers in continental Europe, these typically combine heavy-duty tyres with flat handlebars and light-yet-strong alloy frames, loaded with mudguards and pannier racks, using modern components like V-brakes to good effect.

Don’t expect to give them a hammering on rough roads – that’s not what they’re designed for – but for weekend riding on smooth surfaces not too far from home, they perform admirably. Not too heavy, not too expensive, the only thing they suffer from is a slightly pedestrian (no pun intended) image.

Three hybrid bikes to consider

E-bikes

The haibike trekking rc is a highly capable e-bike for touring: the haibike trekking rc is a highly capable e-bike for touring
The haibike trekking rc is a highly capable e-bike for touring: the haibike trekking rc is a highly capable e-bike for touring

One segment that’s fast winning friends for bicycle touring is e-bikes (the 'e' stands for electric, as they're motor-assisted). They’re commonly based on a hybrid bike chassis, and can massively expand your touring range. Bear in mind though that their secret ingredient does ramp up prices (and weight) considerably, and you’ll have to find somewhere to charge up the battery when it runs out. A typical range in ‘normal’ mode for a 15 amp hours model is around 100km.

The technology is improving all the time, and for people who are daunted by the idea of hills but still want to enjoy riding a bike, they can be an excellent solution. That might apply if you’re older, just returning to cycling, or you want to cycle with your partner but he/she is much stronger than you. Haters gonna hate, but e-bikes are here to stay.

If you want to modify your existing bike, there are units available like the Rubbee Drive or Semcon bike engine that’ll drive the rear wheel. We haven’t tried these yet so can’t vouch for them, but they are an option you might want to try.

Oh, and don’t think that you’re going to be breaking the national speed limit anytime soon: all e-bikes sold in the UK only work by applying power when you’re actually pedalling, and won’t deliver assistance above 15mph.

Three e-bikes to consider

Expedition touring bikes

Surly's long haul trucker is a popular expedition touring bike: surly's long haul trucker is a popular expedition touring bike
Surly's long haul trucker is a popular expedition touring bike: surly's long haul trucker is a popular expedition touring bike

So we come to the final type of bicycle, typically used by round-the-world riders: expedition touring bikes. They’ve evolved to meet one simple need: to keep you moving across the Earth’s surface no matter where you find yourself.

Thus, all parts will be super-reliable and easy to replace. That means steel frames and forks that are easy to weld, widely available components like 26inch wheels, and tried-and-tested designs. But don’t think it’ll be cheap: they start at around the £1,000 mark and climb rapidly. Nor are they light, commonly weighing over 15kg.

Most people won’t need a bike like this – if you’re planning a weekend of riding from campsite to campsite, or a week-long trip further afield, then any of the three options described above will do you proud. But once you’ve got the bike touring bug, who knows where it’ll take you…

Three expedition touring bikes to consider

Bike panniers and bags

Ortlieb panniers are widely regarded as the best roll-top design around: ortlieb panniers are widely regarded as the best roll-top design around
Ortlieb panniers are widely regarded as the best roll-top design around: ortlieb panniers are widely regarded as the best roll-top design around

Right, now you’ve got a suitable bike, what else will you need? Well you’ll need to carry your gear, for starters. Don’t be tempted to use a rucksack, it’ll just hurt your back and leave you with a damp, sweaty top. Load up that bike instead.

You can use a rack and panniers, which can carry a lot of gear if you include front panniers plus a bar bag: Ortlieb makes the most popular, well-regarded panniers, which use a roll-top design to keep out the water. Or you could go for a more modern approach by strapping bike bags to the frame, which is particularly popular for off-road bikepacking.

Other technology

There are also a few other items that you definitely might want to consider taking: a GPS bike computer for keeping you on the right path and logging your miles, a solar charger for getting juice into your gadgets, and some decent lights for when you’re riding in the twilight.

Jamie Beach

Deputy Editor, UK
Jamie's been addicted to bikes from the moment his stabilisers came off. Earliest cycling memory is the chipboard-ramp-on-bricks, but happiest one is bombing down a Mallorcan mountain pass that seemed it might never end. Always on the hunt for the perfect rain jacket, a keen collector of hats.
  • Discipline: Road, gravel
  • Preferred Terrain: Big mountains with long climbs, equally long and fast descents, the chance to get above the treeline.
  • Current Bikes: Genesis Croix de Fer, Kona Cindercone
  • Dream Bike: BMC TeamMachine SLR01
  • Beer of Choice: Augustiner
  • Location: Bath, Somerset, UK

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