Bike Touring Setup: Gear Guide
Interested in doing a bicycle tour but have no idea where to start? Here's everything you need to set up a bike for touring. Just remember, there is no “right” way to build a bike.
Table of Contents
Whatever kind of touring you're doing, it’s important to do it as safely as possible. A comfortable helmet in case you fall (loose gravel and crosswinds can sneak up on you); accessories to help with visibility (i.e. reflectors and lights); mirrors so you can see behind you; bells; It's all important.
If you are someone who hates wearing a helmet because they look "dorky", you probably haven't had a good spill yet — knock on wood. For the most part, all modern helmets are lightweight and comfortable (although the higher the price point; the better the product). I personally like POC — Cool brand. Cool designs. No complaints with my helmet so far.
Lights are mostly so traffic can see you in low visibility (i.e. fog, dusk, early morning). Any bike lights will do, but there’s a set of lights on Amazon — with a 30K+ of reviews — that are a no-brainer. What I like most is that they mount with elastic bands; no clip/mount that can break off.
In addition to lights, reflectors make you more visible — without needing to be charged. There’s a variety of options you can choose from. A vest is easy to throw on and pack away; a reflective triangle can hang from your rear rack or road-side pannier; a flag can be great if you're towing a trailer.
For those moments you're sharing a path with pedestrians, bike bells can make your presence known. You can always rely on a good, “on your left” — but it's not as effective as a sharp ring. If you want to add some fun to your bike, slap on a rubber ducky!
Mirrors give you extra peripheral vision for those moments you need to merge or check for cyclists behind you. Helmet-mounted mirrors are popular, but run the risk of coming loose. Personally, I ride with one bar end mirror (mounted on my road-side). They came in a pair so I keep the second one with my tools as a backup.
I still look over my shoulder before merging, but this definitely made my riding experience better and safer.
There’s not one style of bike meant for “touring”; it’s whatever can get the job done. Unicycles aren’t ideal for touring, but someone has traveled the world on one. It all comes down to you as an individual. Which flavor of these compound machines do you fancy? What do you already have? What can you buy used?
1. Road Bikes
Road bikes are great for touring; especially when the route is mostly paved. Road bikes are also very common so you can get one on a budget. If you don't have one laying around, maybe you know someone who does!
2. Mountain Bikes
Modern, full suspension mountain bikes may not seem like they'd be good for touring, but there’s tons of bikepacking builds that prove otherwise. Vintage MTBs on the other hand — with their 26” tires and bulletproof steel frames —are the *ideal* touring bike; capable of being loaded like a pack mule. If you are looking for something affordable that can circle the globe, an 80's/90’s era mountain bike is the tool for the job. These are a similar build quality to a standard Surly frame for a fraction of the price.
*I’m biased because I converted my dad’s old Diamondback for touring.
3. Gravel (Hybrid) Bikes
Ready for anything, gravel bikes are built tough and can fit fatter tires for better off-pavement capabilities. These are a popular option sitting between a road bike and mountain bike; giving you the best of both worlds. If you could only have one bike for the rest of your life, it's hard to go wrong with a gravel bike.
4. Folding Bikes
If your tour involves trains, buses, flights, and/or staying in hostels — consider a Brompton folding bike. There are definitely limitations; you can't carry much weight for instance. But if you don’t plan on being completely self-contained, the tradeoffs may be worth it. They certainly are capable enough for touring.
You can tour with any kind of handlebar imaginable. It all comes down to comfort. Drop bars can put you in a more efficient riding position, while others can keep you upright; a more leisurely position. ***In reality, the best handlebars are probably the ones you already have***
Personally, I’m running Surly Molokos with bar ends and Chunky ESI Grips; a beautiful monstrosity.
1. Drop Bars
If you are on a road or gravel bike, drop bars are the standard. If you go this route, you'll likely yourself riding with your hands resting on the brake hoods; giving you a more upright position. With cushy wraps, and maybe even gloves, this can be comfortable enough for long rides. Wider, flared drop bars are popular on gravel bikes and offer a more natural position for comfort and stability.
2. Riser Bars
Risers bars are those basic looking handlebars you often see on mountain bikes. The hand positioning can be more comfortable for some and offer more control off-pavement. Bars like these allow you skip bar wraps and run something like ESI Grips.
3. Flat Bars
Maybe you like the lower positioning of drop bars and the wider stance of riser bars; an aggressive riding positioning with all the comfort. If that's the case, flat bars are for you. Perfectly fine for all kinds of riding (including touring), with a mild back sweep, these babies blend style and comfort.
4. Trekking, H-Bars,"Alt Bars"
I'm running Surly Molokos. I’ve heard them called the “ugliest bars available”, but I love them for their versatility. These bars may look unconventional, but offer more opportunities for storage and mounting. Don't be afraid of funky bars!
5. Bar Ends
Make no compromises. If you want to add some extra hand positions to your riser or flat bars, bar end attachments are an easy install.
Like handlebars, your pedal selection won't make or break your touring experience. It ultimately boils down to personal preference. With flat pedals, you can ride in comfortable hiking shoes or sandals. With clipless, you ride with cycling shoes offering more efficiency and connection with the bike.
If you want to pack light, something to consider is that flat pedals allow for your walking/hiking/shower shoes to double as your cycling shoes. Personally, I ran clipless with Adidas gravel shoes because I liked the look 😂
1. Flat / Platform Pedals
It’s hard to go wrong here. Pick whatever floats your boat and/or looks good with your bike. The cheapest flat pedal does the same thing as an expensive one; just make sure to check the reviews.
2. Clipless Pedals
Don’t be afraid of clipless pedals. They are easy to get used to. And once you get comfortable snapping in and out of place, and feel the sense of connectivity with your bike, you may never want to ride platform pedals again. If you go this route, the brand to look for is Shimano.
3. Why Not Both? (Dual Pedals)
If you are looking for versatility, there are flat pedals that are also clipless. If you are on the fence, this is a great option for you.
The best touring saddle is subjective because everyone's butt is different. However, the gold standard —the closest to perfection — would probably be a leather Brooks saddle. Personally, I bought a used Brooks on Ebay so it was already worn in. Very happy with that decision.
***Regardless of what you choose, riding with padded shorts/bib will help with the comfort factor.***
1. Brooks B17 (Leather)
If you could only shell out on one thing, it should be a leather Brooks saddle (IMHO). With a bib or padded shorts, there is no second best saddle for comfort; there's just Brooks B17.
2. WTB Pure (Non-Leather)
In general, WTB is the only other saddle brand I hear commonly recommended. If you don’t want leather, this is likely where you should start looking.
When it comes to actually loading your bike, there are endless possibilities. It all depends on your frame and what you want to carry. Self-contained, long distance tour? — Panniers are ideal. Bikepacking off-pavement? — A seat pack under your saddle and frame back can hold a lot of gear. The world is your oyster.
1. Rear Racks
Even if you're packing light, it's hard to beat a rear rack with panniers. Moving weight to the rear makes for a much better riding experience.
2. Front Racks
You can either use your front rack to strap a bag/gear to a platform, run front panniers, or both. You'll likely need a front rack if you are doing a long distance, self-contained tour.
3. Panniers For Touring
With front and rear panniers you can basically pack an entire apartment with you. It’s quite a bit of space. The gold standard is Ortlieb. They are on the spendy side, but for a good reason. If you can’t find a used set, an affordable alternative is Rockbros. This is what I used for my tour down the Pacific with no problem (even survived a gnarly rain storm).
4. Waterproof Duffle Bags (Rack Pack)
If you need extra space in the rear, a duffle bag works beautifully as a trunk bag. For a clean, perfect fit, the Ortlieb Rack-Pack connects nicely with a pair of Back-Roller Classic Panniers.
But honestly, you can toss any small duffle on your rear panniers and cinch it down. I’m now running Rockbro Panniers with a Tortuga Travel Backpack as an alternative to a “duffle bag.” I opted for this as 1.) I already had the backpack 2.) it's water-resistant.
5. Saddle Bags & Seat Packs
If you are off-pavement, or can’t run a rear rack, seat packs under your saddle can carry a good amount of gear; especially when combined with frame bags and fork mounts.
6. Triangle Frame Bags
Frame bags are a great utilization of space and help you center your weight. Just be aware that running a full frame bag puts you at risk of getting battered by crosswinds. Since I was riding along the coast, I opted for a partial frame bag that ran under my top tube (held all my tools).
7. Handlebar & Stem Bags
Handlebar bags, large or small, are a great place to store things you need easy access to (phone, camera, snacks, etc). There are tons of options to choose — from "burrito bags" to pouches —but they all serve the same function; convenience. My front pouches are large enough to hold a wide mouth Naglene, however, they mostly hold my film camera and some snacks.
8. Fork Mounts & Cages
Fork-mounted cages are a staple for both bike touring and bikepacking. You can pack nearly anything to these mounts. So if you need extra space, but don’t want front panniers, strap some waterproof stuff bags to your fork. This is also a great place for large water bottles (thinking about weight distribution).
9. Top Tube Bags
Top tube bags are a great for tools and can double as a phone holder. I mainly used mine to hold my phone and have quick access to my light meter (for film photography).
The gold standard of straps are Voile Straps (available in a variety of lengths) — they are badass. I used these to strap a bag to my handlebar, bottle to my frame, tent to my rear rack, etc. I always keep a short one in my front pouch to cinch around my brake lever as a "parking brake” (very handy when trying to handle a loaded bike).
You don’t need to be a bike mechanic to go on a tour. Unless you are on an expedition in a remote region, you're usually always one hitch-hike away from a bike shop for serious repairs. In reality, you just need to worry about fixing flats, tightening things that come loose, and periodically cleaning your chain.
1. Patch Kits
Any patch kit will do. Just be sure to watch some instructions on how to best patch a tire (I had been doing it wrong for years lol). It’s worth carrying a set of pre-glued patches for quicker, easier repairs.
2. Spare Tubes & Tire Levers
You’ll always want a spare tube. If you get a flat, toss in a new tube, get to your destination, and then patch the hole in a more sterile environment (like a campground instead of a highway shoulder). Just be sure to get the right size and valve (presta or schrader).
3. Dental Floss + Sewing Needle
Sounds odd, but worth having in your kit. If glass/metal slashes your sidewall, stitch it back together until you can get to a shop. I rode 300+ miles on a tire I stitched (coated with vulcanizing rubber cement to protect the floss). If you aren't interested in dental floss repairs, at least carry an emergency boot. This is a piece of viynl membrane you can adhere to the inside of your tire; repairing the sidewall so you can hobble to a shop.
4. Portable Pump & CO2
When you just want to get back on the road, the last thing you want to do is pump a tire by hand. Carry a couple C02 cartridges for the sweet bliss of an instantly inflated tire. Regardless, a trusty frame pump is crucial. It may take awhile to inflate a tire, but it'll get the job done. ***Pro tip: If you see a truck/van with bikes, they likely have a full-sized floor pump for you to use.***
5. Allen Keys + Multi Tools
Things get loose on the road, so a good set of allen keys are invaluable. And multitools are the R2-D2 of life. If you don’t have one, consider getting one. They last forever and come in handy outside of bike touring.
If you don't have quick releases, you'll need to get your axel nut off some how. And a spoke wrench is small and cheap; definitely worth having. You don’t need to know how to true your wheels, but at least this way you can tighten any loose spokes.
7. Chain Tool & Lube
Sometimes chains break — so a chain tools can be the difference between riding and walking. ***Replacing a broken link is a common and easy repair anyone can do; don't fret.***
To increase the longevity of your chain, periodically clean the gunk out and add a couple drops of fresh lube.
8. Duct Tape & Zip Ties
Never underestimate the power of random fasteners and adhesives. On my tour, duct tape, zip ties, and paracord all came to the rescue at some point.
Complete Bicycle Repair Kits
Starting from scratch? Consider a complete repair kit. You can always build on these over time.
Proper cycling gear can be a luxury worth the price point, but you can also tour in gym shorts and a soccer jersey (I did). It comes down to having clothes that are comfortable and can handle a full day in the saddle.
Sandals are a blessing in the campground and when riding in the rain (no socks to get wet). "Cycling shoes" are really only necessary if you want to run clipless pedals (i.e. Adidas gravel shoes). With flat pedals, your “cycling shoe" can be anything from running shoes to a nice pair of hiking shoes (maybe something you already have).
Thick wool socks are perfect for cool evenings in the campground. Thin wool socks are great for riding. There are cycling socks you can buy, but any athletic sock will suffice. I like wool because it handles the funk of an entire day of riding like a champ.
Picking Shirts & Jerseys
You don’t have to get fancy with your cycling gear. Really anything that can wick away moisture will work (i.e. not 100% cotton). You can wear cycling jerseys, cycling casual wear (if you don’t like the spandex look), or even regular gym shirts. But before you spend a bunch of money, check the closet for shirts that would work; then maybe a thrift store. You’ll be surprised what you can find.
Picking Cycling Bottoms
You can wear padded riding shorts by themselves, or you can wear them under gym shorts, hiking shorts, pants, etc. For rest days and around the campground, something like 686 Everywhere pants can be a good option for packable “regular” clothes.
It’s nice to have a beanie for chilly evenings and a hat under your helmet to keep the sun out of your eyes. You can get a “cycling cap”, but really, any hat can work. Personally, I think Ciele hats are the best to ever exist. They look cool, fit nice, are durable, dry quickly, and the flat bill accommodates sunglasses. I have a few now and can’t recommend them enough.
Sunglasses are nice to have on bright days. I have a pair from Sunski that I like as my casual sunglasses. But while riding, I almost always wear my Pit Vipers with night lenses. They protect my eyes from debris and wind; blocking just enough light to prevent me from squinting on sunny days. Rockbros have something similar at an affordable price.
If you're looking for extra comfort, seek out some padded cycling gloves. But if you're worried about cold hands and want a layer of warmth, mountain bike gloves might be what you're after. Personally, I have a pair of gloves from Bad Touch that I absolutely love.
If you are doing a self-contained bike tour, camping gear is a must. When you're researching what to get, you can also explore “ultralight backpacking gear” — this outdoor niche has light weight travel dialed.
An ultralight 1 person (1P) backpacking tent will be the smallest, lightest option. Although some people prefer the extra space of a 2 person (2P) tent to store some of their belongings. If you are looking to keep costs down, explore bivy tents or keep an eye out for used backpacking tents on Facebook marketplace. On my bike tour, I had tent envy for the Nemo Hornet (available in a 1 an 2 person size).
2. Cooking Gear
Don’t underestimate the power of a backpacking stove. Hot water can make some rewarding meals after a long day in the saddle — rice and beans, ramen, pasta, oatmeal, etc. Everyone's food strategy is different. I met one cyclist who managed to make himself eggs and bacon every day; another who survived off cliff bars and beef jerky.Personally I used my stove to make oatmeal and instant coffee every morning.
Camping stoves can range from a simple open flame to a sophisticated Jetboil. Both will get the job done.
3. Sleeping Gear
ECOOPRO sleeping backs collapse into small lightweight bags and come in a cold and warm weather weight. Inflatable sleeping pads are fantastic, but learn from my mistake ***over inflating your pad ruins the structural integrity and causes leaks.***
A folding sleeping pad like the Nemo Switchback offers reliability at the cost of being a bulkier item. Although, it's easy enough to strap to your bike.
4. Camp Seating
One luxury item you might want to consider is a seating pad. After a long day in the saddle, an inflatable cushion is way nicer than a bare park bench. There are also folding chairs available if you have the space. I talked to someone who met two women traveling with accordions...you could bring a backpacking chair 😂
5. Solar Lantern & Head Lamps
The best camping light hands down is the LumAid inflatable solar light. Of all my gear, this is the one that other cyclists were jealous of. I strapped it to my front rack to charge while riding.
6. Battery Banks
You won't always have access to an outlet to charge your phone, so battery packs are invaluable. There are some solar options, although from my experience, the solar charge is a little disappointing. When riding on bright days, I was able to get a meaningful charge at the campground; but I wasn't always riding in bright, direct sunlight. I still got value out of it — but also plugged it in whenever possible.
This power bank [Amazon link], was the better battery by a long shot. it charged my phone quickly, multiple times, before needing to plug in to an outlet. I carried two battery packs because I had my phone + digital camera(s).
7. Shower Luxuries
A backpacking towel can dry you and itself quickly; luxury you didn’t know you needed. And a travel toiletry bags can keep you organized during those groggy mornings (or when you're zonked after a long day of riding). These offer a lot of comfort at a small expense.
8. Fun Stuff
One of the best tips I got on my tour — bring a frisbee. “It's a plate, it's a cutting board, it's a serving tray, and you never know if you're going to meet someone who wants to toss around a frisbee”. And if don't mind the extra weight, a hammock can be a wonderful on your rest day.
Looking to document your travels? Whether you're vlogging or simply capturing memorable moments, a lightweight digital camera can be worthwhile investment. Realistically you can get by with your phone, but if you want to elevate your game, the Sony ZV1 is a beast. And the Insta360 camera can capture amazing, drone-like, footage. Both are small, lightweight, and a lot of fun.
If you go for the Insta360 Camera, here are the accessories I used to get this shot.
If you are looking to shoot film, old Minoltas are bullet proof (although heavy). I mostly shot with an Olympus Pen S. But it's hard to beat the easy use and character of a disposable camera. They are lightweight, point-and-shoot, and some now are even reloadable. This is a fun, lightweight camera option.
Get After It! Adventure Awaits!