Understanding the Different Types of Touring Bike Available

Alee January 29, 2014 2

Do you know the difference between a 'trekking' bike and a 'long distance' touring bike? How about between a 'cyclocross' and 'fondo' bike? It took us a while to understand each category of touring bike, and now we'll do our best to explain them to you.

– We discuss geometry in this article – if you're unfamiliar with what it all means, makes sure to read our resource: Understanding Bicycle Frame Geometry.

– If you're interested in what companies and manufacturers make touring bikes, check out our Complete List of Touring Bikes Available.

Long Distance Touring Bikes

AKA Traditional Touring Bike, Long Haul Touring Bike


A long distance touring bike is designed around bike travel on all types of terrain, and is capable with very heavy loads. Most often steel, long distance frames are stiffer than anything else available because they use heavier frame tubing in larger diameters. They also have a wide range of gear ratios to get you up the steepest hills, a heavy but strong part specification, provision for a front rack, 3+ bidon cage mounts, long chainstays for ample heel clearance from your pannier bags, and a long, stable wheelbase. You will be able to mount touring specific tyres over 40c (700c) or 2.0″ (26″) in these frames. They aren't the fastest bikes around, but when loaded with panniers, they certainly are comfortable and confidence inspiring.


The geometry charts show slack head and seat tube angles, high fork trail, long headtubes, long chainstays and low bottom brackets.


Surly Disc Trucker

Light Touring Bikes

AKA Sport Touring, Road Touring


Light tourers use a tweaked road bike geometry to produce a fast bike that takes panniers – they are best suited to lighter loads and road use. Typically you will find them with 700c wheels, narrow tyres and mid-high gear ratios: all of which are perfect for what they are designed for, the pavement. Be aware that there is often limited space for wide tyres/mudguards, and that there is often no small chainring ratio for steep climbs.


The geometry charts show that almost all measurements (head angle, seat angle, chainstay length, fork trail) are somewhat half way between that of a long distance touring bike and a road racing bike. They share a lot of geometry characteristics and handling features with cyclocross/gravel bikes.


Sabbath Silk Route

Trekking Bikes

AKA Hybrid Bike, Flat Bar Road Bike


Trekking bikes are based on a 'hybrid' bicycle and are most popular with European brands. If light tourers are based on road bikes, trekking bikes are based more around a mountain bike. They are often designed around carrying light loads, and are often equipped with a rear rack, a suspension fork, an aluminium frame and gear ratios suited to sealed roads and bicycle paths. They are light, quick, super upright and comfortable – great for bike paths, but perhaps not fast or durable enough for long distance touring.


The geometry charts show slack head and seat tube angles, high fork trail, long headtubes, long chainstays and low bottom brackets.


Stevens Sovereign SX

Dual Suspension Touring Bikes


Essentially dual suspension mountain bikes with tweaked angles and a higher front-end, these touring-specific bikes have racks built above the suspension allowing your pannier weight to be 'sprung' with you. The result? Suspension dampening that works effectively! We would love to test ride one loaded up, on rough terrain.


Tout Terrain Panamericana

Cargo Touring Bikes


Cargo bikes are great for big loads, carrying oddly shaped objects, or transporting children. You can squeeze two children's seats on the back tray as well as loads of gear! We've seen cargo tourers carrying para gliders, surfboards, or simply cycling with more panniers than usual. Cargo bikes don't all look like the bike below, they come in a range of different designs.


Surly Big Dummy

Recumbent Touring Bikes


If you've ever spoken to a recumbent cyclist, you'll know that most swear to never ride a conventional bike again. We've met a bunch of 'bent' riders in our time who talk about no sore bums, backs or shoulders. Sounds pretty good to us. There are of course disadvantages such as: when climbing steep hills you cannot use your body weight to push the pedals down, being less visible to cars and it's harder to obtain spare parts. Recumbent tourers come in many different forms, including trikes.


Nazca Pioneer

Folding Touring Bikes


Folding bikes are brilliant for world travel. There are so many times when we've been on trains, in trucks and hitch hiked where we wished our bike folded up. Dealing with transport is, no doubt, the most stressful time in our travels!


Bike Friday New World Traveller

Tandem Touring Bikes


We originally ignored the idea of touring on a tandem, but the more we rode our singles together, the more we wanted to switch to a tandem. They're faster, more social, good for inexperienced cyclists (at the rear) and great for couples with a large difference in speed/ability. We wouldn't travel together any other way! Note: Tandems also come as folding, recumbent and semi-recumbent bikes.


Co-Motion Equator

Other Categories – Road Based

Cyclocross Bikes

A bicycle marketed at 'cyclocross' can make a great touring bike, as the geometry is almost the same as a 'light tourer', albeit with shorter chainstays. Be aware that they are best for light loads given their lightweight package, and that a cyclocross gear range lacks low end gears – you will most likely need to swap the drivetrain to something with a wider spread. Example: Kona Jake the Snake.

Gravel Bikes

Over the past couple of years, the bicycle industry has created this “new” category. Gravel bikes essentially have the same geometry as 'light touring' bikes, and some even have eyelets for a rear rack. The thing that makes them different is that gravel bikes/frames are lightweight, and aren't reinforced for pannier weight… light loads only! Example: Co-Motion Klatch.

Randonneur/Audax Bikes

Given that you can ride a brevet/randonee/cyclosportive event on almost any bike, randonneur/audax bikes as a marketed product aren't too common, in fact, most bikes in this style are custom builds. The current trend is to use 650b wheels and wide tyres to maximise rider comfort. Interestingly, many randonneur frames use a 'low-trail' front end, less than even a road race bike. From what we know about 'trail', this bucks the trend whereby bikes that carry front loads (touring bikes) typically have the most trail, and those which need to be more nimble (road bikes) have the least trail. Example: Soma Grand Randonneur.

Road / Endurance / Sportive / Gran Fondo Bikes

Road bikes (and their sub-categories) can be great for lightweight road touring. You can use a handlebar bags/slings, frame bags and seat bags to support a minimal load. 'Sportive', 'Endurance' and 'Gran Fondo' marketed bikes include minor design and geometry changes to optimise comfort over a 'race' road bike. Example: Cannondale Synapse.

Other Categories – Off-Road Based

29er Touring Bikes

This relatively new category of touring bike is essentially a 29er (700c) mountain bike with a higher front end and provision for racks, lights and water bottle cages. The advantage with these bikes is that you can fit 2.3″ mountain bike tyres (great on rough roads) and still have lots of frame clearance for mud. Examples: Salsa Fargo, Surly Ogre, Co-Motion Divide.

Mountain Bikes

A typical mountain bike, most noticeable by its front suspension fork, can be used as a dedicated touring bike. But be aware that mountain bike frames and parts are often designed around strength-to-weight, rather than outright stiffness, so light loads are recommended. Example: Jamis Dragon 650b.

Expedition Bikes

Expedition bikes are as close as touring bikes get to mountain bikes. They are specially designed to take on the worst conditions (snow, ice, mud, sand, corrugations) in the most remote environments. Although almost any long-distance touring bicycle can be considered an 'expedition' bicycle given their relatively bombproof part spec (durable and heavy!), expedition rigs take it up a notch again. They typically employ 26″ wheels, 2.00″+ tyres, straight handlebars and sometimes Rohloff hubs. Example: Thorn Raven Sterling.

Fat Bikes

What started off as a novelty has really taken off in the last few years. Fat bikes are most notible by their 3.5″+ tyres which are capable of snow and sand riding in places that haven't been explored by bike before. They are now being picked up by those adventurous enough to take on deserts and snow fields! Example: Surly Moonlander.

For lots more examples of touring bikes, check out our Complete List of Touring Bicycles Available.

Have we missed any categories? Leave us a comment


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  • Stephen Black

    With reference to “Have we missed any categories?” As a 63 year old going on 18 I had to think carefully about my next touring bicycle. I recently bought a HP Velotechnik Gekko tricycle from http://www.fairweathercycles.co.uk/ The main reason was balance, sad to say that as you get older balancing on two wheels can be a problem. BTW a great website.

  • http://aushiker.com/ Aushiker

    In respect to recumbent touring bikes if you take a look at Crazy Guy On A Bike you will one of it not the most popular recumbent for touring is a long-wheel base bike such as the Easy Racer Tour Easy or Gold Rush Replica. These bikes having said that are much harder to come by in Australia and importation while possible is expensive.

    That said an interesting read. Thanks for posting it.