Touring on a mountain bike is a great way to escape your daily routine. Before you decide to use your mountain bike for touring make sure to prepare to prevent having to break off your trip.
Are mountain bikes suitable for road touring? Mountain bikes are great for touring. They’re strong, can deal with rough roads perfectly and it’s less likely to get a flat tire. It requires a bit more pedaling but with the right tires and handlebar, you have can make long-distance trips on a mountain bike.
There are a few things to keep in mind if you want to go touring on a mountain bike. Here are a few tips to get the most out of your trip.
The Benefits of Using a MTB for Touring
A mountain bike’s geometry is great for long-distance riding. You’re in a more upright position compared to road bikes.
Make sure you ride a hardtail, meaning a single suspension on the front. If you use a full suspension (back and front) it will be a frustrating ride. Never go full suspension when you plan to ride long distances.
The flat handlebars give you a stable and comfortable riding experience but your hand positions are limited. This might get a bit uncomfortable when you’re riding for a couple of hours but there are solutions that allow you to reposition your hands. I’ll get back to this later on.
Climbing is great on flat handlebars, great if you encounter a lot of hills on your trip. if you have an older mountain bike (26”) you’ll be able to climb much faster compared to a 29er.
On the subject of 29ers, these have become the standard but the 27.5” is catching up though. 29ers are great for longer distances, you need to paddle a bit harder to get up to speed but you can maintain speed much better compared to the older 26” models.
I toured on 26” mountain bikes and never felt the need for anything bigger back then until it was time to upgrade. It’s a huge difference when it comes to speed and distance, I wouldn’t go back but still love how my smaller MTB handles on trails.
There are a couple of drawbacks using a mountain bike for touring. Many of them can be solved by a few simple changes but others are harder, simply because a MTB isn’t really made for touring.
There are MTB’s designed for the roads and touring but I figure most people don’t have multiple MTB’s and you wouldn’t be here if you had one of these mountain bikes.
Saddle pain is real, when you’re riding for 10 hours straight it is going to hurt. Make sure to break in your saddle and ride as much as possible prior to your extended tour. You need to get used to a saddle and it will save you a lot of frustration and pain. Wear seamless pants to avoid friction, it will start to hurt badly after a while!
They don’t come with mudguards so get a pair of long mudguards to prevent dirt and water sprain your back and face. I hate getting mud in my mouth, I can feel the sands between my teeth for hours.
Suspension might be a bit of a drawback on long flat rides. They’re meant to reduce impacts from rough terrain and absorb shocks from rocks, bumps and tree roots. Modern suspension forks have a lockout which disables the suspension.
Your weight also has an impact on how much the suspension moves up and down. It’s not a huge drawback, but a stiff fork is probably more comfortable on flat roads. You can replace it with a stiffer fork but ask your local bike shop about what you need, make sure it fits.
Handlebars: Butterfly, Try, and Aero
Definitely go with butterfly bars, they allow you to change your position when you get annoyed leaning on the bars or feel a slight pain in your wrists. They also allow you to lean over a bit more when climbing uphill. If you’re doing a 300-500 mile trip you’re going to love them.
Other options are trybars or aerobats, but it’s very uncommon. You see them on road bikes a lot, but you can also mount them on a mountain bike. Not every mountain bike can carry them so make sure that it doesn’t get in the way of any cables, you still need to be able to brake.
While these bars allow you to change positions, they’re not very aerodynamic. You’re not going for a speed trial so it’s not something to really worry about. I’ve seen people riding mountain bikes with trybars so it should be possible to get one that fits your mountain bike. I still would recommend butterfly bars though.
If your bike isn’t compatible you can always try to fit a different handlebar which allows you to ride more comfortably on longer distances. I personally never had any issues on 3 hour plus trips using a regular MTB handlebar.
I just lean forward on my handlebar for a while or hold the bars from below (thumbs up and pointing outwards) to change position for a while.
Get rid of Knobby Tires
Knobby tires are great for trails on rough terrain but awful for long trips. Make sure to replace them or it’s going to be a tough ride. It takes a lot of effort to maintain speed.
While this isn’t a problem the first hour it might become a frustrating ride and you have to pedal hard to keep going.
Get tires with a slick profile. They allow you to maintain your speed and require less pedaling. Knobby tires are horrible on roads if you’re riding longer than 3 hours. I recommend the Continental Travel Contact tires. They have a slick profile but also knows on the outside to maintain grip!
Racks, Bags, and Panniers
Most of the hardtail mountain bikes allow for a rack and bags if you plan to take a lot of stuff with you. Some people like to go on a bike vacation and pack everything possible.
Installing racks might be to be a challenge depending on your but your local bike shop can help you out. Parts like disc brakes can get in the way but your LBS can advise you what to get. You can do it yourself but it depends on a few factors. It can be very easy or a bit harder. Here’s an article that dives into the specifics.
If you can fit a rack, make sure your wheel can handle the load. Your rear wheel might be suitable for road riding but the extra weight could cause it to collapse under the weight as soon as you hit a bump.
You’ll need something with a decent rear hub and if your wheel is old, have it checked before you go. You can also check for small panniers that can fit on your front wheel. They affect handling and make your bike less responsive to practice before you head out.
The rule of thumb is, when you need rear and front panniers, you’re carrying too much!
If you only need to pack lightly, consider a handlebar bag. Don’t put heavy stuff in there, it’s hard to make last-minute corrections if it’s too heavy.
If a rack isn’t enough you can even go for a bike trailer. They allow you to pack a ton of luggage but probably only suitable for extremely long trips.
Mountain Bike Tire Pressure for Road Touring
Mountain bikers like to ride on tires with less pressure to increase traction on trails and tracks. Make sure to increase pressure, it will make your trip a lot smoother. On roads, you want the least resistance possible to maintain momentum and keep you from pedaling like a madman.
The proper PSI depends on the type of tire. Google has the answer.
Repair Kits and Spare Parts
Make sure to bring a repair kit and at least one spare tube. Repair kits are absolutely necessary for long trips. Flat tires aren’t uncommon, a nail or small piece of glass can ruin your ride if you hit them in the wrong angle.
Replacing a tube might be necessary if a tear is too big to patch. And extra inner tube doesn’t weigh much and saves you hours of walking. Your trip has to be fun, not a hellish experience.
Just make sure you know how to repair a flat tire, or replace a tube. It’s not that hard and shouldn’t take a lot of time if you do it right. Bring the right tools to make your life easier, removing and adding the tire is hard to do by just using your hands.
Other Stuff to Bring Along
I probably don’t have to tell you this but bring some rations. Food like nutrition bars or energy gels to refuel your energy and of course proper food if you go for a really long ride.
Short tours don’t require much, but some rations won’t hurt.
Tips for Short Tours
Pack lightly, if you’re going on a 4-5 hour tour, you don’t need much other than enough water. A repair kit, a spare tube, and a pump to inflate the tube are basically all you need.
Don’t forget your phone and bring some cash, let someone know you went for a ride (and where).
Tips for Extended Touring (like days)
If you’re planning a vacation and plan to ride your mountain bike, make sure to plan ahead and bring stuff that can help you survive. This may sound a bit dramatic but you need to think about what happens if you’re in the middle of nowhere. Without cell coverage or any way to contact someone, you need to make sure to survive.
Bring plenty of water and don’t forget your GPS. Your phone has GPS but might not have enough battery power, also bring a power bank. There are ways to recharge your phone but a dedicated GPS device may be a good idea depending on the duration and distance of your trip.
Plan your trip ahead, show relatives which places you’re going to visit and share a map highlighting your trip. Update them regularly on your whereabouts. Apps like FiendMyFriend are able to show your location (and of course WhatsApp).
Keep a list of contacts somewhere (on paper) in case your phone’s battery dies. Bring your credit card and cold hard cash just in case you need to get a cab. Get a cheap compass and a paper map in just in case.
Bring a tent to shelter from rain or sleep in and a foam rubber mattress. Consider bringing a small portable stove (like the ones backpackers carry), a warm meal can really lift the spirit.
These are the basics, make sure to consult expert sites on this subject and ask around on forums and Reddit. I’m sure I forgot a bunch of important things.
To Sum it all Up
Mountain bikes are good for long-distance travel. They are strong, can take a beating and are reliable. It might take a bit more effort compared to a road bike but a few minor changes make a big difference.
Plan ahead and take the proper precautions to deal with accidents or parts breaking down. If you go out for a few days, bring rations and repair kits to fix your bike when needed.
Longer trips require more planning, be safe and prepare. Water, food, GPS and a phone that doesn’t run out of batteries in half a day. Check if you can recharge when planning your route and inform relatives about your trip.
Replace knobby tires by slicker profiles and don’t go on trips and a full-suspension mountain bike. Inspect your bike before you go out and make sure all the parts are in order. Consider having it checked by your local bike shop if you’re going for multiple days. Better safe than sorry.
I almost forgot, enjoy your trip and be safe out there!