Bikepacking VS Bike Touring: The Key Differences
With the increasing popularity of bikepacking, you might be wondering what the differences are between bikepacking and touring bikes. Are the actual bikes made differently or is it just the bags that differentiate the two?
It’s always best to use the right tool for the right job, so if you want to know more about what makes a bikepacking bike different, read on and let’s take a look at what separates one type from the other.
Categories of Bikepacking and Touring Bikes
Handlebar type is a good place to begin when comparing bikepacking and touring bikes. There is plenty of crossover between bike types, and some bikepacking gravel bikes have fender and rack mounts, while some touring bikes have drop handlebars. Below is a breakdown of the most common touring bike configurations:
- Long distance touring (with flat or drop handlebars)
- Off-road touring (with flat or drop handlebars)
- Long distance trekking (with flat handlebars)
- Bikepacking, light touring or gravel (with drop handlebars)
- Step-thru touring (with flat handlebars)
Bikepacking Bikes are generally lighter
Bikepacking often entails cycling off the beaten track, perhaps across rough terrain or unpaved roads, so riders need something that can handle a load off-road.
Consider a bikepacking bike like a cross between a road bike and a mountain bike. Bikepacking bikes are typically on the lighter side, as they are designed to be a little more nimble on technical terrain.
Touring bikes are usually designed to carry heavy loads over long distances, paved or unpaved as can bikepacking bikes, but they aren’t exactly the same.
It is not only important for a bike designer to create frames which will support a heavy rider, but also use strong, durable components. The weakest part of a touring bike are usually the wheels, which is why touring bikes tend to have higher spoke counts and heavy duty rims than their bikepacking counterparts.
The disadvantage to this is the bike ends up weighing more. Touring bikes start around 14 kilos while bikepacking bikes weigh from around 10 to 14 kilos or around 22 to 30 pounds.
Whether you are a 60 kilo cyclist with 10 kilos of luggage, or a 45 kilo cyclist with 25 kilos of luggage, the total weight is the same. What matters though is weight distribution. A heavy equipment load will require a stiff-framed bike.
Bikepacking Bikes offer lower frame stiffness
As weight is the primary design consideration in a bikepacking setup, most such bikes offer a less stiff frame. The most important frame tubes are the down tube and top tube. These are the parts which resist the majority of the twisting forces occurring between rear and front luggage.
The thickest wall and biggest diameter tubing is typically found on a touring bike. Bikepackers usually carry less equipment, meaning lighter frame tubes can be used. This results in a more nimble experience when you ride it without luggage, because there is more flex in the frame.
If you do want a lighter framed bike, you could carry your luggage at one end or in a trailer, else you will need to go for something heavier, since you can’t have frame flex and heavy load capability at the same time.
If you are planning to bring a lot of equipment with you, such as a lot of water and a week’s worth of food, it’s important to ensure your bikepacking rig is as stiff as you’d get with a touring bike.
Fewer accessory frame mount options
Touring bikes always have fender and rack mounts, while these may be optional on bikepacking bikes.
Kickstands are common on touring bikes but not bikepacking bikes, for the reason that a bike with panniers won’t like flat well. Bikepacking bikes might have mounts for a direct mount frame pack as well as top tube bag. You might also find chainstay and seatstay mounts too.
Once again, as a premium is put on reduced weight, a bikepacking setup usually features lower volume bikepacking specific bags that can be firmly strapped to a conventional road or mountain bike type frame, without the need for specific hardware mounting points.
Shorter Chainstays on Bikepacking Bikes
There are several reasons why touring bikes have long chainstays. First, they make sure your heels don’t collide with the panniers when you’re riding. Second, they extend the wheelbase to give you stability regardless of load weight. Third, bigger rear bags mean a substantial weight bias at the rear, and longer chainstays can help shift forward the center of mass.
Chainstays on bikepacking bikes are typically 20 or 30mm shorter. There shouldn’t be any issues with ride stability or heel strike because of the lower load limit and different bag design. Shorter chainstays mean a defter biking experience and more maneuverable bike. Some people say shorter chainstays help you accelerate quicker, but that’s debatable.
Off-Road Terrain Suits Bikepacking Bikes
Most of these bikes are designed for off-road terrain, although some are purpose built for on-road trips. The wheel specifications of a bikepacking bike are a key part of determining the bike’s off-road capabilities. The quickest option for a lightweight road tour would probably be a fat tire road bike or gravel bike.
Fewer gears, higher Gear Ratios on Bikepacking Bikes
While the ideal climbing gear on touring bikes should be 20 gear inches or under, you are less likely to be carrying excessive weight up hills on bikepacking bikes, so they can have a higher climbing gear. Good bikepacking bikes have the same climbing gears (or less) than touring bikes. They are also often designed for off-road riding with more slippery and/or steeper gradients.
1X Drivetrains More Common on Bikepacking Bikes
1X drivetrains are the most popular choice for bikepacking bikes. They offer shorter chainstays and more tire clearance than a front derailleur setup. A 1X drivetrain means you don’t have to make fine gear adjustments on steep surfaces, although the gear jumps are bigger.
Lighter, more expensive Components on Bikepacking Bikes
Because a bikepacking trip may be shorter compared to a bike touring trip, you will likely be closer to bike shops rather than in the middle of nowhere. This means if you have a problem with the bike, you will be able to get a professional repair, get spares, or send in warranty-covered parts. Because of this, many bikepacking bikes favour light weight over serviceability.
A dedicated touring bike isn’t as likely to have the integrated shifters, suspension forks, press fit bracket bearings, carbon or titanium frame, found on a bikepacking bike.
The comparatively simple parts found on well specced touring bikes can more easily be fixed or replaced in any bike shop, in any part of the world. However, with the increased reliability of components such as hydraulic brakes, these components are featured increasingly on touring bikes too.
What About a Dual-Use Bikepacking and Touring Bike?
If you still aren’t sure which type of bike is right for you, you might be happy to know you can get good bikes which can handle both touring and bikepacking with comfort and ease.
Most decent Gravel bikes now feature higher head tubes for comfortable long-distance riding, reliable components, low gear ratios for climbing, and wider tires for off-road use. Most gravel bikes offer room for fenders, touring racks or cargo cage bags, so you could easily set it up for a fast, light off or on road trip, or add panniers for a longer tour.
Summing Up the Differences
Although a touring bike or bikepacking bike can be used for a multi day bicycle tour, you might like to take into account the surfaces you will use, your total load, how steep the terrain will be, and whether or not you will be near bike repair workshops.
Bikepacking has gone from almost unknown to skyrocketing in popularity just over the past decade, but that doesn’t mean a bikepacking bike is better than a touring bike, or vice versa. It simply means there are different bikes and setups for every cyclist.
Perhaps a touring-bikepacking hybrid would suit you best, if you take different types of trips with different durations, terrains and surfaces. This will be an overbuilt model with mounts for cargo cage bags, racks and fenders, as well as generous tire clearances, such as a classic Gravel bike.
If you prefer to choose one type over the other however, this is a summary of how touring bikes and bikepacking bikes differ:
- Tougher components and frames
- Ride well with luggage
- Fender and rack mounts at least
- Simpler components
- Lower gear ratios
- Stiffer frames to support more weight
- More complex components
- Cargo cage mounts at least
- Less overbuilt frames and components
- A more nimble ride when not loaded
- Slightly higher gear ratios
- Less frame stiffness for a lighter load
Now you know the key differences between these types of bikes, you are all ready to make your choice. The most important question is, which setup will be most comforatble for your style of riding and which bike will you actually enjoy and ride the most? Happy cycling!