If you’re new to the world of gravel bike touring, you might be wondering what this new star of the cycling scene is all about.

In a nutshell, gravel bike tours are ideal for those who want to ride across various types of terrain on a multi day cycling adventure.

In this article we look at what gravel bike touring is and how it differs to cycle touring and bikepacking. We also look at things to consider before your first gravel bike tour, what kind of bike to use and who gravel bike tours are for. Read on to discover more about this exciting new type of adventure cycling.

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What is gravel bike touring?

Gravel bike adventures have become increasingly popular within the cycling community in recent years.

But exactly what do we mean when we talk about gravel bike touring?

Taking a gravel bike tour involves taking to mostly unpaved surfaces, including bike trails and unpaved roads. It involves riding on terrain which includes uneven and loose surfaces.

It’s called gravel bike touring, but gravel isn’t the only surface you’re likely to encounter. Gravel bikes are designed to handle rough terrains, and are tough enough to let you ride on surfaces such as rough grass, dirt paths, and even rocky trails. Gravel bike holidays reflect this and might include independent biking off the beaten track as well as some riding on paved roads and paved paths.

In short, gravel cycling lies somewhere on the spectrum between road cycling and mountain biking. This is reflected in a typical gravel bike touring setup, which combines the dropped handlebars of road cycling with the more rugged, wide tyres found on hybrid or even mountain bikes. Additionally, gravel bikes often come with features like disc brakes and sometimes even suspension systems, which further enhance their capability to handle different surfaces.

A final point to mention is the spirit, or ethos, of adventure cycling. It’s about appreciating the natural environment, stewardship of it and conservation.

Gravel bike on an off-road cycle path in the middle of a gravel bike tour

Gravel bike tour on the way to the Bay of the Somme, France

Gravel bike touring vs bikepacking

Bikepacking is making waves when it comes to travelling on two wheels. In fact the term “bikepacking” is probably better known than “gravel bike touring”.

So what’s the difference between the two?

Bikepacking

Bikepacking is, in essence, a way of going on a cycling trip for a few days. The aim is to travel light and with minimal gear, in order to keep the experience about the riding. The average bikepacker – who may also be a keen gravel rider – will carry bikepacking bags on their bike frame rather than using a rack and panniers. Rides are usually, but not always, unsupported and often camp or stay at other basic accommodation.

A bikepacking trip can be done on many types of bike. For example

  • Road bikes are a potential choice for bikepacking – assuming speed is your thing, you’re happy to stay on-road pretty much all of the time and stay in hotels or B&Bs. Admittedly, the term bikepacking is usually reserved for off-road adventures, but it doesn’t have to be off-road only.
  • Gravel bikes can be ideal for bikepacking, as they are more rugged than road bikes but lighter in weight than mountain bikes. This means they’re great on tarmac but you can also enjoy forest roads and some singletracks. However they often have quite a racing style geometry that doesn’t offer a very upright position (i.e. not a very forgiving ride). They also can’t take too much loading and probably won’t be up to mountain bike trails or more challenging singletrack if you’re aiming to ride that kind of trail. If you hit a rough patch, a gravel bike will also struggle more than the average mountain bike would.
  • For these reasons, hardtail mountain bikes are also the choice of many a bikepacker – though not the ones looking to go fast in a bikepacking endurance race or similar.
  • E-versions of all these bikes are also a feasible choice, assuming you’re staying somewhere you can charge your battery overnight.

Gravel bike tour

A gravel bike tour can be thought of as a certain kind (or subset) of bikepacking.

  • Gravel bike tours use gravel bikes rather than mountain bikes or road bikes.
  • A gravel bike tour is generally thought of as being less self-sufficient and potentially more luxurious than bikepacking.
  • As limited loads are advisable on a gravel bike, supported gravel bike tours might well see riders carry just a day bag.
Bikepacker riding on a singletrack path above a river in the highlands of Tusheti region, Georgia

Bikepacking on a mountain bike in the highlands of Tusheti region, Georgia

Gravel bike touring vs bikepacking vs bike touring

Now you know what gravel touring and bikepacking are, how about traditional bike touring?

Bike touring

Cycle touring is more of a general term that may be used to describe any kind of travelling by bike. That said, here are a few rules of thumb:

  • Touring cyclists tend to carry more luggage than bikepackers or gravel bike tourers. Often luggage is on racks or panniers.
  • They tend to ride mostly on paved surfaces.
  • They may ride a road bike, leisure bike, e-bike or gravel bike. They’re less likely to ride a mountain bike.

Bikepacking

By contrast, bikepacking is more about off-road adventure where the focus is more on the riding than the travelling. People tend to use frame bags and have less luggage.

Gravel bike tours

Gravel bike tours tend to be like cycle touring in that they focus on travel, but like bikepacking in that luggage is kept to a minimum. DIY gravel tours may see riders carry luggage using frame bags, but often gravel bike tours are supported by gravel cycling holiday companies who provide a guide and luggage transfers.

Classic cycle tourist with panniers on the Karakorum Highway

Bike touring through Karakorum mountains in northern Pakistan.

Why do a gravel bike tour?

Escape the crowds and traffic

When you’re able to ride on surfaces other than smooth tarmac, it’s easy to stay away from traffic. And other people!

You’ll have more gravel bike touring routes open to you, as you can combine tarmac with unpaved surfaces. Such areas tend to have fewer cyclists, and of course there’s often no road traffic at all.

Get off the beaten path

Being able to stray away from tarmac means you can explore the world a whole lot more. The USA alone has an estimated 2.2 million miles of unpaved, gravel roads!

Whether it’s discovering your local area on a gravel touring bike in the UK, or travelling by gravel bike through the USA, having more surfaces to choose from means you can get off the well-beaten tourist – and cyclist – track.

Gravel bike tours get you into the heart of nature.

Adventure

For some cyclists, the sense of adventure instilled by moving over uneven surfaces on two wheels is what attracts them to gravel biking. The fact that it feels more like uncharted territory and you’re (pretty much) on your own, adds to the thrill.

You might also get an adrenaline rush from tackling a bumpy ride rather than smooth tarmac – whether that’s an uphill slog, travelling over flat terrain or a fast descent.

Gravel bike fully packed with bikepacking bags

Gravel bike kitted out and ready to go bikepacking

Things to be aware of

As you might expect, riding on loose, uneven surfaces like gravel does have its challenges. If you’re weighing up a gravel bike holiday versus a classic touring bike holiday, then there are a few things to think about.

  • Going off road means riding on surfaces that may have more potential to cause you to fall – though on the plus side they should also be free from the risks posed by traffic.
  • You might also be further from help should you need it.

Here are a few ways you can mitigate these risks, before heading off on a multi day epic adventure:

  • Ge some long gravel day rides in on varied terrain not too far from home (or someone supporting you). This will develop your confidence and bike handling skills, as well as your technical skills, and should stand you in good stead for coping with a longer trip.
  • Brush up on your mechanical skills, so you know how to do the basic bike repairs if you’re out there alone and with no bike mechanic to rely on.
  • Make sure your bike and kit is in good repair and up to endless hours of riding on varied types of roads and trails. Everything from brakes to small things like your water bottles fitting your bottle cages properly, so that they don’t fall.
  • Depending where you’re riding, you might also need to consider any dangers posed by local wildlife, such as bears, dogs and snakes.
  • Consider your backup plan in case of a mechanical you can’t fix or a medical emergency. Brush up on your first aid skills, make sure you’ve got a way of navigating if you don’t have phone reception, find out where the nearest bike shops are on your route and tell someone where you’re going and your expected timings. Some of the apps mentioned in this article might come in handy, though remember you might not always have reception.
Tent and gravel bike in a field

Ready to camp!

Types of bikes for gravel touring

Is buying the best gravel bike for touring you can afford the only option when it comes to taking this kind of trip?

No! Depending on the terrain, you may well be able to take to the gravel on a wide range of other types of bike. A bike that’s not specifically designed for gravel or touring may not be as comfortable as a purpose built bike, but don’t let it stop you getting started. If you are going on a tour but don’t have the perfect bike, you can also consider the option of bike hire. This will also give you the opportunity to experience different bike brands before you buy.

Here’s an outline – plus the various pros and cons involved – in riding gravel on road, adventure, cyclocross, touring and mountain bikes. As well as gravel bikes, of course!

Road bikes

With road bikes, it’s all about speed, and thus smooth movement over tarmac surfaces. Sometimes, in fact, road bikes are referred to as racing bikes for this reason. Drop handlebars, a lightweight frame and narrow tyres, with a low maximum tyre clearance, characterise a road bike.

Everything on a road bike, even an endurance road bike, will be as lightweight and aerodynamic as possible. This is not always ideal for gravel bike rides, as this kind of build is not as sturdy as a gravel, adventure or mountain bike. The risks of injury, punctures and damage to your precious carbon frame might be higher when using a road bike off-road.

Pros:

  • Built for speed
  • Ultra lightweight

Cons:

  • Narrow tyre widths are prone to puncture and aren’t comfortable off-road
  • Higher risk of bike damage
  • Not the safest choice for uneven surfaces
  • Not really tough enough for much off-road use

Gravel bikes

A gravel bike lies somewhere between a road bike and a mountain bike. It has the sporty frame and dropped handlebars of the former, teamed with chunkier, grippier tyres than those found on the average road bike.

Gravel bikes are tougher than road bikes, yet faster than mountain bikes. They’re not only suitable for riding on gravel. Instead, this is a versatile type of bike that you can ride on tarmac, trails and mud.

Pros:

  • Sporty and stable design
  • Lighter than a mountain bike
  • Suitable for multiple surfaces

Cons:

  • Heavier than a road bike
  • Not as rugged as a mountain bike
  • Not built to carry heavy loads so might be less good for long tours

Adventure bikes

The terms adventure bike and gravel bike are often used interchangeably by bike manufacturers. It can often be down to what the individual manufacturer decides to call their bike. Like a product that’s labelled as a gravel bike, an adventure bike is designed for a multitude of surfaces.

Adventure bikes offer the rider lots of choice, as you have the freedom to ride wherever you want to. This type of bike is made to optimise control and comfort levels, and to offer better ground clearance too.

Pros:

  • Ideal for gravel
  • Great ground clearance
  • Good for a multitude of surfaces

Cons:

  • Confusion over adventure bike vs gravel bike
  • Not ideal for road cycling or mountain biking

Cyclocross bikes

A cyclocross bike is specially designed for this cycling discipline. Looking quite like a road bike, it is made for cyclocross racing. This takes place on a variety of surfaces, including sand, grass, mud or even snow.

Good cyclocross (or CX) racers are fast like road cyclists, yet as agile as a decent mountain biker. The bikes they ride have dropped handlebars and narrow wheels, but differ from regular road bikes because of the higher, shorter frame that’s designed for tackling technical terrain.

Pros:

  • Fast and lightweight
  • Specially made for the cyclocross sport
  • Frame stands up to technical riding

Cons:

  • Not the most comfortable ride for prolonged periods
  • Tyres aren’t the best suited to gravel
  • Not set up for touring

Touring bike

A dedicated touring bike isn’t really built for speed over tarmac. Nor is it specifically designed for off-road cycling adventures. Rather, a touring bike is made, first and foremost, with carrying heavy loads in mind, and is thus a more robust type of cycle.

While touring bikes aren’t ideal when you want speed or seamless movement over uneven surfaces, they are perfect for some purposes, including all-day bike tours, longer riding trips and bikepacking. A typical touring bike has more chunky tyres than a road bike, and lots of points where you can attach bags and other items.

Pros:

  • Very robust build
  • Ideal for carrying heavy loads
  • Perfect for longer cycling trips

Cons:

  • Not the fastest type of bike
  • Heavy, especially when fully loaded
  • Other types are better suited to gravel

Mountain bikes

Mountain bikes are specifically designed for off-road use. A sturdy frame, thicker tyres with added grip and higher handlebars characterise this type of bike. They typically have front suspension (hardtail mountain bikes), and may also have rear suspension (full suspension mountain bikes), to absorb shock.

Because of the suspension, they give the rider a smoother cycling experience on uneven surfaces. They’re not ideal for road riding, however, as they are slower and heavier than road bikes.

Pros:

  • Ultra tough build
  • Suspension for shock absorption
  • Can handle almost any type of surface

Cons:

  • Heavier than other types of bike
  • Slow-moving on the road
Gravel bike with red bridge in background

Gravel touring bike bike at whitewater park on the Poudre River in downtown of Fort Collins, Colorado

Who is gravel bike touring for?

Gravel bike touring is ideal for anyone who wants the flexibility and freedom of being able to ride off-road. Unless you’re a die-hard tarmac fanatic who wouldn’t dream of leaving those smooth surfaces behind, then a gravel bike can really get you into nature.

The popularity of gravel bikes has skyrocketed in recent years, and it’s easy to see why. With many of the advantages of road and mountain bikes, these machines are built for adventure. The uses of these multi-purpose bikes stretch way beyond riding over gravel, as they can be used both on and off the tarmac.

Gravel bike touring is, in short, suitable for anyone who wants to get off the beaten track. Even if that’s only now and then.

Final thoughts

The best gravel cycling holidays get you riding somewhere new, in nature, with friends.

From discovering the cycle trails near your own backyard to taking prolonged gravel bike tours of the USA, a gravel bike opens up a lot of possibilities. Getting off-road whenever you want to gives you scope. Unless it really is all about speed for you, then surely gravel bike touring has to be worth a try?

Want further inspiration for your gravel adventures?

Check out our articles on multi-day cycling routes, touring by e-bike and planning family cycling holidays.

 

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Clare Dewey

Clare Dewey is a cyclist with a passion for travel. She set up epicroadrides.com in 2018 to help make it easy for cyclists to explore the world by bike. Today her mission is still inspiring cyclists to discover new places on two wheels – and doing what she can to make sure they have the best possible time while they’re there. Clare has visited 50+ destinations around the world, many of them by bike.

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2 Responses to “What is gravel bike touring (+ why do it)?”

  1. Dear Clare
    I’m of an age when I am beginning to despair of all this talk about gravel bikes as if they were new.
    In the 1980s, to travel off road with luggage we just put panniers on our road/touring bikes and set off. I did the largely off-road coast to coast like this, with my 10 year old son.
    More recently I rode across the Pyrenees and then to Santiago de Compostella on a hard-tail old-school mountain bike. All my partner and I did was put narrow tyres on because We knew we’d be travelling some of the way on tarmac. We carried tents and the wherewithal to live.
    Did I, at that stage, make a gravel bike?
    I feel there’s a lot of marketing hype going into persuading people they need to buy a special bike for every occasion. Not true! You can usually modify an existing bike at a fraction of the price.
    Just look at the photos from the Rough Stuff Fellowship. Nothing is new. Just re-invented for those that were born later!

    • Hi Rob, all very good points! Lots of people say gravel was invented in the US but absolutely, look at the Rough Stuff Fellowship and they were at it in the 50s!

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