“Bikepacking is really about adapting to ever-changing conditions, and yet there hasn’t been a tire that is designed specifically for bikepacking”Lael Wilcox, 2015 Tour Divide World Record Holder.
In this guide, we walk you through the basics of bikepacking tires to help you make the best choice for your bikepacking adventures ahead. The best bikepacking tire for you will depend on a variety of factors including the type of bicycle you ride, the terrain you ride on and your style of riding. Across the board, there are several essential qualities that you need to look for in any tire intended for bikepacking use:
- Durability: Bikepacking tires need to be tough enough to handle hazards such as pointy rocks and spiny vegetation for miles and days on end. We generally recommend tubeless tire setups for off-road and gravel road conditions. For more road oriented conditions the jury is still out between tubeless and standard, extra-durable, touring-grade tires.
- Comfort: Covering long distances, day after day over uneven roads and rough trails can really wear you down over the long haul. We recommend using larger-volume tires that allow for running lower pressures for a more comfortable ride. Additionally tires with more compliant side walls can offer a more supple ride, though at the cost of being less durable in harsher terrains.
- Rolling Resistance: Finding the tire with the best balance of speed and traction for the wide variety of terrain that one may encounter on a bikepacking trip can be a tricky balancing act. In general, we recommend tires that have a tread pattern with suitable traction and handling on the roughest parts of your journey, but ideally also can still be fast rolling on the smoother sections..
Determining Your Tire Width Constraints
Before you begin shopping for tires to optimize your bicycle for your upcoming bikepacking adventure, you’ll need to determine the wheel size of your bicycle and the range of tire widths that will fit your bicycle frame. You’ll also need to determine whether your wheels are tubeless tire compatible or not. If they are, then you’ll have the option of using tubeless tires.
The upper constraint of the tire width that you can use on your bicycle is defined by the widest tire that will have sufficient clearance within your frame and fork.
The lower constraint on your tire width is less clearly defined. The issues that can arise with going with a tire that is too narrow for your bicycle frame and fork arise from the fact that a smaller diameter tire results in a smaller overall outer tire diameter. This can alter the geometry of the bicycle and with that your bicycle’s handling characteristics. Additionally, the smaller outer tire diameter will lower the bottom bracket which can cause clearance issues for your cranks and bottom bracket in low-clearance riding situations. This problem will typically not be an issue on gravel and road bike setup where the maximum tire size might be 45cm and you are considering going down to 32cm. This problem does have an impact in a situation where a bike was built for 3” tires was going down to something like an 2” tire can cause a significant impact to the bicycles geometry.
Mountain Bike Tire Sizes
Mountain bike tires are available in three diameter options – 26”, 27.5”(also referred to as “650b” typically in the road and gravel bike context), and 29”. The 26” size used to be the industry standard, over the last two decades, 27.5” and 29” tires have largely replaced the 26” option. Apart from tire diameter, mountain bike tires come in various tire widths ranging from . 2 to all the way to 5 inches. Mountain bike tires from 2.8 to 3.2 inches wide are typically referred to as plus size tires. And tires above 3.2 inches are considered fat tires.
Gravel Bike Tire Sizes
Gravel Tires usually come in either 650b or 700c diameter sizes with widths typically ranging from 30mm to 50mm. 40mm wide tires are the most popular as they offer the best balance between comfort, traction, and weight. A narrower 30-40mm tire will have your bike feeling lighter and faster compared to the larger 40-50mm wide tire but will offer less comfort when rolling over obstacles.
Road Bike Tire Sizes
Standard road bikes typically have 700c (622mm diameter) wheels, but some smaller framed road bikes may have 650c (571mm diameter) wheels. Standard road tires range between 20 and 30mm in width though more recently have begun coming with as large as 40mm wide tires. Road touring tires on the other hand are very comparable to gravel touring tires, with the main differentiator being that they are designed for smoother road surfaces. Road touring specific tires, like gravel touring tires are typically 30 to 50mm wide.
To Tubeless or Not to Tubeless
Bicycles have been using inner tubes for a very long time with very good results until the introduction of tubeless technology which first gained popularity among mountain bikers and then expanded into wider use. When it is an option with your bicycle rims, tubeless is generally but not always the way to go.
Advantages of Tubeless Tires
For a tire to work without an inner tube, the tire bead has to lock directly onto the rim ensuring that the tire, rim, and seated valve stem create a sealed, airtight chamber. Sealant is then poured into the tire and the tire is inflated.
Tubeless tires can run at lower pressures than tubed/clincher tires. This is a massive advantage on rough and rocky terrain as it allows your tires to have better traction and control on the trail making for comfortable off-road riding.
Going tubeless also reduces your chances of getting the most common types of tire punctures, specifically pinch flats and impact strikes. Apart from the lower tire pressure that makes the tire conform to the ground better, puncture protection in a tubeless setup is enhanced by the sealant which seals off small puncture holes and self repairs before too much air is lost.
Drawbacks of Tubeless Tires
These days, most mid-range to high-end mountain and gravel bikes come standard with tubeless rims and tires. Usually these new bikes still come setup with tubes, however, they can easily be setup as tubeless by taping the rim, installing the tubeless valve and filling up with fluid and then air.
Bicycle that do not have tubeless ready rims, will have a much higher cost to be converted to tubeless. Thiscan get pricey starting at around $100 per wheel and typically involves rebuilding your wheels with a new rim or switching to a new wheelset all together. With a new tubeless rim paid for, you’ll also still need the rim tape, tubeless valve, sealant as well as the tubeless tires.
Another minor disadvantage is that unlike tubed tires, tubeless tires do require some regular maintenance. Depending on factors like the size of the tire and the environment it is stored in, tubeless sealant will typically need to be refilled every 3 to 4 months. And we always recommend a refill before embarking on a big trip.
Repairing Tubeless Tires
While tubeless tires have a massive advantage in flat prevention, when issues come up with them, especially while out bikepacking, they can be difficult to get going again. It is strongly recommended to carry both a tubeless repair kit and a spare tube while bikepacking. The spare tube is the fail safe for when the tubeless tire stops holding a seal. Popping a standard tube in is a way to get home. However, ideally a tubeless repair kit can be used to get the tubeless setup working again without resorting to using that tube.
A typical tubeless tire repair kit includes the following:
- Tire plug: Bacon strips are a good example of a plug that can be used for filling large holes that the tire sealant can’t plug up on their own.
- Extra sealant: A 2 oz bottle of extra sealant to match the sealant type in the tire is wise to carry.
- Tire boot: A tire boot can sometime be used to repair a large tear in a tire. This can be helpful even if you have to resort to using the tube.
- Thread and needle: Stitching up a tear in a tire is another potential way to get your tire functional for the trip home.
Advantages of Tubed Tires
The main advantages of using tubed tires over tubeless tires is that they are easier to install and they are easier to repair in the event of a puncture as it won’t take much effort and equipment to set them up or fix.
Drawbacks of Tubed Tires
Tubed tires are much more susceptible to punctures, specifically pinch flats and impact strikes. Unlike a tubeless tire that has sealant that seals off small puncture holes and self repairs, when tubed tires are punctured, they deflate fast and need immediate attention.
Another downside to using tubed tires is that they are not able to run at lower tire pressures making them not ideal for off-road riding since they have less traction on the road.
Optimizing Tires to a Route’s Surfaces by Width, Tread Pattern, Profile & Durability
Once you’ve determined your wheel size and the width options that work within your bicycle frame and fork, as well as if you have the option of using tubeless tires, your range of tires to consider will have been significantly slimmed down. Now comes the fun part, selecting a tire with the width, tread pattern, profile and level of durability vs. suppleness that is best suited for the types of surfaces and terrain your upcoming bikepacking route passes over.
Level of Durability vs Suppleness
Typical Tire Options by Frame & Fork Style
We’ve organized the remainder of this guide by the three main styles of bicycle frames and forks that would be typically used for bikepacking, mountain, gravel and road.
One of the great things about tires is that they can be used to dramatically change the riding characteristics of a bicycle. With the wide variety of surface that can be encountered while bikepacking, tires can be a great way to balance out the riding characteristics of a bicycle to best handle the challenge.
Bikepacking Tires at Campfire
Here at Campfire Cycling, we have an extensive list of tires in stock; below are some of our featured brands. If you are looking for a specific tire feel free to reach out and we will certainly deliver!!
Bikepacking Tires Resources
References & Guides
Here are other great sources for learning about bikepacking tires:
- CyclingAbout.Com’s Bikepacking Tires: Which Brands And Models Are TheMost Durable? – This is a great guide on choosing bikepacking tires and the writer goes as far as listing and recommending specific tire models and brands.
- Bikepacking.com’s Second Low Down gear guide – Bikepacking.com knocks it out of the park with this great article that includes a comprehensive list of tire options with weights, specifications and their take on each one that they’ve tested. The article is however focused on just 29+ tires.
- Bikepacking.com’s Neil Beltchenko Video on The Best Tires For The Great Divide – If a tire is good enough to be used in the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, the Tour Divide race, and other long, mixed-terrain bikepacking routes, it probably can hold its own when the rest of us regular folks set out on our modest bikepacking trips. This video is a quick education on all you need to know concerning bikepacking tires.