Many people consider the mountain bike to be humanity’s greatest adventure vehicle. They allow you to escape the confines of pavement, the roar of traffic, and the increasingly motorized din of modern civilization. While cyclists have been exploring unruly stretches of earth on bicycles for generations, mountain bikes — with their stout frames, bump-smoothing suspension, and wide, knobby tires — make it easier and more fun. Put simply, mountain bikes have forever changed and expanded the sport of bicycling by opening up a new world of terrain for velo exploration.
If you’re interested in getting away from car traffic and exploring quieter, woollier, and more adventuresome places than you can ride on a road or touring bike — whether it’s leisurely rail-trails, backcountry jeep roads, or alpine singletrack — this article will show you how. One note: Most mountain bike travelers camp at night, but I’ll leave the camping tips to other articles. Also, this article presumes you’re not racing anybody. The following tips are presented with your comfort and enjoyment, not breakneck speed, in mind.
It all starts, naturally, with a mountain bike. Touring and cyclocross bikes work fine for rail-trail riding and less-rugged dirt roads, but if you anticipate getting into the rough stuff — rocks, washboard roads, trails — you’ll be less abused, i.e. happier, on a true mountain bike. In the same vein, a front shock (i.e. a suspension fork) is highly recommended on anything but the shortest trips. Your hands, wrists, shoulders, neck, and spinal cord will thank you.
The big question for many is rear suspension, yay or nay? The answer: not necessary, but definitely more comfortable. Suspension technology has now evolved to the point where even less expensive bikes have dependable, efficient rear shocks. A fully suspended bike makes riding washboard roads (the ultimate nemesis of mountain bikers everywhere, rivaled on the Pure Evilness Scale only by deep sand) infinitely less dispiriting and also helps traction and control on rough climbs and descents. The downside is that, compared to bikes without rear suspension, they are heavier and have more complicated things that need maintenance and can break.
In general, if you know you’ll be encountering consistently rough surfaces, I’d recommend full-suspension if you have it or can afford it. It’s certainly not essential, just nice. For trips in less developed countries, stick with a hardtail, which has less stuff to break.
Another big choice is your frame material. There are no pat answers, but here are some guidelines. For riding in the U.S. and Canada, any frame of reasonable quality is fine (read: no Wal-Mart bikes). If you’re on a hardtail, then make it steel or titanium if you can. Aluminum is stiffer and transmits virtually all of the bumps and chatter directly to your body. For rides in less developed countries, there’s not much to debate: go steel. It’s tough, durable, and if broken it can be repaired by village welders everywhere.
29-inch wheels are increasingly popular on mountain bikes and their large, stable size makes them a great choice for dirt roads — think Great Divide Route — but for technical singletrack or rough riding with loaded panniers, the added strength and maneuverability of a 26-inch wheel is a better option.
There are three good options for carrying your stuff: panniers, trailer, or going ultralight. Trailers, specifically BOB trailers, have become the go-to choice for most mountain bikers and with good reason. They’re simple, strong, and relatively easy to use. They keep the weight off your bike, don’t require racks, and handle amazingly well, even on rough, rocky ground. Their narrow profile and single-wheel design works well on narrow trails. You can’t go wrong with a BOB trailer.
Some people, though, still prefer racks and panniers, and they certainly can work too. You’ll need extra-strong wheels if you use panniers for mountain biking, but it’s worth it for riders who prefer the feeling of having a more compact bike under them. It’s easier to transport your bike overseas and in foreign countries with panniers. Portaging across rivers, blowdown, and other unrideable stretches is also easier with panniers than a trailer. Many mountain bike frames (inexplicably) don’t come with rack-mounting eyelets, but Old Man Mountain makes excellent racks that can mount on virtually any mountain bike. Panniers work great for mellow dirt road riding, but for more rugged riding most people find that a BOB trailer is more durable and handles better.
A final option, and really the only choice for multi-day riding on technical singletrack, is to go ultralight. Utralight mountain bikers have no need for a trailer or panniers, both of which are too heavy and cumbersome for tough trail riding. They bring minimal gear, make it as light as possible, and aim for a base gear weight at or below 15 pounds. While it’s a new, evolving riding style, the most common technique is to strap a waterproof compression sack with sleeping bag, clothes, shelter, and some food to an Old Man Mountain rear rack, with any remaining gear carried in a backpack.
Going ultralight is an elegant, efficient, and flat-out fun way to ride — no matter what style of touring you choose. For veteran mountain bikers in particular it has opened up a new world of potential, the proverbial “next level” of backcountry velo-adventure, much like the mountain bike did for cycling as a whole almost three decades ago.
Important note: Some people — especially, for unknown reasons, in the United Kingdom — choose to mountain bike without trailers or racks but with whale-sized backpacks. While this may be possible, we and your important and delicate nether-regions advise against it.
Like full-suspension, disc brakes are nice but not necessary. They’re a poor choice for less developed countries, but are worth a look for domestic riding, especially for wet, steep, or technical riding. Stick with mechanical disc brakes, which are lighter and simpler than hydraulic ones.
If you ride a hardtail, consider a suspension seatpost. They can make a big difference over the course of a multi-day ride.
Leave the ultra-stiff cycling shoes at home and look for a pair that has some flex in the toe for greater comfort and ease of walking. A good mountain bike tour always has some walking.
If you know you’ll face monster climbs, make sure you’ve got low, low climbing gears. The added weight of your gear can make tough climbing a lot tougher. A 20- or 22-tooth small chainring can make everything better. Lastly, many mountain bikers wear baggy shorts, which, besides not mortifying the residents of rural towns, have other advantages over lycra — like cargo pockets (not to be underestimated for their usefulness), increased abrasion resistance in crashes, and the fact that they’re, well, not Lycra.
Mountain biking requires greater upper-body strength than road riding, as well as greater bike handling skills. That said, if you can ride a bike there’s no reason why you can’t head out on a nice, long dirt road tour and have a great time with undertaking weightlifting regimens or skills seminars.
Assuming you’re camping, you’ll want basic skills for that, which aren’t very complicated and can be found in other articles.
You will need map-reading skills for finding your way out there. Of course this is half the fun — finding your way through unfamiliar country.
By it’s nature, mountain bike touring does bring you farther away from civilization. That is perhaps its greatest appeal and it also means you’re reliant on yourself and your riding partners to get you out of any trouble. Bring a first-aid kit, choose your route carefully, and tell other people where you’re going.
Besides the standard packing list recommendations you’ll find on Adventure Cycling’s website, the multi-day mountain bike rider will also want these things:
In the U.S., national forests are the finest mountain bike touring playgrounds, but state parks, some national parks, or anyplace that has unpaved roads or trails can work. To get started, look for some places near your home for easy overnight rides. All you need is a good map, a bike that won’t fall apart, and an adventurous spirit.
Photo by Chuck Haney