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road versus offroad

Off road touring is increasing in popularity due to the huge popularity of mountain biking and the advent of long off road venues like the 3,100 mile long Continental Divide trail. Although the concepts of off road touring and paved road touring are the same, the equipment required, the experience itself and the folks it attracts can be quite different.

Although it’s possible to tour on fire roads on a heavy duty 700C wheeled bike, most who tour off road ride a 26” wheeled mountain bike. Mountain bike frames and components are inherently more robust and better handle the rigors of off road riding. Mountain bikes also can include rear and/or front suspension that makes the dirt experience much more enjoyable. But the use of suspension and the increased emphasis on bike handling does limit your choices of how to carry your gear.

As I discussed in the article “Panniers vs. Trailers” the additional weight placed on a bike when touring adversely affects its handling. It raises the center of gravity and can turn an agile bike that you normally tear up the trails with into an unresponsive elephant. Packing light and right can mitigate this but there is no way to completely avoid it. One strategy is to pull a trailer such as the BOB Ibex. The Ibex is a very competent one wheeled machine with suspension that is easy to pull and can take the entire load off of your mount. This makes the bike much livelier and will enable you to throw it around in the technical sections without having to worry about your gear surviving the abuse.

Speaking of abuse, riding off road with your entire load hung on the bike does increase the stresses on your frame and components. It’s the same as if you gained 20 or 30 lbs. Everything on your bike will work harder as a result. A trailer eliminates most of this.

Don’t get me wrong, a trailer is not a panacea! Its weight, length, low ground clearance and additional maintenance and repair can be issues. Again, for more details about trailers, please read my article “Panniers vs. Trailers” under the “Touring Information” tab.

A trailer also allows you to ride a full suspension bike while touring off road, a wonderful thing indeed! You cannot use a rear rack on a bike with rear suspension because the two mounting points for the rack move relative to each other. You can mount a front rack on a bike with suspension forks but it takes a special rack. Most folks either pull a trailer or ride a hard tail with rear only panniers. In both cases they usually forgo the handlebar bag and rather supplement their load capacity but wearing a small backpack (500 – 1,000 cubic inches) with a hydration bladder. Although a small backpack does not reduce the overall weight of your load, it gets the weight off of the bike and makes the bike handle better. Some also use a bag mounted within the frame main triangle. This also helps to move some of the weight forward.

Off road tourists tend to be minimalists by nature and by necessity. The fact is that the amount of weight you carry off road has a much bigger influence on your ability to ride and control your machine as compared to on the pavement. As a result they travel more like hardcore backpackers than credit card toting skinny tired tourists. Services are further apart as are water stops. You’ll need to reserve more room for food and water and will have to carry a water purifier. Access to bike shops, showers and frosty mugs of your favorite brew are few and far between. But nature is at your doorstep and the scenery and solitude can be spectacular. This makes it a unique experience and a lot of fun for those looking for a challenge.

If you are a nature lover who would rather camp under the stars next to a deserted alpine lake than sleep in a Motel 6 bed by the pool, off road touring might be just the right thing for you.