What You Need in A Touring Bike
When you've finally decided you like touring and really have to have that new bike, here are a few characteristics experienced tourists recommend looking for:
Steel Frame Steel gives a softer ride and it's repairable on the road if you have a major frame problem. Aluminum is light but brittle - it will be a rough ride and be more prone to breaking. Carbon is very light but very fragile - it simply doesn't stand up to a rough tour. That said, there are a lot of riders touring on aluminum and even carbon frames. And, of course there is titanium, light, strong and durable (if you can afford it). The frame should have clearance for 28mm tires and fenders. To determine your correct touring frame size, simply straddle the bicycle with your feet flat on floor, and allow between 1/2 inch and 2 inches of clearance between the top tube and your crotch.
Lots of Braze-ons Front, mid fork and rear for extra equipment like front & rear racks, fenders.
Low Gearing Touring often means hills - you'll need a low gear set for the extra weight you'll carry. Typically, you'll want a triple ringset on the rear with a low of 20-22 gear inches and a high of about 90 gear inches. Your local bike shop can explain this method of measuring gears, or see Sheldon Brown's gear calculator.
Commonly Available Parts You'll want to be able to find a part at a local bike store (or a Wal-Mart) when you need it on the road. - try to avoid anything exotic, however cool the dealer makes it sound. To this end, 26" wheels are the most common and easiest to find parts and service for when you're off the beaten path, although larger wheels (700mm) give a softer ride and are becoming more popular.
Hand Built Wheels If you're going for a one-week spin on paved roads, this is certainly not necessary. But if you're going on an extended trip or over rough terrain, possibly in a foreign country, you need to remember that most mechanical problems on a tour are wheel problems. Hand built wheels are stronger and more reliable than the machine built wheels which come with most bikes because the spoke tension will be higher and more consistent. You should also avoid the ultralight wheels which road riders favor. Aluminum rims of 22mm or wider are strong, light and will accommodate the wider tires you'll want for touring.
At Least 36 Spokes Per Wheel You'll want more spokes to provide a stronger wheel to support the extra weight of touring; and when a spoke goes out, it's less likely to seriously taco the wheel if the stress is distributed among more spokes. A traditional three cross lacing pattern is desirable; unconventional lacing patterns usually mean lighter weight (thus less strength) and will mean unusual spokes which will be harder to find on tour.
41” or Longer Wheelbase A long wheelbase allows for a softer ride.
17” Long Chainstay This will allow you your heels to clear any rear panniers while pedaling.
Low Bottom Bracket This will give you a lower center of gravity, a good thing when carrying the extra weight of touring gear.
Upright Riding Position As a tourist, you'll want a generally more upright riding position, particularly since you won't be flying down the road at 20 mph. Your handlebar should be seat high or higher. Over many miles, comfort trumps speed - the more ergonomic your riding position, the less pain you'll feel.
Comfortable Saddle As I've said before, the saddle is the most important component on your bike. Over a long tour, if you're in pain, you're not going to enjoy the experience. There are many saddle choices out there, from conventional to weird, and at least one of them will provide a comfortable ride. The Brooks B17, in particular, is highly praised by many experienced tourists, although, like all leather saddles, it will take a while for your butt to conform to the saddle shape and give you maximum comfort.
Check out Adventure Cycling's 2011 Touring Bike Buyer's Guide (PDF) for the most comprehensive look at what you should look for in a touring bike. And here are a few "Top Touring Bike" lists. Tom, of Tom's Bike Trip, offers a great approach to choosing a touring bike, and here's yet another "Top 10" list.
The Best Touring Bikes
And here are some of the touring bikes most commonly recommended by people who do the most touring:
Although essentially a cyclocross racing bike, the Volpe's strength and light weight make it attractive to touring bikers.
The Fuji is a t time-tested classic which has changed little besides the paint job over the years. The 700c wheelset size gives the Fuji a bit more comfortable ride, and it is very popular with experienced tourists.
The Aurora is another popular bike which has stood the test of time with tourists. It has all the typical touring bike amenities.
REI Novara Safari
The Novara Safari from REI is among the more affordable choices among true touring bikes.
Rocky Mountain Sherpa
Although less often mentioned than others in this list, the Sherpa generates rave reviews from its devoted fans.
Surly Long Haul Trucker
The LHT seems to be the top choice of touring bikes among experienced riders. It comes as a complete bike or can be purchased as a frameset to be built up by the rider or a local bike shop.
Known for lower priced mass production bikes, the Trek 520 has built a large following among tourists for its durability.
Bruce Gordon BLT
The new, Taiwanese-built BLT provides the same geometry and tube specs as the highly regarded Rock 'n Road series at a lower cost. Frame set.
Koga Miyata World Traveler
The super stable aluminum frame Koga is good choice for rugged conditions with MTB-like handling.
Rivendell bikes are available as stock or custom framesets, but they can also build the bike up for you. Now built in the U.S.
Easy Racers Tour Easy
Recumbents like the Tour Easy make good touring bikes for many older riders or riders with disabilities because of their comfort, which allows many pain-free hours in the saddle each day. An estimated 10-15% of all tourists ride recumbents. They are not a good option for off-road or back country, but for most "civilized" touring (paved roads, packed dirt and crushed stone trails), they are a good choice. They are more expensive than traditional diamond frame bikes because of their low production numbers. They are also faster than uprights, and, with the addition of a faring, provide decent protection from bad weather.
The folding bicycle is another interesting touring option. Folders like Bike Friday are popular with international travelers, primarily because they fold small enough to be carried in a suitcase on planes, trains, busses and other mass transport. The Friday is fast and durable and can carry a surprising amount of luggage. While not suitable for rugged off-road adventure, it makes international credit card touring downright simple. Folding bikes also make excellent commuters for those who travel multi-modal. There are a good number of manufacturers producing high quality folding bikes. Here's a good site if folding bikes interest you.
A new entry into the market is the Salsa Fargo, a 29" wheel bike described as the first mountain bike designed specifically for touring. Lightweight MTB touring, or "bikepacking," is gaining in popularity very rapidly.
Though it's not a complete list by any means, here are some well-regarded brands commonly used for touring. Their touring products are worth checking out before you buy. For user reviews of touring bikes, check roadbikereview.com.
Bike Friday (folding)
Bilenky Cycle Works
Cycle Genius (recumbent)
Easy Racer (recumbent)
Terry Precision Cycling
TerraTrike (recumbent trike)