What type of bike pedal is best for bikepacking and touring? It’s a surprisingly heated debate! Whether it’s a round-the-world expedition or a gnarly bikepacking overnight, someone has done it clipless and someone’s done it with flats, and both are convinced their way is the best way to go.
Having logged some significant miles with a bunch of different pedal systems on both road and trail, I’ve written this post to help you make your own decision about clipless pedals for touring (pavement focused) and bikepacking (dirt and gravel).
The central issue is usually this: the hardware that provides that smooth and powerful clipless feeling combines awkwardly with daily requirements of bicycle travel, like walking around the grocery store or pushing a heavily loaded rig up a steep slippery hill. This is why many bike travelers believe flat pedals are the only practical way to go.
But thanks to the wide range of cycling shoes and pedal types available these days, there actually ARE some great options for touring or bikepacking with clipless pedals. Below I’ll explain the systems I’ve used for multi-month bike trips, both international and close to home, and what I like and dislike about them.
If you’re already familiar with the various types of pedals and foot retention systems, you can skip down to the next section. Otherwise, if you’re still a little fuzzy on two bolt vs. three bolt or clip-in versus clipless, let’s start with an overview of what’s what.
What are clipless pedals?
First thing first: if you’re just getting started with this research, know that “clipless” pedals are actually the pedals you “clip in” or “click in” to, using metal cleats on the bottom of cycling-specific shoes.
Why the seemingly contradictory name? The “clip” in clipless actually refers to toe clips, which are yet another way of holding your foot on the pedal. They’re not very popular these days, having mostly replaced by “clipless” pedals which use cleats to connect the shoe to the pedal.
Those are toe clips. Hence the term “clipless” pedals, meaning pedals you attach your feet to without the need for those stylish toe clips.
Parts of a Clipless Pedal System
There are three parts to a clipless system: pedals, shoes, and cleats. The cleats attach to your shoes, and then the pedals attach to the cleats. All need to be compatible with each other.
The most popular pedal and cleat style is SPD, which comes in a couple different types (more on this below). There are also other brands, like Crankbrothers, which require their own type of cleat to attach to the pedals, but the cleat can be attached to SPD-style shoes.
Sometimes the shoes will come with cleats, sometimes the pedals will too, or sometimes neither will (you can also buy cleats separately). It’s ok if you end up with extra cleats; you’ll probably need them eventually, and they’re an important part of a long-distance bike touring spares kit. Just make sure that the pedal, cleat, and shoe system you’ve chosen are all compatible with each other. More on this below!
Pros of Clipless Pedals for Bikepacking or Touring
Improved pedal stroke efficiency
The science is a bit fuzzy on this one, and it’s probably safe to say the difference matters a lot more to competitive racers than casual touring cyclists. Still, proponents say that when used with good technique, clipless pedals can help you develop a smooth and powerful pedal stroke by allowing for push and pull at a wider range of angles.
It’s also true that good pedaling technique can help a rider get similar benefits from flat pedals as well. Personally I feel more powerful when riding clipless, which probably means my flat pedal technique could be better…
Honestly, with a loaded bike and a casual schedule, not many touring cyclists are going to notice a big difference here. Personally, I find the difference most obvious in a “fast and light” type of touring or bikepacking scenario, such as bikepack racing or a tour with ambitious daily mileage.
Increased power for short bursts
Having your feet attached means you can pull upward on the pedals instead of just pushing down, which can help you top out a short steep climb or power across an intersection. This isn’t something most touring cyclists do often, but when you need it, it’s nice to have it.
Consistent foot placement
This sounds small but it’s actually one of my favorite things about touring with clipless pedals. When you’re on your bike for many hours each day, it’s a relief to never think about foot placement. No more noticing they’ve drifted and your stroke has grown less efficient, or squirming around trying to find a solid foot placement on bumpy terrain. Just click-click and you’re done.
Feet don’t bounce off pedals in rougher terrain.
We all know long-distance riding can be a pain in the butt (and other places). Nothing makes a bad situation worse like hitting a pothole and unexpectedly flailing your feet in the air while your undercarriage takes the brunt of the landing.
This is an especially important benefit when riding rough terrain, and is a big part of why I always use clipless pedals for bikepacking in addition to touring.
Cons of Clipless Pedals for Bikepacking and Touring
You have to wear cycling shoes.
This is the biggest issue for most touring cyclists and especially bikepackers, so let’s get it out of the way first. Cycling shoes are stiffer than regular shoes, and they all have some kind of metal thing attached to the bottom, though how intrusive it is varies widely by style. This is fine if you’re just out for an afternoon spin and only planning to hobble as far as the bar afterward.
But those of us who travel by bicycle have other needs: walking to the grocery store, chasing down a bus, standing in line for a visa at the embassy, pushing our loaded bikes up unrideably steep hills.
Fortunately, with the right kind of shoe and cleat system this issue can be mostly worked around. It IS possible to walk in clipless cycling shoes, as I’ll explain further below.
There’s a (small) learning curve.
It seems every cyclist has that story of failing to unclip and ending up horizontal while still attached to their bike. When I first switched to clipless I dreaded this happening at a busy intersection, but it never did.
Instead it happened in the solitude of a dirt trail, where I toppled over directly into a bush of poison oak. I was scratching for weeks.
Honestly though, it’s not as hard as you might think. You’ll be used to it in no time. The one time I still hesitate is while bikepacking on rocky or technical trails, or deep sand or gravel. I’m not a strong technical mountain biker, so sometimes I unclip so I’ll be ready to put a foot down quickly. With the right kind of pedals, this is no big deal (more on that below).
More parts that can break.
Cleats can break or come off. Bolts can get lost. If you’re going to depend on a clipless system for a long tour, make sure you’re carrying the spare parts to keep it functional. This is another advantage of hybrid click-in pedals with platforms, discussed below.
You have to clip in and out often.
This can supposedly be frustrating when starting and stopping a lot. Personally, as long as my pedals are adjusted properly, clipping in and out is easy and second-nature. My husband, on the other hand, will ride in circles for minutes because he doesn’t want to unclip at a red light. To each their own.
If this is a factor, is helps to choose pedals with a platform on one side (more details below!). This makes it easy to ride through an intersection or hop on quickly without needing to clip in right away.
You can get lazy with technique.
While clipless touring pedals and stiff shoes might make you feel more powerful, they can actually train you to use bad technique over time. As this passionate flat pedal devotee concludes, flat pedals force your legs to make themselves go in circles on their own, theoretically training you to pedal more efficiently.
If you often ride clipless, you might want to try flats every now and then just to make sure you haven’t developed any bad habits.
Ok, that sounds like a lot of cons! You might be surprised to hear that I’m actually a big fan of my clipless shoes for touring. The key, for me, is choosing the right combination of shoes and pedals to maximize flexibility.
Pedals for Bike Touring and Bikepacking
Now that you know the pros and cons of clipless pedals, how do you choose which tradeoffs are most acceptable to you? The best pedals for bike touring will depend on your specific riding style, route, and preferences.
Fortunately it’s not a completely black and white decision, and there are some clever options allowing the best (or nearly so) of both worlds.
Note that from here on out, I’m assuming you want to tour or bikepack without bringing a second pair of shoes for walking. If you’re not a light packer or you can get by with sandals off the bike, then by all means, wear whatever cycling shoes you like best while ON the bike.
First, here’s an important graphic to help you make sense of what follows:
These pedal systems are arranged roughly in order: least restrictive, least powerful, and easiest for walking toward the top; and most restrictive, most powerful, and worst for walking toward the bottom.
2 Bolt vs. 3 Bolt SPD
Clip-in SPD pedals come in two types: 2 bolt and 3 bolt. The names refer to how many bolts are used to fasten the cleats to the shoes. This determines the type of cleat used, as well as the type of pedal, and usually also the type of shoe (though a few shoes are compatible with either).
Where bikepackers and tourers are concerned, the biggest difference between two and three bolt systems is this:
- 2 bolt cleats are recessed into the bottom of the shoe, creating an almost-flat walking surface. They’re frequently used by mountain bikers (thus sometimes called MTB style), who sometimes need to walk a bit while navigating tricky trails.
- 3 bolt cleats stick out from the bottom of the shoe, making them very hard to walk in. They’re typically only used in road biking.
Choosing Shoes for Touring or Bikepacking
If you look back at the chart above you’ll see three types of cycling shoes: flat, 2-bolt, and 3-bolt. They differ in their cleat type and placement, as well as the stiffness of their soles.
First thing first: obviously you don’t actually need special cycling shoes for bike touring! Heck, some people are even into barefoot cycling (ouch!).
You might wonder if flat cycling shoes are worth the money, or whether you should just ride in your hiking or running shoes. You absolutely could, especially if you tend to do a lot of walking or hiking during your bike tours. I toured for several thousand miles in trail running shoes and never knew I was missing anything.
I will say though, when I finally got my hands on a pair of flat Pearl Izumi cycling shoes, the difference was obvious. My pedal stroke instantly felt more coordinated and powerful, and since then I’ve never been able to enjoy cycling in regular shoes quite as much.
Flat Cycling Shoes
Flat cycling shoes don’t have any cleats and don’t attach to pedals, but they do have a slightly stiffer sole than a normal walking shoe to help transfer power. They’re often used by mountain bikers who prefer to have their feet free on rugged terrain. The bottoms are a sticky rubber meant to pair well with flat / platform pedals with traction pins.
The Pearl Izumi X-Alp Launch is a popular example of a flat MTB shoe, and one I’ve personally used for touring and bikepacking:
MTB / 2 Bolt SPD Cycling Shoes
Two bolt MTB-style cycling shoes pair with 2-bolt cleats and pedals. The cleat is recessed into the bottom of the shoe to allow for semi-normal walking, and the bottoms are grippy rubber designed to offer traction. They’re often used by mountain bikers, who sometimes need to push bikes up steep hills or around obstacles, much like touring cyclists and bikepackers do.
The Pearl Izumi X-Alp Canyon is a popular SPD mountain bike shoe:
Two bolt SPD shoes and pedals are an excellent choice for bike travelers who want to tour with clipless pedals but still spend some time off the bike without changing shoes. They tend to be a bit stiffer than flat shoes, but still allow an almost-normal walking gait.
The recessed cleat doesn’t grind on the ground too much, though for me it does still make a faint clicking sound when walking on hard surfaces. For long walks or off-bike rest days sometimes I remove the cleats, which turns the shoes into essentially a stiff-soled walking shoe.
For me, two bolt SPD shoes have been a great upgrade to my touring setup. I use them with a specific type of pedal (see below) for maximum flexibility both on and off the bike. I’ve done several month+ long bike trips this way, both in the US and abroad, without bringing an extra pair of shoes (only lightweight sandals for camp and public showers).
Road / 3 Bolt SPD Cycling Shoes
Three bolt road-style cycling shoes pair with 3-bolt cleats and pedals. The soles can be quite stiff and the cleats stick out from the bottoms, turning even a short walk into a stiff-legged hobble. Trying to push your bike up a slippery gravel slope is going to be challenging in these shoes, to say the least.
I’m not a road cyclist, but the Pearl Izumi Race Road v5 looks to be a popular shoe in this category:
They’re tricky for off-the-bike use too. The cleats on 3 bolt shoes can damage flooring, so you’ll have to be careful about walking into that motel lobby or restaurant. Even a grocery store run is going to be a bit awkward. If you’re seeking top performance on the pavement though, there’s no substitute.
Most people can’t tour in 3-bolt shoes without bringing a separate pair of shoes to change into off the bike. In warm weather you could get away with your cycling shoes plus a pair of sandals, but if separate walking shoes are needed, you’ll have to haul them along.
Buying Tip: How to Tell SPD Shoe Styles Apart
If you’re delving into the clipless pedal world for the first time, you might worry about buying the wrong type of shoe. This is where an actual bike shop can be incredibly helpful. If buying online though, you’ll need to make sure you choose the right type of shoe for the pedal system you want to use (2 bolt or 3 bolt).
Here’s a tip I wish someone had told me when I was shopping for my first pair: cycling shoe pictures often show the shoe without the cleat attached. If you’re looking at a picture of a shoe and wondering how the heck it would attach to a pedal, this might be the case. Here’s how to tell 2-bolt from 3-bolt shoes without cleats attached.
Here’s a two bolt SPD shoe without the cleat attached:
Yes, there are four bolt holes, but this is for adjusting forward-backward cleat position. Only two holes are used at a time.
Sometimes two bolt shoes come with a rubber spacer bolted where the cleat would go, which looks like this:
To attach cleats to the above shoe you would first remove the extra piece of rubber (you can see the two bolts in the above picture) and replace it with the cleat.
For comparison, here’s what a 3 bolt SPD shoe looks like without the cleats attached:
And here’s a shoe that’s compatible with both a 2-bolt and 3-bolt cleat. You can see the 4 bolts in the middle, allowing forward-back adjustment of a two-bolt cleat, and the triangular pattern of the 3-bolt cleat on the outside:
Some shoes come with a pair of cleats and others don’t. They’re easy and inexpensive to buy separately, and simple to attach to the shoes with a screwdriver or allen key.
If using clipless shoes and pedals for touring, it’s wise to bring at least one spare cleat and a few bolts in your repairs and spares kit, just in case.
These are 2 bolt cleats:
These are 3 bolt cleats:
Choosing Pedals for Touring and Bikepacking
Part of choosing your shoes is choosing your pedal system, because certain shoes are only compatible with certain pedals. Here again, you can make choices to maximize your flexibility while bike touring or bikepacking.
Flat Pedals with Flat Shoes
The simplest system and the most compatible with off-bike comfort, a non-clipless setup allows you to ride in any shoes you want. Stiffer soled flat cycling shoes can be a nice upgrade while still being easy to walk in. This is where many of us start out, and where many of us stay.
You can ride flat pedals – also called platform pedals – with any shoes. If you want a bit more power and traction, consider getting a quality pair of pedals with traction pins and a cycling-specific shoe with a flat sticky rubber bottom.
Power Grips with Flat Shoes
Pros: Foot retention without actual attachment, off-bike convenience
Cons: Can be fiddly to adjust, not as powerful as true clipless pedals, not compatible with some pedals
Who might prefer them: Long-haul bike tourers looking for added efficiency, cyclists curious about transitioning to clipless
Power Grips or similar foot strap systems are supposed to be the best of both worlds. They’re fairly easy to take your foot in and out of, but still allow pulling up on the pedals when quick acceleration is needed. When paired with a stiff-soled flat-bottom mountain bike shoe, the feeling is almost like a clipless system. But since there’s no cleat on the bottom of your shoe, this system has all the off-bike benefits of a flat pedal system.
I’ve cycled around 4500 miles in Power Grips and my flat Pearl Izumi X-Alp Launch shoes. I found them to be a nice improvement over flats, but never could get the straps adjusted quite right for my small feet. Foot placement was still a consideration and occasionally the straps would work their way loose from the clamps.
When I finally switched to clipless I found that Power Grips had prepared me well for the pattern of clicking in and out, which made transitioning to clipless really easy. Ultimately I felt like clipless pedals allowed an even stronger pedal stroke and more consistent foot placement, basically doing what Power Grips do, only better.
Some people love Power Grips for their off-bike flexibility. But with the right SPD pedals and shoes, I’ve been able to do almost as well bringing only cycling shoes on long trips. Here’s my personal favorite…
Single Sided 2 Bolt SPD Pedals
Pros: Best combo of pedaling efficiency with off-bike convenience and on-bike flexibility (can pedal without foot retention when needed)
Cons: Pedal orientation matters
Who might prefer them: Bike travelers who want efficient riding but also spend lots of time off the bike; bikepackers riding rugged or varied terrain where the option to unclip is helpful
Different manufacturers have confusingly different names for this style (including “dual use,” “single sided,” and “combo”), but what you’re looking for is a platform on one side and a 2 bolt SPD mechanism on the other.
These pedals allow you to click in on one side OR pedal as if using flats on the other, for those times when you don’t want to click in. Examples:
This is currently my favorite clipless bikepacking pedal, because it’s the best of both worlds. Being able to use the platforms instead of clicking in is super useful on rugged off-pavement terrain. If your cleat breaks or gets totally clogged with mud, or you need to scoot carefully through some technical singletrack that’s above your current skill level, ride the flat side. I most recently used these for several weeks of bikepacking in Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada, and was very happy with them.
The flexibility is great for road touring too, and I often use these as clipless touring pedals on longer pavement-focused trips as well (most recently in Egypt and Sudan). They’re great for pedaling through busy city streets where you’re constantly stopping and starting, or when it’s hot out and you want to ride in your camp sandals, or a dog stole your cycling shoe from outside your tent in the middle of the night!
The only minor inconvenience is making sure the pedals are the right side up, but this can be done easily by glancing down or just waiting for the crank to rotate half a revolution.
Dual Sided 2 Bolt SPD with Platform
Pros: Pedaling efficiency with added comfort, semi-useful platforms for short rides or emergencies
Cons: Awkward riding when not clipped in
Who might prefer them: Bike travelers who want efficient riding but also spend lots of time off the bike; bikepackers comfortable with foot retention on rugged terrain.
For riders who spend most of their time clipped in but want a little added comfort, dual-sided SPD pedals with an additional platform are a great choice.
These are fully clipless (i.e. click-in / clip-in) pedals on both sides, and the platform is just an extra bonus. It makes the pedals a bit more comfortable and stable feeling, especially while riding in a less stiff shoe.
Theoretically the platform also allows you to pedal short distances without clicking in, though in practice I’ve found this isn’t very comfortable or powerful for long rides. If you have your cycling shoes on, the cleat will want to engage unless you move your feet pretty far from ideal riding position, and the metal-on-metal makes for slippery contact.
Still, it’s good enough for a short ride to the grocery store in your camp sandals, and could be helpful as a last resort for longer rides if a cleat breaks. Two examples:
Why choose these over the single-sided SPD pedals above? Because you never have to think about whether your pedal is facing the right direction. Why choose single-sided over these? So you get a more functional platform pedal option while riding. Otherwise they’re a very similar choice and pair with the same shoes.
Standard 2 Bolt SPD Pedals and Shoes
Pros: Pedaling efficiency, lighter weight than SPD/platform combos
Cons: Very hard to ride when not clipped in, stiff shoes required
Who might prefer them: Experienced riders on shorter trips, focused mostly on riding with few off-bike activities.
This is the classic 2-bolt SPD pedal, essentially the same as the dual-sided option above but without the platform. You’ll need fairly stiff shoes to ride comfortably on these, since they don’t support much of your foot, so they’re a better choice for riders who spend more time in the saddle and less time on foot.
They also aren’t very easy to ride with if you don’t have SPD shoes, making them less flexible for a long trip. They’re commonly used by skilled mountain bikers for day rides, or those who’ve transitioned to bikepacking using the same pedals and are focused mostly on the riding part of bikepacking, and less on off-bike exploration.
3 Bolt SPD Pedals and Shoes
Pros: Greatest riding efficiency, lightweight
Cons: Very hard to ride when not clipped in, stiff shoes with protruding cleats that are very hard to walk in
Who might prefer them: Road cyclists on pavement tours, credit card tourers with room for an extra pair of shoes, speed-focused tourers with minimal off-bike time.
This style is typically used by road riders, so roadies who transition into pavement touring may prefer them. It’s certainly doable, but you’ll want to have an extra pair of shoes to change into for any meaningful amount of time off the bike.
If you’re credit card touring and have plenty of luggage space for a second pair of shoes, or perhaps you’re on a shorter tour with minimal off-bike activities, then you’ll enjoy the efficiency of this system. Most other cyclists, however, will find them too inflexible for the varied demands of bicycle travel.
Tips for Touring / Bikepacking with Clipless Pedals
Once you’ve got your shoes and your pedals and figured out how to attach and detach them, you’re ready to ride. Here are a few tips to help your first clipless tour or bikepacking ride go smoothly.
- Bring a spare cleat and a couple bolts along. They can break or fall off when you least expect it. If the bolts tend to loosen in the shoes over time, try a dab of Blue Loctite.
- If you know you’ll be doing a lot of walking, for example taking a hike or a few rest days around town, it’s quick and easy to remove the cleats from your shoes with a few turns of an allen key. This gets rid of that subtle click on hard surfaces that even recessed cleats can make, and protects the cleats from unnecessary wear.
- If you’re going all-in on the cycling shoes and not planning to bring a separate pair for walking, you may still want to throw a pair of lightweight sandals into your panniers. They’re good for public showers, beaches, or short walks around town if you need a break from your riding shoes.
- Most pedals have an adjustment that determines how much force is needed to click in and out. Make sure you adjust this so it’s comfortable for you. When mine are adjusted properly, clicking in and out is no big deal. But when they’re too tight, every start and stop becomes frustrating. Especially if you’re a small person, you may need to keep this setting at its loosest.
Trying Clipless Pedals on a Small Budget
I know, one of the biggest issues with trying clipless bike pedals is the expense! You just want to try it out, aren’t sure you’re going to like it, and don’t even know for sure if you’re ordering the right kind. It doesn’t always make sense to drop a few hundred dollars on new pedals and cycling shoes.
If this is you, consider doing what I did: bought a pair of lightly used clipless cycling shoes (2 bolt SPD) off eBay. They ended up fitting great and I still use them! Then buy a pair of entry-level dual-sided pedals like these. Once you ride in them for awhile and learn your preferences, you might feel the need to upgrade. But if you decide to stick with flats for your next tour, the loss won’t be quite as painful.
Who Might Prefer Clipless Pedals for Touring?
This is, of course, subjective. Whether you’ll like touring or bikepacking with clipless pedals depends on your riding style, travel style, preferences, body, sense of identity as a cyclist… and on and on. But here’s a crack at some recommendations based on my experience and research.
You might like clipless pedals for touring if:
- You like to ride long days.
- You like to move fast and light.
- On a bike trip you tend to mostly bike, and can deal with a recessed-cleat cycling shoe on the occasional rest day or walk to the store.
- When you travel by bike, you think of yourself as first a cyclist and then a traveler (or at least equal parts of each).
You might prefer flat pedals, possibly with Power Grips or another foot retention system that doesn’t require cleats, if:
- Your bike tours are more about the touring than the biking. You like to bike a bit between cool places, then spend time exploring those places off the bike.
- You often intersperse other activities like hiking or running into your bike trips.
- You’re setting off on a multi-month or longer world tour and want to have non-cycling shoes with you for significant chunks of time spent off the bike.
- You do a lot of bikepacking on rugged terrain – mud, rocks, rough roads, steep hike-a-bike hills.
- You think of yourself more as a traveler than a cyclist.
If you’re somewhere in between, you might be able to bridge the gap with a comfortable pair of shoes and single-sided platform pedals, as described above.
My Progression to Clipless
To give you an example of the slippery slope toward clipless, I’ll summarize my own story here.
I rode my first bicycle tour, a multi-month solo ramble through Southeast Asia, in running shoes and flat pedals. Any lack of efficiency or comfort was completely dwarfed by the lack of efficiency and comfort caused by my grievous lack of bicycle touring experience.
At some later point I read about Power Grips. I bought a pair and rode 4500+ miles in them in the US and South America, along with a pair of stiffer-soled flat-bottom mountain bike shoes. The combination definitely felt more powerful and more fun to ride hard in, mostly because of the stiffer shoes.
While plodding along with my Power Grips at the back of the pack in the Bike Nonstop US race across the country, I realized I was the only “racer” without clipless pedals. In a haze of exhaustion and sleep-deprivation, I started to envy my fellow racers’ silky smooth connected pedal strokes.
When I returned home I bought myself a cheap pair of MTB-style shoes and SPD pedals and took the leap.
Pretty quickly I changed to a dual-sided pedal – platform on one side, click-in on the other – to deal with the mud and technical challenges of off-pavement bikepacking. This is the setup I’m riding currently and I love it. I’ve used it for trips lasting a few weeks to a month with only my cycling shoes, on both pavement and dirt, and haven’t really missed normal shoes.
Perhaps, for a tour of several months or longer I would start to consider flats. But perhaps not. Clipless feels pretty good, and that distinctive click-click is an oh-so-satisfying way to start a long ride.
More Bike Travel Resources
If you’re thinking about your bikepacking pedal situation, you might also enjoy these:
- Epic Bikepacking Routes in the Western US
- Tips for Flying With Your Bicycle
- More bike travel resources from Exploring Wild
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