Steel or Aluminium Frame?

Steel versus aluminium is a never-ending debate in the bike touring world, and the question is largely one of personal preference. We’ve tried touring bikes made of both materials, and see pros and cons to each option.

Our classic steel touring bike.
A classic steel touring bike.

Steel – It’s the traditional choice, tends to be the favoured material of high-end custom bike builders and is renowned for giving a lively, almost springy ride. Compared to aluminium, steel is also a relatively straight forward material to weld and this is a key part of the pro-steel argument.

The logic goes that you’re more likely to find someone who can fix damage to your frame en route if it’s made of steel, rather than aluminium. That’s true to some degree but a lot depends on the skill of the welder and the severity of the problem.

In Cambodia, we were able to find a welder who could fix small cracks in our steel frames. The cracks were then repaired a second time in Australia. At the same time, we had some of the drop-outs and mounting points for luggage racks repaired as well. They had corroded away.

It was nice to be able to repair our much-loved bicycles. It’s also possible to argue that we might not have faced these problems in the first place, if we had chosen an aluminium frame. The cause of the cracks was a small welding error when the bikes were initially built, while the corrosion was caused by paint rubbing off our steel frames, allowing rust to set in.

If you find yourself with a more seriously damaged steel bicycle, it might not be possible to find someone with the appropriate welding skills and understanding of bicycles to make the repair. For seriously warped and damaged frames (after a crash, for example), it’s almost certainly better to look into buying a new frame or having one shipped to you, rather than trying to bend it back into shape.

Aluminium bike
Andrew on his aluminium touring bike.

Aluminium – Aluminium touring frames are generally a little bit cheaper, a touch lighter and give a firmer ride than steel.

They’re also immune from rust, which means you don’t need to be as vigilant about covering up small chips and nicks to the paint as you do with a steel bike.

Sometimes people say that aluminium frames are inherently weaker than steel frames but unless the bicycle in question is particularly old (in which case an aluminium frame can be more vulnerable to fatigue cracks), its strength comes much more from the design and overall build quality than the base material.

The Bottom Line

Either a steel or an aluminium frame can be good for touring. What is certain is that you should choose an all-metal frame. Don’t get a bike made of carbon fibre or titanium. They are expensive and not easily repaired.

More than the material, you should focus on getting a bike that feels comfortable to ride and a bike that is backed by a company with good customer service in case something does go wrong. Ask yourself:

  • Will this company send me replacement parts if necessary?
  • Are the bikes that they make solid, well designed and well tested, so that cracks from use are unlikely?

The answer to both questions – whether you choose steel or aluminium – should be yes.



  1. John
    15th May 2012 at 5:12 pm #

    Nobody I’m aware of is making a carbon fiber frame that would be suitable for touring. If they did, or do someday, carbon might NOT be such a bad choice though. True, it could never be repaired by any village welders or the like– and in most cases can’t really be repaired by ANYONE if there’s significant frame damage. But the strength of these frames is incredible, well beyond a normal aluminum or steel frame– anyone doubting that should check out this page detailing frame failure testing by Santa Cruz bike company:
    The other comment I wanted to make is that if you can find one and can afford it (as mentioned above, it’s true they’re pricey), I would consider titanium to possibly be the best touring frame material overall. They can be made lighter and stiffer than even a very good steel frame, while at the same time being far more durable in terms of dent resistance than any aluminum frame and also than most steel frames (unless you’re consider the old plumbing-pipe style Schwinn frames from the 1960’s or something). And of course, titanium not only doesn’t rust, but it is basically immune to ANY sort of normal corrosion including the oxidation that you can see on aluminum in extreme circumstances. I bike commute in Minnesota on a titanium cyclocross frame, in widely varying weather conditions including snow with salt on the roads, and on some pretty bad road surfaces, and it has proven to be “bullet-proof”. And no nicks, dents or scratches when I do things like accidentally bump into the top tube with my steel shoe cleat when dismounting from the bike.

    • friedel
      17th May 2012 at 9:40 am #

      Titanium is so much more expensive. There are probably advantages but I imagine the vast majority of people could better spend the extra cash on improved racks, panniers, etc… and for all but the most avid lifetime-tourers, a decent steel or aluminium bike should last a good 10+ years anyway, if not far longer

      To each his own though!

  2. Simon
    12th August 2012 at 10:58 pm #

    I have switched from a steel framed tourer to Aluminium and to be perfectly honest i think size is more important than frame material .. if the bike fits you well then it will be comfortable over long distances regardless of what the frame is made from … Santos are a very well respected bicycle manufaturer and they sell more aluminium bikes than steel


  3. Hugo
    24th August 2012 at 7:10 am #

    Just read an entry on the Surly web site ( about people who have “crushed their chainstays” by overtightening a bolt while fitting a bike stand. That didn’t say much for the frame’s robustness to me, but more alarmingly, it then said they had thereby “destroyed their frame”. What does that say about the ability to repair a steel frame, even on such a died-in-the-wool tourer as a LHT?

  4. Hughonabike
    17th February 2013 at 5:33 pm #

    You’d be very unfortunate indeed to damage a frame while touring. Finding anyone who can repair a frame, any frame would just be sheer luck. I reckon , best to go with a frame you feel most comfortable with and if it breaks, bin it and buy a new one. Just make sure you break it near a bike shop on a week day.

    • Michae
      31st January 2014 at 12:59 am #

      I’ve red so much about the necessity of using a heavy and sturdy bike for long touring trips. Few years back with some heart trepidation I decided to use my regular carbon frame road bike with sporty mavic wheels to travel across Europe and guess what – nothing bad happened! Since then I made all my touring on this bicycle including 7 thousand km long trek across USA this spring. Not a single problem and no puntures on my bonetrager hard cased slick tires. Now I am planning to go from Lisbon to Beijing and yes – I am thinking about using the same bike. I admit though I always stay on smooth asphalt roads and my luggage is reduced to absolute minimum.

  5. David
    26th July 2014 at 12:59 pm #

    I think there was a time in the 90s when Alu frames were just appearing int he mainstream where they just weren’t very good outside the high-end race stuff – harsh and bumpy and prone to breaking!

    But alu tubing has advanced so much since then that, although I still love the feel of a good classic steel frame in a retro sort of way, I’m really not a subscriber to the ‘steel is real hype’. Remember than modern steel frames have been engineered to be stiffer than before, narrowing the gap still further between that material and aluminium. The most high tech steel frames even have thin tube walls and oversized tubes actually reducing toughness and making the material more aluminium-like in use.

    If steel was THAT great more brands would offer it on at least one or two models and slap a premium.

  6. mark
    18th November 2014 at 2:36 am #

    The whole “it’s hard to weld aluminum” bs, is exactly that…bs. I’ve welded both, chromemoly and Aluminum both have certain things you need to do to ensure a proper weld that any decent welder knows. Both materials are welded routinely by welders all over the world.

  7. Lumberjake
    15th January 2015 at 6:25 am #

    Here is my opinion. Yes,I know not every aluminum bike is lighter than steel or that steel will not ALWAYS outlast aluminum but each metal has its accepted advantages and disadvantages in general.
    Aluminum is generally lighter, stiffer, perhaps even stronger in the area of impact strength but this has more to do with its larger diameter tubing. Which reminds me, I find it annoying when someone declares aluminum is not stiffer than steel but rather it geometry when specifically talking about bikes which leads one to assume we are talking about the tubing of a frame, yes, thats true but aluminum frames are nearly always fatter because they are aluminum and must not bend as easily out of fear of too much flex/fatigueing.
    Back on topic.
    Steel has the advantage of a fatigue limit whereas aluminum has zero,it will fail no matter the amount its worked, it has a limited life. I think this is a biggie ifyou aren’t sponsored and not always buying the latest and greatest. Steel is easier to repair and can be repaired in far more places on the planet.
    Steel can be cold worked back to being straight depending on damage. Many favour the smoother ride steel is known for especially on long distances however, steel is heavier , does it matter touring? Up to you but its definately lower than for racing.
    In summary, for a touring perspective, I would choose steel. Apart from corrosion(which can be prevented with products) and weight and impact strength, the balance of what features I would want in a touring bike side with steel which is longevity, ride quality(smoother), I have read stories of people ham fisted doing road side repairs where being able to cold work a frame(more specifically) stays is a biggie, the weight thing just isn’t a huge deal if you are packing pounds on to it and not racing.
    I think what may hamper ride quality of an aluminum bike designed for loaded touring is that you are forced to make the tubing perhaps a bit fatter to prevent the flex which is the fatigue eating away at it life span,effectively increasing the stiffness of the ride while steel appears to have more space to be tuned geo wise. This is only my impressions from what I have read and could very well be wrong about forcing the aluminum tubing to be larger in designs that demand less flex, an assumption and why aluminum has the reputation for a stiffer ride.
    Besides, I think steel frames look nicer.

  8. Lumberjake
    25th January 2015 at 7:08 am #

    Not sure exactly how relative this is but I would seriously suggest anyone on a budget but knows a bit about bikes( would build their own to save) that there is a huge amount of great quality steel bikes/frames from the 90s that were extremely well thought out and built as it was at a time when all the steel tubing makers were putting out quite technical stuff due to competition as were the bike makers them selves until the rug got pulled out with the whole aluminum take over.
    These mountain bikes could make a great basis for your own franken build touring bike so long as it fits and has the braze ons which, again, used to be something always included back then. Just don’t expect a place for extra spokes!

  9. Philip Northfield
    9th September 2016 at 9:31 pm #

    Hi I am planning a short tour from the uk down to my new house in Portugal 2600 miles round trip I have never done any touring before and was just intending to sling some panniers on my old cannondale bad boy which I have had for 10 years plus and I am guessing at least 10000 miles plus on commuting and even a couple of cross country runs in Wales between mountain bikes…. Other than the drive train brake blocks and tyres it’s never missed a beat am I an idiot or just tight…..but I figured if she dies I just get another one on route…what is the general consensus on this foolhardy idea…

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