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.