What kind of handlebars do you need for bike touring?

I remember the day I finally accepted that something had to change.

We had arrived into a campground after a long day of touring. While John set up our tent, I stood quietly watching. My arms were curled up, nestling my hands in front of my chest as I tenderly guarded my right hand with left. My precious children – rambunctious 8-year-old twin boys – were running and playing happily.

As my boys ran and tumbled around our campsite, I watched carefully, protectively. When one of them ran toward me to show me a flower, I turned my back on him.

I wanted to welcome my baby boy. I wanted to reach out my arms and grab him, hugging him tight. I wanted to rejoice that he saw beauty in the flower. I wanted nothing  more than to be Mom.

But instead, I turned away. I saw my baby running toward me with that big proud grin on his face, and I turned my back. I had to protect my hand. I couldn’t risk him bumping into me. The pain was just too much.

I stood there looking away from my son and tears fell from my eyes. Is this my life now? Will my sons grow up having to tread lightly around their mother lest they accidentally bump into her hands? Is this okay?

That was the day my quest for perfect handlebars started. As I stood there with tears dripping off my nose, I knew something had to change. There HAD to be a way to make this work. And there was. It didn’t happen immediately. It took several years of fiddling to figure out all the pieces, but it worked. Here is what I learned about handlebars for bike touring.

bike decorated christmas

This is nearly my final set-up. A few months after this picture was taken, I ended up adding another layer or two of bar tape to make the handlebars fit my hands.

Height Matters

The handlebars should be at different heights for different purposes. Racers want their bars low in order to ride in a more aerodynamic position. That is not a consideration for bike tourists – we need comfort.

In general, your handlebars should be level or slightly above your seat. The lower your bars, the more pressure will be on your hands. As you take your bars higher, the pressure shifts to your bum. Each one of us is unique and comes to the table with different body geometry and tolerances, so it’s impossible to say precisely where your bars should be. Experiment and see what’s most comfortable for you.

I have a big problem in this area because I’m tall, but my height is in my legs. As you can see in these photos, I rode for years with my handlebars six inches below my saddle – that’s just how the bikes were made.

riding tandem

Notice how far down I have to reach to hold the handlebars? I didn’t know it yet, but that position was putting a lot of pressure on my hands. At the time, I knew it wasn’t comfortable, but figured it was only a matter of time for me to get used to it. How wrong I was…

cycling oregon coast

When we set out for a year around the USA and Mexico, I rode this old Trek. My handlebars were a full SIX INCHES lower than my saddle. Shall we say ouch?

When I learned how important the relative handlebar/saddle height is, I started playing. I bought a handlebar riser, but could only find one to take my bars up 4”. It wasn’t perfect – I would have liked another couple inches – but I made it work.


Many hand positions is good

When you are in the saddle all day, you need to be able to vary your hand position. If you don’t, you’ll compress the nerves, leading to numbness. There is no one right answer in this category, and much of it comes to personal preference. You will have to experiment and see what works for you.

Butterfly bars: A big favorite of many bike tourists is Butterfly bars. This is what I switched to when I realized I needed to change things up. The beauty of this type of bar is that it allows for a nearly endless number of hand positions – you’ll quickly find the two or three that work best for you.

Some cyclists find these bars too unstable. I’m not exactly sure what they mean by that, but I will trust them at their word. If that’s you, then by all means, use something else.

bike touring

Unfortunately, I didn’t take a lot of photos of my handlebars… I found the butterfly bars to be the most comfortable for me.


Drop bars: Drop bars are another favorite among bike tourists. These have the advantage of being able to drop down into a more aerodynamic position when going fast. Personally, that is not an issue for me, but you want to go fast it might be for you.

tandem bike

After using straight bars for a whole year, John knew he wanted something else for cycling the PanAm. He chose drop bars for the tandem.


Straight bars: These are the bars that created my problem. Although some tourists use them, and they are good for use on rough single track, I would suggest that anybody pondering a long tour steer clear. They provide only one hand position, and that position is not ergonomically correct – which leads to problems as I discovered.

biking with trailer

You can’t see it well, but I’ve got straight bars here. This photo was taken about a month into our tour, just as the bad positioning was starting to cause trouble.


Straight bars with bar ends: This is an option if you cannot afford to swap out your straight bars for something else. However, one of the most comfortable hand positions for most of us is right at the bend – and because of the bolt holding the bar end to the bar, that is not a viable option here. It’ll work in a pinch, but aim for something else.

triple bike

John and the boys had straight bars with bar ends for additional hand positions. They all found they didn’t use the bar ends much as they weren’t very comfortable.

How do you know which bar is right for you? Here are some tips:

Natural hand position: Hang your arms by your side and just let them hang relaxed. Keeping your hands in a natural position, slowly raise them out in front of you. Look at the position your hands are in – that’s what you want to achieve on your bike. That position will be the most natural and comfortable for you. Which type of bar will give you that position?

Width: With your arms raised out in front of you, have someone measure the distance from hand to hand. That’s the width you will want to find on your bars. Typically, handlebars come in various widths, so get the width that corresponds with your shoulder width. Either too wide or too narrow will put additional stress on your arms, shoulders, and hands.


Shifting is critical

Once upon a time, I believed that all shifters were equal. I learned in a hurry just how wrong I was.

There are all kinds of shifters out there – bar end, integrated brake and shifter levers, thumb shifters, twist grip shifters and a few more. This choice comes down to personal choice and what works on your bike. The only one I would advise against is the twist grip.

My bike came equipped with straight bars and a twist grip shifting system – both of which were completely ergonomically wrong. My arms and hands were held in a very unnatural position on the bars, and then I had to grip the handle tightly and twist to shift. Over time, that proved a deadly combination.

Overuse injuries happen as a result of doing the same (usually small) movement over and over. While touring, you’ll be shifting a lot – a whole lot. While it doesn’t seem like it’s a big deal when you take your bike for a test ride, that motion of gripping tightly and twisting – over time – can lead to big problems. I was stunned at how many people told me they had suffered the same thing.

cycling katy trail

My first step at getting a bigger grip was using pipe insulation taped on to my handlebars. Although it worked – sorta – it was far from perfect. The pipe insulation is very slippery stuff, so you have to cover it all with something not so slippery. It also compressed fairly rapidly, so had to be changed regularly.

Consider ergonomics in all things

You’ll be spending a lot of hours on your bike. Day after day after day. Comfort is key, and so is ergonomics. Consider all ways and manners of adjusting things so your bike works for you.

Tilt your handlebars up. Tilt them down. Push your seat closer to your handlebars. Or farther away. There are thousands of tiny adjustments that can be made, and it’ll take time for you to figure out exactly which configuration works best for you.

One thing that I had never thought about was the diameter of my handlebars. The manufacturer made them one way and, I assumed, that size was the best.  Until another cyclist suggested that maybe it wasn’t…

Go back to the exercise above. Stand with your arms hanging my your side. Slowly raise your arms out in front of you and look at the position your hands are in. Are they curled a bit? That position is your natural position – and that’s what you are aiming to get on your bike. I found I needed to wrap my handlebars in five layers of bar tape to get the thickness that fit my hands; my son needed 3 layers.

cycling ecuador

Notice how my hand is positioned the handlebar? I have about 5 layers of bar tape piled on to my bars to make them nice and fat. That way, I didn’t have to clasp my hands around such a small bar. It also distributed the weight over a bigger area on my hands, which led to less fatigue and pain.

Overall, I would say don’t be afraid to play with things. Just because your handlebar was manufactured one way doesn’t mean you can’t change it. Make it fit YOU. Because, after all, YOU are the one riding your bike.


books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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8 Responses to What kind of handlebars do you need for bike touring?

  1. Lee Trampleasure October 6, 2014 at 5:57 pm #

    I use butterfly bars, but put them in a different configuration than most. I have them curl away from me, then circle while going slightly uphill. This places the “ends” of the bars closest to me. I have Paul shifter adapters to my shifters are right at my fingers, and I also added Paul inline brake levers to when I’m resting my hands on the “end” of the bars, I have access to the shifters and the breaks. My traditional break levers are attached to the front circle, out toward the front of the bike. This allows me to stretch out and lower when going into a wind or down a hill, and still have access to my second brake levers. Clearly, I need to take a photo of my configuration to share. I’ll do so when I get home tonight 🙂

    In the mean time, here’s a photo of my bike where you can sort of make out what I’m describing: http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/page/?o=Sh&page_id=161378&v=12

    In the end, like you say, find the setup that works best for you!

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel October 6, 2014 at 9:12 pm #

      @Lee Trampleasure, I love how we all like different things. The key, I discovered, was to make your bike work for you, rather than assuming you need to adapt to the bike.

  2. Alexander December 2, 2014 at 7:50 am #

    Great article, Nancy! 🙂 I have always struggled to find the perfect setting for me. Since we are all different, every cyclist has to do their “experiments” to figure out the best configuration possible!!

    I really liked reading your advices… I’d like to contribute by saying something about saddles, too. It may seem obvious to expert cyclists but I think it could be helpful to newbies.. If you are touring with your bike, avoid hard and narrow saddles. As a matter of fact, these saddles shift the cyclist’s weight mainly on the legs and – this is our case – the arms and hands. I think a good option would be the so called “comfort saddle”. I hope you’ll find this interesting!

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel December 2, 2014 at 4:28 pm #

      @Alexander, I think there is a balance in the saddle – too big and wide leads to chafing, but too narrow doesn’t take enough weight on the bum. I think the best ones are the middle of the road – not too wide, but not too skinny either. Thanks for bringing that up!

  3. Kenvin Man June 29, 2015 at 8:32 pm #

    Handlebars is very important for long trips, it helps us to reduce tired and backache. Thanks for great post 🙂

  4. Melanie Yuen August 5, 2016 at 9:53 pm #

    I have a 10 yr old boy who has one arm shorter than the other due to a birth defect. His right arm is terminated at the elbow. I have searched high and low for any type of extension for his handlebars but had never considered some of those listed above. Can you suggest anything or any direction to explore.


    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel August 30, 2016 at 1:08 pm #

      I think there are probably plenty of options – just need to find somebody who will think outside the box. Try going to your local bike stores and see what they can suggest. If they can’t help you, go to a different store. It’s all about creativity and repurposing stuff to make it work for you.

  5. Alloy Steel P91 Pipes And Tubes August 26, 2017 at 12:21 am #

    I Prefer A Curvy handle for bike touring.

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