If you’re looking for the best bike shorts for touring, then you’ve come to the right place. I’ve spent many hours in the saddle, covering hundreds of miles, in a variety of different cycling apparel to determine what makes a great pair of bike shorts for long rides. Today, we’re going to look at the key features you need to look out for when you’re choosing the best pair for you. Along the way, I’ll pass on my recommendations for the finest pairs of bicycle touring shorts that I’ve had the pleasure of cycling in.
Long distance bike touring involves many different things. In the run-up to the tour itself there’s all the prep. This will include choosing your touring bike, planning your route, and (hopefully) plenty of training rides. Afterwards, you’ll have the memories and stories that you’ll be able to bore friends and family with for many years to come.
In the middle? Well, that’s where the rubber meets the road. Literally. This is where you have to put the hard graft in. In the saddle for miles and miles, hours and hours. Possibly, you’ll be bikecamping or maybe you’ll be sleeping in a comfy bed in a hotel room. Either way, you’re likely to be eating a lot. Like an awful lot. Safe in the knowledge that you’ll be using up all those calories the next day.
When you’re spending a lot of hours in the saddle, day after day, your choice of cycle shorts becomes critical. On a quick bike trip down to the grocery store, you can wear whatever shorts you want. But, when your butt is going to be parked on a hard bike saddle for a long time, having a pair of cycling shorts with pads in them is going to make the day’s cycling less about enduring and more about enjoying.
What are the best cycling shorts for long distance touring? Let’s take a look. Here’s the list of recommended men’s padded shorts for cycling, with a women’s-specific recommendation alongside each.
How to choose the best cycling shorts for long distance touring
There are a wealth of different options when it comes to choosing touring cycling shorts. That can make it incredibly confusing, as you wade through a million-and-one different pairs, all with different features and benefits. On the flip side, however, a big choice means that you can find the pair that’s absolutely perfect for you and your journey.
I’m going to break the choice down so you can see what the critical components are of a pair of bike shorts that will go the distance. We’ll have a look at whether you need padding in your shorts (yes, definitely!), what the differences are between men’s and women’s biking shorts, and the main categories of cycling shorts that you’ll see (there’s just 3). We’ll see whether size matters (by that I mean shorts length and, of course, the answer’s yes) and also what extra features are worth keeping an eye open for.
There’s a lot to go through and no time to waste, so let’s dive straight in.
Are bike shorts with padding worth the money?
Short answer? Yes! Long answer? Yes, yes, yes! Funny thing is that I rode on bikes for years before I even realized that bike shorts with padding were a thing. Whilst you might be able to get away without a chamois or gel pad on short journeys, for long distance bike touring, there’s really no option.
Cycling shorts normally have a chamois pad sewn-in to the inside layer of the shorts. Some shorts (for example, many mountain bike shorts) don’t have an integrated pad and so you’ll need to team them up with a pair of liner shorts or liner bibs.
The chamois pad is a roughly figure 8 shape and is stitched into the shorts so that, when you sit on the bike saddle, the pad is between you and it. It’s designed to protect your butt cheeks, perineum, and groin area and will help to stop bruising, chafing and saddle sores.
What’s the difference between men’s cycling shorts and women’s cycling shorts?
As you’ll have no doubt noticed, men and women are shaped differently. This means that bike shorts also need to be shaped differently depending on whether they’re cut for ladies or gents. The main differences will likely be between the two chamois pads. However the cut of the outer fabric for ladies shorts will tend to be wider at the hip and some women’s bibs now also have a rear waistband that can be easily pulled down for simpler bathroom breaks – a handy and long-sought-after feature indeed!
The padding on the chamois pads will also have different densities at different locations, depending on whether it’s being sewn into women’s or men’s apparel. For example, when you sit on the saddle, your weight goes down through the pair of sit bones in your pelvis and so it’s these bones that the chamois is primarily designed to support. A women’s pelvis (and therefore her sit bones) are more widely spaced than a man’s and a chamois pad for women will have thicker padding that stretches over a wider area at the rear of the shorts than the pad on a man’s pair.
My recommendation is that, where possible, you should buy shorts that are designed specifically for your gender. That being said, any padded shorts are likely better (probably a million times better!) than non-padded shorts.
The three main types of bike shorts for touring
Search up cycling shorts on Amazon and you’ll see over 3000 different pairs to choose from. That can seem incredibly overwhelming but, in fact, they split out into only a few types. There are three variations of bike shorts for touring that we’ll look at now. We’ll then take a look at some additional types in the next section where we’ll look at shorts/pants for specific categories of touring.
Bib cycling shorts
My recommended type of shorts for long-distance cycling are bib shorts. These are a form-fitting pair of shorts, typically made from Spandex or Lycra, with dungaree-like straps that go over your shoulders. It’s rare these days that I’ll go cycling wearing anything other than bibs on my lower half. Why? Well, the shorts themselves are snug with a sewn-in chamois pad but it’s the shoulder straps that make the magic happen. These straps hold the lower-half shorts/pad in position as you ride along. It’s tempting to think that it’s only your legs moving when you’re cycling but, in reality, you’re constantly shifting about in the saddle. In the past I’ve found that doing this with cycling shorts that don’t have straps can cause the chamois to move around and, ultimately, shift away from the places where it’s supposed to be cushioning you. This either means that you don’t get the protection you want or you end up constantly re-adjusting your shorts – neither of which is great.
If you’re a little embarrassed to be seen in tight shorts like this then take a leaf out of the Aussie’s book. They team up form-fitting shorts with a looser pair of outer shorts – they call them ‘shy shorts’. Handy for off-the-bike coffee ‘n’ cake stops during your tour.
Standard cycling shorts
If you don’t like the idea of shoulder straps, then choose a good quality pair of form-fit cycling shorts. Whilst you might find that they move around to a certain extent they can be advantageous for summertime bike tours. Bib shorts are great, but in hot weather, having an extra layer on your upper body can make you very sweaty. So standard cycling shorts, without these straps can be substantially cooler.
Mountain bike shorts
If you can’t stand the idea of tight shorts for cycling then don’t worry, there’s another option that might well be perfect!
Casual cycling shorts with padding or baggy cycling shorts have been a staple in the MTB scene for many years. Shorts with a relaxed cut are ideal for biking on backcountry trails, where you need to have more ability to move freely, and they’re also great for long-distance touring.
It’s worth noting that mountain bike shorts may or may not come with an integrated chamois liner. Some do and this is likely to clip in to the shorts with fasteners. If the shorts don’t come with a chamois pad then you can buy padded liner shorts separately – my view is that the best MTB liner shorts are bib style with dungaree straps to hold the liner in position as you ride.
Mountain bike shorts have a couple advantages for long-distance touring that it’s worth noting. Firstly, so long as they’re not too sweaty, they can be great for wearing in the evening when you’re off the bike. Just slip off the liner shorts and pop the MTB shorts back on and you’re good to head out for a revitalizing steak and French fries. They also tend to have plenty of pockets which is useful for when you need to keep particular items close to hand when you’re riding – keys, credit cards, etc. They can also be some of the best cycling shorts for heavy riders who would feel uncomfortable in tighter bike apparel.
Cycling shorts – different lengths to consider
As well as the style of bike shorts, there are also a few different options when it comes to the length of the shorts. Let’s take a look at the choices.
We’ve already talked about these. Essentially, they’re bike pants that go down to mid-thigh or a few inches above the knee. They’re good for touring as they won’t hinder your knee movement. They’re also useful in that they can help you keep cool on warmer days.
¾ length shorts
Longer shorts, also known as capri pants or bike knickers, can be another good option for distance cycling. Slightly warmer than shorter shorts and handy if you don’t want to show off knobbly knees to other road users. (Women’s capri bike tights)
Full-length bike pants are generally known as bike tights. These go down to just around ankle height. They are great if you want full leg coverage either for aesthetic reasons or to protect your skin in the event of a fall. They can also be a real bonus in keeping you warm on winter tours or stopping you from getting sunburnt on summer tours. (Women’s full-length bike tights)
If you want the benefits of both above-the-knee shorts and bike tights, then cycling leg warmers for men or women might be the right choice for you. Forget the fluffy neon leg warmers that everyone wore for aerobics classes in the 80s, these are close-fitting spandex or lycra garments and tend to be in either black or white.
These are useful on days when it starts off warm/cool but might turn cool/warm as you can easily slip them on and off without having to change out of your bike shorts at the side of the road. Winter leg warmers tend to have a brushed thermal lining to keep out the chill. In contrast, summer leg warmers are often white to absorb the sun’s rays and will keep your legs cool and stop skin from getting burnt.
Both are a great choice for endurance bike touring as they take up only a small amount of space in your luggage and are easy to deploy when needed.
Extra features to look out for:
Pockets? Love ‘em. The more the better as far as I’m concerned. MTB shorts will tend to have side pockets and possibly thigh pockets, with plenty of room for storing all you need. There’s less opportunity for pockets on tight-fitting shorts so you may see only a thigh pocket and possibly a rear pocket. Either way, pockets are useful for keeping important items close by, such as credit cards, cell phone and keys.
Any cycling apparel that you need to constantly re-adjust as you pedal is no good when you’re going to be on the bike cycling for long periods of time. Leg grippers are a great help with this. These are a band of thin rubberized strips along the inside lower hem of each leg that keep a snug hold on your skin and stop the leg hems from riding up as you ride.
Drop rear waistband for women
I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s a handy innovation, so worth mentioning again. Bib shorts are not easy to take bathroom breaks whilst wearing. That’s the case for both men and women, but particularly for women. Manufacturers have started to recognize this and begun to produce women’s bib shorts that it’s possible to pull down the rear waistband on, in order to answer the call of nature, without having to completely remove the bibs. It’s still a fairly tricky process, but this makes it 10x easier.
It’s useful to be as noticeable as possible when you’re riding on roads, especially when visibility is sub-optimal. Shorts that have reflective elements, such as printed logos or piping, can be handy for grabbing the attention of drivers. Helping them to see you early.