Outdoor Bikes: Which Type is Right For You

Basic bike options

Verywell / Zackary Angeline

The first two-wheeled vehicle debuted in the 15th century and about four centuries later, the first bicycle was created. Since then, bicycles have been used as a form of transportation but has evolved to include entertainment, exercise, and competitions. For the average person, riding a bike gets you outside, is a way to explore your neighborhood, and is a good, low-impact form of exercise. 

“With the growing popularity of mountain biking in the U.S. in the 1970s, brands started to manufacture bicycles specifically to tackle more challenging off-road terrain,” says Alison Wood, FdSc Cycling Performance Coach, Veloqi Cycle Coaching, Endurance Cycling for Women and Co-founder of the Beyond Cycling Club.

Whether you want to go off-roading, ride for long distances, or commute to work, there are a variety of outdoor bikes available. Each style of outdoor bike is designed for different types of riding. Here is what you need to know about the different types of outdoor bikes available based on function, style, and type of cycling.  

What Are the Types of Outdoor Bikes?  

There are many types of outdoor bikes on the market today, offering styles and designs for different kinds of cycling. With so many models available, it can be overwhelming to figure out which style is the most suitable for your needs and goals. 

The first thing to do is consider what type of riding you plan to do to help narrow down the types of bikes that will be suitable for you.

“The best way to determine what type of outdoor bike is a good fit for you is to think about what type of roads or trails you have around where you live,” says Becky Timbers,  mountain bike coach and founder of Two Wheeled Wanderer. “Most outdoor bikes are specifically designed for a certain type of riding whether that be on road, gravel, or single track trail.” 

Once you know what type of riding you prefer to do, you will need to consider costs. Although cycling can be an expensive at times, there are a range of options and price points available. You should be able to find something that helps meet your goals and your budget.

Mountain Bikes

Mountain bikes are created for riding off-road. These bikes have thick tires that are puncture resistant for rocky and rugged trails. The tires have treads that help you stay balanced and upright while on tricky and uneven surfaces. 

The handlebars are flat and the rider positions their hands on each side of the bar. Flat bars create a more upright position on the bike, for better vision and less strain on the back than dropped bars like found on a road bike.

The bars also are closer to the rider than other bikes, making for easier handling and maneuvering. Suspension also is an important consideration for a mountain bike.

“Mountain bikes can either have both front and rear suspension (called a full-suspension bike) or they can have just front fork suspension (called a hardtail),” explains Timbers.

When it comes to hardtails and full suspension bikes, hardtails tend to be lighter because of their mechanical simplicity. You also may save money with a hardtail because you do not have a rear shock and linkage system. Consequently, you could potentially buy a much lighter hardtail mountain bike for the same price as a full-suspension bike.

That said, a hardtail bikes are not suitable for rough terrain. Instead, they are a good choice for people who use their mountain bike for multiple uses like commuting and touring. Hardtails also can be fun to ride on easy trails if they have a decent suspension fork.

Meanwhile, full-suspension bikes will absorb the bigger hits when you land a jump or drop-off incorrectly. This feature can prevent you from straining your ankles and hips. If you find yourself in these situations—such as extreme off-road terrain or doing jumps—a full suspension mountain bike might be the best choice.

Hybrid Bikes

Hybrid bikes have a mixture bike features. These bikes can be ridden on both flat, paved roads and on dirt and gravel trails, giving you the freedom to have more flexibility where you can ride. However, they are not suitable for true off-road riding like a mountain bike. If you don't have the budget or space to own multiple bikes for different types of cycling and terrain, a hybrid bike can simplify your life.

“Hybrids are actually closer in design to the very first contemporary mass produced bikes,” explains Wood. “They have straight handlebars, a frame geometry giving you an upright position, and have no suspension. Hybrid bikes provide a great option for people who only want to own one bike."

If you are not sure what type of riding you want to do or want the best of both worlds, then a hybrid bike could b a good choice.

“They're great for people who want to ride a variety of surfaces from pavement to dirt but don't need a bike that is specifically designed for one type of biking activity,” says Timbers. 

Road Bikes

A road bike is designed to be ridden on the road and on paved surfaces and trails, including city streets and bike paths. These bikes have narrow tires and are lighter weight when compared to mountain bikes and hybrid bikes. They also feature dropped handlebars for a more aerodynamic position on the bike.

“Road bikes are designed to be fast and efficient on hard surfaces, thanks to their skinny tires and light frames,” explains Timbers. 

Road bike handlebars, known as drop bars, give your more hand position options, which can make riding more comfortable. If you plan on riding on paved roads or paved bike paths, a road bike would be a great option. These bikes also can be good for flat or hilly paved roads.

“If you enjoy road rides over hilly terrain, you might want to look at lightweight road bikes with a wide gear ratio to spin up the hill," adds Wood.

But keep in mind that road bikes aren't for off-roading. They are not designed for riding on gravel roads or dirt trails.

Gravel Bikes

As the name implies, gravel bikes are good for riding over gravel or rough terrain as well as paved surfaces. They usually have drop bars, which are handlebars offering the rider more options to place their hands. 

“Gravel bikes look like road bikes," says Wood. "The geometry of the frame has some characteristics of a mountain bike, with a slightly higher bottom bracket, a more upright position (known as stack and reach), a longer trail for stability, and wider tire clearances."

Although gravel bikes have a similar design to a road bike, they have wider tires to navigate on uneven surfaces and trails. They are ideal for someone who wants a bike that can be ridden on different types of terrain.

“If you like to cover multiple different surfaces on your rides, then a gravel bike could be the do it all bike for you,” says Wood. 

Touring Bikes

Just as the name suggests, touring bikes are created for traveling long distances by bike. They also are suited for gravel or paved roads.

“The frame needs to be designed to be able to cope with heavy loads and the occasional off-road diversion that your touring adventure might take you through,” says Wood. “They can have straight or drop handlebars, depending on the rider’s preference and the type of terrain you’ll be covering."

If you want to travel by bike or ride long distances, then a touring bike is the right fit for you. Ideally, they are comfortable, easy to fix on the road, and can carry luggage.

“A touring bike is similar to a road bike but designed to be more comfortable and stable for long days in the saddle, particularly if your bike is loaded with gear,” says Timbers. “Many touring bikes also have attachment points (called braze-ons) on the frame that can be used to attach panniers, bottle cages, and other bags or gear.” 

Electric Bikes

Electric bikes, or e-bikes, are bicycles that have a battery and small motor that helps with pedaling.  There are many different types of e-bikes, along with different price tags. E-bikes can be a good way to get outside, run errands, or go longer distances.

E-bikes offers extra support but there are also heath benefits. In one study, they found that people who used electric-powered bikes on a continual basis showed cardiovascular health benefits.

“They’ve opened the world of cycling to those who may not have been able to or wouldn't have even considered traveling by bike,” says Wood.

If you want to get started biking and want additional support, an e-bike might be right for you. They are ideal for anyone who wants to be able to bike longer distances, wants to be less dependent on their car, or who are recovering from an injury. 

“If you are looking to replace car journeys with a bike, e-bikes are the perfect choice, allowing you to cover longer distances in a shorter time,” says Wood.

E-bikes also come in all of the styles already mentioned in this article. You will find e-mountain bikes, e-hybrid bikes, and e-road bikes. Keep in mind, though, that e-bikes are not always permitted on trails and other common cycling areas. Before you decide on an e-bike, it's imperative to know if an e-bike is permitted where you are planning to ride it.

“Many mountain bike destinations do not allow e-bikes of any kind on their trails,” explains Timbers.

A Word From Verywell

Outdoor bikes are a fun way to get outside, explore, have fun, be active, and participate in low-impact exercise. If you are considering outdoor cycling, there are many types of outdoor bikes.

But before you invest in a bike, you should consider the type of riding you plan to do, your budget, and your goals. Knowing the answers to these questions will help you determine which bike is right for you.

Additionally, if cycling is something new for you, consider speaking with a healthcare provider. They can advise you on what is best for you based on your medical history, fitness levels, and health goals.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do I choose an outdoor bike?

    Choosing an outdoor bike depends on the type of riding you want to do and your budget. If you only want one bike but want flexibility to ride on different surfaces, a hybrid bike could be a good choice. Consider speaking with someone in a bike shop who can advise you on the type of bike that is best for you as well as help you determine what size to buy.

  • Are hybrid bikes good for trails?

    Hybrid bikes can be used on trails. These bikes do well on paved roads, gravel trails, or broken stone roads, known as carriage roads. However, hybrid bikes are not ideal for single track roads or for steep, challenging terrain.

  • What’s the difference between a hybrid bike and a mountain bike?

    Mountain bikes are designed after what are considered standard bikes. They also have wider tires and suspension while hybrids have smaller tires and not all have suspension.

  • What’s the difference between a mountain bike and a road bike?

    A road bike has thin, narrow tires and a lightweight, aerodynamic frame. These bikes are geared for smooth, paved surfaces. Mountain bikes have wider tires and are designed for dirt and gravel trails and uneven terrain.

2 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. History Cooperative. The history of bicycles.

  2. Peterman JE, Morris KL, Kram R, Byrnes WC. Pedelecs as a physically active transportation mode. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2016 Aug;116(8):1565-73. doi:10.1007/s00421-016-3408-9 PMID:27299435

By Lauren David
Lauren David is a Chilean-American Freelance writer. Her work has been published in a variety of publications including Greatist, The Healthy, The Kitchn, Mindbodygreen, Reader's Digest, and more.