A Guide to Traveling Tubeless
Considering a tubeless tire setup for a big international trip? Or just dreaming of flatless bikepacking outings in your own backyard? Here’s our guide, tips, and kit insight for traveling tubeless.
Many bikepackers and bike tourers remain ‘cautiously hesitant’ to convert to a tubeless setup, especially for big overseas trips. We get it. For folks who haven’t performed their own tubeless conversion, it can seem like a daunting task. To some, it remains a dark art… or at least, a complicated operation that requires special skills, a compressor, and general mechanical savvy to successfully complete.
We are writing this to tell you otherwise. In our opinion, tubes are dead. Just go for a long dirt road tour in South Africa. Or spend a few days out on the Arizona Trail. Or bomb down a rocky trail in backcountry Peru. Never having flats rules… period. Combined with the ability to run lower tire pressures for a more compliant ride – especially given the popularity of larger volume tires and wider rims these days – everyone should give traveling tubeless a go.
9 Tips for going tubeless…
To help demystify the whole process, here’s a list of tips to get you started. So give it a try; experience is more valuable than anything. Further down the post, you’ll find a suggested tire repair kit, and even advice on setting up your tires from the comforts of your hotel room…
1. Use rims that are truly tubeless ready.
Although many companies tout their rims as “Tubeless Ready”, make sure the rims you choose have a TR promise that holds sway. As fans of ‘plus’ size tires, we’ve experienced two such wide rims over the last year. On both the WTB Scraper and the new Easton Arc, the rim bed features bead-locks (aka bead-hooks), or small ridges in the rim profile (see WTB cutaway below), that help prevent burping – when the bead momentarily breaks and air is burped out. Meanwhile, a properly designed center channel makes a loosely-mounted tire ‘grab’ air and snap over the bead locks. The latter is the key to their ease of tubeless tire installation. Other rims to consider include Specialized’s Roval line and Stan’s Grail, a gravel specific rim that we recently had a chance to try.
2. If you can’t get new rims, Split Tubes work great too.
Again, we say this because we’re fans of ‘plus’ and fat tires. If your wide rims have cutouts, and aren’t officially TR ready, consider the Split Tube approach – a Google search will turn up plenty of tips as to how to perform this task. Which, contrary to popular belief, is also far easier than it sounds. Broadly speaking, simply split open a tube that’s smaller than your wheel size (24in for a 29in rim, 20in for a 26in rim), lay it out open across the rim, seat your tire over it, and trim off the excess rubber with a sharp blade once inflated. Some rims and tire combination may need a few rounds of tape first, to help create a tighter fit. For overseas travel, we’d recommend drilling your rims to fit Shraeder valves. Not only will this make your life easier with compressors found en route (vulcanizing shops dot the edges of every town in the developing world), but by removing the core, you’ll also have a larger opening in which to pump air for a home or trailside installation too.
3. Get the right tires.
Although you can often use standard tires for a tubeless setup (note, converting them will doubtlessly void your warranty), a Tubeless Ready (TR) model will most likely seal better due to an optimized bead design. You’ll appreciate this all the more when installation conditions aren’t optimal – as with the classic ‘Hotel Room Conversion’ below. TR specific tires also tend to have reinforced sidewalls; given that a tubeless setup is run at lower pressures and can be more susceptible to sidewall cuts, this is especially welcome. If TR models aren’t available to you, we prefer tires with lower tpi counts (especially in Surly’s range, where the 120 tpi models can be papery thin), for long distance travel. Note that inflating tire with an inner tube first, and leaving it overnight, can really help with the initial setup.
4. Do a really good tape job.
Start by cleaning the inside of the rim; use rubbing alcohol or a degreaser to get any residue or factory finish off the rim. This ensures that the tape will stick. Use the widest tape possible to fit in the face of the rim. As for brands, WTB TCS tape works well and comes in several widths. With the disc rotor facing you, tape the rim in a clockwise rotation, this allows the force of the tire sealant liquid to not agitate the tape seam (the clockwise rotation of the wheel will generally allow the liquid to flow over the seal and not against it). Start the tape on the face opposite the valve stem hole and allow a 1-2″ overlap. After taping, carefully cut a smooth hole for the valve stem using a sharp blade. Then remount the tire with a tube inside. Inflate the tube to the typical pressure recommended for your tires and let sit overnight prior to setting up. This assures a nice tape seal. Plus, this helps the tire create the ‘memory’ of its shape, which helps with the initial setup. Here’s a nice and clear how-to video from WTB for reference.
5. Carry a big [mini] pump.
In the event of a broken seal, or for setting up the tires, be sure to pack a pump that can push a fair volume of air – so ignore those dainty, gram-saving nano-pumps. We’ve had most success with Topeak’s Mountain Morph and Lezyne’s Micro Floor Drive (HV or HVG rather than HP/HPG model). Given the choice, we’d choose the Micro-Floor Drive as it’s extremely hardwearing, with replaceable seal kits available. Lezyne also recently released a fat tire version which we haven’t had the opportunity to test as yet. The HVG version (shown below) has a built in pressure gauge as well as the ability to switch between Presta and Schrader valves.
6. Find a sealant that works.
Given the wide variety on the market these days, there’s some debate as to which works best. We’ve had success with both Stans and Orange Seal; the latter’s Endurance formula has proved especially effective on our past few big trips (The Altravesur, Trans-Uganda, The Congo Nile Trail, and currently, the Ruta de Las Tres Cordilleras in Peru/Bolivia). The ‘Endurance’ compound seems to ball up less and stay liquid for some time, even in dry climates, without creating the dreaded ‘Stanimals’ – the balls of solidified latex that end up ricocheting inside your wheel when the compound dries out. Search online and you’ll find there are homemade formulas too, a world we have yet to delve into. Sealant is slowly becoming more popular overseas; in South America, for instance, head to the fanciest shop in any capital city and you’ll most likely a few bottles, albeit at an inflated price. In the countryside, we’ve even found sealant sold in recycled Coca Cola bottles for footballs!
7. Don’t let skinny tires fool you.
Adventure gravel/cx (cyclocross) bikes are becoming increasingly popular for dirt road and pisté bikepacking, as well as off-tarmac touring. As such, there are an increasing number of Tubeless Ready rims and tires, especially in the larger volume 35c, 40c and 45c sizes. Schwalbe’s G-One 35c – shown below – snapped into Stan’s Grail rims with a floor pump and an ounce of Orange Seal. Also check out WTB’s 40c Nano TCS tires, as well as Clement X’plor MSO, available in 35c or 40c.
8. Know how to repair a sidewall.
This is a useful skill to acquire, given that tubeless tires are more prone to sidewall failures than regular ones – especially when planning a desert adventure, where jumbles of razor sharp rocks that are often to be found. Tire plugs will repair most cuts – use them with the tool provided to blot a tire wound. To fix larger cuts without unseating the tire, carry a heavy, curved needle and a length of dental floss to sew the cut up first. A dab of superglue over the dental floss is recommended too. For longer, 2-3” gashes, add a section of sidewall cut out from an old tire, using Shoe Goo (REI has small containers) to glue in the boot after sewing the cut. Let the glue dry overnight with an inflated tube in place to hold pressure on it – it’s rare to have a cut so bad that you can’t wait till night to do this. If your repair won’t hold, make sure you have a couple of inner tubes – just be sure to remove all the thorns from the casing before you fit it.
9. Yes, carry a spare tube, but baby it.
Although one tube is often enough, we’d always recommend carrying at least two spare inner tubes if heading overseas, especially if running an unconventional tire size. Generally speaking, your spare tubes can be ultralight models, as it’s unlikely they’ll be needed. Just make sure you baby them! It’s easy to leave them languishing in the bottom of a frame bag, where they’re prone to abrasion. We wrap one in tape and attach it to the bike, and store another in a thin sock for protection. Some use a ziploc bag with baby powder – legend has it that a little talc allows the tube to move inside the tire, and may help eliminate pinch flats from twisted during installation. If and when they are needed, be sure to check your tire thoroughly first – most likely, it will be riddled with thorns. In a pinch, you can always run conventional 26in tubes on a 29er, or even a fat bike.
The Repair Kit
We’ve posted a full-blown bikepacking repair kit in the past, but here’s the tire repair kit of the future… Start by thinking less about tubes and more about being able to repair your tires and keeping them sealed.
- Tire Sealant: Although this may vary depending on tire volume, we recommend carrying at least 4oz of sealant for every a trip up to a couple of weeks; for a 1-2 month trip, make it 8-12oz. Orange Seal comes in handy 4oz injector bottles.
- Tube(s): Always carry at least one tube; to be ultra safe, two.
- Gorilla Tape: Roll 10 or so winds around your pump; Gorilla tape can be used to help with a tire tear in a pinch.
- Patch Kit: In the event of using a tube, a patch kit is necessary. Make sure the cement isn’t dried out and the sandpaper is in good shape. Also, we’ve found one useful for patching small cuts, some 1/8-1/4″ in length: 1. clean interior area well; 2. apply patch inside of tire over tear; 3. apply larger piece of Gorilla tape over patch coat edges of gorilla tape with rubber cement (to prevent sealant from aggravating and lifting the tape).
- Super Glue or Shoe Glue: Either super glue or shoe glue can help aid in the repair of a tire tear in the tread area or sidewall. You can even put glue on the adhesive side of tape and create an ultra strong bond as well.
- Tubeless Plugs: These work well for punctures that are too big for the sealant but not so big you need a boot. It should provide a permanent repair.
- Curved Needle and Thread: Useful for fixing larger cuts without unseating the tire.
- Piece of old tire sidewall: For 2-3in gashes, this can be glued into place.
- 1 Spare Valve: It’s easy to damage a valve, have one clog up, or even loose the core while working on a trailside repair. So carry an extra – they’re small enough. If using a Split Tube setup, we recommend including an extra valve core.
- Valve Core Tool, or Leatherman: Although a dedicated valve core removal tool is best, the pliers on a Leatherman work fine. The spoke wrench on your multitool may work to remove valve cores too. If you lose your valve core tool… then whittle one from wood! (see top image)
DIY Tubeless… a hotel room how-to.
Away from the comforts of your workshop or local bike shop, the biggest mental hurdle to traveling tubeless is the initial tubeless set up – after landing at your destination. With the right rims and tires, and a little pre-flight preparation, it’s actually pretty easy:
For the most part, you can set your bike up tubeless beforehand, and simply add a little extra sealant and inflate your tires upon landing. But given that this doesn’t always work out, here’s the full step-by-step guide:
- Tape your rims: See tip #4 for our method (or refer to this video).
- Add about an ounce of sealant per tire: You can either fully mount the tire on the rim, remove the valve core and use an injector to add sealant, or install the tire leaving a 6″ section of the bead out of the rim to allow sealant to be poured directly into the tire. If you choose the latter method, after you pour the sealant, rotate the wheel 180° before moving the bead inside the rim; this will help prevent spillage.
- Work the bead towards the hook: Rotate the rim and tire around to try and work each bead outward towards the bead hook. This will help ensure that the tire will ‘grab air’ and inflate without too much of an aerobic workout, if using a floor pump rather than a compressor.
- Inflate: Do this with a floor pump or compressor; add max pressure for the tire. Check the bead is straight and seated; usually there will be a couple significant pops. If the bead isn’t seating correctly, and there’s a section where it hasn’t popped into place, you may need to let the air out, work the bead with your hands a little (soap helps too), and inflate again.
- Go for a ride: Since you only have a small amount of sealant in each tire, just for for a short neighborhood ride. This will help spread the sealant and set the bead.
- Let it marinate: If you have time, allow the tires to remain inflated for a day or two; take it for a couple more neighborhood rides as well. This will help establish some tire memory and allow a nice seal to form at the bead.
- Pack it up: Let most of the air out of the tires; this is required by the majority of airlines. Be sure not to completely deflate the tire though, to both protect your rims, and minimise the chance of the bead breaking.
- Align the valve: When you box your bike for the flight, rotate the wheels to make sure the valve is facing upwards – this will prevent sealant from settling in the valve and clogging the core.
- Pack extra sealant: As an example, for two 29 Plus bikes, we found that one 16oz bottle of Orange Seal, one 4oz injector kit, and two empty 4oz bottles did the trick for both adding sealant upon arrival and ensuring enough backup sealant for a two month trip.
Unless a seal has broken during jostling and luggage transport, this should be easy.
- If the seals aren’t broken: It’s simply a matter of adding another few ounces of sealant per tire, by removing the valve core and using the injector nozzle (which also fits on the 16oz bottle). As mentioned above, with 2 Plus bikes and the 16oz bottle, 2-3 additional ounces per tire depletes it to 8-12 oz. This leaves 4-8oz as backup alongside the 4oz injector bottle.
- If the seals are broken: Repeat the set up procedure, this time using the full 2-4oz of sealant. Inflate with a mini pump (as mentioned above, we highly recommend the Lezyne Micro-Floor Drive HV); if you’re having a hard time getting the bead to push into place while pumping vigorously, try working the bead against the bead-lock lip. Sometimes it helps to have a friend hold the wheel off the ground, while an extra pair of hands can also help move the bead towards the rim while you’re pumping. If such hands aren’t available, we’ve also found that two Surly Junk Strap to cinch the tire into place can really help. Failing this, a trip down a local mechanic with a compressor should do the trick. When the tire is inflated, check it’s seated evenly. Extra pressure will generally encourage it to snap into place. If not, deflate, moisten the bead with soapy water, and try again.
- Go ride your bike.
The only real downsides to running tubeless tires on a long trip is the added work it involves when rotating tires, to even out wear. But given how rarely you’ll need to do this, it’s not a big deal – just wait until you hit a town with a compressor or a bike shop. We’ve mentioned the higher likelihood of damage to sidewalls – so choose a suitable tire that’s tough enough for the long run, and know how to repair they if they get nicked.
Of course, another option is to simply inject sealant into an existing inner tube, as long as the core is removable. This works as a short term solution, but won’t eliminate pinch flats. If your tire does succumb to a puncture, you’ll need to clean and dry the area thoroughly, or the patch is unlikely to stick.
Overall, the benefits of a proper tubeless conversion far outweigh its downsides – and once you’ve made the jump, it’s hard to go back…
If you have a tip from your own experience traveling tubeless, please leave it in the comments below.