Have you heard the term ‘gravel biking’ being thrown around but you’re still not sure what it is, or why people do it? Max from bikepackshop.com is here to help.


If you’re an outdoorsy type, chances are you’ve already heard a bit about gravel biking or even had mates return from gravel bike missions and spin tales of gruelling days in the saddle that ended with a well-earned beer and pub meal.

I went out with some of my mates (Ben, Pat, and Tom) and road-tested three of Trek’s sickest gravel bikes on South-East Queensland’s rugged trails at Dahmongah Mt Mee, land of the Gubbi Gubbi people.

If you’re still wondering what all the fuss is about or what’s the difference between your trusty old old mountain bike and a gravel rig, I’ve put together this gravel biking guide to help clear things up a bit.


Want to win a Trek gravel bike? Enter our Gravel Biking Giveaway!

What exactly is a gravel bike?

The gravel bike’s popularity has boomed in the last 10 years – for good reason. Gravel bikes are versatile, super-capable, and straight-out exploring legends.

Think of a gravel bike as the child of a road bike and a mountain bike – with the best of both worlds for most conditions.

Gravel bikes are specifically designed for both off-road and on-road riding, and they’re also built for comfort, making them a great option for longer rides with a bit of every terrain thrown in.


Trek Checkpoint ALR 5


Gravel bikes have larger tyres than traditional road bikes (but not as wide as a mountain bike) and wider gear ranges to tackle steep climbs and fast flat roads.

With the added bonus of suspension forks and efficient shifting systems, gravel bikes are capable of tackling almost any route imaginable.


 What can a gravel bike do?

Because gravel bikes are designed to handle a variety of terrain, they’re up for any type of adventure: bikepacking, touring, commuting, amateur cyclocross or even racing (yes, gravel bike races are a thing!).

Gravel biking lets you discover just how gratifying it is to explore off-the-beaten-track trails, rugged landscapes and bitumen roads all on the same route.

What truly makes them unique is their versatility. They can take you exploring on pavements, along rugged trails for an epic adventure and then commute you back to work on Monday.

Key Features

Although gravel bikes look like a road bike at first glance, they have specific features that set them apart. These bikes usually have a lightweight frame, wider tyres and relaxed geometry for a more comfortable riding position — perfect for long haul adventures. Let’s look at each of these separately.


Let’s talk frames

Most gravel bike frames are light but tough as a tonka to handle the rigours of riding off-road. Their frames can come in different materials depending on your budget and riding needs.

The top end carbon gravel bikes are super light, strong but also fast, so they’re ideal for the gravel bike racer or mad keen enthusiast.

But gravel bikes don’t need to be carbon. Often materials such as aluminium, titanium or even steel are used and are great options for most gravel bike riders. These materials have their own distinct advantages and disadvantages which suit various terrain, budgets and purposes.

Trek’s gravel-specific Checkpoint SL 5 carbon bike and the entry level all-rounder aluminium Checkpoint ALR 5 are both built for stability over the rougher, looser gravel.


Trek Checkpoint SL 5


But the carbon frame of the Checkpoint SL 5, noticeably smoothed out the rough parts of trail and gravel making the ride super easy and less physically fatiguing.

It’s fair to say that gravel bikes made with carbon frames have extra ‘give’ which makes them absorb the bumps and feel way more forgiving out on the trails than their aluminium cousins.

And Don’t Forget the Tyres

The width of gravel bike tyres is typically somewhere between road and mountain-bike tyre widths. They range between 38mm and 55mm which gives them good traction and stability on rough or loose terrain.

Both the Trek Checkpoint rigs run 40mm standard tyres with capacity for up to 45mm. The 40mm tyres felt completely at ease on the Mt Mee trails.



The Trek Domane SLR 7 comes standard with thinner light-tread road tyres at 32mm but has clearance to fit up to 38mm width tyres with durable tread, so it can easily ride light gravel.


Geometry – (Not the High-School Kind)

Gravel biking is often an all-day thing, so your body can get sore if it’s tucked in an aero position for hours on end (who even does that?). Gravel bikes tend to have a more relaxed geometry to make it easier and more comfortable for extended riding. The reach is slightly shorter, and the stack will be higher than normal riding positions.

Attaching Your Gear

Most gravel bikes come with mounting points to make it easy to load up with gear and travel essentials.

Both the Trek Checkpoint bikes include integrated mounts for frame bags, so you don’t need to mess with velcro straps to hold your gear on, making carrying your exploring gear and tonnes of water really simple.


Many gravel bikes now include top tube bag mounts and attachments for back racks that go over the back wheel, to help you carry gear for a weekend ride.

The Checkpoint also has the most useful feature probably ever invented – an internal storage compartment that sits within the bike frame and is large enough for a full repair kit.


But what’s the point of a gravel bike?

Gravel bikes are so incredibly versatile that some people say it’s the only bike you need – this is because they’re not just for hardcore endurance or adventure riders.

In fact, they’re a great choice for casual cyclists too thanks to their comfortable geometry and ability to handle a range of surfaces.

These features make them suitable for any cyclist who likes to challenge themselves and have fun at the same time or simply wants a relaxing commute to and from work each day.

Also, with the rise in popularity of gravel biking, there are plenty of events and races to get involved in, from local group rides to epic multi-day adventures.

Read more: Bikepacking Long Plain Hut to Hainsworth Hut & Beyond in Kosciuszko National Park

Pros and Cons of Owning a Gravel Bike

With a few different types of bikes on the market you need to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of each before spending your money on a bike that’s specific to a certain niche like gravel biking. This helpful list should help you make your decision.



Versatility: Gravel bikes are designed to handle a variety of terrains, from pavement to gravel roads and even light to rugged and techy off-road trails. This makes them a great choice for cyclists who want a bike that can handle a range of conditions and challenges.

Comfort: Gravel bikes have a more relaxed geometry than road bikes, which can make them more comfortable for longer rides or rougher terrain. They also often have wider tyres, which can provide additional cushioning and grip.



The Trek Checkpoint SL 5 and Domane SLR 7 come with ISO speed tech in the seat tube, which smooths out the bumps and makes for a really nice enjoyable ride regardless of where your journey takes you.

Adventure: Gravel bikes are a subset of adventure cycling, which is a healthy, challenging and often fun activity that you can do with friends and family (or even solo if you’ve had enough of friends and family!).

Read more: The Mawson Trail – Bikepacking From Adelaide to the Flinders Ranges

Gravel riding also lets you explore the roads less travelled and even push yourself in new and interesting ways. These rides can become journeys of self-discovery where you find out what you’re made of in the great outdoors.

Durability: Gravel bikes are built to be sturdy and durable, with features like strong frames and wider tyres that can handle rough conditions and bad weather; they last for years.



Cost: Gravel bikes can be more expensive than other types of bikes, especially if you want high-end components or materials.

Weight: If you’re a road cyclist used to super lightweight road bikes, you might think that gravel bikes are heavier than what you’re used to. But we discovered that the lightweight Trek Checkpoint and Domane SLR 7 are highly comparable to most hardtail mountain bikes and some road bikes, particularly the lightweight Domane, which comes in at 8.38kg.

Maintenance: Gravel bikes often require more maintenance than road bikes, due to their components receiving more wear and tear on rougher terrain.



Speed: While gravel bikes are versatile, they may not be quite as fast or efficient as road bikes on smooth pavement or in racing situations.

Of course, these pros and cons can vary depending on the specific gravel bike you’re thinking of buying and how it’s used. It’s best to list out your key priorities before you start looking at different models!

What To Look For in a Good Gravel Bike

The features you’ll need in a gravel bike depend on what type of riding you expect to do. If you’re wanting to experience gravel biking purely for the fun and adventure, here are the key things to look for while doing your gravel bike research:

Frame material: The frame material of a gravel bike can greatly impact its weight, durability, and ride quality so it’s worth knowing the pros and cons of each.

Carbon gravel bike frames are lightweight and have shock-absorbing properties that reduce rider fatigue, making them ideal for longer rides or routes that include rough terrain. They’re stiff in construction for better power transfer and control while riding.



But the downside is, they’re costly compared to aluminium frames and can crack and damage easier from crashes or wear and tear. Although they are not as durable as aluminium frames in crash situations, the overall performance of carbon frames is better.

On the other hand, aluminium gravel bike frames are more affordable and are usually crack-resistant if you crash. These days, aluminium can be lightweight, making them good for riding uphill and on longer rides.

Aluminium frames can be a lot stiffer than carbon frames and lack shock-absorption, which leads to increased fatigue over rough terrain or long rides.

Tyre clearance: Gravel bikes typically have wider tyres than road bikes (33mm – 55mm), which provide better traction and comfort on rough terrain.

Components: A good gravel bike should have reliable and durable components that can handle the demands of off-road riding.

Brakes: Gravel riding can require powerful and responsive braking, especially on steep descents or loose terrain. It’s best to go for hydraulic disc brakes if your budget allows, which gives reliable stopping power in all conditions.


A cross country mountain bike following a gravel bike


Geometry: The geometry of a gravel bike can impact its handling and comfort on rough terrain. The typical gravel bike features relaxed geometries (shorter reach and higher stack), which is a lot more upright and stable.

To make sure you get a gravel bike that suits your riding style and fits your body, we definitely recommend you ride a few different gravel bikes before you purchase. Most bike shops also offer a professional bike fitting service which can end up saving you a lot of time and money.

Price: Gravel bikes can vary widely in price, and it’s important to find one that fits your budget while offering you what you need.

The Trek Checkpoint gravel bikes are premium and highly regarded gravel bikes with high quality components that smash it out on the gravel.

At the end of the day, the right gravel bike will depend on your individual needs and preferences as a rider.

Gravel Bike vs Road Bike

If you take a quick glance at a gravel bike, you might notice the drop handlebars (instead of flat ones) and mistake it for a road bike.

The drop handlebars mean gravel bikes are efficient on hard surfaces (like road bikes), but there are actually a few other features that set them apart.



For one thing, gravel bikes have a more laid-back geometry, with a higher stack and shorter reach. This set up means they’re heaps more comfortable on longer rides than a road bike would be, and more stable.

Plus, the gravel bike’s wider tyres offer a more aggressive tread than a road bike, which gives you way better grip and stability on rough surfaces, making the bike automatically more suitable for going off-road.

Road bikes have thinner tyres and less suspension, meaning they’re best used on smoother surfaces like pavement or bitumen roads.

Another difference between the two is that gravel bikes usually come standard with integrated mounts for attaching bikepacking gear.

Versatility is another way to distinguish between road bikes and gravel bikes. Basically, gravel bikes can take you on a lot more adventures because they are built with the features that are needed when going off-road.

Read more: The Boboyan Divide – Canberra’s Best Bikepacking Route

Gravel Bike vs Mountain Bike

Gravel bikes and mountain bikes are two distinct types of bikes that are related but ultimately designed for different terrains and purposes.

Gravel bikes are made for adventure and gravel riding on paved and unpaved roads, gravel paths, fire trails and other rough surfaces, while mountain bikes are designed for hardcore off-road terrain like rocky and sketchy trails, steep inclines, and technical descents.

When you check out the two types of bikes, you’ll notice another difference between them is the geometry of the frame. Gravel bikes typically have a longer wheelbase and a more upright riding position, which makes them more comfortable for long-distance rides.



Mountain bikes, on the other hand, often have a shorter wheelbase, ‘slack’ head tube angles, and a more aggressive riding position that is optimised for technical terrain and steep descents.

Another big difference between gravel bikes and mountain bikes is the tyres. Gravel bikes usually have wider tyres with a smooth to slightly treaded pattern that give good traction on loose surfaces like gravel or dirt.

But our mountain bike cousins have aggressive knobby tyres with deep treads for excellent grip on rocky, undulating or muddy terrain.

Suspension is also a major difference between these two types of bikes. Mountain bikes have front (and often rear) suspension systems to absorb shock and make riding over rough terrain more comfortable.


What the Heck Is a Gravel Bike?, Max Hobson, trek, person riding gravel bike, dirt road, muddy puddle


Gravel bikes, on the other hand, can have a suspension fork, but are designed to be ridden with rigid frames and forks, making them more efficient on smoother surfaces.

In terms of gearing, gravel bikes and mountain bikes are pretty similar, with both types of bikes often featuring a wide range of gears to help riders tackle varying terrain.

But, mountain bikes can have a wider range of gears and more low-end gearing to help riders climb steep inclines.

Overall, gravel bikes and mountain bikes are both great options for off-road riding, but are designed for different purposes and terrains.

Gravel bikes are ideal for riders looking to cover long distances on unpaved roads, while mountain bikes are better suited for technical trails and steep descents.

Read more: 9 Days Bikepacking the 620km Oodnadatta Track

Are gravel bikes good for bikepacking?

Most cyclists who decide to go bikepacking will, at the very least, consider a gravel bike for their bike packing trips.

This is because of the many features that gravel bikes have that make them good candidates for longer off-road trips. Firstly, gravel bikes are designed for long-distance riding and are perfect for a wide range of surface types, making them suitable for multi-day bike packing trips.


Trek Checkpoint SLR 6 AXS


Probably one of the most endearing features for bike packers is their mounting points for all the gear you have to take bikepacking, like fork bags, bento boxes, racks and panniers, which are essential for carrying gear and supplies.

I noticed that the Trek Checkpoint SL5 and the Trek Checkpoint ALR 5 are both literally covered in useful mounts for carrying about five water bottles – both on the main triangle and attached to the fork.



Secondly, gravel bikes are often designed with comfort in mind, featuring wider tyres and a more stable and relaxed geometry than other bikes, like roadies.

This can make them more comfortable to ride over long distances, which is super important when bike packing.

Gravel bikes are generally lighter and more nimble than traditional touring bikes, making them easier to handle on rougher surfaces and more enjoyable to ride overall.

Their disc brakes are an absolute must have because you want to be able to stop in all weather conditions!

However, in saying this, it’s important to choose the right bike for your specific needs and ensure that it’s properly geared up with the necessities and accessories for your trip. Be prepared!


Want to win a Trek gravel bike? Enter our Gravel Biking Giveaway!

Five Tips for Getting Into Gravel Biking

If you’re keen to start gravel biking, here are our top five tips to help get you started:


Start with a suitable bike: After reading through our guide, you’ll now be familiar with what gravel bikes can do and the differences between them, road bikes, and mountain bikes.

If you can, it’s worthwhile investing in a quality gravel bike because it should make your riding experience so much more enjoyable. Look for a bike with good tyre clearance so you can run wider tyres for better grip off road, definitely disc brakes, and a comfortable geometry that suits your riding style.


Build up your fitness gradually: Gravel riding can be physically demanding, so it’s important to build up your fitness gradually. Start with shorter rides in flatter areas, and gradually increase the length and intensity of your rides as you become more comfortable.


Get some lessons and learn good bike handling skills: While you don’t need to be like Lachlan Morton on a bike, gravel riding requires pretty good bike handling skills, because you could lose your front end and slip out over loose gravel, rocks, and other obstacles on the trail.

Take the time to learn proper techniques for braking, cornering, and descending, and practice these skills in a safe environment before hitting the trails. YouTube is your friend.


Dress for the conditions: Gravel riding can take you through a variety of environments and weather conditions, so it’s important to wear comfortable, moisture-wicking gear to keep cool in hot weather, warm in cold weather and dry-ish in the rain.

Make sure you can be seen and don’t forget to wear a helmet, sunscreen and bring along any other protective gear.


Plan your routes carefully: Gravel riding can take you through remote areas, so to prevent getting lost it’s important to plan your routes meticulously and bring along enough supplies like food, water, and other essentials.

Check the weather forecast and trail conditions before heading out and let someone know where you’ll be riding and when you expect to return.