Folding Bike: Your Instant Getaway Tool

by Justyna Frank
camping with folding bike

A folding bike is my hands down favorite microscope tool. It is the perfect vehicle for quick and sneaky getaways.

In fact, a particular folding bike was what inspired my Live Large Pack Small philosophy, and eventually led to the creation of this website.

So, without further ado, here’s the scoop:

What is a folding bike

It is just what it sounds like: it is a bicycle that collapses down to a small and portable package, usually by means of hinged frame that can be folded down for improved portability. Some folders use threaded connectors instead of hinges to disconnect the top and bottom frame tubes and allow the bike to be broken down for easier transporting.

Most conventional (non-folding) adult bikes have large wheels: 26”, 27.5”, 700c, etc. Some folders also utilize full-size wheels, however the majority feature smaller 20″ or 16″ wheels, which results in a more compact folded package.

Folding bike wheel comparison
Folding bikes can have smaller wheels, but offer riding position similar to a standard bike.

Types of folding bikes

There are quite a few manufacturers of folding bicycles around the globe. The most familiar ones in the US are Dahon, Tern, Montague, Bike Friday and Brompton.

It should be noted that there’s an exploding category of electric folding bikes, however, because my emphasis throughout this site is on non-motorized activities, I will not be discussing them in detail here. Many of the less expensive folding electric bikes are also shockingly heavy (68-70lbs), which runs counter to my “live large, pack small” philosophy, and frankly defeats the purpose of having folding bike in the first place. Notable lighter weight exceptions are GoCycle and Brompton, both of which come in at well under 40lbs.

Many folding bike models, including Dahon, Tern, Gocycle and to some extent Montague, as well as those super-heavy e-bike models, use a hinge or pivot point near the center of the bike, so the bike folds essentially in half. 

Bike Friday and Brompton are unique in that they position the break-apart points in different places on the frame. The result is a much more compact folded bicycle. But while Bike Friday is optimized for transporting in a case for long distance travel, and can take quite a while to take apart, a Brompton folds in literally seconds into a compact 24”x24”9” package that stays securely folded without a case, or any additional straps or latches. This makes it a winner not only for urban commuting, but also for spur-of-the-moment adventures.

Brompton folded and unfolded
Brompton folding bike goes from compactly folded to ride-ready in seconds flat.

Which folding bike is best and why

Because of it’s quick, easy and compact folding design, a Brompton folding bike is at the top of my list of quick getaway vehicles. A Brompton has a number of impressive advantages over most other folding bikes:

  1. The quickest and smallest folding bike on the market (that rides like a “regular” bike)
  2. Predictable and easy fold (<10sec!) without the need for additional straps or tie downs to hold the pieces together 
  3. The resulting folded package is unobtrusive and welcome almost anywhere
  4. The dirtiest parts of the bike (chain and drivetrain) are tucked inside the fold
  5. Carefully engineered design optimized for both riding and folding
  6. Longer unfolded wheelbase results in superior ride stability and quality
  7. Rear suspension integrated into the design is standard on every model
  8. Quality, time-tested components and materials
  9. Numerous options for customization
  10. A variety of well-made bags that integrate with the for carrying your gear

Why is a folding bike the perfect vehicle for quick getaways

In addition to being my favorite folding bicycle, the Brompton is perfect vehicle for microescapes:

  1. It can be easily stashed in your place of work for a quick and sneaky after work outings.
  2. It doesn’t require a car rack. It easily stashes in your car trunk and is available for spontaneous detours or explorations.
  3. It’s permitted on urban and suburban transit without blackout times (though it may require a cover during rush hour), so you can easily get out of town without much advance planning.
  4. Encourages you to pack small. In fact, the Brompton is what challenged me to pack tiny, and inspired my Live Large Pack Small philosophy.
  5. It easily fits in a tent vestibule.
  6. It is a great ice-breaker and conversation starter when you find yourself in a new place.
Brompton packs small
Pack small: this was literally everything my folding bike carried on a recent overnight camping trip.

Folding bike FAQ’s

Q. Aren’t folding bikes slower than regular bikes, and won’t I have to pedal harder with those small wheels?

A. Wheel size is only one aspect of the bike that influences the pedaling cadence.

Your pedaling power is transferred to the wheels via the drivetrain: the chain, the front chainring, and a sprocket attached to the rear wheel. The size of the chainrings, the cogs on the sprocket and the size of the wheels all have an effect on your pedaling cadence. Bikes with smaller wheels are generally geared in a way that allows you to travel at a reasonable speed with a natural cadence.

What this means it that a quality folding bike, such as a Bike Friday or Brompton will ride at a speed comparable to a conventional bike with normal rider effort. So while you may not be able to keep up with a racer on a road bike, depending on your riding level, you should be able to ride comfortably in a group of riders going and a moderate to fast pace.

Q. Are those small wheels rough to ride on?

A. They can be, especially when fitted to an aluminum bike frame that many folding bike manufacturers utilize. Some folding bikes have built-in suspension to mitigate this. For example, Bromptons have a suspension block built into the pivoting rear triangle that compresses under the rider’s weight. Plus, they have steel –or steel and titanium– frames that offer more supple ride characteristics than aluminum.

Q. Is the frame not as strong as a regular bike?

A. The hinged parts of folding bikes are reinforced and specifically designed to hold up over miles of riding. If properly unfolded and secured, the bike will not collapse under you. Keep in mind that most folding bikes are not designed for off-road use. However, they can be safely ridden on both paved and unpaved hard-pack surfaces, such as crushed limestone.

Q. Are folding bikes harder to maintain?

A. Not really. Folding bikes do not require more frequent maintenance than any other bike, and you can easily learn to do most of the ongoing maintenance yourself: airing the tires, oiling the chain and fixing a flat, or even replacing the brake pads.

It’s true that some folding bike components are strictly proprietary, and not easily found at your local bike shop. However, those parts are not the ones that require regular maintenance. And some non-proprietary parts —for example high quality smaller tires— can be a little harder to find. Even when using standard parts, folding bikes have some idiosyncratic requirements specific to their design, so for that reason, it’s probably best to have any major services performed by an authorized dealer.

Q. I heard folding bikes are expensive. Are they a good value?

A. Quality folding bikes, including Bromptons, typically run $1800-2200, with some premium models exceeding $3000. Because they are well-made, and because the company has a strong history of quality control, solid customer service and a dependable dealer network, you know you will be able to get ongoing support. The bikes are easy to live with, designed for convenience, and so versatile that you may end up using one in more ways than you anticipated, so your investment will definitely pay off.

Q. But they’re so hard to lock. How will I keep it from getting stolen?

A. The best thing about folding bikes, and especially one as easily and quickly folding as a Brompton, is they NEVER have to be locked outside. Simply fold it, and carry or roll it in with you wherever you go. You’ll find that you can bring it in without any problems into stores, restaurants, offices, and onto buses, trains and car-share vehicles.

Examples of folding bike getaways

Here is a handful of examples of some quick day trips and mini-vacations I took on a Brompton.

  1. Brompton & Trail 24-Hour Mini Tour
    A car-free mini-tour using a combination of urban and suburban transit, and over 50 miles of dedicated bike trails.
  2. Bike Camping Overnight
    An overnight camping trip to a Wisconsin state park on the shore of Lake Michigan.
  3. Milwaukee Meander
    A day tour of Milwaukee using the town’s extensive bike trail network (and visiting lovely open-air beer gardens!)
  4. Cannon Valley Ride
    An unexpected day trip opportunity on the way back from from a funeral in Minneapolis.

What these outings all share is a sense of spontaneity, minimal packing and planning, and being open to opportunities. I hope you use them as a starting point for devising your own mini-escapes.

Let me know how it goes!

Leave a Comment