Choosing a pump to meet your portable inflation needs can be arduous process due to the dizzying number of options available from dozens of manufacturers. Prices are all over the map and every manufacturer claims their product is the best. You are probably asking yourself questions like: Do I need different pumps for my road bike and mountain bike? Why not just use CO2 inflators? Is the extra size and weight of a frame pump worth the benefits? Do I want a traditional pump head or a flex hose? These are all valid question and we can help. This article has all of the answers you are looking for.
CO2 inflators use compressed CO2 in cartridges to provide a quick and compact means of tire inflation. A standard 16g cartridge will inflate a road tire to around 90-100 psi. CO2 is much faster and easier than using a pump. So why get a pump? For one, C02 cartridges are expensive! A Genuine Innovations 16G CO2 cartridge will cost you around $4 at your local bike shop. In addition, a 16g cartridge will not fill a mountain bike tire to an adequate riding pressure. 20g cartridges are available but still may not be enough for a high volume tire.
If you use CO2, you will need to carry at least two cartridges in case of multiple flats or a misfire (we have seen it more times than we can count). Two cartridges and a small inflator weigh around 130g, so you are not saving much if any weight. One other disadvantage of CO2 is that it will slowly diffuse through butyl tubes over time. So if you let your bike sit overnight following inflation with CO2, don't be surprised to wake up to a flat tire. In addition, CO2 can cause some tubeless tire sealant to set up or harden, so you may have to add or replace sealant as well. CO2 certainly has advantages — we like it for racing because it is fast, but other than that we prefer a manual pump.
Frame Pump vs. Mini Pump
Do I want a frame pump or mini pump? Both have advantages and disadvantages.
First and foremost, frame pumps are designed carried on the frame. Due to the design of a frame pump they will not fit on full suspension bikes or any other bike with an interrupted front triangle. A frame pump will fit on most road and cyclocross bikes. The major advantage of a frame pump is increased pumping efficiency due to being almost twice the size of a mini pump. Increased efficiency gets you back on the road faster. Frame pumps are ideal for training and winter use. Flats are more frequent in the winter months, so it stands to reason that repairing those inevitable flats faster is a good thing. Frame pumps are also ideal for gravel riding on a cyclocross bike. Cyclocross and gravel tires have a larger volume than most road tires and are much easier to inflate with a larger pump. So for road training and gravel riding a good frame pump is the ticket. We recommend the Silca Impero Ultimate.
The main advantage of a mini pump over a frame pump is smaller size and portability. Mini pumps are designed to fit in your jersey or hydration pack. In addition, most mini pumps come with a frame mount bracket that uses your frame's bottle cage bolts for mounting. For mountain bike use you want a mini pump. For road riding you have the option of a mini or frame pump. Mini Pumps are lighter weight, but they are more difficult to pump and will take longer to fill a tire. For racing use, we recommend a mini pump. Less weight and if you flat you are likely out of a chance to win anyway. The other advantage of a mini pump is potential to use one pump for both mountain and road use. Some pumps such as the Pro Bike Tool Mini work reasonably well for both applications and can serve double duty.
Types of Mini Pumps
Mini pumps can be divided into three basic categories: mountain bike, road bike, and combination.
Mountain Bike Mini Pumps
Mini pumps designed for mountain bike use are designed to move more air per stroke than a road bike mini pump. The main advantage is faster filling of high volume tires. The disadvantage is inability to pump at high pressure. If you are looking for a mini pump you plan to use only for mountain biking, then look for a high volume pump such as the Lezyne Gauge Drive HV.
Road Bike Mini Pumps
Road bike mini pumps are designed to pump efficiently at high pressure. The disadvantage is slow filling of larger tires due to a decreased stroke volume as compared to a mountain bike pump. Road bike mini pumps are ideal for road and cyclocross use. If you are looking for a road bike mini pump we recommend the Lezyne Road Drive, or Topeak RaceRocket HP.
Combination mini pumps claim to do it all. Most pumps designed to work for both pressure and volume applications tend to not be all that good at either. There are some exceptions such as the Pro Bike Mini Tool that offer very good all around performance. A combination pump is right for you if you need one pump to use for multiple cycling disciplines. Combination pumps are also the most cost effective option for the rider with multiple bikes. The Silca Pocket Impero is also a good single pump solution.
So now you likely have an idea what type of pump you need. But what features are important? Flexible hose? Pressure gauge? Valve compatibility? We break down the options below to help you make the choice.
Flexible Hose vs. Standard Pump Head
A standard pump head is built into the end of the pump and attaches the pump directly to the valve stem. Most standard head pumps have a locking lever that seals the pump around the valve stem. Honestly, the only advantage of a standard head is lower price. While not all standard head pumps are lower in price (case in point: the Silica Pocket Impero), many affordable pumps such as the Vibrelli Mini use this standard head design.
The main disadvantage of a standard pump head is that the pump must be kept at a perfect right angle to the valve stem in order to prevent valve stem damage. Meaning that the user must keep one hand on or at the pump head while pumping to stabilize the pump. This is often not the best position ergonomically for pumping. All of the frame pumps we are aware of have a standard head. Recommended pumps with a standard head include the Silca Impero Ultimate.
A flexible hose has a valve connection at one end and connects to the pump at the other. This design allows for better pumping ergonomics and prevents lateral pressure from being applied to the valve stem. Flexible hose connections are also threaded, so the end of the hose is threaded onto the valve stem, providing a leak-free seal that is superior to most standard head connections. Editors Note: Thread-on valve connections can unthread a tubeless valve core when the hose is removed, thus releasing all the air you have pumped in.
We use a drop of blue thread locker on our valve stems to prevent this. The blue thread lock provides enough support to prevent accidental removal but also allows the core to be removed when necessary to add sealant. We recommend that you choose a pump with this design. Good examples are the Lezyne Gauge Drive HV for mountain use, Lezyne Road Drive for road, and the Pro Bike Tool Mini for combination use.
Some pumps are equipped with integrated pressure gauges. A pressure gauge lets you see your progress in real time, and provides a more accurate means of achieving adequate pressure than the old squeeze the tire test. We recommend a pump with a pressure gauge, particularly for mountain bike use, where a few psi can make the difference in cornering and handling. We do not feel it is as important for road use, where the goal is to get the tire firm enough to prevent a pinch flat. A good option for a mountain bike mini pump with a pressure gauge is the Lezyne Gauge Drive HV.
Your bike likely has either Presta or Schrader valve equipped tubes, or tubeless valve stems. A pump with dual compatibility allows the user to inflate tires with both valve types. If you are purchasing a road bike pump, dual compatibility is not a concern as all road tubes are of the Presta type. The vast majority of mountain bikes also use Presta valves, but some downhill bikes, dirt jump bikes, and older mountain bikes may have Schrader valves. It is best to investigate what type of valve stems your bike uses prior to purchasing a pump. With that said, all of the mountain bike and combination pumps we tested are compatible with both valve types.