Bicycle Rim Tape Alternatives: A Sticky Situation

rim tapeRim tapes and strips are often not something we pay much attention to because they don’t affect wheel performance at all. However, what they do affect is the amount of headache you get when changing tires, usually experienced by us mechanics. In addition, decently executed alternatives can save you some money.

Is Rim Tape or Rim Strip Necessary?

Short answer; absolutely yes!

With either running tubes or tubeless, you need something to cover spoke holes from the inside. In case of tubes, you want to prevent sharp rim holes from cutting the tube and preventing it from popping through the hole on high-pressure tires.

You can actually get away with not having any rim strip or tape in some cases but tubes won’t last long. This is usually the case when your strip breaks during a ride and you have no choice but to survive without it until you come back home.

Tubeless systems depend on rim strips or rim tapes a bit more. The whole system must be flawless in preventing air leaks. So naturally, there are a lot of things to consider like quality, design, and proper installation.

Rim Tape vs. Rim Strip

In any case, both work perfectly fine if the proper ones are used and installed correctly. However, there are some differences and potential preferences as an outcome of those differences.

For example, rim strips are much easier to change and install, but they often depend a lot on having proper width. Different sizes can sit differently on the rim and cause sharp edges that eventually cut a tube open. Or, simply not allow your tire to be seated by being too wide.

Rim tapes, on the other hand, are sometimes painful to remove and install. Especially for tubeless, where any mistake can lead to leaking. However, they last quite a long time and once done properly, they often never cause any problems.

Is There a Best Rim Tape or Rim Strip?

There are certainly better or worse ones. In my experience, there are some alternatives that surprisingly work much better than any bicycle-specific ones. It comes down to the type you need for your exact situation, as well as proper size and installation. Seems really easy, but believe me, most tire problems are caused by improper rim tapes and rim strips.

Some of these alternatives work only with tubes and some work with tubeless as well. Some alternative rim tapes work amazingly for tubeless simply because you can easily tape more than one circle around the rim and make inflating a tubeless tire easier. That isn’t always easy with bicycle-specific rim tapes because they give you length for one circle only.

I will try to explain which work and why in detail in the rest of this article.

Mountain Bike Rim Tape vs. Road Rim Tape

While bicycle-specific rim tapes are usually made for both mountain bikes and road bikes, alternatives often have different properties and it’s recommended to understand which can be used for which wheels.

It’s actually quite easy, there are only a few things you need to check before you install them on your bike rim.

First and most important is how much air pressure they can withstand. Road bikes use much higher pressure and therefore require a tape that won’t stretch that easily over the spoke holes. Otherwise, it will eventually break and puncture a tube or leak air and sealant in case of tubeless. This can sometimes be mitigated by alternative rim tapes by taping few rounds around the rim, but then again that’s unnecessary extra weight. On the other hand, pretty much any tape can withstand MTB air pressures.

The other factor to consider would be how hard the tape sticks to the rim. Road bikes won’t have problems with this since air pressure will actually help with keeping it taped to the rim. Tapes tend to lose their grip on mountain biking air pressures and cause tubeless leaks or cut tubes. The way an MTB tire flexes during a ride doesn’t help with that either. That’s why it’s important that a rim tape used for MTB sticks really well.

Mountain Bike Rim Strip vs. Road Rim Strip

When it comes to rim strips, the story is quite similar to rim tapes. Road rim strips require much higher tension in order to withstand high pressures and not break on spoke holes.

There is a benefit, however, for mountain bike rim strips in a variety of materials that they can be made from. While you can buy cheap standard MTB rim strips anywhere, unfortunately, none of the manufacturers use this cost advantage to give us budget rim strips for tubeless. All of them are quite pricey for their purpose and design and in case of tubeless quite inefficient for budget wheels applications.

There is a better tubeless rim strip alternative in use since tubeless was invented, which I will talk about in detail later on.

Rim Tape / Strip Width

Before we talk about specific strips and tapes, their alternatives and DIY stuff, let’s first explain the proper width.

You will most likely read how rim strips and tapes should not reach a rim wall. I’ve myself might have mentioned it in some articles, however, it’s not that simple. It all comes down to the material.

In both tube and tubeless installation, it depends on material friction. If the material used is easy for a tire bead to slide on then you can only benefit by having it cover the rim from wall to wall. While higher friction materials like rubber, won’t allow a tire to be seated properly. This is something I have to mention every time I write anything about wheels and tires because every other forum topic is about being unable to seat a tire properly.

That’s why branded tubeless rim strips and rim tapes can go from wall to wall. In order to have a better chance of sealing spoke holes, they want to cover the whole rim so they use low friction materials. That’s why every branded strip and tape is sold in a variety of widths for different rim sizes.

With alternatives, you can’t always do that but with the careful application, it’s quite easy to seal the holes.

DIY Rim Strip For Mountain Bikes

There are lots of ways to cheaply make a rim strip, I’ve done lots of them myself over the years. Therefore, I can safely say that most of these work as a quick solution but not for long. The problem is, you need clean straight edges on most MTB rims but straight edges become really sharp, if not instantly then soon after. Sharp edges mean cut open tubes and so on…

In my experience, there is one simple and probably the oldest way of making your own rim strips and that is from old tubes. Most of the time you can get two good strips from a single tube if you simply cut one strip alongside the valve. Then all you need to do is split the rest into two equal pieces. Just remember to trim them to the width that fits your rim.

Same size tubes work, however, not ideally. It’s better if a tube is smaller, for instance, 26″ on a 27.5″ or 29″ rim. That way you are making sure it’s a bit stretched and it’s harder to move around.

One more trick I learned is cutting them with a scalpel at an angle so that the edges are thinner. It fits the rim better and you don’t need to be as precise because the thin edges won’t be sharp or create that much friction for tire seating.

DIY Rim Strip For Tubeless Mountain Biking

There is a method with cut tubes for tubeless systems as well. It’s the actual ghetto tubeless unlike what people today usually call by that name. Believe it or not, taping industrial tapes around the rim isn’t ghetto at all but a less fancy rim taping.

So let’s get to it then.

This method involves a tube with a removable valve core. You can use either Presta or Schrader valve as they both work well with a sealant. However, the Presta valve doesn’t always have a removable core.

A tube should be smaller than your actual rim size. Same as you should for non-tubeless DIY rim strip, it’s better if it stretches over the rim. It is easier to hold it in place and inflate a tubeless tire.

How to:

  1. rim tapeI like to inflate a tube just a bit so you can place it on the rim correctly. Gives you a less chance of twisting it which makes it go out of center later on. It’s easier to cut as well.
  2. Once you place it in a center, start cutting it down the middle so it splits open. You should have quite a bit of tube material going over the rim on each side.
  3. Before mounting a tire, it’s recommended to wipe a tube on the inside with water. It will clear that dust residue which should seal the air better. I’ve had it leak air for days several times when I didn’t wipe away that dust.
  4. Now you can mount a tire and try to inflate it. If it doesn’t go that easily, you can always remove the tube and tape a few rounds around the rim beneath it. This usually happens on wheels that are not tubeless ready. You can use pretty much anything that will bump that tube a bit because all you need to do is create less room between the tube and a tire so that it can inflate more easily.
  5. Once you’ve done seating a tire, keep it inflated for a bit. I usually leave it for an hour just so that the tube acquires a proper shape on the rim. After that, you should remove the valve core insert and pour sealant inside. Put the valve core back and inflate the tire which should be a bit easier now.
  6. All you have to do now is cut the rest of the tube that’s sticking out as close to the rim as you can. If you use a scalpel make sure you don’t cut the tire sidewall open.

And that’s it, now you have a cheap tubeless setup without buying rim tapes, strips or tubeless valves. The best thing about this is that it can easily be done on non-tubeless ready wheels.

Alternative Rim Tapes

Electrical Tape as Rim Tape

Electrical tape is commonly used by everyone either in a hurry to fix their wheels or unwilling to pay for bicycle-specific tape.

Does it work? Yeah.

Does it always work? No.

All the electrical tapes work well with tubes. In some instances, you might need to tape a few ways around the rim because some electrical tapes aren’t that durable. Once you find out how much tape is enough, you should have no worries for a very long time. The good thing about electrical tape is they usually create no friction with the tire, so you can tape wall to wall. However, if you do so, you need to do it very cleanly. Every wrinkle will give you trouble when seating a tire.

When it comes to tubeless, not all electrical tapes will work well. Some are not sticky enough and they form air bubbles beneath which sooner or later opens a hole and starts leaking air.

Another problem is some do not hold air at all. While they are all made waterproof by default, some of them can still leak air through them. And, since they are waterproof those leaks can’t be sealed by a sealant which just slips over the tape. Can be a bit disappointing when you already set it all up, but at least the cost is low. Luckily these air leaking electrical tapes are quite rare and likely you won’t have any problems with an average electrical tape.

The one I’ve tried using is Scotch Super 33+ Vinyl Electrical Tape, simply because I’ve found few people comment about using it as tubeless tapes among Amazon reviews. And guess what, it worked perfectly with only 2 layers for me.

Gorilla Tape

Gorilla Tape is quite the favorite among mountain bikers. Probably because it’s such a high-quality tape and you can get it anywhere. The price is great as well for the amount of tape you get.

There are several varieties, but the only ones I’ve ever used are Gorilla Tape Black and Gorilla Tape Mini Duct Tape, which are the most basic ones. I can say with confidence that it sticks really easy and never leaked for me at all. The only problem I had with it is a bit of friction on the tire however only a slightly higher pressure will go right through it and seal a tire perfectly.

Gorilla Tape Black is excellent but usually too wide for a standard rim so you need to trim it down beforehand. I do it by cutting it with a scalpel while it’s still on a tape roll. That way I get it equal all the way.

Gorilla Tape Mini Duct Tape has become my favorite since I found out about it. For most MTB rims it’s a perfect size to have and it’s easier to handle while taping.

I use those by default for any tube or tubeless system because I usually have a spare roll somewhere around the house anyway.

Other Industrial Tapes

Like the Gorilla Tape, other industrial tapes work as well. Especially the reinforced ones since they are a bit thicker. I’ve bought some unbranded ones several times which worked well, although, I didn’t ride very long on the wheelset I used them on so I can’t quite say how they hold over a long period of time.

Beware of the fiberglass reinforced ones though. I’ve heard cheaper ones tend to cut tubes on high-pressure road wheels. Lucky for us mountain bikers, we rarely go over 30 psi.

When to Replace Rim Tape or Rim Strip

To conclude all of this I would say don’t fix something that isn’t broken. I’ve had some tapes still running fine after thousands of miles and for many years. If done properly, they can last for quite a long time on mountain bike wheels. Just make sure to check them and position them properly every time you change a tube or a tire.

There are some amazing bike specific tapes and rim strips for those who want it to be easy. You can always buy those and let the bike shop do it for you. Although, I would recommend not to because alternatives work as good as any bike specific ones with only a bit of work. I can say that I haven’t used any of those for my bikes and everything works well in over 10 years of my bicycle adventures.