Can Electric Bikes Climb Steep Hills?

Electric bicycles are becoming more popular all over the world. They can be a great way to reduce your carbon footprint, zip through gridlock on your commute, and get some exercise all at once. At the same time, they offer some mechanical assistance to make heavier loads, longer miles, and steeper hills less punishing than relying on pedal-power alone.

Can electric bikes climb steep hills? They definitely can, but the type of motor and its size will determine how well they handle the steepest hills. Other factors like the weight of the rider and additional loads will come into play. When you know what you expect to tackle on a regular basis, you can build or buy a bike that is suited to the task.

If you’re looking at getting yourself an electric bike and you live in a hilly area or plan to use your bike on trips and want something that is up for anything, you definitely need to factor those elements into your decision. While any electric bike is going to provide a supplement to the pedal power you supply, only certain options will perform well on the steepest hills.

Why Does an Electric Bike Need to Climb Steep Hills Well?

If you’re just looking for a little bit of help on the steepest hills, then any electric bike is going to do the trick. The point is to get a hybrid power supply out of your pedaling and the electric motor’s supplemental power. But if your daily commute or favorite exercise route includes a hill you couldn’t possibly pedal—plan on getting more motor to make it manageable. 

The steepest roads in the world are between 30-35%. Fortunately, there aren’t very many of them out there. There is one in New Zealand, and there are four in North America. Is there an electric bike that can handle grades like this?

To handle the steepest hills you come up against, you’ll need to build or purchase a bike with all of the right features to tackle challenging hill climbs. You will need to choose the type of electric motor wisely and make sure that it has enough battery capacity, power output, and torque to be up to the task.

In this article, we’ll compare the types of motors that are available for electric bikes as well as the sizes that are required to make taking on steep hills a realistic expectation. We’ll also discuss some additional information that you’ll need to know if you’re thinking about building or buying an electric bike. Finally, we’ll review some of the best options for building and buying.

Fun video of an electric mountain bike climbing an insane hill!

The Features to Consider When You Want an Electric Bike That Can Handle Steep Hills

If hill climbing is the primary function that you want your electric bike to perform, it is possible to either purchase one that will be ready to go when you take possession of it or build one out of components that are ideally suited for that task. Of course, for most of us, cost is also an important consideration so you’ll have to decide what is right for your situation.

Of the two types of motors that are available for electric bikes, hub motors are generally easier to install and operate but offer less power and deliver less torque. In comparison, mid-drive motors are a bit more complicated but generate enough power and torque to make learning to operate them more than worth your while.

The amount of power than an electric motor can provide to supplement your pedaling varies greatly from one model to the next. Some hub motors deliver as little as 250W, while the best mid-drive motors are capable of supplying up to 1500W. The best mid-drive motors on the market right now can also deliver an impressive 160-newton meters (nm) of torque.

Motor Styles

While both hub-style and mid-drive motors can deliver supplemental power, the greater power, torque, and control that are found in top-of-the-line mid-drive motors make them the preferred choice for climbing steep hills.

Hub Motors

As the name implies, hub motors attach to the hub of either the front or rear wheel of your bicycle. This means that they’re not integrated into the main drive train of your bicycle – the drive chain and gear assembly. Instead, they work by providing supplement power at the point of one wheel or the other.

There are aspects of hub motors that cause some electric bike riders to prefer them over mid-drive motors, but we are unaware of any hub motors on the market that can match the best mid-drive motors in hill climbing capabilities.

One thing that riders like about hub motors is the ease with which they can be installed and maintained. You can typically choose to either buy a wheel with the hub motor already installed or easily install the motor on the wheel yourself. Once in place, hub motors are resistant to threats from weather and most trail conditions.

Riding with a hub motor is less technically challenging. Since they supply a constant and consistent level of supplemental power, riders never have to worry about pedaling to match the cadence, shifting gears, throttling, or other tricky aspects of riding with a mid-drive motor.

Mid-drive Motors

Mid-drive Motors attach to a bicycle through the bottom bracket of your cranks and engage with the primary drivetrain. They offer the best torque for moving heavier loads or climbing the steepest hills. But they also take a little bit of getting used to when you’re starting out, and they can be challenging to install if you’re looking to build an electric bike yourself.

The bottom line is that steep hill climbs require something beefier than a hub motor. A mid-drive motor will reduce your front sprocket system to a single chainring that drives the system, but you’ll still have access to the multiple gears on the rear ring. That means you can gear up for speed or gear down for torque.

When you get to know a mid-drive motor, you can make efficient use of its battery power simply by choosing gears that strike the right balance between what you can provide from pedaling and what you’ll need from the motor. Changing gears can be a challenge though as you’ll have to match the cadence of the motor with your pedaling to execute a gear change.

The other challenging aspect of changing gears is specific to hill climbing. Because the mid-drive motor is integrated into the drivetrain of the bicycle, it is crucial that you avoid changing gears on an incline. 

Power Supply

There are several factors to consider in relation to an electric bicycle motor’s power supply. These are its output in Watts (W), its battery capacity in Watt-hours (Wh), and its torque in newton meters (Nm). 

There are some truly impressive models available on the market that are capable of moving you further and faster over almost any terrain. As you might expect, they’re all mid-drive motors. Let’s take a look at the specs you’ll need to confidently attack steep hills before we move on to consider specific models that are on the market.

Watts

A maximum output of 250W is fairly standard for hub motors. Contrast that with the range of capabilities that are available from mid-drive motors. Inexpensive mid-drive motors are commonly capable of 350-750W outputs. The best mid-drive motors on the market deliver 1000-1500W and offer you an additional degree of control with a throttle cable.

The amount of throttle you use will definitely affect the range of your motor, but you can compensate for the additional power demands that steep hills present by upgrading the motor’s battery to the maximum amount of storage that it can accommodate.

Watt-Hours

The size of the battery and the amount of power that it can store will determine the amount of time or distance that your motor can cover. If you’re running with the throttle wide open to achieve decent speeds on a steep incline, your burning through the juice that you have available for the rest of your ride. 

Supplying as much power as you can through the pedals, selecting efficient gears, and balancing your desire for speed with your need to cover distance when working the throttle are all ways to extend a battery’s life. As we’ll discuss later, there are also ways to recharge your battery during the ride.

Torque

Torque is how we measure the applied force of the power supplied by pedaling and the electric motor in relation to the turning of the bicycle’s wheels. On flat land, it only takes enough force to overcome inertia in order to get the bicycle to move. On a steep hill, the torque needs to be sufficient to overcome not only inertia but also the force of gravity pushing the bike down the hill.

As a general rule, we would recommend nothing less than 70Nm of torque for an electric bicycle motor that you intend to climb steep hills with. With that being said, there are models available that happily deliver 160Nm or more. Depending on how steep your hills are and how much you can provide through the pedals, you may want to spend a bit more to get a bit more.

Other Considerations That Will Impact Your Electric Bicycles Performance on Hills

The elements that we’ve discussed so far will help you select the motor that is best suited to what you hope to get out of an electric bicycle. There are some additional things that you will need to know to get the best performance out of these features once you’ve completed the purchase or build of your new electric bicycle.

The first thing that we need to discuss is the different ways that you can recharge the battery of your electric motor. In addition to that, we need to spend some time going over what you, as a rider, can do to increase the efficiency of your hill climbs through riding technique and selection and maintenance of equipment like tires.

Recharging the Battery of Your Electric Motor

The most important way that your electric motor recharges itself is that way that it does so during your rides. Through a process called regenerative braking, your battery can generate energy from the resistance it presents to rolling downhill. This is a great feature to have in an electric bike built for hill climbing. 

As the old saying goes – what goes up must come down. You’ll use the most power when your climbing hills. But for every hill you climb, you’ll probably encounter an equal amount of downhill riding. While the regenerative braking process won’t completely replace the energy your motor burns climbing hills, it will definitely generate enough to make a difference.

This is a really important feature because aside from regenerative braking, whenever your battery is out of power, you will be reduced to whatever you can supply by pedaling. In order to recharge your battery, you’ll have to hook it up to a charger while the bicycle is stopped.

Efficient Riding Techniques

There are some tips and tricks pertaining to riding techniques that will help you use less energy on hill climbs. Using them will help you go further and faster between recharges.

  • Body Position: When you are climbing steep grades, shift your body position forward by lowering your chest to the bars, and bending your elbows. This will improve aerodynamics and maintain traction on the rear wheel.
  • Pedaling cadence: With a mid-drive motor, it is vital that you maintain the right pedaling cadence so that you don’t lose momentum.
  • Line choice: When riding trails, it’s important to look as far ahead as the terrain permits so that you can anticipate your steering line and avoid any loss of momentum.
  • Tire Pressure: Maintaining the proper air pressure in your tires gives your bike better traction, which will make more efficient use of your electric motor’s battery power.
  • Tire Style: Choosing the right size and style of tires for the terrain you will be riding is another great way to maximize the efficiency of your ride.

Build or Buy?

For riders who have some mechanical aptitude, building their own electric bike can be both a great way to learn more about your new ride and a good way to get more motor for less money. At the same time, if you’re not confident in your abilities, then it might make more sense to purchase a unit that is ready to ride so that you can get straight to the fun part.

Best Build Option

The Bafang BBSHD (see on Amazon) is the consensus pick for the best mid-drive motor on the market. It delivers the most power, battery life, and torque, and it receives great reviews for durability and value. When you pair this motor with a quality battery that offers adequate storage capacity, you’ll be well on your way to owning and operating a hill-climbing beast of a bicycle.

Best Buy Option

RadRover next to the river! It will have no problem going up hills.

We like the RadRover the best out of all the options that are available. It isn’t the most powerful thing on the market, but at 750W, it is more than capable of handling steep hills. It has 7 speeds to give you options for maximizing torque on hills and speed everywhere else.

It also comes with fat tires to make sure that it can handle any terrain (snow included) and mechanical disc brakes to make sure you maintain control. It’s also great that the motor, frame, and battery are all covered by a warranty.

Conclusion

We’ve been discussing whether electric bikes can climb steep hills. It should be clear from everything we’ve covered that even the most basic hub motor powered electric bike will do better-climbing hills for you than you can do under pedal-power alone. With that being said, our review of mid-drive motors, battery power, and torque should make it clear that not all electric bikes are created equal when it comes to steep inclines.

Only you know for sure what kind of challenges you’re going to ask your electric bike to overcome. Only you know what kind of investment is reasonable for your situation. Only you can decide whether you would prefer to build or buy the best bike you can get for the jobs that you will ask it to do and the budget you have to spend.

Hopefully, the information that we’ve shared has given you a better understanding of what you should expect from each of the different options that are available to you as you shop for an electric bike that will do what you need it to do. Hopefully, we’ve pointed you in the direction of some choices that will work for you when you decide to take the next step.

At the very least, we hope that we’ve convinced you that electric bikes are not only capable of climbing hills but a great way to reduce your carbon footprint and make your commute healthier, faster, and more interesting. Here’s to many miles of happy biking. Good luck!

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