Many people have dreams about taking long bike trips across beautiful countryside. It’s called bike touring, and it’s actually not that hard. Touring — while it takes some time, some knowledge and a slightly more complex collection of gear — is well within the reach of most riders.
This article will be the first in a series of pieces that will help new touring converts plan, prepare and hit the road on multi-day tours. The second article will go over the actual riding period, and the third article will help you with the camping aspect of bike touring (which, as will be discussed in this first article, is actually optional).
Choosing a route
The first step in planning a tour is figuring out where you want to go. This might actually be the most important part of your trip. If you don’t have a good route, you likely won’t have as much fun. Finding a good route is, thankfully, relatively easy.
The first step is to talk to some local cyclists. If you don’t have friends who are involved in touring yourself, call a few local bike shops. Ask if any of their employees or friends are involved in bike touring in the region you are interested in visiting, and try to get in contact with them.
If you are able to find a good, knowledgeable person who knows all the backroads and touring routes that you are interested in, pick their brain and write everything down. If there is no one available who can share in-person knowledge, there are a few other resources that can be useful.
First up is the Adventure Cycling Association, which is a non-profit dedicated to cycle touring. This organization has different route maps available on their website. Water resistant, paper versions of these maps can also be bought online to take on your bike trip. These are available for most of the common touring routes in the USA and are highly recommended for your trip. You can use normal road maps if your route isn’t covered by cycling-specific maps like this.
One important aspect of picking a route is terrain and wind. Hills and mountains will slow you down, and the predominant winds in an area can make a big difference to your ride. For example, the Pacific Coast of the United States is a popular ride in the summer and fall, when prevailing winds blow from north to south. Nobody rides this route from south to north (at least, not twice!), for very good reason.
Planning your itinerary
Now that you have a route, it’s time to plan your itinerary. First of all, you need to decide how much time you have. Is this going to be a simple overnight trip, a week-long expedition, or a months-long trek from coast to coast? Once you know how long you have, you can start to work out the mileage you will need to cover.
In general, touring cyclists cover 50-70 miles per day. However, this can really vary. Hilly terrain and mountain passes can make 20 or 30 miles quite a day, and sometimes a headwind (even on completely flat terrain) can make each mile a hard-earned prize. Remember that you will also be hauling gear — in most cases, at least 30 or 40 pounds of it. That is going to slow things down.
On the other hand, sometimes everything just seems to go right: A nice tailwind pushes you along, and the miles just fly by. On days like this, hitting 80 miles can seem like a breeze.
At the beginning of any longer trip, you should plan some very short days so you can ease into things and not burn yourself out or get an injury right at the beginning.
Make sure that, as you plan each day, you factor in the terrain, starting and ending points, and any side trips or diversions you will want to make. Have a plan.
Where to stay?
One of the most important aspects of planning a tour is accommodations. Most touring cyclists choose to stay at campgrounds, state parks, and other outdoor places along their route. Other folks who desire a bit more comfort stay at hotels or motels along the route. Another option, if available in your area, is to stay at the homes of family or friends, or to use a program like Couchsurfing or Warm Showers.
Packing: Racks and saddlebags
Getting all of the gear needed for touring on a single bike is quite an accomplishment, and packing well is both an art and a science. Getting everything in place requires a few key pieces of gear — chief among them a pair of panniers for the rear of your bike.
Some riders who need more space also use front panniers or even a trailer. Mounting panniers on your bike requires racks which mount on the frame of your cycle. Look for bike bags that are durable, strong, spacious and weather resistant.
Aside from a reliable bike that fits, the most important stuff to bring on a bike tour is basic cycling equipment: a pump, extra tubes, tools, helmet, bike clothing and the other basics. You will also need food, water, and the ability to carry it throughout the day; you won’t always be close to a grocery store when you get hungry. If you plan on sleeping out, you will also need camping gear: a tent or tarp, a sleeping pad, a sleeping bag, and maybe a camping stove and some small pots to cook a hot meal before you pack up and hit the road in the morning.
Distributing the load
You may have already have your bags packed, but unless you have been on long bicycle trips before, most likely you have never ridden a bike with this much weight on it. It’s not unheard of for cyclists on long tours to pack upwards of 75 pounds of gear, and that much extra poundage will make a big difference in your riding style.
Whenever you load your bike down with new gear, whether it be in panniers or a trailer, you should prepare before you actually ride on roads with cars whizzing past. Start on a quiet neighborhood street that isn’t too steep and has plenty of open space. The weight distribution of your bike is going to be very different, so mount carefully and take your time. Start off slowly, trying to get a feel for the bike.
Gradually you will learn how to balance with the added weight, and after a while you start to feel very natural. Make your movements more slow and steady, since a heavy bike can’t recover from leaning over as quickly as a normal bike can. Try to get a feel for maneuvering around potholes and other obstacles, and for acceleration and braking. You will get used to it quickly! After riding a fully loaded bike for just a few hours, taking off the bags and riding unencumbered will feel very strange, with the bike reacting too quickly.
Remember that with a fully loaded bike it will take you much longer than normal to come to a stop: always provide extra stopping room when you are bike touring.
Dealing with cars
Let’s face it: bike touring can sometimes be a scary experience. After all, you are often riding on narrow, winding, two-lane highways where an unwary driver could make things turn bad in a hurry. That is why it is so important to ride defensively when you are bike touring.
Always leave adequate space between yourself and the side of the road, where obstacles such as broken glass, potholes and storm drains make the route hazardous. To make up for any additional danger caused by rising farther out in the lane, use a few tricks.
First, purchase and learn to use a rearview mirror for your bike or helmet. Look for high quality glass mirrors. Bigger is not always better with bike mirrors; choose a good quality design.
It is also good to make yourself as visible as possible to cars. Use brightly colored cycling clothing as a first step. Some riders choose to use orange reflective vests that are lightweight, inexpensive and highly breathable. They can be worn over whatever clothes you happen to be wearing that day. Another good option is a brightly colored flag that can be stuck inside your panniers or otherwise mounted at the rear of your bike, and is a great way to make yourself easier to see.
As usual, if you are riding in the dark, at dawn or dusk, or on very dark, overcast days, use both front and rear bike lights (white in front, red in back) to make sure cars and pedestrians can see you.
Pacing and drafting
Whether you are riding alone or with other people, finding the right pace is very important when you are bike touring. You don’t want to be going so fast you tire yourself out quickly, but you also don’t want to be going so slow that you don’t end up covering much ground. Choose a moderate pace that allows you to move quickly. Most touring cyclists average 12-18 miles per hour on a flat road. Hills and headwinds can make this number drop precipitously.
Since you will be carrying extra weight, most likely you will be spinning some of the easier gears on your bike. This is why touring cycles generally have easier gearing than racing bikes — those real granny gears make a big difference hauling 80 extra pounds of gear up a big hill.
If you are riding with a partner, make sure that the pace of the person in the lead is okay for the person in the back, as well. If you are the person in the back, it can be exhausting to feel like you are constantly playing catch-up.
When you ride together, you can also take advantage of drafting. Drafting means riding closely behind the rider in front, who slices through the wind and makes it easier for the people behind them. This technique can really be a boon for the person in the back, so especially if it is windy, it is a good idea to put weaker riders in the rear — or to switch off now and then to give each other a break.
Finding a Site
Most cyclists embarking on multi-day tours will want to plan their route carefully beforehand (See the first article in this series for tips for that process). In general, most riders sleep in private campgrounds and state, county, or national parks. Riders looking for more luxury generally stick with bed and breakfasts or hotels/motels.
For the purpose of this article, we will be focusing on campgrounds. But always remember: unless you are embarking on a trail ride, bike touring is a front country experience. If a crazy storm moves in and you get soaked, check into a hotel for the night; you can dry your clothes and sleep warm and dry. It’s good to have an escape!
When looking for campsites, keep an eye out for “hiker/biker” sites. Many state parks (and some other parks), especially those along popular bike routes, will have this sort of campsite available for less than half the price of a normal drive-in campsite. In many campsites, hiker/biker sites are somewhat secluded, with a much more natural and remote feeling, and generally feature a picnic table and a fire ring. Hiker/biker sites generally have the same access to bathrooms and running water as the rest of the campground, perhaps with another minute or two added to the walk.
Most campsites require you to pay as you enter and use a system of envelopes and a dropbox if no employee is there to take your money. Most campsites have an information board in a prominent location, which may have important information. Make sure to take a look when you get where you are going.
Once you get to camp, most likely the first thing you are going to want to do is eat. A full day of riding can really get your appetite going! While some riders choose to stop at restaurants near camp, you can save a lot of money, have healthier food, and enjoy cooking in the outdoors if you make your stop at a grocery store or farmers market instead.
For reliable cooking, you will need a camping stove. Most cyclists use small, lightweight stoves designed for backpacking that burn white gas or butane fuels. These provide plenty of heat for cooking, so make sure you’ve got one before you head out on the road.
The foods that cyclists eat are really up to them. Don’t shy away from dense, high-energy foods. A rider can easily burn 6,000 calories or more in a day of riding, so make sure to get plenty of food. One tradition is a quart of ice cream as a dessert snack. Two hungry bikers can put that down no problem. Honest! Just make sure that you have a good mixture of protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats.
Keeping clean while camping can be something of a task. The first task you are likely to have to deal with is cleaning the dishes. Most touring cyclists carry small bottles of liquid soap, scrubbers in plastic bags and a dishrag. Combined with the faucet at a campground, you won’t have any problems washing dishes with this setup. These items only take up a tiny bit of space and will be worth their weight in gold.
The other thing to keep clean is yourself. Many campgrounds have shower facilities, and it is a good idea to pack a handful of quarters and a lightweight quick-dry towel for use in this situation. If you can’t shower at the campground, keep an eye out for swimming holes in any lakes or rivers you pass during the ride!
Your quarters will also come in handy for washing clothes, as some campgrounds have washing and drying machines available for guests to use. These often take quarters, as well, and you can usually purchase detergent for a quarter or two. It might be a good idea to bring a small baggie of powder detergent, as well — sometimes the dispenser is empty, and folks with sensitive skin (or noses) will prefer their own choice.
Most cyclists pack a small tent for biking. Look for something lightweight, waterproof and with good rain-fly coverage. In general, a department store car camping tent isn’t going to cut it; you need something a bit more heavy duty. Then throw in your sleeping pad (necessary for comfort as well as insulation from the cold ground — even in warm climates!), sleeping bag and a bundle of clothes for a pillow, and you are ready to sleep. By this time of the day, you will be very ready.
When you head off to bed, what are you doing to do with your bike? Well, first of all you want to lock it up, just like you would in the city. Better safe than sorry!