How does one start bicycle touring?

Out on the road, I occasionally get people asking what they need to do to start touring, or where they can find information on how to do it. Rather than just give the formula for my rides, I’m going to suggest ways to get started, and ways to ramp it up when you feel ready.

Start Small, Test Everything

An effective approach in just about anything is to start small, run some tests, learn from them, and then scale it up. Jumping straight in—say, attempting a cross-country bike tour when you haven’t ridden a bike since grade-school—is likely to be a miserable failure.

First, start riding around home:

Local riding gets you ready to scale up. Physically, it’ll help get you in shape. Your legs will gain strength and endurance. If you’re riding diamond-frame, your butt will gain tolerance to hours on the seat. You can begin to acquire some riding outfits.

Additionally, you can use this bike to start learning maintenance, because when touring, you’re going to need to be able to fix your bike if you break down in the middle of nowhere. On road, flat tires are the most common issue, but also brake and derailleur adjustments and/or cable replacement. Replacing a spoke is a good skill to have too.

Find a starter tour

Don’t start with a long-distance tour. Go out for a weekend or a few days. Start from home and ride to nearby places, so you’re familiar with the territory and resources, and if you get into trouble you can get rescued without much trouble.

You need not start with a self-supported camping tour. You can work your way up via alternatives:

If some of these starter tours go well, take on something a little more challenging. From your first tours, you’ll know about your capabilities and limits, preferred terrain and surface, whether you like roads or trails, how tough you find heat or rain, whether you like camping or a nice comfy bed at the end of the night.

Camping Tours

Whether camping with a group-ride or self-supported, you will need:

Self-Supported Touring

If you’re doing a self-supported tour, you’ll need to invest in additional stuff:

If you’re camping:

What do I carry?

To do: Pictures and gear list/breakdown.

Planning ahead: handling a breakdown

What’s your plan for a breakdown? For a flat you can carry a patch tube, but what if you get a full blowout? If you’re in a city, you’re okay. What if you’re in the middle of nowhere? How far from a bike shop will you be? Some options are:

These will work in suburbs and rural areas, but not in the middle of nowhere. If you’re going to be off the grid, be it off-road or an infrequently-used dirt road, you may be on your own unless you’ve got a satellite phone or a personal locator beacon.

Longer Self-Supported Tours

After a few short/local/group tours to get started, you can advance to longer self-supported tours. These have new challenges.

Planning routes vs. “winging” it

I prefer plan my whole route ahead of time. When I started:

I still meticulously plan my route ahead of time, partly out of paranoia that the phone is going to fail me. The one time I tried to “wing it”, my phone did indeed let me down. But, things are improving. Battery life, waterproofness, durability, and network availability are much better than a decade ago.

Still, there are advantages to planning ahead: Once I’m on the bike, I just follow my cue sheets. There is no worry about any tech problem. If I need to make a change or deal with a problem, tech can help with that, but it doesn’t introduce new problems or worries. This allows me to relax more, better focus on and enjoy the ride.

But there are limits to this approach. My trips are usually between 1,000km and 2,000km, or about a dozen double-sided sheets of paper for cue sheets and resource lists (relevant businesses, phone numbers, and websites along the way). At some point, that strategy is no longer feasible.

Some cyclists plan their route as they go. To do this, you’ll need a device with excellent battery life (a good capacity battery, efficient chipset, software that doesn’t waste battery life), that’s durable, with a good protective cover to improve that durability more. Make sure the storage is well-sized (so you can download stuff and work locally when off the network or the network is turned off, which saves battery).

Planning a route

Adventure Cycling is respected for their extensive selection of maps and guides, which include information on resources (lodging, campgrounds, grocery stores, laundries) along the way. Advantages: it saves you the time and trouble of planning a route, the route has been carefully chosen and debugged. Downside: the routes might not go where you want.

If you really want to plan a route yourself, Google Maps has a bicycle mode that adds trails and highlights suggested bike routes. As of this writing, it’s currently hidden in Layers->More->Biking.

Maps' directions can also provide bike-optimized routes: when requesting directions, select the icon of the bicyclist. Biking directions include an elevation chart, so you know how hilly the route will be. As of this writing, the routes will use bike trails but highlighting of bike trails is not activated. You can chain up to 10 destinations together, to represent different places you want to visit or waypoints along your route.

Things to consider: