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:
- If you haven’t got a bike, get something good but not fancy. You can get a reasonable starter bike for $500–900, so you can see if you enjoy riding before you get in over your head. Don’t get a racer. Racers are built to be light, not for sturdiness, and their drive-trains don’t have a great range for touring. If you’re going to tour, prefer sturdy. Suggestion: look at the rear derailleur and gear-cluster. The cluster should flare noticeably as the gears get larger, not look like a corn-cob. The derailleur itself should have a long arm between the two idler pulleys.
- Do some weekend riding on bike trails in your area.
- Commute to work by bicycle.
- Use your bike around town: grocery runs, visiting friends, going out to eat.
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:
- Plan a hotel-hop tour, with stays in hotels, inns, and B & B s along the way. This eliminates tents, sleeping bags, setups in rain, bear bagging. Hotels & motels usually have food available nearby, if not on-site—so you don’t need to carry meals, fuel, or stoves; just snacks.
- Find a supported tour. You pay the tour operator and show up. They arrange logistics, lodging, food. The tour moves your baggage from place to place; you load your stuff on the truck and then just ride, carrying a few snacks, sunscreen and a patch-kit. If you have a severe breakdown, they can transport you and the bike to a shop. These are often loops, or at the tour’s end, the operator provides transportation back to the start/your vehicle. There’s usually a lot of camaraderie between riders. Some group rides camp, others stay in hotels. If you’re in the northeast US, Parks & Trails New York’s Erie Canal Ride is a very common, well-organized, flatish starter ride. Alternately, check out Road Scholar by Elder Hostel, which acts as a kind of clearinghouse for a lot of smaller tour companies. Or Google “bike tours” or “bike vacations”.
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.
Whether camping with a group-ride or self-supported, you will need:
- Some drysacks from your local backpacking store. Pack clothes and electronics in these before putting them in baggage, in case baggage gets wet. Zip-locks can work for smaller and less critical items.
- Tent. Don’t buy cheap, it’ll leak. For group rides, since your gear is going on a truck, you can get away with a good-quality department store tent. These are a little more spacious (but heavier) than what you will find at your local outfitter. For self-supported rides, get a proper backpacking or bikepacking tent. It’s smaller, lighter and yes, it’ll cost you more.
- Alternately, a backpacking hammock. These come with mosquito netting and a rain-fly. Upside: they are very light, and as long as there are appropriate trees, the terrain doesn’t matter. Downside: can be hard to stay warm, as there’s heat loss through the bottom, even with a sleeping bag. And a hammock requires 2 trees at the right spacing to set up. Some people swear by hammocks, others can’t stand them. If you can borrow one, try it out a night or two in your yard to judge for yourself.
- Sleeping bag. Don’t get a department store cotton one: it’s heavy and won’t dry. Make sure what you’re getting is rated for the worst-case cold temperatures you’ll encounter.
- Sleeping pad. I have had great reliability with self-inflating ThermaRest sleeping pads, and find the 1.5" thickness notably more comfortable than the 1" ones. There are lighter ones, but they are less durable. I can’t speak to other brands.
If you’re doing a self-supported tour, you’ll need to invest in additional stuff:
- A rear rack. The rack provides a framework for baggage and gear.
- Panniers: get a pair of Ortlieb Back-Rollers, which clip onto the sides of the aforementioned rack. They’re spacious, durable and wonderfully waterproof. Downside: they’re inconvenient to get into, so I don’t use them around town, but for touring their waterproofness is worth it.
If you’re camping:
- Additional storage. The two panniers probably won’t cut it. There are rack-top boxes, kits for front panniers, frame packs that go inside the front frame triangle.
- Bungees. You’ll need some of these to secure loose items such as tents to the rack.
- Camp stove and fuel
- Food bag, and rope for hanging it in a tree at night. This is called bear bagging, but it’s not limited to bears: it keeps raccoons, skunks, chipmunks, and other critters from getting into food left out, or knocking you up at 1 AM and/or eating a hole in the side of your expensive waterproof tent trying to get to your food.
What do I carry?
Tools & Repair Kits
- Minimum of 3 tire levers, 4 can be helpful. There are lever pairs that can snap together into chain pliers, to break the chain at the master link. Remember, test all functions so you know what to expect.
- Set of lightweight metal tire levers (possibly IceToolz?)
- Bike multitool (Crank Brothers M17)
- Leatherman’s multi-tool (knife, scissors, screwdrivers, etc)
- Tube patch kits: one set of Park Tool adhesive patches, and a vulcanizing-type patch kit (TipTop).
- Some people carry tubes, in case of a blow-out.
- Park Tool TB-2 tire patch.
- A pair of derailleur cables
- A bit of derailleur housing (though I’m not sure how practical this is)
- A couple of screws, in case a bottle cage or pannier rack loosens up and loses a screw.
- An extra master link or two
- Headlight (USB rechargeable)
- Taillight (USB rechargeable)
- Telecommunicator (phone, email, map, camera, GPS)
- USB chargers & cables
- First aid kit (ibuprofen, Band-aids, moleskin, blister relief, etc)
- Tick tweezers
- HALT! dog repellent
- Reflective bike and/or vest
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:
- If you’re riding with a group, somebody can ride on and get help— perhaps a rental car or van.
- Ask a passing car for a ride. People like to help others in
need, if it’s not too far and/or they’re going that way
anyway. If you’re lucky enough to run into some bike folks,
they may go the extra mile to bail you out. Where to?
- A bike shop
- Your daily destination. Order the parts online and extend your reservation and/or pay the big bucks for overnight shipping.
- A Walmart. If you just need a tube, tire, or something else pretty standard, Walmart has a surprising selection.
- Get AAA (CAA in Canada) ahead of time. Some regions include emergency bike service, or if that’s not available, transportation to the nearest bike shop. Check with your local branch on what they offer.
- Call Uber, Lyft or a Taxi? The problem is, these tend to operate in places that are busy enough to have bike shops. You might get lucky, but if there’s no bike shops around, there may not be taxis or taxi-like services. I wouldn’t rely on this one.
- Carry numbers of friends/relatives that you can call on to rescue you.
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.
- Resupplying: For short trips, you can bring everything you need with you. This isn’t feasible for long trips, so you’ll need to resupply as you go.
- On-Road Repairs: You’ll need to be able to repair your bike, or at least improvise a workaround until you can get to a shop, if you have a breakdown on the road.
Planning routes vs. “winging” it
I prefer plan my whole route ahead of time. When I started:
- The mobile networks were spotty, especially in rural areas
- The phones had limited capability and were dependent on the network for all services, including maps and routes
- Smartphones were not sufficiently durable, waterproof or efficient to rely on
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:
- Try to hit cities/villages every few days, so you can resupply.
- In addition to your route, make/carry a list of important resources along the way: grocery stores, bike shops, alternate waypoints.
- Pay attention to Maps' elevation chart when planning. Adjust your route and/or planned distances.
- Following rivers often (but not always) helps keeps grades sane.
- Cutting across/perpendicular to river valleys almost always involves a lot of hills as you climb out of one valley and into the next.
- When taking bike trails (especially remote ones), look up the trail by name. Most bike trails have a homepage where you can learn more about trail condition, and whether they are more mountain-oriented or mainstream trails.
- Google Maps doesn’t provide road surface information. In remote areas, it may route you on dirt or gravel roads. And though it’s gotten better over the years, you may find it taking you on shortcuts down cowpaths, forest roads, or somebody’s driveway.