Complete Guide to Bike Touring

This article will tell you everything you need to know about what bike touring: How to prepare physically and mentally, how to pack, and the best places to tour around.

Complete guide to bike touring

Introduction

Regular cycling can make for a great day out, but you’re limited to the places you can conceivably travel to within a day, with enough time to return home again.

Bike touring, on the other hand, lets you travel to places further afield. On a bike tour, you travel to a number of checkpoints before you stop and set up camp for the night. This allows you to rest up and refuel for the day of cycling ahead so you can complete the next leg.

This guide will give you a complete overview of bike touring, why it’s become so popular, how you should train for it, what you need to pack to take with you, how to plan your route and tips for touring on a budget. At least you can’t say we haven’t been thorough.

Why Travel by Bike?

Illustration of bike tourists by a lake

Despite it being both physically and mentally challenging, there are a number of reasons why people choose to travel by bike rather than traveling by more traditional means.

Cheap

Compared to the cost of flights and ferries, traveling by bike is a much cheaper way to get around your chosen touring destination. Aside from the cost of the bike itself, of course.

This is ironically a far cry from the origins of bike touring, once reserved for the rich and aristocratic before they moved on to motor cars. Today, bike touring provides a way for people to travel around beautiful countries while keeping the costs of traveling low.

Accessible

Bicycles can be a great extension of ourselves. Although they allow you to travel around much faster than you would be able to explore on your own two feet, they’re small enough that you will still be able to access smaller, off-road paths and trails that cars can’t access.

These days, there are also plenty of airlines and travel agencies that will allow you to travel to your intended destination with your bike, which is much cheaper than renting a bike after you have arrived. Plus, people often prefer their own bikes.

Builds Fitness

Traveling by bike requires a lot more physical activity than traveling around by boat or bus, so you’ll be able to build on your fitness levels while enjoying the beautiful local scenery. It’s got to be better than cycling on a treadmill at the gym, right?

There are multiple health benefits of cycling such as improving your mental wellbeing, and a number of fitness-related benefits including building muscle, improving stamina, and aiding weight loss. It’s certainly challenging, but traveling by bike can also be hugely rewarding.

Explore New Cultures and Landscapes

As you travel from place to place you’ll pick up more of the culture around you and you’ll be able to truly appreciate the landscapes you’re exploring.

Traveling by bike allows you to stop and smell the roses – literally – while you’re on the road, as you can stop to meet or chat with the locals. This is harder to do if you’re traveling with a large group and have to adhere to someone else’s travel schedule.

Cycle Touring or Bikepacking?

Friends bringing a bike on the road trip for bike touring

Cycle touring is when you travel the world with the entirety of your luggage mounted to your bike, either using bicycles specifically designed for this with their own rack and fender mounts, or by converting a regular hybrid bike so you can use it as a touring bike.

This is ideal for when you’re planning a longer trip that requires more luggage, as you can attach more to the front of the bike. There’s room for things like additional cooking equipment, a camera, extra clothes, a laptop or electronic devices, and your tent setup.

Bikepacking, on the other hand, is a more recently adopted version of cycle touring which involves traveling much lighter and traveling much lighter without cumbersome luggage racks, and often venturing off-road for large portions of the journey.

One of the great things about bikepacking is how the “lean setup” allows for either road or gravel bikes provided that they have a 28mm tire clearance as a minimum. They’re also incredibly lightweight and will allow you to fly around the country on your bike in no time.

City Traveling

Some of the best cycling tours to add to your bucket list include the Cultural Trail in the Midwest city of Indianapolis and bike tours in Vietnam and Cambodia where you can enjoy the culture and cuisine of local restaurants along the way.

However, you have to be more careful when touring city areas due to the busier roads and crowds of people. Make sure to store your bike somewhere safe and preferably padlocked indoors when you’re not riding it during the day to avoid anyone stealing it.

Mountain Exploring

Bikepacking offers “the ultimate freedom” according to Lee Craigie, a former Great Britain XC mountain biker and a founding member of the Adventure Syndicate, a group that encourages riders to explore new adventures and push themselves to the absolute limit.

Choose the right mountain bike for bikepacking and all that’s left to do is pack your bags and choose your destination. Mountain exploring is what bikepacking essentially is at its core, so it’s the perfect option for this type of bike touring holiday. Check out the Glacier National Park bike tour and the Carolinas bike tour to climb the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Am I in Good Enough Shape?

One aspect of bike touring that many people find daunting is that it can be physically as well as mentally challenging, so how do you know if you’re in good enough shape?

How Far Can You Ride in a Day?

The distance you’re able to travel by bike in one day is largely determined by your overall fitness level as well as a number of other factors. This includes your personal targets, the type of touring you’re doing, and the terrain you’re cycling on.

You’ll need to train for a bike touring trip in order to ensure your fitness levels are enough to carry you through days of cycling with little rest in between.

As a general rule, adults who have a standard level of fitness can travel at a pace of 65 miles per day on average when traveling over paved roads and carrying less than 20 pounds of gear, and this still leaves time for you to stop and explore or rest your legs for a while!

How Much Gear to Take?

The more weight you’re traveling with, the more physically challenging it will be and the longer it will take you to reach each stop. That’s why it’s always better to try and pack light.

Only take what you need and try to avoid picking up too many souvenirs along the way, or your legs will be the ones paying for it! Later in the article, we’ll go into more details about the essential travel items that you should take with you to help you avoid overpacking.

Based on the example we gave above, if your gear weighed somewhere between 20 and 45 pounds, you should lower your expectations to a pace of around 55 miles per day, although this can increase or decrease depending on the type of terrain you’re traveling on.

Training for a Bike Tour

Illustration of man riding bike uphill with a backpack

Bike tours may be an incredible experience, but part of what makes it so rewarding is how challenging it can be at the same time. It does mean, however, that you’ll need to train for it.

Build a Training Plan

Bike touring is enough of a challenge that you can’t go into it with your eyes closed. It’s best to build and follow a training plan in order to make sure you’re physically fit enough to handle the requirements of cycling for miles every day with minimal rest time in between.

Be realistic with your goals and what you hope to achieve on your trip, and gradually work towards this, leaving yourself with enough time to recover before the beginning of your trip.

Base Training Miles

If you’re going to be away for days or even weeks where you’ll be cycling consistently, you’ll want to put in some miles on your bike before you go.

Try to increase the length of time you’re cycling for on every ride in preparation for your tour. You’ll want to have a decent base mileage that you’re able to achieve daily and you can use this to estimate your daily travel distance or a flexible schedule for your trip.

Build Strength

Before you can set off on a bike tour, you’ll need to make sure you’re physically strong enough to carry all your gear while you cycle over long distances for many days.

Building strength before your trip will mean your muscles are more prepared for what’s in store and will be able to repair themselves faster as you push yourself. This means you’ll feel less sore, which will make the journey much more enjoyable for you.

Build Endurance

Although you’re likely to improve your endurance as you go (this is one of the benefits of bike touring!) you’ll enjoy your trip more if you’ve already built some endurance beforehand.

Cycling holidays usually involve successive long days of intense traveling. Although it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to practice such distance before you go, adding some extra miles onto your weekend rides is advisable.

Practice Riding with Weight

Riding a long distance is one thing, but riding that same distance with a full backpack or a bike mount piled high with luggage is something else entirely. Trust us when we say you don’t want to find out what a difference this makes for the first time on day one of your trip.

As such, we’d recommend practicing riding with weight a few times to help build up your strength and endurance so you’ll be ready to take on consecutive days of riding your bike.

Finding a Bike

A parked bike from bike touring

They say a bad sportsman blames his equipment, but finding the right bike can make or break a bike touring trip. It’s important to choose one that isn’t going to make the aches and pains you’ll probably be feeling after a few days even worse, so comfort is key.

There are bikes specifically designed for bike touring but you can use pretty much any type of bike when you’re first starting out before forking out for a brand new expensive bike. Certain types of bikes can even be customized to suit your individual needs.

The one exception is road racing bikes as they focus on quick handling rather than comfort and durability, which is the second most important factor to consider when choosing a bike.

Low Gear

Look out for low gears on your touring bike as you’ll need these when you’re traveling over trickier terrain or if you reach a point of your journey where you’ll be traveling mostly uphill.

Rack Mounts

The ability to mount racks is another important feature to look out for on a touring bike as this will make it much easier to carry your gear with you while you travel.

Brakes

There’s some debate over whether you should opt for V-brakes or disc brakes for touring, but ultimately it will depend on your personal preference. We’d recommend choosing disc brakes over V-brakes, as the latter is likely to wear away at your wheel rims over time.

Handlebars

Touring bikes typically have a shorter reach which makes it easier to navigate while you’re riding and helps to keep your body upright in the correct position. This will make your ride easier and help mitigate the aches and pains associated with cycling all day.

Wheels and Tires

You’ll need to factor in the type of road you’ll be traveling on most often. Wider tires are better in most cases where you’ll be riding on uneven terrain, whereas city riders will be better off with a standard 700c size tire.

Planning Your Route

Man with a planned route for his bike touring

This definitely isn’t the type of holiday that should be left to being organized at the last minute, so learn how to plan your route properly before you go.

Popular Destinations

The Great American Rail-Trail is one of the most popular routes for bike touring and there are some incredible cycle tour vacations suitable for beginner bike tourers.

Planning Ahead

Not only will this save you money, but you’ll have a better idea of how long different routes will take you. You will be able to better plan the next few days so you can make the most of your experience without wasting time getting lost, or money on things you don’t need.

Camping or Hotels?

Bike touring purists would argue that you need to camp each night in order to have a full and true experience, but we don’t see anything wrong with treating yourself to a hotel stay one night after a particularly long day of riding. In fact, this can be a great way to round off a trip!

Safety

Planning your route means you can avoid areas known for being unsafe for cyclists and you can keep to quieter roads where there are fewer cars.

Getting to Your Destination

Man and woman reaching the peek of the mountain on their bike touring

Before you can take off pedaling across the country, you’ll need to make your way to your starting point. If this isn’t local to you, you’ll have to factor in the travel to your destination, which can sometimes be a little complicated when you’re traveling with a bike in tow.

Car

If you’re traveling by car with a bike there are plenty of bike mount racks available that allow you to attach your bike to either the back of the trunk or on top of the vehicle.

You can try to fit the bicycle on the back seats if your chairs go down or if it’s easy to temporarily remove the wheels for traveling. There are also foldable bikes that are highly convenient if you’re going to be transporting them in your car frequently.

Plane

Transporting a bike on a plane involves packaging it up in a bike box or bike bag before you travel. It typically costs around $10 to $12 to have your local bike shop package it up safely for you, which is often much easier than trying to do it yourself.

Don’t forget to think about how you’re traveling to the airport as well, as you’ll need to make sure your bike box or bag can fit on the backseat of your car or taxi.

Bus/Train

If you’re hoping to hop on a bus or a train with your bike, you may be at the mercy of the driver and whether or not there is any room for your bicycle to comfortably fit. In some cases, you may be required to purchase a second ticket if your bike takes up too much space.

You might also want to research or make inquiries at your local station to check if you can travel with a bike on board, or if they have a separate storage compartment for bikes.

What to Pack?

Ryan Gardill points out that “If you have a tent and a sleeping bag and a bike, you’re really set”, but what else do you need to think about when you’re packing for a bike touring trip?

Tools and Parts

To ensure you can take care of any maintenance issues or bike repairs on your journey, you’ll need to make sure you’ve packed a few tools and parts.

  • Bike pump: Whatever terrain you’re traveling on, your tires are going to need refilling at some point. Pack a lightweight pump and check your tires before you set off.
  • Multi-tools: These can be incredibly useful for a multitude of repairs.
  • Adjustable wrench: This is another handy tool to have in the event of a repair job.
  • Repair kit: If things go wrong, repair kits usually contain everything you would need to take care of a minor issue with your bike so you can get back on the road.

Clothing

Choosing the right clothing is extremely important for comfort, so make sure you pack these essentials.

  • Cycle touring shoes: Seeing as your feet will be pedaling you across the country, you’ll want to invest in a comfortable pair of cycle shoes. These are designed to provide a good grip on the pedals but are breathable enough to prevent your feet from overheating and uncomfortable blisters from forming.
  • Cycling shorts: Aim for a material that is breathable and comfortable and try to pack more pairs than you think you’ll need.
  • Sports shorts: Again, it’s advisable to pack a few pairs.
  • Cycling socks: Don’t just use any socks as it’s really important to avoid blisters, and it can be a good idea to double up on cycling socks for extra protection.
  • Thermal skins: If you’re going to be traveling during the colder months you’ll need something to keep you warm on your journey.
  • Cycling jerseys: Cycling can be dangerous if it’s not easy for other people and especially drivers to spot you so choose bright, colorful cycling jerseys.
  • Loose base layers: Layers are easy to add or remove based on your body temperature so you can stay comfortable.
  • Jacket: Choose one that’s waterproof and well-insulated to protect you from the rain and keep you warm during the colder weather.
  • Gloves: Depending on the climate of wherever you’re touring, gloves can help you keep a better grip on the handlebars in the cold and prevent numbness or wind chill.
  • Warm hat: Heat escapes from the head, so a warm hat can help combat the cold.
  • Underwear: Always pack more than you think you’ll need and try to choose underwear that won’t cause chafing.
  • A scarf or neck gaiter: Not only will this help keep your neck warm in cold weather, but it’ll also protect you from sunburn and windburn in warm weather.

Stowage

llustration of man on a touring bike holding a map

It’s important to be clever with your storage options, as every bit of space on your bike counts.

  • Pannier racks: Although not the most exciting part of your bike to pick out, you should pay attention to your pannier rack for your bike as this is how you will transport your luggage and other equipment.
  • Pannier bags: It’s often a good idea to opt for waterproof pannier bags to prevent your equipment from getting wet if it rains.
  • Small frame bag: You can use this to store anything you might need while you’re riding.
  • Handlebar bag: This can hold anything you might want to keep close to hand while you’re riding and should be waterproof.
  • Frame bottle cages: Hydration is highly important when you’re traveling long distances, so keep one or preferably two to the frame of your bike.
  • Bungee cords: It’s better to have too many bungee cords than too few.
  • Zip ties: Similarly, zip ties are always handy to have, so remember to pack them.

Accessories

Some accessories that can be useful to bring along for the ride include:

  • Sunglasses: You’d be surprised by how many people forget about sunglasses, but it’s important to protect your eyes from the sun’s glare as this can impede your vision which is a safety hazard when you’re riding. They also protect against an even bigger hazard: bugs.
  • Phone: As if anyone in the modern world could forget their phone… right? Just don’t forget to also pack your charger and perhaps a portable battery pack.
  • Phone mount/holder: Having a phone mount or something to hold it while your hands are busy will make it much easier to snap photos or answer phone calls.
  • Water bottles: You’ll need to take care to stay hydrated so make sure you take a good hydration pack or a few spare bottles to keep filled.
  • Bike lock: Your bike is the only form of transport you’ll have, so remember to lock it up when not in use to prevent your wheels from being stolen.
  • Headlamp: When you’re cycling past nightfall or into the evening a headlamp or head torch can be used with your bike lights to illuminate the road ahead.
  • Sound system: Some people enjoy listening to music while they travel, so a sound system will produce better quality sound.
  • Laptop: This one is technically optional, but what isn’t optional is the case you’ll need to carry it in for protection.

Camping and Cooking Gear

It’s not just about remembering all your biking gear. Don’t forget that you’ll be camping overnight to break up your days of riding.

  • Tent: First and foremost, find a lightweight tent that’s easy to pitch and take down.
  • Bedding: Camping mats are comfier than the hard ground beneath them and can be conveniently rolled up and carried while you’re riding.
  • Hammock: Another lightweight piece of comfort you can pack is a hammock, either for sleeping in or for relaxing after touring all day.
  • Microfiber towel: If you’re drying off sweat or if you’ve been swimming, a microfiber towel is great to use as it dries ultra-quickly and can be repacked.
  • String lights: These are a convenient way to illuminate your campsite area.
  • Cutlery: You won’t get far with dinner without them! Include a knife, fork, and spoon, as well as any preparation utensils you’ll need, like a chopping board.
  • Dishtowel: Unfortunately, the washing up still needs to be done on tour.
  • Gas and stove: There are plenty of portable gas stove options available but make sure everything is in working order before you leave.
  • Cups, plates, and bowls: Similarly to cutlery, you’ll be in a pickle if you forget these.
  • Pots and pans: Aim for ones that are lightweight yet durable enough not to break on the road.
  • Tupperware: This is a great way to save leftovers. Why not have last night’s dinner as a snack during tomorrow’s ride?

Medical Supplies

Lastly, it’s important to be prepared for all situations, even the ones you hope won’t happen.

  • Hand sanitizer: Because there won’t necessarily always be somewhere to wash your hands.
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste: In trying to remember some of the less obvious things to pack, don’t forget about basic hygiene.
  • First aid kit: This will typically contain bandages and alcohol wipes for emergencies.
  • Sunscreen: You’ll be spending most of your time outdoors exposed to the sun’s UV rays, so aim for sunscreen with an SPF of 50 or above.
  • Bug spray: Mosquitos. Need we say more?

Top Tips for Touring on a Budget

Bike touring is already a pretty affordable way to travel, but here are some tips for touring on a budget.

Travel With a Friend

A problem shared is a problem halved, and so are the costs when you travel with a friend. You’ll have someone to contribute to food costs and park fees, as well as widening your pool of potential friends’ houses to crash at along the way.

Use Apps to Find Food and Lodging

There are some apps like Warm Showers that you can use to help you find food and sometimes even accommodation for free along your route, offered by friendly fellow bike enthusiasts who make up a sort of Couchsurfing community.

Avoid Campsites

Campsite fees are one of the biggest costs of touring, so why not skip them and pitch your tent in one of the many free parks that you are legally allowed to stay in. Just make sure to do your research beforehand to check the rules.

Stay Open to Opportunities to Make Friends

Strangers show incredible acts of kindness every day, so keep an open mind when you meet people out on the road as you never know what type of generosity you might inspire. When the people you meet hear of your long journey ahead, they may offer food or advice.

Plan Where to Go and What to See in Advance

Having a plan of action means you’ll be able to budget according to the various locations you’ll be traveling to and the things you’ll want to do along the way, which makes you less likely to accidentally overspend.

Also, don’t forget to check your insurance policy before you go.

Talk to Locals

These are the best people to speak to about local deals and restaurants in the area that offer the best value for money. If you’re lucky enough to strike up a friendship with any of the people you meet, they may even tell you to pass on their name for a special discount.

Summary

Man Bike Touring

If you’re thinking about taking a trip somewhere and touring on your bike, this article should have provided you with enough information to start planning to turn this dream into a reality!

We hope you’ve found it helpful, and if there are any questions, concerns, or tips for other riders out there, please feel free to reply in the comments section.

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