How does bicycle touring work?

 

Bicycle touring is hands-down the best way to immerse yourself in the climate, culture, geography, rhythm, topography, scent and flavor of any region. The chance to enjoy such a rich experience, however, usually comes with a price: the need for a deliberate approach to planning, preparing for, implementing and maintaining a system with more moving parts than your typical vacation.

To help you in organizing your next adventure, or in case you're just curious about how it all works,  I’ve tried to summarize below what I think are the basic elements of a bike tour. The pleasure you get from your ride will depend to some degree on the extent to which you think through and address these considerations.

 

When evaluating how much time and money you want to dedicate to working through these aspects of touring, remember that entropy affects a bike tour just like other systems or plans. The likelihood of overall system breakdown (your tour coming to an early end or feeling more like work than fun) increases in proportion with its complexity (a longer/more independent vs. a shorter/supported tour) because the difficulty in properly planning, implementing and maintaining a system also increases along with its complexity…a way of saying that the longer the ride, the more you should put into preparation and maintenance. For example: you can have a very nice 100-mile weekend overnighter with very little planning and maybe even no dedicated training at all. Similarly, you can also have a fantastic time on a touring-company supported ride of a week or more without much advance preparation, because professionals plan, execute and maintain most of the system. A long-distance self-supported tour, however, requires a thoughtful and disciplined approach if you want to feel basically as enthusiastic, healthy and happy at mile 700 as you did at mile 70.

 

I don’t want to give the wrong impression— your preparation does not have to be perfect (mine never is) but the quality of your tour can only benefit from the time and thought you invest before setting out. Plus, time spent planning is sort of like daydreaming about your upcoming tour!

 

*Update: After thinking through this growing list of elements, I realized I could fill a couple of pages droning on about each one of them. But the corpus of human knowledge is already at your fingertips, and so I won't duplicate information that you can easily find elsewhere on the web. Consider this more of an outline of the things I recommend you think about, along with some tips based on what I've learned (often the hard way).  Also, the point-of-view here comes from my touring as part of the CWU project, which entails long-distance solo touring through the United States with a concrete set of goals: cover 50-60 miles per day for at least 5 weeks at the stretch while having at least one in-depth and documented conversation with a local every day of the ride. As such, my fairly rigid approach might seem like overkill to many. You will want to consider each of the factors below in light of the circumstances and probably more flexible structure you envision for your own tour. 

 

Planning

Planning is absolutely essential to a good tour. I think a good rule of thumb is to thoroughly plan everything, and then be flexible once you're actually on the road. Think of your plan as "it will be really neat if my tour works out this way." Many aspects of planning are discussed elsewhere on this page. I'll touch on route planning here. Your best bet is to look online for pre-established cycling routes, such as those compiled by the Adventure Cycling Association. You can also design your own route by starting with Google Maps' cycling map function or similar tools from other developers. If you do this, though, you'll have to look at the roads via satellite view to be sure you're not being sent down freeways, roads with no shoulder, or long, spirit-crushing dirt roads. In any event, planning your route is really preferable to just winging it. I find planning a route and sticking to it to be a great motivator on those days when my legs hurt and I'm feeling beat up. If I didn't have a goal for that day, it would be harder to get and stay moving.

Equipping

I guess we all secretly want to be like Batman or a Navy SEAL, with lots of cool gear and equipment. Maybe that's not true and I just outed myself. Either way, deliberate, but not obsessive, gear selection is important to having a pleasant tour. My pointers:

  • be weight-conscious but not a weight-weenie.  I like to lay out everything I would like to have, and then think through whether bringing each item is worth lugging it hundreds of miles, and whether there is a lighter alternative item or method of getting the benefit that I am seeking from that item.  On the other hand, I ask myself whether saving 47 grams is really worth spending an extra $50 on lighter pedals, or leaving my favorite lucky beanie-baby at home (I made that up-I really don't have a lucky beanie-baby. Seriously.).

  • I like using a scale to really get a handle on the numbers. A post-office scale works for smaller things. 

  • The explosion of geariness in this country has been startling to me. Don't be led into thinking you have to have the most advanced, expensive equipment. 

  • Bike selection is obviously the most important decision you will make. Take a lot of time on this one, and get the fit right. You might consider splurging on a professional fit analysis as your first investment, even if it seems like the salesperson at your bike shop does a pretty good job by eyeballing you.

  • Visit my Gear Fix blog post for more info on the equipment I'm using for the CWU project.

Eating

Basically, eat as much as you can.My research suggests that it takes about 2,000 calories for someone of my age and build to ride 50-60 miles on a 100 pound bike. Add that to the standard 2,000 or so that I would burn though in a day of normal activity, and that means I have to shove the entire McDonald's super value menu (plus a side salad-no dressing) down my throat every day that I'm on tour if I want to maintain my weight and have the energy necessary to keep going. There are websites that can help you make this calculation for yourself. It's important to be systematic about eating because, if your experience is anything like mine, you might find that you don't feel hungry enough to eat that much every day, or that sometimes you feel too tired to eat well. So, instead of cramming down 3 huge portions a day, I eat hearty but reasonable meals and stick to a rule of consuming a 400-500 calorie snack every 15 miles or so. I try to keep three snack portions in my bags at all times for when needed, and I replenish those as soon as I can. But I most often stop to get these snacks at gas stations or supermarkets when possible. Snickers bars, powdered donuts, bananas, chocolate milk-it all serves as bike touring fuel. Obviously, if you have dietary restrictions you will need much more planning than my approach, which is the much-lauded “seefood” diet.  

 

I sometimes have to remind myself that (again, in my situation) eating on tour is different than eating in real life. The latter is often focused on the social and pleasure aspects of a meal. When I'm on tour, the primary goal of eating is to satisfy my body's biological need for energy, so that I can do what I came out here to do. I always try to merge this goal with the social and cultural aspects of having  a meal, but I'm clear that my priority is the consumption and storage of fuel. 

Navigating

The mechanics of this element are very tour-dependent, but the overall need to reach your destination in a relatively safe and timely manner is pretty fundamental. Getting lost on the bike can be a much bigger deal than when in a car, because pedaling in the wrong direction for just 6 or 7 miles, even if you realize your mistake at that point, could easily mean that you miss out on dinner and have to sleep in the woods beside the road because you don't have enough daylight or energy left to turn around make it to the town you were aiming for. Getting lost sometimes leads to wonderful encounters with helpful people, too, and is certainly part of the adventure, but that's going to happen no matter how well you plan anyway so no need to invite it. I think my global advice would be:

  • do a thorough job planning your route in the first place

  • take some time to choose a tool and design a system for sticking to the route

  • practice using that tool and system before the tour. This is important. It is a real drag to have to pull over on the side of the road in the midday sun and fiddle with a mapping app that you're not quite familiar with yet. 

  • sit down in a quiet place and consider the ways that your primary tool and system could fail (temporarily or permanently)

  • consider having a plan B to fall back on if this happens

  • be adaptable when it all goes to hell

  • you may have assumed that you'll be fine with your smartphone navigation app (I did). You're right for the most part, but consider that most mapping apps, like Google, don't work in areas without cell service. If you really want to be prepared, use paper maps and/or get an app via which you can download map files, store them to your phone, and run your navigation entirely off of GPS signal alone. I use Locus PRO. The developer of that app has actually been very responsive and helpful in working with me to fix bugs and tune my setup. It can also record your tracks to look at later, and log other types of data some cyclists like to see. Apps like this work well but really take a while to get the hang of so download them weeks before your tour and practice with them lots on training rides

  • electronic navigation will only work to the extent your device has a charge and can be used in the way you will need to use it (think blinding sunlight reflection on the screen (it's a big problem), weather and impact resistance)

  • don't dismiss out of hand carrying a paper map backup, or good old asking for directions

Charging

Bike touring without at least a smartphone is grounds for exile from the modern world. Some tourists take along multiple devices. Because phones are often fighting with spotty signal in rural areas, and since you're probably running at least your GPS, your battery will last only a fraction of the time you're used to at home. General solutions I endorse:

  • if you can afford it or if it's time for a new phone anyway, start off right with a  long-battery-life phone like (I'm dating myself) the Samsung Galaxy S5 Active. It happens to be waterproof and shock resistant, too. A generally consistent way to compare battery life is to look at a battery's rating in milliamps (mAh). Generally, the higher the number the better. 

  • make it a rule that you plug-in your phone every time you stop to eat or rest for more than 15 min

  • an on-the-go charging system is critical, especially if you have multiple small electronics. Consider a dyno-hub, a solar charging system, or an external battery. After lots of research, I chose a very reasonably priced 13,000 mAh external battery that itself charges in a few hours and gives me 3 full cell phone charges. That's about 4 days of total cell phone usage before I go dark, which gives me plenty of time to find a place to pilfer some electrons. 

 

Camping

For many cycle tourists, camping is both a necessity and part of the fun. Some of the elements discussed elsewhere on this page overlap with camping, and there is lots of information on the web. My basic recommendations for a multi-goal tour like CWU:

  • you won't be camping every night so focus accordingly

  • plan as you would for a backpacking trip in which you could replenish necessities every third day

  • so, less need to carry lots of food, water purification items, etc

  • a dark-colored tent and rain-fly are best in case circumstances force you to bivouac in a location where you'd rather go unnoticed 

  • if forced to bivouac (sometimes called stealth camping or, dysphemistically, trespassing), set up late and pack up early

  • be aware when camping in unconventional places during hunting season

  • smoke will permeate your clothes, so consider whether you want to smell like a campfire on the bike the next day when choosing fireside attire for the evening

  • consider cleaning-off your bike before getting back on the road after leaving the campsite if you went through a particularly sandy/muddy area 

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Training

If you aren't already as buff as Hulk Hogan, don't fret-I hear these workout tapes are still available on eBay. If you hastily trashed your cassette-playing boom box when CDs came out, consider these basic tips:

  • common sense: the longer the planned ride, the more you need to train
  • start training early
  • you will probably feel pretty good the first few days of your ride no matter what-you will know by day 5 whether you trained enough
  • most days I train on a spinner bike I found on Craigslist. Some people attach their touring bike to an apparatus that converts it to a stationary bike to train in the living room. I frown on that approach, because you put extra wear and tear on your equipment, you have to bring your dirty bike back and forth across your floors, and dedicated stationary bikes are generally more comfortable, anyway
  • you will need to train on your fully-loaded bike, I'd say at least 20% of the time. I think 15 miles or so on the loaded bike is a good maintenance-level training session to supplement the spinner
  • I fill my panniers with old law school books for training (they are finally doing me some good)
  • it is a mistake to slip into the appealing notion that "I can just train on the ride"
  • force yourself to take one training ride in bad weather
  • the general discourse on exercise centers around cardio training and weight loss. Neither of these is particularly important to bike touring. Your biggest challenge is having the endurance to pedal dozens of miles on an absurdly heavy bike, day after day. Think slow, steady and long training sessions, preferably on the bike itself, rather than intense bursts of cardio sweat fests
  • ​it's easy to focus on your quadriceps. Professional cyclists I'm sure have much more to say about this, but it has been my sense that neglecting hamstrings can cause your growing quads to pull your knees a little out of whack without a counter-pull from stronger hams at the back of the leg. Maybe I'm just getting old. But I'm certain about this: be sure to work your upper-back muscles as part of your training routine
  • finally-and I learned this the hard way-be really careful in the final week or two leading up to the tour. You may be inclined to ramp-up your training to make up for lost time or build some extra muscle. This is the best way to injure yourself and spoil everything. Quad strain is a bummer. You might want to just take-off that last week entirely to avoid risking an injury, fall, equipment breakage, etc. 

Testing

No, not THAT kind of testing! You're ok.

 

The quality and smoothness of your tour will benefit greatly from a dedicated approach to pre-ride testing of systems and equipment. Many of these things should be experimented with on your fully-loaded training rides, and put to the final test on your test ride (see below). Before you set out:

  • familiarize yourself with all of your gear: run your camp stove, set up your tent, practice bike maintenance with only the tools in your kit, etc.

  • try different clothing combinations to see what is most comfortable in terms of chaffing and fit, and what setup protects you best from the sun

  • similarly, test and develop pre-planned clothing combos that you would use in response to likely weather scenarios

  • I think this is very important, at least for pre-millennials like me who didn't grow up with a smartphone surgically implanted into their hand: really practice using your mapping/tracking/ navigating/tweeting/other narcissistic apps. I found it helpful to write-out a list of questions and scenarios to test on training rides; for example: how will my navigation app behave when I lose cell service or receive a call while it's running?

  • finally, be sure to go on an overnight test ride shortly before the big tour. If camping will be part of your tour, make it a camping overnighter. The main goal of this test ride is to work out kinks in your systems and equipment setup

Hydrating

Drink a lot of water. Bring three water bottles and fill them up at your rest stops, with the goal of keeping all three full and not getting to the point where you're working through bottle #3, hoping to find a water source before you run out completely. I bring along some powdered Gatorade and sprinkle-in a little before a fill-up sometimes. I also chug a big Arizona tea or Powerade or something like that at most rest stops. 

 

It's most important to manage your water supply well when you'll be camping that night. I've found that just for me, a full water bottle generally gives me what I need for a single meal (cooking, drinking and cleaning dishes) if I'm careful. I recently tweaked my system by replacing one standard water bottle with a 1.5-liter Nalgene bottle in order to have a bigger backup water supply.

 

I guess some people like Camelback-type systems. It seems to me like it would be annoying and hot wearing a liter of water on my back all day long, and having that hose dangling around everywhere. I suppose my point is that If you are considering your options, I can at least say that a water bottle system works fine.

Maintaining (self)

A friend once told me: Take care of yourself. Your body is your palace. 

 

The underlying notion here is that, when on tour, it is helpful to view your body as a touring machine. Just like your bike, it needs specific inputs and care to function well and to continue functioning well for several days or weeks. You don't drink when you're thirsty; you drink when you know you need hydrating. You don't eat until you're full; you eat until you're satisfied you've consumed at least the calories you're going to burn over the next few hours. You don't put on sunscreen once your neck starts to sting, your rain gear after you're soaked, or your thermal layers once you start to shiver. And you don't give it all on days 2-3 if you expect to have something left on day 5, and especially day 35. 

 

Take care of yourself in a deliberate manner so that it's your budget, professional or family obligaions, successful completion of the tour, or the rapture--not your protesting body--that brings your ride to a close.

 

 

Mitigating

Think "What steps can I take to avoid injury or other unpleasantness?" 

  • high-visibility clothing during daylight

  • flags or other fluttering, eye-catching paraphernalia safely attached to your bike

  • reflectors at night

  • nobody tours at night, silly

  • a good helmet that YOU ARE SURE fits and is attached to your head correctly

  • cell phone that has a charge

  • emergency cash

  • respectable first-aid kit that you know how to use to treat common injuries

  • rear-view mirror 

  • common sense in sketchy areas

  • consideration of the way the rising or setting sun will affect the ability to see of the drivers behind you 

  • SUNBLOCK, SUNBLOCK, SUNBLOCK

  • also, consider long-sleeved shirts even (especially) in hot weather

  • let me be clear: the sun is a relentless demon that will plague you like a rat-emigrating flea should you fail to heed this warning 

  • See my post on touring safety for more detail

 

Bathing

Definitely needs some forethought. Some basic truths:

  • you will find it curiously difficult to "get to know the locals" if you stink
  • you will find it difficult to find a place to bathe some days
  • you will find that using alcohol-based hand sanitizing wipes from CVS to perform field showers after sweating all day is a tremendously bad idea
  • my semi-rigid rule is to shower at least once every three days by staying in a hotel or with a nice host, or rolling up to a pay-by-the-minute campground or truck stop bathhouse
  • otherwise, I (now) use non-alcohol based wet wipes for daily field showers 

Packing

Whether under a stinging deluge of rain or at the end of a long day, you don't want to be digging through your panniers to get what you need. So, take some time to think through the placement of every item you will carry. Once you setup a packing routine, stick to it unless you're making a purposeful change to the system.

 

Unpacking and repacking your panniers at every stop will wear you down. I try to avoid that, for example, by dedicating one of my rear panniers solely to camping equipment. I don't have to open that bag unless I'm camping. My front-left pannier holds everything I would need to take into a hotel or guest bedroom: toiletry kit, my "nice" set of clean clothes, my phone charger, etc. My front right pannier has things like the first-aid and maintenance kit that I (hopefully) won't need access to very often, so I leave it closed most of the time, too. And, the two fronts are different colors so that I can quickly tell them apart when off the bike. 

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Detaching

Mostly, this element of prepping for a bike tour is the same as it would be for any extended absence from home. So, just go over that list you already have one more time:

  • someone to feed your pet gecko

  • all bills on auto-pay

  • downloaded to your phone the apps to manage your financial affairs and obligations

  • loved ones know what you're doing and know that you might not be reachable for extended periods of time-in other words, make sure they have reasonable expectations regarding your communication frequency

  • insurance card with you and you're satisfied that you won't be gouged if you have to get treatment somewhere along your route

  • travel notice to your credit card company

  • reasonably-cush emergency stash of funds in your checking account that won't be touched, unless

  • house/apt is satisfactorily secured against criminals-since bike tours can go for weeks, extra steps like visits from friends, alarms or lights on timers are worth considering

  • thermostat is adjusted for your absence just before leaving

  • go through a series of preemptive trouble protocols with loved ones back home, for example: 

    • if i forget something and need you to mail it to me, here's how

    • if i get injured and have to visit a hospital, here's what to do

    • if my bike gets damaged in transit to my departure point, here's how you can help

Transporting

A big part of planning and budgeting for your tour is getting to the starting point and then getting back home from the end point, which is most often somewhere far away from the starting point. Transporting the bike and all of your gear is often the tricky part.It's easiest to start from and return to your home, but of course almost nobody does that.

 

Second easiest is to have someone with a truck drop you off and pick you up, but that's limited by distance and reliability of friends. For my ride through the Deep South, I drove my bike down to Charleston in my pickup, backed the truck into a big storage unit that I rented for next to nothing (many places give you the first month free), and set out from there. When I finished in Birmingham 5 weeks later, I loaded everything into a small rental SUV and drove back to Charleston, first dropping off my gear and bike at the storage unit , then returning the rental and taking a taxi from the rental agency back to the storage unit, and drove home. That worked out pretty well.

 

The other two options involve shipping your bike either in the airplane with you or via FedEx/UPS ground ahead of you. I've found BikeFlights.com to be an excellent option. 

Sleeping

The first step of figuring this out is to decide the extent to which you are going to pre-arrange your sleeping places. On my tour through the Deep South, I think I did this only on two or three days. It usually works out fine, depending on your flexibility and level of comfort with discomfort and uncertainty.Regardless of how well you plan, a good rule of thumb for a self-supported tour is that something will happen about one out of ten days that will cause you to fail to arrive at your planned destination.  So, you will need to be flexible sometimes in any event. 

 

Options:

  • hotels/motels/hostels: Usually no need to pre-arrange in urban and semi-urban areas where you can pick from a number of options. When in rural areas these are either non-existent or pretty rough.
  • websites like Couchsurfing.com or (especially cool) WarmShowers.com. These work well in urban or semi-urban areas; you will need to pre-arrange but this can be done from your phone a day or two beforehand. 
  • camping at state parks or RV parks: Very good option usually needing no pre-arrangement, other than mapping it out and making it a destination.
  • meeting someone who lets you stay in their guest bedroom for the night: People's kindness is always refreshing. You might get this offer in a restaurant in a small town with no motel.
  • getting permission from a church or police station to setup your tent nearby: Can't hurt to ask! Sleeping here is ok, but cooking on your campstove would be bad form. Hit the local diner instead. 
  • bivouac: camp wherever you have to. Use your best judgment, and leave the place clean and as early as feasible.

Maintaining (equipment)

Necessary:

  • pack a basic repair & maintenance kit
    • flat-tire repair kit (unless you have tubeless tires)
    • air pump-I recommend splurging here
    • general bike lubricant
    • two sections cut from an old t-shirt
    • small folding knife 
    • small needle-nosed pliers with incorporated wire cutter 
    • allen wrenches for all sizes of bolts on your bike
    • a couple of replacement bolts for the 2-3 most common sizes 
    • spare inner tube
    • a dozen zip-ties
    • old toothbrush 
    • 2-3 feet of duct tape, perhaps wrapped around one of your water bottles a few times, or buy a pack of pre-folded tape
    • screwdrivers, phillips and standard
  • there are some good bicycle-specific multi-tools out there incorporating many of these components
  • know how to fix a flat tire. If you've never done it because "my tires are just fine" consider sticking a needle through your tire and then fix it for practice. Be sure to do this while mildly dehydrated, five to six feet away from 2,000-lb. steel missles hurtling by your head, in 93 degree heat with the sun bearing down on your already sunburned neck, with a dog barking at you.
  • clean and lubricate your chain after getting caught in the rain or once a week
  • scrub out pedal-clips w/lubricant after encounters with moderate to excessive mud/dirt
  • check all bolts & tighten as necessary  at least every 2 weeks

 

Helpful: 

  • level II repair kit, with:
    • spoke wrench
    • extra spoke or two, and at least basic practice replacing a busted spoke
      • you will also need a "chain whip" and a lock-ring tool if you want to be able to repair the rear-wheel spokes on the drive-side of the wheel.
    • bendable metal repair wire
    • small-ish adjustable wrench 
    • extra brake and shift cable 
    • small vial of Fast Orange hand cleaner or 1-2 pair disposable nitrite gloves
    • spare tire, the folding kind
  • check pannier fasteners and wear & tear on racks 1x/week
  • power-cycle (switch off) your phone once every few days. Heavy usage with GPS and other touring apps can bog-down performance over time without a reboot

Communicating

There is some overlap here, but basically save yourself stress if you can and invest in a water and shock-resistant phone. Add an inexpensive case for superior protection. I use the Supcase Unicorn Beetle, and it has already saved my phone once. Mounting your phone to your handlebars is almost a must. So, be smarter than I was, and be sure that the mount you buy is compatible with the size and type of phone+case you have.      

 

Take an afternoon of quality time with your phone to download and setup all of the apps you might want to have, like a GPS tracker for your family, a 'map my ride' type app, a bike computer, a good weather app, a task killer app to help save battery, and apps to edit and update your blog while on the road. Practice using these apps on your training rides so that you're not trying to figure them out in the middle of your tour. 

 

If you want to use your phone to communicate as you pedal along, think about a Bluetooth or wired headphone/mic setup. Using your mounted phone on speaker mode as you roll down the windy, noisy road will usually tend to weaken the relationship you have with your caller. Sorry about that, Mom.      

 

Finally, unless you confirm otherwise, assume that you will pass through areas, sometimes for hours at the time, where cell service is spotty or non-existent. You may even find yourself sleeping in an area without service. Design your system with this in mind, and be sure to set the expectations of your loved ones back home accordingly. 

Defending

These are the personal safety considerations you're probably thinking about already, along with my own preferred response (not recommendations) which may be different than yours. I have only had to deal with the first three:

  • Unchained dogs : carry doggie mace, like "HALT!", and keep it within reach, but a very stern yell will almost always make the little #$%$ reconsider the chase
  • Idiots throwing things from their windows for a thrill: duck and ignore
  • Idiots buzzing by much too close because they think it's funny or they don't give a damn about my safety: take a deep breath, curse silently, and ignore
  • Idiots getting a kick out of harassing a camping cyclist: step outside the tent and, appearing infinitely relieved to see them, ask if they have any extra beer
  • Someone trying to swipe the bike: keep it generally visible at all times, carry it inside the hotel room, and bring a lightweight cable lock to use when it feels necessary. If traveling through cities or college towns, use much more care when locking up. 
  • Someone who actually means to cause harm: stay out of the situation to begin with. If that fails, use the bike to change the narrative, barter, or escape. 
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Photo Credit: www.aceworkgear.com

And most importantly....

Enjoying!!!

When you're tired, hungry, sunburned, sore, frustrated, lost, stinky, dehydrated, and out of spare inner tubes and cell phone battery, remember that it's all part of the adventure.

Have fun!