Bike Touring: Part 1 - Planning and Preparing

Bikewagon - BWCC

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).

panorama

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.

Bike tour map

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?

Campground

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.

Touring panniers

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.

Essentials

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.

Part 2 in the series covers the mechanics and special concerns encountered on the road by touring cyclists, and how to deal with them.