A beginner's guide to bicycle touring: what it is and how to get started.
Updated: September 12th, 2020
Mention "bike touring" and most people think Easy Rider. We ain't talking about motorcycles here though. We are going to go over an epic mode of travel - manual bicycle touring.
Bicycle touring is a type of adventure travel that combines cycling with backpacking.
Unlike regular cycling, where you pedal for miles and return home later that day, bicycle touring allows you to travel from point to point and set up camp for the night. After some shut-eye, you pack up your tent, hop on your bike and head out for the next leg.
You can plan your own trip or join a guided tour which often offer food and lodging. A bicycle tour can last for as long as you want. Some people like to take off for a weekend cycling, while others enjoy a month-long break from life to cycle across the country. If you really want an adventure, there are year-long tours like the perfect weather tour, a continental US tour that is designed so you are always biking in 70-degree weather.
Your daily mileage depends on your fitness level, your trip goals, and the terrain. As long as there are not too many hills and you are reasonably fit, then 50 miles a day is a good benchmark for most cyclists. Moderate mileage is the beauty of bike touring - it is not as slow as hiking and not as fast as road tripping.
"Cycle touring" and "bikepacking" are often used interchangeably. Both are long-distance forms of travel on a two-wheeled manually powered bicycle. Note these terms sometimes reference different modes of transportation though. It is the type of bicycle and the type of road the bicycle is travelling that sets them apart. There is obviously a lot of overlap and the differences are negligible. Just want to clarify the terminology nonetheless..
Cycle touring is generally more on-the-road with road bikes that have thinner tires. The emphasis is more on distance as you cycle from one town or landscape to the next, possibly for months at a time.
Bikepacking is generally more off-road on a fatter-tired bike, often a mountain bike with shocks. You'll climb mountains and follow dirt trails deep through the woods, possibly for a few days.
the popularity trend of "bicycle touring" compared to "bikepacking"
Planning for a rural bike tour is similar to organizing a road trip. You want to find routes with beautiful vistas that are easy to navigate on a bike. You also should study the terrain so you have plenty of water sources and safe places to camp on your trip. Depending on the length of your trip, you may have to plan some in-town trips to resupply, too. In general, you can go anywhere you want on a bicycle tour. When planning a tour, here are a few things to prioritize though:
1) Minimal Amount of Traffic. You should avoid busy roads for safety reasons and choose paths that are less traveled. At minimum, only ride on roads with a wide shoulder for a safe bike lane.
2) Campsite Options. Yea... you will need a place to sleep. Unlike hiking, where on-trail campsites are abundant, setting your tent on the side of the road can be a lot less reliable. Keep campsite availability (or stealth camping sites) in mind when selecting a route.
3) Town and Resupply Options. Depending on how far you plan to ride everyday and how much food weight you are comfortable carrying, you will want to be within a reasonable access of towns. For example: if you plan on riding 40 miles a day and only want to carry 2 or 3 days of food with you, then plan your town stops about every 100 miles .
4) Beautiful Scenery. Whatever landscape or sites you want to see. In the US, national parks are great places for a bike tour. Many, like Acadia National Park in Maine, have trails that are perfect for biking, while others have breathtaking vistas. Imagine how beautiful it would be to pedal through the hoodoo spires of Bryce Canyon National Park or the deep canyons of Zion National Park. Other popular biking routes wind through regional attractions like the meandering hills of Vermont's green mountains or California's wine country.
Budgeting for a bicycle tour can be broken down into three main areas - gear, food, lodging and travel. Equipment is the most significant cost, but if you invest wisely, your gear can last you for years. There are also plenty of ways to save cash and not spend a fortune. See Adventure Cycling gear list of clothing, bags and more that will help you get started.
GEAR COSTS: $1,200 (Fixed)
Bicycle Gear: $500 Used Bicycle, $200 Panniers, $50 Pump, $50 Repair Kit
The first thing you need is a decent bicycle. If you are doing most of your cycling on the road, then a touring bicycle should be your first pick. These bikes have relatively thin tires and robust gearing so you can move quickly on the flats and climb easily on the hills. Bikepacking trips require a beefier mountain bike or fat tire bike to handle the remote dirt trails. You don't need a fancy mountain bike for it to be a bikepacking rig. As long as you are comfortable in the saddle, you can add a few minor upgrades to turn any mountain bike into a gear-hauling beast.
Save some money by looking for used bicycles on Craigslist, yard sales, or your local bike shop for used bikes. You may also consider upgrading some core components on the bike including the saddle and the handlebars so they are a bit more comfortable.
Camping Gear: $200 Tent, $100 Sleeping Bag, $50 Sleeping Pad, $50 Other
You can leave your pack, trekking poles, and shoes at home when you head out on a bicycle tour, but you will need to bring some basic lightweight camping equipment if you plan to sleep outside at all. Save money by asking a friend to rent or loan some gear.
FOOD COSTS: $20 Per Day (Variable)
Another significant expense is food. Plan on a minimum of $20 per day if you opt to bring inexpensive backpacking food and resupply at local grocery stores. If you have a bigger budget for food, you can eat at restaurants and experience the local cuisine.
LODGING: $25 Twice a Week (Variable)
You might be fine sticking to your tent every night. Depending on how long you are cycling for though, showering and sleeping in clean sheets can be tempting. You should plan on bunking up in a hotel or hostel at least once or twice a week.
TOTAL: $2,000 (Example: Estimate for 30 Day Trip)
*Travel Costs: One overlooked expense is travel. Obviously, if it is far away, then you are going to have to fly. Please shop around airlines for their checked bicycle rates and factor it in to your passenger airfare. Instead of shipping your bike, it might be cheaper to rent a bike at your destination. This is very common to do in some places, notably New Zealand. Some airlines can charge exorbitant fees for checking bicycles. Most, American Airlines for example, charge around $150 per bicycle though. Look for "sports equipment fees".
Unlike hiking, you don’t have to carry anything on your back! You still are pedaling the weight of your gear so it is essential to keep as light as possible. To bring your gear, you will need BOTH of these:
1. Racks. These are the metal frames attached to the front and/ or rear end of the bike. Because the rack attaches to the bike with screws, your bike will need compatible screw holes. All touring bikes will have these holes.
2. Panniers (or "saddlebags"). Think of these like your cycle tour luggage or backpacks. They will hold all of your gear. These attach directly on to the racks using a variety of methods, depending on the manufacturer. Weight symmetry and gear distribution is crucial for balance and stability. Rear panniers are more common, but you can install ones on the front if you need additional room for gear. Waterproof roll-top panniers are preferable!
Bikers also mount handlebar bags for things they need while they are cycling and a seat or frame bag for repair tools and other small items.
example of the popular Ortlieb pannier's rack attachment
No stress! Other than actually knowing how to ride a bike, I knew nothing about bicycle mechanics before committing to my 3 month cycle tour.
That being said, it could be extremely helpful to know a few basics in case of a breakdown.
research tips and videos like the ones from Park Tools
take a course on bike maintenance
volunteer at a local bike shop or co-op (that's what I did!)
tinker with your own bike
*Pro Tip: 80% of your bike issues will revolve around pumping or replacing a flat tire. At minimum, feel comfortable with this.
Note if you have clip-in pedals, I recommend getting comfortable with those first. Maybe ride with them on the grass and practice clipping in and out. I had a few nasty crashes because I was not well versed in the clip pedals.
RESOURCES: There is a growing community of bike touring enthusiasts who are offering services to help cyclists with their trips. Get involved and use them!
Warmshowers.org: kind of "the" community of cycle tourists specifically designed to connect local hosts with cyclists actively on tour. Think of it like Couchsurfing for cycle tourists. They also have an 20,000+ member Facebook group.
Tomsbiketrip.com: a cycle tourist with in depth tips and how-to's.
Adventurecycling.org: non-profit organization with maps and routes
Bikepacking.com: helpful resource for gear and more.
Crazyguyonabike.com: popular public journal forum.
By Kelly Hodgkins and Chris Cage
Chris launched Greenbelly Meals in 2014 after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for 6 months. Since then, Greenbelly has been written up by everyone from Backpacker Magazine and Bicycling Magazine to Fast Company and Science Alert. He recently wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe.
650-calorie fuel. No cooking. No cleaning.