Bike Touring - The Fundamentals

February 17, 2020

Bike Touring - The Fundamentals

When you think of the term "bike touring", many picture motorcycles, leather jackets and chubby, tattooed, bearded guys on them. While it still may be true for the person on the bike (sometimes), we are talking here about travel on the humble bicycle, usually for long distances. This article is about an amazing mode of travel - bicycle touring.

Just what is Bicycle Touring?

Simply said, bicycle touring is a type of adventure travel that mixes cycling with backpacking.

Unlike standard biking, where you ride for a few miles and go home later that day, bike touring enables you to travel from one place to another and set up camp for the night, until the next day and you repeat until you get to your ultimate destination. 

Some plan the trip on their own while others join a fully guided tour which which can provide meals and lodging. A bike tour can be as long as wanted. For some it can be a weekend getaway, a one or two week holiday, a couple months off from routine life and for the extreme bike tourers, it can literally be a ride around the world.  

The distance you can bike in a day depends on your fitness level, your travel goals, what you are carrying and the terrain you ride on. If you are not riding in very hilly areas and you are reasonably fit, 80 kms (50 miles) a day is a good benchmark for most bike tourists. This millage amount is the beauty of touring - you can cover more ground than hiking and be able to take in and see way more than on a “motorized” road trip.

Bike Touring vs Bikepacking

"Bike touring" and "bikepacking" are often used interchangeably and often confused with each other. Both usually involve long-distance on bikes. What separates the two are the bike type, often the frame geometry and the type of terrain the bicycle is travelling on. There is some overlap but can be quite different. Let’s define two:

  • Bike touring is usually on a paved or smoother road with road bicycles that have thinner tires. The aim is more on distance as you can bike from one location to the next which can be from town to town, often for weeks or months at a time. This is a typical, fully loaded touring bike:

Touring bike

  • Bikepacking is generally more off-road on a fatter-tired bike, some use a mountain bike with shocks or now more often, a unique to the form of travel, a “gravel” bike is used because most of the time, the rider is on a gravel road or a dirt path. You'll climb mountains and ride along trails through the forests or other rougher terrain, possibly for several days. The bikepacker has a strong emphasis on minimalism and light gear as he usually carries a lot less with him or her than the typical bike tourer. Bikepacking has gained a lot of popularity recently and seems to be the prefered mode of touring for many getting into this.This is what a typical bikepacking bicycle looks like. Note the different bags and packs used.

Vehicle - Bike Touring - The Fundamentals

Selecting a Route

Planning is almost as fun as the trip itself. Planning for a bicycle tour can be almost the same as organizing a road trip. Depending on your goals, you will want to select routes with nice scenery on roads with not too much car traffic. Ideally, roads with plenty of water sources and places to camp or hotels on your trip. Depending on the length, you should plan some in-town stops to get food and other supplies. Generally speaking, your bike can take you anywhere. There are really no limits. There are however a few things to keep in mind while planning: 

1) Low Traffic: If you can, try to avoid busy roads. Less traffic is more fun and safer. At minimum, ride on roads with a wider shoulder. Many areas also have dedicated bike lanes and bike paths. If you can plan your trip on those, even better!

2) Places to camp: Camping after a nice day on the saddle is one of the great joys of bike touring or bikepacking. In many areas, just setting your tent up on the side of the road is not always advisable. Wild camping is always an option but finding those spots is a developed art.  While planning, keep campsite availability (or wild camping sites) in mind in selecting your trip route.

3) Places to resupply: Depending on the distance you wish to travel in a day and how much weight you are OK with carrying as well as the space you have in your pannier bags, you should plan to travel within reasonable distance and access to towns. As an example, if your plans include touring approximately 60kms a day and only want to carry 2 or 3 days of food with you, then plan your restocking stops about every 150-175 kilometers. You may however also plan a town or village stop everyday to have a restaurant meal once in a while or just a cup of coffee and a rest. 

4) Scenery and things to visit:  Whatever landscape you want to travel through or sites you want to visit. National parks, or dedicated bicycle routes (available in many areas of the world such as the EuroVelo routes in Europe) are excellent places for your first bike tour. Many parks have dedicated paths or trails that are perfect for biking offering amazing scenery and lots of camping opportunities and services.

There are well established bike routes such as the hoodoo spires of Bryce Canyon National Park or the deep canyons of Zion National Park in the USA. Other popular routes travel through regional attractions such as the hills of Vermont's green mountains or California wine country. There are countless routes to take to discover the world we live in. You are only limited by your imagination.

Soil - Bike Touring - The Fundamentals

This Lonely Planet book may help you discover the many bike routes that have been tried and tested across the world and open up all the possibilities to your next adventure.

Budgeting for a Bike Tour

Planning your budget for a tour can be broken down into four main categories - the gear, food, lodging or shelter and travel. Equipment is often the most significant cost, but if you purchase quality equipment, your gear can last you a very long time, many years if you take good care of things.

Getting the right items you need for your particular trip, its location and length is key. See this very helpful gear list for things you will need and really help you get started. 

The following costs are very approximate and totally dependent on where you are travelling and your individual style and preference. This can be a lot lower and of course a lot more, but should give you at least a good idea of what to plan, budget-wise. 

GEAR COSTS: Approximately US$1,700 

Bicycle Gear: $700 Used Bicycle (or thousands for new), $300 Panniers/Bags, $200 Repair Kit and other miscellaneous items

You obviously need a decent bike. If most of your tour is on the road, then touring bike as described above should be your first pick. A bike with thinner tires and a wide range of gears to tackle those hills with all the stuff you are carrying. This will allow you to ride quickly on flat terrain and ride up a little easier on the hills.

Bikepacking tours will need a  more robust bike or fat tire bicycle to handle the remote dirt trails. It's often easy to find decent used bikes online or in some bike shops. It's worth doing your homework before you buy as this can save you a considerable amount of money.

Really, most bikes can be upgraded to increase its comfort, like installing a better saddle or more comfortable handlebars, etc to be able to enjoy the many hours on the road ahead.

Camping Gear: $200 Tent, $100 Sleeping Bag, $50 Sleeping Pad, $150 Cooking Gear/Other

Carefully selecting items that are light, durable, packs well and reasonably priced so that you can enjoy the great outdoors for as long as possible is important.

FOOD COSTS: US$20 Per Day (Variable)

This cost is totally dependent on where you are travelling. There is a huge difference in food costs between traveling in the USA or Europe or South East Asia or Africa.

So the $20 a day is just a guideline. If you like having a beer or two after a long day on the road, well, that budget will be higher! Plan on that minimum daily amount if you opt to bring inexpensive backpacking food available in many outdoor travel shops and resupply at local grocery stores.

Bringing a bigger food budget will enable you to eat at restaurants and enjoy that beer once in a while ;-).

LODGING: $50 Twice a Week (Variable)

You may be happy to tent every night, but depending on the length of your trip and where you are going, showering, cleaning your clothes and sleeping in a warm bed may be tempting.

Those rainy nights in a cold tent will certainly make you dream of clean bed sheets too. You should budget on staying in a hotel or hostel once or twice a week.

TOTAL: $2,700 (Example: Estimate for 30 Day Trip)

  • Gear: $1,700
  • Food: $600 ($20 x 30 days)
  • Lodging: $400 ($50 x 8 hostels)

Note on Travel Costs: One important expense to budget for is travel. If you start your bike tour further away, you will need to fly there. It’s worth shopping around with the different airlines for their checked bicycle fees and factor that in with your airfare ticket.

Sometimes, instead of shipping your bike on the plane, it might be cheaper and easier to rent a bike at your destination. Many areas make this relatively easy like in New Zealand for example. Some airlines have cheaper fees than others for bringing your bicycle with you, so it is worth researching this before you buy your flight ticket.

Also look into their rules with regards to packing your bike. Some airlines are stricter than others.

Now, most of the costs are one-time expenses (bike, gear, etc) so your second trip will be a lot cheaper!

Carrying all the gear with you

Getting the right bags for your bike adventure is important! You will be pedaling the weight of your gear so it is also important to keep as light as possible. 

To carry everything efficiently, you will need to get racks and bags:

  1. Bike Racks. These are the frames attached to the front and/ or rear end of the bike. They can be made from steel, aluminum or even titanium. The racks will need to be attached to the bike with specialty screws, so your bike will need the proper screw holes to accommodate this. The vast majority of touring and most mountain bikes will have them. So check your bike first!
  2. Panniers or Bikepacking packs. Bags and panniers are a great way to get gear off your back and onto the workhorse that is your bike. A good bicycle bag set up is a great first step in transforming your bike into a machine of utility, purpose and adventure. Think of them as your tour luggage or backpacks. They will carry all of your stuff, plus the food you will need. They attach on to the racks efficiently and can be easily pulled off using various simple mechanisms. For shorter tours, just using rear panniers is common, but on the longer rides or in cooler weather, both front and rear panniers or bags may be needed to make sure you can carry everything you need. Ideally, you will want waterproof bags, as rain or wet weather is inevitable on the longer tours.

Bike tourers and bikepackers also mount handlebar bags to access items they will need while riding and a seat or frame bags for tools and other small items.

What if I am totally new to biking?

No problem! You should obviously know how to ride a bike and learning simple mechanics and doing simple bike repairs is easy to learn. It is very helpful to learn a few basic repairs in case of a breakdown before you go on any longer trip length. 

A few things to get you up to speed can include:

  • research tips and repair videos online
  • Get a simple bike repair book
  • take a course on bike maintenance at a local bike shop
  • Look into volunteering at a local bike shop or co-op 
  • Practice repairs on your own bike

The main things to be very good at is fixing a flat tire, replacing the bike tubes or patching a punctured one. At the very least, be good at that!

Plan, Gear up and Go!

Bike touring and bikepacking is part of a quickly growing community. Most are passionate about what they do and are always happy to share and help. As a result, there are lots of great resources for those that travel this way.

Get involved and use these great services. Here are some of them:

Warmshowers.org: The ultimate community of bike tourists, designed to connect local hosts with those actively on tour. 

Adventurecycling.org: non-profit bike touring organization with maps and organized routes

Bicycle Touring Pro: Learn from someone who is actually earning a living from bicycle touring! Lots or great tips and an amazing YouTube page with everything you can learn on touring.

Crazyguyonabike.com: popular public journal forum for bike tourists and a good place to find people to actually tour with. 

This article just covers the very basics, there are a lot of resources and books to provide even more details. 

However, the best way to learn about bike touring and bikepacking is to just get on your bike and go!



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