Bicycle touring is all about choices, whether to tour supported or unsupported, with a group or solo, staying in motels or camping, etc. Many of these choices are dictated by time and budget constraints but they are still choices. The goal of this FAQ is simply to acquaint the new tourer with the variety of choices so one is better prepared to make appropriate choices. Of course, this FAQ cannot hope to cover every possible touring topic. Instead the intent is to identify the basic issues and provide references to allow the reader to further research this topic.
Here is a suggested approach to get informed for bicycle touring:
As the third item in the above list suggests, the phred touring list is an excellent resource for getting more detailed information about bicycle touring. After reading this FAQ, you will probably want to sign up for this touring list at http://www.phred.org/mailman/listinfo/touring or you can read the archives at http://www.phred.org/pipermail/touring/ to get a sense for what the touring list is about. Initially you may simply want to “lurk”, getting a feel for the topics and the list contributors while learning about bicycle touring through this FAQ, online resources, and other sources of information. Then you will be in a position to ask informed questions on the list that list members will be happy to help answer.
Note that the touring list has a
search capability at http://search.bikelist.org/. Since many topics get discussed multiple
times, it is considered good etiquette to first search the archives to see if a
topic has been previously discussed before posing a question to the list.
Warning: if/when you sign up for the touring list, please understand YOU control signing on to the list AND removing yourself from the list. Too often people sign up for the list and later send a request to the list to get themselves removed, forgetting the sign-on instructions that tell them clearly how to remove themselves. Please don’t embarrass yourself (and irritate list members) by failing to note these simple instructions… You can remove yourself (unsubscribe) from the list at http://www.phred.org/mailman/listinfo/touring.
apologies to our international touring friends, this FAQ, while largely
geographically independent, contains references to some equipment that will be
found mostly in
There are a host of reasons why cyclists tour but none of these have to be your reasons – you don’t need a reason or justification for why you want to tour. In fact, it just may be something you think might be interesting to try and that’s reason enough. Just beware that touring can be addictive…
Here are some reasons why cyclists tour:
- to see the country. In some respects, touring is the perfect way to see the country, whether it’s your country or someone else’s. Too often in a motorized vehicle you are forced to travel too quickly and miss the opportunity to spend time truly appreciating the country. On a bike, however, you are limited by how fast you can proceed and are likely to gain a better appreciation, especially when you have to earn your view through your own efforts. And it’s usually easy to stop whenever a sight deserves a longer view.
- to experience other people and cultures. Cyclists, especially solo cyclists, are more likely to be approached by locals since people are naturally curious why you do what you do. This leads to interactions that might never take place otherwise. Some tourers value the personal interactions of a tour as their most valued experience.
- to share with others. For friends, families, or significant others, touring can be a time for bonding and improving relationships through shared experiences (but you can’t force others to want to tour).
- to vacation inexpensively. Although touring can be expensive, with 4-star hotels and restaurants, it doesn’t have to be that way. Aside from some initial investment in a bicycle and camping equipment, which you may already have or can purchase used, living expenses can be very minimal. You have to eat whether at home or on the road and eating on the road doesn’t have to cost much more than at home if you are willing to cook. Camping accommodations can be inexpensive – campgrounds (not always inexpensive), city parks, people’s back yards, or a forest.
- for a sense of adventure and accomplishment. For many tourers, particularly first-time tourers, touring can be a challenge – “Can I do this.” Many a tourer has started on a demanding tour with the question “Can I really do this” or “Am I crazy to do this” only to be surprised at how capable they are at handling day-to-day life on a tour.
- to gain perspective. In today’s high-pressure modern society, people often feel trapped in their day-to-day existence. Touring can remove folks from these pressures by forcing them to focus on the simple basics of living on the road. On long, multi-week tours, the endless miles of cycling have a way of engendering time for thought that may not happen otherwise. It’s not uncommon for a tourer to find a tour a life changing experience.
- to have fun. To see the country, meet new and interesting folks, share experiences with your friends/family, and experience a sense of adventure can all make a tour an unforgettable experience.
There are various styles of touring. Some of the interesting choices are:
1. supported vs. credit card vs. unsupported (loaded). In the supported style, someone else transports your belongings to your next stop while you ride with just enough equipment/clothing to get you through the day. Typically, the someone else is a company that organizes a tour for a fee and this is part of their service. Sometimes, however, a group organizes its own tour and uses a van to transport belongings everyday. By contrast, an unsupported tour is one where the cyclist transports all of his/her own belongings with the bicycle, using either panniers (saddlebags) or a trailer towed behind the bicycle. A credit card tour is typically meant to be a minimalist tour where a cyclist takes relatively little equipment/supplies but instead uses a credit card and stays at accommodations along the way.
2. group vs. solo. One very important touring choice is whether to go solo or with a group. Group touring has some obvious benefits – companionship, safety, shared equipment, etc. Some cyclists would only consider group touring but beware that the choice of companions is very important, especially on a long tour. There is a risk of disharmony created by a dysfunctional group. By contrast, a solo tour skirts this problem (just be sure you like yourself…) at the cost of companionship and the help of others. Usually solo tourers prefer their style because it gives them complete freedom for their tour. Solo tourers are also often more approachable by strangers, leading to more frequent encounters with locals and other travelers that can be a highlight of a tour. But whether to tour with a group or solo is a very personal decision that everyone needs to decide for themselves.
3. motels vs. camping. Whether to stay in motels or camp out along the way is often dictated by budget as well as comfort. The advantage of camping, in addition to being less expensive, is that it usually gives more freedom. With motels, a tourer must end a day where a motel exists and has a vacancy – not always easy in some out-of-the-way places. By contrast, camping allows a much wider choice. The tourer might stay at a campground, city park, someone’s backyard, or in a forest. However, even when camping, there are days when a motel option is priceless, usually due to inclement weather. So if camping is used to save money, it is still a good idea to budget for some occasional motel forays.
4. cooking vs. eating out. Cooking one’s own meals is another option often chosen to reduce expenses versus the more expensive eating out option. Both options introduce their own planning requirements. Cooking requires periodic grocery shopping whereas eating out requires accessibility to restaurants, which can be an issue in some out-of-the-way places. Even when eating out it’s always a good idea to carry extra food for emergency situations where a restaurant may not be available.
5. short vs. long. This has two dimensions – the length of a trip and the length of a day. Some folks prefer short days with a lot of side trips along the way whereas others truly enjoy just riding the bike. To some tourers, a short day might mean 40 miles and a long day might mean 80+ miles. Keep in mind, however, that terrain/weather can greatly affect what could be a reasonable day on a bike. 80 flat miles could be a piece of cake compared to 40 miles of climbing. As for the length of a trip, this is likely to be greatly influenced by time & money constraints. Most tourers are likely bound by a job and limited vacation time, although some folks quit their jobs or negotiate for extended time off to pursue their dream of a cross-country tour.
These are some various parameters that factor into the planning for a tour. There is nothing right or wrong about any of these parameters. They are just some of the choices that need to be considered.
Many new tourers, particularly women and minorities, are concerned whether it is safe to tour alone. This is a natural reaction for a new tourer. Touring is like any other life activity – there is always some element of risk and there are some things you can do to minimize whatever risk exists. However, most tourers find through experience that the fears of imagined troubles that could happen on a solo tour are largely unfounded.
There are two aspects to touring safety – general safety and personal safety. General safety includes problems with equipment failure, accidents, etc. For equipment failure, the best protection is to have your equipment in good condition at the start of the tour and be capable of making typical repairs such as flat tires, broken cables, etc. The more self-reliant you are the more confident and comfortable you will be. For other general safety problems, you may well have to rely on the kindness of strangers to help and you will be surprised how helpful strangers will prove to be. Note that this general safety issue when solo touring isn’t a whole lot different than other forms of solo traveling. If traveling by motor vehicle alone and a breakdown occurs, you are going to have to get help unless you have tools and are mechanically inclined and can repair the problem yourself.
However, most safety concerns with solo touring probably focus on the issue of personal safety. It is easy to imagine all kinds of horrors as you pedal down a lonely road. The truth of the matter, however, is that you are often safer on the road despite the feeling of vulnerability than you are in a large metropolitan area. When you are on the road, most strangers will admire your adventurous spirit and courage even if they don’t understand why you do what you do and can never see themselves doing it. It is surprising how often total strangers will help with problems, pay for your meal in a restaurant, let you camp on their property, or invite you into their homes.
Since much of the personal safety concern comes from fear of the unknown, a good way to overcome this fear is to tour. Start with some short tours to gain comfort in dealing with your equipment and just being on the road by yourself. You may also want to make your first tour or two a group tour until you gain this feeling of comfort.
Of course, there is always some risk with any life activity and there are a few things you can do to minimize whatever risk there is. First, do your homework and trust your instincts. Avoid areas that might be troublesome. If you have doubts about an area, pose the question to the phred touring list before the tour and see if anyone shares your concern. If your instincts warn you that a camping area is unsafe, bypass it. You can usually find another campsite somewhere – in the wild, on someone’s property (after asking permission), or find a motel. Next, be vague about your travel plans when on the road. You don’t need to tell someone that you will be camping 5 miles down the road or exactly where you are headed, especially if you feel uncomfortable. And you can hint that you “check in” with family members daily so you are not totally alone. Last, you may want to carry pepper spray or other defensive spray and a cellular phone (but beware that cellular phone coverage can be spotty – see later question on keeping in touch). It’s unlikely you will need these (but a cellular phone can be useful for other reasons) but the sense of comfort may be worthwhile.
Last, if you really can’t shake the fear of solo touring, you may have to depend on group touring. If you are only considering solo touring because you have no companion, you could solicit for one on the phred touring list or advertise in Adventure Cycling’s monthly magazine’s Companions Wanted section. You could also read tour reports of others. Many tourers have travelogues on the Internet and reading these reports will show you what difficulties/problems they have encountered and how they dealt with them. See How can I find out about the touring experience of others?.
The short answer to this question is – a touring bicycle. A touring bicycle is designed to accommodate the special needs of touring. By comparison to a typical road bicycle:
That said, folks tour on many different kinds of bikes – touring, road, cross, mountain, tandem, and recumbent. And, of course, if a tour is an off road adventure then a mountain bike is the bike of choice. Also, where you plan to tour is an important consideration. Touring in some remote area may dictate using a steel (chromoly) bike frame that could be repaired (welded) in the field along with standard components that bicycle shops are likely to carry.
Some of the more common North American touring bikes are: the classic Trek 520, Canondale T2000, Fujii Touring, Jamis Aurora, Co-Motion Americano, Bruce Gordon BLT & Rock n’ Road, Novara Randonee & Safari, and Rivendell Atlantis, with prices ranging from $600 to $2800. For more details on these and other touring bicycles, see http://www.faughnan.com/touringbike.html and http://touring.anymouse.org. The former is a site (now getting somewhat dated) devoted to helping folks decide on a commuting bike but touring bikes make great commuting bikes so touring bikes are covered there. The latter is a new site that provides some basic information on a variety of touring bikes and has a special link for each bike that queries the touring archives for comments on a bike.
Finally, the above presumes some form of significant loaded touring. If, however, you plan to do supported touring, or what some folks call “credit card touring”, you may not need a touring bike. A regular road bike may work just fine.
For more details, see what Adventure Cycling has to say. Adventure Cycling is an organization devoted to cycle touring with a monthly touring magazine. Each year AC reviews touring bicycles and you can see most of their 2002 review online at http://www.adventurecycling.org/library/review.cfm (search for 2002 touring bike).
To get an idea of what bicycles others use for touring, check out the 2005 Touring Bicycle Survey at http://www.cyclingaway.com/Touring/Survey2005.
And truly finally, keep in mind that a recumbent (reclining) bicycle is an alternative to the venerable Diamond Frame (DF) or upright bicycle just described and a number of phred touring list members are very happy with their recumbent touring bikes. However, compared to the upright bicycle, which is pretty standardized after some 100 years of development, the recumbent bicycle offers far more variation. Among the choices are:
Probably the real dilemma with a recumbent is how to make these choices. Ideally, one would ride the various choices and choose accordingly but it may be difficult to find riding opportunities. Adventure Cycling discusses these various recumbent choices for touring recumbent bicycles in more detail in the July 2002 issue of the Adventure Cyclist magazine.
Keep in mind two very important equipment points regarding a touring bike. A loaded touring bike needs:
1. adequate gearing. Many stock touring bicycles come with a standard gearing of 52/42/30 chainrings, which is generally too high a gearing for loaded touring on anything but a flat route or for a very strong cyclist. Generally, gearing in the 20-100 gear inches (1.6-8.0 meters development for metrics fans) is recommended for new tourers who may not be familiar with the demands of loaded touring (experienced tourers can deviate from this recommendation based on their touring capabilities/needs). Note that a bicycle with an 11-32 cassette (small cog of 11 teeth and large cog of 32 teeth), 30/42/52 chainrings gives 25-127 gear inches compared to 19-108 gear inches for 22/32/44 chainrings. You can use Sheldon Brown’s gearing calculator (http://www.sheldonbrown.com/gears) to determine gear inches. Just select Gear Inches for the Gear Units and plug in the chainring and cassette gears and click Calculate. (Select Meters Development for the Gear Units if you want the European equivalent of gear inches.) If you prefer, you can download an Excel gear calculator from Alex Wetmore at http://www.phred.org/~alex/bikes/index.html. Note that if you determine your gearing needs prior to purchasing a bicycle, you may be able to negotiate with your dealer to swap out standard gearing for more practical/appropriate gearing with little or no change in price. Otherwise, you may be forced to spend extra for appropriate gearing, and perhaps compromise the gearing for something less than ideal (such as replacing the 30 with a 26 chainring) in the interest of economy.
2. strong wheels. For loaded touring, 36 spoke wheels are fine but they must be well-built. Nothing will stress spokes like a loaded touring bicycle and this stress can cause spoke breakage. Fixing broken spokes on the road is no fun so it is best to make sure your wheels are well-built before you start a tour. If a good wheel builder has built a wheel, it will stay true virtually forever unless it is subjected to a catastrophic event, such as hitting a deep pothole at speed. In brief, a well-built wheel has equally tensioned spokes all around except for a rear wheel with dish (the right side spokes are more vertical than the left side) where the freewheel/cassette side spokes require greater tension since they are more vertical due to the dishing. Then the spokes are “stress relieved”, meaning that extra tension is temporarily applied to all spokes to force them to adapt to the hub flange and to the rim eyelet. See Sheldon Brown’s link to wheel building at http://www.sheldonbrown.com/wheelbuild.html for more details.
Unfortunately, touring bicycles are not all that common and finding one is not always that easy. Of course, you can always go to your LBS (Local Bicycle Shop). Just be sure that your LBS knows something about touring bicycles and doesn’t try to sell you something else because it’s already in the shop. Another option is contracting with a custom bicycle shop, assuming the shop understands touring bicycles (not all do). This is likely to be more expensive but more likely to be a good fit and well equipped for the needs of touring. Be aware, however, that some custom shops have long delivery times and the delivery times are typically not guaranteed.
Expect to pay $1,000+ for an equipped touring bike. If you are not sure touring is for you, you may want to look for a used touring bike in order to minimize your initial investment. Ebay is one place that periodically lists touring bikes, such as the classic Trek 520. Members of the touring list are often on the lookout for such bicycles on ebay and will often alert touring list members when something interesting shows up on ebay.
For many new touring cyclists buying a new touring bicycle can be an involved and somewhat intimidating exercise. This is particularly true if the cyclist doesn’t have access to a trusted, knowledgeable touring friend or bicycle shop. Here is a case study of what one touring cyclist, Karyn, went through when she decided to purchase a touring bicycle. Fortunately, Karyn consulted with members of the phred touring list members who responded with a variety of suggestions and opinions and these interactions are recorded in the touring archive. This case study starts with consideration for a Trek 520, a common choice, and branches out to consider the Heron Touring, Atlantis Rivendell, and Bruce Gordon BLT touring bicycles. The case study also covers gearing choices and touches on bike fit, bar-end shifters, and headlights. This is a highly recommended read for anyone wanting to gain insight into an important purchasing decision.
This case study is accessible through a touring archive search at: http://catfood.phred.org/query.asp. Just fill in:
Search String: karyn
Search In: All of message
Modified: At any time
Sort by: Date (oldest first)
List to Search: Touring@phred.org
Start reading with the 5/19/2003 post on “time to shop for a new bike…suggestions?” and continue through the month of May.
On all but very short tours, you are going to spend a lot of time in the saddle so a comfortable saddle is paramount. That said, this topic is very personal and necessarily so. The best saddle is most likely going to be the one that supports your weight on your so-called sit bones (“ischial tuberosities”). Since everyone’s derriere is different, there isn’t going to be one saddle that suits everyone equally well. However, many tourers report that they prefer Brooks saddles. That is because the Brooks is a leather saddle that eventually conforms to one’s individual posterior. Most Brooks saddles require some break in time with some folks finding them comfortable virtually right out of the box and others requiring a considerable break in period of, perhaps, several hundred miles. Although there are a number of Brooks saddle models, the B17 is the most commonly used. Brooks saddles also come in spring-mounted versions as well.
So, should you get a Brooks saddle? Although many are very happy, even ecstatic, with their Brooks saddle, others have tried them and never gotten comfortable with them. So don’t assume a Brooks will be right for you just because it is for many others. Any saddle still has to fit you and you only. Ultimately, you have to find a saddle that is comfortable for you and that, unfortunately, involves experimentation. The best bet is to try many saddles even though this may be somewhat impractical. Ideally, your LBS would allow you to try a variety of saddles until you find one that works well for you.
Finally, even if a Brooks works well for you, keep in mind that it is a leather saddle and consequently requires extra care. It requires periodic leather conditioning, Proofide is recommended by Brooks, and it needs to be covered when not in use in order to keep it from getting wet. However, a well-taken care of Brooks can last virtually forever.
The most commonly used shifters for touring are STI (and its non-Shimano variants), a combined brake/shift integrated level, and bar-end shifters, although some tourers still use downtube shifters. STI has the advantage of convenience for folks who ride with hands on the brake hoods, where the shifter is conveniently available. A disadvantage is that it is more complicated mechanically, limited to index shifting only, and has more limited gearing option compatibility. By contrast, bar-end shifters are mechanically simpler, can be used in friction shifting mode if the indexing fails, and is adaptable to more gearing options.
Bottom line is that many tourers use STI and bar-end shifters successfully. Initially, the inherent complexity of STI was considered a drawback due to reliability but time does not appear to have demonstrated any significant STI reliability problems. Nevertheless, some folks recommend that tourers carry a downtube shifter for an emergency replacement if STI is used. STI is not repairable in the field so the downtube shifter is recommended as a backup. In the end, this is another issue, STI vs. bar-end, that is a matter of personal preference.
It may come as a surprise but the use of a mirror is the subject of considerable debate on the phred touring list. The debate ranges from one extreme of “You are risking your life if you don’t use a mirror” to almost the other extreme of “You are risking your life if you do.” Proponents of mirror use claim that a mirror allows them to more easily keep tabs on what is happening with traffic around them because it’s easy to frequently glance at the mirror without disrupting their riding. They argue that because they can monitor traffic more easily they can make better traffic-related decisions. By contrast, cyclists not in favor of mirror use generally believe the mirror is just another gadget that falls off, gets in the way, needs adjusting or that the mirror can provide a false sense of security and can thus be dangerous. In any event, most cyclists suggest it is not a good idea to rely totally on a mirror – use it as a tool with a final glance over the shoulder before making any lane position changes.
According to the 2005 touring bike survey (http://www.cyclingaway.com/Touring/Survey2005), 70% use a mirror. Mirrors generally can be classified by where they are mounted: handlebar, eyeglasses, and helmet, and the mirror users are fairly evenly split among these 3 categories with handlebar mirrors a little more popular. Handlebar mirrors do have the advantage that they are typically less in the way than a mirror that protrudes from eyeglasses/helmet (but sometimes the rear load on a touring bicycle can partially obscure the rear view of a handlebar mirror). On the other hand, eyeglasses/helmet mirror users have a broader view than the fixed handlebar mirror by rotating their head to scan more background. However, eyeglasses and helmet mounted mirrors do have one potential problem – some users have difficulty when the mirror is mounted on the side opposite to the dominant eye. Some cyclists require an adjustment period before they get comfortable and some never get comfortable (one right-eye dominant cyclist mounts his helmet mirror on the right and finds the arrangement works fine for him on right-side travel roads).
So should you use a mirror? Well, a mirror is a fairly inexpensive item so experimenting with one is a reasonable financial proposition. You may find a mirror becomes indispensable, as many do, or that the over-the-shoulder glances work fine for you.
The answer to this question varies somewhat depending on the length of tour and its remoteness, i.e., nearness to bicycle shops. If bicycle shops are going to be few and far between, you have to be more prepared to handle any bicycle problems. The longer a tour is the more likely you are to run into bicycle problems. It also makes sense to get your bicycle in tiptop shape before you leave, taking it to your LBS if necessary. Repairs and general maintenance are always easier and more convenient when done in the comfort and safety of your hometown rather than on the road.
First, consider the typical types of problems that are most likely to happen. Flat tires should be expected on any length trip and you should be prepared to fix flats, either repairing the tube or replacing it with a new one. You should always carry a flat tire kit and pump and at least one extra tube, and probably at least two extra tubes on long trips. A tire boot, something that can be used to insert inside a tire as a temporary fix to a gashed tire, is useful although a boot can often be fashioned from something you are already carrying. On long trips you may want to carry an extra tire in the event of a gashed tire that is not repairable, or you use a tire size that is not generally available. A foldable tire with a Kevlar bead (the edge of a tire) is a good choice as it folds compactly and takes little space. Note that most tires come with a wire bead that prevents a simple fold of the tire. However, tires with a wire bead can be folded into 3 rings on top of each other and lashed to a rack or pannier. See Coiling a Wire Bead Clincher by Jobst Brandt from the rec.bicycles.* FAQ at http://draco.acs.uci.edu/rbfaq/FAQ/8b.23.html for a description of this folding technique.
Next, spoke breakage is a common problem so you should have extra spokes and the tools to replace a broken spoken. The most difficult spoke break to repair, yet one of the most frequent, is a cassette/freewheel side rear wheel spoke. This is because the cassette/freewheel must be removed in order to remove and replace the spoke. If you can get your hands on the Pamir Hypercracker, a small, portable device that allows you to remove your cassette, you should jump at the chance but, unfortunately, this device is no longer made but occasionally still found in some bicycle shops. An alternative repair item to consider is the FiberFix Spoke, which is a Kevlar cord that can be used as a temporary replacement for a spoke, obviating the need to remove the cassette/freewheel to replace a cassette side broken spoke.
Brake and shifter cables can always break so you should carry extra cables and the tools to replace them.
You should carry the tools that will allow you to adjust and tighten the various nuts and bolts on your bicycle. Touring can be stressful for your bicycle so be prepared to tighten whatever bolts/nuts may come loose. It is also a good idea to carry some extra bolts/nuts for replacement on the road. In particular, the bolts used to attach your racks and fenders are good candidates for extras.
Of course, it goes without saying that it is not enough to just carry these tools to make these repairs. Either you or a companion must be capable of making these repairs. If you do not know how to handle basic bicycle repairs, you may want to see if your LBS offers a course on basic bicycle mechanics.
See Judy Colwell’s gear list at http://www.stanford.edu/~jcolwell/bikelist.pdf and Brian DeSousa’s packing list at http://briandesousa.com/bicycling/info/packlist.htm. You may not need/want everything Judy/Brian take and you may have some special needs for yourself but this will get you started on formulating your own list. You can also find a number of other gear/equipment lists on the Internet by searching for: bicycle touring packing list.
There are basically two options. Either equip your bicycle with racks and panniers (saddlebags) or tow a trailer behind your bicycle. Many cyclists use both methods and both methods have their advantages and disadvantages. In a nutshell,
best handling (directly attached to the bike)
more difficult to pack (must balance
load between front and rear and side-to-side)
[Based on a study, Blackburn (the rack manufacturer) recommends 60% weight in front panniers, which are lower to the ground and hence lower center of gravity, and 40% in rear panniers but many tourers probably just approximate a 50/50 split]
all weight is on the bike requiring a sturdy bike
easy to store in a tent
easiest to pack
can cause some handling problems on downhills (trailing load effect)
can pack more load – good when needed, bad when succumbing to temptation to carry more because space is available
easiest to “unload” – just disconnect trailer and bike is unloaded for errands/rides
another wheel type to cope with for maintenance
Note that while trailers are generally easier on the bike since the load is trailing rather than hanging on the bike, there is some anecdotal evidence that trailers may cause more rear spoke breakage due to the sideways torque resulting from the trailer attachment to the rear wheel axle (for a single-wheeled trailer). Bicycles with stronger rear triangles appear to handle trailers best.
The B.O.B YAK trailer (http://www.bobtrailers.com/) is the most commonly used bicycle trailer.
Generally, it is recommended to use both front and rear
racks for loaded touring, although some tourers use
only one or the other, particularly for lighter touring loads.
If you have or plan to purchase a custom touring bicycle, your custom shop may provide custom racks (and panniers) for your particular bicycle as well.
Two important attributes of panniers, aside from size, are waterproofing and compartmentalization. These attributes are illustrated by Arkel (http://www.arkel-od.com/text_index.html) and Ortlieb (http://www.ortliebusa.com/index2.html) panniers, generally considered the top-of-the-line panniers. The Ortlieb panniers are waterproof with single compartments whereas the Arkel panniers are not waterproof with multiple compartments/pockets. Both are very well made panniers and both have their devotees. Some tourers prefer to make their panniers waterproof by stowing their belongings in plastic bags (trash compactor bags are good for this). Other tourers prefer single compartments that allow them to subdivide the space internally and not be constrained by the compartments provided by panniers with pockets/compartments. All a matter of choice. In fact, some tourers prefer a mixture of panniers, equipping their bike with one set (2) of waterproof panniers and another set with compartmentalized panniers, getting some of the best of both worlds.
Of course, beyond waterproofing & compartmentalization, the materials used in the pannier construction and a secure method of attaching the pannier to a rack are equally important. Check Lance Rushing’s web site, http://www.lancerushing.com/bicycling/panniers.cfm, for a review of various panniers.
Finally, some tourers make their own panniers, not limiting themselves to what the market provides. Ken Kifer’s web site, http://www.kenkifer.com/bikepages/touring/, discusses how to make your own panniers (as he has done).
If you plan to stay in motels or other accommodations, the answer may well be none, although there may still be a reason to carry some minimal camping gear for emergencies or where accommodations are not available. That said, if you plan or expect to camp at some point, you will likely want/need a tent, a sleeping bag, and a sleeping pad. If you plan to cook, then cooking facilities will be needed as well. In many respects, these camping needs will be similar to needs for backpacking with the primary difference that weight need not be as important a consideration. So any good references for backpacking gear will generally be relevant to touring as well.
One good source of camping information is the Backpacker Magazine annual gear guide (March issue for 2002). This guide covers these subjects in more detail than can be covered in this FAQ. That said, here are a couple of differences from backpacking to keep in mind. As stated previously, weight is generally not as important a consideration since rolling weight (on a bicycle/trailer) is not the same as bearing weight (on your back). Hence a tourer is more likely to spring for a bigger, and heavier, tent than a backpacker would. For instance, a solo tourer might well want a two-person tent on a long tour for the extra comfort (and space for panniers) for a modest increase in weight. And a group of two might prefer a three-person tent. In either case a freestanding tent (needing stakes only to keep the tent from blowing away) is probably preferable to a tent that requires staking to keep it erected. But, just as there are backpacker minimalists who prefer to go light, some camping tourers prefer just a tarp or a fly.
Sleeping bag decisions evolve around size and weight issues, which usually means deciding between down and synthetic sleeping bags. Although synthetic sleeping bags have made great improvements over the years, down sleeping bags are still lighter and more compressible than synthetic bags but synthetic bags have the advantage that they can tolerate some moisture without losing effectiveness like a down sleeping bag will. And a sleeping pad is always a wise choice as it will extend the temperature range of a sleeping bag by providing insulation from the ground in addition to providing additional comfort. Thermarest self-inflating sleeping pads and their equivalents are the frequent choice.
Finally, another consideration for tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad is packing size. Some tourers simply pack their tent and bag on top of the rear rack where size is not especially critical. Other tourers prefer to pack their tent and bag inside their rear panniers in which case packing size can be an important consideration.
The final major camping equipment decision is cooking facilities for those who choose to cook. Again, the Backpacker Magazine gear guide is a good resource for options with the availability of fuel for the choice of stove in the land of travel a major consideration.
Finally, finally, Ken Kifer has more discussion of camping gear at http://www.kenkifer.com/bikepages/touring/campgear.htm.
Most tourers will want to carry some photographic equipment to capture those special moments on tour. The use of photographic equipment is too complex to discuss here, as is the choice of film vs. a digital camera. However, there are some special considerations if one is considering carrying a digital camera. In particular, a digital camera needs batteries and a place is needed to save photos. On a short tour, this may not be much of an issue as an extra set of batteries and one or two large memory cards, which are getting cheaper by the day, may be sufficient. On a long tour, these issues can become very significant.
Since most “current” digital cameras eat batteries, especially when an LCD viewer is used (you probably want a camera where LCD viewing is optional), a long tour will almost certainly require rechargeable batteries and a method to recharge them. And unless one has a solar charger, recharging may require periodic motel accommodation (or a campground with AC power) to allow overnight charging, although some chargers are fast enough that quick charging during a meal in a restaurant may be feasible. Another issue related to rechargeable batteries is the type of battery. Many digital cameras use proprietary lithium-ion rechargeable batteries that may be hard to find or replace on tour. In that case, it may be preferable to have a digital camera that uses AA rechargeable batteries, which are more likely to be available on the road. And in a pinch, a non-rechargeable AA battery is an option, although a short-lived option. http://www.nimhbattery.com/ is one source for rechargeable batteries and chargers including a solar charger.
Probably even more important than rechargeable battery considerations is how to save pictures. Of course, it is always possible to buy enough memory cards to save all the pictures you will ever take on a tour but that could get to be quite expensive. More likely, on a longer tour there will need to be some way to save pictures so the memory card can be reused. One option, of course, is to carry a laptop PC and periodically upload the memory card to the PC. For those tourers who already tour with a PC, this is a natural option. However, for those who don’t plan/want to carry a PC, another option is a portable storage device, such as the MindStor (previously called a digital wallet). Most of these portable storage devices are essentially laptop PC hard drives packaged in a standalone unit that is powered by either AC or (another) rechargeable battery unit. These units are typically available in 5-30 gigabyte sizes. And with current 4M pixel cameras typically requiring 2M for highest quality JPEG compression, 1G provides room for 500 pictures. See http://www.steves-digicams.com/digi_accessories.html#storage for a review of theses portable storage units. A final option for saving pictures is that some photo shops can burn your photos to a CD, thus requiring carrying enough memory to last between photo shops.
Bear in mind that digital cameras are in a state of rapid development much like PCs were in the 1990s. Here are several web sites that keep track of the latest in digital cameras and accessories like portable storage units: http://www.dpreview.com/, http://www.imaging-resource.com/, http://www.dcresource.com/, http://www.steves-digicams.com/.
When, for a loaded tour, you consider the bicycle and all the equipment loaded on it, a natural question for new tourers is how to protect this equipment/investment. Part of the answer to this is there must be some inherent trust in your fellow man/woman since you cannot absolutely perfectly protect your belongings 100% of the time. But this isn’t necessarily a whole lot different than having your belongings in a vehicle and leaving your vehicle at times. If you’ve ever had your key locked in your car and called either a locksmith or the police, you have probably been absolutely flabbergasted at how little time it takes them to unlock the car. All locking the car does is prevent the casual thief from driving away with your vehicle. Someone who really wants your vehicle is going to get it unless you go to extraordinary lengths to protect it.
The same is pretty much true of your bicycle and belongings. Fortunately, most of the time while touring you will probably be outside large cities where thievery is not likely to be an issue. That said, you will still want to take some precautions to protect yourself from the casual thief. So it is always a good idea to have some form of lock to discourage at least the casual thief. When possible, it’s also a good idea to keep your bicycle within viewing distance, such as when eating at a restaurant. If you are with a group, you may also want to designate one person to stay behind as the protector of the bicycles while others run errands, sightsee, etc. And finally, it is good practice to keep your special valuables, such as wallet, passport, etc, in a pouch of some sort that you always carry with you. Some tourers use a handlebar bag that is easily detachable for carrying their special valuables.
Of course, overnight is a little different issue. If you are staying at a motel or other accommodation, you should expect to either be able to keep your bicycle locked in your room or have the proprietor lock it up someplace for you. In a campground, you will probably want to lock your bicycle to a tree or picnic table or other stout device and keep your panniers in your tent/vestibule (if there is room). Some tourers setup camp so that the bicycle is part of the tent arrangement such that any finagling with the bicycle should raise an alert.
Most of all, trust your instincts. Over time you will learn that most people will go out of their way to help rather than harm you. However, there will still be times, typically in larger cities, when discretion is warranted and you will want to seek out appropriate accommodations to safeguard your belongings.
There are several answers to this question. First, if you are planning a tour that someone
else has already done, you can “borrow” their route and augment it if
necessary. A frequent question on the phred touring list is “I want to travel from point A to
point B; does anybody have any suggestions for a good route?”. Of course, this type of question works best
where points A and B are within reasonable distance of each other. If A is
Another way to “borrow” someone’s tour is find a company that markets a tour and purchase their map(s). Probably the best example of this is Adventure Cycling (AC) that has several cross-country tours, a couple of east & west coast tours, and several other tours. AC prints good, cycling specific maps developed by AC that lay out a tour in detail, identifying elevation changes, bicycle shops, accommodations (motels & campgrounds), etc. You can find these maps at http://www.adv-cycling.org/ and anyone can purchase them although members get a price break.
Finally, you can plan your tour using regular maps. Of course, the limitation with regular maps is they do not identify which roads would be good cycling roads, with low traffic and/or good riding shoulders. However, reasonable routes can often be derived by avoiding Interstates (which are generally illegal for bicycle riding except for many Western States where the Interstate is the only way to get around) and state roads. County and local roads are most likely the roads that will be the most bicycle friendly. Using this simple technique will allow fashioning a basic route. Then when on the road, you can query local folks for their recommendations, and this is often a good icebreaker for getting to meet and know the locals. Just beware that most locals, unless they themselves are cyclists, may be pretty clueless about what would be a good cycling route. Especially be prepared to be skeptical when a local claims a route is flat. Their concept of flat, from the perspective of a motorist, is likely to be totally different than your concept as a cyclist. So you will have to make some inferences from “local knowledge.” For instance, you may be able to weed out certain roads because a local will advise you that a road is traffic intensive and thereby at least eliminate some bad choices.
See Ken Kifer’s discussion of maps at http://www.kenkifer.com/bikepages/touring/maps.htm for lots more suggestions. Also, many states do have statewide cycling maps that give shoulder width, traffic counts, grades, etc. Brian DeSousa maintains a list of known sites for these maps at http://briandesousa.com/bicycling/info/statemaps.htm. Another source for state maps and state bicycle maps is http://www.evergreen.edu/library/govdocs/statemaps.html.
One attribute of routes that is of special interest to
cyclists is elevation changes. Delorme’s
And for some tourers, there is a certain amount of adventure and satisfaction to fashioning your own route and ad hocing along the way. How does that song go – “I did it my way…”?
This depends on a variety of factors:
In addition to considering these factors, you may want to budget some time off, perhaps a day per week on long tours. On your off day you can take care of periodic chores – bike maintenance, laundry, correspondence with friends/family, etc. Any planned days off can also be used as a buffer in the event you get behind schedule, maybe due to bike troubles or weather difficulties. Without any planned time off, getting behind schedule may cause you to cut your tour short or may force you to tour in bad weather as you attempt to make up lost miles. Until you have touring experience and understand what you are capable of and what you like to do, it would be wise to budget extra time to account for unforeseen circumstances.
So, a typical tour with short touring days might involve 30-40 miles per day and one with long touring days might involve 70-90 miles per day with individual day variances to account for terrain, weather, accommodations, sight-seeing, etc. But there is no “right” number of miles to tour in a day – it’s all a matter of choice.
There are really two parts to this question:
For the first part, you should do at least a mini-tour before your real tour. This will allow you to familiarize yourself with your loaded bicycle, both how to setup your bicycle and how it rides (very different from an unloaded bike) and how many miles you can comfortably cover in a day. A good mini-tour might be to ride from your home to a day’s destination, stay overnight, and return home the next day. This will force you to pack your bicycle similar to a real tour and ride it when loaded. Ideally, your route would include some hills similar to your real tour so you get a feel for the effort required to cycle a loaded bicycle up a typical hill. This will give help you gauge whether your gearing is adequate for your real tour. This mini-tour should take place at least several weeks in advance of the real thing so there is time to make adjustments if necessary.
To get in shape, you mostly need to just ride your bicycle. Ideally, you would load your bicycle and ride just as you plan to on your tour, but that would probably be pretty boring, although at least one tourer has been known to load bricks into panniers to simulate a touring load. If you are planning a long tour, you need to be in good enough shape to start your tour and you can, to some extent, ride your way into shape, starting with easy days. However, if you are planning a shorter tour, anything much less than two weeks, there really won’t be time to ride your way into shape. Of course, the physical condition you need to be in will depend on the demands of your tour. Planning a tour with 30-40 mile days will not require the conditioning of a tour with 70-90 mile days.
There are so many variables in a tour – your current conditioning, the daily mileage, the length of your tour, the tour terrain, the weight of your loaded bicycle, the typical weather – that it’s impossible to give real specifics on what a training program should be. However, as a guideline, assuming a loaded bicycle tour with daily mileage in the 60+ miles per day, you should probably be riding at least 100 miles per week, which is not really very much as this is only 16 miles per day or about one hour per day. In addition to the weekly mileage, you should be able to ride your unloaded bike comfortably at least 50 miles in a day, preferably longer and closer to your planned typical daily mileage. Of course, if you plan a real demanding tour, either long mileage days or difficult terrain, you will likely want to do more conditioning or plan shorter initial tour days as you ride your way into shape.
If you are planning a tour where you will be riding your bicycle with little additional weight (e.g., a supported tour), you should be able to get a pretty good idea of your conditioning needs from normal riding. Ride your bike close to the planned daily mileage. If you can ride your bike comfortably close to this daily mileage, you should be OK unless your tour is totally different terrain. If you can’t, increase your training mileage to accomplish this.
Finally, keep in mind that the ideal tour starts with you and your bike in top notch shape to match the demands of your tour. However, tourers have started tours in less than ideal condition and have still managed successful tours. To some extent, determination can carry you through a tour. It’s just that starting a tour in less than ideal condition, either you or your bike, increases the chances that you won’t enjoy the tour or may have to shorten or abandon your tour due to either bike problems or physical problems.
And remember it’s always wise to consult your physician before embarking on any physical conditioning program.
Of course, the ideal tour would start and end from your home, eliminating the need for this question. You may also plan a tour loop where you can transport your bicycle(s) and equipment via motorized vehicle. In that case you just need to find a place to safely leave your vehicle near your tour start while you tour.
However, in many cases you may be traveling a long distance
to the start of your tour and traveling back at the end of your tour. This means you may be dealing with the
airlines, never a pleasant thought but often a necessity. The most straightforward way to transport
your bicycle will be to pack it up and take it with you and pray to your
favorite deity that it arrives with you safe and sound. Some airlines don’t require boxing a bike
(usually boxing is require in
See Adventure Cycling’s web site (http://www.adventurecycling.org/library/index.cfm - search for boxing your bicycle). A variety of other packing tips/suggestions can be found by searching the Internet for ‘packing bicycle.’
Unfortunately, most air travel in the
Beyond air travel, there are other options for bicycle transportation to consider, including rail, bus, and shipping ahead of time via FedEx or UPS or other shipping company. George Farnsworth has collected the experiences of tourers on his Travel with Bicycles (Air/Rail/Other) web site, including getting in and out of airports on bicycle. You can check his collection at http://www.gfonline.org/bikeaccess.
There are several options to consider. First, there is the old fashioned telephone. Some folks just use phone cards or calling cards but many folks carry a cellular phone with them both for general communication and emergencies. However, keep in mind that cellular coverage is not seamless. There are outlying areas where coverage will be spotty or non-existent. If you subscribe to cellular service with a national carrier, their web site probably shows a coverage map but be prepared to view any coverage map with some skepticism. Coverage is likely to be good in metropolitan areas but fringe area coverage may well be wishful thinking on a carrier’s part.
In addition, your cellular phone may be permitted to “roam” and make calls in areas where your carrier does not have coverage but another carrier does. This can be fine for emergency calls but if you plan to use your cellular phone a lot the roaming charges on another carrier may be prohibitively expensive. However, most of the national carriers provide global roaming as part of a service package to which you can subscribe.
Another communication option is email. Email has the advantage of “asynchronous” communication, meaning you can trade messages with others without having to be in simultaneous communication as required with a telephone. The disadvantage of email is that you generally need to have access to the Internet to read and send email. If you carry a laptop PC, a cellular phone, and a cellular modem, you may be able to gain internet access from the convenience of your bicycle or campground or motel but this will depend on cellular coverage and charged batteries or access to AC power. However, you can often get Internet access in libraries or Internet cafes (see Internet Café Guide - http://www.netcafeguide.com/) along your route. Bear in mind, however, that your email provider needs to have the capability to read your email from the Internet or you need to subscribe to another email service that can link to your email provider to provide this service. In any event, you should check with your email provider to see if they have this capability before you leave home. http://www.pop3now.com/ and http://www.mail2web.com/ are two sites that provide Internet access to POP3 email (Post Office Protocol version 3), a common email type (your email provider can tell you whether they are POP3).
Finally, some tourers have been very satisfied with a variant of email service called PocketMail™ (http://www.pocketmail.com). With PocketMail, you purchase a device that is basically a specialized handheld PC with a keyboard, memory, and an acoustic coupler and subscribe to the PocketMail service. Then you enter one or more email messages via the keyboard. When you are ready to transmit your messages, you find a phone and send your message(s) by dialing a special 800 number and holding the phone to the back of the PocketMail device for transmission over the phone line, eliminating the need for Internet access. You also receive emails by the same technique.
Simple – read about them. Many tourers keep a travelogue and post it on the Internet. Some post their trip notes almost daily and you can live vicariously through their trip, almost as if you were with them. And you can learn about how they handle touring and what kinds of problems they encounter. Some tourers post their reports directly to the phred touring list so you can read them just by subscribing to the touring list. Others post their web site for their travelogues on the touring list.
Ken Kifer (yes, this guy again) has his own extensive travelogues and he has an extensive list of links to travelogues for other folks as well. Check out http://www.kenkifer.com/bikepages/links/tourlink.htm. Crazy Guy on a Bike (http://www.crazyguyonabike.com) is “A place for bicycle tourists and their journals” created by Neil Gunton. It has over 200 journals by cyclists for tours all over the world. Furthermore, you can add your own bicycle touring journal(s) on this site for free.
You can also become a member of Adventure Cycling, both annual and lifetime memberships are available, and receive their monthly magazine, Adventure Cyclist. This magazine contains trip reports, specific touring bicycle reviews including the annual touring bicycle review, and bicycle technical discussions (often provided by Sheldon Brown who also contributes to the phred touring list as well).
AC – Adventure Cycling
LBS – Local Bicycle Shop
Send questions, comments, suggestions, etc. to Denis Kertz.
Last revised: February 22, 2005