Touring by Bike: How to Get Started
I have always been fond of long tours made by bike. It is an excellent compromise between a walking tour, where one may spend days crossing the same region, and a road trip, where the beauty of a region fly by in mere hours through closed windows. Naturally, one day I set out on my first own bike tour. It was certainly a learning experience, as every new journey is. If you’d like to set out on your own week or month-long biking adventure (and I encourage you to), there are several things you need to consider before rolling out of town.
Where are you going? On the road, you may learn to appreciate the nuances of this question. A properly planned trip has a final destination, various intended waypoints, and confidence that reasonable cycling routes exist between those waypoints. While technology can certainly help with the planning and at times even with the execution, you should plan to spend days without access to the internet or a device for surfing it and carry paper maps covering your entire intended route.
Establish your comfortable pace and endurance level under the conditions you will ride, whether that’s 4 hours a day at 15 km/hour and 100 kilos of gear or 6 hours at 30 km/hour and 20 kilos. Use this to establish both the distance you can expect to cover in one day and the total time of the trip, and plan for at least 1 day in 5 of unexpected downtime (0 km days).
A precise minute by minute plan will only frustrate you when you fail to adhere to it (you undoubtedly will), while a choice of only the final destination will leave you frustrated as you backtrack a hundred kilometers to avoid the unanticipated highway you aren’t permitted on. It’s also important that your route is commensurate with your housing and food/water plans: if you plan to sleep only in hostels, you should target major cities; if you are unwilling to carry 5-10 liters of water, you will need to avoid deserts.
The equipment you carry is a function of both the trip duration and the route you plan to set out on. Long trips through sparsely populated areas require additional thought, but there are a couple of essentials items you’ll want for any trip longer than a couple of days. A good set of waterproof panniers is the first step, assuming you already have a bike to put them on, although I’ve seen at least one brave soul who carried all his gear in a 50-liter hiking backpack.
At least two spare tubes for your wheels are essential, as is a basic patch kit for extending their life. These will do nothing for you on the road without a pump for inflating them. A good multitool, with the appropriate allen (hex) keys, spanners, spoke wrench, and chain break will be your best friend. Spare spokes can keep a bad day from becoming a tour-ending day. A set of extra cablings for your brakes and shifters are a must. An extra brake pad or two is a great idea.
As important as bringing the right tools and equipment is knowing how to use them. Prior to departure (start now!) learn to fix your own bike. Stop taking it to the bike shop to be repaired; fix your own flats, true your own wheels, tune your own shifters, repair your own chain. There are plenty of resources for this online, but Sheldon Brown’s website is the most comprehensive by far.
Sustenance (Food & Water)
Food and water are the fuel in your engine on this trip. The most important thing is to plan on consuming significantly more of each than a normal day. Depending on your body and pace, plan on burning 500-1500 kilocalories per hour of riding, plus your base metabolic rate. For an eight-hour day, that means consuming up to 12000 kilocalories. How much food you carry between supermarket resupplies will depend on your route and your capacity, but understand your needs and plan accordingly. Stick to calorie-dense foods and ensure you are getting a good balance of carbohydrates, lipids, and protein. Several days of undereating will not only leave you worn out and slow you down but could land you in the hospital.
Plan on consuming at least 3-5 liters of water per day. Again, how much you carry will depend on your route and your capacity. Publicly available water is common in many European cities, and most reasonable people will fill up a water bottle if you stop at their home or business. Another important aspect is salt; you will be sweating a good deal, depleting your salt supplies. Ensure you are replenishing them appropriately.
How you shelter yourself on a bike tour is probably the area where you have the most flexibility. If you’ve got the funds, you can always trade them for a roof over your head. However, in case you’re on a budget and you don’t mind the weight, a sleeping bag, tent, and sleeping pad can give you shelter nearly anywhere, while a bar of soap and some baking soda powder can satisfy most hygiene needs. If you’re daring and are unwilling to carry the weight of a tent and the amenities, you can always sleep rough, although this is not encouraged.
There are various services online that connect users offering free or reduced-price housing to travelers seeking shelter. In my opinion, WarmShowers is by far the best. Catering specifically to touring cyclists, WarmShowers connects sympathetic hosts to tired cyclists in most countries on this planet. This can allow you to recharge both your legs and your phone, sleep inside four solid walls, and importantly, take a warm shower.
Maybe the most important piece of advice is to be optimistic, hopeful, and resourceful. It cannot rain forever; the uphill climb eventually gives way to an effortless descent. Take it one pedal stroke at a time, enjoy the new perspective, and don’t be afraid to talk to people and ask for help. Remember, your tour is more about the journey than the destination, so enjoy it while it lasts.
Photo credit: Rob Koch