Planning a Bicycle Touring Trip
The question was asked:
I am planning my first touring trips and was wondering if anyone
could suggest good books to read or web pages to check out for info. on
touring. . . Like where to get your maps, where youth hostels are, what
tools to bring, what things to consider when riding long-distance?
is more difficult to answer than you think. The problem is that I know
almost nothing about you.
In any event, you
are going to have to make most of the decisions yourself, and understanding
your own characteristics is going to determine most of the answers.
Cycle Touring Books
Almost every library
has books on touring and backpacking (backpacking books give more details
about camping out than touring books do), but you have to be cautious.
Some of the people who write these books have little experience, and many
others believe you must do everything their way. Many of the books are
just designed to sell products and provide no useful information. Your
own common sense (if you have a good head) is more valuable than the opinion
of a thousand experts who do not know you. However, the better books will
help you recognize problems that you hadn't considered. I will recommend
just two, although there are many books that I haven't read: The Bicycle
Touring Manual by Rob Van der Plas, and Bike Touring: The Sierra
Club Guide to Outings on Wheels by Raymond Bridge. My recommendation
of these books does not mean that I agree with every statement in them,
just that I think they both are thoughtful and thorough discussions by
people with real experience.
What Do You Want?
to ask yourself are: how far are you comfortable riding each day? What
kind of bike do you ride, and how fast do you go? Would you be happier
on some meandering country road, or would you prefer a more direct route
with heavier traffic? Do you enjoy camping, or would you be happier in
a motel or B&B? Do you enjoy cooking meals for yourself, or would you
be happier buying food on the road? Do you like to do things by yourself,
or would you be happier with a group?
These issues are
linked together. Traveling with a group is going to mean conforming to
their standards -- and paying their costs. Traveling by mountain bike over
rugged back roads or trails is going to require camping. Traveling by racing
bike with just the bare minimum is going to require staying in motels which
means traveling on more trafficked roads and with a tighter schedule to
keep. Those in the middle, as I am with my full touring load and middle
weight tires (32-35mm), can both camp and motel hop according
to local conditions. But you would not want to use heavy weight tires for
a long road trip or light weight tires for off-road. Nor do you want to
use light weight tires with a full touring load.
The decision about
how far to travel each day must be learned from experience. I would guestimate
that it is about twice the distance of your typical day trip. Three times
the distance is doable but difficult, at least in the beginning. However,
a touring day is as different from a weekend ride as daylight is from dark.
On a trip, you build up (get stronger) as you progress. So, if your trip
lasts more than three weeks, you'll be much stronger at the end than when
you started unless you were very strong to begin with. In addition, you
begin each day on a trip tired from the day before. I find that on short
tours I average 14-15 miles an hour. On longer tours, my average speed
drops to 11-12 mph for several weeks because of accumulated fatigue. When
I get back up to 14-15 mph, I am super strong. It is best to underestimate
the distance you should travel early in the trip. For instance, if you
plan to ride 30 miles when you are fit enough to ride 60, you won't feel
discouraged; you'll just wish you had gone further. However, if you plan
to ride 60 miles but can only make 30, you're likely to quit from disappointment.
I began one trip in such poor shape that I kept my average distance to
30 miles for the first week. I had a great time because I did not attempt
How Much Gear?
From my first trip
in 1965, I have carried full gear because I planned to camp in the woods.
Nowadays, I see people with heavy loads who are "camping" KOA-style or
who are staying in motels. I'm not going to attack their choice of resting
place -- they might lack the experience to camp in the woods -- but does
their gear match their trip? At the other extreme, I see bike travelers
who lack the basic necessities and are suffering as a result. People will
begin a 5,000 mile trip with no rain gear!
Camping Experience More Important than Equipment
If you do intend
to camp, you should get some experience before you begin your trip. Short
weekend trips can teach you a lot. Basic camping gear is a tent, sleeping
pad, sleeping bag, stove, fuel bottle, one large pot, can opener, matches,
and knife, fork, spoon. More important than any gear is experience; where
you pitch your tent matters more than who made it or what style it is,
for instance. With the best gear and no experience -- you're going to be
miserable. If you are interested in only light camping, you might as well
carry the lightest sleeping bag and smallest tent that you can. You might
forgo the cooking gear and purchase food to eat. Do at least carry a knife,
fork, and spoon set and small can opener because these tools allow you
to eat out of a grocery store. If you are interested in camping back in
the woods, check my camping web page for more information.
If you don't want
to sleep in a tent yet need an inexpensive place to stay, American
Youth Hostels has places to stay that are scattered across the country
(but mainly in the North). At one of their hostels, you don't get a private
room or bath but get a bunk in a room with others of the same sex. Cooking
and laundry facilities are typical. Generally the hostels are located in
interesting places to visit. The only equipment required is a sleeping
The very minimum
that you should carry is clean cycling clothes (I carry three sets of outer
clothes and six sets of socks and underclothes, including what I wear),
a good rain suit (any time of the year), at least two water bottles which are filled
at every stop (I carry three), scissors, needle and thread, small flashlight, and
repair kits for tires and bike. Women like to carry too many cosmetics
and men too few. Be sure to carry a small bottle of lotion, sunscreen,
and a chap stick. A bandana will protect your face and ears from the sun
and will also help motorists see you.
What Tools Should be Carried?
You asked about
tools. One question to ask is what tools can you use? It makes no sense
to carry a truing tool, for instance, if you can't true a wheel. The second
question is what tools does your bike require? While you can't carry every
kind of tool, it's very helpful to be able to tighten anything that comes
loose. Spare screws are important too! A minimum tool kit would be a Philips
and a flathead screwdriver, a crescent wrench, Allen wrenches, and tire
irons. The stores are now selling a handy mini-kit. Again, it's the wrong
time to learn to patch a tire after you are on the trip.
Food Along the Way
Traveling by bike
gives you great eating freedom. If you want to cook, you can buy fresh
food every evening and have a feast. If you don't want to cook, you can
get your meals on the road. Don't be afraid to go in a restaurant, the
people will respect you, but do avoid greasy foods. A good diet is high on
fruits, vegetables, and grains and low on meats and fats. You'll have to plan
food into your day. Otherwise, you'll get hungry when you're miles from
any place to eat. Stop at the supermarket or fruit stand before you get out
of town. Remember too that if you travel country roads rather
than busy routes that you've also made a decision about the kind of foods
you will eat. Small country stores offer few choices. Always carry some
snack junk. Candy is fine. If you like peanuts, find ones that aren't so
salty -- you might be thirsty too!
Your question about
maps has several answers. I just use road maps and plan my trip as I go,
avoiding main roads connecting large cities and using secondary roads that
connect small towns. You have to be aware of features that don't show up
on these maps, such as mountains. USGS maps can give you information
about terrain, whether wooded or cleared and how mountainous -- the 1:250,000
scale is best for cycling -- but, even when I carry one, I find I don't
consult it a great deal. If you like camping on your own, you might get
maps of national forests along your route; otherwise, when you reach the
forest, all you'll see are "NO TRESPASSING" signs. Unfortunately, you have
to write to each forest individually.
Cross-Country Bike Routes
of maps is Adventure Cycling. This
organization, formerly Bikecentennial, has routes going north-south on
both coasts and along the Mississippi and Rockies, plus three routes all
the way across the USA. I have followed the central route (with some gaps)
from Virginia to Colorado and along parts of the East Coast route. After
a point, I just followed the maps out of curiosity because I could find
better routes without much effort. Many of them are old American Youth
Hostel routes that were linked together. They tend to lead you up and down
hill through wandering country roads and are not the most direct way or
always the safest way. In the East where intersections are frequent, you
have to watch your map very closely, or you'll miss a turn and get lost.
This involves a lot of stopping and checking. However, those who have never
traveled before can feel reassured by the extra guidance that these maps
provide. Especially helpful is the information about stores, camping sites,
local police, and other regional information.
If you want some
help in planning a route, you can use some mapping software. I have the
DeLorme Map'n'Go and Street Atlas USA
(the first can print maps and routes; the second includes all roads).
While designed for cars, you can force this software to make cycling maps
by specifying bicycling speeds (I tell the software I can only average
one mph on interstates). Maps, including strip maps, can be printed before
the trip. The same company also sells very detailed state atlases with
topographical information. State atlases are excellent for exploring back
roads in one state but are too bulky for a long trip through many states. DeLorme is now selling topographic maps for the entire US on six CD-ROM's, for the rare person who carries a laptop on the trip.
Help from Cyclists
Human help is also
a good idea. The International Bicycle Touring Mailing List allows you
to exchange e-mail with experienced
travelers about your exact routes. The Warm Showers List allows you to
exchange overnight stopping places with other touring cyclists.
Use Trial in Preparation
a long trip, I would suggest that you make some smaller ones first. This
helps in several ways: 1) You get to test your panniers, load arrangement,
and weight. 2) You get some training towards your trip. 3) If you are camping,
you get to test your camping gear. 4) And you get an opportunity to see
if you forgot anything necessary. It's particularly important to test all
camping equipment; sleep in the backyard if you have to. In fact, I would
suggest one night in the backyard before any camping trip.
Build up Physically
You should ride
regularly before you begin. While you could get into shape on the trip,
you probably wouldn't like it. I was able to do so one time because I knew
what I was doing. The better condition you are in when you begin, the better
prepared you will be for rough times and unexpected weather/events. Generally,
you should build up to the distance that you want to cover every day. However,
these longer rides with probably be possible only on the weekends due to
time spent on preparations. However, try to ride at least ten miles nearly
every day and twenty or thirty whenever possible.
Get the Bike Overhauled
The bike also needs
some final preparation. I always plan a complete overhaul and regreasing
before the beginning of a trip. Be sure to get this done a week or more before the
trip begins, or you may discover some work was not done correctly after you start.
Learn to Watch Yourself
Be sure to monitor
yourself closely while you are on your ride. The advice from Velocio is
the best I have ever heard: rest before you're tired, eat before you're
hungry, etc. Your most important task will be taking care of yourself and
making sure you are happy. It's very easy for the cyclist to concentrate
on the task and to ignore a bad sunburn, aching back, cracked foot, or
other minor problem that can quickly become serious. Take care of all the
little problems, and you won't have any big problems.
is the question of changing plans while on the trip. In the beginning,
you are likely to expect to accomplish too much and then to want to give
up as a result. Especially hard are the first three days. You want to avoid
the extreme of giving up too easily. However, many times it's wise to change
your goals. If what you are doing isn't working, maybe something a little
different would be better. On my trip out West, I planned to go as far
as Missoula before turning back. However, I found myself daydreaming about
camping in the woods while I was crossing the Great Plains. When I saw
the forests of Colorado, I immediately decided that touring Colorado would
be a better idea. I had a wonderful time and a much better trip as a result.
Most dangerous is the desire to quit due to boredom. Give yourself a rest
break, do something quite different, get yourself out of the rut, but don't
give up. One cyclist wrote me about his trip across the US (these are not
his exact words): "I was getting bored, so I caught a bus and had a miserable
ride home; then, when I arrived home, I had nothing to do with myself but
to feel sorry that I had given up early."
Good luck on your
trip. Just remember, after that first big hill, it's downhill all the rest
of the way.