[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: Planning a Bicycle Touring Trip
Learning about yourself is much more important to preparation than shedding dollars. Your bike, route, gear, sleeping arrangements, and daily distances should be determined by your preferences and abilities, after careful thought.
Questions Why is giving bicycle travel advice to strangers difficult? What do you need to understand the most in order to go bike touring? What are some good bicycle touring books? What are some questions you need to ask yourself about touring by bicycle? How far should you bicycle in a day? How much camping equipment should you carry? What basic camping gear is the most necessary? How can you find a hostel? What clothing and personal gear should you carry on a bicycle trip? What are the minimum bike tools for a cycling trip? What problems exist in buying food while bicycling? Where can topo maps be obtained? Where can one camp in a national forest? Who has cross-country bike routes? How can mapping software be used? How can you contact other cyclists and bicycle travelers for advice or places to spend the night? What other kinds of preparation are necessary for your touring trip? How should you practice bicycle camping? How much bicycling should you do in preparation? How should you prepare your bike? How should you take care of yourself on the trip? How can you keep yourself going after your bike trip gets blue?


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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?

Your question 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?

Important questions 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.

Daily Distance

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 too much.

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 sack.

Minimum Gear

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

Another source 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

Before beginning 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.

Be Flexible

Finally, there 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.


Ways of Being Tired  This article looks at the different kinds of touring fatigue you're likely to experience on a trip.

How to Camp Anywhere  The vexing problem of finding a camping site in a hostile world is resolved in a simple and effective fashion.


American Youth Hostels Inexpensive places to spend the night while on a cycling tour.

The United States Geological Survey  Source of topographic maps and other map information.

The National Forest Service  Your search for information about the forests and about obtaining maps starts here.

Adventure Cycling  This organization offers group touring trips, maps along selected routes across the US, and the Yellow Pages, a guide to travel information.

DeLorme  This company offers CD-ROM maps of the US plus separate paper atlases of the states which include all roads and topographic information.

The International Bicycle Touring Mailing List  Discuss touring plans and gear with experienced cyclists. Receive e-mail messages one at a time or get a once-a-day digest.

the Warm Showers List  By joining, you agree to let cyclists stay at your home, but you get to stay at their home.

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