Starting Bike Touring (without needing to know if you like it)

Earlier this year I bought a bike off my friend Jason and started Bike Commuting. I really took to it, and I’ll probably write a guide on getting started on this in future. However, the more research I did, the more and more the topic of Bike Touring came up.

To quote Wikipedia:

Bicycle touring generally means self-contained cycling trips over long distances, which prioritize pleasure, adventure and autonomy rather than sport, commuting or exercise. Touring can range from single day rides to multi-day trips, or even years at a time. Tours may be planned and organised by the participant/s for themselves or organised for a group by a professional holiday business, a club, or a charity as a fund-raising venture.

In other words, bike a long distance wherever you wish, carrying whatever you need for yourself and your bike. People do this for a weekend (like the guide I’m about to write), for a week or two as holiday or perhaps even as a gap year travel or multi-year tour. Biking across counties, states/provinces, countries and continents are all within reach.

Here are just a few people who are doing or have done huge, long distance tours:

  • Geoff Winslow – Biking across the USA as I write this
  • Stephen Cunningham and James Finnerty – Biking from Dublin and London respectively to Beijing!
  • Seth McBride & Kelly Schwan – Just completed their trip from Portland, Oregon to Patagonia, Argentina, and Seth becoming the first person with quadriplegia to complete a Panamerican cycle tour.
  • Tom Allen, who is always sharing his knowledge on how to tour and even how to tour for nothing!
  • Mark Beaumont has set multiple records on his bike touring, and has 2 great BBC Documentaries that are fascinating viewing.

Granted, all of those folks are doing multiple months out out on the road, I’m going to target something more modest, just the two to three day tour that you can do in a weekend for not too much investment.

Assumptions

Although I’ll guide you a bit on some of the more basic items, I’m going to assume that you know how to ride a bike and have ridden on a variety of roads and trails before. This isn’t a complete beginners guide (if you still have training wheels, come back when you’re happily pedaling).

I’m going to assume you either have a bike (most likely), are willing to buy one cheaply or can borrow one.

I’ll also assume you know how to hike and camp by yourself and have the gear available, but this is not a barrier for entry as you will see. You can stay at a hotel, motel, hostel or friend/relative and skip this part.

I’m also going to assume you will start cheaply and upgrade your kit as you like it. There is not too much investment if you buy used and borrow where you can.

Finally, I’ll assume you’ll read around a bit. All of the folks linked above, and many like them, happily share their touring knowledge online. Feel free to use multiple sources as there is no one right way to tour. I’m doing my best to keep to the generic advice that should work for everyone, but it’s still an opinion piece.

Finding a Bike

Let’s just pretend for a second we have a completely free choice. What bike you go on will depend on:

  • What you have available? Do you have a bike that fits you reasonably well and can handle most roads and paved routes with hills comfortably? You are more than likely set and need look no further. Could you commute to work on it? If yes, it should work.
  • What will be your route? Most likely you will start out on a road based bike route with paved roads. For this, a road or hybrid bike is best, but a mountain bike (ideally locking front suspension and a hardtail rear) will do. You could even use a comfort bike if you like it.
    Some of you might want to do loose gravel paths or more backcountry routes, in this case, you’ll likely be looking at a mountain bike but do more research here.
  • What kind of touring? I’ll explain the differences in a minute and this will become clear.
  • What can your bike and you carry? If you don’t plan on camping and will stay near towns, you don’t need much more than a water bottle, energy bar and credit card. However, if you want to stay in tents and self support for a few days, or just want to carry extra stuff, then you will do the more common route, by using a bike rack, panniers (bike bags) and taking your belongings with you. A backpack is a controversial, but possible choice, although many bike tourers will say for long trips they increase tiredness much more than panniers.

For our purposes, our route will be paved roads and well kept trails, we will stay near towns but will camp and we will do self-supported camping (e.g. if we will assume we have to carry what we need).

Now, let’s get back into our guide on doing this cheaply:

  • If you already have a reasonable road-going bicycle – this is very likely suitable for these purposes. I use my daily commuter hybrid bike (details below), but you could use any bike that can reasonably go on the road. Perhaps the few exceptions are full suspension, heavy, downhill bikes.
  • Ask your family and friends (ideally who are similar height, leg length and weight to you) if you can borrow one or buy their unused one at a good discount – again, a suitable road-going bike which can take a rack is what you want
  • All that failed, head to your local Craiglist, Kijiji or Gumtree - best you find a friend who knows about bikes to help you here. You can pick up used touring bikes, hybrid bikes or road bikes fairly inexpensively.
  • Or find your Local Bike Shop, Used Bike Dealer and/or Bike Co-op – might be a bit more costly but usually have been well maintained.

In my case, the bike will be a 2010 Marin Muirwoods 29er, my daily commuter bike. This bike has rack mounting points (threaded holes known as brazons) and I commute to work every day on it. It has a flat bar (aka, a straight bar, just a simple set of typical handlebars) which is not necessarily ideal for long distance touring as your hands might get tired. Many people use use touring/trekking bars or drop barsyou can see both here in this article by Tom Deakins on Sheldon Brown’s site, for more hand positions. Having said that, for a weekend tour, these are just fine.

My bike before I added the rack and panniers

My bike before I added the rack and panniers

I’ll go on with how I equip it later.

What kind of touring?

There are several major groups but you will find that any one tour has some elements of a few of these in it.

Credit Card Touring

This is essentially carrying the very minimum you can. You buy whatever you need, food, drinks and most importantly, accommodation. You need emergency items (first aid kit, flat tire repair etc) and perhaps a change of clothes but you more or less get on your bike and go. Buy meals on the way, but don’t carry more than an energy bar. Generally, you travel as light as possible on these. No tent or camping on this one generally, you stay in motels, hotels or hostels.

Supported Touring

This sits in the middle of the selections as essentially a car follows your route and carries everything you might need. The Tour de France is (in a way) supported touring. Flat tire? Call in the car. Feel hungry? Car hands you a snack. You could even have your lunch in it Need more water? Car gives you a new bottle. You can camp using this method, as the tent can be in the car and can be as large as you like.

Self-sufficient Touring

Here you are prepared to spend a few nights outside if you have to. No support car and no limiting yourself to stopping where you can buy things. You carry your tent (or bivy sack, or covered hammock) and sleeping bag on your bike, you bring changes of clothes, food and a way to cook it, water and a way to purify it, your first aid and bike repair kits and anything else you need to both camp and bike on your bike.

For this option, you really do need a bike rack and panniers. This might be on the rear wheel of your bike but you can add them to the front too. More on this in the equipment section.

Self-sufficient touring doesn’t necessarily have to mean you carry all your food and supplies all the way. Especially on longer trips, you stop at the last town you see, buy your food (and beer) for that evening/morning and then head to your camp site. You can even have dinner a little early and just take snacks. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we just described it in Credit Card Touring, and this is what I mean about all the elements being mixed together in places.

This is the most common form of touring from what I can tell, and the one I’m going to focus on.

Bikepacking

This assumes you are going to go all the way off into the wilderness. In this case, you need to apply all your hiking and camping knowledge and your bike knowledge. The last section about being able to buy things does not apply. This area is a bit beyond my expertise (and I use that term very loosely anyway).

Choosing your route

This guide we’ll assume self-sufficient touring, camping with the ability to stop at shops and buy things along the way.

For your first time, you are best choosing a road route with the following characteristics:

  • Bikeable roads – Most roads can be used by cyclists, but ideally look for separated bike lanes, wide shoulders where bikes are allowed or quieter side roads to take. Believe it or not, many highways do allow bikes (check local laws and regulations), but you might prefer to take a smaller road along the coast or at least have alternatives.
  • Any kind of trip you like - nothing says you have to do a simple there-and-back route on your tour. You can do a loop, you can have your spouse pick you up at the end, you can just go one way and bus or train back.
  • Not too much distance between towns or gas/petrol stations –  Ideally you want opportunities to stop and get some food and water if you feel you need to. Also, you will probably want to stop for a cooked meal or two even if you’re carrying your food. If credit card touring, if anything this is more important.
  • Multiple campsite/sleeping options – Provincial/State Parks are ideal for this. You want multiple options as one might be full so you need to move to another, furthermore, you might surprise yourself how far you go in a day, so if you want to ride on to the next one, you want to know where that is. Some campgrounds offer designated spaces for cyclists, so if you can find those in advance, you have a better chance of getting them even if the regular spaces are full. If credit card touring - pick a few towns with multiple hotels/motels in them and find a few you’d try first.
  • Bike Discounts available - In some cases, a ferry trip with a bike might be free or just the cost of a passenger and a small bike charge. I did a route that had a ferry and saved about $60 on the fare since I was on a bike.
  • Phone coverage – You might feel reassured to know you can call for help, at least the first time.
  • An abort option – I chose an area which had buses to take me all the way home if I absolutely had to.
  • How to get to the start line – It’s perfectly valid to drive your car to the start line, bike for a few days, then drive home. Alternatively, you can very easily take public transport to get you out of the city or over a body of water, then bike from there. Of course, you can start from home too.
  • Optional route to friends/relatives – your first tour could be from your house to a friend/relative’s house, then back (or they drive you or something). If you have a friend who is a few towns away and you feel like you want to take the scenic way, all the better.

I was hunting around the Vancouver, BC area for my first tour and decided that the Sunshine Coast looked perfect for this. Towns were reasonably close and there were lots of small villages, there was a bus service to get me back if I needed it, it was popular with cyclists of all kinds, plenty of campsites and I had been several times before.

To help you find your first route, try a few of the following:

Equipping your bike and yourself

Again, assuming self-sufficient touring with the ability to stop at shops and buy things along the way and you’re going to camp.

Rack(s)

You will need to decide how much you are taking and how many panniers you will be using. With that in mind, head to your Local Bike Shop and find yourself a rack or two that suits your needs. Your bike hopefully has brazons (mounting points) for racks but if it doesn’t, there are seat post mounted rear racks.

Your local bike shop can find a suitable one for your bike. I had to get a wider one due to disc brakes for example, so I ended up with a PlanetBike Versarack Disc rear rack from MEC for about $25. Depending on how much you’re taking, you might also want to look at a front rack.

Alternatively, if you know someone who has a spare rack you can try it by all means. Read the instructions from the manufacturer (check online if lost).

Panniers and Bags

Many tourers go with panniers (otherwise known as bike bags). The most popular as far as I can tell are the Ortlieb Backroller Classic, but that’s $180 for a pair. I do see quite a few people with Axiom panniers as well and the prices are in the same range. I’m not suggesting you get these for your first time, $180 is a bit too much of an investment, but I am saying have them in mind for later and know what a widely well regarded “good” pannier is.

The excellent, if expensive, Ortlieb Backroller Classic Panniers

The excellent, if expensive, Ortlieb Backroller Classic Panniers

Remember, most panniers will work on most racks, and you don’t require brand new panniers for a weekend trip to get a feel for bike touring. So go on your local Craigslist or ask relatives if they have any you could buy cheaply or borrow. You can even make your own out of square buckets (kitty litter buckets).

I personally found my set in my girlfriend’s mum’s garage and she said I could have them. They are older Axiom ones, simple nylon with reflective tape on the rear and hard backs. A big of cleaning later they were perfect for a tour. I even had a (mismatched) set of four of them so I started trying to talk Jason into coming.

For the top of your rack, you should think of adding is a dry bag, similar to the ones kaykers use, to contain your sleeping bag, tent and jacket (I suppose the tent could go on the outside if it had to). This is optional and could even be a thick plastic bag. I was going in summer so skipped this.

Mount your panniers on the side of your bike rack (find out how that little hook at the bottom works) and strap your drybag to the top with bungie cords.

Finally, think about a handlebar bag or other small, quickly accessible, bag for your phone, keys and wallet.

Oh there’s one more thing to mention just as an aside, that’s bike trailers. You can get existing ones, reuse a kiddy trailer or perhaps build your own. A couple who I met built the trailer in the foreground (with solar power) and used a kiddy trailer as a dog transporter, in the background:

Absolutely awesome home built bike trailer

Absolutely awesome home built bike trailer

Sleeping & Camping Gear List

Here is a gear list but not everything is required and these are ideas rather than specific needs. Use what you have first. I had all of this from bike commuting, hiking and camping:

  • A lightweight tent – Ideally split this between you if two people are going. Make sure it’s attached to the bike well. I’m using a REI Quarter Dome T2 Plus but if it’s not too heavy then it will do (just leave your car camping tent at home).
  • Sleeping bag – Also lightweight and compressible. I’m using a Kelty Cosmic Down 4o and love it.
  • Sleeping pad - by all means take your inflatable sleeping mat but I don’t think they are mandatory.
  • Headlamp or Torch – Again, anything and you can reuse a bike light if you like. See my advice below.
  • Cooking Stove and Cookware – If you intend to cook then think about this of course. A hiking and camping stove is a fine choice here. On my first trip, I didn’t bother bringing it and just took more cold snacks and bought hot meals. People talk about the cheapest stove you can make being home made from a can of cat food.
  • Warm Compressible Jacket/Hoodie (waterproof if needsbe) – You will spend your days sweating, but not your evenings. As soon as you get off the bike, put this on. Ideally take something that compresses down, but you can use any warm outwear. Waterproof jacket if necessary for the weather.
  • Fresh Clothes – Cyclists will happily tell you that they can form salt crystals from sweat on their gear. I think a change of clothes is called for! Use gym clothes if you need extra wicking stuff.

Bike & Non-Camping Gear List

I decided to make this it’s own list just in case you are not camping

  • HELMET – Properly fitted and in good condition. Don’t cheap out here.
  • Bike Gloves – To stop blisters on your hands, alternatively any gloves you like, and some people don’t use any.
  • Water Bottles – This doesn’t necessarily have to be all cycling bottles, but you should have some extra water with you as this is a long ride. I took one Camelbak Bike Bottle and two 1L Nalgene bottles, but you could use a few disposable plastic bottles. You could also use a hydration backpack if you liked.
  • Snacks - Grab some energy bars like Larabars
  • First Aid Kita light one to patch you up after a fall or injury. You can even assemble a resealable bag full of essentials if you don’t want to buy.
  • Warm Compressible Jacket/Hoodie - See above, you’ll get cold too. Waterproof if necessary.
  • Fresh Clothes – You don’t want to do laundry every night. Optional if credit card touring but recommended.
  • U-Lock and the keys – I took a Kryptonite Series 2 U-Lock with a cable for this, a recommendation from this awesome Wirecutter review. Don’t leave without your keys. This is one area I do not suggest cheaping out on.
  • Front & Rear Bike Lights – Here I used a MEC Quattro Front Light and PlanetBike Superflash USB Rear Light. There are cheaper options (MEC and REI both have plenty) available if you want but I think the Quattro is a great occasional front light and the Superflash is a great light for daytime attention drawing use. Both are USB rechargeable so you can use your phone charger/laptop to restore them.
  • Sunglasses – Ones that keep the wind out of your eyes. Again, any kind can do this, but the “sporty” kind work best
  • Suncream, Bug Spray – Depending on the area and weather of course
  • Deodorant, Toothbrush and Toothpaste, Lightweight Towel - Very basic toiletries is the point. By lightweight towel, I mean something like this microfibre one.
  • Clothes for the weather – by that I mean a rain jacket if it’s a possibility, a wicking shirt or cycling jersey, shorts, suitable coveralls if needed.
  • Phone, Camera, Headphones, Charger and optionally, External Battery for phone – Your phone is a valuable tool for this sort of thing, great for calling help and having a quick look at a map.You can use Strava to record your route and your stats, but be aware of your battery life (that external battery will help). If you want to take a separate camera, by all means do, but I found myself forgetting to use it.
  • Bike Repair Kit – Spare Tubes, Pump, Puncture Repair Kit, Multitool, Lube and knowledge of how to use them (watch a few YouTube videos). Note that a kit of these items can be less than $20.
  • Some sort of map – be it a well charged phone, a road map or a cycling map from the local authorities. I mention the last one as you can usually get a local area bike map for free.
  • Wallet – money!
  • If you’re crossing a border, passport/travel documents - It’s absolutely plausible to go from Canada to the US, or from the UK to France on a trip like this.

Like I say, those are ideas and by no means an exhaustive nor restrictive list If you’re going from town to town, you can travel lighter and resolve to buy anything you later feel you need. If you won’t see civilization for a few days, take more than you need. It almost goes without saying, adjust the above for your circumstances.

When you pack everything, make sure the bike is equally weighted on both sides.

The packed bike!

The packed bike!

Going on Tour

Pick a few end points and set a conservative, middle and stretch goal for the day. My first day (actually an evening after work) I thought I might be able to do about 20km (two times my normal commute). It turns out I did about 36km and made it all the way from the Langdale Ferry to Sechelt, then on to Porpoise Bay Campground. It really doesn’t hurt to say to yourself “well if I feel like it, I’ll go on to X”.

Food wise, many bike tourers will say that you can grab fast food as your burning the calories. I did treat myself to A&W but also went to Carrot & Bean Cafe for breakfast and felt great. You are burning more calories than you realize. Mark Beaumont, who I mentioned above, had to eat 6000 calories a day when on tour!

Lock your bike up at night and keep warm. I had very little difficulty falling asleep that first evening. Be sure to drink water before you sleep since dehydration takes time to fix in the morning.

The campsite and the bike

The campsite and the bike

Eventually you will get an idea of how far you can go without a break and in an hour. I found myself hitting my overall tour goal in about half the expected time. My second day I planned to go to the far end of the Sunshine Coast.

I planned to do all of the Western end of the Sunshine Coast

I planned to do all of the Western end of the Sunshine Coast

I was in Maderia Park at 1pm, already having done 45km, and decided to bike all the way back to the Langdale Ferry by 7pm! I made it! It was my first metric century (100km in a day).

This story I think sums up why flexible plans are better for bike tours. Part of the fun of them is finding “well this took less time than we thought, so let’s go here as well” and “that was a lot of hills, let’s stop in this town to cool off for a bit”. Honestly, just have a few dots on the map that you might like to see and find your way to them.

Eventually you will see this sight and go "yeah that will take about 4-5 hours, no big deal"

Eventually you will see this sight and go “yeah that will take about 4-5 hours, no big deal”

There is no shame in stopping for a break. If you need to take some time out of the saddle, pull over and have some. You’re not racing and no one is keeping count of the number of times you stop.

Also, get talking to people. Lots of folks will be curious to see what you’re up to with that fully laden bike.

That’s pretty much it. Don’t over think your day. Doesn’t have to be all laid out. Just get on your bike and pedal towards the next place.

Don’t forget to stop in at a few craft breweries on the way. I stopped at the excellent Persephone Brewing before heading to the Ferry.

Check your ferry times before drinking, I didn't and rushed my pint unnecessarily.

Check your ferry times before drinking, I didn’t and rushed my pint unnecessarily.

What after this?

You’ve now got some gear you can start upgrading and hopefully an idea of what you need, want and don’t want on a given day. This is where I have found myself when I write this guide. I plan on:

  • Looking at dedicated touring bikes like the Surley Long Haul Trucker
  • Getting those Ortlieb panniers I mentioned
  • Finding a rack that can take more than 25kg. Axiom have a couple of racks that can do 50kg.
  • Getting a front rack.
  • Looking at one person tents for even lighter touring
  • Seeing if I can do a trip down to California (from Vancouver, BC) on the bike during a work break or extended leave.
  • If I really get into it, check out the the Warmshowers community, that kindly provide free accommodation for touring cyclists.
  • Master the dark art of stealth camping
  • Blog about it of course.

Long Range Bike Touring is popular as it combines the culture and people of travelling/backpacking with the distance covered and achievement that cycling can provide. I wish I had found it sooner.

Acknowledgements and Thanks

  • Everyone linked above – especially the bloggers who are an inspiration on this subject
  • BikeHobo.com and their list of touring links
  • Crazyguyonabike.com for more touring stories
  • CyclotouringBC for guidance on my first trip
  • The many, many forum posts I’ve read on the subject. Online discussions were a big source of knowledge.
  • All of my hiking and camping friends who turned it into a skill you can use every day.

Keith’s Hut

We did this trip in February 2014 but, for very good reasons I don’t want to discuss, had to delay posting this until now.

A few years ago, we heli’ed up to Keith’s Hut only to find that it was full, and that the heli was unwelcome. We decided to repeat the trip, this time on snowshoes for me and up the traditional winter route.

As I’ve been doing recently, here are the resources:

We set out early from the parking (just off the highway, probably space for 15-20 cars) and the forest section at the start was narrow and tricky. The elevation was gradual but present, and continued as we started to open up into the meadows. Eventually we were deep in the valley before it opens up into a very large bowl. You go to your right (the Eastern side) and make your way up through another wood then loop round into the hut.

Sounds easy? It’s not that easy when you can see, hear and know of all the avalanche risks. We went up on a moderate risk day but it soon became clear that slopes were slipping due to heavy wet snow. We took a conservative, planned approach and were all in possession of avalanche safety gear (all but one person had AST1 and that person was drilled on what to do). Unfortunately it looks like I’ve lost it now, but the other skiers and I were mapping out the avalanches on Backcountry Navigator. I won’t soon forget hearing those rumbles down the mountain.

Anyway, we pitched up at the cozy hut with solar powered lights, an out house and a wood stove. The upstairs is ladder accessed but I chose to stay downstairs for the night, reading a book on my phone (yes this is perfectly possible to do).

The next morning we headed down. The avalanche conditions were much worse. Woomphfing sounds under our feet were making it clear that (what I believe) was an early evening weak frozen surface layer covered in heavy wet snow. This promptly collapsed under us and we had many, many sink-ins that we needed our shovels to get out of.

Pleased to see the cars again!