Bike Touring 101

by Adventure Cycling Staff

Many people become smitten with the idea of traveling by bicycle but don’t how to get started. Experienced riders know the simplicity of bike travel is one of its great joys, but to the curious newcomer this new world of possibility can appear bewildering. Below, we answer some of the common questions that beginning bicycle travelers often ask, and provide some tips to demystify cycling.

Who travels by bike?

Traveling by bike appeals to a broad spectrum of people and there are many ways to do it. It can be done individually, with friends, or with a commercial tour operator. People of all ages, backgrounds, and regions of the world choose the bicycle as their favorite means of travel. Adults in their seventies and children in their teens (and younger!) have ridden all the way across America. Bicycle travel is attractive for many reasons: it’s an exciting challenge that allows us to explore new landscapes and cultures, build physical fitness, and experience the joy of breathing fresh air and meeting new people every day.

Am I in good enough shape?

The good news is that you don't need to be a super-athlete to enjoy cycling. However, you’ll want to spend some time training on a bike before your trip. The best thing to do is to be realistic about what you can do and create achievable goals. Then, work your strength up to riding the same daily distances you plant to cover while carrying the same gear you plan to travel with. You’re physically ready if you can do back-to-back day rides that are as long or longer than you are planning for your tour, and feel like you could ride again on the third day. One of the pleasures of bike travel is that you’ll be riding into progressively better and better shape as you go. For more tips on physical preparation see “Getting in Shape for Touring.”

How far can I ride in a day?

This varies depending on your overall fitness, your personal goals, the style of touring you choose, and the terrain. Here are some tips to plan by. With a bit of bicycle-specific training, an average physically fit adult carrying less than 20 pounds of additional gear on their bike can expect to travel at an average pace of 65 miles per day on paved roads and still have time to stop and smell plenty of roses. With a load of gear totaling 20-45 pounds, the average pace to plan for should be lowered to 55 miles per day. If the terrain is particularly flat or mountainous, the average will increase or decrease accordingly (for mountain-bike travel, these distances can be cut in half, or more, depending on the ruggedness of the terrain).

Experienced bicycle travelers can ride further, but for most people, planning to exceed these averages has a tendency to increase the physical challenge and decrease the enjoyment. We recommend that you plan for at least one rest day out of ten, and carry no more than 45 pounds of gear, and a lot less if you can. Always plan time in your day, and days off in your trip, for unexpected challenges and good opportunities.

What kind of bike should I use?

Many types of bicycles can be used for touring. Although some bikes are specifically designed for touring, most quality bicycles can be customized for touring use, with the exception of road racing bikes, as they emphasize weight savings and quick handling over durability and comfort. (Folks do it, but we don’t recommend it for reliability reasons.) Important characteristics of an appropriate bike are durability, a comfortable riding position, and low gears for climbing hills. The ability to mount racks, fenders, and wide tires (32 mm or greater) is also a plus. Experienced bicycle travelers have their preferences, but there is no single style of bicycle that is an overwhelming favorite. Ultimately, your choice is based on personal preference and the type of touring you want to do (paved roads vs. dirt roads/trails, amount of gear to carry, etc.). To read more on how to select a proper bike for touring, see “How to Buy a Touring Bike Buyer's Guide”, Adventure Cyclist, March 2005.

How do I decide where to ride?

Besides the obvious—scenery, history, and any other personal interests you have—look for low-traffic routes and/or roads with good shoulders. Keep in mind that many of the places you'd like to see by bicycle, such as national parks, can be choked with traffic and undesirable for cycling. Mountain bikers usually look for routes with little or no motorized traffic and as little pavement as possible. The biggest question they need to answer is usually: Can all of the route be ridden with a loaded bike or trailer?

Many resources for finding bicycle-specific routes that emphasize safe roads and rideable trails can be found right here in The Cyclists’ Yellow Pages. These include:

  • Adventure Cycling's 41,399-mile National Bicycle Route Network and touring maps
  • State resources, including tourism agencies, state bicycle/pedestrian offices, advocacy groups, and local bike clubs.
  • Local and regional cycling maps and guidebooks listed under their respective states and countries.

How do I carry my stuff?

The most common methods of carrying gear are panniers and trailers. Panniers are luggage that attaches to your bicycle on racks that sit over or next to the wheels. Ortlieb and Arkel are two top-quality brands. Quality racks are available to fit nearly every bicycle. Trailers come in many varieties, usually with one or two wheels. Most are easy to attach and fit on almost any bicycle. The BOB Yak/Ibex and Burley Nomad are both excellent choices.

Panniers excel on paved-road riding and single-wheel trailers are at their best on rough, unpaved terrain, but both can work well for nearly all types of touring. Personal preference is the ultimate arbiter.

Where do I stay at night?

First decide if you want to camp (inexpensive, independent, closer to nature) or stay in hotels (comfortable, less gear to carry). Tourism agencies, chambers of commerce, convention and visitor’s associations, and many internet resources list information about motels, campgrounds, B&Bs, and other lodging. Many maps and guides, including National Bicycle Route Network maps, list local options.

Is it safe to travel around America alone?

Yes. Bicycle riders are typically perceived to be very non-threatening and are often treated warmly by strangers, especially during emergencies. The chances of something bad happening to you during a bicycle tour are likely to be no different than they are in your everyday life at home.

How much does bike touring cost?

The cheapest way to go is to camp and cook your own meals. Assuming you have all the necessary gear before you leave, and you are touring in America, a budget of $35-$50 day should be enough to pay for camping fees and groceries and still stash a bit away for unforeseen expenses like repairs or gear replacement. Going dirtbag-style, it’s possible to travel on $10/day or less. For those with luxury in mind, well, the sky (and your bank account) is the limit. The beauty of traveling by bike is that it can be as comfortable or as adventurous as you want it to be.