Tips for Cross-Country Cycling
There is nothing like seeing the world from a bicycle – peacefully, slowly, and with your own power. The sense of accomplishment when finishing a long ride is also rewarding – in some cases it can be a life-changing experience. And touring with a partner you like can bring you closer together. This page offers some tips and resources for bicycle touring. – Michael Bluejay, Ed.
Everyone’s different, so advice about how long or hard you should train is useless. Instead, practice riding with a full load of gear until you can ride at least 75% of the distance you’d like to cover on a typical touring day, and not feel completely destroyed the next day. It’s not uncommon to feel exhausted at the end of the ride and to feel that you’ll be unable to ride tomorrow. The key is to ignore that and pay attention to how you actually feel the next day. A good night’s sleep can do wonders not only for your physical ability but also your attitude.
The first time I wanted to do a century (a 100-mile ride) I picked up a bicycling magazine that had something like a six-week training schedule to get you ready for a century. I blew off the magazine, and here’s how I trained: One day I went out and rode 60 miles. Two days later I did the century. And when I biked from El Paso to Austin (about 70 miles a day for two weeks), I did no training at all beforehand. I’m not saying this to suggest that everyone can start touring with minimal training, just to suggest that you might have more ability than you realize. Also, I’ve been a pure vegetarian my whole adult life and I attribute much of my endurance ability to how I eat.
What to Bring
There are three ways to tour:
- Self-Supported, Camping. With this style of touring you bring everything you need and camp out along the way. It’s the most challenging because you have to bring more stuff (tent, sleeping bag, food preparation items, etc.) – but in my mind it’s also the most rewarding.
- Self-Supported, Motels. If you can afford it, you can stay in motels along the way. That dramatically cuts down on the amount of stuff you have to haul with you. Note that even if you camp only 10% of the time you’ll still have to haul everything you need for camping 100% of the time. (Of course you could get creative/extravagant and mail your camping gear from one motel to one you’ll be hitting a few days down the road, so you can camp in the future without having to haul all the camping gear.)
- Sag Supported. With this style you have a support vehicle (usually a van) going along for the trip. The van hauls all the heavy stuff and you meet up with it at the end of the day. Personally I think there’s little point in touring by bike if you’re ultimately going to be relying on an automobile, but this is a popular style of touring, and to each his/her own. Many of the commercial tours run this way. Anyway, if you go this route, deciding what to take and what to leave behind is generally not a problem.
If you’re on a self-supported tour, the less you bring, the better. For a multi-day or multi-week trip you will be tempted to bring as many comforts as possible, but after your first day of trudging up hills and feeling every ounce, you’ll wish you’d left some things at home. Here’s a typical packing list for a self-supported tour. Think long and hard before adding anything extra to it:
|Tools & Parts||Bike Accessories & Safety Equipment||Food & Shelter||Essentials|
|Frame Pump||Helmet||1 Gallon of Water||Cash|
|Patch Kit & 2 Tire Levers||Detachable LED||Food for 2 Days||Two Credit Cards|
|Extra Tubes (One tube for about every 500 miles)||Headlight (or headlamp)||Hot Plate||ID|
|Allen Wrenches||Red Blinky Rear Lights||Mess Kit (pot, plate, utensils)||Photocopy of ID|
|Crescent Wrench||Reflective Vest or Triangle||Tiny Lantern||Emergency Contact Info|
|Bisexual Screwdriver (Both slotted & Phillips||Rearview Mirror||Tiny Tent (3lbs)||Mobile Phone & Charger|
|Spoke Wrench||Camelback-Style Water Pouch||Sleeping Bag||Phone Cards (for when the mobile is out of range)|
|Extra Spokes||Cycle Computer||Sleeping Pad, such as ThermaRest||Maps|
|Pliers||GPS (mountable or wristwatch)||Lightweight PVC Rainsuit||Toiletries|
|Chain Tool, plus a small section of chain||First Aid Kit|
|Brake and Derailleur Cable||Digital Camery (Sony Cybershot is tiny)|
|Electrical Tape||Stamps, Envelopes, Paper|
|Zip Ties||1 Extra Pair of Socks, Underwear, Shorts, Pants|
|Swiss Army Knife||1 T-Shirt and 1 Dress Shirt|
|Spare Nuts & Bolts||Cloth Hat|
Here’s what you don’t need:
- Flashlight. Just make sure your headlight is easily detachable from your bike (or that it’s a headlamp), and you won’t need a separate flashlight.
- Lots of extra clothes. You rarely need more than the item you’re wearing plus an extra one of them. When one gets dirty, put on the clean one and wash the dirty one. And for shoes, I chose clipless shoes that were comfortable enough to walk in, and dark enough that they were still appropriate to use in a decent restaurant.
- Pillow. Stuff a shirt or two into your cloth hat. Works great. If you really need a separate pillow, get a special camping pillow, which is tiny.
What you might not think that you need, but which you really do:
- Bike Lights. You might not plan on riding at night, but you might have to. What if your bike breaks down and it takes so long to fix it that can’t get to the next town without some evening riding? Plus, you’ll need a headlight to use as a flaghtlight anyway. Bring the lights. Make sure they’re LED, so that the batteries last a while and so the bulb doesn’t burn out. I prefer a headlamp light so that it can easily double as a hands-free flashlight.
- Reflective Triangle or Vest. You might think you don’t need these because you’re not riding at night, but the thing is they make you extra visible even in the day. On my first tour when I’d stop to take a picture and then catch up with my partner a quarter mile up the road, I noticed that before I could see her at all, or even her bike, I could see that reflective triangle. It jumped out of the landscape.
- Lightweight PVC rainsuits. You might decide to stop riding when it’s raining, but what if there’s no shelter around? It’s nice to stay dry, especially if it’s night time or cold.
- Cycle Computer or GPS. You might not care to calculate your average speed or see how far you’ve traveled in a given day or for the whole trip, but having a reliable odometer is crucial for finding out where the next turn is. (If your map says the next turn is five miles, you want to have an idea where that is.) It’s also handy for estimating when you’ll get to the next town or convenience store.
- Camelback-style water pouch. You might be tempted to go minimal and just use water bottles. I’ve tried it both ways, and no way would I tour without a water pouch again. It’s just too convenient to have an easy, safe supply of water. (It’s also easy to crash while fiddling with a water bottle or cage.)
Adventure Cycling has a good article about what to bring and how to pack.
Trailers, Panniers, and Gear-Hauling Options
You have three main options for how to haul your stuff: Use racks and panniers (bags that hang off the racks), use a trailer, or use a new invention called the XtraCycle. An XtraCycle is a frame extender. You remove your rear wheel of the bike, attach the XtraCycle frame extender (which makes your bike longer), and then reattach your rear wheel to the XtraCycle. It’s easier to understand when you see a picture, so check out XtraCycle’s website.
|Racks & Panniers (Bags)||Trailer||XtraCycle|
|Adds Significant Extra Weight||Yes||Yes|
|Adds Rolling Resistance||Yes|
|Makes Bike Harder to Handle||Yes|
|Makes Spokes More Likely to Break||Yes||Yes|
|Works Only With 26″ Wheels||Yes|
|Summary||The main advantage is that you don’t add much extra weight. It’s also the cheapest solution.||No worries about ruining your wheels by putting too much weight on the bike. But the extra weight and extra wheel makes it a little harder to pedal.||Gives you lots more storage space without the rolling resistance that a trailer would add. Plus, the longer wheelbase makes the bike easier to handle than with panniers.|
Bike Styles & Components
I don’t think you need the latest, most expensive bike around. Any bike that fits well, is in good working condition, and has at least 15 gears can serve you well. Here are some tips on bikes and components:
Bike Fit. Make sure your bike fits you. A bike that doesn’t fit is uncomfortable and hard to ride, and can even injure you. Decide whether you’ll want to be hunched over the handlebars or whether you want to sit more upright. You can usually go faster the farther forward you lean, but that can also be rather uncomfortable. I prefer to trade some speed for comfort (and a better view) by fitting my bike so that I’m more upright. For long tours I use a recliner bike.
Recliners. Reclining bikes (also called recumbents) are super-comfortable, but entry-level models (<$600) are also slower and don’t climb hills as easily as upright bikes. If you’re thinking about a recliner but don’t have a lot of money to spend then you’ll have to decide whether speed or comfort is more important to you. The more expensive recliners rival regular bikes for speed and hill-climbing ability, so if you have a large budget then you could have the best of both worlds.
Gears. Make sure your bike has a really low gear. You’ll need a lower gear than normal on a self-supported tour, because you’ll be hauling more weight, and because you’ll be more worn out towards the end of the day, and because you may encounter steeper hills than what you have at home.
Tires. If your bike is a hybrid or mountain bike, get slick tires. Knobby tires slow you down, a lot.
Tire Liners. Kevlar tire liners can help prevent flats. Fixing a flat on a bike loaded for bear is no fun.
How to Choose a Touring Bike. There’s a good article on this subject at Adventure Cycling.
Routes & Maps
Get your bike tuned up by a competent mechanic. Tell the bike shop that you’re going to be taking the bike on an XXX-mile tour and that you don’t want to have any problems with it. Repeat yourself. Say, “I sure wouldn’t want to break down out in West Texas, 400 miles from the nearest bike shop. Can you make extra sure that everything looks okay so I don’t run into problems?”
Learn basic bike repair skills. Learn how to fix flat tires, adjust brakes, adjust derailleurs, replace brake and derailleur cables, and true wheels. There’s more to bike mechanics but those five things will cover 90% of the problems you’re likely to have. Practice doing these things until you can do them by yourself without supervision. One day you may have to.
Go with a partner. People certainly tour by themselves, but I don’t advise it. Besides the safety aspect, bike touring is too great an experience not to share it with someone.
Copy your ID. Make a photocopy of your ID and put it in a separate place from your regular ID. It’s no good having a backup if you lose both.
Bring a second credit card. Keep your second credit card in a separate place from your main credit card. If you lose a credit card and have to call in to cancel it, then you’ll be glad that you have a backup card.
Carry emergency contact info. We all hope and expect that nothing bad will happen to us, but if something does happen then we’ll want the medical folks to be able to contact our families or friends.
Take a mobile phone. If you get lost or you or your partner get injured, you’ll be glad you have this. Make sure you have the kind of service plan that has access in the areas you’ll be traveling – not all wireless phone plans work everywhere..
Spin. Make sure you’re in a low enough gear so that it’s easy to pedal. If you’re always pushing against a gear that’s too high then you could blow out your knees.
Eat Well. It can be a challenge to eat healthy when you’re on the road, but when you’re touring is when you most need to do so. Emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans as much as you can. Meat and dairy slow you down and increase your recovery time. (I’m not kidding, and this isn’t just unsubstantiated opinion.) I tend to eat fruits for breakfast. To make sure I’m getting enough vegetables there are always frozen vegetables – very easy to prepare, and if you buy them in the morning they’ll thaw nicely for lunch or dinner. Canned beans are cheap and can be really satisfying. Oats cook easily and make you happy. Look for whole-grain cereals like Cheerios and Grape Nuts.
I’m not sure whether my trips were typical, but here are journals I kept of my bike trips from El Paso to Austin and Austin to Baton Rouge.
I’ll add more stores to this section when I have time, but for now here’s one that sells camping gear online: Coleman Camping Store.
This page has just scratched the surface. For more information about bicycle touring see:
Adventure Cycling. Maps, commercial tours, and tips.
Bike Touring. Email Discussion List
Warm Showers List. Directory of regional cyclists who offer lodging to traveling cyclists.
The Bike Messenger. Journal of two Dutch cyclists who cycled all over the world, over 50,000 km! Also contains useful articles about the equipment they use.
Companies that Lead Group Tours
Huge worldwide list. Biciklo publishes a huge list of tours all over the world. Search by country, length of tour, or type of riding.
U.S. Adventure Cycling. Maps, commercial tours, and tips.
- Central Europe Tours. Tours led by Top Bicycle.
- France. DuVine Adventures offers guided tours in France, “staying in inns and chateaux, eating gourmet cuisine and tasting world-class wines.”
- France, Spain, Italy, Ireland and Morocco. Spyns offers week-long luxury hiking and cycling tours to the wine regions of France (Burgundy, Loire, Beaujolais, Provence) and Spain (Rioja) as well as active tours to Ireland Italy and Morocco.
- Germany & Austria. By Mercurio Bike Travel.
- Greece: By CycleGreece and bikegreece.
- Italian Tours. Great Cycling offers guided group tours in Italy.
- Independent Cycle Tours. Self-guided bike touring throughout the South Island of NZ.