Bike Touring Advice
Route Planning Advice
From my experience, not taking too much kit is one of the hardest things about preparing for a bike tour. Over the past few years I've honed my packing from once taking over 50L and 14kg of kit of kit for a three day tour in 2011, to taking less than 20L and 7kg. I've condensed the experience into these 10 important things to consider when packing for a bike tour.
1. Know where you're going - this speaks to weather and the bike you take, Weather-wise, there's no point taking a massive sleeping bag or a giant coat if you're touring through Spain in July. However, if you are likely to encounter cold weather, take several layers rather than giant coat or find a down jacket that can roll up into a portable size. In regards to the bike, if you're sticking mainly to roads then pretty much any bike will be fine. I personally have used my road bike for all my tours without problems. However, if you plan to be doing more trail riding or off-roading it may be worth investing in either a mountain bike or touring specific bike, or just putting some wider tyres on your road bike. For example, on my world record attempt I used 28mm tyres on my road bike and I rode several trails without issue. Wider tyres are more comfortable too!
2. Invest in good waterproofing - nothing makes a tour worse than getting wet whilst riding and having nothing dry to change into afterwards. If you invest in a good waterproof jacket (not just showerproof), and good bags for carrying your kit, you can carry on biking no matter what the weather. Don't do what I did and try and save money with cheaper bags. The bags by Ortlieb are some of the best in the business and claim to be submerge-proof, should you desire to cycle into a canal or lake.
3. Only take one set of 'off-the-bike' clothes - you can add many extra kilos to your kit bags by taking too much kit for wearing off the bike. In my first few tours I took several changes of clothes, didn't need them all and slowed myself down by carrying all the extra weight. If you're that worried about smell, then make sure you bring a small deodorant - your change of clothes will get smelly being in with all your other kit as you cycle whether worn it yet or not.
4. Only take one set of cycling clothes - you don't need several jerseys or several pairs of shorts, they all get sweaty within minutes and reach salt-saturation pretty quickly too. Just make sure you do rinse the kit with water if you are sweating excessively during the rides - the build up of salt can cause sores that will ruin your ride.
5. Know your saddle - make sure you've practised doing a few longer rides on your bike's saddle so you know you can get comfortable on it. It is a bike saddle so it's not going to feel like an armchair, but you should know you can happily sit on it for several hours without developing blisters, sores or numbness.
6. Lights - having a decent set of easily rechargeable lights is so important. You will feel so much safer knowing that other road users can see you clearly, rather than fretting about your impending doom every time a car comes up behind you. I know some lights can be expensive, but being able to be seen and to easily be able to recharge them is invaluable on a bike tour. Being caught without good bike lights on the side of the road, miles from your rest stop is not somewhere you want to be.
7. Easily accessible bags - buying bags that have pockets you can easily access whilst riding or bags that can be quickly detached when you stop for a break makes your bike tour so much more relaxing. Being able to quickly whip off a bag of your valuable when you arrive at a cafe stop, or being able to reach your phone or food whilst you ride makes for a much smoother trip. Spending minutes making sure all your valuables are safe every time you stop, or having to pause every time you need a snack can make for very frustrating cycling.
8. Navigation kit - investing in a GPS bike computer with mapping software can be a great way to navigate on your tour. Having this bike sat-nav reduces much of the stress of figuring out which way to go at foreign junctions, allowing you to concentrate on avoiding traffic. Alternatively, you can download maps of where you're going to your smart phone and use that to navigate without using your mobile data. That being said, accessibility to cheap / free roaming data is on the increase so you could solely use your mobile phone to navigate (get a waterproof phone mount for the handlebars for ease of use). If you are still inclined to use paper maps, you can save space and weight by cutting out the areas of the map you will need and only take those with you.
9. Cooking equipment - don't take any. It's cumbersome and slows you down. Unless you're going into the deep wilderness without towns for miles and want to live without human contact on your tour, cooking your own food is too much effort in my opinion. I like eating at all the bakeries, trying all the local foods and seeing the people in new towns as I go on my bike tours, and if you're near towns, you really don't need to be spending your time cooking and carrying your own food. If cost is your concern, you can eat really cheaply at supermarkets and bakeries along your route.
10. Gloves and Overshoes - getting a decent pair of waterproof and windproof covers for your extremities can turn even the most miserable weather into a decent day on the bike. If you can keep your hands and feet warm, with all your kit dry (Tip 2), there is little to stop your ploughing through the worst of rain storms. In Tuscany, Italy, we were caught in a torrential downpour and strong wind but we could simply enjoy the wildness of the weather as could keep warm and knew we had dry clothes to put on once we'd finished for the day. Our wheels were a couple inches deep in rivers forming across the road and the bikes were angled at 45 degrees into the wind - it was some of the craziest and most exhilarating weather I've experienced.
This is by no mean an exhaustive list. These are just the things I've learned over my years of touring. Getting a good helmet, sunglasses, battery packs for charging and sun creams are all important too!
Here are my top 10 tips for bike touring, learning from bad experiences so you don't have to!
1. Try and have everything packed at least the day before you leave. I've spent too many tours playing catch-up from day one after we've left several hours late scrabbling round for the last few pieces of kit before we depart.
2. Start early - getting up early means that you can often see some glorious sunrises and can also help with getting out of towns before the traffic builds up (if you're staying in towns). It also means that you can relax during the day knowing you have plenty of time to arrive at your destination for the day, and spend some time enjoying the end location. On too many occasions have I started late and been racing all day to make it to a town, only to head straight to an expensive hotel room and sleep. You don't need that on your bike tour - you miss opportunities exploring new places with new people, and it can get very expensive if you're having to book last-minute hotel rooms.
3. Warmshowers.org - coachsurfing for cyclists. I only used it for the first time in 2017, but it's an incredible way to meet local people and share your passion for bike touring. On my most recent adventure I stayed with several amazing host families who provided me with showers, a bed and hot food without charge. I can't recommend it highly enough.
4. Don't pay for water - most restaurants, hotel and shops will happily let you fill up your water bottles for free. You don't need to be paying for water at a supermarket.
5. Try not to think about the scale of whole trip - concentrate on the daily targets and stay in the present. Thinking about riding hundreds or thousands of miles can seem daunting, so just concentrate on the current task at hand and the bigger picture will take care of itself.
6. Listening to music - listening to music is escapism really. It's predominantly a way to remove yourself from the immediate environment and I don't really like doing it on a bike tour. Although it's tempting, the reason you've decided to travel by bike is to experience the environment to the fullest, and for the challenge. Soak up the struggle, and the sounds all around you and don't hide in music to get you through - listen for your inner strength. If you really need to listen to music to get you through, try and limit yourself to only an hour or two a day. A great piece of kit I bought for listening to music were bone-conducting headphones like the Aftershokz Bluez 2s. They're bone conducting headphones and rest on your cheekbones, leaving your eyes open to the sounds of your environment - it's allows the music to compliment your surroundings, not take over from them.
7. Be kind to your riding partner - if you're travelling with a partner or in a group it can be hard to manage relationships. Regularly remind yourself that you're going to be tired and irritable so you'll have to be extra patient with each other, when you inevitably argue over routes, accommodation or food breaks. My younger brother and I worked out a way of alerting the other when they were being to harsh, or too short in conversation - we would quote a line from the movie Frozen where of the characters gets harshly dismissed. The odd quote would immediately break our pattern of frustration and bring us back to a state of fun. It sounds really dumb, but it does work!
8. Don't be afraid to talk to locals - some of my best stories from bike tours have come from talking to locals and accepting their kindness. In Italy I
9. Use the time on the bike to reflect on your life back at home - I personally find bike tours a powerful time for thinking about what I can change or improve in my day-to-day life at home. Having the daily goals and daily achievements of a bike tour can help build momentum towards goals in other areas of life. I find tours a great time to reflect on my life almost from an outside perspective, whilst outside the rush of modern life. Who would I like to spend more time with? How I could I make every day more adventurous? What's are my current goals?
10. Be prepared for a come-down. Although this can seem contrasting point 9, many people do struggle getting back into the swing of life upon returning from a bike tour, especially an elongated tour. Make sure you've thought about a strategy for returning - for example, I focus on the how I can improve various aspects of my life after reflecting on them during the bike tour. If you come back still in the bike-touring mindset, you may struggle without the same narrow focus or daily sense of achievement you get when reaching your daily destination on a tour. Use the desire for that focus, and that sense of achievement to help you focus on what you want to achieve in your day to day life and where you want to go. Use the momentum of the bike tour to build your daily life with the focus a tour develops, rather than lamenting no longer being on your bike.