Bike Touring FAQs & Resources
To the uninitiated, the idea of bicycle touring and bikepacking sounds crazy. What could be fun about spending hours on a bike, riding along highways and busy roads, and sleeping outside for an extended period of time? It seems outrageous until you do it; then it makes all the sense in the world. Are you thinking about going on your first bike tour? Here are some frequently asked questions answered.
What is bike touring?
Bike touring is simply the act of riding a bicycle for a number of days, weeks, months, even years. It can consist of long distances on mostly paved roads or bikepacking on roads less traveled. You can travel completely self-contained, carrying everything you need to survive, or ride between hostels and hosts.
It’s a global activity connecting you to a network of other humans who are the same kind of “crazy” as you.
Everyone’s journey is different. Whether you are a novice or experienced cyclist, all that matters is that you have fun; exploring new landscapes, cultures, and challenging yourself for the sweet reward of reaching your destination.
What is the difference between bikepacking and bike touring?
“Bike touring” and “Bikepacking” are often used interchangeably, but there are noticeable differences. Bikepacking is self-contained touring on unpaved routes (i.e. gravel roads and singletrack trails) with bags optimized for rougher riding. Traditional touring is often self-contained, but mostly on paved routes.
Traditional touring typically involves a combination of front and rear panniers while bikepacking setup utilizes saddle, frame, fork and handlebar bags for adequate clearance and maneuverability.
Is bike touring hard?
Bike touring can be difficult and uncomfortable at times; you are traveling by bike after all. But it doesn’t have to be “hard”. If you are worried about long distance riding, start with a small day trip or a weekend adventure. Look for common routes near you and/or talk to your local bike shop.
If you can ride a bike, you can do a bike tour. There’s definitely a lot more preparation and research involved, but it’s just like everything else in life; you get better with experience. And if you are worried about fitness, understand that I met many cyclists in their 40’s and 50’s on my tour (Portland—Los Angeles).
Is bike touring safe?
There is risk with every activity in life. Bike touring comes with all the normal dangers of riding a bicycle with some added hazards (ranging widely depending on your route); highway traffic, riding with weight, wildlife, target of theft, etc. All things considered, it is perfectly safe (especially on common routes). If you have concerns, research the route you are looking at and read up on other cyclists' experiences.
Can any bike be used for touring?
Road bikes, mountain bikes, and hybrid gravel bikes are common for touring. Folding bikes are a great option if you need something more portable for hostels or trains. Recumbent bikes can be an option for those who need a more comfortable ride. Someone had toured on a unicycle; someone on a BMX.
At the end of the day any bike can be used for touring. Someone had toured on a unicycle; someone on a BMX. But that doesn’t mean you should.
What is the difference between a touring bike and a hybrid?
Hybrid bikes are best suited for comfortable commuting; with fatter tires allowing riders to take on a variety of terrain. Road bikes are often optimized for performance; lighter frames and fast-rolling tires.
Either are capable of touring, although a hybrid/gravel bike will offer more versatility and larger payload. If you will be on pavement and can pack ultralight, a road bike will allow you to go further, faster.
Can I use a MTB as a touring bike?
Mountain bikes (MTBs) are fantastic for a variety of touring. Modern hardtail mountain bikes can get you anywhere your bikepacking heart desires. And vintage 80’s & 90’s steel frame mountain bikes can take you around the world on a budget.
Remember, everything has a trade off. Running front suspension and elevated bikepacking bags (not panniers) will be better for off road trails into the wilderness. Running a hard fork on a vintage 90s MTB with 26” wheels will allow you to carry an incredible amount of weight, but at a much slower pace than a road bike.
How many gears does a touring bike need?
Most geared bikes have between 1-3 chainrings in the front and 7-12 gears in the rear (the cassette attached to the wheel). If you're looking for the best gearing, sorry to be that guy, but there is no "right" answer.
Every rider has different levels of fitness, body builds, routes, gear weight, etc. At the end of the day, as long as you can pedal, you'll probably survive. And there's no shame in walking the occasional crazy incline.
If you are concerned about it, load your bike with gear, test it out, and take it to your local shop if you need to make changes. To prove the point that there is no cookie-cutter answer, understand that someone traveled the entire world, self-contained, on a single speed; just one gear.
How long is a bike tour?
At an average pace of 40-60 miles per day, a bike tour can take a few days, weeks, months, or even years depending on your route. You can ride 70 miles in a day or 30; it's entirely up to you and your route planning.
How long does it take to cycle ten miles?
With a self-contained set up, you can average 10 miles per hour on your bike tour. On a hilly day, expect 8-9 mph. On a flat day, expect 11-13 mph. It also depends on whether you have headwinds or tailwinds.
Is cycle touring expensive?
Bicycle touring costs can range from incredibly affordable to incredibly expensive. It all depends on how you plan your route, the bike you build, and whether you buy new or used. A new steel frame Surly will run you a couple grand ($$$) to build. A 90s MTB build can run you a couple hundred bucks ($). Ortlieb panniers are the gold standard ($$$), but Rockbros panniers get the job done for a fraction of the price.
Real world example: I met someone on my tour who flew to Seattle to buy a used touring bike (w/ panniers) off Facebook Marketplace; barely used, for a fraction of what the bike was going for new (without panniers). Her first tour was riding the bike home.
“Hike and Bike” campsites on the Pacific Coast range from $5-$10, regular campsites can be split between multiple riders, warmshower.org stays are free (when available), and “wild camping” is always an option (depending on your comfort level). Hostels and hotels can become expensive quickly, although fairly affordable in Europe, and offer a rewarding day off even on a budget.
How much should I spend on a touring bike?
This depends on the individual. With wild camping and warm showers, you can make your cost of lodging free, limiting expenses to $15-$20. Depending on the route, you may need to budget for the occasional bus or train ticket. Maintenance costs can sneak up on you as well.
It’s also entirely possible to live off your bike as a digital nomad. In this case, you’ll likely have cafe, hostel, and Airbnb expenses; unless you stick to wild camping and seek out public libraries (which I’ve met a marketing professional who is doing just this). And there’s always the option to work on a farm (I’ve met a couple people doing this; raising money to fund their ongoing tour).
If you treat your bike and touring gear as a sunk cost, you can get your monthly expenses pretty low once you get the hang of things.
How do I prepare for my first bike tour?
- Decided on a route.
- Build your bike to accommodate said route.
- Get some time in the saddle to get comfortable with the weight (you'll probably make adjustments along the way).
- Get you know your tools and basic maintenance.
- Prepare yourself mentally to "embrace the suck" (it won’t be all sunshine and rainbows)
- Take the leap of faith and head out; the fitness will follow.
- Rinse and repeat; experience is the best teacher.
What gear do you need for touring?
Your bike touring gear checklist should include apparel to keep you comfortable, tools for basic repairs and maintenance, snacks, and camping gear if you are doing a self-contained tour.
What do you wear on bike tours?
The benefit of proper cycling gear is that it is quick drying and easy to wash; meaning you can pack less if you do laundry regularly (sink/shower wash + hang dry). The downside is cost.
Merino wool shirts are a great option that is more casual and comfortable, but can still be expensive. The cheapest option would be anything synthetic (not-cotton) that is comfortable; hit the thrift store or dig out that old soccer jersey.
Thin wool socks are great for riding, while a pair of thick wool socks are perfect for chilly evenings in the campground. If you are riding in warm climates, a good pair of sandals means no socks required! *With platform pedals you can ride in sandals*
Padded cycling shorts, or bibs, is a worthwhile investment. As is a lightweight windbreaker if you don’t already have one. An emergency poncho can double as a bike cover and give you extra rain protection if you get stuck in the rain. On those colder evenings, a good puffer or lightweight fleece will be your best friend.
Don’t be a dummy, wear a helmet. I like wearing Ciele hats under mine because they are comfortable, and take a beating, and wash easily. Glasses aren’t required, but boy do they come in handy sometimes. I like Pit Viper’s night lenses to protect from wind while offering a little protection from bright sun.
Footwear depends on your pedal choice; the world is your oyster.
How should I pack for a long distance bike ride?
On a long distance ride, you should pack your bike to meet your safety and comfort requirements. If you are riding self-contained, the bike is going to be heavy; it's unavoidable. But it’s still good to “pack with purpose”, starting with the essentials. Then spare riding apparel to alternate (unless you can manage washing the one outfit you're wearing every day). Then comfort gear. Once you’ve got an audit of all the gear you plan on bringing, load the bike so it is equally balanced; give it a test ride; move the weight around; rinse and repeat. Everyone’s bike and gear is different and the “sweet spot” of packing is unique to you. Personally, I found having most of my weight towards the back with the front weight being as low as possible was comfortable.
- Basic tools, tubes, patch kits, etc.
- Water & Snacks
- Tent, sleeping bag, pad, etc (if camping)
Cycling Riding Apparel
- Padded shorts/bib
- Cold weather top/bottom
- Sleep wear
- “Town clothes”
- Battery pack for phone
What to pack for a 3 day bike ride?
You can survive a 3 day ride without having to do laundry. If you are bikepacking, you’ll need to think about food. If you are near civilization, you can pack light and shop when you’re hungry.
- Basic tools, tubes, patch kits, etc.
- Water & Snacks
- Second set of padded shorts/bib
- Second Jersey/Shirt
- Second pair of socks
Is there a Google Maps for bikes?
Google Maps offers bike routes that are incredibly useful (especially if you need to seek out food or lodging), but take its directions with a grain of salt as they are not always accurate. Komoot is another app that is commonly used by cyclists for planning routes.
The beautiful thing about bike touring is that the community is large, global, and incredibly friendly. You will learn more on your first tour from talking with other cyclists than from any book. And with the power of the internet, you have access to the entire network!
Reddit For Bike Touring Tips
There are two subreddits worth joining. If you have questions about bike touring or bikepacking, do a quick search. If you can’t find the answer, simply ask!
Descriptions: "Bicycle touring is about taking trips via bicycle. Whether you're going out for the weekend or cycling across continents, /r/bicycletouring is a community of individuals who share this passion."
Description: "Bikepacking: Off-Pavement Bicycling and camping where you would if you were to go backpacking. Bikepacking is generally in the backcountry, but you can backpack on local trails."
Bike Touring Inspirations
If you are looking for bike touring inspiration, here are two channels that I got a lot of value out of (there are tons of great channels if you go looking). You may not take touring as seriously as these folks, but they certainly show you what is possible.
Description: "Hi, we are Maudi & Eric, Cycling the World and making Adventure Video's along the Way! To see, smell, hear, taste and feel everything the road has to offer is so much different than watching a documentary or reading a book about it. Sometimes it's difficult but most of the time fantastic. We hope you will enjoy and perhaps find some inspiration in our video's to fuel your own dreams. Join us for the Ride!"
Description: "Hello, I am Peyman, since 2018 I am cycling around the world for at least 10 years. Welcome to join my adventures! I make videos about my bicycle tour and other expeditions I do along the way to share my trip with you. I also make gear review videos of the equipment I use. I hope I can inspire you to head out on your own adventure!"
Bike Touring Route Planning
When it comes to actually planning your trip, you can either base your trip off common routes or build your own from scratch. There are no wrong answers! Just be sure to think about seasonal weather 😉
Description: "Adventure is out there. Find the adventure in your life with our inspiration, resources, and experiences. A bicycle is simply the mechanism to get there."
Description: "Turn your next ride, hike, or run into an adventure with Komoot. Get inspired by tapping into shared community knowledge and recommendations, then bring your adventures to life with the easy route planner."