13 tips for planning a cycling tour

A long bike tour can seem intimidating at first glance, and planning one can either be a big headache or very exciting. Here are a few things that I’ve learnt when planning my bike trips, and on the road (most likely the hard way). 

1. Plan (but not excessively) and incorporate rest days
Your plans will go awry, whether you like it or not. Sometimes your plans will go awry because you’re cycling too fast. Make a list of the places you really want to see, but don’t bother setting up detailed routes to each and every one. Incorporating rest days into your schedule gives you the flexibility to stay on track even if you get stuck somewhere due to bad weather or a bike repair. It also gives you some leeway if you really like a place and want to stay a little longer. The beauty in a long tour is giving yourself the freedom to go wherever you want, so don’t take that away from yourself!

2. How do I get my bike there?
There are many options when trying to get your bike long distances quickly. Most modes of transportation will require you to disassemble your bike and package it into a box (hard or cardboard) or a bag. It’s simple to fly your bike with you on the plane and different airlines have different policies on the maximum size of the box and extra charges. I always look up the policy beforehand, but usually the only special thing you need to do is point to the bike when you get to the airport. They’ll charge you a little extra and tell you to drop it at a different location than the regular checked luggage. I fly with my bike in a cardboard box because at my destination, I can assemble the bike and leave the box behind. A hard box is safer for your bike, but they are pricey and you can’t really carry them on your tour. A bike bag is another option, but they still cost money, you’ll still need to carry it with you and they don’t offer a lot of protection. Cardboard is free -just go from bike shop to bike shop until you find one that’s the right size. When you box your bike, don’t try to put anything else in the box besides the bike and its parts. Airport security doesn’t like to see odd objects (including your helmet, carry that on the plane) in there and you may be asked to open the box for them… which is a huge hassle. Mini tip: do not ditch the packaging tape until you have successfully gotten your bike through security.

3. Pack based on the expected weather
This seems like a no-brainer, but really do your research on this one. I didn’t know Iceland was going to be a windstorm every night. I just thought it was going to be “windy”. Don’t forget to consider your altitude changes; at 2,770m in the middle of August, it dropped below zero, while 5 kilometres down the road in the valley at mid-day, it was thirty degrees. 

4. Make sure your bike fits your tour
If you’re going to be climbing mountains on dirt roads, then you probably should leave your road bike in the garage. They make bikes that are specific to bike touring that can handle most terrain and are easiest to repair. Make your bike simple: cables, chain, gears. The simpler it is, the simpler it is to repair with limited supplies. If you are touring in a developed country, chances are most bike shops will be able to repair a fancier bike and maybe even weld a super-light alloy. In the far reaches of other countries, you will be hard pressed to find someone that can weld aluminum and find a replacement belt. Ensure that your wheel size is relatively common where you are going. If it isn’t, you’ll have a harder time finding tubes. 

I ride a Surly Disc Trucker, which is a bike made for touring. I’ve put different pedals on it, added front and rear racks, fenders and a different seat. It has a steel frame (so it’s not the lightest bike, but it’s repairable) and they go for about $1,600CAD. I would also suggest putting some durable touring tires on -I use Schwalbe Marathon (1.5-2”). These are good and I would recommend them. 

5. Panniers are everything
You will be putting these bags through hell: rain, sun, sleet, hail, wind, everything. They need to be up for it. Some things I look for when buying a bike bag: 100% waterproof and many screws on the back that hold each clip. Take a couple of extra screws in case yours pop out while you’re riding (this happened to me twice and it’s a really quick fix). I look for durability and clips that fit different sized racks. If you do not want to fork out the money for waterproof bags, at the very least, line them with garbage bags or dry bags. 

My bags: MEC Aquanots (2x23L on the back, 2x18L on the front). These bags never let a drop of water in, but the downside is that they aren’t watertight when your bike is on its side all night long. These are like the non-roll-top cheaper version of Ortlieb panniers, which I have never tried myself, but have seen many cycle tourists using. They have a good reputation although they’re pretty expensive.

6. Merino wool is your friend, and so are layers
If you can get your hands on cycling jerseys made out of merino wool, you’re laughing. If not, get everything else: t-shirts, sweaters, gloves, etc. Merino wool has this fantastic quality that makes it not hold onto odour, which means you can wear it for about 2-3 weeks while you’re cycling and it doesn’t smell like anything (except maybe a hint of deodorant). It’s also warm, light, packs small, dries fast and only requires a hand wash. They actually encourage you to wash it as infrequently as possible. Yummy!

7. Invest in a good home and bed
I’m talking about your tent and sleeping bag. What tent you buy will completely depend on you and what kind of climate you are heading into, but don’t cheap out on it. These are the qualities you need to look for: light, packs small enough to fit inside your pannier and suits the climate you will be using it in. Sleeping bags will also depend on where you are going, but make sure you cover the bases. Down is light and packs small, especially if you put it into a compression pack.

During my tours I’ve used two tents: Big Agnes Flycreek UL1 and the Big Agnes Slater UL1+. Get the footprints as well (or if not, bring a tarp). Both are small, light and pack down nicely. Both are durable and the Flycreek withstood extremely strong winds in Iceland. My sleeping bag is rated down to -10C.

8. Don’t use Google Maps
Google maps doesn’t understand cycle tourists. It doesn’t understand what your main goal is: amazing roads, amazing places, no traffic. Google Maps will work in countries with highly developed bike networks (Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands), but it will fail you atrociously everywhere else. Instead of using Google Maps, use designated bike routes, if they exist. You can find these online; Europe is peppered with Eurovelo routes, which are worth a look into when planning your trip. If there are no designated bike routes, just look at a very detailed map and find the smallest roads to where you want to go, even if it adds distance. After a day or two, you will get a feel for what kinds of roads on the map suit you and adjust accordingly (ex. the smallest marked roads in Italy are terrible, but the smallest marked roads in France are usually pretty good). A paper map may be a good back up, but I highly recommend using an app on a smart phone. I use Maps.Me; it’s free and once you have downloaded the country or province you want, it works completely offline on airplane mode without wifi. It will tell you exactly where you are, which way your phone is pointing and also lists campsites, grocery stores, restaurants, hotels and just about anything else you care to search for. It works better in some countries than in others, but I use it absolutely all the time, even when I’m not cycling.

9. Make sure you have enough room left in your bags to carry a full day’s worth of food
You are going to eat at least twice as much as you normally do. Make sure you have room to carry it. One of the worst things that happens on the road is you run out of food 20km out of town and have to cycle for an hour with an empty stomach. If you are going to overpack anything, overpack food.

10. Decide what to pack, then pack less
No explaining this one, I promise you don’t need all that and you will want to mail it home or dump it.

11. Do a trial run
Ideally, this should be at least a 1 or 2 night expedition where you pack everything like you would on your big tour, but you don’t go very far. This allows you to test out your gear and optimize how you’ve packed things. You only forget where you’ve packed your rain gear once. You also might discover that something you were going to bring is completely unnecessary, or maybe that something needs to be changed. You will also learn if your projected pace is doable. As a rule, if you are not in “biking shape” when you do your trial run and fall horribly short of your full tour pace, don’t worry! Your legs will get used to it. When I first started, I thought 70km was a decently long day, but by the end I was going 100-170km, mountains included. Don’t plan on 140km every day; you can probably do it, but you won’t have any time to stop and enjoy what you’re doing. 

12. Warmshowers
Sign up for Warmshowers. Warmshowers is like Couchsurfing, but it’s specifically for cycle tourists. People of all ages use it and it’s brilliant. Warmshowers will not only save you money, but the people you meet and the food they’ll make you and the conversations you’ll have will probably restore your faith in humanity. These people will provide anything from a free place to pitch your tent, to beds to sleep in, meals, breakfast, private tours of their communities and help you out any way they can. When choosing a host to contact, you can see feedback other guests have left behind (similar to Couchsurfing). Make sure you leave feedback for your host and their future guests when you leave!

13. The toolkit 
The amount of tools your bring will depend on where you’re going. In developed countries, all you really need is a multitool, pedal wrench, a few spare tubes, a tire and tube patch kit (I never used this, but it’s good to carry around and they’re small), some spare screws, a pump, a couple of tire levers, chain oil and bike lights (IMPORTANT). If you’re going off the beaten track, you may consider packing a few extra tools and supplies.

And that’s all folks - you’re as ready as I ever was! Book the plane ticket and go find some amazing roads. The world is calling.

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