DIY Bike Touring

Here are some tips on low-cost, do-it-yourself bike touring—taking your bike on roads outside cities. You don’t have to have a ton of money, a fancy bike, or tight spandex alien pants to bike 100 miles to the next town over a couple of days. It is easy to think that you have to drive a long way and go to some special place like a national park to be on vacation. But when you start bike touring, you re-discover what our ancestors knew—there are tons of amazing places really close to every city that are well worth exploring. When you bike tour, you see space and distance in new ways that you totally miss when you[re speeding by in a car. Just like biking in town, bike touring is ecological, healthy, and way more fun than being locked in a glass and steel coffin. You also meet more people bike touring than traveling by car or plane. Good luck!

Planning your trip

Picking a good route is key to a good trip. Look for secondary roads that will have less traffic. Lots of traffic can be stressful even if there is a wide shoulder. On the other hand, a tiny road with no shoulder can be a great ride if there isn’t a lot of traffic—you can just go in the ditch whenever a car goes by. If your trip is in a hilly area, you may want to look at a topographical map to avoid hills. If a road follows a river, it will usually be more or less level until it leaves the river and jumps to the next valet. You can buy fancy bike maps from groups like Adventure Cycling that show lots of details important to cyclists, or look at books about bike touring, but you can plan a good trip even with an AAA map. Asking about routes at bike shops also helps. The more research you do in advance, the less you’ll have to figure out on the road and the more you’ll enjoy the ride. If your route doesn’t go through a town at least every 40 or so miles, you’ll need to carry extra food and water. Note that not every town on a map has food and water in very rural areas.

What to Bring

You don’t need a fancy bike, but more gears help. Tires thinner than knobby mountain bike tires are better because they have less friction, but really thin tires can have trouble with rough roads and carrying weight. The key is to make sure that riding does not hurt your body, because if it hurts to go 2 miles across town, it will really hurt you on a long trip. Check that the seat is adjusted to the right height—your knees shouldn’t be too bent at their lowest position. A comfortable seat makes a huge difference You’ll at least want working brakes. Pumping the tires to the full pressure also makes riding easier.

The most common mistake that bike tourists make is bringing too much stuff. You’ll feel every extra ounce on each hill. Avoid carrying anything in a backpack or shoulder bag. You want all the weight you carry to be on the bike, either in a basket or a bike bag. You can get used bike bags, make your own, or use fancy new ones. The basic things you’ll need include:

-Basic bike tools like patch kit and pump, Allen or hex wrenches, and a pocket knife with a screwdriver. The longer you’re biking and the more you know about bike repair, the more you’ll tend to bring—for instance, a spoke wrench or a chain tool—but keep in mind that if you break down, you can usually hitchhike or take a bus to a town with a bike store. Avoid silly weight like extra tires!

-Water bottles and a bit of food, but keep in mind that bike touring is not like backpacking. You don’t have to be self-sufficient for days. You’ll fill your water bottle and get food every time you hit a town, usually a few times a day, so it is best to avoid carrying a ton of food or water. You can take a camping stove, but it is extra weight and isn’t all that necessary.

-A tent or tarp, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, sunscreen, toiletries, and soap.

-Fewer clothes are better. Warm layers for night, and shorts and a t-shirt for riding. One change is sufficient if you wash each day and dry them on the back of your bike while you’re riding.

-Safely stuff like a helmet and bike light that can double as flashlight.

Where to Stay

Some people camp in campgrounds, a few of which even have cheap hiker/biker sites. Some city parks, churches, or country stores allow bike camping; ask around. Lots of times people will let you stay in their yard or on their land if you make friends and ask. Warmshowers.org is a website for traveling cyclists to find free places to crash for the night. Other cyclists camp illegally. If no one can see you from the road, it might be okay, but this can also be stressful if you get caught.

You can put your bike on some city bus routes or commuter trains to get beyond the urban sprawl for a nicer start for your ride. The more you talk to people you meet and ask questions or for help, the better time you’ll have.