New to Bike Touring?

Welcome to the wonderful world of bicycle touring!

Getting started with touring can be a bit overwhelming and fear inducing. The abundance of great information available on bike touring can lead to analysis paralysis. Also, the unknown of planning and executing the first trip can surely cause some anxiety.

So let’s pause, take a breath, and break this down into manageable chunks. Here’s a general methodology to help you plan your trips. I also describe the basic items you’ll need.

Tour Planning Method

Define the adventure. Don’t assume true adventure only comes with the fly by the seat of your pants experiences that are fully spontaneous and unplanned. While some of the most beautiful moments in life come to me in this manner, I find they are mostly unexpected and far and few in between.

With most things in life, a little preparation and planning can go a long way to an enjoyable and successful experience. Consider the exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland:

Alice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
Alice: “I don’t much care where –”
Cat: “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

You need to have a defined experience in mind in order to plan for your journey. This isn’t to make your trip rigid or incapable of the spontaneously sublime, but to give you a general roadmap of things that will be critical to your success. Too many times I have shown up to find the route impassable, something simply no longer existed, or I got the wrong day of the week–experiences that could have been easily mitigated had I spent a few minutes doing my due diligence.

Action! Begin the journey by jotting down in a few words what you intend to get out of the experience. For example, consider these scenarios:

Scenario A:

I want to get away for the weekend and pound out some miles and do it really fast. I also have some money burning in my pocket and I don’t care what it will cost.

Scenario B:

I want to get away for the weekend and pound out some miles and do it in a really enjoyable way that will allow me to soak in the sights and sounds of my trek. I am on a budget so will need to fly on the cheap.

These scenarios help illustrate some very different experiences. In Scenario A, I am going to travel light, with little gear. I have money to burn so I will be staying at motels/hotels along the way, which means I can go far with little gear. In Scenario B, I am going to need to pack all the gear I need to survive for the weekend–on my bike. This is going to slow me down with the weight of the gear, and require some more equipment (tent, stove, sleeping bag, etc.). Also, I’ll need some access to a camp ground for my overnight stay.

Tip! It is increasingly important to define the desired experience when traveling with companions. Never assume you are on the same page. Human beings have vastly different perspectives, intentions, and thought processes.

Take this anecdote. About once every year or so, I get the great pleasure of meeting up with my good buddy Ed for a balls to the walls weekend warrior extravaganza. I was rearing for a grueling weekend backpacking adventure, somewhere within a few hours of Salt Lake City. I call up Ed, we toss around doing going the backpacking route or going for setting up basecamp and going for a really long day hike. We met up, drive to Fort Bridger, WY, and set off for King’s Peak, the highest mountain peak in Utah. However, at the start, Ed is very confused when I throw on my fully packed backpack. We talk about how I really want to backpack, and how he isn’t really up for that. Ed, being the ultrarunning speed demon and endurance junkie that he is speeds off ahead of me, and I was left for the day with anger and resentment over the whole experience. When confronting him about it later that day, we learn that we miscommunicated our expectations of what we wanted to get out of the trip.

Ed sincerely thought we agreed to do a long and fast hike approach. I sincerely thought we were going for the backpacking approach. Without the proper alignment, we ended up frustrating the hell out of each other and not quite getting what we wanted out of the experience.

The takeaway from this experience is to clearly communicate your intentions and desired outcomes, and then reiterate agreement.


Required Gear for a Tour

There are some basics you’ll need to get you going on a self-supported tour.

  1. Bike. Obviously, you’ll need a bike and a helmet. Check your garage. You’ll likely have an old mountain/hybrid collecting dust. Don’t have a bike or one that would stay together riding down the street? Check with a friend. You can also try to rent a bike through a local bike outfitter. Colleges also tend to have rental options at low cost.
  2. Panniers. After that comes panniers (bags that you attach to your bike to store your camping/touring gear) and a rack to hold the panniers. Alternatively, you could throw on a backpack and fight with a sore back and wobbly center of gravity. Panniers can be pricey (think $80+ for a set). I created my own panniers for less than $14–see the Tidy Cats buckets in the image below. Or, you could bungee the hell out of a bunch of bags with your gear in it. There are some safety concerns there, but it will get you out on the road like I did on my first tour.
  3. Sleep System. Your sleep system consists of a tent, bivy, tarp, or hammock for your sleeping enclosure. It also should include a sleeping bag or quilt to keep you warm. If you don’t have these handy, ask a friend. Most of this gear collects dust in people’s basement. Your friends will be happy to get some use out of their expensive and hardly used gear. Alternatively, check your local REI or adventure outfitter to learn more about gear rental options.
  4. Food/Water.
  5. Bike Maintenance Gear. This can vary depending on access to bike shops nearby. I typically take a spare tube, a wrench, tube patch kit, and bungees.
  6. Comfort Items. Your trip is about having fun. Tailor your gear kit to suit your mode of travel and the type of experience you seek to shape. If you want to be comfortable and go on a leisurely jaunt, pack that extra book or electronic device. Your legs will feel it, but you’ll also be relaxing like royalty when you get to your destination. Or, go on ambitious and knee crunching trek that bangs through the miles. You’ll sacrifice your roomy, bulky, and heavy tent for an ultralight tarp, but you’ll go the distance light and fast.

No Panniers, No Problem–Bungee-magedon: while not great aerodynamically, balance wise, or pretty, the below bungee laden outfitting is a quick, dirty, and cheap way to get on the road without investing in expensive panniers.


Cheap-o, DIY Bike Panniers: If on a budget, or don’t feel like dropping a wad of cash, it is pretty easy to make your panniers from plastic buckets. I used some kitty litter buckets that I found for free on Craigslist. If you don’t have cats, try to score some from friends as buying buckets new is pricey. There are lots of tutorials out there, but I loosely used this one. Just do a web search on “bucket panniers.”