The Basics: Planning an epic cross country bicycle tour

How many miles a day are you going to ride? How many days should you plan for the trip? What time of year are you planning your trip? What should you wear? Questions, questions, questions! Ultimately, it’s about your personal preference and what you are comfortable with? But, no need to reinvent the wheel. Basically, this should get you started, and from here, you can fine tune things to your own personal high standards. This page is meant to present a broad view of ‘the basics’. I also included links to other pages that provide a more detailed discussion. Ready, steady, go!

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Route

Where do you want to go? How are you going to get there? The first place that I would start is the Adventure Cyclist Association website. This website provides excellent maps, routes and expert opinion. If you can’t get there with Adventure Cyclist maps, then it’s up to you to find your way which is actually half the adventure. AAA road maps only go, so far. How about traffic volumes or shoulder width? Many States have Bicycle Coordinators that can help you on your way. Here is a List of State Bicycle Websites and many include maps. And, of course, the internet is pretty much an unlimited amount of information. Surf’s up! Also, check out my Route Planning web page for more detailed route planning info. IMHO – When you are planning your bike tour, make sure that you schedule some extra days for visiting, exploring and maybe a little recovering. You are going through some great areas – enjoy them! How many miles a day will you ride? I would plan on 40 to 60 miles a day to start (with a loaded touring bike). It doesn’t sound like much but it takes a little while for your body to adjust to riding every day. As you adjust, your miles will be easier and more enjoyable. Don’t try to ride 100 miles on the first day, you’ll pay for it. Save it for later.

Bike

Any bike works, some work better. If you are going to be riding cross country or on a long tour, I suggest a touring bike. The touring bike is designed for long days in the saddle with a more upright position. Also, it’s designed for panniers to carry extra weight and it has longer chain stays so that you aren’t kicking your rear pannier with every pedal. But, I’ve seen mountain bikes, racing bikes, recumbent and just about everything else that seemed to work. Bike fit and comfort is what really matters. If your knees start hurting, you probably have a bad fit. Numb hands, too much weight on your handle bars, bad fit. Sore butt – probably a saddle issue. It’s best to have these things worked out before the start of your trip, otherwise your trip of a life time could be disappointingly cut short. Keep in mind that a touring bike fits different than a racing bike.

Gear

Function vs Form. Yes, we are all part of life’s rich pageant but there are no ‘style points’ on the tough days. Being comfortable , dry, warm, cool, lightweight – whatever the weather de jour dictates- is most important. But there is nothing wrong with both form and function, either. Lightweight but still durable is another very important goal when choosing touring gear. Everybody wants a nice spacious tent to sleep in but do you really want to carry the extra weight on your bike? Is there even space for the big tent? Think small, think light. Check out my Touring Gear list to see what I used and how it worked out.

Sleep

After a particularly hard day on the bike, I am convinced I could sleep on just about anything short of a bed of nails. But you still need an appropriate place to lay your head. Part of the adventure of bike touring is the camping. In the western States, there are miles and miles of National Forest that is open for you to free camp wherever you like. Camping in a campground provides some very basic comforts, like a picnic table, outhouse and water but at a cost – that would be money and neighbors. Actually, I’ve had lots of really great camp neighbors that like to feed skinny bike riders and they like to hear about your bike trip. Be prepared for “Where are you coming from?”, “Where are you going to?” . . . and “You’re crazy!” If you chose to free camp, be aware of where you camp. A certain amount of stealth goes a long way in avoiding hassles. I’m happy to say that I’ve never had any issues. The other option is motel. Obviously, it is more expensive and maybe it affords a certain amount of safety, and then a hot shower at the end of the day is pure luxury. I would generally motel it on my “zero” day. A zero day would come about every 5 or 6 days to do laundry, get food, recover, be tourist. Another option is taking advantage of the Warm Showers websites. And, last but not least, don’t forget friends and relatives. They will be happy to see you – at least for a couple days.

Eat

What can I say – you will eat a lot and it will taste good! Generally, I mixed it up between restaurants and cooking myself. Restaurants are easy and social but expensive. Cooking your own meals tends to be less expensive and I would say healthier. Portions tend to be a challenge sometimes especially if you are riding by yourself. Grocery stores tend to sell in bigger portions and leftovers don’t travel well. Also, consider the freeze dried backpacking food, too. Easy dinner and clean up (and not too bad.)

Weather

Just how well does your rain gear work? How warm is your sleeping bag? How does you tent stand up to high winds and does it leak? Have enough water? You can run into just about anything so make sure that your gear is adequate in advance and watch the weather at every chance. Unfortunately, you won’t be having bluebird skies and a tail wind every day.

Communication

It used to be a convenience to carry a cell phone and actually get reception. Now with Smart phones, iPads, SPOT, GPS, netbooks etc, it is hard to get away from it all. All of these devices have their place, for sure, but don’t take too many gadgets (each gadget has it’s own charger). WiFi is found in just about all private campgrounds, motels, libraries and McDonalds. So, keeping an updated online blog has been simplified – except for the actual typing part.

Other

The good ol’ US Postal service can be a huge resource on your trip. Quite often, there are Post Offices in small towns where there are no outdoor stores, bike shops or even grocery stores. Many riders ship bike tires, powdered Gatorade, energy bars or other hard to find items to the local post offices ahead of their arrival via “general delivery”. It’s nice to have these goodies waiting for you when you roll into town, although be very aware of limited hours of operation (call ahead). In general, you write “General Delivery” on your package c/o the local Postmaster of the local post office that you are sending to. I didn’t use this service when I traveled but I know several people that really liked this service. I mainly used the Post Office to send things home. At the start of the trip I found myself in the Post Office quite often in my continual quest to lighten my load. In light of the Cliff Claven and Newman characters on TV, I found the Postal workers were very friendly and helpful. I encourage you to “go Postal”.

Much time has been spent in on-line bike forums discussing the best way to get your bicycle to the starting point (or from your ending point)of your bike tour. Just packing it up and putting it on the airplane with you can be an expensive option since most airlines are decidedly not bicycle friendly. Consider, my one way ticket to Calgary a few years back was $202 on United Airlines (not bad) but transporting my bicycle was $175 (not good) and $25 for my one bag. So much for my cheap flight. Also, consider weight. There is a 50 pound weight limit for your bike box and 50 pounds limit for your bag. I sensed a little more flexibility for dimensional restrictions for baggage than weight. Every bag and box goes on the scale at the airport but I didn’t see any tape measures lying around. Check out this article regarding up-to-date airline bicycle fees and baggage size and weight restrictions. If you are traveling in the States, I would recommend that you ship your bike and gear with UPS, FEDEX or even Greyhound. You can typically ship your bike a couple weeks ahead of your trip for around $50 or $60 dollars and have it waiting for you at the motel at the start. Make sure that you pack things well, though. Some of these shipping companies are about as careful with your gear as a muscle-head airline baggage handlers on an angry day.

When things go south

Inevitably, something will go wrong. Maybe a squirrel will chew through your panniers, or you leave your iPhone at a campground 150 miles back, or a leaky tent, a sore knee, an irate redneck in a pickup truck with a bad attitude (and a bad haircut), etc… – always something! There will be times where you will have to become a “fixer” or a Bear Grylls or MacGyver. There is no way of knowing what might go wrong, so you need to be prepared, at least the best you can. So, that’s where planning comes in. I am by no means an expert bike mechanic but I carry basic tools and can usually make sufficient repairs to limp my way into the nearest bike shop (I’ve had to hitchhike before, too). So, First Aid kit, cell phone, lights, good quality equipment, spare parts, etc.- but keep it light… and remember that you are on vacation 🙂