Get out there!

Things to consider before your trip

There are various ways to start planning a bicycle tour. You might know that you want to cycle with your wife, but you may not know where to go. Perhaps you are certain that you want to bicycle in South America, but don’t know whether to go solo or not. The there are three main categories to consider:

The questions of where, what, with whom, and for how long linked together, but let’s start with your riding partners.

People Planning

Your bicycle touring experience will be vastly different, depending on whether you decide to hit the road on your own, with your spouse, with a friend, or as part of a large group.

Solo

Setting out on a solo tour, you’ll go where you want, when you want, and as fast as you want. There’s no pressure to keep up and no need to slow down. You’ll also control your daily expenses, so you can either avoid the expensive hotel or splurge on dinner at a fancy restaurant, depending on your budget and your mood.

As a solo traveler, you will be more approachable in hostels, campground kitchens, and other venues where travelers congregate. A solo traveler with a loaded touring bicycle is also a magnet for locals, which is fantastic if you are trying to meet curious strangers (and a nuisance if you’re not). The machine will draw inquiries about frame material, number of gears, tire size, and more. Bicycle-related questions, along with the standard one directed at travelers (They: “Where are you from?”  – “Where are you headed?” – “How long have you been on the road?”) get repetitive, but also create an opening for more meaningful conversations (You: “Do you have a spare bed for the night?”).

At the conclusion of the trip, you will either feel a great sense of achievement or you will have made up a great reason for why you quit. But seriously, you’ll be fine. It’s just that touring on your own can also be lonely, especially during times of adversity. If something goes wrong on the road, you are going to have to rely on your resilience to overcome adversity.

Solo Women

The additional challenges that solo women travelers face is a topic I am not qualified to discuss, so I got my wife Sandra’s input for this section. Her first observation is that you attract what you fear. Paying excessive attention to the possibility of sexual harassment may cause you to respond in a way that encourages inappropriate male behavior. In many cultures around the world, men still expect women to be married homemakers. Unfortunately, street harassment even of local women is common. Upon seeing a solo woman traveler, a man might be surprised, impressed, or believe that she is independent and promiscuous. This could lead to hooting, whistling, lascivious looks, and verbal harassment, such as an unwanted come-on. Annoying and unpleasant as these reactions are, they are usually not a serious threat and can be politely ignored. If you are worried about more serious (and unlikely) scenarios, such as rape, then your fear can lead you to make emotional, counterproductive decisions. Responding strongly to catcalling men can raise their interest and curiosity in you, something you don’t want. Alternatively, getting scared and locking yourself in your hotel for days will cause you to miss out.

While it’s useful to react to initial approaches calmly and politely, continued harassment requires a quick change in strategy: stop being polite and start being very clear. According to Sandra, radiating confidence is the best way for solo women to avoid unwanted attention. Women often have more power than they think, because the male aggressor also has fears and uncertainties. In many cultures, social standing in the village is essential to survival and the consequences of committing a crime are serious. There might also be religious or political (law enforcement) deterrents that the aggressor must consider. If you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation, you have several options. You can wear a ring and say you have a husband. You can claim that your travel partner is going to show up. Whether the statements are true or not, the goal is to remind the man of the risk of consequences if they attempt anything. More forcefully, you can draw the attention of nearby people by speaking out, say “no” and hold up a hand, palm out, to indicate “stop.”

A third strategy that works for Sandra is to listen to her intuition, even if it’s not always accurate. A “gut feeling” is an immediate, subconscious instinct without a logical rationale. During a conversation, for example, you might gain an intuition about a person by identifying the emotions conveyed by his facial expressions or by predicting his mood changes. If you sense that something is wrong, you should take immediate action rather than merely thinking, “This can’t be happening to me” and freezing with disbelief. Of course, some people have stronger gut feelings than others, and intuition can be swayed by unconscious biases and other psychological interferences. If this happens, it’s important to use other sources of information to make a quick decision.

Lastly, Sandra would like to conclude with some benefits of being a solo woman bicycle tourer. She has found that many communities are especially hospitable to females traveling alone. You might get more offers for help if you have a mechanical breakdown, more invitations from families to join them for a meal or stay for the night. Lastly, if there are serious bureaucratic issues, a sobbing woman is more likely to receive compassion from a government official than a bawling man.

With a Spouse

On a bike tour, your spouse is there with you, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health. That is, unless they say they’d rather remove the muck from a clogged drain than pedal alongside you on a fully loaded bicycle. If you are lucky enough to have a like-minded spouse, touring with them can have many benefits. On the road, you can take turns pulling and drafting, work together to solve mechanical issues, have a lively chat or pedal silently. As when backpacking together, each person should carry approximately the same percentage of body mass, usually around 15%. Off the road, you can divide chores like washing, cooking, and setting up the tent (or checking into a 5-star boutique hotel). If all goes well, you will become a great team, and your marriage will be immeasurably strengthened by the experience. Some of the most successful and harmonious tours are undertaken by married couples.

With your Family

A family bicycle tour can be great fun! There will be even less focus on distances and elevation gains, and more emphasis on ensuring that the kids have a good time, togetherness, and a shared sense of achievement. The youngest children can ride in a trailer or, a baby seat, or a tag-along, in which the rear half a child’s bike is attached by a handle to the seat post of the adult bike. Slightly older children can bring their own bikes, though it’s best if there’s also a trailer the child can sit in while the bike is stowed on top. Dedicated bicycle lanes and trails are best for tours with young children.

Literary Note

Joe Kurmaskie, the Metal Cowboy, is the author of several bicycle touring books. In Mud, Sweat, and Gears: A Rowdy Family Bike Adventure Across Canada on Seven Wheels (2011), Joe takes his wife Beth (who had been resisting touring for 17 years of marriage) and their three children on a trans-Canadian tour. Incredibly, they completed the journey on just two touring bikes, one standard for Beth and one a tandem attached to a tag-along bike attached to a trailer for Joe and the children.

Mud Sweat and Gears

With a Friend

Touring with a friend offers many of the same (though probably not all) the same benefits of riding with a spouse. Finding such a friend can pose a challenge, as many people have no interest in bike touring. They want a relaxing vacation where they don’t need to think or do anything, and a bike tour sounds like the opposite of that to them. If you do find a willing friend, that’s a good start. Before committing to a tour together, make sure that you and your riding partner are compatible in these ways:

  • Communication: Openness, willingness to compromise.
  • Fitness level: Expected distance traveled per day, speed of travel, number of rest days.
  • Budget: Roughing it, credit card touring, or somewhere in between.
  • Overnight accommodations: camping, hostels, bed and breakfasts, or some combination.
  • Daily routine: Sleep in or hit the road early, stay up late drinking beer or retire after sundown.

It’s even possible to venture out with a new friend, one whom you have never met before, by creating a post on bike touring forums, spelling out your planned route, pace, and so on. Alternatively, you can meet this friend while already on tour. In either case, you might form a team until the end of the tour, or you may discover that your paths diverge after some days or weeks together.

With a Group

Riding in a small peloton, the advantages and disadvantages of touring with one or two friends become magnified. On the road, the group will be highly visible to motorists. Responsibilities are usually divided, so that there will be a route planner, a cook, a mechanic, and so on. Instead of worrying about navigation, you just follow the pack. At the campground every evening, you’ll be handed a (hopefully) delicious meal, which is great if you can’t stand to cook. In anybody has a mechanical problem, there will be an abundance of know-how, tools, and spare parts to get that person riding again.

Designating specialist roles, however, will not prevent every rider from having opinions and needs. One person thinks the day’s routes are too short. Another needs to go to the bathroom with alarming frequency. A third has multiple food allergies, and a fourth stops to take selfies every ten minutes. As a result, it will be almost impossible to keep the peloton together, so various smaller groups will form. The usual suspects will be at the front and at the rear. Getting everyone to stop for lunch at the same restaurant could take two hours.

For those who would like to travel by bicycle in larger groups, an organized tour could be a good option. The participants have few responsibilities, minimizing the potential for disagreements. Staff shepherd them along and a sag wagon carries the gear. Meals are laid out, accommodations pre-determined. At the end of the tour, participants can certainly feel a sense of accomplishment. However, they will not have had to overcome any of the challenges commonly associated with self-supported touring, nor will they have met people outside the tour or had any spontaneous adventures. 

Whether riding in an organized tour or a self-supported group, there won’t be a way to experience the peace and quiet that attracts so many people to bike touring. It will be a very social experience, with someone always pulling up alongside you to talk.

Tip

In my experience, the complexity C of a self-supported bicycle touring trip is given by,

where N is the number of adult participants. For a solo tour (N = 1), C = 1. For a tour with N = 3 participants, C = 4; that is, 4 times more complex than a solo tour.

Route Planning

How to best plan your bike adventure depends on your personality. Some people map out their entire route in advance, booking all accommodations prior to departure. Others set off from Point A with little more than a vague idea of how to get to Point B, improvising along the way. The best approach is probably somewhere in between. If the weather is terrible, it’s great to simply take a day off, rather than obsessing about how to get to the night’s pre-planned destination. On the other hand, improvising should not be synonymous with not having any plan whatsoever. It’s advisable to bring along the right equipment and to have a good idea of what lies ahead. It will save you time, money, and a whole lot of frustration.

When planning a bicycle touring route, there are a few things to consider:

  • Purpose: Are you using a bicycle to hop from one Napa Valley winery to another? Do you want to explore Tuscany’s medieval towns? Are you dreaming of a yearlong, around-the-world tour?
  • Philosophy: Are you a planner or an improviser?
  • Distance: How far do you want to ride each day?
  • Terrain: What type of terrain you will be covering (flat, hilly, mountainous)?
  • Weather: What will the weather look like during the time of year you will be touring?
  • Services: Will your route pass through towns or cities where you can resupply on food, water, and other necessities, or will you be cycling in remote areas?
  • Accommodations: Will you be camping, staying at hotels, or some combination?
  • Safety: What are the road conditions, traffic patterns, and crime rates in the regions you will be traveling through?

Purpose

A surprising number of touring cyclists cannot express the purpose of their trip. They set off wanting to experience the freedom of the open road and plan on “seeing how it goes.” The problem is, if things start to go wrong, due to physical issues, bad weather, or any other cause, not having a clear purpose can be confusing and demoralizing. When you reach a crossing, do you go left, right, or straight? Without a clear goal, one road is as good as the other. Pretty soon, there’s no reason to keep pedaling.

Your objective can be as ambitious as selling all your possessions and cycling around the world or as straightforward as pedaling for a week in the vicinity of your home. Working toward your goal will energize and motivate you. As we know, reaching your destination might be counter-climactic, but the memorable part will have been the journey.

While having an objective is great, there is one caveat. You should remain flexible and adaptable in case unforeseen circumstances force you to reevaluate. One of the joys of bicycle touring is discovering independence and resilience. Adapting to situations as they arise might also mean reevaluating your goal. Otherwise, you will cling to an unattainable objective until you ultimately lose motivation to keep pedaling.

Philosophy

A tendency towards planning or improvisation is a defining characteristic of every touring cyclist. Understanding both philosophies will make you aware of the pros and cons of each.

Planners

Planners tend to be slow, deliberate decision makers. If you are a planner, your meticulous plans attempt to predict and control how the trip will unfold. Before leaving home, you purchase or download maps for offline navigation, make detailed itineraries specifying each day’s distance and destination, and calculate foreseen expenses on a spreadsheet. The advantages of thorough planning include making sure you have tickets to specific events you want to attend, probably paying less for transportation by booking in advance, and being assured of a place to sleep every night. The main disadvantage is that you miss out on the spontaneity that often makes bicycle tours memorable. Having to reach a predetermined destination every night might mean pushing yourself during inclement weather or missing out on spending more time at an unexpectedly cool place.

Improvisers

Improvisers tend to make quick, impulsive decisions. If you are an improviser, you pick a starting point (such as your front door), perhaps a destination, and start riding. You are adaptable, ready to react to anything that comes your way. You derive pleasure from riding for exploration’s sake, meeting people and making new discoveries. On the other hand, a lack of planning might mean that you miss out on an amazing activity or are stranded, tired and grumpy, somewhere unpleasant.

The Reality

Although planners and improvisers are portrayed as diametrically opposite, the reality is that bike touring requires planners to do some improvising and improvisers to do some planning. The planners quickly discover that their trip is not going according to plan and are forced to improvise – perhaps they had a mechanical issue and need to figure out how to take public transportation to reach the night’s destination. The improvisers quickly discover that they have forgotten an important detail – such as packing rain gear because the sun was shining on the day of their departure – and need to plan when and where they can purchase waterproof clothing. 

Distance

Staring at a map in the comfort of your own living room, it’s easy to be optimistic about the distances you will bike every day. Unfortunately, this calculus may not consider inclement weather, aches and pains, mechanical failures, rest days on the beach, learning about a cool nearby place to visit, or serendipitous encounters. Unless you are riding on an organized tour, you will find it hard to stick to your original plan as the days on the road add up. 

If you’re new to bicycle touring, don’t be afraid to plan short days, covering 30 km (20 miles) or less. Mix in some days off the saddle to relax and enjoy the sights. As your strength builds up, you may discover that you can ride up to 60 km (30 miles) daily. You can continue to push yourself further each day, becoming a pedaling machine. I’ve met a handful of bicycle tourists who proudly rode 200 km (125 miles) every single day. They hadn’t seen anything on their trip except a long ribbon of asphalt. Most experienced bicycle tourists I have met report that their optimal daily distance is between 75 to 100 km (46 to 62 miles).

Just like knowing your purpose, you must factor in the psychological component of route planning. The first days might be much harder than you expected. If you plan to ride 100 km but are exhausted halfway through, you are likely to be very disappointed. Resist the temptation to give up! If something is not working, be open to changing your goals, whether it be the daily distance or the destination or a stubborn avoidance of public transportation.

Terrain

Once you have a general idea of your route, you can use maps to plan the specific route and get the distances and elevation profile for each day. Your goal is usually to find a scenic route, rather than the fastest way. In your research, you can also use resources like bike-specific mapping websites, local cycling clubs, or bike shops to find popular cycling routes and get tips from locals.

Paper Maps

Baby boomers grew up with family road trips, where part of the fun was getting utterly lost and enduring your parents’ arguments about how to read a map. During bicycle tour route planning, a good paper map affords you the opportunity to quickly survey the terrain and road options across a considerable amount of land. Paper maps offer both given information, which is stated or represented by a symbol, and inferable information, which must be interpreted by the reader. Maps with a scale between 1:100.000 or 1:200.000 offer a good balance between detail (usually including secondary roads and giving an idea of the topography), physical size, and price. For longer tours, purchasing many maps at these scales can get expensive. Furthermore, it might not be practical to take a stack of them with you on the actual ride.

The most common types of paper maps are highway road maps, topographic maps, and strip maps. Highway road maps, years ago handed out freely at gas stations, were the ones at the center of those family road trip navigational catastrophes. The modern versions of these maps still denote roads with different colors and/or widths according to their importance. It is often possible to infer a great deal of additional information, such as the amount of traffic, the presence of hills and mountains, the presence of woodlands for camping, and opportunities for food and water. Roads that traverse from A to B as directly as possible, ignoring local terrain, will usually carry more traffic. In mountainous areas, these roads will go through tunnels rather than up and over the highlands, so they are best avoided. In general, the presence of sharp bends, especially switchbacks, indicates gradients. Here are two examples of highway road maps:

Ordinance Survey (OS) United Kingdom

The OS Road set (scale 1:250,000) ideal for route planning. These maps display roads, towns, and distances, as well as all relevant tourist information, including world heritage sites. The OS Landranger set (scale 1:50,000), recommended for cycling, show all roads, as well as byways, footpaths, bridlepaths, which are particularly useful for bikepackers.

Michelin Regional Series France

For decades, these are the most popular bicycling maps for France. The regional series has a scale of 1:200,000, while the local series is 1:150,000. Topography is conveyed through shading, and mountain roads show single and dual chevrons to indicate steep and steeper sections. Scenic roads and special tourist routes are highlighted.

Another useful type of map is the topographic map, which contains contour lines denoting constant elevations. While the elevation of each contour is given, much additional information can be inferred. For example, when a road crosses elevation contour lines that are close together, it indicates a steeper segment. If a road follows a river, the direction with its flow will be downhill, while the direction against the water flow, toward its source, will be uphill. A bridge crossing a river in a narrow valley is the lowest point of the road (unless the bridge is merely used to shift the road from one riverbank to the other). Here are two examples of topographical maps:

United States Geological Survey (USGS) United States

The USGS publishes maps at various scales. The most common is 1:24,000, covering an area measuring 7.5 minutes of latitude and 7.5 minutes of longitude, commonly called 7.5-minute quadrangle maps. Due to the limited area covered, 7.5-minute maps are not feasible for touring. The USGS also offers a 1:250,000 topographic maps, which can be ordered from standard quadrants or printed on demand.

DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer United States

DeLorme’s atlases feature complete topographic coverage, all types of roads, trails, and land use data. They are available in a large paperback format (11-inches x 15.5-inches) for all 50 states.

Lastly, strip maps show a great deal of detail for only a narrow band of territory. Usually, they are produced specifically to map a long-distance bicycle route. Symbols denote bicycling-relevant services along the route, such as bike shops, grocery stores, restaurants, post offices, and accommodations ranging from hotels to campgrounds. They might also include points of interest, topographic information, turn-by-turn descriptions, safety hazards, and cultural events. Here are some examples of strip maps:

Donau-Radweg (Danube Cycling Route) Germany

Describing one of the most popular bicycle routes from the five sources in Germany to the Black Sea, the Danube Bicycle Route series is divided into three spiral-bound books with detailed maps with a scale of 1:60.000.

Adventure Cycling Association United States

The Adventure Cycling Association offers paper strip maps created by cyclists for cyclists tackling long-distance routes throughout the United States, including three coast-to-coast trails and the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route between Jasper, Alberta, and Antelope Wells, New Mexico (the longest off-pavement trail in the world). The map scale is 1:250,000, except the 1:200,000 Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.

Giants of the Road

On 16 June 1972, four bicycle adventurers (June and Greg Siple, Lys and Dan Burden) departed Anchorage, Alaska, bound for the southern tip of South America on a voyage they called the Hemistour. An article in the May 1973 issue of National Geographic chronicled the first part of the trip (Anchorage to Missoula, Montana). Titled “Bikepacking Across Alaska and Canada,” it is the first known use of the term “bikepacking,” although it does not conform to the modern definition, as the Siples and Burdens toured with racks and panniers. While cycling through the United States, Dan contracted hepatitis, forcing the Burdens to abandon the Hemistour and instead dedicate themselves to organizing Bikecentennial, a mass bicycle ride across the United States to celebrate the 1976 independence bicentennial. The Siples pressed on, arriving in Ushuaia, Argentina, on 25 February 1975. The Bikecentennial non-profit founded by the Burdens and Siples was renamed Adventure Cycling Association, which has become an important nonprofit organization focused on travel by bicycle.

Electronic Maps

Many people will choose to skip the paper maps and go straight to their screens. To get a first impression of road options and distances between cities, it’s hard to beat Google Maps. It’s free, charts nearly the entire planet, and lists millions of up-to-date businesses and points of interest. Selecting the “Bicycling” option on the mobile app or desktop displays bike paths, trails, and bike-friendly roads in green. Its “Satellite View” gives you a bird’s-eye look at the terrain and road conditions (though the imagery might be outdated in some areas). If cycling in remote regions, you can use the app’s offline maps to navigate without an internet connection.

While easy-to-use Google Maps is the gold standard for navigation, its bicycle route-building features are mostly limited to adding waypoints, generating step-by-step directions, and getting a rough idea of elevation changes along the way. Applications catered specifically to cyclists build on Google Maps or the open-source OpenStreetMap database. Generally, these apps offer basic features for free and advanced route planning tools with a premium membership or subscription. While exact functionality and pricing varies by app, the kinds of features available include:

  • Insertion of waypoints and points of interest to build a route.
  • Route suggestions based on fitness level and activity (touring, mountain, or road biking).
  • Road surface information (asphalt, gravel, dirt, and more).
  • Detailed route elevation profiles, including gradients.
  • Turn-by-turn directions along the route, known as cue sheets.
  • Offline maps for navigation without internet connectivity.
  • Route logging (distance, time, speed, cadence, power).
  • Adding and sharing geotagged photos, highlights, and tips to your trip log.
  • Importing existing routes and exporting to GPS-enabled devices for real-time navigation.

Warning: Detour Ahead

When importing and exporting GPS data for route tracking, there are three prevalent file types to consider: KML, TCX, and GPX. To learn more about these, please see here: COMING SOON.

Popular Apps

Some apps are stronger than others in specific geographical regions.

  • Bikemap claims to have the world’s largest collection of bike routes. File formats: GPX, KML (export/import).
  • Ride with GPS, a full-featured app that focuses on route planning on editing, has a worldwide following. File formats: GPX Track, TCX, FIT (export/import), KML (import only).
  • BikeHike builds on the electronic version of the Ordnance Survey maps and is therefore primarily intended for users in the United Kingdom. File formats: GPX Route, GPX Track, KML, TCX (export/import).
  • The Bicycle Route Navigator Android and iOS app from the Adventure Cycling Association offers electronic versions of its paper maps, putting well-established bicycle routes in the United States at your fingertips. However, the routes are managed by the app and not user editable. Separately, Adventure Cycling offers exporting user-editable GPX data for use on GPS devices.
  • German-based Komoot is strongest in Europe. File formats: GPX (export/import), TCX, FIT (import only).

Weather

Weather can play a major role in your enjoyment of a bike tour. It’s a good idea to research the seasonal weather patterns in the places you will be going. Many guidebooks publish charts of rainfall and temperatures by month. A tour around Southeast Asia during the monsoon season requires different preparation than a winter trip in Canada. Less extreme climatic conditions still require appropriate clothing and camping equipment, including waterproof rain gear, a warmer sleeping bag for higher elevations, and an all-season tent for cold-weather camping.

You should also be aware that peak tourist season is often not the best time to bike tour. During the so-called “shoulder seasons,” the attractions will be less crowded, there will be fewer cars on the road, and accommodations may be discounted. The weather, while not ideal, should still be reasonable. Southern Europe, for example, is best visited in May and September.

Popular Apps

Before setting off on a ride, it is a good idea to check the weather, as conditions can change dramatically during a day.

  • Windy is used extensively by sailors, pilots, and storm chasers to get the latest weather forecasts. On Windy, maps are overlaid with vibrant visualizations that intuitively display wind direction and strength. Additional metrics include temperature, precipitation, humidity, and much more.
  • Epic Ride is a full-featured, cycling-specific app. When users either import routes (directly from Strava, Ride with GPS, Komoot, and others) or manually upload TCX or GPX files, Epic Ride provides forecasts for wind, temperature, and precipitation. This app has a 30-day free trial.

Services

The availability of basic services along your route influences the level of planning required. If touring in Germany, you will always be close to grocery stores, restaurants, campgrounds, and bicycle repair shops (keep in mind, however, that most stores will be closed on Sundays). If crossing Kazakhstan, you may need to bring along more spare parts, freeze-dried food, cooking equipment, larger water containers, and a water filter.

Another option, involving greater or lesser risk depending on the destination, is to send supplies ahead. If you read twentieth-century travelogues, you will often encounter descriptions of the authors mailing letters and packages to British Council and American Express offices in Lahore, Calcutta, Bangkok, or wherever their expected route would take them. While those days are over, it is still possible to send packages with supplies to hotels or hostels that you have booked. Clearly, the advantage is not having to transport, for example, freeze-dried food packets until they are needed. The risk is that the package will not arrive, and buying freeze-dried food is challenging or impossible in many parts of the world.

Tip

No matter where you are, always be looking for opportunities to resupply. If a convenience store in the middle of nowhere is open, buy whatever is on offer, as there may not be another one down the road. If you find a good water source, top up your water bottles and other containers. If you are at an establishment with an available wall socket, recharge your electronics.

Tip

If you have a mechanical breakdown that you can’t fix yourself, consider asking a farmer or gas station attendant for help. They will often take an interest and will come up with unexpected solutions. Remain vigilant, however, for the occasional do-gooder who, through an excess of enthusiasm and a deficit of knowledge, will only exacerbate the problem.

Accommodations

As on any trip, you have a choice to make regarding accommodations.

Hotels

Hotels, generally the most expensive accommodation option, are usually associated with credit card touring. For touring cyclists who have been roughing it, splurging on a hotel room may be necessary to feel normal again. A sweaty, oil-stained, rain-drenched cyclist might on the way to the hotel reception might draw a few raised eyebrows, but when you look like that, you are well beyond caring. While you are at it, unobtrusively take your bike up to your room. When nobody is around, you can even wheelie it into an elevator.

Hostels

The hostel, natural habitat of the backpacker, usually refers to less expensive shared accommodations in both urban and rural settings. Hostels are particularly appealing to solo riders looking for some company after a day on the road by themselves. When checking into a hostel, ask if there is a locked bike room. If not, ask for help finding another safe place to park the bike overnight.

Not surprisingly, the quality of hostels varies dramatically. Sometimes you have a room with an amazing view to yourself, other times you try to sleep in a dingy cellar crammed with pre-World War I hospital beds. Some hostels are tidy and relaxing, others shabby and noisy. Staff can treat you like royalty or a third-class citizen. With online reviews readily available, it’s best to research potential locations to avoid having a terrible experience. During high season, making reservations in advance is advisable.  

Private Homes

New friends spontaneously inviting you to stay at their private home is always a possibility on a bicycle tour. For those who like to plan, CouchSurfing and Warmshowers are two hospitality exchange services, connecting travelers with local hosts offering free accommodations. CouchSurfing has a monthly subscription and a global community of millions, while Warmshowers charges a one-time fee and caters specifically to touring cyclists. People who sign up for CouchSurfing and Warmshowers are encouraged to be both givers and recipients of free accommodation.

Campgrounds

As usual, not all campgrounds are equal. The best campgrounds for cyclists are small, simple establishments with a dedicated grassy area for tents and a warm shower (usually coin- or token-operated). Some even have shared kitchens and common areas. The campground hosts are friendly and the prices reasonable. The worst campgrounds tend to be either massive, catering to motor vehicles, or located in holiday areas, such as along a popular beach. In the huge campgrounds of the United States, campers commonly arrive in a motorhome towing a boat, a spare car, or an extra trailer. They settle in, unloading a pile of firewood, vast quantities of meat, coolers filled with beer and soda, and a full set of cookware. They set up a table and chairs with overhead canopy, auxiliary lighting, a bug zapper, and a color television. The holiday campgrounds are no better. While the cyclist is physically tired and usually just wants a quiet night’s rest, guests at the holiday campgrounds are out to party, blaring music and making noise until late at night.

Wild Camping

Countless bicycle tours have been completed successfully without a single night of wild camping. However, if you face unforeseen circumstances, travel in remote areas, or simply prefer to sleep in nature, you may find the sun setting without any organized accommodations in sight.

While wild camping can be an idyllic experience, finding the right place to pitch your tent takes a little practice. Ideally, the spot will be away from houses and hidden from the road. Avoid places with empty bottles, litter, or other telltale signs of a local hangout. In case of rainy weather, find land that is high and dry, avoiding wet ground. On a warm night, you can sleep right on the ground, without pitching the tent at all. Always respect fences, signs, and farmers with shotguns.

In many parts of Europe, wild camping is officially prohibited but unofficially tolerated. However, some countries – such as Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Estonia – encourage wild camping as part of “the everyman’s right.” This right applies in open country, not farmland, well away from the nearest dwelling. You are allowed to camp on such land without asking permission from the landowner. As always, it’s best to check on restrictions on specific locations, number of nights, campfires, and more. 

Wild camping on public land is permitted with some restrictions in Scotland, Canada, the United States, and New Zealand (where the practice goes by the exhilarating name of “freedom camping”). Surprisingly, Australia does not explicitly allow wild camping.

In Asia, South America, and Africa the possibility for wild camping in remote areas increases dramatically. Despite following best practices, many cyclists report being discovered by farmers or shepherds and invited to their homes.

Tip

A tent in a muted color is much more discreet than a neon orange one.

Safety

Some people cite safety concerns as reasons not to go on a self-supported bicycle tour. Specifically, they worry about road accidents, bad people, and wild animals.

Road Accidents

Of the various types of possible mishaps when riding a bicycle, it is a collision with a motor vehicle that presents the most serious safety concern for cyclists worldwide. Proper route planning can help mitigate this inherent risk.  Avoid, as much as possible, busy roads and cities. No matter how much experience you have weaving between cars, you cannot predict when someone will swing a car door open ahead of you. The good news is that bicycle touring is made for secondary roads. It’s natural to want to avoid the unpleasant combination of heavy truck traffic and a ten-centimeter-wide shoulder that is common on major motorways. While it’s usually not practical to avoid cities altogether, you could consider taking public transportation from the city center to the outskirts.

When planning, make use of dedicated bicycle trails as much as possible. Another factor is the side of the road on which you are used to riding. As silly as it sounds, cycling on the opposite side of the road can be disconcerting.

Bad People

This is a complicated subject. Numerous bicycle touring websites and blogs encourage you to explore anywhere the world with the logic that “almost all people are good.” You can easily find stories of cyclists overcoming their fears and experiencing kindness in far-flung corners of the globe. The story usually goes like this: one or more adventure cyclists decide to travel to Dangerous Country X. Every guidebook, article, and website they read unanimously declares, “you must stick to the cities and only travel on the highways.” The cyclists begin their tour of X but soon tire of the cities and the traffic on the main roads. Turning off the highway, they discover amazing nature, picturesque mountaintop villages, and hospitable, generous locals. The prevailing sentiment is that people who never dare to leave their home country, being influenced by government travel advisories and mainstream media reports of global violence, are really missing out. It’s wonderful to spread a message that the world is a warm, fuzzy, safe place.

The only problem with “almost all people are good” is that single nagging word, almost. The truth is, if you spend enough time on the road, you are going to encounter people who will not welcome you with open arms. No matter how many positive interactions you’ve had, you will encounter challenging situations. Denying this truth can cause you to become oblivious, making you an easier target.

Countless bicycle tours have been completed successfully without a single night of wild camping. However, if you face unforeseen circumstances, travel in remote areas, or simply prefer to sleep in nature, you may find the sun setting without any organized accommodations in sight.

You can benefit from positive cultural exchanges, connecting with both locals and like-minded travelers, while staying aware of potential dangers. Even though Dangerous Country X might have a higher crime rate, it’s very unlikely that the entire country is “dangerous.” (Similarly, no country is entirely “safe.”) The level of danger you experience, in any country, depends on specific factors such as your exact location, the time of day, your appearance, and your actions.

One suggestion is to listen to the advice of the locals you meet! Contrary to the perception of many tourists, the locals in places lying off the tourist-beaten track are more likely to watch out for you. For example, locals can advise you to avoid certain streets and neighborhoods known for being packed with tourists, therefore attracting pickpockets. If you need a specific good or service, locals can also help identify reputable vendors. All this is easiest done in a country where you and the locals have a common language, but it’s amazing how far you can get with nonverbal communication.

Probably the two most common encounters between a touring cyclist and bad people are harassment and theft. Harassment on the road can include being yelled at from a passing vehicle or having some object thrown at you. Occasionally, a driver might think that you would make decent roadkill. Harassment off the bike could mean disturbing your tent in some way.

Regarding theft, your worst nightmare is that someone will steal your bicycle. Situational awareness is key to taking steps to deter bike theft. Considerations include the number of tourists around, cultural values, and the urban setting. In rural villages, it’s usually enough to park somewhere visible. In a town, it’s usually worth locking the bike while shopping. Big cities are more dangerous, and the bike should probably not be left unattended. If you are not touring solo, you can have one person stay with the bikes while the other runs errands. If you are alone, consider asking for help from a friendly stranger. 

Even if the bicycle is safe, your bags are vulnerable when the bicycle is unattended. Fortunately, most people have no interest in rummaging through your possessions. The most important step is to take all valuables with you every time. Many people have a handlebar bag that contains passport, wallet, phone, and camera. Close all bags tightly before walking away. Make sure there no small shiny objects – GPS device, lights, and similar – are visible. In fact, the grungier your rig, the safer it is. Weathered bags, mud splats, and dust all contribute to the lack of appeal to would-be thieves.

Wild Animals

Many people ask touring cyclists if they worry about wild animals. The two most common places to come face-to-face with wild animals are at the campsite and on the road. Animals appearing at the campsite will generally make no attempt to bother people. Sadly, most of the wildlife you will encounter on the road will have been killed by a passing vehicle. The rest will generally keep a safe distance from the road. Rarely, a large snake or small furry animal will dart across the road in front of you. Less exotic but much more common are dogs. Tour long enough and you will have encounters with every breed, from the smaller mutts that are all bark and no bite to large, aggressive beasts. Stray dogs tend to bark out of fear, while other dogs bark as a warning because they are guarding a house, a flock of sheep, or their puppies. I am not a dog expert, but my experience is that most dogs are not out to bite cyclists, so it is best to meet them with a show of authority (yelling or talking to them, as appropriate), keeping the animal in sight, and slowly moving away. Pedaling away quickly will only give them more confidence that they are superior. I have been bitten only once (Zagreb, Croatia), by a German shepherd that darted towards me from the side, without barking.  

What to Bring on Tour

You’ve researched every piece of gear, carefully made your selections based on weight, cost, and other key parameters, reviewed countless packing lists from previous adventurers, and finally got to packing your bags for your first tour. Chances are that by the time you are finished you will have overpacked, but don’t worry, this is a bicycle touring rite of passage.

Read enough cycling blogs and reviews and you may become convinced that you need to outfit your bike with all kinds of technical gear and expensive equipment. Packing lists compiled by touring cyclists sponsored by cycling and outdoors companies break all cost records. I stress again the importance of matching the equipment used to the tour characteristics. Unless you are a masochist, you need a tent that will keep you dry and a sleeping bag that will keep you warm. However, you are unlikely to need the most lightweight tent on the market or the sleeping bag with the lowest temperature rating, both of which have hefty price tags. You will usually be more comfortable with high-end gear, but a basic tent and sleeping bag will be sufficient for most tours, cycling-specific clothes are not essential, and most tech gadgets are just a luxury.

Logically, the best way to cut down is to bring only essentials, as every extra pound you carry will make a difference on a long tour. Non-essential items could include extra clothing, books, and games. Think carefully about whether you really need items like a camp chair or a portable music player (I’ve seen people touring with both). Avoid bringing valuable items such as expensive jewelry or electronic devices, which may get lost or stolen. Of course, you need to balance potential weight savings with your own interests. For some, a laptop and a digital SLR camera with various lenses are “must-haves.” A birdwatcher might bring a book and small binoculars, a writer a notebook, a professional juggler some balls and bowling pins. The bottom line is that a bike trip is not a good time to indulge possibilities and new hobbies. Carry only frequently used amusement items.

Clothing

The choice of clothing for every trip depends on the season, the altitude, and the climate. Exposure to the elements calls for the onion look, with three layers that can be added and removed as needed. The base layer pulls moisture away from the skin, the middle layer provides insulation, and the outer layer forms a protective shell against wind and rain. Clothing should be breathable, allow freedom of movement, and not get snagged in turning gears.

Base Layer

When I started touring, I didn’t own any cycling-specific clothing. Since I sweat (not perspire), any cotton clothing I wore quickly became saturated. Cotton is also slow to dry, which I quickly realized was inconvenient on tours. Over the years, I gave in to cycling in padded, skin-tight Lycra shorts. I had to admit that they were more comfortable and reduced chafing dramatically. Road cycling shorts come in two varieties, regular and bib, which have shoulder straps. The advantage of bib shorts is that they dispense with a potentially uncomfortable elastic waistband. The disadvantage for women is that going to the bathroom requires taking off a lot of clothing to get to the shoulder straps. Off the bike, some feel awkward walking around in tight clothing, so a compromise is to pull a pair of baggy shorts over the Lycra. Another possibility is to instead wear loose-fitting mountain biking shorts, which are cut for cycling and have an integrated padding. In general, cheaper shorts have sewn pads, while more expensive ones have welded pads without abrasive seams. Due to the padding, bike shorts can take a while to dry, so it’s best to tour with two pairs.

I also prefer to wear a cycling jersey made of synthetic materials that dry quickly, typically polyester. These jerseys are also longer at the back, where there are pockets. For those who want to avoid the body-tight look, merino wool T-shirts are an excellent alternative. Merino, while more expensive than cotton or synthetics, wicks moisture away from the body, is comfortable across a range of temperatures, and remains odorless for longer periods. While it’s possible to tour with just one cycling top, I find it useful to have a second one to match the shorts. Women-specific shorts and jerseys are also available.

For cold-weather riding, it’s easy to pull on sleeves and leggings for added warmth. Another option is to wear a long-sleeved top or a pair of thermal tights as base layer.

Middle Layer

In the layering concept, the middle layer should trap pockets of warm air close to the skin. Merino wool and fleece are excellent material choices for this layer.

Outer Layer

A quality rain suit (jacket and pants) is a fundamental piece of touring clothing, providing protection in the rain and cool-weather wind-breaking protection. Ideally, your suit will be lightweight, breathable, and waterproof. Ponchos made of thin plastic don’t hold up. Heavy nylon rain suits, while waterproof, lack ventilation and are not recommended for cycling. If your budget allows it, buy a rain suit made with breathable waterproof fabrics like Gore-Tex and eVent. Keep in mind that not even Gore-Tex will not keep you dry during the heaviest downpours, especially if you are pedaling hard and generating heat and moisture.

Extremities

Now that the body core is taken care of, all that’s left is the extremities.

Feet

Almost any kind of socks will work for warm-weather touring (again, I would avoid cotton). In the cold, cycling-specific winter socks with thermal characteristics are nice to have. Shoe choice depends on the pedals. For those choosing flat pedals, almost any kind of shoe works, depending on preference. I have seen touring in tennis shoes, sandals, and boots. In cold, rainy weather it is possible to slip on a pair of waterproof or water-resistant overshoes to keep your feet dry.

Head

I started wearing a helmet when I was a teenager and never stopped. Modern helmets, though lighter and more comfortable than their predecessors, still need to be fit properly and worn correctly to be effective. In a fall, just having one on your head is not enough (though better than having it strapped to your rear pannier, as I have often seen). Whether to wear a helmet or not is a matter of personal choice, but be aware that several countries, including Australia and Spain, have made helmets compulsory for cyclists.

Some cyclists still wear an old-fashioned cycling cap instead of a helmet, which looks stylish but only offers protection against the sun. The same cap can be used under a helmet to keep water out of your eyes on rainy days. Some choose to wear a bandana to keep moisture out. A beanie or other head cover is useful on cold days.

Sunglasses will keep the glare out of your eyes and stop dust and pollen from irritating you in the summer.

Hands

In warm weather, some riders use fingerless cycling gloves with soft leather undersides to protect the palms from blisters. In cold weather, Neoprene gloves trap warmth from your hands. Even though these gloves are not waterproof, the moisture that seeps in is heated up to form a protective layer. Of course, fully waterproof gloves can also be purchased.

Off the Bicycle

It’s important to carry comfortable clothes to change into after a long day on the road. Regular street clothes will also make mingling with non-cyclists a lot less awkward. A T-shirt and pair of light shorts or long pants are important. On tours where it gets chilly in the evening, nothing beats putting on a warm down jacket once the riding is done. A pair of flip flops or light sandals give your feet a break after a long day.

 

Ideally, you will wash your clothes in a sink or shower and hang them up to dry overnight. If the weather is fair, wet clothing can be secured on top of bicycle bags for drying during pedaling.

Camping Gear

Tent

A tent is important for the self-sufficient bicycle tourist, as on many nights it will serve as your home away from home. Although you will often want your tent to be lightweight, there are times when a heavier, more rugged model will perform better. Single-skin tents might be lighter, but a combination of inner layer and rainfly provides more warmth and better ventilation. A four-season mountaineering tent is overkill for all but the most demanding expeditions.

Tip

To have room to rummage through and organize your gear, consider using a 2-person tent if traveling solo and a 3-person tent if traveling with a partner. The vestibules over the doors are useful for storing dirty clothes and sheltered cooking.

Sleeping Bag

Again, the choice of materials comes down to down versus synthetics. Down refers to the fluffy clusters found beneath the feathers of various species of wildfowl. Each cluster has thousands of tiny fibers that trap warm air.

Historical Note

Down has been used as insulation in Iceland, Canada, Scandinavia, and Siberia for centuries. For example, the famous and extremely rare eiderdown comes from the eider duck. While down was historically collected from waterfowl such as gulls and ducks, presently most down comes from domestic geese bred for the food industry (China dominates world production). Since some geese are subjected to cruel practices such as live plucking and force feeding, the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) has been established to certify that the birds have not been inflicted pain, suffering or stress.

If you can afford it, choose a high-quality down, which is warm, durable, and highly compressible. When wet, down tends to clump, lose its warmth, and dry slowly, so down is now sometimes treated with a hydrophobic chemical to improve its performance when wet. Pure goose down bags are very expensive, so most will have some feathers mixed in for structure. The ratio of down to feathers is given by a number such as 90/10, which means that the filling is 90% down clusters and 10% feathers.

The other number to look for is fill power or loft, which quantify a bag’s warmth-to-weight ratio. Eiderdown insulates at an impressive 1000+ in3/oz fill power. Insulation for most outdoor gear ranges from 550 to 750. Fill powers of 800 and up are used only for lightweight, cold-weather bags. As with tents, a three-season bag (temperature rating down to approximately -5°C / 23°F) is usually more than enough.

Design and construction are also important in maximizing a sleeping bag’s warmth and comfort. Rectangular bags are roomy and many can be completely unzipped for use as a quilt. However, they don’t have a hood that prevents heat from leaking out through your head. Mummy bags are hooded, generally fitting closely around your whole body to maximize warmth and minimize weight. Semi-rectangular bags offer a compromise between the two shapes, including a hood but not fitting as snugly as the mummy style.

Sleeping Pad

Sleeping pads keep you from lying directly on cold, hard ground, and can make the difference between a thorough rest and a night of tossing and turning. The three types of sleeping pads are closed-cell foam pads, self-inflating pads, and air pads. Closed-cell foam pads are the original sleeping pads, and you still see a few bicycling tourists riding with silvery egg-crate cylinders strapped on their bikes. These pads are cheap and durable but bulky and not that comfortable to sleep on. The most popular choice remains the self-inflating pad, invented and patented by the American company Therm-a-Rest in 1972. These mats combining open-cell foam with air, are known for their comfort. Despite the name, the mats require blowing into the valve to fully inflate. The smallest and lightest option is the air pad, which dispenses with the foam and relies entirely on air. Without foam to get in the way, air pads compress down into small packages. The downsides of air pads are that overall, air pads are more expensive that the other technologies. They also puncture more easily, although they can be repaired in the field.

The insulating strength of the sleeping pad depends on the amount of air between you and the ground. For this reason, self-inflating and air pads are better insulators than closed-cell foam, and it’s better to get full-length pads rather than shorter ones, if possible. The insulation of sleeping pads is given by the R-value. No standardized, independent body oversees the calculation of R-values and every manufacturer uses its own testing method. R-values range from 1 to 10, with increasing numbers corresponding to greater insulation. Ultimately, the choice of sleeping pad again depends on your emphasis on comfort, the expected nighttime temperatures, and the weight and size that you are willing to devote to a sleeping pad.

Cooking Gear

In some parts of the world, you can spend nights camping but not carry any cooking gear. You can either eat at restaurants every day or enjoy cold food. However, if you are a camper who depends on a warm cup of coffee or tea in the morning and a warm homecooked evening meal, you are going to have to bring along cooking gear.

Utensils

If you are cooking, you can get by with a basic set of utensils, such as a sharp knife, a small cutting board, and a three-quart pot with a lid. For each person, you need a cutlery set, a plate, a cup, and a mug for hot drinks. You also need a sponge and cloth to clean and dry dirty dishes. Optionally you can carry one or two Tupperware containers for leftovers.

Stove

Once again, the choice of stove is a topic of intense debate among backpackers and touring cyclists. The fundamental choice is fuel type: gas in a canister or liquid fuel.

Canister stoves burn a mix of isobutane and propane. To use, you simply thread the stove into a 4- or 8-ounce fuel canister, turn the knob to start fuel flow, light it, and adjust to quick boil, simmer, or in between. Canister stove models vary from the ultralight MSR PocketRocket 2 to the all-in-one Jetboil system for boiling water efficiently.

There are some drawbacks to canister stoves. First, they are generally harder to find outside Europe and North America, except for backpacking hotspots (where you might find inferior quality brands at much higher prices). You cannot fly with these canisters, nor is it easy to refill them, so the cost of relying on them can add up. Second, when the temperatures drop below freezing, they don’t burn well. Canisters do better in the cold if they can be turned upside down, so stoves like the Kovea Spider sit directly on the ground and connect remotely to an inverted cannister via a hose.

While canister stoves are more convenient for warm weather trips, liquid fuel stoves are known for cold-weather performance and worldwide adaptability, as they can run on unleaded gasoline, white gas, kerosene, and more. That makes any gas station in the world a potential refueling stop. One stove that can be used with various liquid fuels and is popular with mountaineers is the MSR XGK EX. MSR claims that, using kerosene, this lightweight blowtorch can boil 1 liter of water in just 2.8 minutes. Most people don’t seem to mind that the XGK EX sounds like the first manned mission to Mars is blasting off right next to them. Perhaps for this reason, MSR also sells a line of WhisperLite stoves that tone down the decibels.

One challenge with liquid fuel is having to transport it on your bicycle. Two bottle sizes are common, 600 milliliters and 1 liter, which can provide fuel for up to two weeks of cooking. Ideally, you should keep these bottles out of the panniers, either strapped down securely or in water bottle cages.

Another option is the Swedish-made Trangia stove, which offers an all-in-one solution. Trangia stoves include a liquid fuel burner, aluminum lower and upper windscreens, two pots, a frying pan, and an optional kettle. The two sizes are 27 Small (1-2 people) and the 25 Large (3-4 people, larger pots and frying pan). The standard burner is a receptacle into which you pour denatured alcohol, but there is also an option to use a multi-fuel burner, including canisters. The base aluminum material can be upgraded to non-stick, hard-anodized, and Duossal with stainless steel.

Personal Items

Toiletries

You need a bag for the basics: toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, deodorant, and sunscreen. Women will want to bring along feminine hygiene products. A roll of toilet paper and a quick-drying travel towel are also essential.

First Aid Kit

Because accidents can happen, it is advisable to bring along some form of first aid kid. Pharmacies and equipment stores sell a variety of pre-packaged first aid kits, though these can be bulky and contain items that of poor quality or not necessary on your trip. Assembling your own kit allows you to tailor your kit to your needs (medications, allergies, destination, distance to the nearest clinic) and use higher-quality supplies.

Entertainment

During rest days or rainy afternoons, it’s good to engage in an activity to pass the time. Alternatives to purely digital entertainment include a book, a pen and notebook, and a game. You don’t want to travel with “dead weight,” so make sure that whatever you bring will get used!

Tools

While some challenging issues might require a trip to the local bicycle shop, carrying a basic set of tools will keep your riding longer and, in case of trouble, get you back on the road faster. For tours lasting up to a few months, you will want to pack the tools necessary for assembling and disassembling your bike, fixing common failures, and performing routine maintenance. For longer trips, you might want to bring along a few extra tools.

Tip

While you don’t need to be a bicycle mechanic to enjoy touring, it helps to know how to use your tools. If you leave home without this knowledge, make sure you tour in a place with cellular coverage so that you can watch YouTube videos.

Bicycle Assembly and Disassembly

If you are boxing your bicycle for airplane travel, you need to know how to disassemble and reassemble your bicycle. Along the way, you might also need to take apart individual pieces, such as fenders and racks, that need repairs.

To get a bicycle in shape for a box, you potentially need to loosen or remove wheels, pedals, seat posts, stems, racks, and fenders. A fold-up metric hex (Allen) set combines several wrench sizes into one tool, making it harder to lose than individual wrenches. Park Tool’s AWS-11 features wrenches of 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, and 10mm. A small crescent wrench is useful for many jobs, such as holding any nuts while loosening or tightening a corresponding bolt with a hex wrench.

If your pedals have a hex socket on the end, you can loosen or tighten them with your hex wrench (usually 8mm). If the pedals only have parallel faces on the spindle that threads into the crank, these are loosened or tightened with a 15mm open wrench. Use your crescent wrench if you can fit it into the space. Otherwise, you will have to use a dedicated wrench, which does have an extra-long handle to keep your hand clear of chainring teeth.

Tip

Remember that the left pedal as you sit on the bike (usually marked with an L) is reverse threaded, so it gets tightened by turning counterclockwise rather than clockwise. Pedaling action will tend to tighten the pedals, so don’t overtighten them with your wrench. Not being able to remove pedals can be a real headache.

Common Issues
Flat Tire

Ride long enough and a flat tire is inevitable. With a little practice, you should be back on the road in no time. Tire irons (also known as tire levers now that they are made of plastic) remove the tire so that you can replace the inner tube. Pedro’s wide plastic tire levers are the perfect combination of strength and stiffness. Use a pump to inflate the new inner tube and you are off.

It’s also possible to use a CO2 cartridge, a small tube filled with compressed carbon dioxide gas on which you screw a valve that permits you to control the flow. While cartridges are very compact and pressurize the tube quickly, they are consumables. If anything goes wrong, you will be stuck with an empty cartridge unless you carry extras. Therefore, you need to carry extra cartridges to make sure you are safe. Lastly, CO2 cartridges are not allowed on airplanes, so you need to purchase and dispose of them locally.

If you are riding tubeless, a more serious puncture won’t be closed by the sealant. Sometimes the tubeless setup can be salvaged by using a tubeless tire plugs or patches, adding more sealant, and adding air, as required. If the tire is unseated, a small pump will not provide the pressure required to reseat it. Inflating with a CO2 cartridge will tend to freeze the sealant, making it useless, and should only be attempted in emergency situations. Often, the only recourse is to use an inner tube until reaching a place (for example, a gas station with an air compressor) where the tubeless tire can be reseated. If the tubeless tire is badly damaged, it might be difficult to find a compatible replacement at a local bicycle shop.

Tip

If using Presta or Dunlop valves, it is advisable to carry the appropriate adapter (Presta-to-Schrader or Dunlop-to-Shrader) to take advantage of compressed air at gas stations worldwide. Always take care when using an air compressor!

Tip

Bringing a patch kit along extends the life of punctured inner tubes that are otherwise in good condition. If the glue has been opened, make sure to check its condition before setting off. The glue is notorious for drying out.

Broken Spoke

A broken spoke throws the wheel out of alignment, which makes pedaling a bit unpleasant but not impossible. It also means one less spoke available to carry the load, which increases the chances for a second spoke to break. You see where this is going.

If you have a cassette, your bike will have 3 spoke lengths: front wheel, rear wheel drive side, rear wheel non-drive side. If you have an internal hub, your rear wheel spokes will be the same length. Depending on trip duration and terrain, it’s a good idea to carry spare spokes of each length. Due to the weight distribution, the spokes on the rear wheel are more likely to break than on the front wheel. To replace them, you should have a dedicated spoke wrench, which has a slot that fits the spoke nipple protruding from the rim. Various sizes are available, so make sure the wrench slot matches your spoke nipples. If the spoke happens to be on the drive side, you need to use a portable cassette remover such as the Next Best Thing mk2 (NBT2) before you can access the faulty spoke.

Tip

After replacing a spoke or through normal wear, your wheel might be a bit warped. The solution is truing the wheel with a spoke wrench, which requires practice to master. First, turn the bike upside down and spin the wheel to identify where the rim swerves (rim brake pads are great for this – with disc brakes, you need to find some item like a pencil to attach to the frame near the rim). Use the spoke wrench to slowly increase the tension on the side opposite where the rim bulges to make it true. Note that looking down at the spoke nipple, you tighten the spoke by turning the spoke counterclockwise and loosen it by turning it clockwise. Give it a quarter turn at a time, to see if you notice an improvement.

Broken Chain

After taking thousands of kilometers of punishment, a chain can protest by developing a stiff link, or worse yet, breaking completely. At those times, a chain breaker tool will allow you to remove the damaged link. If you have a replacement universal chain link, such as the Powerlink from SRAM, use it to make your chain the same length as before (a chain’s key parameter is its width, determined by the number of cassette cogs, so make sure your universal link is compatible with your chain). If you don’t have any spares, you can use the next pin to reconnect the chain. Using the chain breaker tool, push out the pin until it just allows the chain to slide in, then push the pin back in. This will be a weak link and your chain will be shorter, but at least you can keep riding until you can find a replacement chain.

Broken Cable

Through long-term use or sudden mishap, brake and gear cables can snap. Having replacement brake and gear cables is recommended on long expeditions (as in, around the world). Pliers might be handy to work with the cable, and a cable cutter is useful to cut the cable to length. Some all-purpose multitools have built-in pliers and cable cutters, eliminating the need to carry specialized tools.

Solving Problems on the Road

To MacGyver (yes, it’s a verb in the Oxford English Dictionary now) is to make or repair an object by using whatever items are available. When something goes wrong on tour, it’s good to have a repair arsenal at your fingertips. Duct tape is legendary for sealing cracks, patching holes, insulating copper wire, making shoes water-resistant, preventing blisters, and joining your shoe to your pedal (makeshift clipless pedal!) when one of your crank arms has fallen off. Keith Moon, the drummer for The Who, secured headphones to his head with duct tape. Cable (zip) ties are great for securely reattaching pieces that have come apart, holding together broken straps, securing awkwardly shaped items, and “locking” tent zippers together. Hose clamps can be used to repair a rear rack, while P-clamps provide attachment points where once there were none. A portable sewing kit will help you mend your clothes, tent, sleeping bag, and even help repair a gashed tire. Extra wire, extra rope, and electrical tape round out the MacGyver list.

Maintenance

The amount of maintenance required depends on tour length. For tours lasting a few weeks, it is usually sufficient to set off with a recently tuned-up bicycle and just maintain the drive train and tire pressure. On tours lasting many months, especially in places where quality replacements are not readily found, you should carry spare brake pads and even a tire that can fold down to occupy less space.

While touring, there are hawks who inspect every aspect of their bicycle every night, tightening already-tight bolts, dabbing drops of oil here and there, tuning and fine-tuning. Others do absolutely no maintenance, riding their bicycles literally into the ground. As usual, a balance is probably wisest, and rest days are a perfect time to execute routine maintenance.

Drive Train

A hard toothbrush and a rag are all that are needed to clean the chain, cassette, and crankset. WD-40 or similar solvent spray will help loosen the muck, but it’s not worth bringing on tour just for this purpose. After it’s clean, apply a few drops of lubricant. 

A small screwdriver, found on multitools, is needed to adjust the derailleurs.

Tire Pressure

Keep an eye on your tire pressure. Having a pump with a gauge is very helpful.

Tool List

An all-purpose multitool such as a Leatherman or a Swiss army knife is essential. Depending on the model you choose, they can include knives, a can opener, a cable cutter, a file, pliers, scissors, screwdrivers, and a corkscrew.

You also need to decide whether to bring a cycling multitool, or separate, dedicated tools. The Topeak Alien series includes many of the tools needed for basic repairs, including hex wrenches, tire levers, a chain break tool, a spoke wrench, and more.

<ONE DAY THERE WILL BE A TOOL LIST HERE>