A Beginner’s Introduction to Cycle Touring

bike touring

Tips on how to prepare, plan, pack for and get pedaling on your first cycle camping trip

Don’t be put off by thinking that you need to be superfit and clad in shrink-to-fit Lycra in order to go camping with your bike. Cycle touring is a wonderful way to see the world, starting with a short overnight trip to a nearby destination.

If you have done some camping and some cycling before, here’s how to combine the two.

The bike

There are dedicated touring bikes, but to get started, it doesn’t matter what sort of bike you use – road bike, mountain bike, city bike or hybrid – as long as all the essentials are in working order. Check that brakes, wheels, tires and gears are in good condition. A strong, secure rear rack is a must. An additional front rack will help distribute weight, especially if you are cycling alone, but is not essential.

Bags and panniers

You’ll need a set of rear panniers at least. There are many reputable makes; just ensure that yours are waterproof. Most also now come with reflective marks for cycling in dim light. You may find front panniers helpful in distributing weight more evenly around the bike. If you have a large tent, put it into a drybag, ideally a brightly colored one. A barbag to sit on the handlebars is useful for keeping money, phone, camera, and binoculars. Don’t be tempted to have too large a bar bag; it’s too easy to fill it with things you don’t really need.

Tent

Bring as light a tent as you can lay your hands on. If you have company, share the components to spread the weight.

Clothing

For the actual cycling, padded Lycra shorts or leggings will help if you are doing more than about 30 miles, especially if it is hilly, but don’t let the lack of them stop you. Light layers that allow moisture to wick out will be the most comfortable. Make sure you have warm clothes to hand for rest stops, to avoid cooling down too quickly.

Bring a change of clothes for the evening, including spare footwear if you can bear the weight: when feet have suffered a wet day of cycling, a pair of dry trainers fresh from a secure drybag is a real treat after the evening shower.

Unless you’re in a country where it never rains, make sure you bring waterproofs – jacket and leggings. Even if you don’t like to wear these when actually cycling, they can be used as seats on damp surfaces and will keep your evening clothes dry.

Cooking equipment

The usual camping cooking implements, slimmed down to save weight. Bring a lightweight stove, a pan with a lid, light cutlery, camping plate, mug and pocket knife.

Safety

Hi-visibility jacket or vest, front and rear bike lamps and head torch: even if you don’t plan on going on busy roads or cycling at night, be prepared.

Injuries

In long tours, there is a high probability of injuries. Make sure you have a first aid kit with you. Always be in contact with your personal injury attorneys as they can help you get better compensation for your personal and professional injuries.

Bike tools

Even for a short trip, bring a skeleton repair kit: a spare inner tube and a puncture repair kit is the minimum requirement. Nothing is more frustrating than not having the means to deal with a simple puncture.

Bungee cords

These hold the cycle-touring world together! Always have a few spares of various sizes: they can be used for anything.

Destination

Choose somewhere not too far away: don’t try to cycle more than 40 miles on your first attempt, and reduce this substantially if the terrain is hilly. Have a look at your local map for places you often drive by in the car on your way to more distant places, somewhere not too far away from where you’ve never spent much time. Take the opportunity to take some time to get there, enjoying the journey.

Route

In Britain, the National Cycle Network (NCN) covers 12,600 miles of the country, on quiet roads and lanes, traffic-free paths, and signed routes through busy areas. The routes are well-thought-out and worth using where they coincide with your desired general direction. If you wish to plot your own route, get hold of the Ordnance Survey maps for your locality. Landranger maps cover the country at a scale of 1:50,000, while the Outdoor Leisure series shows more detail at 1:25,000. For road cycling, the Landrangers are perfectly adequate. When planning your route, aim to spend as much time as possible on the little yellow roads, denoting unclassified lanes. Remember though that these too can be busy, and motorists may fly along these as much as along straighter, wider roads.

In the US, the Adventure Cycling Route Network fulfills a similar function to the NCN, with over 40,000 miles of routes plotted.

Loading the bike

It might sound obvious, but a stand can be a great help when loading panniers onto the racks if there are no handy walls or fence posts to lean against. Be prepared for it to give way and try to tip the bike onto you.

Spread the weight as evenly as possible, with heavy items balancing each other at either side (and front and back if you have front panniers). If you have your tent in a separate dry bag, lay it along the top of the rear rack or cross-ways across the top of your panniers. Keep the weight in your barbag as low as possible, as this will affect the steering.

Have a test run

Before you go out onto the road, spend ten minutes or so cycling around a safely deserted spot to get used to the way the bike handles. It feels peculiar at first; it takes much longer to build up momentum, and the steering feels entirely different. Even if you’re impatient to get going, do take this time to get accustomed to the feel of the laden bike.

Things to remember while cycling

You’re much wider than usual. Cars will have to give you a wider berth.

Take extra care over slow maneuvers: the weight will want to pull you over. Pay attention to your surroundings and pick your stopping places well in advance

You’ll be pedaling in a lower gear. Try not to get impatient; just enjoy it. Spreading the weight out over four panniers will help you maintain your momentum on the flat and on ascents, albeit in a lower gear, but on hills, it will still feel sometimes as if an evil hand has grabbed hold of the Seatpost and is pulling you back down the hill. It’s not a race.

It will take longer to get up to speed on the flats, but you will have more momentum when you do. Take care and don’t rush: tiny swerve around potholes will be magnified by your extra weight.

You’ll be consuming more energy. Keep snacks accessible and carry as much water as you can, refilling whenever the opportunity arises. Plan some refreshment stops.

Enjoy the views!

When you arrive

Revel in the virtuous sensation of having brought everything you need on your own vehicle, pedaled by your own two legs. Pitch up, eat well, visit a local hostelry. Cycle touring is addictive.

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