Cycle touring is a great way to travel the world. It’s slow enough that you get the feel of a landscape and culture, but fast enough that you can see lots in a day. You can have fun, experiences and get fitter in the process. So what sort of gear do you need to get started?
It seems a bit ridiculous to point out, but yes – you need a bicycle to go cycle touring. Chances are that, since you’re reading this, you already have one. There are hundreds of articles out there advising you on which bike is best for touring. Here’s the honest answer: it really doesn’t matter.
You can take whichever bike you have, as long as it won’t fall apart half way around. Even if it does, as long as you’re going places with a bike shop, you’ll probably be okay. If you don’t have a bicycle yet, it’s more important to get one that fits you well than one with the best specification and features. A saddle that’s not too sore goes a long way too.
Don’t want to buy a bike but still want to go cycle touring? That’s okay too! There are loads of places you can hire bicycles, particularly ones near dedicated off-road cycle routes. Sure they might not fit you as well, but it saves you the hassle of transporting your bike to the start of your route – and many companies will even pick it up for you at the other end. How easy is that?
If you’re feeling more adventurous, consider other possibilities for two wheeled transport. How about a tandem bicycle? Or a recumbent bicycle? Could you use a tag-along or trailer for the kids?
Cycling – Clothes
For your first cycling tour, my advice is: don’t get too hung up about the clothes. You don’t need to be head to toe in lycra, with cleated shoes and specialist underwear. As long as you can ride in it (no billowing skirts please) and it doesn’t cause you too much discomfort, then it will do.
On of the biggest stumbling blocks for wannabie cycle tourers is feeling like they have to have all of the gear straight off. Of course you don’t. In fact, it’s probably better not to, because if you spend all of that money on kit and then decide that you don’t like cycle touring you’ll have wasted a huge amount of money.
That said, if you’re starting out on a 50 day cycling epic, then it will pay off to have something comfy to ride in. A helmet is also strongly recommended for everybody. Sure there are still people who will ride without them, but there are still people who refuse to wear a seatbelt. It’ s better to be safe than sorry.
Cycling – Parts
Even with the best will and the newest bicycle in the world, the chances are you’ll have some bike problems on the way. When the only way for you to progress on your trip is by bicycle, it’s pretty important to look after it – and be able to fix it if things go wrong. As a very bare minimum, you’ll need to bring some spare parts and tools to use them.
A cycle repair kit is an absolute must for any length of trip. This should include items like a spare inner tube, patches for fixing punctures, allen keys, tyre levers and a small spanner. If you’re going on a longer cycle tour, then it would be worth packing replacement break pads, a chain tool and spare chain, some bike oil and anything else that would be easier to bring than to buy.
The contents of your bike kit will contain all the solutions to likely problems (punctures etc), all the solutions to some less likely problems that would be irritating/difficult to find solutions to and some other bits and pieces you’ll probably never use. Just remember, you do have to carry it all and unless you’re cycling through Siberia, you’re probably going to have a bike shop fairly near by.
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If you’re going anywhere busy and want to do some sight seeing, a sturdy lock for your bike will put your mind at ease. Most people recommend that the lock should cost about 20% of the value of the bike.
Lights are essential for cycling in the dark, particularly on roads. Many countries have very strict rules about what is required. So you should find out what the guidelines are in your state. For instance, I know it is illegal in the UK to cycle without lights and pedal reflectors on a dark road. But some of the bike lights sold in the UK are illegal in Germany because they are too bright!
If you don’t know where you are going, you’re unlikely to ever get there.
There are three main options for finding your way during a cycling tour: guidebooks, maps and gps devices. If you’re on a designated cycling route, then a guidebook could be a great option. Although they are a bit bulkier than maps and gps systems, they are a full of helpful information about the area. You can buy some great guides to long distance routes that will not only take you through the navigation turn by turn, but also list all the accommodation in the area and points of interest. For a newbie cycle tourer, this could save you from several stressful hours trawling websites in a foreign language.
If you’re freestyling and making up your adventure as you go along, then guidebooks won’t really be an option for you. A map is an old-school but solid solution to navigation – as long as you know how to read it! They are light, foldable, sometimes waterproof, easy to use and never run out of battery.
GPS devices come in a huge range of shapes and sizes. Your phone probably has one in it already, but using it will drain the battery life very quickly. There are dedicated GPS computers that come small enough to fix onto your handlebars and an array of features like tracking, speed checking and stats. If you’re a bit of a device geek, you can have a field day picking the best.
Before you leave on your first cycle tour, you should consider how and where you are going to be sleeping each night. What you pack for 3 nights camping will be very different from what you need for 3 nights in a hotel. Camping is certainly the option that gives you most freedom, but is not practical in some locations. On the other hand, trying to book consecutive nights’ accommodation can be a lot of work but you’ll thank yourself when it’s raining.
For hotels and similar accommodation, you barely need anything extra. For hostels and bunkhouses, you might need bedding or a sleeping bag. For camping, you’ll need a tent, sleeping bag, roll mat and stove.
Food and Water
The big question: to buy or to bring? If you buy your food as you go along, then you have less to carry. It’ll probably taste nicer than dehydrated ration packs too. If you bring your food, it might be heavy, but you never get caught out by shops shutting on the weekend or having to cycle off route to find dinner. It’s your call. Just remember to leave space for it.
Water carriers come in many shapes and sizes. You can probably make do with a 1 litre bottle or bladder per person and politely ask for re-fills along the way. If you need to be more self-sufficient, or require extra water for cooking, that won’t be enough. Again, it depends a lot on who you are and where you’re going, just remember that water is heavy and takes up a lot of space.
When you’ve assembled all of this stuff, you’re going to need somewhere to put it. Assuming that you’re not going to hire someone else to carry it for you, you’re going to need some bags. This leaves you with essentially two choices, a rucksack or a pannier.
Personally, I’m more in favour of panniers. They hang off your bicycle, taking the weight off your shoulders and stopping your back from getting so sweaty! But they need a pannier rack fitted onto the bike before they can be used. It can also be quite dangerous if you overload a bicycle with kit. The weight on the wheels can damage the bike and you could find it hard to control when going down hill.
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