So you want to have a go at cycle touring? You’re not alone, but many people fall at the first hurdle. It sounds like a great idea, but they don’t have a clue where to start.
If you’re the sort of person who’s scared of over planning (or can’t be bothered to read this article), there’s a short and easy answer. Pick a start point, grab a bicycle and a tent/money. And Go. It can really be that simple. The rest will sort itself out.
If you read that paragraph and thought, “But what about…” then here’s a comprehensive guide to help you plan a cycling adventure slowly.
1. Picking the location
The location will, ultimately, make the trip, A cycling tour in the Sahara will be completely different to one in Thailand or Luxembourg. Tied up with the destination comes so many things: how the views will look, what terrain you’ll be riding on, the culture and the language around you.
For first timers, it’s always good to start close to home. By good, I mean easy. You can start and finish at your front door. If that doesn’t sound adventurous enough for you, try the other side of the country, or a country nearby. The closer you are to the familiar, the less of a big deal the trip will seem. The less of a big deal it is, the more likely it’s going to happen.
If you speak the language of the country you’re traveling in, it a huge help. Sure, you can wave your arms about and speak very slow, very loud English. But your conversations will be shallow and limited. It’s true that lots of people speak a little English. But an enormous number don’t.
Last year when I was touring in France, we arrived at our planned campsite in the pouring rain. It was shut. The nearest alternative on the map was 20 miles away. We’d already cycled about 60 miles that day. We were cold, wet and it was getting dark. We hadn’t packed a front light. Delaying the inevitable, we rode into town and walked, completely sodden, into a fancy French restaurant to ask for help. One of the waiters knew a farm down the road which took campers for a night. Sure, we could have cycled 20 miles, but speaking French gave us a campsite, warm fire and a plate of free crepes.
If you have a location in mind, be aware of how the weather changes there throughout the season. You might not have much choice, but it’s best to pick a time when weather is favourable.
Cycling for the entire day in the rain is uncomfortable. Particularly if you’ve got to get into a tent at the end of it. (Even more so if that tent is already wet!) Having to stop to sit out a thunderstorm is exciting to start with, but after a week the novelty wears off.
You’re unlikely to get perfect weather, but it’s good to start with the odds in your favor. Check out usual weather patterns and temperatures for the area before you go. Even if you don’t change the dates, you can at least prepare for it.
Safety or Political Concerns
It goes without saying, but it’s probably not the best idea to cycle straight into a war zone. Some travelers might also feel uncomfortable in certain countries because of political tension. It’s supposed to be fun, so try to pick an adventure that won’t land you in the middle of some political coup.
Consider medical safety as well. Do you need to get certain jabs to travel? Would it be sensible to avoid certain areas that have a high risk of infection, malaria, etc? It doesn’t bother some people, but it puts others right off.
Last check: if you’ve picked a location, do you need a visa to get there? If you do, make sure you sort it out with plenty of time to spare. Rushing around embassies chasing paperwork is not a good way to start your holiday.
2. Planning the route
Okay, so you’ve got your location. You’ve probably narrowed it down to a country or state, maybe a general area. Perhaps there’s something you want to go to see and you’ll construct a route around that. Or you’ve got a time restriction and you’ll go as far as you can in the time allowed.
The general rule of thumb for planning a cycle touring route is to assume you’ll cycle 60 km a day (roughly 37 miles). If you’ve never done any cycle touring before, plan using this rule and make sure it’s not 30 miles of uphill slog.
If you’ve done lots of cycling before, you could up the mileage to reflect how you actually cycle. Just remember that you’ll be carrying a lot more weight on your bike than normal.
You’ll also need to consider how self-sustained you need to be. This affects both how many hours’ cycling you can do in a day as well as where your route goes. For example, if you are camping you need to allow time to find a place to pitch and put the tent up. If you’re carrying all your food from the start, you don’t need to find a shop and break from cycling to go shopping.
I’d always advise getting a map of the area, but you might prefer to use online mapping or a GPS system to plan the route. Whichever you use, make sure it has any off-road cycling routes marked as well as on-road cycle networks. Some countries have rules about which roads you can cycle on, so don’t assume that you can happily ride up the highway.
You can use Google Maps to plot a route, but be wary of distances given. You’ll probably find yourself cycling further than it estimates.
3. Where will I stay?
There are so many ways to stay overnight, in relative degrees of comfort.
Wild camping is by far the cheapest way to spend the night. You bring your own roof (well, tent) and put it up wherever you get to on your route. There’s no stress trying to pre-book accommodation and no frustration that you paid more than you felt your stay was worth. It’s all free.
On the other hand, wild camping rules can be very strict in some countries. I’ve heard of a couple of cycle tourers being evicted by the police in France because they pitched in a camping car placement. Check out the rules before you go to avoid these thrilling experiences. Usually, if you’re allowed to wild pitch, you should put your tent up late, have it down early in the morning and leave no trace that you’ve been there the night. Take all litter with you.
Camping in Campsites
Camping on a campsite is the halfway house between camping wild and staying indoors – sort of. You don’t need to worry about whether you’re camping somewhere illegal because you’ve paid to be there! The downside is you can get the feeling that your lumpy square of hard grass wasn’t worth the money.
However, campsites do come with the luxury of tepid showers (although sometimes they’re amazing!), running water and toilets. I tell myself that this is what I’m paying for, not the ground I’m sleeping on. Occasionally, you end up paying for the additional extras that cycle tourers won’t use (like inner city bus link passes) so watch out.
It’s a little bit more luxurious than wild camping and if the possibility of getting wild camping wrong bothers you, then this is your option. It is far cheaper than a hotel or hostel, although you do still have to pitch a tent before you can collapse into bed at the end of a hard day’s riding.
Hotels, Hostels and Everything Between
You’ve got some money to spend and you can buy a solid roof over your head. There are so many ways to stay overnight now: from glamorous hotels to AirBnB-ing in a converted shed. Just remember that if you’re covered in dirt and bike grease, you’re unlikely to feel comfortable staying at the Ritz… if they let you in!
Stay Indoors for Free
There are ways to sleep with a roof over your head for free. Although in my experience it does require a bit of planning. Communities such as Couch Surfing and Warm Showers offer a night’s sleep in a friendly place for free.
Couch Surfing is for anyone, designed for budget travelers who want to feel like a local – your host will often give advice on where to go and what to see. Warm Showers is designed specifically for cycle tourers, but you sign up on the condition that you might be able to host in the next few years.
4. What to bring
The big question. Luckily, we’ve got a whole guide on it: check it out.
How much money?
This is a very hard question to answer. It depends so much on what you are going to do. If your idea of cycle touring is staying in hotels every night, eating out and drinking wine then it’ll be expensive. Excessive sightseeing and ice cream (guilty) also adds up. If you’re wild camping every night and foraging for food, it’ll be about zero.
If you need a best guess, work out how much it costs you to live at home (minus rent) for a day and use that. Many credit and debit cards work abroad for a small fee, so you can take more out in emergencies. If you’re carrying cash, don’t store it all in the same place.
5. Other Questions
How much training should I do?
Personally, I’ve never trained for an adventure. Either I push myself to meet the standards or adjust the standards to meet me.
If you’d doing a cycle tour and find that you’re not fit enough to do your planned route then hey – you don’t have to! That’s the beauty of these sorts of adventures. You might have to cancel some accommodation, but if it means you actually enjoy the trip, then it’ll be well worth it. On the other hand, pre-booked accommodation might act as motivation to get through the day’s cycling.
Should I get Insurance?
This is a very contentious question among cycle tourers. Answers range from “I’d never go traveling without it” to “It’s a waste of money, I don’t bother.” If it helps you sleep at night, then you may as well. It might seem like a lot of money, but you’ll be kicking yourself if something happens. If someone steals your bike half way around the tour, well, what are you going to do then?
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Emily Woodhouse is a freelance outdoors writer, with a love for adventure and inspiring others. Her obsession with mountains probably started in Yosemite, age about 2. Born in the US but now based in the UK, she enjoys traveling in Europe and camping under the stars. Follow on Twitter: @TravellingLine
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