The Ulimate Beginners Guide To Bicycle Touring

Bike touring is a fantastic experience, and I’m a huge believer that everyone should at least once in their life go and embrace the form of long-distance bicycle travel. I have been all over the world and ridden in some of the most amazing places. These places have become very special to me and will never leave my memory. Now I find myself thinking about where to go next. 

Bicycle touring and Bikepacking is pretty easy to get started with and the majority of people go into tours with little or no experience of how to do it. It takes some learning, but if you have the basics right, the rest will come quickly. 

In this article, I will help you with the basics and give you the knowledge you need to get you ready for your first trip.

What Is Bicycle Touring?

Bike touring, for most, is quite simply a tour with your bike, precisely what it says on the tin! For others, it’s an experience. You can see bike touring in two ways, the first being using a bike to get from point A to point B. 

Secondly, you can see it as explorations and a journey of self-discovery. I have found on my travels and what I hear from most people that it’s about what happens along the way that makes bike touring unique, not where you eventually end up. The people you meet, those star-filled nights of camping, the tough days of headwinds and challenging climbs, they all have something to teach you. 

When I first started bicycle touring, I always got questioned “why?”. When I told people I had cycled from one side of Europe to the other, I always got the replies, “Isn’t that what planes are for” or “Ever heard of Cars” but it’s not really about that! 

Everyone has a different reason for bike touring. For some, it’s an escape, and maybe life has got on top of them, and they need some time to breathe. Others find themselves needing to use their bike because they don’t have any other transport and want to travel on a budget. 

Mostly I find it’s people that want adventure and want to explore the world. When I would go away for a trip, I always found it was a journey of self-discovery, and I’d always come back a better person than when I left because I had experienced something new. 

Bike touring always makes the world feel more extensive, and I always think it would be a much preferred holiday than an all-inclusive hotel resort. I know this is a highly personal preference 😂.

Related Article: Bikepacking vs Touring: What’s The Difference?

Mother and son bicycle touring

Beginners Guide To Bicycle Touring – The Bike And The Kit

Clearly, the first thing you are going to need is a bike! You can use most bikes, but to make your life as easy as possible using a touring bike would be the best idea. Touring bikes have specific characteristics which make long-distance heavy load bicycle riding easier.

Frame

The first thing to think about when it comes to frames is geometry. When touring, having something with higher handlebars made for comfort will be much better than having a racing-style bike. 

When I first started touring, a friend of mine always used to say comfort is king, and I agree entirely now I have the experience. I have had a few too many tours using the wrong bike and found back pain because the bike has been too aggressive. Now that I have the right bike, making my time in the saddle much more fun and my days much more manageable. Check out this article for more information on bike geometry.

When it comes to the material, steel bikes tick a lot of boxes. They are extremely good at carrying heavy loads, and when you’re touring, you will have a lot to take. In remote places, it’s much easier to get steel repaired as you just need to find yourself a half-decent welder. 

You will also find the fork on bikes like these will be steel also for the same reasons. Steel soaks the rough surface of the road and although slower, you’re going to get much more of a comfortable ride out of steel, and when you’re in the saddle all day, it makes such a difference. The next thing they boast is more extensive tire clearances, so you’re able to have more variety when it comes to on and off-road tires making them able to go anywhere.

Steel bikes come in much cheaper than the other bikes, such as carbon or titanium, which means you can spend more money traveling and having fun instead. The drawback of steel is the weight of the bike, it will be much heavier than most you will see on the road, but for all the benefits, it’s worth it.

An honorable mention is titanium, although very strong and load-bearing. Unfortunately, getting them repaired in remote locations is practically impossible due to their processes, but they are the choice of some tourers. 

The last thing you need to think of when it comes to the frame is the ability to mount panniers. Some touring bikes will come with panniers, and this is a convenient solution. Many touring bikes won’t, and the first question you need to be asking if it doesn’t have panniers is does it have the mounts for panniers. 

If it does, then you’re on to a winner. When they make bikes longer distances, most bike companies will have these mounts, but it’s worth checking. If you have a bike already and it doesn’t have these mounts, then there are other options such as bikepacking trunk bags or adaptors, but they aren’t as reliable as your mounts.

Orange frame Specialized bike

Strong User-Friendly Components

When it comes to components, we’re talking about all the parts attached to the bike. 

Wheels

Let’s start with the wheels; we look for wheels made of metal and not carbon. Also, one thing we have to take into consideration is the Spoke count. Racing wheels will have as few as 24 – 28. On a touring bike, you need it to be strong, so you will look for Spoke counts as much as 30 – 32 as these have a much better weight-bearing capacity, and you will have less chance of breaking a spoke. 

Handlebars

Handlebars will be purely down to what suits you, flat bars, road, or gravel bars. It’s completely user-defined, in my opinion. Though myself, anything with a lot of off-road, I’d much rather be on flat bars than road bars, just makes sense. 

Gears

Gearing is a fascinating topic when it comes to Bike Touring, and you will find a lot of different advice on many forums. As cycling develops, people are very concerned about getting quicker, and in turn, this brings in the need for more aggressive gearing. 

With touring, this isn’t the case. The easier you can make it, the better. You will see many bikes and still in production triple front chainsets and very big rear cassettes. This is precisely what you’re looking for when it comes to touring, as it will give you the option to literally feather the pedals lightly and still be moving forward. 

In my years of traveling via bicycle, I never heard anyone say I need gears to make me faster, but I often hear complaints about not having gears that could go lower. When carrying big heavy loads up hills, the gearing is everything!

Brakes

Brakes you can generally get away with anything factory-fitted, but in a perfect world, most newer touring bikes will have disk brakes. They come hydraulic and in cable form. I love the hydraulic power, but when it comes to getting them repaired, it can be harder to find a suitable workshop. 

Cable disk brakes are not as powerful, but they are straightforward to maintain, and the majority of repairs can be done on the roadside. Disk brakes are favored due to the stopping power and ability to work efficiently in all conditions. 

You will see older bikes that use rim brakes. Typically on touring bikes, they are cantilever. They won’t be as good in general. The rougher conditions will test you but are much simpler to work on and maintain.

Bicycle Touring Kit In The Snow

Kit List

Every person’s kit list will be different as it’s a very personal thing, and you might find yourself needing certain things depending on the part of the world you are in. 

I found as I toured more and more, I started to take less and less as I didn’t need it as much on my travels as when I first started. This is a natural progression, and I’d recommend taking everything you think you might need to start and, as you build confidence, slowly start minimizing it. 

Here’s a basic kit list I use when getting ready for a tour.

Bags

  • Front Pannier Bags
  • Rear Pannier Bags
  • Bar Bag

Check out our reviews of the best panniers for touring. If you’re looking for something to carry your camera as well, check out the best bike camera bags.

Accessories

Spares

  • Inner Tubes
  • Patch Kit or Tubeless Repair
  • Bike tool kit
  • Tire Levers
  • Spare brake or gear cable
  • Brake pads
  • Gear Hanger to suit your bike
  • Chain Lube
  • Spoke Key and Spokes (Recommended if you are using an old wheelset)
  • Extra small piece of tire in case of tire rip

Looking to buy a cycling gift? Check out our Cycling Gift Ideas Under $100

Camping

  • Tent or Hammock
  • Tarp Waterproof
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Down Mat
  • Inflatable Pillow
  • Camping stove and Fuel
  • Cook pot and Utensils
  • Mosquito net

Clothing Cycling

Clothing Casual

  • Jeans 
  • Shorts
  • T-Shirts
  • Down Jacket
  • Underwear
  • Socks
  • Hat
  • Casual Shoes

Related Article: What Should I Eat While Bicycle Touring?

Couple bicycle touring together

Cycling Routes

When you first start cycle touring, there’s a lot to think about, and planning a route can be challenging. When I plan routes, the most important thing I think about before anything else is safety. There’s places to ride a bike, and there’s places not to ride bikes, and you always have to be conscious about the repercussions of going down a wrong route.

Destination

This is the first thing to think about, even more so than before you start making a kit list. 

Where do you want to go and why do you want to go there? Some people love exploring places where few cyclists go, and others love the more common routes where they can find other cycle tourers. 

Going to pretty remote locations will give you many more challenges. You might struggle to find resupply, although 99.9% of people are very friendly on my travels you might find yourself in that 0.01% of the company, there’s a lot to take into consideration. As a beginner, I’d personally avoid this kind of adventure to start!

If you’re new to bicycle touring, I’d recommend going somewhere fairly standard for cycle touring and start your journey there. The US is a great place for cycle tours, and I want to suggest some routes that would give you the experience you need to improve and grow your cycle touring, knowing you have many resupply and well-used safe routes along the way. 

Pacific Coast

The Pacific Coast is an 1848 mile cycling route from Vancouver to Imperial Beach. It runs along the west coast of North America and is beautiful from start to finish. There’s plenty of resupply, and if you like the beach, it is never going to be too far away. For more information go to Adventure Cycling.

Texas Hill Country Loop

Now let’s go inland to Texas, and let’s make the trip shorter and a little flatter. Coming in at 311 miles would be a reasonably quick tour and one to get you started. The rolling hills will challenge your legs but also give you some excellent recovery. For more information go to Adventure Cycling.

If you don’t fancy a preset route, you can make your route, then you can make your adventure, but here’s a few things to think about when planning.

Roads

Firstly you want to use a website to design the route for you and keep you on safer roads. 

I use Komoot or Strava to make sure I’m not going to end up on a motorway. These websites also will help you judge the terrain, for example, on or off-road, to make sure you don’t end up on a mountain bike trail with on-road bike tires. 

Another great tool is Strava heat maps. Using this feature, you can see where it is most popular among other cyclists and will get you some of the best roads and trails wherever you may be.

Elevation

When planning a tour, it’s essential to keep an eye on elevation; you don’t want to end up just climbing for days on end up and down mountains. Well, maybe you are a sucker for pain 😂? 

It can make the work hard, and you can spend a lot of time off the bike walking if the inclines are too much. Some views are worth it. Others, unfortunately, are not. If you plan on a very hilly route, I’d recommend a bikepacking setup instead of a complete touring kit. 

Goals

Although it is excellent exploring, in my opinion, having a goal helps and will get you through the more strenuous days. 

I once was touring in Europe and planned to see how many countries I could get through before I had to return home, and I loved the challenge. It made me break the trip down into smaller chunks, and it felt like the route I was on had much more purpose than just riding my bike.

Is My Route Going To Be OK?

You will question this every day before you go away. It’s worth having someone sense check it before you go. It will put your mind at ease and also will let others know where you are going. 

The most important thing is safety, and if you find your route choices make you feel uncomfortable, it’s worth having a backup plan.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need to have a certain level of baseline fitness?

It helps so much to have some form of base fitness, but you will find it along the way. The best thing you can do before you go is to get a bike fit to stop unnecessary injuries while you’re away.

What makes a bike a touring bike?

Simplicity and reliability are the two main things to think about. How easy is it to break and how easy is it to fix are the questions you should be asking when looking for a touring bike.

Can I use my road bike for touring?

Of course, you can. You might be lucky enough to have rack mounts on the bike, or if not, you can adapt it for panniers or even use bikepacking bags. The only thing to make sure of is that it’s suitable for the terrain you’re going on. If you need to go off-road a lot, it’s a bit of a no in my eyes.

Hi, I'm Harry, the owner of this site! A 30-something MAMIL - a middle-aged man in lycra. An avid cyclist who is looking to maintain a baseline level of fitness to be able to enjoy the great outdoors on weekend rides with his mates!

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