For years, I’d been wanting to travel long distances by bike. I spent months soliciting guidance from friends and strangers, gearing up, training, organizing and practicing with heavy bags in tow. That — plus a fair amount of luck — yielded a trip with no falls, no flats, no rain and a solid packing list. I can hardly wait to do it again.
With bike sales soaring in the past year and travel still limited, many cyclists are considering taking trips on their bikes.
Ben Folsom, who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, and takes a multi-night bike trip every year, compared bike touring to jazz. "It can mean whatever you want," he said. "You can stay in hotels or B & Bs, glamp or camp, go 100 miles or 10 miles a day, ride across the Great Divide or town to town."
Read the tips below and get pedaling!
Let go. Toss out any ideas of what bike travel looks like. Some beginners think bike touring is supposed to be this "big epic thing across the country or around the world," said Dan Meyer, deputy editor of Adventure Cyclist magazine, "which isn’t the case. You can ride from your house to the next town over and stay at a friend’s or at a B&B, and that can be a great way to get into touring."
Decide how you want to roll.
Want to pedal solo? With aco-pilot? A small group of friends? If you’re riding with others, set expectations about pace and schedule ahead of time. If you’re not yet comfortable taking the plunge, join a tour, like those organized by Adventure Cycling Association (ACA) or REI, and check with your bike shop for local events. Consider signing up for an extravaganza like Ragbrai, an annual, seven-day July ride across Iowa, or a fundraiser like the New York City-to-Philly Greenway ride in August.
Pack the items you hope you’ll never need.
The just-in-case items for your body are more personal. I brought acetaminophen; I packed many things I never unpacked: a knife, a whistle, toe and hand warmers for freezing nights, and a small first-aid kit containing blister pads and a reflective blanket.
Whittle down your weight.
Whether one night or five months, you’ll want to bring as little as possible, said Alex Retana, a physical therapy assistant in Tampa, who biked 5,200 miles last summer from Vancouver, Washington, to Portland, Maine. "It’s easy to overpack," he said. "The more stuff you have, the less fun it will be." Remember: Pack your bags before departure day to make sure everything fits.
Weigh your overnight options.
In 2013, Dani Moore, a D.C. high school science teacher, biked from Arizona to D.C. over 68 days and camped most nights — opting for legal spots over stealth camping, a lodging tactic for some cyclists. She preferred campgrounds (or hotels in inclement weather) but occasionally knocked on doors to ask if she could pitch her tent on someone’s property. Also consider budget hotels, hostels and Warm Showers, a free hospitality exchange for cyclists.
If your route will take you through small towns with interesting restaurants and aromatic bakeries, use that opportunity to pack less and sample local fare. You can also stock up at grocery and convenience stores with premade items or cooking supplies. Resupply your water (at least two bottles) and food whenever you can.
Ruminate on your route.
Before he sets out, Folsom looks up routes on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s TrailLink and then zooms into the Google Maps satellite view. "I literally walk the entire route in Street View to check it out," said Folsom, who — bear in mind — works in logistics and planning for the Department of Homeland Security. "If it gets hairy, I back up on the map and find an alternative." ACA has maps (and an app) of 28 routes, covering 50,000 miles across nationwide. McNulty used ACA maps for his cross-country tour in 2014 and said they’re extremely detailed and informative.
Ponder your posterior.
Hygiene and comfort are critical, and saddle sores are no joke — and can end an otherwise enjoyable ride. Good bike shorts and a comfortable saddle are worth the investment. Meyer said new cyclists often think extra seat padding means extra comfort, but it’s more about the shape of the saddle. Ask your local bike shop if they have a demo program, which allows you to test different seats. And add Chamois Butt’r or other lubricant to your packing list.
Get real about risks.
All of the openness and approachability we celebrate on a bike makes us vulnerable, too. Use common sense with your belongings and take care not to throw around flashy gear. Finally, you don’t have to bike overnight to know that car drivers are natural nemeses: They speed, inch too close, swerve and text while driving. If you can, ride on bike paths. If you must share the road with cars, use bike lights, even during the day.
Behold your bike.
Before you set out, treat your bike to a tuneup, and be attentive on your ride to unusual sounds that may signal a malfunction. After my rack broke, I got smarter about checking and tightening bolts nightly. Had I needed to fix a flat, I was confident I could do so. "That’s the absolute minimum," Folsom said. He carries a tool to fix a broken chain, spare tire and spokes (none of which I brought). "