Bike Touring Essentials

One of the most amazing ways to explore the world is by bike touring – that is, using your bicycle as your means of transport over an extended distance and period of time while carrying your gear on your bike. It’s kind of like backpacking — you’ll be sleeping outside and exploring all of creation — but more sociable. People everywhere you go will stop you and ask what you’re doing, where you’re going — and instantly you’ve made a friend for life.

So what are you waiting for? Get on your bike and start pedaling. Here’s what you’ll need to get started:

A Bike
The bike tourer has a few choices when it comes to bikes. There are touring bikes, which are made for the rigors of touring – a strong frame that can carry the weight of all your gear; tires between road and mountain bike tires in thickness, which will be fast but won’t get flats too easily; screw threads on both the back and front of the frame, so you can affix gear racks on them. Touring bikes are awesome for what they’re designed for. I love mine. But…

They’re expensive! A decent one will cost you over $500. Which is why some tourers opt for a cheaper, DIY alternative: take an old mountain bike frame – one made of heavy steel and without all the shocks and hi-tech frills of new mountain bikes – and swap out the thick mountain tires for the thinner touring tires. Presto – you now have a rugged bike that can take a beating (which is going to happen when you tour) and can support the added weight of your panniers.

Or you can use whatever bike you normally use, irrespective of how much weight it can carry, and drag your gear in a bike trailer, instead of affixing it to the bike frame. This setup allows you to use any type of bike that you want, as trailers are compatible with most bikes.

Panniers or a Bike Trailer
Either carry your gear on your bike or drag it behind you – these are your two options. What seems like a simple an innocent choice belies a fierce (and absurd) debate in the bike touring world. The people who prefer panniers – the sort of saddle bags that you attach to your bike’s racks – consider it heresy to drag around a bike trailer, while bike trailer users find pannier-boosters to be a little stodgy.

The truth is, both have their pluses and minuses. If you don’t have a bike built to touring specifications, then a trailer is a convenient way to carry your gear with your current bike. But for those who do have touring bikes, it’s be cheaper to buy racks and panniers than to buy a trailer.

Camping Gear
Most bike tourers sleep in camping areas while on the road, which means you’ll need camping gear — tent, sleeping bag and pad, camp stove etc. But you’ll want it to be light and also small enough to fit into the limited space that you have on your bike. Backpacking gear works great.

A Plan
While the idea that you’ll load up your bike and hit the road as soon as the spirit moves you is romantic, most successful tours begin with successful plans. You’ll want to find a route that is bicycle friendly. The Adventure Cycling Association has maps of many of America’s best touring routes that you can buy on their website.

By Sean Sullivan