Bike touring is one of the cheapest and most enjoyable ways to see another country. It gives you incredible flexibility on your journey, exercise, and can be done on a budget if you bring your own camping gear. You can usually get by for around 20 bucks a day.
Preparation is everything for an enjoyable trip, so let’s talk about the equipment and logistics of bike touring.
Bike types for touring
There are lots of options when it comes to bicycles to use for trekking. You can rent one while you’re at your destination (organized group bike tours will provide you one), you can bring your own normal bike (via plane, train or car bike rack) or you can get a dedicated travel bike if you plan on doing bike tours regularly.
My personal bias: Travel bikes (especially folding bikes) are absolutely the best because they’re the most flexible and easiest to transport. You can take them on trains. They’re easy to set up. And some special designs even fit within a 62″ suitcase to be regular airline luggage to take on a plane with you. But those features come at a premium.
Generally, the 20-inch wheel travel bikes ride nearly as well as regular 29-inch road bikes, while being infinitely faster to decrease in size. There are also packable bikes, where the frame can be pulled apart so they can fit in an airline legal bike bag. But this takes hours instead of seconds and you really have to be a decent bike mechanic like I am to be able to use one of these. This is because you have to do a complete disassembly to put it in a suitcase and a complete rebuild when taking it out again. The benefit is that they come with bigger wheels since they are regular bikes that happen to be pulled apart.
With a folding travel bike, you don’t need to be a bike mechanic. Just fold it at the hinges, remove the saddle, a few other minor things, and put it in the suitcase. It’s just much easier and infinitely faster to do. But again, these features are expensive.
For many bike trekkers, the best option is just to arrive with everything except a bicycle and then rent a touring bike when you’re there. Also, bring some patience with you as well. Allow yourself three or four days because a lot of times the bike you’ve reserved is suboptimal. Either because of bike fit, condition, or components. In that case, you have to hunt all over again and look for another bike that fits your needs.
So renting at your destination is a valid option. Especially when forking over the price of a travel bike or shipping fees does not make sense for you. Just keep in mind, that three days for a successful search is not unusual in a foreign place if you’re going to rent a bike.
Your regular bike
Another option is just to bring a normal bike and put it in a box. That may seem like a great idea, but don’t assume cars in other regions are as spacious as yours. You may be able to put a bike box in your car or a taxi to go to the train station or airport. But once you show up in Europe or Asia with a bike box the size of a regular bike, you’re not going to fit it in any taxi or Uber. On top of that, you’re not allowed to take it on a subway or any other public transport.
Taking your normal bike in a bike box is a great option, but you have to plan on assembling your bike at the airport or train station and biking away from there. You can’t count on putting it in a car or other transport. Biking it away also means your bike box is going to be thrown away when you arrive and you’ll have to get another one when you want to leave.
Whatever kind of bike you decide to use, your storage bags are going to be the same.
Storage on the bike
What you take with you is what you’ll have for the entire tour. So storage options are one of the more important aspects of bike touring. But it can also be one of the easiest ones. Just keep it simple here!
What I personally use are these two Ortlieb panniers or roll-up bags. They’re called this way because the tarps literally roll up and are pulled down for a watertight seal. In addition, you’re going to need a handlebar bag for easy access on the road and your valuable items.
I’m sure you’ve seen cyclists with two of these panniers on the front and two in the rear of the bike.
The problem with having four bags is you tend to fill them all up. And not all of that stuff is really necessary. But since you got the space, why not? On a bike tour, the power to carry all your stuff comes from your own two legs. The more cargo you bring, the more miserable your trip’s going to be. Don’t be tempted. So do yourself a favor and keep it simple.
Two bags are usually fine and all you really need, unless you need to live completely self-sufficient for days on end.
One bag is basically my fuel tank, where I like to keep consumables like extra water and food. In the other bag are clothing and toiletries. If I’m on a camping trek, the tent and sleeping bag can be secured across the top of the rack of the roll-up setup. Probably the most important bag of them all is also the smallest: the handlebar bag where the valuables are kept.
It’s important that it’s easy to take off. That’s the first huge benefit it has over any other bulky bag because you can take that bag with you in a hurry.
The reason that’s important is that you don’t want to have to take all these bags with you every time you have to leave your bike unattended. Like when you just need to run into the store for a bottle of water. That’s especially true when solo-trekking.
This is why I like to put all my valuables like money, passport, and phone in this handlebar bag. A bag full of water or sweaty clothes is far less attractive for any potential thief. It’s not worth the risk to commit a crime, so locking just the bike and not the bags is usually just fine.
The second benefit of the handlebar bag is quick and easy access, even while riding. This is where a couple of energy bars, snacks, maps and the phone for navigation are in.
As you can see, it’s critical on bike tracks it’s to keep your luggage simple. If you take only essential items and keep order you are always on top of all your stuff and know exactly where to find each one. This is increasingly helpful anytime you need to take off, carry or get into the bags. Plus, two bags are easier to handle than four. Especially when you have to take your bike on trains and Ubers. Just two storage bags and a quick-access handlebar bag are easier to keep track of. Also, a roll-up bag doubles as hand luggage to take with you on a plane.
Just a quick word here, I won’t go into detail here for the basics.
Most people on bike tours have their bags in the back. That’s more convenient and the bike is easier to park but there’s an issue that’s going to arise.
It may look weird but when you bring just two bike bags like me, there are real benefits of having them mounted on the bike’s forks instead of the rear rack. The reason is a practical one. Road bikes in general have short rear ends. For shorter, small-wheeled travel bikes that geometry is even more exaggerated. So by just you sitting on the seat, the majority of your weight is already located just in front of the rear axle.
The center of gravity so far back is even problematic on my normal 29″ road travel bike. It’s just so light that even with one bag on the rear rack it almost starts looping out when I dismount and the front wheel is light when riding which makes for worse handling.
So the rear wheel has to bear the majority of the load anyway. When cycle traveling we are looking for longevity and reliability. Thinking about proper weight distribution can help solve a lot of potential issues. Agreed, having all your gear hanging from the forks isn’t exactly contributing to nimble handling. A little extra stability might even be beneficial on longer treks. Especially on smaller twitchy 20″ or 16″ wheels.
Let’s start off with cycling shoes. How many uses are there for cycling shoes? Can you walk well on cleats? If you bring cycling shoes and clip-in pedals, you necessarily need to also bring a backup pair for when you’re not sitting on the bike. Or just make normal gym or tennis shoes work with a pair of flat pedals. I know, it’s not optimal and also not what I use on the road bike at home. But even worse would be using a quarter of the little storage I have just for an extra pair of street shoes.
You too may find it actually more enjoyable to just have one pair of shoes you can ride in and hop off at any time to walk around in. Cleat cycling shoes are just awkward to walk in so you’re always changing in and out of your clipless shoes to do any walking. It requires time, luggage space, and patience. While it’s just much easier just to have one pair of shoes in my humble opinion.
Again, keep it simple. Bring one pair of shoes that you can do everything in.
Just like with shoes, you don’t need a lot of stuff in terms of clothing. If you bring two panniers, you just have one bag for all your clothes and toiletries. The other one’s for fuel. So for all my clothing, I bring:
- two pairs of cycling shorts (comfy chamois!)
- two long sleeve tops for sun and wind protection
- four pairs of wool socks
- a windbreaker
- one pair of walking shorts
- one cotton shirt
And that’s it. It’s not much, but if you know how to do laundry, that covers all your needs for this kind of a trip. If you bring a fresh pair of clothes for every day, be prepared to pedal that massive bag of laundry around all day.
A lot of beginners freak out about rain. It is a common issue, but it’s also just water and won’t kill you. If you get into rainy weather, don’t worry about staying dry. It’s not going to happen with you moving and riding through the rain. In fact, you’ll sweat anyway and get wet from the inside anyways no matter what. Having said that, running fenders front and back is a hot tip. When water is coming down from the sky, you don’t need to also spray yourself with water (and dirt) from the ground. Fenders work and are worth it for that.
So focus on staying warm. And that’s easy to do: You just need clothing that will stay warm when it’s wet. In cool weather just put on a windbreaker over the regular cycling top. If you plan your trip where you expect cold temperatures throughout, you must be hard as nails, but are also advised to bring a thin wool jacket to put underneath the windbreaker to keep your core temperature up.
Tools & spare parts
What must-have tools should you bring? First off, if you take your bike to your mechanic to get a flat tire fixed, don’t bring any tools at all and save that weight. Tools are heavy so bring only what you can use yourself on the side of the road.
Having basic bike maintenance skills isn’t necessarily a requirement to go on a bike tour, but I highly highly recommend it. If only for the peace of mind to know you’re capable to help yourself if anything goes sideways. Winging it without any mechanical skills can lead to its own kind of adventures. You will have great stories about having to use sign language to talk to a mechanic to fix your bike for you. And that’s okay too.
I fall into the category: the less drama the better. That’s why I place much value on me doing my own bike maintenance at home, where I have all the tools, spares, and time I can possibly need. Experience is invaluable when any of those three is in short supply.
Then I know what tools are best for what job and what repair job is most likely to occur. And also how I can prevent any hiccups by servicing the important parts before a big ride. The best kind of malfunctions are those that you prevented from occurring.
On a solo trip, I take a full set of tools to do everything that I might need to do. On group rides, one complete set for everyone is sufficient and can be distributed for weight concerns. In my toolbag, I bring all the matching Allen keys, a screwdriver, a pair of clippers, crank tools, chain tools, brakes, wheels, a handpump, a tube repair kit, and so on. I make sure that I have spare parts for the usual wearing parts like brake pads, inner tubes, shifter cables, brake cables, chain lube, and bearing grease. By the way, cable brakes are more reliable than hydraulic brakes and require fewer tools to service.
A multitool or leatherman can be a great addition if you have those. But that alone is not enough to be self-sufficient.
What I did was get a full hard-case bike toolbox for a cheap price. Similar ones can be found on amazon for around $40. For that price, you get pretty much all the basic tools you need, except pliers. And they come in a case, which I ditch for a soft bag when on the road. This way it doesn’t take that much room and it saves me all kinds of time because I can just fix things alongside the road.
Like “practicing” mechanic skills, practicing to use your equipment is a very good idea to do before a bike trip. This doesn’t have to be any special occasion or of extreme scope. Just get familiar with the stuff you are likely going to be using exclusively for the duration of a long-distance bike tour.
Just put everything on your bike that you plan on having on your trip, like your camping gear, your food, clothes and everything else in your bags. It doesn’t have to be crazy distances, just take your setup for a spin across town to a park or in the woods and set up your tent and your sleeping bag. Put it back in and bike home. That’s it.
It doesn’t sound like much, but you will find all kinds of things you forgot or immediately find improvements. When you do dry-runs near the comforts of your home there are all the opportunities to play around with setups and find the best one for you. On your eagerly awaited, planned bike trip is not the time or place to test out your gear.
Logistics & route planning
Ok, now the tricky part. The options available here are depending entirely on your choice of bike. If you take a normal bike in a bike box you’re going to have to bike out of the airport and come back to it or to another one, since it can’t be put in a car or the subway. With folding travel bikes, there are generally more options for routes you can take. If you want to dive deeper into the topic of plane traveling with a bike, check out this article.
So let’s cover the basics of the logistics and route planning for bike touring. All in all, there are 3 possible options for multi-day bike treks:
- round trips
- one-way trips
- backtrack trips
These are the easiest kind of trips you can do. All you need is a two-way ticket to and from the same airport or train station. Upon arrival, that’s also the place to store your bike bag or suitcase and all the unneeded baggage. Then, you guessed it, you ride a loop in the desired length around that city. Easy as that and a pretty good way to start the whole bike touring thing. Admittedly this can also get a bit boring for more experienced bike travelers as it’s also limiting.
To eliminate the limiting factor of having to go back to the place you started from is going one way only from A to B. To do this you could fly into one airport (train station) and out another. The time and distance in between those two is your bike adventure. Typically that is more expensive than doing a round-trip in and around your arrival/departure city. And you’d have to take everything you brought with you on the bike.
What if you could combine the two to get the best of both worlds?
This way you can get a cheaper round-trip ticket into and out of the city of your choice. Then get a train to the second city or general area of your choice and voilà: You got yourself a one-way bike trip back to your departure.
The trick is to get a hotel reservation in the same hotel after your arrival and before your departure.
So when you show up at the hotel at the beginning of the trip and you have a bike box, a suitcase, maybe a computer and excess clothes you might as well ask if you can leave your stuff with them to pick it up during your next stay. From experience that is rarely an issue. In the worst case, take a locker at the airport or train station.
Hotels & camping
Okay, cozy hotels rooms are covered for the first and last nights. What about the days and nights in between? You know, the actual journey. Especially with access to the internet, this is the easy part. Wherever you plan to stay for the night, you can book all your campgrounds or hotels in advance. For maximum adventure, you can also wing it and just decide that afternoon where you want to stay. I found the sweet spot is to book only a couple of days in advance.
The advantage of planning everything to the last detail before you actually leave home is that you don’t have to waste time looking for places to stay while touring. In bad weather that could be a real problem. But like the weather, not all the circumstances are in your control and you often have to adjust as you go.
That’s why a very rigid plan where you have to keep the schedule is not recommended. In the worst case, if there’s any hiccup along the way, you can find yourself without a place to stay or having to bike twice as far as you want to the next town to find a place. I compiled some helpful tips to ride faster and farther on long days in the saddle to ensure you hit your daily minimum mileage.
Planning about two days out seems to be a good compromise.
Internet & cell phone connection
For any kind of backup and problem-solving, you’ll need a cellular connection and preferably internet access. Depending on Wi-Fi in campgrounds and hotels is risky at best. And only available for the time staying there.
How you solve this is by getting yourself an unlocked cell phone. Any smartphone is fine. For the setup I use for internet access and offline navigation, a refurbished iPhone 8 will do just fine.
The secondary phone is important here. Whatever you do, do not use your regular phone with a domestic contract abroad. Your carrier will rip you right off! Keep it with you but only as a backup and to only use with wifi.
Right at the airport of your destination, just get a SIM so you can use that to access Airbnb, Expedia, or any other booking site with very little stress. In most countries, you can get an unregistered SIM with a month of service including 5 GB for 10 bucks.
Guided bike tours
That’s it for this quick crash-course on how to tour by bike, which is one of the cheapest and most enjoyable ways to see another country. If all just seems way too overwhelming, remember: You can always take a bike tour to get your feet wet in this kind of traveling. Bike Asia (no affiliation) is one of the highly recommended organizers. They and agencies like them offer completely organized tours for you to try out if this is a thing for you before you head out on your own.