A bike trip is one of the best adventures you can have.
Rolling along at 12 miles an hour, the world flashing past right before your eyes. The thrill of not knowing where you’ll sleep that night and the freedom to take a nap by the roadside whenever you feel the urge. Not speaking to a soul for days then unexpectedly being invited to spend the night with a stranger you’ve just met. The lonely highways, the busy towns, the bumpy off-road tracks and beautiful cycle paths. The never ending climbs up to mountain passes and the all-too-short descents. The anticipation of a brand new day and the throb of a brand new blister. Having nothing to think about but moving forwards, always forwards. Sunrises and sunsets. Super Noodles and Snickers. Tears, sweat and pain. Everything you could possibly want from an adventure.
On the face of it it seems like there’s a lot that goes into a big bike trip. Cycling hundreds or thousands of miles surely requires peak fitness, a huge budget and a plan for every possible eventuality right? Absolutely not.
Really, there’s not as much to it as you’d think. Recently I cycled from Gibraltar to London having never done a big bike trip before. I made a lot of mistakes along the way and there are a few things I will do better next time, but nevertheless it proved to me that you don’t have to be an elite cyclist to pull it off. In fact I am far from anything close to being an elite cyclist. I am never going to win a bike race, nor do I have the desire to attempt it. I can just about fix a puncture but don’t know my derailleur from my disc brake, nor does any of the technical stuff interest me at all. I just need my bike to move, I don’t need to understand how it works.
However, now that I have a 1300-mile bikepacking trip under my belt I feel I am at least slightly qualified to give some advice to anyone out there who is thinking of planning a bike tour but not sure where to begin. Most people who have completed massive round-the-world bikepacking adventures generally aren’t bike-obsessed gearheads or Lycra-clad Tour de France hopefuls. They’re everyday people who have set out with a dream and without a clue, and have achieved something incredible through sheer willpower.
Anyone can be one of these people, even you. So to help you out, here is everything you need to think about in order to prepare for your first ever bike tour.
1. Find the time
The first step of taking your adventure from dream to reality is setting a date. Once you know when it’s going to happen, you are one step closer to ensuring it will happen. It is no use planning for an adventure that you will do someday or when the time is right because there’s a good chance you’ll never get round to it. Things come up, commitments get in the way and there will never be a perfect time. You just need to take the plunge and get on with it. You may be taking time off work or you may be quitting your job. You may even be one of those fortunate people whose careers let them work from wherever they are in the world. Whatever your current situation, work out the time you need to make it happen and set a firm date. As soon as you have done this, start telling everyone. This will give you some responsibility and push you to commit. You don’t want to have to explain to people when the time comes why you gave up on your big adventure plans.
Here’s a great blog from Alastair Humphreys on finding time for adventure. If this doesn’t kick you into action I don’t know what will.
2. Plan your route
This is the fun part. Where are you going and how are you going to get there? The best thing about travelling by bike is that you can see so much of the world and are limited only by your imagination. There are over 40 million miles of paved road worldwide for you to choose from so you can’t go wrong!
Everyone has their own way of doing things but my process for deciding on an adventure route is as follows.
- Stare at a world map until I have settled on a vague part of the world I want to visit.
- Spend even more time poring over maps and reading about the countries I want to see.
- Decide where my adventure will start and finish.
- Plot a rough route that encompasses all the places I want to visit, with a good mix of wilderness and small towns.
- Set off and follow it all the way, with as many detours and deviations as I feel like.
Picking the best route is not an exact science. You may not even want to plot a fixed course, instead just heading out and seeing where the road takes you. It all depends on what you want to get out of your bike trip. Having a route planned out doesn’t mean you have to stick to it. In fact, an endeavour like this actually requires a mindset of flexibility and adaptability in order to get through the inevitable obstacles and delays to your ride. The more freedom you give yourself, the fewer restrictions you have and the more liberating it feels once you are out on the road.
The way in which you choose to ride makes a huge difference to your chosen route. Riding a mountain bike gives you much more freedom to explore off-road and have a wild adventure, although this will be at the cost of some speed. A road bike on the other hand gets you to your destination much quicker but it does confine you to the more well-travelled, and often busier, roads.
Whether you’re after wilderness or urban exploration, mountains or deserts, crowds or isolation, you can plan your route to suit your personal preferences. Just stick the kettle on, open Google Earth and carve out that time to plan your journey. Time spent staring at maps is never wasted time.
Here are just a few good resources for planning cycling routes to help to get you started:
And the best one of all: Google Maps
3. Decide your riding style
Now you have a rough plan, you just need to make it happen. There’s no right or wrong way to do a bikepacking adventure – it’s whatever you want it to be. Nevertheless it’s important to think about things like the following to ensure your bike tour is everything you envisage.
Solo or with a partner?
Going out on your own gives you full control over your trip and the freedom to change the plan on a whim. Feel like setting off at 4am this morning? Go for it! Want to lie in until mid-afternoon? Who’s going to stop you? I like answering to no one and being completely independent, as well as avoiding the inevitable cabin fever and arguments about what time to set the alarm for. I also find going on adventures alone makes me so much more open to meeting new people and trying new experiences that I might not have done were I confined to a comfortable bubble of close friends. That said, going with a partner has benefits of its own. Aside from the obvious benefit of companionship and shared memories, you can also share gear and therefore save weight and effort. You just need to make sure you pick the right partner!
Slow or fast?
Some people like a challenge and want to push themselves to ride a big distance in a relatively short space of time, while others prefer to appreciate the journey and take as much time as they feel like. There are benefits of both but I would recommend you do whichever will be most fun for you. Are you a masochist who loves Type-2 fun? Then go as fast as you can. Are you more laid back and prefer to take things in and enjoy yourself? A more leisurely approach will suit you. Unless you have set yourself a feat of serious physical endurance, I would advise that you don’t need to put too much emphasis on training. Obviously it will help to have some baseline fitness to minimise risk of injury, but if you have all the time in the world then your training will be on the road. My ride had a time limit so I did have to train to ensure I covered the requisite miles every day but if I’d had more time I would have liked to go slower.
Budget or luxury?
Will you be staying in hotels each night and eating at Michelin-star hotels or will you be sleeping in ditches and eating out of bins? If you have the money and time to go down the luxurious route then don’t let anyone tell you that your adventure isn’t an adventure. Obviously this approach will eat into your finances a lot quicker than if you’re fully self-supported. I personally love the not-knowing where you’ll sleep that night, watching the sun set behind the mountains as you cook your dinner under a darkening sky, waking up to beautiful sunrises and setting off on the open road before most people are even awake. But each to their own.
4. Sort out the boring bits
Things like visas, permits, insurance and other documentation are probably the most boring part of planning any trip but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Your entire trip could come to an end (or at least be extremely inconvenienced) by not having the right papers. Make sure you know what you need before you set out and it will save you a lot of hassle – and probably money – along the way.
5. Choose your gear
This is all the gear I took with me on my 17-day bike tour from Gibraltar to London.
- Tour de Fer Touring Bike
- Packs & panniers (1 x handlebar, 1 x frame, 1 x top, 2 x rear)
- Bike tools (multi-tool, pump, spare inner tubes, spare chain links, spanner, tyre levers, puncture repair kit)
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Shirts (1 x long sleeve, 1 x short sleeve)
- Rain jacket
- Socks (3 pairs)
- Down jacket
- Garmin GPS
- Solar charger + power bank
- Swiss army knife
- Water bottles
- Water purification tablets
- Toothbrush + toothpaste
- Trowel + toilet paper
- First aid kit
- Duct tape
- Sun cream
- Money + cards
Most of it was essential, and apart from forgetting to pack oil for my chain (not a big deal), there was nothing I wished I had brought. There were plenty of things I didn’t use – I didn’t touch my rain jacket, compass or water purification tablets but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t glad I had them. Your gear list will depend on a lot of things – whether you’re staying in accommodation or slumming it, bringing luxury items or going ultralight, hot or cold weather etc. – but the basics will be more or less the same. Just don’t feel like you have to have the most expensive gear money can buy. A second-hand rain jacket from eBay will keep you just as dry in a downpour than a brand new top of the range one, and it won’t burn a hole in your wallet. Even your bike doesn’t need to be a massive expense. People have cycled round the world on bikes they’ve built themselves or rescued from rubbish tips.
Your food stash will require some additional thought. The longer you spend on the road, the more likely you are to get sick of everything in your food bag. There’s a limit to the quantity of instant noodles you can slurp down day after day before even the thought of them makes you retch. It’s good to have some variety to mix things up a bit. When you’re cycling long and difficult days, your food is the thing you look forward to more than anything else. You don’t want it to become another chore. Again, unless you’re undergoing a serious endurance challenge where every calorie counts, you don’t need to have any sort of nutrition plan. In fact the best thing about cycle touring is the seemingly-limitless quantity of food you can put away. Just enjoy yourself, because on those difficult days when the weather is crap, everything hurts and there’s no one to talk to, food will be your best friend.
The last thing to think about when it comes to gear is sponsors. Getting brands to give you some free gear in exchange for a few words on your blog or a couple of tweets is a great way to keep the costs down, and get a bit more exposure for your journey if that’s something you care about. When I walked from Mexico to Canada I reached out to a few companies and was offered a few items of gear in return for shouting about them. It wasn’t life-changing but it did help me save a bit of money. For my Gibraltar To London ride I didn’t bother but I would definitely recommend this to anyone struggling with a tight budget. Plenty of companies are willing to give out some free gear in return for a bit of social promotion, and it doesn’t hurt to ask them. Obviously you should be realistic – The North Face isn’t going to fund your entire trip if you have a social media following of six people, but if you have a reasonable digital presence and can create good content, there’s a good chance you’ll have some luck with smaller companies looking to raise some brand awareness.
If your trip is really something monumental and different from the norm, it could also be worth applying for an adventure grant. There are dozens of organisations offering sizeable sums of money to people doing exciting and inspiring things, so if you feel like your bike tour is innovative or impressive enough to stand out from the rest, give it a go.
Check out Tim Moss’ sponsorship blog for a recent list of all the adventure grants available.
6. Start pedalling!
Once you’ve planned your route, scrounged together the essential gear and printed out the necessary documentation, you’re good to go. Just remember to appreciate every moment. Don’t push yourself too hard, unless you really want to. Take pictures even when it’s cold and wet and you don’t feel like it. Don’t be constantly connected to social media (that Instagram post can wait). Say hello to every person and yes to every opportunity, even when it’s tempting to keep going and cover more miles. Keep reminding yourself it’s not cheating to push your bike uphill, and don’t give up on a bad day. And most importantly, enjoy every minute … even when you’re hating it.
Some more good resources for planning a bike tour: