One of the charms of pedalling off into the unknown is that it doesn’t always need to involve a lot of preparation. Some cycle travellers thrive on the unplanned and unexpected, whilst for others more detailed preparation and planning is either essential, or just all part of the fun.
This is a growing resource to help prepare for your cycle travels, however hard or easy, long or short.
There is a general Packing List at the end.
Reginald Wellbye, Cycle Touring at Home and Abroad (1909)
Time constraints are always the critical factor when it comes to planning, but touring is as much about escaping over a weekend as a six month trans-continental ride. Block out the most time possible: a weekend, 2 weeks, 1 month, 6 months so you have something to work with.
Touring time frames will work one of two ways – either you have somewhere you want to ride, so are limited by seasons / climates, or you have a specific time to ride, so are presented with options for routes or places.
The main touring seasons in Europe are March-June (Spring), July-August (Summer), and September-October (Autumn). Spring and Autumn are best for experiencing the Great Outdoors at her most transitional and beautiful, and Summer her warmest. Touring in winter is possible, but make sure you and your bike are prepared for the cold, wet and short daylight hours. Check the seasons and weather patterns suit your experience, if travelling outside of Europe.
Choose a popular touring route, follow in someone else’s tracks, pick somewhere that challenges you or interests you and plot your own route, or simply turn left or right from your front door!
There are two categories of tour:
“CIRCULAR” – tours to and from a fixed place.
“POINT-TO-POINT” – linear tours to and from different places.
The main difference between the two is logistical – arranging access to your start and end points. The route of a tour will be defined by accessing these points, whether by train, ferry, plane, or car. Always contact travel companies ahead to arrange travelling with your bike.
“Travelling by train offers the greatest flexibility when touring in Europe. Not only do you rarely need to pack your bike up but the locations of train stations help make decisions on start and end points when route planning, and you are left on the open road with no ties.” Stefan
Unless you are travelling unsupported (with camping and cooking equipment), your route will be shaped and limited by your overnight checkpoints. The attraction of cycle touring unsupported lies in the freedom and flexibility to edit your route on an hourly, or daily basis – choosing to stop, or stay where you fancy or need.
You can find a growing list of routes on the Pannier Routes app. Once logged in, you can also plot and share your own routes. The Pannier Shop also stocks a selection of OS UK Landranger (1:50,000) maps to help with route planning and navigation whilst out on the road – seek out those yellow and orange roads…
An average touring journey will be based on riding 70-140km a day dependant on your touring mindset, the loads you are carrying, the terrain, the weather conditions and daylight hours.
“In my experience, I base my days in the saddle travelling at a total average of 14km/h. This takes ‘touring stoppages’ for navigating, photographing, refuelling, wild swimming, or unexpected caber tossing into account. You never know. When planning, I assume that 140km will take 10 hours, or there abouts.” Stefan
Overnight / Weekend Tour
120 – 250km
(Eg. Exmoor Weekender)
Two Week Tour
1,200 – 2,000km
Again, you can find a growing list of cycle touring routes of varying lengths on the Pannier Routes app.
Cycle Touring is about the journey.
It is not always about riding as quickly or as far as possible. However, it goes without saying that being in good shape will mean you can ride quicker, tougher kilometres.
“Nothing prepares you better for cycle-touring, than cycle-touring”
An overnight trip is perfect for experience, especially if you are riding unsupported – getting used to camping, cooking and unpacking, and packing your gear. Heading out on your loaded bike will enable you to gauge your comfortable terrain, speeds, and distances, which you can use as a benchmark. You will always get fitter as your journey progresses…
Then, on your next tour, aim further. Or just keep doing what you are doing.
Source a bike, the touring equipment you need, and organise how to carry it. Each cycle touring style establishes the type of traveller you are, and so will appeal to certain individuals and journeys.
How do you want to tour?
For the time and weight conscious tourer looking to cover distances without wanting to bulk-out their bike too much, if at all. Restricted to camping with the bare minimum equipment (perhaps just a bivvy bag and sleeping bag) or staying in B&B’s and hotels. Ideal for short summer ‘credit card’ tours, performance touring, audax and randonneuring.
Road / Touring / Hybrid / Mountain bike
For the leisure tourer looking to stay lightweight on an unsupported tour, or as a comfortable, risk-averse option when staying in B&B’s and hotels – extra space allowing for additional clothing, tools, or jar of Nutella. Ideal for unsupported camping tours and comfortable, recreational touring if weight is not an issue.
Touring / Expedition bike
For the comprehensive tourer, typically travelling longer distances to more remote places, for longer periods of time. Everything needs to be carried, from a comfortable camping and cooking setup, to a few days worth of food, water and appropriate clothing. The bike needs to be strong and versatile for carrying larger loads on front and rear racks, over uncertain terrain. Ideal for fully unsupported tours of any length, through to four-season transcontinental tours.
Expedition / Mountain bike
For the off-road tourer (bikepacker) who wants to maintain the performance and handling of an unloaded bike as much as possible. Luggage is fixed to the frame, seatpost, saddle and handlebars directly rather than using racks, to reduce the weight, bulkiness and number of components. Ideal for all off-road touring, unsupported or not.
The first option will be to use your existing bike, if it suits your touring aspirations and touring style. The ideal bike to begin with is a hybrid, mountain or strong road bike that can be loaded with luggage and has a good range of gears. Your speedy road bike will be apt for ultralight road touring but not for heading off into the unknown laden with gear.
Comfortable riding position
Although your frame cannot be changed, you can change your saddle and handlebar setup, adjusting both their positions to alter your reach.
Gearing range is appropriate for the terrain and loads
A poor gearing range will limit you to flatter regions and lighter loads, so the more ‘granny’ gears the better – as low as 26 tooth on the front chainrings and up to 34 on the rear cassette would help…
Eyelets for mounting racks
At the rear of your frame, look for two sets – one at rear dropout and one on the seatstay. On the front forks, also look for two sets – one on the fork-end (front dropout) and one mid-fork. There are Quick-Release and P-Clip fixing systems, should you not have eyelets, but these are not recommended.
Chainstay / wheelbase length
Check this is long enough to make sure you can mount panniers without clipping them with your heels every pedal rotation.
Water cage fixing mounts
Two cages are useful within the frame main triangle.
Wheels and tyres
These are important as they are the strength between you and the road, so check they are appropriate for the touring you want to be doing. If you are travelling anything other than Ultralight knowing you will be only riding on good tarmac roads, they should be strong and have rims to take wider, more comfortable and durable tyres (28mm, or upwards if your frame can take them) should you want to fit them.
Touring or expedition bikes are the ultimate travelling machines for tackling various terrains and surfaces. They will include everything ready for you to pedal off: a robust frame with a relaxed geometry for long distance riding; gearing for climbing heavily loaded, whether derailleur (typically a triple as low as 48|36|26 on the front chainrings and up to 34 on the rear cassette) or Rohloff hub; racks integrated with the frame, pre-fitted or eyelets for mounting front and rear racks; strong wheels (usually 26” rather than standard 27” road wheels); comfortable and durable tyres (28mm+); fitted mudguards with extra clearance for larger tyres; and fixings for multiple water cages.
Learn about the basic mechanics of your bike, so you are able to fix minor problems on the road should they occur. For servicing and spares before setting off, support your local bike shop…
Reginald Wellbye, Cycle Touring at Home and Abroad (1909)
The amount of equipment you need does not necessarily increase with the length of your travels; you will find you need as much for a weekend away as for a month in the saddle. Pack efficiently and realistically. What is the minimum you need to enjoy the way you want to tour? If you are keen to pack a few classic hardback novels, take them; if you want to cut out excess material from your tools to travel more lightweight, go for it.
Packing efficiently does not always mean cutting the amount of equipment. Always look to upgrade the type of equipment. Look for lighter, more packable and higher performing options. The Pannier shop outlines some great equipment in each category.
Touring unsupported – prepared to camp and cook for yourself – really is the ultimate way to tour. For the extra gear you need to carry you have a greater amount of freedom and flexibility on the road, memorable nights under the stars, and less of a drain on budget on longer tours. There are 3 main setups for camping out, scaling down in shelter, comfort, packsize and weight: sleeping in a tent, sleeping sheltered under a tarp and sleeping exposed in a bivi bag.
A tarp is also useful as an additional item of kit to shelter your touring kit overnight, or sit or cook under in the evening for shade or respite from adverse weather.
Once camp is set up, get a brew on or the hip flask out and get dinner started.
Organising how much or how little gear to take is limited by how you can carry it – your bike and touring style. There are generally 7 places on a bicycle for carrying gear:
Work out what you are able to carry and where on your bicycle. The key issue when loading your bicycle is to securely attach your luggage without upsetting the balance of the bike too much – not just for straining your bike but also for handling on and off it. Distribute the weight, especially if you are travelling heavy – look to achieve a ratio of around 40:60 (front:rear), ensure the weight is as low as possible and try to locate it as close to the bike’s centre of gravity – around the chainset and pedal cranks. If you are touring with others, look to separate out the larger items, for space and weight reasons.
Reginald Wellbye, Cycle Touring at Home and Abroad (1909)
To the luggage bags themselves. When choosing bags, important features are: waterproofness, durability, mounting system, accessibility and look. You live out of your bags sometimes for weeks, so simple repeat chores like accessing your gear and loading/unloading your bike are important considerations. Always choose waterproof bags – Rolltop closure panniers, rack bags and dry bags will have added protection against water, dust and insect penetration.
Compartmentalising your gear to have everything organised and accessible within your bags is an invaluable investment of your time. Sort your gear into ‘use groups’ (frequency of use, weight and state ie. wet/dry) and be consistent so you get used to a system which becomes second nature. This also helps when loading the bike to ensure the weight is evenly distributed. Use dry bags as a way of organising gear within your bags.
It is always worth leave space for items you will pick up en-route – extra food or water, say. Always carry extra rack straps or bungee cords with you to strap extra items to the racks or frame if, and when needed.