Cycle Touring Basics – A Beginners Guide to Bike Touring

Everything you need to know before you take your first bicycle adventure

cycle touring basics

Wondering if cycle touring is right for you? We’ve cycled more than 15,000 miles in 22 countries. In this guide, we share the joys and challenges of bike travel so you can decide if it’s right for you.

With crowded tourist attractions and busy airports looking less and less attractive this year, there’s never been a better time to start planning a cycle tour.

On a cycle trip, you get to spend every day out in the fresh air, taking in beautiful vistas while being naturally socially distanced from your fellow humans. You can camp every night and cook your own meals, too, which gives you total independence from the workings of the “normal” travel industry.

Better still, you can start your next bike trip right out of your front door, so you don’t have to line up at the airport or stuff yourself into an overcrowded bus.

It’s the perfect style of travel for this summer or fall, when traditional styles of travel are still mired in uncertainty.

So what exactly is cycle touring, what’s it like, and are you cut out for such an exciting, challenging, and hugely rewarding mode of travel?

Read on to find out!

This article may contain affiliate / compensated links. For full information, please see our disclaimer here.

Who Goes Cycle Touring?

In our cycling adventures around the globe, we’ve met cyclists from all age groups, backgrounds, and budget levels. The one thing we all have in common is the deep desire to see the world from a different angle than most tourists see it.

Sure, cycle tourists might miss a grand tourist spectacle because it’s 40km out of the way but we make up for it by discovering unsung marvels that most tourists will never see.

80 year old woman on her touring bike
This woman we met in Croatia cycles solo for a month each summer in a different country. I hope she’s still doing it!

Some of the unforgettable cyclists we’ve met while cycle touring include:

  • An 83-year-old woman in Croatia who cycles Europe for a month each summer.
  • A 70-something Italian couple who cycled rings around us and fed us the most amazing parmesan cheese we’ve ever eaten.
  • An Australian couple in their late 50s who’d never travelled by bike before but were matching us pedal-stroke-for pedal stroke on the killer hills of Croatia.
  • A Canadian couple in their 40s who were packing full trailers of supplies for their cycling adventure in far northern BC.
  • A 30something Swiss couple who had taken a few months off to explore SE Asia by bike.
  • A young Chinese couple who were doing the popular Guangzhou to Hainan route at the same time as us.
  • A young French couple who were cycling for 6 months with their 4 children, ages 5–12!
  • A female solo cyclist in her 20s in Laos, who slept every night on the grounds of a different monastery.
  • A couple of 20something guys who were cycling Europe on less than $15 per day.

Plus dozens and dozens more. The point being, there is no limit to who should or should not travel by bicycle. If you truly want to do it, you can make it work.

Why Go On A Bike Tour?

Travelling by bicycle is like no other form of travel. A bike is the perfect vehicle – just fast enough to feel like you’re getting somewhere but slow enough to really experience every place you visit.

Plus, bikes are commonplace around the world, giving you an instant connection with any person who has ever felt the childlike freedom of pedalling a bike.

stephen cycling a red dirt road in cambodia
Most tourists don’t get to see what cycle tourists get to see, like miles of red dirt road through Cambodia’s extraordinary countryside.

Here are some of the reasons that cycle touring is the best form of travel:

  1. You get to experience places that no other tourists see.
  2. You’ll meet people from all walks of life (and they’ll all think you’re crazy – in a good way).
  3. Every day is a new physical challenge and every day builds your physical strength a little more.
  4. There are new mental challenges around every corner. A bike tour reveals your true character and builds new reserves of emotional strength.
  5. It’s environmentally friendly.
  6. It immerses you in nature and culture, with no barriers between you and the world around you.
  7. You get to go where you want, when you want, at the speed you want.
  8. You get to know your true self, as meditative hours in the saddle peel back all your layers.
  9. It’s an experience like no other that, whether you love or loathe it, you will remember forever.

Our Cycling Adventures So Far

On our first bike tour, which started in 2013, we cycled more than 15,000 km in 22 countries around the globe. Admittedly, it was a pretty epic ride for a couple of complete newbies. But that’s one of the things we love about cycle touring.

Almost anyone can do it and you can train for it while you’re already on the road!

We began our tour by packing up our house in Los Angeles (we sold everything we owned, including the house) and flying with our 2 Surly Long-Haul Truckers to Rome. We picked Rome because the cheapest flight we could find landed there.

Cutting our Teeth in Eastern and Northern Europe

The first couple of weeks in of our journey took us up and over the Apennine mountains in Italy. While I don’t recommend initiating yourself into bicycle travel by crossing a mountain range, it really wasn’t that bad! At least in hindsight.

bike touring Italy
Italy has a few hills (and mountains). It’s hard to cycle tour Italy without climbing a few!

From the east coast of Italy, we took an overnight ferry to Croatia, land of beautiful beaches, barbecued meats (not great for a couple of vegetarians), and the most vicious bus drivers in the world.

After cursing Croatian busses (too fast and too wide for Croatian roads) for a few weeks, we moved on to Slovenia, where we had our first experience with flat roads and tailwinds! Hurrah! We then headed to inhospitable Hungary (strangers not welcome) and climbed more mountains in Slovakia (in the freezing rain).

jane cycling up into the mountains in slovakia
Yes, we cycled right up into those clouds. It was high, cold, and completely exhilarating.

From there, we rolled on into Poland where the mosquitos drove us extra fast, then we made a beeline north, through Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

Another ferry took us to Helsinki, where we made a minor non-cycling detour to St. Petersburg. After that, we went west, experiencing the miracle of summer on the Finnish Archipelago.

We island-hopped via bikes and free ferries all the way to Sweden. Sweden’s high prices and free camping laws meant we spent every night there in our tent, wild camping on the shore of yet another gorgeous lake, before finally arriving on the West Coast.

view from our tent in norrby finland
We had so many idyllic camping spots in Finland.

By then we were running out of steam and money — northern Europe is so expensive! We made short work of Denmark and northern Germany before showing up on our friend’s doorstep in Berlin where he let us stay and recuperate for a whole month!

(Not on the doorstep. He actually gave up his room for us).

By then, we were just getting our cycling legs, so we decided to fly to Beijing and start a whole new odyssey.

Going Pro in Asia

Cycling in China was rough going, with bad air and a communication barrier so high we never quite got over it. It was also winter and there were many many mountains to climb.

We spent four months in China, including a month living in Shanghai, before crossing the border into Vietnam. In Vietnam, we ascended the most challenging and beautiful mountain range yet before coasting into sweaty Laos.

road through the annamites in vietnam
Cycling the Annamite Mountains in Vietnam is one of the highlights of our entires lives!

In Laos, we spent almost as much time on boats as bikes, marvelling at being able to move forward without pedalling.

After Laos, Thailand seemed overwhelmingly Western and modern, so we only stayed a couple of weeks before looping through Cambodia, our favourite country of the trip.

When our 30 day visa ran out, we went back into Thailand, exploring the south coast, taking a break in Bangkok, and then hightailing it to Malaysia. We faced more mountains in Malaysia, not to mention the scariest cycling city so far, Kuala Lumpur.

Though we hadn’t wanted to fly again, it turned out to be the only reasonable way to get to Indonesia. We landed in Jakarta which makes Kuala Lumpur seems like a sleepy village.

Though we skipped whole swathes of Java by taking the train, we cycled enough of it to know that we never want to cycle in Java again. Roads are narrow, drivers are reckless, and there are no emissions standards to speak of.

jane looking over a caldera at mount bromo
Yet another rest break on the excruciating climb, above Mount Batok and Mount Bromo.

On our final mountain ascent, we tackled Mount Bromo, the most body-wrecking climb yet. It took two days of sheer torture to the get to the magnificent crater.

From there, it was downhill all the way to Bali, where we promptly got into a road accident, contracted dengue fever, and fell into a month-long slumber. With no energy left to face even another mile of road, we hung up our bike helmets to begin some new adventures.

Short Tours Rule

While epic bike tours spanning continents might be the lofty goal of would-be cycle tourists the world over, short bike tours can be rewarding, too.

Since our first 2-year tour, we’ve had the chance to explore Germany, Canada, Romania, Morocco and Thailand on short tours that all left us wanting more.

Is Cycle Touring for You?

touring bike on a gravel road with mountains in the distance
Some days, cycle touring is all about the challenge, about seeing how hard you can push yourself, and marvelling at how resilient you really are. Photo by O’car Johann Campos on Unsplash.

Despite it being AMAZING, I would not recommend bike touring to most of my friends. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you embark on a cycle tour.

1. Am I open to new challenges?

If you’re looking for a relaxing holiday where you having everything you want at your fingertips, cycle touring is not for you. A cycle tourist has to be able to solve unexpected problems in creative ways, almost every day. It’s less like a holiday and more like a full-time job where you pay to spend all day every day doing manual labor.

2. Are you OK with a certain level of risk?

Cycle touring is not scary or dangerous, except when it is.

Though you can plan a tour that takes you mostly on quiet roads or cycle paths, it’s very difficult to avoid busy roads entirely. There are also nights when you have to camp in an empty field or are the only guest in a creepy hotel.

There is inherent risk in bike touring that doesn’t exist if you go on a cruise or take a bus tour. You’ve gotta be OK with that to really enjoy yourself out there.

3. Are you willing to push yourself?

You don’t have to be a super-fit cycling demon to go on a cycle tour. I know some people who didn’t cycle at all before hitting the road and they had a great time. You can train on the road, starting off with short cycling days and going further as you get fitter.

But you have to be willing to push yourself. Your body will take some time to acclimate to cycling every day and unexpected hills and headwinds are unavoidable.

4. Is nature your homeboy?

If you can’t stand dirt, bugs, or being rained on, and if you hate feeling sweaty, cold, sticky, or disheveled, then bike touring is probably not for you. Whether you’re credit card touring or camping, cycle touring means you spend a large part of every day outside, exposed to the elements.

You will revert to your most uncivilized self, so you better be OK with that!

5. Are you resilient?

If you can’t deal with bruises and sore muscles, and you dread feeling exhausted, thirsty and hungry, then bike touring is not for you. You don’t have to be an Iron Man to cycle tour but you should be OK with a certain level of discomfort.

On a cycle tour, you’ll build resilience like nobody’s business, but it helps if you start out with some natural stores of it.

3 Types of Bike Trips

One of the reasons so many different types of people cycle tour is that there are so many different ways of travelling by bicycle. Here are the three main kinds of bike tours.

Organized Cycle Tours

stephen cycling in thailand
Our self-guided tour of Thailand was made possible because Grasshopper Adventures did all the legwork!

What is it?

An organized tour is a cycling holiday where you pay someone else to make all the plans and gather the equipment. You just have to show up with your credit card, your clothes, and the desire to ride!

Who is it for?

Organized bike tours are great for people who don’t have the time or the patience to gather together a bunch of bike touring gear and transport it to the location they want to explore. They’re also great for people who are new to bike touring, since the stress of planning a route and finding a place to stay and eat every night is lifted from your shoulders.

On organized bike tours, accommodation is usually booked ahead of time and your luggage will likely be transported from place to place by van, so you can cycle unencumbered. However, not all organized tours are arranged this way.

How much does it cost?

This kind of bicycle travel is usually the most expensive. You have to cover the cost of your equipment rental plus a whole team of people supporting you. However, if you don’t own any bike touring gear, this might be an affordable way to get into bike touring, since you won’t have to spend all that money on gear upfront.

Where will you stay?

Usually, on organized tours, you spend each night in a hotel, hostel, or guest house. Accommodation can be very fancy or very basic, depending on the company and the tour you choose. But, since it is vetted ahead of time, you can expect safe, comfortable, and clean places to sleep every night.

There are three main kinds of organized bike tours.

Group Bike Tours
bangkok bike tour canal boat
We’ve only done 1-day group bike tours but they’re always lots of fun, like the day tour we did in Bangkok with Grasshopper Adventures.

Just like it sounds, on a group bike tour, you join a group of other cyclists and travel together. This is perfect if you don’t have a cycling partner but don’t want to go it alone. It’s also great for social butterflies because it gives you a built-in social life on the road.

The main drawback is that group tours attract different levels of cyclists, so you’ll usually go at the pace of the slowest person in the group.

We’ve never done a multi-day group bike tour but I do like the idea of it. We have really enjoyed every one-day group bike tour we’ve done, like this awesome one in Bangkok.

Private Guided Bike Tours

Similar to a group bike tour, private guided tours give you all the benefits of a group tour, but you won’t be cycling with strangers. You can do a private guided bike tour as a solo cyclist, a couple, or with a dozen of your closest friends. Since the tour is private, you’ll have more control over the pace and itinerary than you would on a group tour.

We went on a multi-day private guided cycle tour in Morocco, where the guides took us on the most beautiful cycling routes and led us to wonderful, hidden restaurants. And when we saw that our second day itinerary included 4 hours of climbing, we said “no, thank you” and they arranged a mostly downhill day instead!

Self-Guided Tours

For those who don’t want a guide but still want the convenience of having all the equipment provided and your itinerary planned out in advance, self-guided tours are ideal.

The route is prepared and researched by the tour company ahead of time and they’ll provide you with the digital routes and waypoints. All you have to do is follow along and enjoy the cycling.

We did a two-week self-guided tour in Southern Thailand and loved the freedom that came with not having to plan each day. It was also super-convenient because we could insert a couple of weeks of bicycle travel in our more traditional trip to Thailand.

Independent Road Bike Touring

bike touring germany
On an independent cycle tour, you make your own rules, like camping in a meadow (this one is in Germany).

What is it?

This is the kind of bike adventure that most people associate with the term cycle touring.

You’ll gather your own equipment, carry all your supplies on your bike (or on a trailer), and sleep wherever you find a suitable spot. You’ll also plan your own route and are on the hook if you need to do bike repairs or solve other problems.

This is the type of cycle tour we’ve done the most. We’ve done independent road bike touring in more than 20 countries, the most recent being our 6-week tour of British Columbia in Canada.

Want to Cycle BC?
If you’re in Vancouver, take a day out to do one of our 3 favourite Vancouver bike routes.

Who is it for?

As you read in the first section, we have met all kinds of people at all stages of life doing independent road bike tours.

However, the people who really appreciate this kind of travel are looking for a certain level of freedom from their travels. They want to go where the wind blows them, rest when they feel like resting, and have complete freedom to change plans at the last second.

How much does it cost?

Cycle touring independently can be significantly cheaper than going on an organized tour. Costs vary widely depending on the destination and your style of travel.

Since you don’t have to pay for transportation or accommodation (if you wild camp), independent cycle touring can be very budget friendly.

However, cycle touring can be expensive if you stay in hotels every night and eat at nice restaurants. This style of bike touring is often called a credit card tour.

Plus, don’t forget, you’ll have to buy (or rent) your own bike and gear, which can be a significant up-front expense.

Where will you stay?

On a road cycling tour, cyclists most often stay in established campgrounds or at hostels and other cheap accommodations. However, lots of cycle tourists camp wild (hiding away each night on public land) while others splash out on luxury hotels.

Bikepacking

bikepacking bike in the desert in arizona
Bikepacking bikes are usually less loaded so you can really get off the road and out into your own world. Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash.

What is it?

Bikepacking is the new, cool form of bike travel on the scene.

The term is often used interchangeably with bike touring, bike travel, or cycle touring. However, bikepacking is a slightly different beast.

Bikepackers usually ride off-road on mountain bikes and spend most of their time in the wilderness, only heading to civilization for supplies. Instead of using panniers, they strap their gear onto the various parts of the bike, giving them a slimmer, more agile set-up.

We’ve never done a bikepacking tour and it’s not really high on my list. I love cycle touring because of the cultural immersion (and the unlimited ice cream), which you miss out on if you spend the whole time in the wilderness.

Who is it for?

Bikepacking is perfect for cyclists who want to get away from people and out into nature on their own two-wheeled version of Man vs. Wild. If you choose your destination carefully, you could avoid seeing other people for days!

Of course, you really need to like the outdoors and be OK with eating freeze-dried food to make the most of bikepacking.

How much does it cost?

This is usually the cheapest form of bike touring, because you will be staying in the wilderness and foraging from the land (OK, that might be a small exaggeration).

Bikepacking gear generally costs less because you’ll want to keep your set-up ultra-light and you won’t need to buy expensive panniers — instead, you just bungee your gear to your bike inside dry bags.

You’ll also avoid the temptation of grabbing beer and a pizza every evening which can really add up!

Where will you stay?

You’ll likely be sleeping in a hammock in the woods — or you can build your own lean-to if you want to get extra Bear Grylls about it.

Common Mistakes Bike Travellers Make

stephen taking his bike down a cliff in indonesia
That time we took our bikes down a vague trail on the side of a mountain. Mistake!

One of the great things about cycle touring is that there are no rules and there is no perfect way of doing it. Every cyclist chooses their own style, pace, and method of travel.

However, there are some common mistakes that lots of cycle tourists (including us) would do differently if they could go back in time.

Not Getting Your Bike Properly Fitted

This is the one thing I’d for sure fix if I could do it all again.

When Stephen and I set out on our first bike tour, we bought Surly Long Haul Truckers kits from a local bike shop and let the staff set them up for us. We adjusted the seat height and that was about it.

It wasn’t until years later, when Stephen finally got a pro bike fitting, the we discovered all the things we should have done to prevent aches and pains on the trip. Before I set out on my next big tour, I will definitely invest in a bike fitting and all the new parts I need to ensure a high level of comfort on my ride.

Packing Too Much Stuff

huge pile of bike touring gear
When we set out on our first bike tour, we packed way too much stuff.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a cycle tourist who hasn’t overpacked at least once. I know I’ve never met a cycle tourist who said “I wish I’d packed more stuff!”.

When getting ready for a cycle tour, you’ll be inundated with packing lists from far and wide, and you’ll be tempted to include everything from every one of those lists.

Trust me when I say that you DO NOT want to be carrying the kitchen sink on the back of your bike up a mountain!

On our first cycle tour, we started leaving stuff behind in Croatia, our 2nd country. We dropped more items in Poland, shed extra pounds in Berlin, left more behind in Beijing and got rid of a whole bag in Central China.

About 8 months into our trip, we finally felt like we were carrying the right amount of stuff!

Buying Too Much Cool Bike Touring Gear

After reading multiple cycle touring blogs when we were preparing for our first big tour, I became convinced that we absolutely needed all the shiny new (most expensive) stuff that was recommended.

We got the very best Ortleib Panniers (4 each), plus Smart Wool everything, plus a super light tent, the most awesome Trangia stove, a hub power generator, and the most expensive rain jackets. We got tripod stools and special travel coffee mugs and insulated water bottles and rechargeable headlamps and a UV water filter and… and… and…

While it’s good to get some specialized equipment, make sure not to go overboard. You don’t have to have the most expensive version of everything.

You can cycle in an old cotton t-shirt! You can wear a rain jacket that’s not specifically for cycling. You can use cheap dry bags strapped to your frame to hold your equipment. You can use your phone as a flashlight.

For your first tour, just get the basics:

  • A sturdy well-fitted bike
  • A couple of panniers and/or dry bags for your gear
  • A tent that will keep you dry
  • A sleeping bag that will keep you warm
  • A Trangia stove (it really is the best!)

If you become a cycle touring addict, you can upgrade your equipment as the years go by.

What Gear Do You Need?
If you’re going on a bike tour, grab our complete bike touring packing list which we’ve refined over 7 years and many tours.

Cycling Too Far Each Day

If what you really love is tearing up the road and getting those miles under your belt then, by all means, cycle 200 km per day. But if you want to experience the world you’re cycling through, slow down!

Especially if you’re new to cycle touring, don’t be afraid to do very short days. There’s nothing wrong with only going 30 km or less. There’s nothing wrong with spending several nights in every location.

Slow down, relax, and immerse yourself in the experience.

We always find it hard not to succumb to the pressure (self-imposed) of pushing ourselves further and further each day. It takes a lot of will to just slow down and smell the coffee but it’s worth it!

Planning Too Carefully

Before we set out on our first bike tour, I mapped out all the sights and locations I wanted to see for our first 6 months. I didn’t go so far as to plan each day’s route, as some bike tourists do, but I went pretty nuts.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with researching and planning your trip — it can be super exciting to pore over blogs and guide books, planning what you most want to see.

Just remember that your plan will probably fall by the wayside right around lunchtime on your first day!

Be OK with that and be prepared to just let things flow.

Not Planning Enough

We’ve met a few cyclists who seem to have just rolled out of bed one morning, strapped a sleeping bag to their bike, and hit the road. They didn’t have the right equipment, any safety gear, or any plan whatsoever.

Unless you’re the most super-chill person on earth, this is a recipe for disaster.

Before you go cycle touring, you should have some idea of what you’re getting into. At the very least, gather together the basic items you’ll need to survive and thrive on the road.

While we all fancy ourselves as budding Dervla Murphys, most of us won’t actually be happy bedding down in a flea-infested pile of barnyard straw night after night.

Waiting Until You’re In Shape

Hear this truth loud and clear: the only way to get in shape for bike touring is to go bike touring!

Sure, spin classes 3 times a week will give you some useful muscles, and yoga classes will help you recover and stretch your muscles each evening. But, no matter how in shape you think you are, your first few weeks on the road will be an eye-opener.

Muscles will be sore, your butt will hurt, fatigue will get you, and you’ll develop aches and pains in places you’d never noticed until now.

The great news is that, if you’re riding with proper alignment, eating well, and taking care of your muscles each evening, it’s nothing that won’t pass after your body gets used to the new lifestyle you’ve chosen.

Not Learning ANY Bike Maintenance

jane fixing a flat by a highway in indonesia
This was the second flat of the day for me and I was not happy. But at least I knew what to do.

While there are bike shops all over the world, staffed with guys (it’s almost always guys) who love nothing more than to exchange road stories while fixing your bike, the worst usually happens far from any such helpful souls.

We’ve had tires go flat in every conceivable circumstance. I broke my chain in the middle of a forest in Germany once. And my gear cable snapped coming down the side of a mountain in Malaysia.

Before you leave home, I highly recommend visiting your local bike shop for a bike maintenance workshop. At a bare minimum, you should be able to fix your own flat tire before you hit the road.

I learned other basic repairs, like replacing my brake cables, adjusting my gears, and fixing my chain, from YouTube while on the road.

More Bike Touring Guides

We’ve written several country specific guides for cycle touring, so you can choose your cycling destination wisely.

Bike Touring Gear & Books

Don’t Forget a Thing!
If you’re going on a bike tour, grab our complete bike touring packing list which we’ve refined over 7 years and many tours.

Here’s the main bike touring equipment we currently tour with (and highly recommend).

A Final Note About Cycle Touring

jane sitting by a lake in latvia with her bike
Cycle touring is truly transformational travel experience.

When you first set out on a bike tour, it can be hard going. I’d say it took us a few weeks to really get into our rhythm on our first tour and a few more months before we got really good at it!

But if you don’t have that long, don’t worry. Just know that the first few days of your first tour are like an initiation. They are your time to figure out what you do and don’t like about bike travel and then to adjust your plans, adding more of the stuff you love and taking away the stuff you don’t.

Once you get into the swing of things, you’ll discover that bike touring is like no other form of travel! It’s more immersive, more visceral, and more enlivening than anything else we’ve ever done. It also makes every other form of travel pale in comparison.

So, are you ready to join the ranks of cycle tourists who’ve discovered the secret of transformational travel? If so, it’s time to start planning!

♥  Happy transformational travels, Jane & Stephen

I hope this starter guide to cycle touring has got you pumped to get out there and hit the road. Our goal is to help you find unique ways to make every trip transformational and we guarantee that you won’t be the same after your first bike tour.

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