Are you thinking about bicycle travel? Going solo, or with friends? A weekend, or 6 months? These tips may help to answer some of your trip preparation questions. I will give a brief overview of the options available and then talk about my personal experience.
Bikepacking VS Bicycle touring
Bikepacking is a term generally used for ”rack-less” storage when travelling by bicycle. In most cases you would utilise:
– A frame bag (in the triangle space between top and down tubes),
– A handle bar roll bag (a roll top dry bag that fixes across the handlebars),
– A seat pack (a cylindrical shaped bag that fixes to the seat post),
– A backpack (hopefully that’s self explanatory).
In addition there are options for extra storage:
– Fork mounted ”cargo cages” for bags or water bottles,
– Down tube and Top tube bags (additional smaller bags that fit underneath the down tube and above the top tube).
Compared to bicycle touring, bikepacking is a much lighter way to travel and it’s also more aerodynamic, that means those pesky headwinds wont slow you down as much. It is easier to take your tour off-road, should your tyre and suspension set-up allow for it. You can fit down narrower trails and have less parts to rattle loose.
Bikepacking gear however, can be more expensive. Finding good quality camping and travel equipment thats small and light enough to fit with your set-up may require you to open your wallet further. You’ll also have little space for creature comforts and items of leisure.
Bicycle touring is the general term that is used for rack mounted storage. Its bigger, heavier and less aerodynamic, but you have a lot more room for storage/food/water. In most cases you would utilise:
– A rear rack (lots of universal and specific options available),
– Rear panniers (Bags for the left and right side),
– A front rack (again, lots of options available),
– Front panniers (Thats it, you’re catching on!),
– A handle bar bag (usually box shaped and sturdy).
Once more there are options for additional storage:
– A frame bag (As previously explained),
– Tube bags (As previous),
– And a common option is a roll-top dry bag that’s bungee strapped or fixed across the top of the rear panniers.
Of course, storage options between the two types of travel are customizeable and interchangeable, making a ”hybrid”. For the sake of this post I’m speaking from general terms.
Bicycle touring is more suited to mainly on-road travel. Unless you’re riding on super skinny road tyres, most set-ups will handle gravel and some off roading without fault. But prolonged off roading is unadvised and I wouldn’t expect to be zipping along narrow trails or rutted paths.
What you may lack in off-the-beaten-path capability you can make up for in comfort. You’ll have space for that extra jumper, your favourite camping pillow and that book you’ve wanted to read.
In short I find that Bikepacking is more fast-paced. An ”I have a destination and a date to arrive” kind of travel. Or a rough and ready ”only the basics” kind of tour.
Whereas Bicycle touring to me is more leisurely. A ”lets see where this road goes” or ”I have 6 months and no where to be” kind of travel. Its also a great set-up for a weekend camping trip.
Tips From My Personal Experience With Bicycle Touring.
First and foremost what really matters is what you want your trip to be. There is little point in packing 3 season sleeping gear if you’re going for a weekend trip in mid July. On the other hand it doesn’t make sense to skimp on equipment or pack light if you wont be comfortable. The most important thing with any type of travel is to enjoy it.
The beauty of bicycle travel is that you can do it on literally any bike. My first tour was completed on a 10 year old, full suspension mountain bike. All I replaced was the tyres, I attached some universal racks, bought some waterproof panniers and off I went. I did change bike for my second tour though. I went for a lighter bike, a hard tail with front lock-able suspension.
For your first trip I would recommend using whatever you have. If you catch the touring bug then upgrade according to your needs.
I will however advise researching and testing some saddles. After seven or eight attempts across three tours I settled for a Brooks saddle. They come highly recommended and once broken-in are much more comfortable than the others I have tried.
(The breaking in process is not pleasant though!)
When I was preparing for my first trip I read a lot of articles and stories about keeping weight to a minimum, even to the point of cutting labels out of clothing. I began weighing everything, adding up every gram to my total, trying to hunt down the lightest equipment, then pack and re-pack to see what I could do without.
On the road however, that all went straight out of the window on the first sunny day when I was strapping a 6-pack to the back of my bike. If you can afford the lighter tent or do without the extra pair of socks then great, go for it. But all your hard work will be undone when you buy that jar of pasta sauce for dinner.
On my second trip I packed a larger tent. If you’re going to get rained-in or take rest days, it is much more comfortable to be in a tent that you can sit up in and have room for some of your belongings.
My favourite addition to my second tour was a camping chair. They pack down small, weigh hardly anything and the level of comfort it brings after a day in the saddle is immeasurable. Take one and thank me later.
Again, this really depends on the kind of trip you’re doing and the kind of terrain you’ll be covering. A two week trip in the flats of the Netherlands will require very little training, if any. For the most part my ”training” has just been the travelling itself. Before my first tour I did one weekend trip and one overnight stay with my fully laden bicycle just to get used to the weight. Other then that the first few weeks of my trip was the training.
If you’re planning on traversing any decent inclines soon after leaving and would like to retain the ability to walk the next day, then I would recommend training for sure. Cycling along a river is one thing, crossing the Pyrenees is another! Fully weighted day rides are the best training option in my book.
Travelling with a buddy is great. The shared experience will make for great reminiscing and there is someone to help you do the dishes. However, be prepared to compromise. My first two trips I went solo. Not only because I wanted to experience solo travel, but also because I wanted to go at my own pace. Ride when I wanted, rest when I wanted. Explore where I wanted and be as social or unsocial as I wanted. Additionally your endurance levels and your idea of a ”days ride” may differ. Go for some pre-trip trips with your buddy to make sure you’re on the same page.
If, however, you meet people along the way. Whether you spend a few days cycling with other tourists, or a kind local offers you a cup of tea. I highly recommend asking for some contact details. There is a good chance you’ll never see them again, but that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t be interested in hearing about the rest of your trip. It is also very rewarding to be able to contact those that helped you along the way. (Especially if you are reminiscing and may write about them in your blog!)
Well-being on the road
I strongly advise you listen to your legs and your body when on the road. Don’t push your legs further than they want to go, and make sure you give them ample rest. Your knees and backside will thank you.
Stretch – this is rather important for avoiding stiffness and suffering an injury.
If you can avoid cycling in the rain then I would do so. A light misting can be refreshing but being soaked to the bone… not so much. Even with good rain-gear, cycling in a downpour is uncomfortable.
Stop to take pictures and explore you surroundings – After all, you are traveling! Make those memories, look up from the handlebars every now and then.
Eat eat eat. Food is fuel and even on a short cycling day you’ll be surprised how many calories you will burn through. Keep your energy levels up by grazing throughout the day. I would also recommend taking a gas stove of some description. A hot drink or a warm meal does wonders for your well-being on a chilly morning or cold evening.
Most importantly, don’t forget to have fun!