DIY Bike Touring

Here are some tips on low-cost, do-it-yourself bike touring — taking your bike on roads outside cities. You don’t have to have a ton of money, a fancy bike, or tight spandex pants to bike 100 miles to the next town over a couple of days — or even bike across the whole damn country.

Planning your trip

Picking a good route is key to a good trip. Look for secondary roads that will have less traffic. Even if there is no shoulder, you can just go in the ditch whenever a car goes by. If your trip is in a hilly area, you may want to look at a topographical map to avoid hills. If a road follows a river, it will usually be more or less level until it leaves the river and jumps to the next valley. You can buy fancy bike maps from groups like Adventure Cycling that show lots of details important to cyclists or look at books about bike touring or just use a road map. Asking about routes at bike shops also helps. If your route doesn’t go through a town at least every 40 or so miles, you’ll need to carry extra food and water. Not every town on a map has food and water in very rural areas.

What to bring

You don’t need a fancy bike but more gears helps. Tires thinner than knobby mountain bike tires are better because they have less friction. Make sure your bike is adjusted so riding doesn’t hurt your body. Check that the seat is adjusted to the right height — your knees shouldn’t be too bent at their lowest position. A comfortable seat makes a huge difference. You’ll at least want working brakes. Pumping the tires to the full pressure is free and makes riding easier. Make sure your bike has a rack for carrying camping gear if you are going to camp. Carrying stuff in a backpack or shoulder bag is hard on your back. You can get used bike bags or make your own out of plastic tubs. The most common mistake bike tourists make is bringing too much stuff but you’ll at least need the basics:

• bike tools like a patch kit and pump, allen or hex wrenches, and a pocket knife with a screwdriver. You don’t necessarily need every tool there is. If you break down you can usually hitchhike or take a bus to a town with a bike store. Avoid silly weight like extra tires!

• water bottles and a bit of food, but keep in mind that bike touring is not like backpacking. You don’t have to be self-sufficient for days. You’ll fill your water bottle and get food every time you hit a town.

• a tent or tarp, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, sunscreen, toiletries, and soap.

• fewer clothes are better. One change is sufficient if you wash each day and dry ‘em on the back of your bike when you’re riding.

• safety stuff like a helmet and bike light which can double as a flashlight.

Where to stay

Some people camp in campgrounds, a few of which even have cheap hiker/biker sites. Some city parks, churches or country stores allow bike camping; ask around. Lots of times people will let you stay in their yard or on their land if you make friends and ask. Or you can camp illegally where no one can see you. Figuring out where you’ll stay before you go will make your trip WAY less stressful and more fun.

Bonus tips

You can put your bike on some city bus routes or commuter trains to get beyond the urban sprawl for a nicer start for your ride. The more you talk to people you meet and ask questions or for help, the better time you’ll have.