Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. This can be the extent of your worries on a bike trip, where you simply spend your time pedaling and viewing the world going by at your own speed. Bicycle tours are a healthy way to get outside and see an area or region in a way you never could by car or plane. With new bike routes and bicycle trails criss-crossing most states and even connecting several cities, getting away on just two wheels is a more accessible — and fun — vacation idea than ever before.
Jeff Miller, President/CEO of the Alliance for Biking & Walking, describes bike touring as “one of the best ways to really, truly see a place; where your trip is about the journey and not just the destination.” After riding across the United States and spending 14 months riding across 15 countries, Miller has experienced this firsthand!
As with most vacations, going on a bike trip can be as intense or relaxing as you choose. Whether you decide to bike across an entire state, camping as you go, or just want to cycle an easy path and find a comfy respite in a cozy bed-and-breakfast, there are multiple options for you to pick from when you plan your ideal bicycle vacation.
Getting Started: Bike Gear and Pre-Tour Training
The type and amount of gear and supplies you will need will be based on the length of your vacation, the weather conditions during your tour, whether you are camping or staying indoors, and any other special needs you may have. The Adventure Cycling Association provides a guide on what to take and how to pack, including specifics for camping and foul weather conditions. As a general rule, lighter is better. Most tour providers will give you a list of necessary equipment specific to your chosen route.
Miller says his No. 1 piece of invaluable equipment when going on a cycling tour is “a camera or journal to remember the special and intimate details that happen.” He adds that proper clothing are also vital — if you’ve never tried a pair of padded shorts, get a pair or two you are comfortable in before your first tour. Miller recommends bringing two pairs, and washing them on alternate days. Sunscreen and sunglasses also make a world of difference.
Naturally, the biggest piece of equipment you will need is your bicycle. If you’re taking a short bike trip, check into renting a bike from a local bike shop where you’re touring to save the cost of shipping your bike. (Check out this searchable website to rent a bicycle from bike shops across the country.) Longer tours, however, can be more comfortable if you’re on your own two wheels. Some cyclists ship their bikes ahead of time if they are headed far from home, but that quickly increases the carbon footprint of what could be an eco-friendly vacation. Start by checking into bike trip options in your region instead of looking far away, to have a green vacation while also getting a unique look at the natural beauty of where you live.
You should also research how you want to carry your bike gear. If you are just going for a single day or one night trip, you won’t need to worry about having too many bike bags or racks. Bike bags are durable travel bags that attach directly to your bike; the most common for bike tours are panniers, which connect to the sides of a rack over your rear tire for balanced weight distribution. Longer tours may require purchasing a bike trailer or extra bike bags. It will not be as enjoyable a trip without all the supplies you need and without proper ways to carry them.
Miller stresses that it is not vital to be an experienced biker to go on a tour. While being in better shape will increase your enjoyment, especially on a longer trip, “training” is not necessary. For really long rides, a good goal is to ride half the distance you expect to ride in a day before you go, preferably twice on back-to-back days. That way, you will know your body better and have an idea of any adjustments you will need to make for your real ride. It’s important to remember that small details, even a little wrist discomfort, will add up when you’re spending sequential days pedaling along. Miller says, “Anyone can get on a bike and ride 50 miles in one day. You might be tired, but you’ll be exhilarated, too.”
Grant Petersen of Rivendell Bicycles is credited with a great, spontaneous bicycle adventure that can also double as a tour test-run: the Sub-24 Hour Overnight (S24O). You ride out in the afternoon or evening on your bike, camp, and ride home in the morning. It’s a quick, fun way to have a trial touring experience, and the S24O gives you the opportunity to note what you need or don’t need for a longer camping tour.
Self-Led Bicycle Tours
There is a never-ending array of options for where a cycling tour can take you. To get an idea of how you want to frame your trip, start with this collection of more than 40,000 miles of mapped bicycle routes from the Adventure Cycling Association. A unique series of bike routes can also be found at the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. (This group turns old rail lines into bicycle trails — especially convenient because rail lines were kept at a low grade, meaning rides will never be very steep or require sharp turns.) Using the organization’s Trail Finder application, you can choose from more than 19,000 miles or rail-trails across the country. When choosing a route, it’s important to keep in mind your fitness level. Also look into the weather: general wind patterns and the predicted forecast.
“In this day and age, with cell phones, you are not really alone,” Miller says. “You will always be in touch and connected if something happens.” In other words, planning for a trip doesn’t have to be scary or overly complicated. Part of the beauty is the unknown, the freedom you have to choose your destination while on the road. For more information on steps to plan your best bike tour, check out this expert advice from REI.
Guided Bicycle Tours
If all the planning and mapping sounds more like work than vacation to you, you can use a company that provides guided bicycle tours. Especially for first-timers and people with busy schedules, going on a guided cycling tour can be a more secure way to plan a good trip. You can usually choose between self-supported tours — where you share the cooking and camping responsibilities with your group — and fully supported tours, where the company takes care of purchasing food and supplying cooking equipment, as well as planning routes and stops. You can choose whether your biking takes you from campsite to campsite, hotel to hotel, up and down hills and mountains, across flat plains or along a coastline.
The Adventure Cycling Association, for example, is a company that offers either self-contained or supported tours in all areas of the country for varying group sizes and fitness levels. Miller suggests reading the reviews and comments of any tour provider online to get an idea of the quality of the company and the ride. Keep in mind that guided tours, as a rule, cost more than going it alone. Also, your route is set before you start, so you won’t be able to change it up as you go along.
Get Out and Ride: Taking a Green Trip
Bike tours are one of the simplest ways to engage in sustainable tourism available. Plus, if you bring your family along on bicycle camping adventure, you are introducing those you love to a sustainable way to be active while getting outside and away. You can even add a short bike tour to an existing vacation. For example, if you’re planning a trip to New Orleans, you could take a bicycle tour of the Ninth Ward. Several cities across the globe have tour packages that offer a biking option, including Washington, D.C.; Barcelona, Spain; and Berlin.
As a Kansan, I was only recently introduced to the beauty of the state where I was born and raised in a new way: from my bicycle seat. Biking across prairies, through rolling countryside, and camping along the Katy Trail while taking a bicycle trip across Missouri have all opened my eyes to the natural beauty in the Midwest. I have no doubt that you, too, can see the places nearest to your home and heart with new eyes if you take a bipedal view.
Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely working in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can find Jennifer on Twitter or Google+.