Cycle Touring Advice | What do I need for my first Bicycle Tour?
So, you have possibly made the best decision of your life. You have decided to go on a bicycle tour! But what next?
You have a destination in mind. Maybe have some ideas of what to do along the way and thoughts about where you can sleep. The start date is approaching and your brain starts to take over with all these questions.
- Do I need special gear?
- Do I need a dedicated touring bicycle?
- Do I need to spend lots of money?
Start by chilling out! The simple answer to these questions is no. Of course you need a few basic items to get started; bicycle being the most obvious starting point. But aside from a bicycle, I bet many of the items you need or think you need, you already own. If not, I also bet many of your friends & family could help you out. Check out a blog post I wrote last year about the gear & equipment for cycle touring. It may give you some ideas about sourcing gear.
Most of the extra gear we tend to cart around is more often than not centered around the comforts we like in our lives. You don’t necessarily need all these items, but if they make happy, then take them. There really are no rights or wrongs. It is a learning curve.
1. What do I take with me?
When it comes down to it, you don't need a much to get started. I already mentioned the obvious item being a bicycle. But what I think really drives what you take, is the decision about where you plan to sleep? There are no right or wrong answers here. We all have our own preference and varying levels of disposable income. Aside from this decision, you will need spare clothes (optional, but good idea if you want to make friends!), toiletries (again, if you want friends!), some money for food & essentials and the desire to have an adventure. That really is it.
If you go for a hotel or anywhere that comes with a roof and bed facilities, then you take away a lot of gear. Go for camping and you have just added more gear. And if you don't already own camping gear, you will need to buy or borrow. For your first tour you need to make this sleeping preference decision. If you are already into camping or know someone willing to lend you suitable kit, then I would go with that option. If you don't own anything and don't have access to borrow, then I would first look at how many days you plan to go away and work out the costs of hotels, motels, etc.. against the cost of buying camping gear. And finally, if the thought of camping is the last thing on earth you ever want to do, then it is easy to decide.
Which ever way you go with the sleeping arrangements, you will need something to carry your kit. Panniers are the common choice here. Go with this option and you will need a front or read rack. Alternatively the bikepacking market is becoming really popular and there are some great frame bags to buy. You can also use handlebar bags and even ruck sacks. I personally use a rear rack with two pannier bags, with a handlebar bag for my essentials like wallet, phone, snacks, etc.. I also strap my tent to the top of the rear rack, which helps save space in the panniers and also allows it to dry out during the day. That is it. Pretty simple!
When packing, try not to overthink and pack for every eventuality. Have a drink, sit down and think about where you are going. Ask some basic questions. Is it winter? Is it summer? Do you want to camp? Are you travelling with friends who have gear you can share? Once you have worked all this out, the simple answers will come. There may be some things you need to purchase to get started, but there is always ebay or similar if money is limited. And if you do find something has been forgotten along the way, then unless you are hiding out in the middle of nowhere, you can pick things up along the way.
Whatever you do or don't decide to take, it soon becomes clear which items are missing and which items are just bulking out the panniers. Trust me I have been there looking through the multiple items of clothing I really didn’t need. And then there was the array of cooking utensils jangling around the bottom of my panniers. That said, there is always a flip side. When I went on one of my first cycle tours and decided instant coffee would be a great idea, I soon realised it wasn't and needed a fresh coffee attachment for my Jetboil! It is these simple things that can make or break a day! We all have our own needs, so just be honest with yourself and the people you may be travelling with. If you need fresh coffee as soon as you wake up (like me), then do something about it.
Don't beat yourself up about any mistakes you make along the way. That is all part of the fun! Keep in mind that even experienced cycle tourists are learning all the time. Everything evolves and it pays to observe and read about what other people do. If you like it, give it a try. What is the worst that can happen?!
2. Do I need a special touring bicycle?
I don't think so. Unless you have endless supplies of money or don't already own/have access to a bicycle, there is no real benefit to purchasing a new bicycle for your first cycle tours. Most bicycles can be adjusted for touring these days. And the Internet is full of great answers to some to the common issues you may experience. Just make sure your bicycle needs to be comfortable (really important!), of sound mechanical working (equally important) and capable of carrying all of your gear.
Here is a blog post I wrote about converting a mountain bicycle into a great tour bike. Hopefully it will fuel some ideas to convert that old bicycle at the back of your garage.
Like most hobbies/interests/sports people take up, there could be a time when you want to move onto a dedicated bicycle. I myself browse these beautiful touring bicycles, but haven't made the switch yet. I cannot argue with the fact that there is nothing wrong with my current touring bicycle. In fact, it has been super reliable (shouldn't have said that!) and above all, it is comfortable. I'm sure it won't stop me window shopping though!
3. Do I need lots of money?
Depends on you.
I think anyone can go on their first cycle tour on a budget. I myself did it by buying a mix of old and new, and rooted around the loft for an old tent and sleeping bag. Everything else I owned. I went away for a few days and absolutely loved it. Yes my tent and sleeping bag were heavy and bulky, but that didn't take away any of the enjoyment. Today my kit hasn't drastically changed. I have replaced some the bulky items for lightweight, space saving alternatives. It now means I can fit in more little comforts, like a stove to cook on and a fancy sleeping mat.
Aside from accommodation, food is the next item to affect the budget. Again, down to you. Do you only eat in nice restaurants or are you okay with popping into a supermarket and making your own? Or do you like caviar and fine wine to celebrate a good day on the bike, or happy with pasta and a beer while watching the sun go down? I'm sure you get my point here. Comfort and quality of life is subjective. And in my opinion the most expense doesn't always give the best experience.
I personally prefer a mixed approach to the whole cycle tour. Most of the time I camp and make my own food. I see it as part of cycle touring and it allows me to escape my everyday life. Sitting in a field with a BBQ and a beer after a long day is so rewarding. I just cannot imagine that feeling in a hotel. But, if I've had a bad day; maybe it is raining really hard and all my gear is soaked and I need get myself sorted. I'll check in to a cheap hotel. Grab a hot shower and a meal in the restaurant. The other great thing about an occasional night in a hotel is the ability to charge all my electronic devices up in one go!
What is in my panniers?
To finish off, I'll run you through what I generally take on a spring/summer bicycle tour for about 7 - 10 days. Some might say a little too much, and they are probably right, but it all makes me very happy :-)
Bicycle & Luggage
- MTB Conversion bicycle with rear Targus rack
- 2 * Rear Ortlieb Roller Panniers
- Orlieb Handlebar Bag
- Basic bicycle tools (I take: multi tool, Tyre levers, 2 * inner tube, cable ties, spokes, puncture repair kit, tape, oil)
- Saddle cover (to protect and keep dry overnight
- Lightweight lock
- Lezyne Front and Rear lights (lightweight emergency lights)
- iphone 5 (and headphones)
- Garmin Edge Touring GPS
- Go Pro 3
- Canon 350D Camera with 50mm lense
- Powerbee Solar charger / battery pack
- Unbranded USB wall charger
- Ipad mini (only sometimes bring this if I need to do work)
- Terra Nova Laser Competition 1 man tent
- Terra Nova Voyager 800 sleeping bag
- Silk Liner for sleeping bag
- Thermarest sleeping mat
- Camping pillow (I sometimes use clothes instead)
Eating / Cooking
- Jetboil Stove with coffee plunger
- Lightweight frying pan
- Fork / Spoon / Spatula
- Swiss Army Knife
- Salt / Chilli Flakes / Herbs & Spices
- Cycling shorts * 3
- Cycling tops * 2
- Warm cycling jacket (doubles up as casual jacket)
- Rain jacket
- Casual shorts / t-shirt * 1
- Pants * 2
- Socks * 2
- Flip Flops
- Cycling shoes
- Tooth Brush / Paste
- Travel towel
- First Aid Kit (very basic essentials)
- Pain Killers
- Paper Map
- Up to date Passport (some countries need at least 6 months left on the expiry)
- Visas (if required)
- Transport details (if using ferry, train, etc..)
If you have any questions or comments, please do scroll down to the comments section.
Take care and happy cycling!
Cycling Touring Community