How Does Cycle Touring Actually Work?

This post is part of a series of inspirational short essays exploring the who, what, when, where and how of cycle touring and bikepacking.

Like all adventures, bicycle travel’s basic requirement is one of the modern world’s most scarce and valuable resources: time.

Create time for a bicycle journey and you have already set the stage for a unique and unforgettable experience.

And we all know what must happen for time to be created: 

It must be reclaimed from other parts of our lives.

Work is the biggest time-eater of all, of course. So some of us will use our annual leave to get our adventure fix, some of us will arrange a sabbatical, some of us will quit our jobs altogether, and a few of us won’t have a job to quit in the first place.

But all of us can make time for a bike trip if we choose to. This, really, is the biggest part of ‘how’ to do a bike trip: simply make time for one. If all it amounts to is blocking out a few weekends for two-wheeled adventures close to home, there’s nothing wrong with that. And if those adventures spark off a bigger dream, there’ll be a way to make it happen.

It’s natural to assume that equipment has a large part to play in how cycle touring works. And you do need, at the very least, a bicycle that fits you so you don’t end up crippled at the end of a day’s riding.

Camping gear may expand your overnighting options. A stove may make life on the road more homely and reduce long-term costs. Technical clothing may help in challenging weather conditions. Spares and tools will allow you to be more self-sufficient when it comes to mechanical issues. And gadgets may help you stay in touch, navigate more easily, or help you share your journey.

Gear like this gives you independence in dealing with varied situations and providing for your needs, enabling you to do more than you could by relying on outside services, yet there’s no real standard kit list. You’ll find examples at every extreme, from credit-card tourers (bicycle plus credit card) to ultra-heavyweight tourers (bicycle, four panniers, handlebar bag, trailer, guitar/surfboard strapped on top, dog, children, etc).

Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum you’ll find the classic two-pannier or four-pannier setup, which is a good balance for most, which you’ll most often see on the road, and which is as close to an equipment ‘formula’ as it gets. But the bicycle is the only true common denominator, and it ultimately boils down to what gear is relevant to you. Start small. Keep it simple.

Equipment need not be expensive either. Splashing out on top-end stuff is fun if money is no object – why not? – but if you’re financially challenged, money doesn’t have to get in the way of your adventure. Get resourceful in other ways, both when procuring cheap or free gear and when dealing with situations on the road. Beg, borrow or steal; find free stuff on Freecycle or Gumtree; raid charity shops and car boot sales.

A well-fitting bike is important, as a badly-fitting one can easily cause pain or injury, but a Tesco Value sleeping bag will keep you just as warm as a top-of-the-line The North Face one when you’re camping on the banks of the Danube in the middle of summer. Tune your gear choices to match your budget, and don’t get bogged down in online gear research. This is adventure, and unpredictable things will happen, so it’s better to rely on your wit than on your kit.

Money may also be a concern in answering the ‘how’ of cycle touring. And just as when equipping yourself, the only real answer to the question of how much a bike trip costs is “as much as you want it to”. Feel free to take that literally. If you want your bike trip to cost you nothing, then go right ahead.

A weekend of riding from and to your front door might be cost-free by default if you take all your food and camp wild overnight. In 2014 I cycled the length of my home country for a total cost of less than £1 to prove that in the longer-term, no-budget travel isn’t just rhetoric (not that I’m the first to do so).

Buy food, rather than bartering or bin-diving, and you’ll add a few pounds to your daily budget. Pay for campsites or hostels and you’ll add a bit more. Get restaurants and sightseeing into the mix and you’ll bump things up again. And on long-term trips, flights, ferries and visas might come into play.

But in general you will find it’s totally possible start with the resources available to you and work from there, rather than letting the imagined cost of a bike trip stop you from doing it. If you’re planning something grander, you may well benefit from a little more cash in the bank. But the process is no more complicated. Break down the costs, set a realistic saving goal, find a way to get the money, and then go.

Really, though, the ‘how’ question is a red herring. Every dyed-in-the-wool cycle tourist you’ll meet will wax lyrical about how the beauty of cycle touring is in its simplicity – in the fact that all it really involves is getting on a bicycle, riding it, and responding appropriately to what rolls over the horizon.

Why, then, does ‘how’ to do something so simple demand such an elaborate answer?

It’s because, of course, the real concerns about cycle touring are psychological.

What if something goes wrong? What if I get lost? What if I run out of money? What if I can’t do it? Basically, what if I die?

These, amongst many others, are questions that rise consciously and unconsciously. They play to our deepest fears. Left unanswered, they are capable of preventing us from following our dreams.

And so they are questions I have spent the last decade answering, free of charge, on the now-famous absolutely massive advice and planning page.

Header photo courtesy of Max Goldzweig.

This is a modified excerpt from my beginners’ introduction to cycle touring and bikepacking.

How To Hit The Road is a low-priced newcomer’s guide to every aspect of planning and surviving your first bike bike trip. Available as an ebook (Kindle/ePub) or print-on-demand paperback.

Comments (skip to respond)

11 responses to “How Does Cycle Touring Actually Work?”

  1. Great read and one of the best blogs I’ve come across in the last few years! Cycle touring might sound like the world’s craziest idea sometimes – you experience struggles, challenges, but also triumphs and so much joy, and you learn about the world and yourself along the way.

  2. Really interesting read about cycle touring! You should make Taiwan your next destination…the scenery is incredible!!

  3. Thanks for this blog and website which is amazing. I am new to the idea of going off on a bike anywhere.
    The biggest thing that is stopping me from getting started is how to get bikes on to a plane at either end. Meaning how to book them on to flight, deciding what to pack them in, and when returning to the airport, where to get the packing stuff or if people store their bike box/bags at the other airport for when they make the return journey home if its a return from the same destination?? 

    thanks for any help with this

    1. Hi Grace,

      I can assure you that getting the bike on and off the plane is no hassle at all. The main thing is it needs to be stored in a box, generally cardboard. You can either take a risk and bike up to the airport and ask for cardboard and bring a roll of tape to frankenstein it all together or you can ask at a bikestore in the city you are flying from. On my last day flying home from turkey l got a taxi to a bike store picked up a bike box (bike stores will always have these in the back) and brought it back to my hostel where l packed the bike and got another taxi to take it to the airport with me. Easy peasy.
      Don’t let that minor detail stop you from having the adventure of a lifetime! 


  4. A very informative article! I certainly could have used this advice the first time I toured Taiwan haha!!

  5. Reading this makes me want to get my map out and bike out and plan a route. Great blog Tom

  6. Tom — I think you need to know that your blog inspired an old man off of his backside and onto his bike. As a younger man, I was utterly impetuous and up for anything (I left home for a three year long backpacking tour when I was 19 with nothing other than a rucksack containing my entire cassette tape collection and a pot of Black and White hair gel — THAT’S how old I am). And here I am tapping this comment into my phone north of Haarlem having set out two days ago on an eight day circumnavigation of the Netherlands. Very tame by your standards but I really wanted to know if I still had some element of adventure left in me — and it appears I have! Time us definitely the limiting factor for me; but I had some unused leave and the blessing of my wife so I decided to head off. And I am so glad to have done so; I’m certain this will be one of many mini-adventures. Good kit does make a difference, though. I’m using an inflatable camping mat for the first time, and I slept like a log last night. I’ll tell you if I’m still enjoying it in two days time — forecast is for rain and 37kph winds.….

  7. Thanks for the Guide to Adventure Cycle Touring! Though I have completed two 3 month tours, it was still an interesting read and has spurred me on for more. I remember the trepidation setting off on the first tour — a feeling that lasted about 30 minutes.

    Agree about equipment — I knew the bike I wanted and the size so I put an auction alert on eBay, bid when one came up and surprisingly won it at a great price. The latest success was a top-end twice worn waterproof cycle jacket won on eBay for 99p because the zip was broken. I fixed the zip in ten minutes! Other things have been bought new over the years but it is perfectly possible to start a tour with minimal and cheap equipment.

    I totally agree that the bike is the most important thing to get right. Thanks for the post and continued inspiration!

  8. Sending your article to friends hope I find some to try a journey.Very honest no cons in delivery.Hope your words touch many. Bill North Shore Lake Erie

  9. Christian avatar

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Like it except the “Beg, borrow or steal” part…

  10. Is this available in epub format? Really want to read!

Something to add?