Interested in why bicycle travellers tend to prefer certain types of tent? Let’s explore in detail a few of the key criteria – I’ve identified twelve, to be precise – that might cause a cycle tourer or bikepacker to choose one tent over another in this overly crowded market.
The perfect tent, of course, does not exist, because there is no such thing as perfection! But if it did, it would probably…
1. Weigh as little as possible
The less weight you’re carrying, the nimbler and more enjoyable to ride your bike will be while you’re on it, and the more manageable it’ll be while you’re off it.
In the old days, tents were built of heavy canvas, wood and steel, and weighed as much as a bicycle. Modern tents, by contrast, are now absurdly light.
The ideal touring tent would, therefore, weigh as little as possible when packed – particularly important for bikepackers.
2. Last as long as possible
The importance of durability increases in parallel with the length of your journey. Modern tents do have a limited lifespan and on an ultra-long tour can almost be considered a consumable item, most multi-year journeys involving a series of tents.
Common points of failure include zip sliders wearing out, floors losing waterproofness, poles fatiguing and snapping under stress, and flysheets shrinking through prolonged UV exposure.
Long-term riders especially therefore tend to choose tents whose durability has proven itself over time.
3. Pitch anywhere
Especially when wild-camping, perfect pitching conditions can never be guaranteed. As well as this, a long tour may well incorporate a variety of environments.
The perfect tent would go up anywhere, regardless of the availability of flat, level ground, and with or without the ability to use pegs/stakes.
That is, rather simplistically, why cyclists tend to choose freestanding tents, in which the poles support the whole structure, or tents requiring minimal staking out.
4. Blend into the background
Successful wild-camping is largely about avoiding detection. Part of this is having a tent that does not stick out like a sore thumb in a landscape.
The ideal tent, therefore, would exhibit chameleon-like properties, blending perfectly into the surroundings. Tents with green or neutral-coloured flysheets are therefore a good bet, while bright orange or yellow mountaineering tents are less than preferable in this regard.
5. Go up quickly
Once a suitable pitch has been found, the last thing a cycle traveller wants is to waste time pitching or tweaking an overly complicated tent, particularly in bad weather or when stealth-camping under cover of darkness.
This, again, is one of the reasons why cyclists tend to prefer freestanding tents with simple, ideally one-piece, pole structures, which are pitched in a few seconds, all stakes and guy lines being optional.
6. Keep you dry in a monsoon
Any tent worth its salt will keep its occupants dry. The best tents will do so in a torrential downpour and on waterlogged ground, and many riders will have to anticipate such conditions.
In practice, this means choosing a tent with an additional footprint to provide extra waterproofing to the floor, an adjustable fly sheet that can be cinched down closer to the ground to avoid splashback, and a good level of protection around the edges of the inner tent as well. It might also mean a footprint that extends to cover the space beneath the awning where your gear is being stowed.
7. Stand up in a hurricane
Extreme weather, by definition, is the exception rather than the norm. But the longer the trip, the higher the chances of being exposed to it.
The ideal tent would take stormy weather in its stride, remaining firmly planted even whilst houses, pets and automobiles are being blown clean away.
So-called ‘geodesic’ and tunnel tents tend to do well in strong winds when properly pitched and oriented, while wedge-shaped tents are among the worst performers in this sense.
8. Ventilate in all climates
Climate control is a perpetual concern for the camper. Condensation in particular can contribute far more to a soggy night’s sleep than rainfall itself.
The ideal tent would feature adjustable ventilation options for all circumstances, including plentiful mesh panels on the inner so it can be pitched alone in hot weather and allow a good breeze to come through.
9. Provide a view when you want it
Tents are enclosed and often claustrophobic spaces designed to isolate and protect from the elements. But when the elements are at their most desirable, the ideal tent will provide a viewing platform from which to drink all that natural beauty up.
This usually means choosing a tent with an awning that can be tied right back and a mesh panel on the inner door to look through, if not a full mesh inner tent.
10. Give you privacy when you need it
Sometimes, after a long day on the road, all you’ll want to do is retreat to a save haven. The ideal tent will feel as secure, safe and impermeable as a padded cell.
If you think it’ll be warm and dry enough to pitch only the inner tent without the rainfly, a full mesh inner will afford no privacy whatsoever. A tent with a combination of mesh and fabric panels, on the other hand, may strike a better balance.
11. Allow room for all your luggage
Tents being necessarily restricted in size for practical reasons, it’s usually possible to bring some of your belongings inside, but often it’ll be necessary to leave at the very least your bicycle to brave the elements overnight.
The ideal tent provides space for everything to be brought inside or stowed in the awning – perhaps even the bike.
12. Provide space to live
In a similar vein to the above, tents are more or less well designed for doing anything other than sleeping.
The ideal tent will exhibit Tardis-like qualities, providing space to unpack, rearrange, work, play, get changed, entertain guests, repair bicycles and more, in addition to simply sleeping.
In reality, there is no single tent that ticks all of the above boxes. Choosing the right tent for your bike trip is about knowing what compromises you can safely make, and when you should stick to your guns.
Many of these compromises are common to a lot of riders, which is why a small handful of tents have emerged as long-time favourites among cycle tourers and bikepackers.
Anything I’ve missed? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing”, Sir Ranulph Fiennes once said. I don’t imagine he got the idea after a winter bike ride, but the same holds true: there’s nothing stopping you pedalling through darkening days and sub-zero temperatures, as long as you dress for the occasion – and bear a few other key points in mind.
I learned all this the hard way when I spent a memorable February cycling and camping my way through Norway and Sweden, across the Arctic Circle and into Lapland (click here to watch the 2‑minute short film on Vimeo). After a very steep learning curve, it proved to be a magical experience, and one I constantly refer to when encouraging others to give winter cycling a try.
Rejoice, then, in the fact that you do not need to go to such extreme lengths as I did to enjoy yourself on two wheels this winter. Here’s how to survive the season:
1. Layer Up
Inappropriate clothing will leave you shivering, sweaty, or both. While you can simply crank up the pace to stay warm in autumn, winter requires a different approach. Combine warm yet wicking long-sleeve baselayers – ideally merino – with breathable microfleece midlayers, windproof shell jackets, and insulated winter tights. Versatility is key.
2. Vent Moisture
The harder you ride, the more you’ll sweat, and if sweat accumulates in your clothing at sub-zero temperatures you will literally freeze in your saddle. Good quality breathable and wicking clothing can only do so much, so ensure that your windproof outer layer has plentiful venting options, such as a full-length front zip, armpit zips and adjustable cuffs.
3. Drop Your Pace
You can reduce sweat build-up in another way: by slowing down. If you’re used to a nippy fair-weather pace, it’s often tough to change your habits, but the last thing you want is moisture freezing in the fibres of your clothing. Use the winter as an excuse to take longer, slower rides and work on endurance.
4. Control Exertion
Exertion and moisture isn’t just about pace, and other factors are amplified in winter when the equilibrium is more delicate. Pay attention to gradients, speed and windchill, sunlight and shade, cold sinks at the bottom of valleys, and time of day; all of which will affect your body temperature. Anticipate and adjust your exertion and layering appropriately.
5. Protect Extremities
Fingers and toes are vulnerable to cold with little blood flow. Prevent the worst by wearing ‘two-fingered’ mitts, woollen socks and neoprene overboots. If it’s really Arctic, wear plastic bags between liner socks and thick socks (I’m not joking), and consider ‘pogies’ for your handlebars. Your ears and neck are superconductors, so wear a beanie and a neck gaiter. Male riders shouldn’t forget that ‘other’ extremity – a spare glove or sock works well…
6. Winterize Your Bike
Clean and lube your drivetrain after every ride – particularly if you’re riding after the gritting trucks have been out, as salty road-spray will eat it for breakfast. Use a synthetic winter lubricant. Treat any exposed steel with anti-rust spray. Make sure cables are well-sealed and uncontaminated. You don’t want brake cables freezing up on icy roads.
7. Break Out The Winter Accessories
Mudguards may be unfashionable but they’ll keep your drivetrain and backside untarnished while you’re riding in slush or on salted roads. Consider thermal wraps for your water bottles, or bring Thermos flasks instead – or, if it’s stupidly cold, wear a Camelbak under your outer layer. A nice warm saddle cover might feel like a good idea after your first couple of sub-zero rides, too.
8. Don’t Slip (Or Sink)
Drop your tyre pressure for better traction in slush or on wet roads. Skinny tyres often cut through slush and snow better than fatter tyres and make better contact with the tarmac. If it’s truly iced up, however fit studded tyres, which work extremely well, as I discovered in Sweden while riding across a frozen lake. On the other hand, if there’s deep snow outside your window, high-volume tyres float best. (That’s why fatbikes were invented.)
9. Don’t Stop (For Long)
It’s easy to forget that the colder the air temperature, the more rapidly that hard-earned body heat will be sucked away from you. Keep rest breaks short, and never stop at the top of a long, shaded descent! Watch out for ice patches when dismounting, too – your studded tyres may not slip, but you yourself may end up a sprawling pile of limbs if you’re not careful.
10. Protect Your Lungs
In seriously cold conditions, a neck-warmer serves an important dual function as a membrane through which to breathe and protect your lungs from cold, dry air, which can cause respiratory problems and even nosebleeds in the unprepared.
11. Protect Your Eyes
A white snowy landscape under direct sunlight will divert far more UV rays towards your eyeballs than even the brightest of summer days. Protect your eyes appropriately with wraparound sunglasses with UVA/UVB filtered lenses. Some consider orange tinted lenses to help with contrast in snowy environments. Extreme cold may even call for goggles over glasses.
12. Understand Sunlight
Particularly further north, you’ll notice that the sun hangs lower in the sky as a result of Earth’s tilted axis. When planning a ride, consider where the sun is going to be at different times of day. You don’t want to be pedalling into a setting sun at rush hour, for example, when both your and other drivers’ abilities to see what’s ahead is seriously impaired.
13. Understand Moonlight
A full moon above a snow-covered landscape at night is a thing to behold, and the glow is quite enough to ride by. This is one of the greatest draws of the otherwise faintly ludicrous idea of winter night-riding: you will see familiar landscapes quite literally in a whole new light, one that is quite magical. Don’t forget lights for visibility of course; on which note…
14. Get Lit Up
Winter days mean a higher likelihood you’ll need lights to see and be seen – whether because the sunlight is weaker, or because there’s a chance you’ll misjudge the short daylight hours and be caught out in the dark. When choosing, remember that lithium batteries don’t like cold weather. Consider an inexpensive set of backup lights, and always check everything’s fully charged before you set out.
15. Get Fuelled Up
Your body will burn more calories to keep your core warm, as well to keep your legs spinning. This, of course, means eating ever bigger slices of cake during your breaks. If you take snacks with you, keep them in an inside pocket so they don’t harden or freeze. Finally, don’t forget to hydrate – even if cold water is the last thing you feel like drinking, you still need it.
16. Avoid The Verge
Otherwise rideable hard shoulders become a frozen mess of slush and debris in winter, meaning you’ll do well to stay further away from the edge of the road than you might be used to. It’s better to force motorists to give you a wide berth than to put yourself in a dangerous position, so don’t be afraid to take the lane – as many drivers will expect you to do in winter anyway.
17. Revisit Old Routes
Blankets of snow and the long shadows of winter give even the most familiar landscape a magical shroud, and you can’t beat a good ride to make the most of it. Not only that, but the roads will be much quieter than you’re used to as the fair weather cyclists stick to their turbo trainers – and you’ll discover new places to stop that really come into their own in wintertime.
18. Explore New Routes
Of course, there’s nothing to reinvigorate the senses than exploring somewhere new, and again, given the right preparation, your bike can take you places nobody else would think to ride or drive on the coldest and snowiest of winter’s days – even more so on icy roads with spiked tyres.
19. Camp Out!
I’m aware this will convince very few, but I really don’t think cycle touring is restricted to fair weather any more than road riding is. Wait for a clear, fine night; throw an extra-thick sleeping bag, a couple of woolly hats and a hip-flask of single malt into your panniers; then ride up to that excellent look-out point and bivvy out under the stars – better with company, of course.
20. Endure The Cold, Enjoy The Warmth
Above all, go forth and pedal in the knowledge that even if your water bottles do freeze solid, your toes go numb, and you make most of your descents on your backside rather than in the saddle, you’ll never be far away from a hot shower, a cup of tea and a massive slice of cake – which will all be that much more satisfying for the misery you endured while earning them.
Anything I’ve missed? Add your best winter cycling tips in the comments!
Now is probably not the best time to be setting off on a globetrotting bike trip.
But as we’ve all discovered over the last few months, upheavals can create the ideal conditions for change – including changing the way you think.
Amid much uncertainty and, yes, real hardship and trauma, this year has brought with it a priceless opportunity to reimagine the paths we’ve been travelling through life, and to redirect those elements of our futures we can control towards newly-reconsidered destinations.
That’s why – even if your departure date remains to-be-confirmed, and even if the places you’re thinking of going are closer to home – I would argue that there is no better time to be planning your big dream bicycle-mounted adventure.
And if you’ve been sitting on such a dream for some time, it’s likely it has recently resurfaced with a new sense of urgency.
So why not start laying the groundwork right now? Why not get some of those big decisions made, those big questions answered, those big obstacles overcome?
I am willing to bet that you have, over the last few months, overcome a challenge you never imagined you’d have to face, or solved a problem you previously considered unsolvable. Whether financial, existential, philosophical, or spiritual; the details don’t matter. What matters is that you have experienced the necessity of thinking in a way you’ve never had to think before.
Your mind is primed for doing it again – but this time for something you’ve chosen to do.
What is happening right now should be a source of empowerment; a reminder – if you needed it – that we are all more resourceful and adaptable than the routines of our former lives might have suggested.
It should be a lesson that whatever rationalisations or excuses or pain points have been standing in the way of that dream can be overcome, so long as you make doing so a condition of necessity.
The easiest way to achieve that necessity is to commit. Make a promise to yourself. Ignore those tropes about publicising your goals and having an audience hold you to account. Social media parted ways with reality a long time ago. This should be a deal you make quietly with your soul.
There has never been a better time to do so.
Because you’ve finally remembered that the best time is always now.
For the last few weeks I’ve been putting the finishing touches to a project I’ve been working on for many years – and with so many of us in isolation and looking for things to do, the timing could not be better!
Yes, that’s right – the story of my award-winning documentary Janapar: Love on a Bike has finally been adapted for video game format!
Mixing both role-playing and action genres, Janapar: The Game will take you on a failed journey around the world by bicycle, teaching you tough lessons about life and love in the process.
You’ll start Level 1 by riding your bicycle around the rolling country lanes of the English Midlands, in search of the answers to a series of existential questions. Every answer you find scores you valuable Enlightenment Points, depending on how well it supports your conviction that you should just burn all your bridges and hit the road forever.
Once you’ve collected enough Enlightenment Points, you’ll be able to upgrade your bicycle and advance to Level 2! Your objective will be to pedal across Europe to Istanbul before winter arrives. But life on the road isn’t that simple – you’ll face a series of obstacles, including fixing mechanical problems on the roadside against the clock, being distracted by beautiful women in every city you pass through, and winning childish arguments with your riding partners via a series of Monkey Island-style multiple-choice questions.
The difficulty really ramps up in Level 3, where you will be fighting to keep your Morale-O-Meter above zero in the face of rain and snow, steep hills, vicious dogs, and the complete breakdown of your relationship with your riding partner. Every Turkish tea shop you reach will replenish your Morale-O-Meter to 100% – but you can get up to 200% in bonus morale by convincing the tea-shop owner that you’re too poor to pay your bill!
In Level 4, you’ll be presented with your biggest challenge yet – overcoming lifelong social awkwardness in order to persuade a beautiful Armenian girl to join you on your big life-changing bicycle adventure. Don’t say the wrong thing, or else she’ll leave the bar and the game will be over!
Level 5 is another race against time to reach your girlfriend’s hometown of Tehran on your bicycle before your her Morale-O-Meter reaches zero and she goes back to the perfectly decent life she had before she met you. As every aspect of life on the road is revealed to be utterly shit, you’ll have to come up with ever-more-ingenious things to say to keep her going, before facing up against the first big boss of Janapar: The Game – the Angry Father-In-Law.
In Level 6 you’ll be back on your own, having lost your fight against the boss of Level 5. Your mission is to pedal into a constant sandy headwind for six months as you cross the Middle East and the Sahara Desert. As you do, you’ll have to negotiate corrupt traffic police, undercover Syrian intelligence agents, and a hellish wild-goose-chase from embassy to embassy to apply for visas, all the while accompanied by a voice in your head repeatedly asking ‘what the actual fuck are you doing here?’.
Level 7 is an action-packed rollercoaster of a ride across the highlands of Ethiopia. In each mountain village, you’ll get a special speed boost power-up if you find a way through without being seen – a tough challenge for a white bloke on a bicycle. But if you don’t, you’ll get pelted with rocks by huge gangs of barefooted children. Don’t get brain damage!
Level 8 is a mystery-solving level, in which you have to find a way to cross the Gulf of Aden without simply getting on a short-haul flight like everyone else. Which Arabian dhow captain will take you across these pirated waters for the least amount of money? How will you survive the nights when you’re too tight-fisted to pay for a hotel room? Only one way to find out!
In Level 9, your mission is simple: cross the entire southern Arabian peninsular in high summer while avoiding the outbreak of civil war in Yemen, dying of dehydration in the Empty Quarter, or your bicycle breaking catastrophically in the middle of the Omani desert. Replenish your Morale-O-Meter by finding air-conditioned petrol stations with fridges full of ice-cold orange Mirinda. Earn bonus points for convincing the owner to let you stay the whole day!
In the final level of Janapar: The Game you’ll face your toughest adversary yet – the Iranian secret police! You’ve arrived in the middle of a massive political demonstration and they’re convinced you’re a British spy. Answer one question incorrectly and both you and your father-in-law will be thrown in jail and the game will be over – but get through the interrogation successfully and they’ll give you a cup of tea and send you off to be reunited with your girlfriend, with whom you’ll live happily ever after. You win!
The end credits feature loveable scenes of you and your girlfriend cycling back across Europe to your parents’ house in England, before those existential questions show up once more – and the whole game starts all over again.
While I firmly believe that your first bicycle adventure should be free from modern electronic devices, there are plenty of cycle tourists and bikepackers who pack a smartphone or tablet alongside their tent, stove and toolkit, and for good reason: they can come in bloody useful.
Smartphone technology moving as fast as it does, the app scene is constantly changing. This is my 2020 update of an article first published in 2012, detailing what in my opinion are the most useful free smartphone apps for the cycle tourist or bikepacker right now.
This is not another list of cycling navigation apps aiming to replace a GPS unit or a cycle computer. That list would be hundreds of entries long, and all the major cycling websites have published such articles in the competition for search engine traffic anyway. Where routing and navigation are concerned, I’ve chosen what I consider the top few apps right now, and the rest of the list is about apps for other aspects of life on two wheels than actually cycling.
I’ve included links to Android and iOS (iPhone/iPad) versions of each app wherever they exist, and broken the list down into eight handy categories covering navigation, weather, accommodation, transport, communication, photography, finance, and everything else.
There’s no single best app for cycle touring or bikepacking where mapping and navigation is concerned – and in any case, you may prefer paper maps, road signs, or just following your nose.
But if you do intend to use digital maps and possibly the navigation features that come with these apps, and you don’t already have a favourite that works for you, I would suggest trying a multi-pronged approach, playing to the strengths of each of the following apps and the coverage of the data that supports them, which tends to differ worldwide.
Unlike all those spam blog articles about cycling apps, I’ve actually used all of these apps on my own bike trips. Here’s my current pick of the bunch…
1. Google Maps (Android/iOS)
Google Maps is getting really good. Most of the world now features excellent mapping coverage, and the new vector maps are fast, detailed and attractive. If you’re hooked up with a data SIM card and you get good service throughout your ride, Google Maps may well do everything you need. In many places, bicycle-friendly routing is offered alongside directions for cars, and where it isn’t, using the walking directions will often offer you a low-traffic route between two places.
Many places allow you to download maps in the default style for offline use. But that’s about the limit of its offline functionality. It won’t cache the terrain view, which makes it difficult or impossible to estimate a route’s elevation profile if you don’t have a data connection. Nor can it store anything offline about points of interest other than their name. Routing also depends on being online – so while the base map may be cached, you’ll have to do your own navigation.
Pair Google Maps up with Street View if you want to explore places in VR before you get there. I only use this if I’m heading for a specific spot in a city, such as a Warmshowers host’s house, and want to visualise the location in advance.
In the last couple of years, Maps.Me seems to have fought off masses of competition to become the go-to Google Maps alternative, and it’s easy to see why. It’s been focused specifically to fill the gaps left by Google in terms of offline mapping and routing, as well as representing the open data movement, and this is marketed as one of the app’s key features.
When you first start the app, you are prompted to download parts of the world region by region, starting with your current location. All of the app’s main functionality will then work offline, including bicycle-optimised routing. On my 2018 trip in Thailand, I used this feature daily and cross-referenced it with Google’s walking directions to plan most of my riding and find quiet, backroad routes across the country. You can also search offline for nearby points of interest such as cafes, grocery stores and lodgings.
It isn’t without its flaws. It depends on the OpenStreetMap (OSM) database to generate its maps, which makes it susceptible to coverage issues in less-visited regions, although not necessarily any more so than Google (and the same is true for other OSM-dependent apps).
My biggest gripe is that the map does not display any topographical data (contours, hillshading, elevation colour coding). This is partly compensated by a elevation profile generated along with the cycling and walking routes, without which I would struggle to recommend it.
I’d also keep BackCountry Navigator installed if there are going to be any significant hills along the way. BCN features no routing or sat-nav style navigation features, being more oriented towards GPS users on foot in the backcountry, but the ability to download a variety of basemaps, including the OpenCycleMap and Thunderforest Outdoor styles, makes it invaluable for remote or mountainous rides.
Backcountry Navigator will also allow you to load in GPS tracks in various formats and overlay them on the basemap, as well as keeping a tracklog of your movements if you so desire.
A previous version of this article recommended Wikitude as a very early example of an augmented reality (AR) app, in which you could point a compatible device’s camera at the landscape around you and the app put labels on what you were looking at. I would suggest ViewRanger as a more up-to-date alternative; specifically its Skyline feature which, as the name suggests, will attempt to label features of the landscape such as mountain peaks and lakes, place names, and other prominent waypoints.
Viewranger provides similar mapping functionality to Backcountry Navigator but for iOS too, and with the addition of a community feature that allows you to see what routes other users have uploaded in a given area. In popular regions, this might unearth some attractive routes that you may not otherwise have spotted when planning your ride.
Premium map packs that you can’t get for free (such as digital versions of the UK Ordnance Survey series) are available too at additional cost.
In places where OSM, Google and paper map coverage is sketchy, my fallback for many years has been the good old Soviet military maps, which, yes, were last updated during the Cold War, but cover the entire world at the 1:100–200K scales and offer a fantastic level of topographical detail. The paid version allows you to download them for offline use.
In some really off-grid parts of the world, these are still the best maps you can get. (I wish I’d known about these before I went to Mongolia…)
Ride with GPS is perhaps the most cycle computer-esque of all the apps listed in this section, finding favour in the long distance cycling community, particularly bikepackers – indeed, Bikepacking.com use it as their preferred platform for delivering routes.
If you’re keen to track, analyse and share your rides, Ride with GPS is as good a place as any to do so. (See also Komoot below.)
komoot (with a small ‘k’) has one of the most powerful routing algorithms of any of the apps in this list. Rather than hosting a database of user-submitted routes, komoot uses OpenStreetMap data to calculate an optimal route (via any number of points) for road cycling, touring, or mountain biking.
It has some nice social features, too, which encourage you to record and share the best of your discoveries. Users can submit highlights that show up on future route plans if the community rates them highly enough. Read my full write-up of komoot here. This is my personal favourite of all the apps in this category when I’m exploring new places.
It’s good practice to check the weather outlook before setting off on a ride. In circumstances when a change of weather would bring about greater risks, it’s critical for a safe and enjoyable ride. These apps will help with that:
8. Windy (Android/iOS)
I’ve tuned into the finer details of the weather in recent years as a result of spending too much time in the mountains, and this has spilled over into cycle touring. In terms of sheer quantity and range of data, nothing I’m aware of beats Windy, which visualises almost every weather factor you could ask for on an interactive map.
If you’re into making your own forecasts or want an in-depth perspective on what you’re seeing and experiencing, give Windy a data connection and it will give you pretty much all the information you could wish for.
When you’re ready for a night off, here’s a few apps that might make finding a bed (or campsite) that much easier:
10. iOverlander (Android/iOS)
Mainly aimed at motorised travellers, iOverlander’s app is still of relevance to the cyclist, mainly because it’s the closest thing to a ‘wild camping app’ in existence. It’s a user-generated global database of points of interest – including vehicle- and bike-friendly hostels, campsites and wild camping sites (as well as Land Rover mechanics!) – with a very active community behind it. It’s volunteer-run, so consider a donation if you find it useful.
Booking.com* features the widest range of hotels and guesthouses in many parts of the world. Be aware, however, of the tactics this app will use to make you feel like you have to book right now or the universe will implode.
Know also that they charge accommodation providers a lot – if you want to support small businesses over massive corporations, it might be better to do your research here but then walk in and pay cash.
They aren’t always the cheapest: in South East Asia, for example, the Singapore-based Agoda is often a better bet.
Low-budget hostels are underrepresented at Booking.com (perhaps because they can’t afford the fees), but Hostelworld steps in to fill this niche. Especially in the West, you’ll find way more cheap beds here than through the usual booking sites.
(I previously recommended HostelBookers, but with the app not updated for over two years and with ratings sliding down the charts, I can feel a shutdown coming soon.)
Though it’s by no means the quirky and inexpensive alternative it used to be, AirBnb is still worth checking out, particularly if you want your own self-catering apartment for a few days off, or if you like the B&B experience as it used to be (i.e. an actual person hosts you in their home and cooks you breakfast).
Sign up through this referral link* to get £25 in credit towards your first stay, then install the app to search for options and make your bookings.
The original cycle touring hospitality exchange platform might not have taken off quite like Couchsurfing did post-buyout, but it didn’t really need to (and many would argue it was for the best anyway). The much-improved current version of the WarmShowers app makes searching for willing hosts that much easier, with an interface that’s arguably better and more user-friendly than the website itself. The map search function is particularly useful.
While the distribution of hosts is not exactly even in a global sense, it’s always worth looking at the map to see who’s about on any given route. I’ll continue flying the flag for WarmShowers for as long as it exists and I’m still riding my bicycle, just because I love the spirit of it.
Where WarmShowers hosts have not yet reached, Couchsurfing is still there with its however-many-million users, and if you can be bothered to wade through the oceans of inactive profiles and unresponsive hosts you might still find someone cool to stay with. The lack of a map search is a woeful omission, but most other aspects of the app interface are fine.
Personally, I use CS more now to meet travellers and locals for a drink and a wander in a new city than to find a host, for which I either use WarmShowers (see above) or – now I’ve been on the road a few years – ask around my networks and usually end up finding a friend of a friend to stay with.
If you do use it to find a host, make sure they know you’re showing up on a rather expensive bicycle and that you probably won’t want to leave it locked to the fence outside!
Sometimes – oftentimes – you need to take a plane, train or bus to get yourself and your bike from A to B before or after you ride it. That’s where the following apps may come in handy.
16. Kayak (Android/iOS)
When it comes to searching for and booking flights, I tend to default to Kayak, mainly for its extensive filtering capabilities, as well as because it usually turns up the cheapest tickets, especially if your dates are flexible.
Of particular interest to the cycle tourist is the ability to filter by airline, which as we all know can make a huge difference at the check-in desk depending on the baggage policy of the carrier in question (a topic for another article, perhaps).
Kayak is mainly just a search aggregator – you have to click through and book elsewhere, though they have started selling tickets direct now too.
Allow TripIt access to your inbox and it will pull in confirmation emails for flights, hotels and what have you and spit out a simplified, offline-accessible itinerary with all the details you’re likely to need while you’re in transit.
You’ll be wanting to communicate while you’re on the road, both to the people you meet and to the people back home. Guess what? There’s an app for that…
18. Signal / WhatsApp / Viber / Telegram (Android/iOS)
I’ve listed four phone number-based instant messaging apps here because, at the time of writing, three of them predominate depending on what country you’re in, and one of them won’t sell your data (Signal).
If you’re heading round the world on a bike and you plan to communicate with locals as you go, as well as friends and family back home, best install all of them.
Such is the competitive nature of this market that other apps are likely to replace those listed in future years.
Yes, I’m listing Google Translate as a communications app, but for real-life face to face communication with people who don’t speak your language.
It won’t be long before you’re both wearing earpieces and receiving simultaneous translations as you converse freely in your native tongues, but while we’re waiting for that to happen, Translate does allow you to download offline translation dictionaries for a huge number of languages, and the accuracy is only improving.
Rotate your phone to landscape orientation and the word or phrase you’ve translated will be enlarged to fullscreen, allowing you to brandish it at a roadside noodle stand while trying to order a stir-fry with ‘no onions’ in it.
Here are a few selections on the financial end of things, which may ease your pedal-powered wheelings (sorry, couldn’t resist) and dealings:
19. XE Currency (Android/iOS)
Based on the highly popular xe.com currency exchange website, the XE Currency app will allow you to choose a handful of currencies and convert between them all at the latest mid-market rates.
I mainly find this useful to ensure I’m not getting ripped off by money-changers, but also to watch for spikes in conversion rates that may affect my travel budget (other Brits abroad may remember 23rd June 2016 particularly well).
My travels of late have tended to involve a slightly more complicated financial picture than the ‘spend as little as possible, preferably nothing’ approach of my earlier cycle tours. To track and visualise what I’m spending, I use an expense tracking app called Toshl, into which I spend a few minutes each day putting my expenses.
For someone who was more or less financially illiterate, this has shed a remarkable amount of light on the actual flow of funds through my travel activities and, in turn, helped me adapt my ways to better fit my means.
If keeping track of travel money is a source of stress for you, I would highly recommend starting to use a simple tracking app such as Toshl as the first step towards a remedy. It can also simply produce an interesting summary of the financial aspect of your journeys, which I’m planning to demonstrate in a future article.
The UK’s newest fee-free overseas spending debit card provider, Starling Bank, relies on this app to communicate with its customers. Though technically not just an app but also a bank account, I’m including it here because of its particular relevance to the bicycle traveller looking to keep their overseas card withdrawal and spending fees down.
Download the Starling app and sign up for an account here.
Photography Apps For Cycle Touring
Most new smartphones come with absurdly good cameras, sensors, processing algorithms and editing software built-in, so I no longer consider any third party app truly essential in the photography department. Keeping your photos backed up is another story, however…
22. Google Photos (Android/iOS)
My main reason for including Google Photos here is for its automatic backup feature, which upon detecting a WiFi connection will upload in the background all the photos you’ve taken since the last backup, storing them in your combined Google Drive / Photos account.
In its free incarnation, this will store 15GB of your original resolution photos and an unlimited number of compressed but nevertheless high quality versions of the same (you can choose which in the app settings). You can pay to upgrade to a 100GB or 1TB capacity account if you need it.
Plug a card reader into your phone or otherwise connect with a compatible ‘proper’ camera, copy the images over, and it’ll do the same thing. Really this is about safeguarding your images, rather than photography per se (and you do care about having backups, don’t you?).
If everything being Google-oriented isn’t your bag, the Dropbox app will perform exactly the same backup function via its Camera Uploads feature, though I find Google’s web interface and in-app editing features more appealing. Again, free and paid options differ mainly in terms of the amount of storage you get.
Finally, I’ve come across many other useful apps that just don’t quite fit into any of the other categories. Here are a few:
24. AccuBattery (Android)
AccuBattery will give you detailed stats on your phone’s power consumption, including estimates of how long it’ll currently last with the current fleet of running apps; useful when you don’t know where the next charging opportunity is going to be. It’ll also prompt you to disconnect your charger at a level that’ll reduce battery wear and help prolong its life.
I’ll probably never learn the constellations unless I actually need to navigate by them, but the Sky Map app is great fun when you’re lying out under a starry sky and you want to identify what you’re looking at. It’s also great for picking out other celestial bodies when they’re visible to the naked eye.
The apps accompanying the open-source flashcard platform Anki allow you to memorise things effectively on the go via the proven learning technique of spaced repetition. I find it particularly useful for language learning, memorising words, phrases, alphabets, and the like. The open platform gives you access to shared, community-created ‘decks’ of cards covering most such topics.
The Android app is free; the iOS equivalent is paid and the revenue supports the broader Anki project.
Ride for long enough and you’ll inevitably reach a country where some website or app or service you rely on has been blocked by the government. Pre-empt this by installing a VPN (virtual private network) app and setting it up in advance.
What these services essentially do is make it look like you’re accessing the internet from somewhere else, encrypting your data in such a way that your actual whereabouts is untraceable.
There are thousands of free VPN apps out there, most of which are full of malware and security holes and whose developers are out to sell your browsing data to the highest bidder. Avoid those and choose one of the recommendations audited by a trusted site with a reputation worth losing. I haven’t included any specific recommendations here as they change so frequently, but TechRadar have an updated list for 2019.
That’s it for 2020’s cycle touring and bikepacking app selections! Any I’ve missed that you’d consider particularly useful to the adventurous rider?