Cycle Touring: A Beginners Guide

Have you ever been sitting at your terribly boring office job looking at a picture like the one below and wandered: “Hmmm, that looks nice, I wish I could do that.”

Well, guess what?  You can. In fact, it’s a hell of a lot easier than you think. I should know, because I do it, and I’m by no means a professional at anything. (I’m still proud of myself when I make a cup of tea successfully.) So, after a few requests (and since my bike is currently being repaired), I decided to use the time to write a blog about cycle touring for beginners. 

What are you afraid of?

Funnily enough, the thing that scares most people is the fitness, thinking they won’t be able to cycle the long distances every day. In reality, this is the LEAST of your worries. Cycle touring is not the Tour de France, it doesn’t require any level of fitness at all. Seriously, it’s about as tiring as watching a particularly tense episode of Peaky Blinders. I mean, think about – you’re sitting down and you can move at 10km/h if you want – it’s chilled, homie.

So what should I be afraid of?

For me, the hardest bits are finding somewhere decent to camp and fixing mechanical problems. Depending on the country you’re in, camping can be VERY HARD (India) or VERY EASY (Sweden). Depending on your mechanic skills, bike issues can be VERY HARD or NOT QUITE AS HARD. (My mechanic skills are non-existent, which is why my bike is currently in the shop). I cycled across Africa with hardly any real bike repair skills and I somehow survived, so don’t worry – help is usually not far away.

After injuring my knee, a Warmshower host accommodated me for two days (Sweden, May 2019)

So let’s get down to details

In this blog, I’ll go into detail about all aspects of bike touring for those of you that feel you need to get ALL the info about something before doing it. However, the honest truth is – there is only ONE thing you really need to start bike touring: a bike.

My first bicycle tour I did with a friend at 19 years old from Paris to Cannes on a second-hand $30 mountain bike. The first day we stopped to rest almost every kilometer and only made it 10 kilometers in total. By day six we were doing 50kms a day easily. 

It took about a month and cost about €100 in total, most of which was on food. We camped for free almost every night and cooked most of our meals on a cheap gas stove. (Nowadays, free camping in most of Western Europe is illegal and not as easily done, but in the countryside, many farmers will happily let you camp in their field if you ask nicely.)

If you’re lucky you’ll be offered a bed in a spare room (Zambia – Feb 2019)

The Bike

Okay, so the main thing you want with a touring bike is something strong. I travel very light but still carry about 10kg, which means I need more than just the standard cheap alloy frame and wheels that come with a basic road bike. A good starter touring bike is either a cheap touring bike, a basic mountain bike (no rear suspension) or a commuter/hybrid bicycle with gears. Fixie or single-speed bikes are generally not good for touring as you’ll struggle to go uphill with weight. Similarly, carbon bicycles usually aren’t designed to carry weight and anyway, are too expensive.  

You DO NOT need a professional touring bike, especially not if you’re just starting out. If you decide after one week that it’s not for you then you’re just stuck with a €2000 bicycle that is now worth half that on resale value (if you do do this, however, I’ll buy that half-price bike off you!) Of course, if you’ve got the disposable cash then, by all means, buy a touring bike – even if you don’t end up touring a lot, it’s still a good bike for going around town.

The bicycle I’ve been touring on for the past two years cost only €350 from Decathlon (a simple BTwin Triban 100). It’s a basic road bike but with a stronger frame for carrying luggage. I had to upgrade a few bits and pieces but after 2 years, 10 thousand kilometers and 15 countries it’s still essentially the original bicycle. Now that I know I love cycle touring and want to keep doing it, I’m at the stage where I can start looking into buying a real touring bike.

Kerala, India (February 2018)

To begin with, it’s best to use whatever bicycle you currently own and just add racks or figure out a way to attach luggage to it. If you do decide to buy a new bike I wouldn’t go lower than €300 or you risk getting something that will just break soon with a lot of weight on it. (Second-hand mountain bike, on the other hand, make great cheap touring bikes but are usually a bit heavy and not as easy to cycle on-road)

Some examples of good beginner touring bikes:

Dawes Galaxy (or Ridgeback World Tour)

Dawes has been making bicycles since before the war and is still making some of the best and most affordable touring bikes. The Dawes Galaxy is a classic and is fairly cheap for touring standards, at only about €600. The Ridgeback World Tour is a similar price.

Jamis Aurora (or Allegro Sport) 

Jamis does a cheap touring bike, the Aurora, at only about €600. Something similar to this is the Allegro Sport which is a good lightweight entry-level road bike that has rear eyelets for attaching a rack. With bikes like these, they don’t come built for touring so you need to add things like a rack. However, they are usually cheaper at about €400.

Trek Dual Sport (or Marlin 5)
These are good crossover bikes that aren’t mountain bikes but have thicker tires that work well on-road or offroad and can carry heavier weight. They are also easy to convert into touring bikes by adding a rear luggage rack.

Bike ADD-ONS:

With whatever bike you buy, you’ll need these additions at the very minimum:

  • Schwalbe Marathon tires (trust me)
  • Extra water bottle holder
  • A small pump, puncture repair kit, and spare tubes
  • Lights (even if you don’t plan on cycling at night, get some lights!)

Camping

Camping is often the most enjoyable and most annoying part of bike touring. Naturally, you need to be the kind of outdoors-person who enjoys camping to start with (but presumably you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t). From finding a campsite, dealing with the weather, and cooking successfully – it all depends on how prepared you are.

The tent

Again, as with the bike, you don’t need any special over-priced equipment. Tents range from €20 to €2000, usually depending on how light and how weather-resistant they are. The only tent I’ve ever used cost €30 from Decathlon.  It’s basically an entry-level tent and at 1.5kgs it’s not the lightest but it’s not exactly heavy either and it’s never once leaked or blown away in the wind. I can’t imagine why I’d ever need anything else BUT I’m yet to camp on Mount Everest – or in any extreme conditions – so I don’t know. 

Naturally, you’ll also need some kind of roll map or inflatable mattress and a sleeping bag. These are also things you can get for cheap at any camping or outdoors store. Always try to get the smallest/lightest you can afford. If you’re going somewhere that is below 10 degrees at night make sure to get a winter sleeping bag – trust me! The summer ones are NOT warm enough.

Cooking equipment

You don’t necessarily need cooking equipment and if it’s your first trip you might choose to skip this and just make sandwiches or similar. On my first trip to India, I didn’t ever cook because the street food is so cheap and also camping is basically illegal where I was in the south. (Luckily, hotels are $5 a night so I didn’t need to.)

If you do want to cook, the basics you need are a small gas stove attachment, gas canisters that fit it, a pot, a knife, and a spoon or fork. Additionally, you can take a frying pan but I never have. Mostly, I just eat pasta which can all be made in one pot together. (A pot can also be used to make oats in the morning if you wanna eat cheap). The simpler, the better. (However, I have seen pro cycle-tourists who carry entire kitchens with them and cook 5-star meals!)

Bike Tools

You’ll need to learn how to fix a puncture or change a tube at the VERY least. The rest you can learn as you go. The minimum tools you should carry (usually in a seat bag) are tire levers, puncture kit, and spare tubes. You should also have a small bike tool that has a set of Allen keys and screwdrivers (for tightening bolts, changing seat height, etc). These cost about €5 at any bike shop.

There are a bunch of other tools that are useful but you don’t need to worry about these at the start.

So, how do I start?

Okay, so you’ve got your bicycle, a tent, sleeping gear, tools and maybe a little stove and pot. You can stuff everything in a bag and strap it on the back with bungee cords or buy additional pannier bags that clip on your rack. Either way works fine and depends on your budget. Pannier bags do have advantages like being water-proof and distributing weight well, but I didn’t use any for my first five or six trips. As long as all your stuff stays on the bike, you’re good to go! (Wrap it in plastic if you expect rain.)

You might also want to buy a handlebar bag or frame bag where you can keep snacks, a phone charger, map, etc. (But that’s all stuff you’ll get more involved with once you start touring, I didn’t have one on my first trip)

Then, plan your trip. 

For the first one, I’d suggest going for a short weekend roll about in whatever nature surrounds your hometown. This way you get to test the bicycle and camping gear without going too far from home. Wherever you are in the world there should at least be a forest, beach or field to camp in or at the very least, a cheap local campsite. Campsites obviously have the advantage or electricity, running water and toilets and might be a good starter option if you are new to camping.

If you choose to wild camp, make sure you don’t camp on someone’s property or at least ask permission first if you do. Also, obviously don’t leave a mess whether its someone’s property or not! 

A public shelter (Sweden, May 2019)

Countries
Countrywise, I found Sweden to be a great place to start bicycle touring because it has excellent roads, good cycle lanes in many places, and you camp wherever you want legally and for free! (not on private property obviously).

In most of Eastern Europe, you can also pretty much camp wherever without trouble but Sweden is super-safe and you are guaranteed to get no hassles. In Germany and much of Western Europe, so-called “wild” camping is illegal and if you don’t hide very well, you will get told to move or possible even fined. Germany is the most strict about this.

Sweden

I haven’t cycle-toured the U.S. or South America but I’ve heard it’s quite good for wild camping as it has an abundance of nature. Most of Southeast Asia is good for wild camping and also has very cheap accommodation everywhere. (Places like central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa are best reserved for those who are experienced cycle tourists.)

Budget

Your daily budget will vary somewhat depending on where you are and how ‘wild’ you are prepared to be. If you wild camp every night and only cook cheap supermarket food you can get by on a few euro a day. Using a shared accommodation app like Warmshowers can also keep down costs and is a great way to meet other cycle tourists!

If you need to pay for accommodation for whatever reason, it’s going to be around €5 – €15 per day in cheap countries and €30-€40 in more expensive ones (like the US and Western Europe). It’s easy to check what accommodation is available and costs beforehand on apps like Agoda or Booking(.)com. As a beginner, it’s nice to know what’s around in case of rain – or if you just need a shower!

Conclusion
The main thing is – KEEP IT SIMPLE. Cycle touring is not difficult – honestly. Just pack some stuff, get on your bike, and go. Your first puncture, your first rainstorm, your first busy road will all be tough, but it only gets easier. The longer you do it, the less the problems become a struggle and the more enjoyable everything is. Soon you’ll be a star mechanic, a fit cyclist, and an excellent stealth-camper… and then you’ll quit your lame desk job and wonder why you didn’t choose this lifestyle long ago!

Botswana, January 2019

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