A friend of mine recently took a solo bike trip from one end of Japan to the other, two months of pedaling on a $600 touring bike. With little experience, minimal planning, and a lot of flexibility, she made it through Japan’s seemingly endless mountains, down into the dizzy streets of Tokyo and beyond. As she regularly tells me, she’s convinced biking is the perfect way to see the world. The pace, like walking, is slow enough for you to really appreciate where you are and where you’re going. Unlike walking, it’s efficient enough to cover some serious ground (say, an entire country in a teacher’s summer). Once you’ve swallowed the $100 fee for bringing your bike on an airplane, getting around is cheap—especially if you’re camping whenever possible. It’s an ideal combination of adventure, activity, and efficiency.
So what does it take to get your butt in the saddle in a far-off country? There’s no better person to ask than Darren Alff. He’s cycled across about 70 different countries all around the world – in Africa, Asia, North America, South America, and Europe. In 17 years of traveling by bike, he’s learned a lot—and he’s put most of it down on paper, in four books. If you’re a beginner, The Bicycle Touring Blueprint is a great place to start planning your first trip. If you’re looking to buy a bike, The Essential Guide to Touring Bicycles breaks down the many types of bikes out there and which one will serve you best—though, as we all know, bikepacking and adventure bikes have broken the hegemony the classic touring bike has on long-distance rides.
We caught up with Alff, who considers himself a “touring coach” for anyone who picks up one of his books or stops by his website, to learn what he’d tell someone making the leap to legitimately long tours.
When someone sets out to start biking long-distance, what are the first steps they need to take? Let’s say I decide to bike across the country—what’s the planning process going to look like?
Well, the first thing you have to do is decide where you want to go, because the bike you ride, the gear you use, the distances you plan to cycle each day, the foods you eat, etc… it all depends on where you plan to go and what exactly you wish to do. Cycling on dirt roads in some remote African country, for example, is going to be a very different experience than cycling on paved bike paths in the Netherlands. It’s very important to understand that no two bike tours are the same. Your location usually dictates the gear you use, how far you will be able to cycle each day, where you plan to sleep, how much money you will spend, and a whole lot more. So, that’s the first step, picking a general location!
The next thing you have to do is get more specific about the route you plan to take. I usually do this by grabbing a map (either paper or digital) and plotting out all the points of interest in that general area where I want to cycle. Then once I have at least a dozen different points of interest on the map, I start to connect the dots into some form of line – a line that will eventually turn into my final bicycle touring route. After you’ve got your route figured out and you have a general idea of how far you want to travel each day and where you think you’re going to sleep each night, then you can start thinking about the gear you are going to use. Once you’ve geared up, the only thing left to do is figure out the logistics of getting to the starting point of your bike tour… and how you’ll get home at the end of the journey.
Obviously, this is just a very condensed version of what happens when planning for a bike tour. There are several other steps one might need to make, but hopefully you get the idea.
What kind of gear do you recommend for someone who hasn’t bought bike touring/bikepacking gear before? What bike is most appropriate for the long haul?
Most people start by asking, “Can I use the bike I already own for bicycle touring?” The answer is… it depends. Some mountain bikes, road bikes and even hybrid bikes can be used for bicycle touring. For shorter bike tours (2 weeks or less), it’s very likely that the bike you currently own can be used for a bicycle tour. However, the longer your bike tour gets, the more likely it is that you are going to benefit from a more specialized touring bicycle.
Touring bicycles are bikes that are designed specifically for bicycle touring. They are rugged, designed to carry heavy loads, are comfortable to sit on for long periods of time, and they have a number of other features that make them better suited for long-distance travel. So, while many touring bicycles look similar to the road and/or mountain bike models you may be familiar with, there are actually a number of defining characteristics that make these types of bicycles better suited for long-distance bicycle touring adventures.
Bikepacking, which is really just one of many different types of bicycle touring, has become popular in recent years in part because the packing techniques involved with bikepacking do not necessarily involve any special gear (although there are now tons of different bikepacking bags and racks that have been developed to fill this market). With bikepacking, you essentially strap your belongings to the handlebars, frame or seatpost of your bicycle in any way you can. The goal here is to carry the weight on your bicycle and not on your back, as you might if you were backpacking. This reduces sweat to the rider and increases overall comfort as you ride. Plus, bikepacking techniques can be used on almost every type of bicycle, which makes it appealing to people who want to get started with bicycle touring, but don’t want to necessarily run out and buy the gear (racks and panniers, etc) you see so many bicycle tourists carrying.
If you do wanted to get started with more traditional bicycle touring however, it’s really easy and rather inexpensive to get started. You need a bicycle that is capable of mounting a rear rack. Once that rack is installed, you now have the ability to carry all sorts of gear, clothing, camping equipment, food, etc on the back of your bike.
Watch this video that demonstrates a classic lightweight packing technique and you will see that you can carry everything you need for a long distance bike tour with a bicycle, a rear bicycle rack, two rear panniers and a handlebar bag (the handlebar bag is optional, a nice added touch!).
How would you decide between bikepacking or more traditional touring?
Bikepacking is just one of many different types of bicycle touring, so the on-the road techniques and strategies are basically the same. The main difference, in most instances (but not all) is that bikepacking generally refers to an off-road bike riding experience, whereas bicycle touring can be on paved roads, dirt roads or singletrack trails, etc. Because bikepacking is generally an off-road endeavor, it means that you have to pack in such a way that reduces bumps and vibrations to both your bicycle and the gear you are carrying. This is why people conducting bikepacking adventures tend to have their belongings fastened tightly to the frames of their bicycles – because they don’t want their things bouncing around as they ride. With traditional bicycle touring, however, there’s less need to worry about bumps in the road, because most people conducting long-distance bicycle touring adventures are traveling on smooth, paved surfaces.
How do you go about route-planning for long journeys? Do you figure this out as you go along to a certain degree, or do you carefully map where you’re headed in advance? What are the benefits and downsides of both approaches?
For people who are new to bicycle touring, I always suggest that they begin by planning out as much as they possibly can. Especially if you are planning a bike tour that is two weeks or less in length. More advanced bicycle tourists and those traveling for several weeks, months or years, however, do not need to do as much advanced planning and will usually need to do more on-the-road, day-by-day planning for their travels, because it’s just too difficult to plan a super long bike tour that far in advance. Unexpected things do happen, and it’s sometimes hard to plan for those instances.
I personally enjoy having a very good idea of where I am going to go and what I am going to see/do along my long-distance bicycle touring routes, but I like to have my schedule be very flexible, so if I get sick, am tired, or simply like a certain location, I can stop, rest or explore that area and then move on again once I’m feeling it’s time to move on.
While it is quite common to hear about people conducting long-distance bike tours around the world or cycling trips that take them several months to cross a single country, most bike tours are one to two weeks in length (largely due to the fact that this is how much time many people get off work each year), so for trips of this length, most things (like lodging along your tour) can be planned out in advance. Arriving at a hotel or campground at night after a long day of cycling and knowing that you have a place to shower and spend the night is a great feeling… and it’s one of the major advantages to planning a bike tour in advance. The downside to pre-planning an adventure like this, however, is that it can sometimes put stress on you to continue going even when you are tired, sick, injured, etc.
Photos by Darren Alff