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Beginner's guide to cycle touring

Helen Newman • Cycling • Oct 01, 2021 • 5 mins

Travelling by bike guarantees a fantastic adventure and allows you to discover much more than your regular holiday. This beginner's guide to cycle touring will explain what it is and how to do it.

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cycle tour

Cycle touring in New Zealand

Why cycle touring?

Every mode of transport we take when going on holiday has its advantages. Cars give us the freedom to easily go wherever we please, motorbikes get us out amongst the elements and public transport allows us to reduce our carbon footprint.

Cycling offers all of the above, plus a few unique advantages of its own. It’s no surprise then, that so many people are choosing to take holidays designed around riding their bicycles, myself included. But cycle touring isn’t a new fad; for many it’s a deep-rooted passion.

cycle holiday

Mum and I cycling across Spain

For others however, the concept of going on a holiday where you leave your car keys at home, don’t book a train ticket and only pack luggage that you can carry on your back (or on the back of your bicycle), is a relatively new one.

So if you’re thinking of going on a cycling adventure for a weekend, a month, or perhaps even longer, here’s a beginner’s guide to cycle touring to help you get started.

cycle touring

Martin and I happy to reach the top of a huge hill

Unique advantages of cycle touring

The most obvious factor that appeals to fans of cycle touring is that riding a bike is incredibly good for you. Whereas running, jogging and some other high-impact exercise activities can be a bit gruelling on your joints, cycling is a low-impact form of exercise. You'll need to keep yourself fuelled, which is why cycling trips are great if you enjoy coffee and cake like me!

Each day you'll benefit from the wind in your hair and the extra endorphins from all that cycling. There really is no better feeling than being out on the open road, even if it is blowing a hooley - it all adds to the adventure. My best memories often involve 'type 2 fun' (not funny at the time but funny to look back on) like the time my mum and I took a Grade 2 MTB trail (all laden down with panniers!) by accident!

Dartmooor

DIY bike mechanic - I learnt so much

Then there’s the fact that you’ll see far more of the world by bicycle as you can stop and admire a view whenever you wish, and you’re likely to meet some interesting people along the way. I've experienced the kindness of strangers on all my cycle trips.

Lastly, but by no means least in terms of importance, is the money you save by cycling. Once you reach your start point, there are no tickets or fuel costs required (barring an occasional toll or ferry ticket depending on your route, or some bike oil and tools), meaning that travelling by bike can barely cost you anything, especially if you explore from your front door!

King Alfred's Way

Enjoying the scenery on the King Alfred's Way

Choosing your cycle touring route

Where do you want to go and what do you want to see? These are questions easier mulled over than answered. If you're new to bike travel, it's a good idea to start local and have a microadventure closer to home. Great Britain has so many incredible potential cycle routes for you to take. When you’re choosing your cycle touring route, consider the parts of the country that you’ve never visited; is there a way that you can string together as many of these destinations as possible? Get yourself a map suitable for cycle touring to help you plot your course or plan your journey online.

Cycle touring holiday

Cycling across India

To help you choose, it might also be beneficial to read some of the cycle touring adventures had by others, especially if you're looking to go abroad. Search for the specific cycle routes you wish to take and read what other people have to say, so that you get a better idea of where to go, what to avoid, what to take, and what you can expect. You could also sign up to a cycle touring forum, such as the CTC Forum or Cycling UK and chat to other keen cyclists for tips and advice.

If it’s your very first time heading out on a long-distance cycling tour and you're looking for a more relaxing trip, it might be worthwhile looking into guided and semi-guided tours with cycling experts who can help you get the most out of every destination you ride through.

When to go on your cycle tour?

Like any holiday, planning a cycle tour will require different things depending on the time of year you wish to go. Cycling in the heat of summer can be tough on the body and there may be more cars on the road. However, summer cycle tours require less clothes and a lighter sleep system so you'll carry less weight.

Cycling in winter through heavy rain and wind is equally challenging and demanding, and you'll need good kit to keep you warm and dry. The weather forecast will impact the equipment you’ll need to take with you, but as we all know, the weather can easily change so it's best to cover all bases and pack waterproofs and warm clothes just incase.

bridge bike tour 

Crossing a suspension bridge by bike

If you only have a certain time frame for your trip, it’s important to have a rough itinerary of your schedule before you set off. This will give you an idea of how much distance you should be cycling per day in order to stay on course, and allows you to make the necessary travel/accommodation arrangements in advance when required. The beauty with cycle touring is that it's incredibly flexible, especially if you plan to cook and camp along the way.

Where to stay on your cycle tour

Sleeping under the stars will give you a real sense of adventure and I highly recommend stepping out of your comfort zone by camping, as this will give your trip a huge amount of freedom and flexibility. If you're looking for a more luxury, you may wish to stay in accommodation along the route, but this does mean you'll need to be sure you can reach your accommodation before the end of the day, so a little more planning may be required. You can also use sites like WarmShowers where generous cyclists across the world offer a shower/ bed/meal to those travelling by bike.

I personally like to use a combination of all three. I like the flexibility of being able to stop for the night whenever I wish and waking up to the dawn chorus but I also enjoy some home comforts from time to time! If you do plan to camp on route, please do so responsibly. This short video will show you how.

dartmoor camping 

Wild camping on Dartmoor

Preparing for your cycle tour

You’re not going anywhere without your two-wheeled friend, but how do you choose which bike will serve you the best?

Well, that all depends on the type of tour you’ve decided to take, the time of year, the terrain and how much luggage you have. That being said, the most common type of cycle touring involves a touring or hybrid bike. A steel frame is incredibly robust and will handle the weight of your luggage well whilst an aluminium frame will be much lighter and easier to manoeuvre.

Meeting lovely people whilst on the road

In terms of the equipment you’ll need to take, the most important items are arguably your map/GPS device, your bike pump/tools (including spare inner tube) and a water bottle. But there are obviously plenty of other bits you’ll need, especially if you’re planning to camp and cook along the way. This type of kit may be split between the group if not riding solo.

Fully-loaded - my second cycle tour

Basic kit list

How much or how little you take is personal preference, it all depends how much you're willing to carry. I've been travelling by bike for about five years now and the below kit list is what works for me. It's relatively low in weight and I've never felt I've needed more or less.

  • Bike and luggage bags - it's a given
  • Bike tools, pump, spare tubes, helmet, water bottle
  • Spare clothes - I try to travel light so have one on-bike outfit and one off-bike outfit for the evenings/if I get wet. Two pairs of socks/underwear is a must. Padded shorts highly recommended!
  • Gloves, hat, buff - even on summer trips in Britain I pack these essentials to keep warm.
  • Map, GPS, phone for mapping plus power bank for charging
  • Toiletries. I only pack the basics - sunscreen, toothbrush/toothpaste, wet wipes, tissues, deodreant)
  • First aid kit along with any medication you may need
  • Mini towel - perfect for washing/drying your face in a river
  • Sleep system if camping - sleeping bag, liner, mat, tent/bivvy/tarp, pillow if required
  • Cooking gear if cooking on the road - stove, pot, gas
  • Knife, spork, lighter - even if I'm not cooking these come in handy
  • Sandwich bags - often come in useful, from transporting left over pizza to taking your waste with you.
  • Bungee, electrical tape and cable ties - can fix just about anything
  • Emergency snacks - peanut butter, flapjacks and isotonic tablets are my go-to

I can't recommend cycle touring enough, it really is the greatest adventure! If you're setting off on your first cycle tour, I hope you have an amazing time. Be sure to let us know where you went, what you saw, and how you found the touring experience!

Published: Oct 01, 2021 Edited: Oct 01, 2021

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