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.
Adventure-Journal 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.
This is a portion of an article originally posted on Adventure-Journal.