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How to Travel by Bicycle: a Beginners’ Guide to Start Bike Touring
How to plan your first bicycle trip on a budget. Find a touring bicycle, gear up, plan your route and start traveling the world by bicycle.
We are often asked what are the first steps to get started in bicycle touring. Well, there’s a short answer to that: find a bike, pick a destination (or better, just a direction), pack some stuff, and go cycling. Travelling by bicycle really is for (almost) everybody, no matter your age, physical conditions, weight, training, cycling experience, mechanical skills, nor your budget. Many bicycle tourists travel with kids and even with their pets.
When we started bicycle touring we were tobacco smokers, alcohol drinkers, out of shape, ignorant about mechanics, and almost broke. And guess what, we still are almost the same, just less broke, since bike touring surprisingly made us found many working opportunities. There’s only one thing you really need to start bicycle touring, and that is time.
We’re not going to tell you to leave your job unless you really want to start a different life, bike travel may be done in any time frame: you have only a week off during the year? Then plan a loop around your backyard.
Find a suitable touring bike for your first bike trip
Unless you plan to cycle really challenging roads and pack a lot of gear, any bike will do. Literally any, we saw people touring long distances with granny bikes, and even cheap folding ones. However, the better the bike, the greater the comfort, the higher the enjoyment. You can check our lists of:
If you really don’t have a budget to invest in a touring bike, you can use what you have:
How to do touring with race bike
Do you have a race bike? Surprise, you can tour with it. The main problem with traveling on race bikes is that they don’t handle the load well, plus the usually narrow tires won’t be good on dirt roads. What you can do, sticking to pavement, it yo pack light using a bikepacking setup, or add a bicycle trailer. Some good bike trailers are: Bob Yak, Topeak Journey, and the one of my choice, the Extrawheel Trailer.
Bicycle touring with a mountain bike
Old mountain bikes from the nineties are perfect for bike touring, they usually have strong steel frames and can handle a bit of load. Try to avoid suspension forks, and even more full suspension systems: they break easily if they are cheap ones.
Travel with a scrapyard bike
Don’t you have a bike? Go to second-hand shops, or even to the scrapyard indeed. You’ll probably find a decent frame for a few bucks, or even for free. Don’t forget though, to be sure the bike is safe enough, riding safely should come first on the list of your priorities, an accident can always happen and put an abrupt stop to your tour, and it’s of course more likely to happen if your ride isn’t safe. You can find out more here about how to get professional help in case of bike accidents.
Check out our articles about:
which are the most important components of a touring bike? (upcoming)
How to pick a destination for your first bike trip
Where to go mostly depends on the time you have, if you don’t have much of this precious resource, why not start local? Get out of your house and start cycling. If you have a bit more time (I would say at least 2 weeks), you can think of taking a train or a flight and cycle the country of your dreams.
Great destinations for bicycle touring first-timers are, for example, Japan and South Korea, both super safe, camping-friendly and beautiful, and the great thing is that you can travel these expensive countries with a very low budget if you travel by bicycle. Check our hints on how to budget travel in South Korea and how to travel in Japan with less than 10$ per day. Another very easy destinations may be Holland, with its incredible network of cycling path, that’s where I developed my passion for cycle touring, or the beautiful Serbian part of the Danube river. Anyway, don’t be afraid to go cycling also on more difficult destination, it might be challenging at first but you’ll make it, and the reward will be enormous. Check Kyrgyzstan for example, if you love mountains it won’t disappoint you, you could do a complete tour around the Issyk Kul in less than 10 relaxed days.
For more inspiration have also a look at the bicycle touring adventures of our friends from My Five Acres.
Plan your route
When we first started our long-haul bicycle trip, we carefully planned all the stages of the first ten months, downloaded the GPX tracks and used them on our GPS device. Let me say straight that this was the biggest mistake we ever made. We tried to stick to this schedule and missed a lot, cycled for too long on some days and stopped early on good days when we could have gone further, ignored suggestions by local people.
While, in our humble opinion, planning too much is useless and even counterproductive on long-term tours (more than one month), it becomes very important when your time is limited. If you have a return plane from a city on a certain date you must be there then.
So here is some advice on how to plan a bicycle tour
- Plan short of at least one day for each week: this means if you are planning a 15 days trip, plan it like you’ll be doing it in 13 (including the rest days). This way you’ll have the chance to take advantage of whatever opportunity may arise that you didn’t plan before.
- Don’t plan to cycle more than 70/80 km per day, make it 50 (or even less) if there are major climbs involved: of course, this figure may really change depending on the rider, but since you’re reading this, we assume you are pretty new to bike touring. Although you may be a well trained weekend cyclist, cycling with a load is a totally different cup of tea. Moreover, you’ll be cycling many days in a row, so take it easy and enjoy some relaxation. Most of the long-term bicycle traveler cycle on this daily average mileage.
- Stick to secondary roads: it’s no fun to cycle on a busy highway just because it’s the shortest way. Bicycle touring is not about the destination, is about riding in beautiful locations.
If you want the help of a little technology to plan your route check this list of the best apps for offline bicycle touring navigation.
Check some more
As for the bike, having good gear is, of course, nice but not necessary at all. If you’re on a budget just use what you have, cheap tent and sleeping bag may be a little heavier, but who cares? If you can’t afford to buy those cool Ortlieb panniers, you can make a pair of waterproof bags out of plastic buckets.
Here below are all the articles from our series about bicycle touring gear essentials (and not essentials).
Have also a look at
Find Out Your Bike Touring Budget
Bicycle touring is seriously the cheapest way to travel, maybe only walking can be compared. We always traveled with 10$ a day each, sometimes we spent a bit more, sometimes a bit less, this makes for a 3600$ per year, not an impossible amount to save! The crazy thing is that you may end up spending less in more expansive countries, at least that was true for us. If you can’t afford the sleep in a hotel in Japan you simply won’t do it, while is very hard to resist those beachfront bungalows in the Philippines, they look so cheap at 5 to 10$ per night but this will affect your wallet in the long run. Same is true for restaurants, some places are so dirt cheap that you’ll end up eating in restaurants every day, and that’s not cheap anymore.
We met people traveling with less than what we rely on, bike touring is doable with any budget, it just requires a strong sense of adventure and the will to adapt to some discomfort.
So, what are you waiting for? The big, beautiful, crazy world is out there waiting for you to cycle it!