JULY IS A GREAT TIME OF YEAR to take a bike tour. In this month’s column, I’ll explain some basics about how to prepare and try out your first loaded bike tour. By loaded, I’m assuming that you’ll be carrying, at a minimum, a change of clothes, but more likely, you’ll be hauling a tent and sleeping bag and other items to be self sufficient.
However, there’s lots of great touring to be had that does not involve schlepping your stuff around; check out supported tours if you just want to enjoy the ride unencumbered. A supported tour is where your gear is hauled to the day’s destination for you by car. Adventure Cycling Association is probably the biggest and most respected outfit for supported tours as well as maps. But locally, the Spokane Parks and Recreation offers a bunch of guided and supported tours of our region, and Silver Bike Tours offers day rides and tours of the region as well. Another option is “credit-card” touring, where you haul a change of clothes and stay in hotels and eat in restaurants along the way.
First, find a comfortable bike. If you’re just starting, nothing will turn you off to touring faster than a sore back, shoulders, and butt that result from a poor-fitting bike. You’re looking for a bike that you can pedal comfortably for about 6 hours a day.
Do some research online around bike fitting for bicycle touring and go to your local bike shop to get a basic understanding of fit and bike types. Depending on your goals, you may not need a touring-specific bike. You may be able to make some modifications to an existing bike to make it tour-worthy.
When it comes to the saddle, try some out. Good bike shops will let you try out saddles for a few days and bring them back for an exchange if they’re not quite right. It’s hard to evaluate a saddle by holding it and looking at it. You must ride it. And all butts are different, as are all people. No matter how hard someone may “swear by” a saddle, it’s your butt. Keep riding them until you find the right one. Keep in mind that some minor saddle soreness is normal when you first start riding a lot, but it eases off after a week or two.
How you choose to pack and haul your load is in some ways similar to saddle preference. I prefer to haul loads on my bike. Some people prefer to put the load in a trailer and haul it. This is another good area for online research. Specifically, the searchable touring archives at bikelist.org offer a wealth of first-hand knowledge on all aspects related to bike touring.
After you figure out how to haul your load, you need figure out what that load contains. As a new tourist, this is where you need to be careful. It’s really easy to get into the “what if” scenarios and start loading in everything. For example, in some cases, it may make sense to bring a second pair of shoes, but I would say, there is something fundamentally wrong with the shoes you are cycling in if you have to haul a second pair of shoes. Don’t bring a wind breaker and a rain jacket; just bring a light rain jacket. For clothes: think layers, not single use.
As you make hard choices around clothing and foul weather gear: be OK with being a bit uncomfortable during the day; but pack in such a way to guarantee a dry and warm sleeping experience. Suffering through a night of no sleep means you’ll be suffering all of the next day too.
Camping and hiking equipment has gotten crazy small, light, and less bulky over the last decade or so. Unless you are looking at serious expedition style cold weather touring, you can get away with some pretty small and light pack sizes. Stoves, sleeping pads, shelters, sleeping bags: all of these items are available in tiny packages. The only limiting factor is your budget.
Before you go on your first tour, do an overnighter or a weekend at a local spot. The idea is to do a shakedown ride. Pack up all the stuff you’ll be bringing on your “real” tour and take the long way out to Riverside State Park. Be sure to go out of your way and climb some hills. That’s important and will really get you thinking about how essential your packing list is.
When you set off on your tour be sure to mind your hydration and food intake. Again, there is a bunch of information online about proper hydration and nutrition for bike touring. Some of the lessons I’ve learned are to stay away from big, fatty, greasy, heavy meat meals. That’s a hard one to learn, because after you’ve pedaled half a day and you are sitting in front of a menu where everything looks divine, you tend to ignore the fact that you must get back on your bike and ride for another few hours or even the next day. I go for fresh fruits and vegetables whenever possible. I like lots of whole grains and I always carry a tube of peanut butter with me.
Finally, build a tour that is right for you. Don’t go epic the first time out. Enjoy and take your time.
John Speare grew up in Spokane and rides his bike everywhere. He wants you to ride your bike too. Help build the plan. Citizen input is essential for a great plan. Get involved: www.bikespokane.net.