Whether it’s a few days cycling in Cambodia, biking the entire length of Vietnam, or spending months in the saddle in South America, travelling by bicycle is in equal parts intriguing, fun, terrifying and bloody hard work!
While there are different styles of long-distance bike travel, bikepacking and cycle touring being the most popular, the essence of travelling by bicycle will always be the same. Pack a bag, pick a direction and pedal.
The great thing about travelling by bicycle is the speed at which you move through your environment. It’s much faster than walking but way slower than the bus. It allows you to experience the sights, sounds and smells up close, forces you to interact with local people along your route and still gets you where you need to be.
Here at South East Asia Backpacker we often get asked how you can start travelling by bike so we thought it was time to take a deep dive on the subject!
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How to start long-distance bike travel
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Chris Pountney, who has cycled around the world twice had this to say on the matter:
“Don’t overthink it, just go. There are actually very few things you need to start. A bike, obviously, a tent, some means of carrying your things, that’s about it. You can tour on any old bike, just get out there and give it a go. You’ll figure everything else out on the way.”
You can read more from Chris in this interview on South America Backpacker!
I think that sums it up perfectly. Most of us have already got all the necessary kit lying about and if you don’t it’s really easy to acquire!
Find a suitable bike
You don’t need to spend a butt load of money on a high-end bike and flashy panniers. The old bike buried in your garage will only need a little TLC before it’s ready to roll. If not, Gumtree, Craigslist and eBay are all full of folks getting rid of perfectly good bikes at a fraction of their original cost.
Second-hand shops often have bikes they’re desperate to get rid of or go one better and head down to the local scrapyard to see what they have kicking about. As long as it rolls, has a semi-decent seat and a few gears, you’re sorted.
It may seem counter-intuitive but dropping a few thousand dollars on a Kona or Surly bike isn’t necessary, especially for those just starting out in the world of cycling. Save your money for the road!
You might be able to score a decent set of second-hand bags or panniers but these aren’t as important as you might think. Just check out how Nathan handled cycling through Vietnam without proper saddlebags!
Pick a destination
This is one of the most important steps when starting off with long-distance bike travel. Where do you want to go?
While we all have fantasies of roughing it along the Pamir Highway through Central Asia, that’s not likely to be our first long-distance bike trip. Most of us will try our hand at rides closer to home. Europe has an amazing network of cycle routes and the popularity of bikepacking is growing in the US each year.
Your destination will need to be determined by a few factors. How much time you have, how fit you are, the experience you’re looking for and finally your overall budget.
If you only have a week to spare, start your trip from home and see where you end up. There’s little point in packing up all your gear, throwing it on a plane and travelling halfway across the world for what would be less than five days cycling.
Your fitness will play a role because you don’t want to be cycling through mountain ranges if you’re not feeling your best. While it’s true your fitness level will improve rapidly when you start riding, you want to get used to being on the bike before you take on anything too arduous. Opt for a flatter route while you get into the flow of things.
The experience you’re looking for will have a huge impact on where you end up. Some of you will want a quaint ride along canals and waterways while others will be searching for an off-road romp along rough tracks. Research the best place to find what you want from your trip.
As much as we stingy backpackers try to avoid admitting it, money plays a key role in determining where we can go. A cycle trip through Western Europe is going to cost a good chunk more than riding through Eastern Europe, let alone Southeast Asia or South America.
Plan your cycle tour or bikepacking trip
Planning for a long-distance bike journey can seem like a daunting task. Where will you sleep each night? How many miles will you need to cover each day? How many calories will you consume? Which sights must not be missed along the route? The questions are endless and trying to find all the answers will cause more stress than it’s worth.
Stick to a few basic rules and you’ll find yourself with more time and freedom to enjoy your trip.
1. Don’t over plan
Planning everything down to minute detail is a recipe for disaster. So many things can and will go wrong while travelling by bike so ensure you have plenty of time spare to account for this.
Only having a rough plan allows you to change your mind each day. It allows you to be spontaneous and spend a day chilling in a beautiful spot you’ve found. It means you can listen to recommendations from locals or other cyclists without worrying that you won’t make it to the next checkpoint if you veer off course.
Sure, you need to know where you’re going and have a rough idea of whether you’re going to camp or find accommodation but other than that, go with the flow.
2. Stay off main roads
Although they’re usually the fastest and most direct routes, main roads should be avoided wherever possible. For starters, they’re busy. And busy roads are a chore to cycle along. Not only do you have to be constantly aware of every idiot blasting past too closely but you’ll also find your senses bombarded with the sounds and smells of traffic – not great when you want a relaxing ride!
3. Ensure you plan rest days
Cycling, as with any form of exercise, can take its toll on your body. Just because you know you can cycle 50 miles in a day, it doesn’t mean you can cycle 50 miles every day with a fully laden bike. Plan to have at least a couple of days off a week to let your body rest and recover.
4. Wear a helmet
“But helmets are so uncool.” The teenage version of me rolls his eyes.
But do you know what’s even more uncool? Literal brain damage.
Ignore the idiotic teenager we all have inside us and put on your helmet.
Important gear for bikepacking and cycle touring
Once you’ve sourced your bike, you’re going to need a few bits of gear to help you on your riding adventure.
Firstly, you’ll need something to carry your gear in. If you haven’t yet got a set of panniers or bike bags, it’s time to see what you can find. For short overnight trips, a single backpack will probably suffice but for longer trips, you’ll need something more substantial.
As previously discussed, you don’t need to spend a lot of money on bags (check out these great budget panniers) but you will need something to carry your gear. Ortlieb are famous in the cycling world for creating great panniers for touring and high-end bags for bikepacking. While the quality is outstanding, they’re expensive.
As for backpacks, anything comfortable and reasonably light will do the job. If you’ve got a pack that already fits that description then you’re well set. If not, check out Osprey’s range of backpacks designed for bikers!
If you’re hoping to save on accommodation costs, you’ll need reliable camping equipment – the lighter the better. This gear won’t differ from much of the regular camping you may already have.
- A small tent
- A sleeping bag
- A sleeping pad
- Sanitary trowel + poop kit
- Stove kit and cook system
- First aid kit
- Warm clothes for camp and sleeping
- A filtered water bottle
Of course, travelling by bicycle isn’t all about camping. You’re going to need a few bits and bobs to get you through a normal day.
*Check out this great self repair guide from Apidura for detailed info on tools and tips for repairing any damage to your bike on the road.
How much does it cost to travel by bicycle?
Travelling by bicycle is one of the cheapest and most exciting ways to get to know a country. Not only will you save a ton of money on transport but if you’re frugal and choose camping over a hostel or hotel, your daily budget will be tiny!
Sure, there are pesky expenses like food, which you can’t avoid. But even this doesn’t need to cost the earth. No matter where you are in the world, there’s plenty of ways to eat cheap. In much of Southeast Asia and South America, you can eat like a local. Street food vendors are plentiful.
Even in more remote areas, you’ll come across the odd small shop or food stall from time to time. In well-populated or expensive areas, such as Europe, supermarkets will be your best friend, just be prepared to carry the food with you!
Chris Pountney had this to say:
“When I first started travelling by bike I did so on £25 per week, which involved never paying for accommodation (wild camping or Couchsurfing every night) and only eating the cheapest supermarket food (bread and biscuits have the highest calorie-to-money ratio).”
You can read more from Chris in this interview on South America Backpacker!
But don’t just take Chris’s word on it. Famously, Al Humphries cycled around the world for four years, spending only £7000GBP along the way and Josiah Skeats spent just over $4000USD during his two and a half year circumnavigation of the planet.
Seriously, riding your bike doesn’t need to be expensive.
Bikepacking Vs Cycle touring – which is for me?
In essence, they’re the same thing. They both involve travelling by bike, with only as much gear as your bike can carry. But the amount of gear that your bike can carry is a big differentiating factor between the two.
Touring tends to involve lots of panniers or bags. Often these will be mounted on both the front and back of the bike (near the wheels). You’ll often see cycle tourers with stuff strapped to a cargo rack over the rear wheel and a front basket as well.
As you can imagine, this makes the whole set up much heavier than your standard bike. Cycling like this can be slow going, especially up big hills!
Touring bikes are generally sturdier and heavier than their bikepacking brethren. This is to cope with the increased loads put through them by the gear inside all those panniers and bags. They also tend to have lower gear ratios to make cycling with all that extra weight a tad easier.
Bikepacking is more of a minimalist art form. Rather than having big panniers or bags strapped all over the place, bikepacking relies on just a few small, well-positioned bags. They’re much more streamlined than the bags used by tourers and don’t make the bike anywhere near as bulky as panniers.
The smaller bags means you can only carry the real essentials and have to forgo some of the comforts associated with cycle touring. For some, this is too much of a price but for others, a lighter ride and having less kit to worry about is the real draw to bikepacking.
The bikes tend to be lighter and the frames have slightly more flex. Gear ratios are often higher so you can achieve a much higher top speed while riding. There’s also less to go wrong with a bikepacking setup. There are no bulky panniers that can break and very little by way of framework that you need to attach to your bike.
It all really comes down to how much gear you want to carry. If you’re someone who likes their comforts and you want to be able to throw a few extra treats in with your stuff, then opt for a cycle touring type set up. On the other hand, if you want to travel fast and light and know you’ll be okay with less, a bikepacking set up might just be for you.
Often folks who end up long-distance cycle touring are people who really want to travel as cheaply as possible while those who get heavily into bikepacking are cyclists who want their rides to be longer.
Riding tips for long-distance cycling
Avoid riding in the dark
- Car drivers are idiots and essentially blind.
- If you’ve got a big day ahead of you, leave early rather than ride late into the night.
Keep it below 35mph (55kph)
- Riding fast is fun but a fully laden bike gets much harder to control after these speeds.
- The faster you go, the harder the ground feels should something go wrong.
Use your brakes when going downhill
- A loaded bike will accelerate quickly. Your brains are more valuable than your brake pads.
- Squeeze the brakes hard for a few seconds, then release them for a few seconds. Rinse and repeat. This allows the brakes to cool and stops them from ‘glazing’ which can reduce their overall stopping power.
Don’t ride drunk or stoned
- It might seem like a fun idea but it won’t end well.
Remember your bike will be heavier than usual
- Account for the longer stopping distance and wider turning circle.
- Ride in an easier gear than usual. At least until you get used to riding with the extra load.
- Practice riding fully loaded before you leave home.
Stay relaxed on the bike and take regular breaks
- This will help prevent injury and unnecessary fatigue.
Spin at a cadence of around 70-90rpm
- Spinning those pedals too fast or riding in a gear that’s too hard can do some serious long term damage to your knees. Find a gear that allows you to spin the pedals at 70-90rpm. When the terrain changes, change the gear and find that cadence again.
Stand to pedal every now and again
- If you’re riding a big stretch, standing up from time to time will prevent stiffness from setting in.
Balance your bags
- Try to put the majority of your gear over the rear wheel – either on a rack or in panniers. You want 60-65% of your total gear weight here.
- If you’re cycle touring, put around 30% of your gear over the front wheel and the rest on your handlebars or frame.
- For bike packers, you still want the majority of weight over the rear wheel. Then use your frame and handlebars for the rest.
- Make sure your bike isn’t overloaded on one side. You don’t want to be constantly veering out of a line of traffic. Keep the weight evenly distributed.
Other tips for long-distance cycling
Leave no trace
- Take all your rubbish with you until you find a bin.
- If you camp, make sure you leave your campsite exactly as you found it.
If you’re in unknown territory, never pass up a water stop
- Unless you are 100% certain that there’s another water stop not too far away, don’t just ride past one. Running out of water is not fun. It’s certainly worth the extra couple of minutes to ensure you have a decent supply.
Get a rearview mirror
- Knowing what is happening behind you could save your life on a busy road.
Clean your bike regularly
- A weekly clean and a few drops of oil can more than double the lifespan of your bike.
Stop and look around
- Covering big miles feels important when you’re riding but don’t forget to stop to soak up the view. You’re riding to experience the world after all.
- Also, be aware that the best views aren’t always in front of you. Look back from time to time.
Swap your tyres
- Your rear tyre will wear more than twice as quickly as the front. Swap them over every 500 miles to extend their life.
Pay attention to your bike
- If your bike starts making strange noises then there’s probably a problem. Stop and assess the situation. These things are almost always easier to solve if you catch them early.
- Likewise, you can often feel when problems are starting. If your bike starts feeling different, stop and work out why.
Get some cycling gloves
- These will reduce numbness in your hands. They’ll also protect your hands in case you fall.
Learn what makes you tick
- Feeling down or depressed is usually a symptom of not eating enough good food and being tired. Take a day off and treat yourself to a good meal from time to time.
Believe in yourself
- It’s going to be hard. You can do this.
Useful Resources for Bikepackers and Cycle Tourers
Warm Showers connects cyclists with hosts who can provide them with somewhere to stay and as the name suggests, a warm shower. All at no cost! With over 185,000 users across the globe, Warm Showers is the number one resource recommended by cycle tourers.
Much like Warm Showers, Couch Surfing provides an opportunity to find a free place to stay. Connect with hosts using the platform to check their availability. Couch Surfing is not for cyclists only like Warm Showers, so can be used on any type of trip!
The Adventure Cycle Touring Handbook
The Adventure Cycle Touring Handbook is one of the most prized resources for cyclists wanting to travel the world. It contains all the information you need to start a long-distance bike tour. From the planning and preparation stage to route outlines across the planet – this book has you covered!
bikepacking.com is the internet’s number one resources for all things bikepacking. You’ll find everything from route plans to best gear round-ups here.
There’s a subreddit for everything. That old adage still holds true. The bicycle touring subreddit has over 70,000 active members. If you have questions about travelling by bike, this is the place to ask them!
Have you taken on an epic bikepacking trip or cycle tour? Head over to our Facebook community to tell us all about it!