If you enjoy traveling or backpacking and also like riding bikes, bike touring might just be a match made in heaven for you. This past summer, Bearfoot Theory’s Director, Linda, traveled the coast of France by bicycle for two weeks with her husband. In this blog post, she shares her tips for prepping for your first bike touring adventure and lessons learned from her trip.
Gearing up for your first bike touring trip can feel a bit overwhelming at first, but this guide will set you off on the right foot. Here is our guide to the clothes and gear you’ll need for bike touring.
What is bike touring?
Bike touring is basically a cycling trip for pleasure and adventure, often for multiple days at a time. In most cases, you are completely self-sufficient, kind of like backpacking except on a bicycle.
What kind of bicycle do you need for bike touring?
Touring bikes are specifically designed for long distance, weight-bearing riding. They have a longer wheelbase which provides more stability and comfort while carrying a load. They are usually equipped with stronger, 32 spoke rims to be able to handle the extra weight, whereas standard rims can break spokes or even crack when overloaded. Touring bikes also have numerous attachment points for racks, bags, fenders, and multiple water bottle cages.
When looking for a touring bike, think about whether you’ll be riding primarily on paved roads or whether you want the flexibility to be able to ride on dirt, gravel, and other surfaces. Road touring bikes tend to come with narrower tires for faster, smoother riding on pavement. But if you prefer versatility and comfort over speed, a wider tire with more grip is your best bet. The Surly Long Haul Trucker is one of the most popular road touring bikes out there, while the Surly Troll is a versatile option that can fit wider tires for off road touring.
If you don’t want to do a ton of research or piece a bike together on your own, visit your local bike shop and see if they can help you out. A good bike shop will have experienced staff members that can answer questions about bike touring and help you find the right bike touring gear. If you happen to be in San Diego, I highly recommend Adams Avenue Bicycles. We made lots of trips to the shop while prepping for our bike touring trip on the coast of France, and the guys there were always super helpful.
A Guide to Bicycle Parts for Bike Touring
Good quality tires are key for a smooth ride. For bike touring, you want a tire with high durability and puncture resistance to minimize your chances of having issues while you’re on the road.
As a rule of thumb, a wider tire generally makes for a more comfortable ride. A little bit of grip is helpful too so you can handle gravel and other off-road surfaces you might encounter. On the other hand, more volume and more grip mean a slower ride, so you want to find a balance that works for you.
Schwalbe Marathon Mondial tires are arguably the most used, most proven, and best all around touring tire and the ones I used when bike touring in Europe.
FENDERS & RACKS FOR BIKE TOURING
Fenders are good to have for any bike touring excursion, especially if you anticipate rain. They help prevent dirt, mud, and water from splashing up onto you.
Racks hold panniers and other touring bags on your bike and are helpful for strapping things onto as well. You can choose to put front racks, back racks, or both on your bike depending on your desired set up.
BICYCLE PANNIERS & TOURING BAGS
With the explosion in popularity of bike touring and bikepacking in the last decade or so, there are a ton of bike touring and bikepacking bag options out there. The key things to consider are the overall volume you need to carry all your stuff, waterproofness, organization, and being able to spread out the weight across the bike.
Ortlieb is one of the commonly used and proven pannier and bike bag brands. Their bags are completely waterproof and very durable. I brought a set of rear Ortlieb panniers to Europe and loved how durable and waterproof they are and how much space they provide. However, one thing these bags don’t have is multiple pockets so I often found myself digging around and having to pull a bunch of stuff out to find the one thing I was looking for. I made up for this by having a drawstring bag for small things like underwear, socks, etc and a bag for toiletries. Packing cubes would be perfect for this as well. Believe me, it will be worth the time and frustration you’ll save when you’re trying to find something while on the road.
Swift Industries is a Seattle based company that makes beautiful bike panniers and touring bags by hand. Their bags are a little pricier but they are super stylish and have lots of thoughtful touches like multiple pockets.
Here are some great options for panniers:
Frame bags fit within the triangle frame of your bike so they’re a great use of space while still keeping your bike slender. There are different sizes available so all you need to do is measure your frame and search for one that fits. One thing to take into consideration here is whether you want to leave space for a water bottle cage within the frame.
Here are two great frame bags to consider:
Bikepacking bags are designed to carry your gear without the need for racks, making your setup more streamlined and lightweight for off-road riding. These bags can be used for bike touring as well. I used a front roll bag to carry my sleeping bag and toiletries to spread out the weight between the front and back of my bike.
Here are a few bikepacking bag options:
SEATS FOR BICYCLE TOURING
Seat comfort really varies from person to person based on your body geometry and what’s comfortable for you. But finding a comfortable seat is absolutely key to having a happy ride, especially when you’re spending hours each day, day after day, on your bike.
Many avid bike riders swear by Brooks Saddles. They are ergonomically designed to give and flex with your body movement plus they’re durable and long lasting. For me personally, they were just too hard. I opted for the Selle Royal Scientia, a slightly cushier seat and was happy I did. Some say that cushier seats allow for more movement which can cause friction and resulting irritation, but I didn’t experience that.
Bike seats often come in different sizes based on the distance between your sit bones (also known as your ischial variation) and what type of riding you do (athletic, moderate, or relaxed). Your local bike shop should be able to help you find the right size seat for your body and may even have seats you can test out before buying.
Depending on where you are planning to go bike touring, you may or may not want a bicycle helmet. For example, helmets are optional in France and we didn’t end up wearing them there because nearly all the riding we did was on designated bike paths separate from cars so we felt very safe. We also preferred wearing hats to protect ourselves from the sun since we were outside all of the time. However, in Spain and Portugal, we were happy we brought helmets because we shared the road with cars more often due to limited bike paths. Do what you need to do to keep yourself safe and feel comfortable while riding.
Gear & Clothing for Bike Touring
CAMPING GEAR FOR BIKE TOURING
For bike touring camping gear, think backpacking gear but on a bicycle. You can afford to carry a little more weight than you would backpacking but keeping your weight low makes everything all around easier. If you’re in Europe, you might be getting on and off trains or buses and possibly going up and down stairs so keep it to the essentials (plus that way you’ll have room for a bottle of wine or a souvenir or two).
Here are some of the basics you’ll need for camping while bike touring:
When packing for a bike touring trip, you’ll want to bring lots of layers and versatile pieces that work together. Again, think backpacking plus a little more wiggle room. Keep in mind that you can wash clothing by hand and in many places, it’s easy to find laundromats so you can re-wear what you bring. In Europe, every single campground we stayed at had sinks for hand washing laundry and most had coin-operated washers and dryers.
While bike touring, you’ll likely stop for lunch, do some sightseeing, and be getting on and off your bike to do things in general so it’s nice to be comfortable in what you’re wearing on and off your bike.
Here is a list of recommended clothing for bike touring:
- Comfortable riding shorts – Whatever you’re most comfortable riding in since you’ll be spending hours on your bike each day. Terry Touring Bike Shorts are padded and not too short for walking through towns.
- Leggings – Versatile for riding in and wearing out and about. These Prana leggings are versatile for all sorts of travel.
- Comfortable pants or shorts – For lounging and sightseeing, it’s nice to have something a little looser so you’re not constantly wearing spandex. These North Face Aphrodite shorts are a favorite and so are these capris.
- Wicking t-shirt – It’s nice to have your chest and shoulders covered when you’re outside for hours a day. Smartwool’s Merino 150 Base Layer tops or Icebreaker t-shirts are great tops for active multi-day adventures.
- Long sleeve layer – A moisture-wicking long sleeve layer or lightweight button up is nice to have for covering up your arms when you’re outside most of the day. This REI Co-op long sleeve button up is a great lightweight option, and this Smartwool Merino Zip-Up is great for added warmth.
- Warm Jacket – This can be helpful for evenings around a campsite or in town. A Patagonia Performance Better Sweater Jacket or Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket are great lightweight, packable options.
- Rain/windbreaker – See our Guide to Choosing a Lightweight Raincoat + Our Favorites
- Gloves – For cold mornings, rainy days, and general riding comfort.
- Warm beanie
- Hat – Opt for a wide-brimmed hat with a cinch strap to protect your face from the sun while riding, like this one.
- Sandals – For campground showers, riding on hot days, and everything in between. If you’re planning to ride in sandals you might be more comfortable in a pair with a backstrap – lightweight Tevas are a great option.
- Shoes – One pair of comfortable shoes that you can ride in, hike in, and spend the day sightseeing in.
- Swimsuit – Always necessary so you’re ready for a dip!
MISCELLANEOUS ESSENTIALS FOR BIKE TOURING
When bike touring, you’ll likely ride some long stretches between towns so you’ll need to be prepared to deal with a flat tire or two just in case. While most towns have bike shops that can help you with a tune-up, being prepared can save you from a very frustrating time when you’re out on your own.
At the minimum, you’ll want to bring the following:
- Spare tube
- Patch kit
- Multi-tool for tightening anything that comes loose and for adjusting things
- Bike Pump
You can buy these items individually or get a handy Topeak Deluxe Bike Tool Accessory kit that has everything except a spare tube.
And there you have it, your guide to gearing up for an epic bike touring adventure!
Do you have any questions about specific bike touring gear? Or have you been on a bike touring trip and have something to add? Let us know in the comments below or join the conversation in our Bearfoot Theory Outdoor Adventurers Facebook Group.