Travelers who want to slow down but still cover a lot of ground can set out on two wheels. Bike touring—whether you’re tracing the historic Silk Road or bikepacking the Rockies—lets you spend your vacation getting to know a destination while participating in a favorite sport.
Working with outfitters such as cycling-focused Trek Travel or bespoke operator Nomad, Inc. ensures your bike adventure fits your skill sets, fulfills your aspirations, and runs as smoothly as possible. But sometimes, you may want to challenge yourself by going it alone, which, while exciting, can also be intimidating. In addition to the physical challenges of riding over new terrain in possibly mercurial weather, you’re going to need quite a bit of gear. And you’re going to have to transport it to and from your route. Here’s what you need to know.
What to bring
Plan to travel with an all-weather wardrobe, tent, sleeping bag, cooking equipment, food, and a way to carry (and possibly disinfect) water. The Adventure Cycling Association, a Montana-based nonprofit that strives to “inspire and empower people to travel by bike,” recommends a load of 15 to 45 pounds for most people and trips. But ultimately it will depend on things like the length of journey and resources available along the way.
When author Kate Harris set out on a 10-month journey cycling the Silk Road with her friend Mel Yuul (the resulting memoir Lands of Lost Borders will ignite wanderlust in the most ardent homebody), she carried roughly 50 to 60 pounds divided among four panniers. Bikepacking purists forgo panniers and instead attach bags directly to the bike’s frame. While this often (though not always) lessens the weight, it also limits the packing space.
Personal gear, together with the bike, tools, and spare parts, is a lot to manage and transport before your adventure even begins. Opting to rent a bike allows cyclists to travel light on their way to and from the route. This can work well for shorter trips in places with well-established recreational cycling cultures. For example, in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France, Cycling Rentals and Cycle Europe rent premium touring bikes for up to several weeks at rates ranging from $25 to $35 per day.
However, Harris suggests bringing your own bike if possible, especially if you’ll be crossing international borders or venturing to out-of-the-way places. Although bikes are available for rent or purchase just about everywhere, she cautions that they might not always stand up to the weight and rugged terrain of an epic cycling trip. And you’re always more likely to know how to fix a bike you’re familiar with. “At one point in Turkey, Mel’s derailer broke in such a way that only one gear setting would work. We had to make the chain shorter,” Harris said in a phone interview. The temporary fix cost Mel her “granny gear,” the lowest setting that facilitates climbing steep hills with a heavy load. “But,” Harris explained, “she made it work!”
How to Travel With Your Bike
If you do decide to bring your own bike, you’ll have to transport it and the rest of your gear to the start of your route and home from the finish.
Since you’ve condensed all of your essentials to fit on a bike, transporting everything by car will be relatively simple. To squeeze the bike into a trunk or backseat, you’ll probably need to remove wheels and readjust handlebars. To keep everything intact, invest in a roof-, trunk-, or hitch rack. If you don’t have a place to leave your car while you ride, be sure to arrange a drop-off and a pickup.
BY PLANE OR TRAIN
Getting to the start of your cycling adventure often will require travel on planes or trains. While these modes of transit can typically accommodate your bike and gear, you still need to pack properly and know the regulations.
Large airlines are accustomed to dealing with unmotorized bicycles and camping gear. Expect to check your tent and pack it inside a bag to protect fragile fabrics from tears or snags. Most airlines will permit heating or cooking equipment, but TSA prohibits many common fuel types in both checked and carry-on luggage, so make sure your stove is brand new or separated from its empty fuel source. Bikes usually need to be boxed and checked. Carriers list specific requirements on their websites, but make sure to read the fine print: airplane size and destination matter.
“The way up and the way down,” claimed Heraclitus, “is one and the same.” Anyone who has bike toured would beg to differ. Here’s Mel pausing in Tajikistan to take in the wonder of a road angling downhill. Of course you can guess what happened a few miles… https://t.co/vSX6MT7z3V pic.twitter.com/Iw2ujZyhnM — Kate Harris (@kateonmars) April 23, 2018
When Harris and Yuul transited between Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, they ran into some of these quirks. “[We had] meticulously packed our bikes in cargo boxes, but they wouldn’t fly the boxes, so we had to unpack [them] and ship the frames and wheels unprotected. They emerged miraculously on the far side. The good thing is, bikes are pretty tough!” Harris said.
If you’re boxing your bike for air or rail travel, take handlebars off or turn them sideways, remove the pedals and front wheel, and stash them as flat as possible between the seat and front fork. And if it can be done within weight restrictions, packing clothing and other gear with the bike can be a good way to consolidate checked luggage, reduce fees, and provide some extra protection—Harris and Yuul wrapped their frames in clothing and stuffed the boxes with tools, parts, and camping equipment.
The Fine Print: Weight and Dimension Limits
Regional airlines and small planes often lack the capacity to handle your bike at all, so it’s worth picking up the phone before showing up at the airport. But even for big airlines, weigh and measure everything ahead of time to avoid surprises: Some airlines consider bikes up to a certain size standard carry-on luggage and will charge as such. Bike packages that are over dimension and weight (usually 50 pounds) restrictions will also be charged for accordingly. Fees range from $25 to more than $200 depending on airline and route, and airlines have firm upper weight limits that you can’t pay to exceed (on Delta, for example, it’s 100 pounds).
Trains can to be more accommodating. Canada’s Via Rail allows each passenger to check one bike into the baggage compartment for $25 per direction and has cardboard boxes available for purchase. In the United States, the Adventure Cycling Association has been working with Amtrak to expand bike-checking and carry-on options on routes throughout the country. Currently, bikes needn’t be boxed on most routes; the fee, which is usually under $20, varies by route.
Harris warns against getting bogged down in the details of how to make a cycling adventure happen and just try. You’ll learn to fix the bike on the road, and if you over-pack, you can always ship things home. Whether you want to travel through U.S. small towns or follow the footsteps of Marco Polo, “Book a plane ticket somewhere, grab whatever bike you have in your garage, and go for it,” Harris said. “It’s the most exhilarating way to move through the world.”