There is no "right" way to do bicycle touring. While some things are required, like a bicycle, spare parts, food and clothing, there are no hard rules about any of it and everyone has their favorite planning methods, special items, and gear.

But, whether it is weight versus safety, how to carry gear, or what kind of bicycle to ride, every bike tourist has to make trade-offs. These trade-offs result in commonly asked questions posted on bike touring forums. The purpose of this article is discuss some of these "gray" areas without all the strong language and histrionics.

Road vs Mountain vs Touring Bikes

By far, the most common question asked on bike touring forums is about the kind of bicycle needed to tour. Such questions are always answered with variations of "it doesn't matter" and "any bike that fits you will do." The only requirement is that you have a bike to ride. If you only have one bike, then it will have to do!

One important point is that whatever kind of bike you ride on tour, your bike must fit you. That is, you must be able to ride it for many hours, day after day, without injury or discomfort. If you have any doubts, have a professional fit done at a qualified bike shop and make appropriate changes. Touring on a poorly fitting bike is a sure recipe for physical pain, even permanent injury, and an early end to your tour.

Road bikes are designed to be lightweight, maneuverable and to be ridden in an aggressive posture. They usually have skinny tires and gearing more appropriate for fast riding not grinding up hills. Road bikes don't always have brazed-on eyelets for connecting racks and are not designed to carry lots of weight.

Given these trade-offs, road bikes are best for tours that don't involve lots of gear, riding on non-paved roads or grinding up long, steep hills. Tours where you stay in motels every night, eat at restaurants, and minimize gear would be best for road bikes. Also, short tours with long mileage on flatter routes without gear would favor road bikes.

If the only bicycle you have is a road bike, you might plan "credit card" tours that stop at motels every night and use restaurants for eating. If your tour requires lots of gear, look into pulling a trailer (see next section) which keeps the weight off the bike.

Mountain bikes have rugged frames, more relaxed riding postures, and often have shock absorbing suspension to easy bumpy rides. They usually have a wider selection of gears, disc brakes, and have wider, thicker tires. Some makes have eyelets for racks, though suspension components and disc brakes can limit options.

Mountain bikes often make good touring bikes, especially those without suspension (as it is easier to attach racks to them). They handle well carrying extra weight and can go on rough or unpaved roads. The relaxed riding position and lower gearing make riding long hours and up steep hills more manageable.

Downsides to mountain bikes are their weight, length, and handlebars. Mountain bikes usually weigh more than road or touring bikes. In addition, they tend to have a shorter wheelbase which makes carrying panniers problematic due to "heel strike," the back of your foot hitting the bag as you pedal.

Mountain bikes often have flat, straight handlebars, which don't offer many hand positions. This can cause hand numbness and even nerve damage on long bike tours. While the solution might be as easy as replacing the handlebars, this often involves many adjustments to cables, levers, and other equipment and may not be possible at all!

If the only bicycle you have is a mountain bike, you have to look carefully at it to see what changes are needed to equip it for long distance riding. Questions to consider are:

Can racks be attached to it?

If so, is there enough room to comfortably pedal without the panniers getting in the way?

If not, can you attach a trailer to it without problem?

Can the handlebars be changed without too much bother?

Is the gearing low enough?

Touring bikes are, in many ways, a cross between road and mountain bikes. They are rugged enough to carry gear, have eyelets for racks, lower gearing for grinding up hills, a long wheelbase to accommodate panniers, and a more relaxed riding position. They are heavier than road bikes though lighter than most mountain bikes. They usually get more stable as weight is added onto them. But, unladed, they won't go as fast as a road bike and won't handle unpaved roads or tracks as well as a mountain bike, as they usually can't accommodate really wide tires.

Touring bikes are best for people who plan to do more than one bike tour carrying all their own gear. While touring bicycles are fine all-around bikes, they won't keep up with roadies on week-end club rides, nor will they be as comfortable as mountain bikes on rough single track.

The key point is that you can tour on any kind of bicycle. You may have to modify your bike or change your plans, but any kind of bike will do. If you can afford to have more than one bike, buy a touring bike if you plan to do a lot of touring.

Here are over 3 dozen links to all kinds of information about bicycles used for touring.

Panniers vs Trailers

Unless you are carrying only a minimal amount of gear, you need some way to haul it around. The common options are panniers and trailers. Riding a bicycle long distances wearing a heavy backpack is sheer madness.

Panniers are sturdy bags that hang off racks attached to the bike. They (both the racks and the bags) make your bike heavier and harder to ride and steer, especially going slowly uphill.

Trailers, on the other hand, hold all the gear on a separate carrier connected to the rear of the bike. They come in either one wheel or two and make a bike longer, wider, and change the handling properties significantly, especially going downhill.

Other than handling, the main differences between panniers and trailers are

1) How much gear you can carry - As a rule, trailers will allow you to carry more gear. This is good if you need to carry more; otherwise, it just makes it harder to pedal.

2) Handling the bike when riding and parking - Some people report that pulling a trailer on flat ground is like "it isn't there." Both panniers and trailers will make your bike wider, which can be a problem on narrow roads. There have been reports about trailers causing crashes when going too fast, as they can become unstable at "high" speed.

Both panniers and trailers make getting off a bike and "parking" it a bit harder, but for different reasons. Panniers, especially front ones, force the bike's fork to pivot when not held so that the bike will fall over if not leaned against something solid and balanced properly. Trailers are often heavier than the bike without a rider. Letting go of the bike will often give the trailer control of where it goes. This usually means on the ground if the rider isn't careful. One-wheeled trailers are particularly prone to this. Often, the best position can be "jack-knifing" the trailer and the bike.

3) Difficulty in locating something that is packed. With four organized panniers, an item can often be found quickly by only checking the bag holding it. Trailers usually hold a single large bag where everything is stashed. On the other hand, having to dig through all four panniers to find something is a drag. If there is only one bag of gear, it is obvious where to look.

4) Some bikes can't handle racks. On such bikes, panniers aren't an option. This leaves only trailers, if you are carrying more than a minimum amount of gear.

5) Where the weight stresses the bike. Panniers are more likely to cause broken spokes, or other wheel problems, by adding weight right over the axles. Trailers usually attach to the bike with some find of coupler on the rear drop-out (where the rear wheel is inserted into the frame). A trailer mishap can bend, or even break, the bike frame. Also, this coupler is a potential failure mode all on its own.

6) Packing for travel. If you need to travel to get to your starting or ending location, it is generally much easier to deal with racks and bags, which can often be taken on a plane or train as hand luggage, then trying to transport a trailer.

Here are some links if you'd like more information about Panniers, Racks, or Trailers.

Flat vs Clips vs Clipless

There are three kinds of bicycle pedals: flat, flat with strap/clip, clipless (cleated). Which one should you tour with?

There are two issues here. First, which kind of pedal is "the best" for touring? Second, how many shoes should you take on tour?

As I said above, there is no "best" way to bike tour. The best option is always the one that works for you. Thus, your first option should be what you already have on the bike you're going to be riding on tour.

The cheapest is going to be basic, flat pedals. Their advantages are being cheap, readily available, and usable with any kind of shoe you want to wear while riding. The downside is that they only allow you to push the pedal. You can't use the "upstoke" to power the bike. This won't be a problem on flat ground, but can come into play when riding uphill. With flat pedals, your foot can move around as you pedal. This can be good if you get tired of keeping your foot in one place as you ride. This can be bad if moving your foot around on the pedal leads to knee or other leg pain.

The most involved option will be clipless pedals, which are fitted to hold a cleat on the bottom of specially designed biking shoes. Their advantages are locking your shoe to the pedal so that 1) your foot is always in the same, presumably comfortable, place and 2) you can pull up on the pedal in addition to pushing down. This gives you a way to both get more power and to use different cycling muscles. The downsides are cost and learning curve. Cleated pedals require special shoes to use properly. Both the pedals and the shoes will cost more, upwards of $100 just for the shoes! Also, if you haven't used cleated pedals before, you have to be careful not to fall over when you forget to unclip them when you stop. While it is possible to walk in certain cleated biking shoes, it is likely that you will want to carry a separate pair of non-biking shoes to wear when not riding. This adds gear and weight to your load.

A middle ground between flat and cleated pedals is pedals with a strap or clip to hold your shoe as you ride. These can be used with any shoes, like flat pedals, while holding your foot in place while you pedal and allowing you to pull up, if you wish, like cleated pedals. The downside is that you have to get your foot into these pedals as you start riding. The dangerous issue, like with cleated pedals, is that you have to be able to get your foot out of them when you stop or you will fall over.

Here are some links that compare these different kinds of pedals.

Camelback vs Water Bottles

Bike tourists have to drink lots of water to avoid dehydration. The adage "Drink before you are thirsty" encapsulates this basic wisdom. That leads to the obvious question of how best to carry water while riding a bike?

The two choices are water bottles, usually specially designed ones that fit into cages on a bike's frame, and a Camelback-type backpack filled with a water bladder. Given the advice above that "Riding a bike long distances wearing a heavy backpack is sheer madness," the choice should be obvious. But, alas, it isn't.

Water bottles are so common in biking that most bike frames have threaded holes in them for attaching metal cages that hold them. Is this really an issue or am I trying to make something out of nothing here? There are 3 problems with water bottles: limited volume, access while biking, no easy way to carry more.

Standard biking water bottles can only hold about 3 cups of water (24 ounces), about the amount recommended for 60 minutes of biking. On tour, it isn't unusual to ride 5 or 6 hours in a day, requiring you to either carry 6 full bottles, stop to refill the ones you have, or carry additional water with you somewhere else on the bike.

In order to take a drink out of a water bottle while riding, you have to take one hand off the handlebars, reach down between your (pumping) legs, grab the bottle, drink, and then put it back. All of this has to be done while maintaining balance and steering a straight line. This is easier said than done for some people.

Most bikes provide 2 bottle cages, though some have a third one stashed on the bottom of the frame. There simply isn't much other real estate on a bike frame where a bottle cage can be anchored. Thus, if you need to take more water with you, you either have to buy bottled water or refill one you are carrying. Whichever you do, this extra water has to be stashed on the bike somewhere.

For me, there was a fourth problem: I didn't drink enough water when I was using bottles. Camelback-type Hydration systems, backpacks that hold a water bladder with a tube for sipping, are the other option. Water is heavy, "a pint a pound the world around." A backpack carrying 100 ounces of water (between 4 and 5 hours of bike riding) will weigh over 6 pounds! Though, it gets lighter throughout the day. There are backpacks that hold less water (and are lighter) as well.

Many people simply refuse to carry that much weight on their backs while riding. But, for those who are willing, there are several benefits:

More water can be carried.

Taking a drink out of a tube with a specially designed valve is a quick flick of the wrist that doesn't require reaching down or taking one's eyes off the road.

What's more, on hot days, the water bladder can be filled with ice to provide cold water all day. This benefit should not be underestimated.

One, unrelated, benefit of wearing a backpack is having a way to carry important items on you at all times. Otherwise, a bike tourist has to have a removable bag on the bike that gets carried whenever he or she is away from the bike.

Every bike rider has to drink water and will likely have an opinion as to which water carrying option is best. Here are some links about hydration systems if you'd like to read more.

U-Lock vs Cable Lock

Bike theft is so prevalent where most people live that it seems foolish to tour without a sturdy (and heavy) lock. After all, if the bike gets stolen, the bike tour is over! While this is a reasonable attitude, it doesn't match most bike tourists' experience.

For the most part, people don't take bike tours though large, crowded cities where bike theft is most likely. The further away from cities you go, the smaller the threat of bike theft. In such places, the most common problem is a "grab and run" kind of thief who is easily foiled by a simple cable lock (or even some rope tied in a knot!).

The difference in weight between a city-level U-Lock and a simple cable lock is about 1.5 pounds. What do you get for the added weight? U-Locks are designed to be used in cities where there are steel poles just the right width to slip the U-Lock around. Out in the country, in a small village, or at a campground for the night, you may not find such poles. In these places, a U-Lock becomes nothing more than a heavy padlock. For such instances, you have to carry a cable anyway, so why even bother with the U-Lock in the first place?

On the other hand, a simple cable lock is useless against a determined bike thief. If you will be riding through places peopled by pilferers, then a U-Lock might be appropriate. Though, another option is not to leave your bike unattended in such places.

Here is a detailed article about locking your bike on tour, if you'd like more information before deciding.

Camping vs Motel vs Couch Surfing

Unlike motor vehicles, you can't sleep on a bicycle at the end of the day. You have to find a place for the night. There are several trade-offs, depending on where you want to lay your head. There are three options for overnight accommodation: camping, renting a room, and getting hosted. Each one has its own benefits and downsides and vary in cost.

Camping is usually much cheaper than renting a room in a motel but requires that you carry extra gear (tent, sleeping bag, mat, etc.) that, usually, weigh at least 5 pounds. Generally, camping means sleeping on the ground (regardless of the weather), walking to, possibly distant, toilets and maybe not getting a shower that day. It also means sharing space with other, like-minded, often generous, people who are doing the same thing you are, though often in expensive RVs.

One obvious problem with camping is finding a place to camp near where you want to stop. In some parts of the world, campgrounds are abundant. In others, they are almost non-existent. The cost at public campgrounds can be quite reasonable, but at private ones, the prices often approach those of local motels. Some camping areas are nothing more than vacant lots, while others are resort quality. Without a lot of research, it can be hard to know what you are getting when you pull into one at the end of the day.

Camping is not for everyone. If you have to buy all your camping gear before a tour, it can push the price of camping over the cost of staying in cheap motels! For some, camping is one of the highlights of a long bike tour. For others, camping is only done when no other options are available.

One major advantage of camping is that you can pitch a tent virtually anywhere. Often called stealth, wild, or free camping, it not only is free but often readily available. Rare is the camping bike tourist who hasn't quietly pitched a tent in an out of the way place when necessity required it. Some people prefer this kind of camping and carry camouflaged tent covers. Others would only resort to this in an emergency. Stealth camping can be tricky as a poorly chosen spot might result in getting rousted at midnight, arrested, or washed away in a sudden downpour. Be sure you know what you are doing if you decide to do this. Here are some links if you decide to stealth camp.

There are many different types of motels. Some are low-quality dives with little more than a dirty bed and a tiny bathroom for rent. Others are comfortable places to stay that offer amenities like pools, jaccuzis, and saunas. Price isn't always indicative of quality, though there is usually a correlation. The further off the main tourist route you are, the more variable the motel quality becomes.

Staying in a motel every night means you'll always sleep in a bed and have a hot shower. It will also seriously increase your costs, likely becoming your single largest trip expense. Like campgrounds, motels are harder to find further away from tourist sites and major highways where most bike tours travel. Finding a motel usually involves advanced planning and can often require non-refundable reservations days in advance.

A third option is getting hosted for the night by someone who you haven't met before. Occasionally, this happens when you meet some road angel who invites you over for the night. More likely, it is through one of the hospitality sites on the internet, such as or, though there are many others.

Depending on what a host has to offer, you might sleep in a guest room, on a couch in the living room, or be offered a place to pitch your tent in the backyard. Getting hosted is like a cross between camping and renting a motel room. Like a motel, you will have to arrange it in advance, often with more difficulty than simply calling a number and making a reservation. Like camping, it is cheap (usually free). Other benefits include free meals, meeting locals and getting lots of local knowledge. Downsides are having hosts change plans, needing a phone to check in with hosts before you arrive, and having to spend time with unpleasant people and/or in unacceptable places.

Getting hosted is not for everyone. You have to be willing to spend time with people you've never met in their homes with their pets living under their rules. For many, this challenge is way beyond their desire for free lodging. For others, like me, it is often one of a tour's highlights.

Choosing a place to spend the night involves several trade-offs. Whether it is cost versus comfort, carrying extra weight versus the hassle of making advanced reservations, or staying with people you don't know versus spending time alone, you have to sleep somewhere.

My choices, My trade-offs

Like every other bike tourist, I had to decide what was right for me. I only own one bicycle. Since I wanted to tour on it, I decided to buy the best touring bike I could, a Waterford Adventure Cycle.

This bike is equipped with eyelets for racks, both front and back, so I chose panniers to carry my gear.

I prefer clipless pedals and always pack another pair of shoes for wearing when I am off the bike.

I have tried both water bottles and Camelbacks. I found that I drink far more water with a Camelback so that is how I carry my water. I don't like the weight on my back but still prefer the water bag.

I carried a U-Lock on my first tour and since then have made do with a light cable lock.

On any bike tour over a few days, I carry camping gear mostly for emergency purposes. I prefer finding hosts on couchsurfing or warmshowers, as I really like meeting random people in the world. The rest of the time, my choice of motel or camping depends on the weather and the availability of each close to my day's destination. Given a choice, I prefer motels.
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Copyright © 2007 by Ray Swartz