Each year, as summer approaches, I receive a flood of emails from people asking me how they should go about planning for a long distance bicycle tour.
“Where do you start?” many of them ask.
Well, today I’m going to tell you! I’m going to show you exactly how I go about planning for my tours and I’m even going to give you some free resources that you can use to help you plan for your next self-supported bicycle tour.
The most important thing about planning a bicycle tour is that you have fun doing it! For me (and for many others) planning the tour is almost as much fun as the tour itself. So keep in mind, the planning process should be something you have fun doing!
With that said, I want to point out that there are numerous ways to go about planning for a tour, but like many topics discussed on this site, I am going to show you the way that I go about the planning process. My hope is that you can take what I’ve done in the past and twist it for your own use. Sound good? Then let’s begin!
To start, you need to have a general idea of where you want to go. For today, I am going to use my 2005 bicycle tour through Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia as an example.
For this tour, I knew that I wanted to travel down the Pacific Coast of the United States and cross off both Washington and Oregon as states that I had ridden through. I also knew that I wanted to attend the Adventure Cycling Leadership Training Camp that took place in Port Townsend, Washington on the 15th and 16th of April. Other than that, my schedule was pretty open and I was free to travel where I pleased.
The first thing I did was create an Excel document. (If you don’t have Microsoft Excel on your computer, you can purchase a copy of the program here. Otherwise, there are a number of free spreadsheet programs you can use instead. Many people are now using Google’s free spreadsheet program (a part of Google StarOffice), which you can download here.)
Once in Excel (my spreadsheet software program), I created a spreadsheet with columns titled, “Day #, Date, From, To, Accommodations, Details, Miles” and “Kilometers.”
Note: You can follow along with me by downloading my free Tour Planning Spreadsheet here (An Excel document). This spreadsheet contains my “Example” itinerary that I used to plan my 2005 Bicycle Tour. It also contains two other spreadsheets that are all set up and ready for you to use as you plan your next big adventure. In the event that you do not want to download this document, I have copied portions of the spreadsheet into this article so that you can follow along.
Then I added the numbers 1-45 in the column titled, “Day #.” I knew I only had about a month and a half for this tour, so I started right away by limiting the number of days I could schedule to be on my bike.
Next, I decided that I was going to start the tour in Seattle, as this would be an easy place to find transportation to… and it was incredibly close to Port Townsend, which was where the Adventure Cycling Leadership Training Camp would take place. So I added my hometown (Oxnard) to the first day in the “From” column.
I then looked for plane and train tickets to Seattle. I found a train ticket from Oxnard to Seattle for $208.00 and using a $125 voucher I had received from Amtrak (because of a train I was on that ended up being 22 hours late), I would only have to pay $83 for transportation to Seattle. The train would take two days to get there, so I added this information to the itinerary.
Under the “Details” column, I added all the information about my train: including the time it left Oxnard, the time it was supposed to arrive in Seattle (Amtrak is hardly ever on time!), the cost, the train number, etc. Under the “Miles” and “Kilometers” columns, I added “0” as the miles/kilometers I want to keep track of on this itinerary are only the miles that I will be riding on my bicycle (not miles/kilometers traveled by train, plane, or automobile).
I then figured out that I needed just one day to explore Seattle and another day to ride to Port Townsend, so I scheduled in the subsequent days.
You’ll note that I added the dates to the itinerary as well. My train left Oxnard on April 11th and arrived in Seattle on April 12th. The following day I would ride only six miles to Bainbridge Island (The first day of your tour should always be short so that you don’t over exert yourself in the beginning). The day after that I would ride to Port Townsend (38 miles – a short day as well) and the following day the Leadership Training Camp would begin.
The Leadership Training Camp would end on the morning of the 17th and I would leave Port Townsend that day and travel across the bay to the small town of Oak Harbor, where my friend’s parents had just recently moved. It was a free place to stay and it was along the way, so I added it to the itinerary.
Note how I have added the details of the accommodations for the tour to the itinerary. The first night I would be sleeping on the train, so I made a note of it and colored the cell for that day green. Green means that I have secured a place to sleep for the night. Red means I do not have a place to sleep. As we go along, you will see how I use this color scheme to plot out which nights were covered and which ones were not.
On day two I added the Crowne Plaza Hotel to my “Accommodations” column. The hotel was nice enough to donate a room in the heart of Seattle for the first night of my tour, so I added their information to the itinerary. (Click here to learn how to get free hotel rooms for your bicycle tours.)
Days three and four I could not find a place to sleep at night, so I marked those nights in red and knew that I was going to have to find accommodations for those two nights once I was out on the road. I ended up spending day three in a campground and day four at the hostel in Port Townsend where the Leadership Training Camp would take place.
Nights five and six would be spent at the hostel in Port Townsend and night number seven was to be spent at “Wes’s parent’s house.”
Are you following all this? I hope so… because I’m not going to go much further. I think you get the point by now.
I take it day by day, marking down my destination for the night, the number of miles/kilometers I need to ride in order to get to that destination, and then try and find accommodations for the evening.
I usually try and find as many accommodations as I can before I leave on tour.
For me, finding a place to sleep each night is the most stressful part of touring. I do most of my tours with little or no money, so staying in hotels or even hostels is usually not an option. I usually try and find free or extremely cheap campgrounds, friends to stay with, or strangers who are kind enough to open up their homes for a night or two.
If I can’t find a place to sleep in advance, I mark it in red on my itinerary and know that I am going to have to find a place to sleep that night when I am out on the road.
I also do my best to not go for more than three days without a place to stay. I’ve found that if you go for more than three days without a place stay, you can become very stressed, very depressed, and very dirty!
Which brings up a good point!
I talk a lot about feeling at home out on the road… and part of actually feeling at home on a long distance bicycle tour has to do with the way you plan your tour before you even leave home.
For me, when I’m planning a tour, I like to plan the tour in such a way that I do not go for more than two days without having something on the itinerary that I am looking forward to. I’ve found that if I go for more than two days without something to look forward to, I can become very depressed (and depression is something you want to avoid at all costs when riding your bike for long distances at a time with no one to talk to and hundreds or thousands of miles in front of you).
To prevent myself from ever becoming depressed out on the road, I use the tour planning process to mark out fun and exciting things to do and see along the way.
Example: In Seattle I wanted to see the market where they throw the fish around. This gave me something to look forward to right away! After that I was looking forward to the ferry ride over to Port Townsend. Then I was looking forward to the Leadership Training Camp. And finally, I was able to look forward to seeing Wes’s parents and their new home in Oak Harbor.
Do you see what I’m doing here?
I’m constantly giving myself something to look forward to, even if that “something” is as simple as taking a ferry over to an island. These are the types of things that you want to make note of when you are planning your tour. If you go for more than a few days without something to look forward to, you may be like me and become depressed and overcome with anxiety about all the miles that lay ahead of you.
Note: I like to use the two day rule when planning my trips. I can go for two days without something to look forward to, but three days is pushing it. This is the number that works for me, but others may be able to go for longer distances without any such excitement. Figuring out how long you can go without something to look forward to is something you will figure out as you ride.
Another important part of planning your tour is plotting it out on a map.
When I’m planning a long distance bike tour, I begin with a regular road map for the area(s) I will be riding through. I get my maps for free from AAA because I am a member. If they don’t have the map I’m looking for, I usually just buy a cheap map from Amazon.com
Once I have my map in hand, I use pencil to lightly outline the roads I will be taking to get to my destination each night.
Which brings up the question, “How do I know which roads I can ride on and which ones I can’t?”
This is a good question and one that I still struggle with sometimes when planning my own tours.
If you are planning a tour on one of the established bike paths in the United States (like the Pacific Coast or TransAmerica route) then your best bet is to purchase the Adventure Cycling maps. These maps tell you just about everything you need to know in regards to which roads you can travel on, where you can stay at night, and what sort of services you can find along the way.
However, if you’re planning a tour for which a detailed map does not exist, you’re going to be on your own… and deciding where you ultimately go is up to you… and you alone!
If this is the case, the advice I can give here is that in the United States you can ride on nearly every local road and state highway… but you cannot ride your bike on the Freeway! (There are exceptions to this rule of course).
Sometimes even local roads will be closed to bicyclists (i.e. for special events, parades, street fairs, etc). Many state highways can be closed as well (i.e. for road resurfacing, landslides, major traffic accidents, etc). And at times, riding on the Freeway is either mandatory or your only option (i.e. the last time I rode through Camp Pendleton in Southern California they forced me to ride on the freeway, rather than ride through the military base itself. I believe they are still forcing bicyclists to travel a few miles on the freeway through this area).
There are times when the road you want to ride on will be closed. There will be times when the road has been dug up or destroyed and you have to take it. There will be times when you get to the road on your map, only to find that the road itself no longer exists. These things happen and they are part of what makes a bicycle tour such an adventure.
Instead of stressing over which roads you can and cannot take, use the general rule laid out here, which says that you can travel on just about any major road except for freeways.
I have copied a state map of Utah below and pointed out which roads you can ride on and which ones you should avoid. The rules I’ve laid out here are pretty much the same throughout the United States, however, they may vary depending on the country and/or area you find yourself riding through.
If you need more help planning your tour or finding out which roads are safe to take and which ones to avoid, you can do what I do and use Google Earth to view satellite photos of the roads and determine whether the area you plan to ride through looks safe.
Lastly, if you are unsure as to which roads you can take or you need further assistance planning your tour, try and find someone who has traveled a similar path and ask him or her for assistance. Find a cyclist who has traveled a route similar to the one you hope to do and ask for his or her advice. Most cyclists are more than happy to help.
I’ve created some free documents that you can use to plan your next bicycle adventure. Just right click the links below and click, “Save Target As…”
Tour Planning Itinerary (PDF – You need Adobe Reader to view and print this document)
Tour Planning Itinerary & Example Tour (Excel document)
You can download Google StarOffice, Google Earth, and Adobe Reader for free by clicking here.
Don’t forget – the planning process should be fun! If you aren’t having fun planning your bicycle tour, then you need to take a break, go outside, ride your bike, and then come back to the planning process at a later point in time.
If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions about planning for a long distance, self-supported bicycle expedition, please use the “Comments & Suggestions” form below.