Pam led a bicycle touring clinic for Grease Rag and friends this winter. Here, she shares her tips, recommendations, and encouragement for folks interested in traveling by bike. Whether it's a weekend camping trip or a multi-week trek, Pam believes that anyone can do it!
I've been riding bicycles for quite a few years starting with a mountain bike, upgrading and adding more bikes along the way, expanding my biking experiences. I joined a club, searched out other women cyclists, rode with the guys, tried a variety of organized and unorganized rides. Then I met Beth. She filled my head with stories of adventures on the road with a bike. For years I listened and marveled at her 'moxy' to ride cross country, several times, mostly by herself. Then I got to thinking...why not me? I could do this too, couldn't I? Start small, see if I liked it...of course I can!! But where to go? Not too far, but far enough to offer a challenge, a little challenge. Itasca State Park, head of the Mississippi River? Sounds perfect. Of course I didn't have to try very hard to get Beth on board; soon she's here with maps (and wine) in hand and we're planning a route.
After analyzing my current steeds, it was determined that none would suffice. So, I added another bike to my stable, a touring bike. Good thing the bike was priced reasonably because outfitting said bike and gathering equipment was expensive when you start from nothing! Racks, bags, tent, sleeping bag, pad, stuff, and not to mention the upgrades to the bike. Yikes! So started my love for touring.
On my first tour, Beth and her experience was priceless; she doesn't get rattled easily, has been-there-done-that, so I was in a good spot to observe and learn, not to panic. While I had some sore legs and met lots of challenges (camping, hills, bugs, rain, hills), I was hooked! Since then, I've done 2 mini-tours (Minneapolis to Nisswa, MN) by myself without the camping aspect, staying in motels rather than campgrounds. And last June I did a tour from Minneapolis to Reedsburg, WI with another rider. It should be noted that originally, this tour was suppose to go all the way to Milwaukee, loop Fond du Lac and ride back. Physical issues forced us to end at Reedsburg, WI. But lessons were learned, the scenery along the way was spectacular, the company was excellent, and we'll try again this year!
My next tour, June 2015. Minneapolis to Chicago to Muskegon, take the ferry to Milwaukee and take the train back to Minneapolis. If you want to ride all the way or part way (many, many options), let me know! There are a few that want to ride from Mpls to Chicago, I added the Muskegon to Milwaukee piece because I will have the extra time. Camping, warmshowers, and an occasional motel will be the plan. There will also be at least one shake-out camping trip, so join us! The more the merrier!
Here are some things I've learned in my very short touring career
Tips for on the Road
Be flexible. Have a plan but be ready to change and be happy about it.
A BIKE FIT is a must! Nothing compares physically to riding many miles, in multiple consecutive days with heavy loads. Your knees/legs/feet/hands/ shoulders will thank you.
Safety first. Wear a light colored or neo shirt/jacket and front and rear lights. Consider a mirror attached to your helmet, sunglasses or handlebars. I cannot count the number of times being able to see behind me saved me from being hit or run off the road. Also consider a RoadID or other identification bracelet for your group or first responders in case of an emergency.
Drink water - lots of water! I had two bottles on the bike and filled them a couple of time during the day. One friend uses a small camelback for just water and really likes the convenience. Something I will try in the future. I took Nuun (electrolyte) tablets with and at the end of every day I would add one to a bottle of water and drink it down while setting up camp for recovery. By day 3, I was adding 1/2 tablet to every bottle and a full tablet in the evening because I was feeling dehydrated.
Don't take off too fast. Plan the initial stages with some easier miles and consider any hilly terrain. You can always increase the mileage later in the trip when your body has adjusted. On both long tours I had sore legs after the second day and I believe it's because I went long and big (lots of hills) the first two days. Lesson learned.
Get to know your bike and how to fix the easy stuff. Change a tire, change and adjust brake pads, etc. Be sure to carry any tools and parts that are specific to your bike that might break or need repair.
Getting lost is easier than you think. Some cyclists like to use purpose-built bicycle navigation systems but they are heavy energy users. In my opnion, you can't beat old fashioned maps. They are lightweight, easy to pack, never run out of battery or send you in the wrong direction and are fairly cheap. Besides, if you're lucky, as soon as you pull out your map some local will make a beeline for you and help you plot the next few miles.
Tips for Camping
Camping is not that bad (I'm such a city girl). My previous version of camping was either an RV or a tent with a blow-up queen sized mattress. I practiced setting up my tent at home and that helped a lot. That said, I have yet to set it up and/or take it down in the rain...oh boy, I can't wait. I also have self-inflating sleeping pad which is very comfortable and packs small. On my first tour I borrowed a down sleeping bag, but it was big. I now have a REI Travel down +45 degree bag with a silk liner; I sleep warm and this works great. If it's going to be cooler, I also have a microfiber liner that adds 10-15 degrees.
Buy a big enough tent. Your tent is not just for sleeping; it provides a dry space for you and your gear, a refuse from the rain and bugs, and privacy when you just want some time alone. I have a Sierra Design 2-person, double vestibule tent that is very lightweight and stuffs fairly small into a compression bag.
We tried to cook at camp as much as possible and the camp meals we put together were awesome! We tried to use fresh veggies everyday but when not available we still managed to cook and eat well by picking the best options. We needed one more bowl for meals both for prep and eating but we made due. Clementines turned out to be a nice refreshing snack. They traveled well and are easy to peel and eat.
My little Primus Express camp stove is a winner. It's not very big but works great. Add a windscreen and its even better. I originally carried two fuel canisters but since they are so readily available I'm now only carrying one. That said, you will need to consider how many people are in the group. If necessary, a few people will each carry a canister. I also added a coffee filter that fits over my coffee cup; everyone should have their own since it's a drag waiting to use a filter.
Test out all soaps, sprays, etc. that you intend to use on tour. I didn't and reacted badly to the full strength soap I used.
Tips for Packing
The panniers were exactly right. I must practice loading; I still use a list so everything is packed the same way every time but I struggle. It's recommended to have 2/3 of the weight in your front panniers, 1/3 in the rear. I never could get that right. The panniers all weighed the same no matter how I packed them and they rode fine. Remember to load the heaviest items in the bottom of the panniers, lighter stuff on top. I designate one pannier to hold all cooking/eating gear and food. That way, if needed, I only have one pannier to hoist into a tree (critter/bear). The handlebar bag was worth every penny; I took out the divider after the first two days and was pleased with the extra room.
I brought a backpack (Baggu) made of nylon that folds to the size of an envelope and weighs as much. We used it for groceries every day, sometimes I wore it and sometimes I strapped it to the rack.
AND, it must be said: DON'T OVERPACK. It has been suggested to take minimal clothing. Wear one set of cycling clothes, one or two extra cycling outfits, something to wear in the evening/around town and rain gear should suffice. Unless your wilderness touring, don't carry extra health and hygiene products, you can pick them up along the way, this includes batteries and fuel. The lighter the load, the easier it will be to pedal through a 30 mph head wind.
This may seem to be a lot of stuff to learn on a few short tours but I assure you, you learn this stuff quick! I also have to interject that while I was able to buy a tour specific bike and new equipment, I know and have seen many people that tour using what they have and they make it work. The best advise I've learned about starting to tour is:
Step 1. Buy or acquire a bike.
Step 2. Determine a direction to go.
Step 3. GO!!!!!!!!!!
Final words....... I'M HOOKED!!!! I CAN'T WAIT TO GO AGAIN!!!!
I have gathered a few resources that I have used for gear, equipment, places to stay, etc. I would love to hear of any alternatives and different experiences that you've had.
Your local bike store - use them whenever you can.
Gearscan.com - 40 outdoor merchants on one website including steepncheap and chainlove
warmshowers.org - free worldwide hospitality exchange for touring cyclists; sign up and find hosts and/or become a host
couchsurfing.org - hospitality exchange for travelers
crazyguyonabike.com - a place for bicycle tourists and their journals; blogs, forums, classifieds....all things touring
Wayne Boroughs at thetouringstore.com - This guys knows his stuff about bikes, racks and panniers! My bike was tricky because it has disc brakes....he knew exactly which rack would fit
roadID.com - emergency id band and service
ICEdot.org - emergency id and crash notification service
recreation.gov - for US camping reservations
Here is a list of my equipment packing list - broken down by each pannier I carried.
Left Front Pannier: Clothes, helmet cover, extra gloves, toe covers, shoe covers, rain hood, hankerchiefs, long wool socks, beanie, neck gator, camp towels, bike shorts, bike jerseys, camp clothes.
Right Front Pannier: day pack, bike lock, camp stove, cup, food bag with hoist rope, snacks, coconut oil, flask, fuel canniesters, camp goods (coffee, tea, sugar, creamer, etc.)
Left Rear Pannier: baggie with seat cover, tissues, and wipes. Clear glasses, skirt/shorts cover, flip flops, floppy hat, chamois butter tube, extension cord, tennis shoes, sleeping bag and liner, sleeping pad, inflatable pillow. Outside pockets: leatherman, bug spray, bug net, pump.
Right Rear Pannier: warm wear jersey, arm/leg warmers, rain jacket, rain vest, rain pants, first aid kit, rope, clothespins, corkscrew, toiletries bag with toilet paper, bear bell, matches, and cards. Tent. Ouside pockets: chain lube, rag, plastic bike cover.