Want something a little more challenging that coffee shop rides?
Ready to move up a gear (terrible pun!) and spend multiple days on the saddle?
Long-distance cycling trips, also known as bike touring and bikepacking, often involve hundreds of miles of biking and multiple days of riding. Whether you are riding through cities, up mountains, or through the desert, preparing correctly for a long-distance cycling trip is crucial.
A lot of these tips are useful for mega-long day rides too. Not just crazy cross-continent pedal junkies!
Long Distance Cycling Tips:
Here we’ll discuss the nine most important tips to remember on any long-distance bike ride or tour.
1: Travel Light
If you want to be a practical bikepacker, you will want to pack only what you need. Plan for all possible scenarios but limit what you bring to what you actually need.
Figure out how much weight you can carry comfortably. Take bike rides around your neighborhood with the stuff you have packed. Scale back what you have until it is only the bare essentials.
We’re a BIG advocate for keeping the weight down as much as possible.
Here is a list of essential items that you want to include in your trip:
- Bike gear – helmet, bike, lights, packs
- Shelter/ sleeping equipment – tent, sleeping bag, hammock, or whatever else you plan to sleep in
- Cooking equipment – stove, lighter, utensils, and food
- Water – water filter and purification, water bottles
- Clothes – bike shorts, socks, rain protection, a puffy coat, and other warm clothing depending on the weather conditions of your area.
- Navigation tools – map, compass, GPS, route description, phone
- Tools to repair your bike – wheel patch kit, spare tubes, a pump, a multi-tool, brake pads, and an extra chain
- First aid supplies – simple first aid supplies like band-aids, blister pads, and pain relievers
Some items can be left behind, and some are essential. For example, if you are traveling somewhere cold and wet, then rain gear is completely necessary, whereas a mug for coffee could be left behind, and you could drink from your cooking pot instead. Sounds gross, but hey, we’re living the rough life here, hehe.
Another example would be your utensils. You could likely get by with just using a spoon for your meals rather than bringing a spoon, fork, and knife (or you could use a spork?). Thinking about limiting like this is a great way to make sure you are not overpacking.
2: Know Where You Are Going to Be Traveling
You will want to plan out every inch of your long-distance bike trip before you depart. You should ask yourself some questions, like:
- How far am I cycling each day?
- Where am I stopping for rest and sleep?
- How long will the trip take?
- Where can I go for help should anything unexpected happen?
Knowing exactly what you are getting yourself into will help you pack and prepare appropriately. Plan each day out and know what items you will need for each day. For example, if you are going to be following a road with food stores or restaurants, then you will not have to carry as much food in your load.
Know where you legally can and cannot camp. Understand the area you are camping in and what their regulations are as far as fire regulations, water restrictions, etc. On your map, dictate which areas are legal to camp in and which are not along the entire route in case something happens, and you are unable to make it to your established camp spot.
Scope out the best roads and camps. Also, knowing where you are traveling is essential.
3: Think Carefully About Your Food and Water
You’ll be putting your body through a lot and if you are cycling for multiple days, you will likely have improper rest and recovery times. Therefore, you need to eat and drink accordingly to help your body stay healthy and to fuel you properly.
Pack foods high in carbohydrates and protein. Proteins are the muscle repair molecules and will provide you with longer-lasting energy than carbohydrates will. Take snacks like nuts, beans, cheese, protein bars, and seeds to keep you fueled while you are riding and to prevent you from starving. Always eat before you are hungry to stay properly fueled.
Pre-made meals and freeze-dried meals are both light and easy-to-make meals that you can bring on your bike trip.
Even more important than the food you bring is the access you have to clean drinking water. Try to sip water often to keep yourself from getting dehydrated. The trick is to drink before you are thirsty and always have backup water bottles on hand.
Try and camp near water sources, but make sure you can drink and cook safely. Bring a Lifestraw or purification drops so that you don’t have to pack an entire trip’s worth of water with you.
Bring an electrolyte supplement. These often come in a small tube of dissolvable tablets or sachets and can help keep you hydrated and fueled. Ensuring you have enough electrolytes will reduce cramping, headaches, and other nasty ailments from occurring on your ride.
Even if it’s cooler, we recommend drinking electrolytes.
4: Physically Prepare
It does not matter how long your long-distance cycling trips are going to be, you need to be physically ready to handle them. Proper training is essential to get you healthy and prepared for whatever lies ahead. Not training beforehand is a recipe for disaster and can lead to injury and inability to complete your trip.
To train for your trip, mimic the duration and difficulty of your trip to increase your endurance and train your body to get used to the wear and tear that cycling can have on your body. Focus on increasing your anaerobic abilities.
You should also train in shorter intervals. You don’t have to spend day after day training. Shorter efforts are very efficient. This will be music to the ears for the time-poor among you!
You will also need to develop the proper leg strength necessary for long trips. You should occasionally ride your bike with all of the weight that you will be carrying on your trip so that you can get used to going up and down hills with the added baggage. Working out in a gym and strengthening your leg muscles will help you as well.
Start small. Go on long bike rides throughout the day, then try an overnight trip. Work your way up and gradually make your trips longer. Jumping right into a 700-mile bike trip likely will not end well. There are tons of resources available to help anyone get in shape for a bikepacking trip. Even if you are a beginner, bikepacking is possible for you!
5: Pack Your Load Properly
If you are going on a lengthy bikepacking trip, you will likely have multiple bags that you attach to your vehicle. Each bag can be best used for certain items. You will want to group your items according to relevance and ease of access.
For multi-day rides:
Handlebar Bag: You will likely have a bag on your handlebars that is often the hardest bag to access while you are riding. You will want to pack this bag with the things you can go all day without, including your sleeping bag, tent, hammock, sleeping pad, bivy sack, or whatever else you strictly use at night.
If you are not making an overnight trip, then ditch the handlebar bag. Having a lot of weight on the front of your bike changes the way the bike handles considerably, so if it is not necessary, don’t use it.
Saddle Bag: A saddle bag attaches to your seat post/saddle. They are often used to contain sleepwear and/or a compact tent. They can also be handy for cookware and the food that you might want access after the day of riding. On top of that, you can have a rain jacket that you can easily grab if it starts to rain. Although some like to roll these up and keep in their jersey back pocket for access without stopping.
Feed Bags & Top Tube Bags: Feed bags can attach to the handlebars/stem of your bike. In these bags, you want to pack everything you will need throughout the day. Snacks, nuts, sunscreen, first aid kit, chapstick, and whatever else you will want to quickly access throughout your ride, without having to stop.
Top tube bags affix to the top tube and headset/stem. They often use a zipper and are good for keeping the above, and items that are sensitive to water (phone and battery charger etc).
Frame Bags: Frame bags are what you want to leave for your heaviest items. This can include your spare tools and tires, water bottles, and any heavy cooking equipment.
Frame bags carry the bulk of your gear.
For a single day long ride:
A small saddle bag and possibly a top tube bag is all you really need. Tools and spare tube etc can be kept in the saddle bag. Snacks, sun cream, phone and charger (if necessary) can be kept in the top tube.
Any other bits and pieces can be kept in your jersey pockets.
6: Lower Your Gear – Keep The Cadence High
When you are doing any kind of long-distance cycling, selecting the right gear is crucial. It’s not a great idea to be grinding up hills all day long. Your knees will hate you for it.
Keep the cadence up (at least 80 rpm), particularly on the climbs. The right gearing allows you to pedal through all terrains, including steep climbs and downhills. Lower gears will help you not become fatigued as easily.
There are a series of equations that can be used to find your ideal bike gear, or you can use online calculators to figure it out for you. This bike gear calculator helps you choose which chainrings and cogs are best for you.
A good all-rounder for the front gearing is a compact crankset (triple if you can). If you’re hitting the hills, then having at least a 36/11 cassette at the rear is good. Some like even more than that!
The more gear you carry, the more you’re going to love the bigger cassettes.
For single day rides, a compact crank with a 32/11 on the back is a good base.
7: Be Aware of What Hurdles You Might Face
It sounds so simple, but each bikepacking trip requires different things because each bikepacking trip is different. Stating the obvious, eh?
Depending on where you are going, what time of year, how long your trip is, and more will dictate what other items you need to bring and what other obstacles you need to be aware of.
Do the research and think critically about where you are venturing and make sure you are prepared for the weather, wildlife, and unexpected hiccups. It’ll pay dividends!
For example, if you are traveling through the forest, there are certain items that you may want to bring that a typical road cyclist wouldn’t think of. You’ll want to modify your mindset to a camping-type focus. Be sure to secure your food away from wildlife, pack gear for extreme weather, and brush up on your overall outdoor skills.
Simply having a first aid kit on hand for bites, stings, and other off-road injuries is a smart step for cyclists who are used to a pocketful of bandages for blisters, and nothing more.
Check out your planned bikepacking path beforehand so you’re ready for any weather, critters, or other hurdles that might crop up.
8: Bring the Correct Clothing
Having the correct clothing is absolutely essential. Layering up is best.
Wearing modern fabrics like GoreTex while riding will help keep you dry in wet conditions. Bib shorts often have a padded chamois that will help make your ride much more comfortable. You can use chamois cream to help stave off saddle sores too.
Wearing wool (merino) and down while you sleep will keep you warm and are conveniently lightweight. Packable down jackets are unmatched with their weight to warmth ratio. Wearing natural fibers during the day feels nice against the skin and is more resistant to odor collection, allowing you to change them less and pack fewer clothes on your trip.
9: Get The Correct Bike
This is a very individual choice. There is no one bike that is perfect for everyone.
There are three main types of bikes for long-distance touring.
Mountain bike with front suspension
This is the most versatile touring bike, and is great for off-road. They are very comfortable, helped along with front suspension forks.
The disadvantage is that they are a little slower and heavier than other bikes, but the cross-terrain advantage makes up for this.
Touring bike or Gravel/Endurance bike
Touring bikes are suited to quite rugged conditions, but are also efficient on sealed roads and paths. They are similar to touring bikes in style and form. They accommodate wide off-roading tires but they lack suspension, making rough terrain trips a little less comfortable. If speed is more important to you than comfort, and you’re not obsessed with off-road, then this might be the bike-type for you.
These bikes often have multiple eyelets around the frame and forks so you can screw on fixings to carry storage bags.
They can use flat or drop bars. Drops bars (mostly seen on gravel and endurance bikes) are a favorite among cyclists because they allow riders to change to multiple hand positions. This helps alleviate numb hands and shoulders. The drops also help with aerodynamics on the flats and descents. Try not to spend too much time in the drop position, as this continued use can cause back pain.
Hybrid Bike (for casual long days)
This bike has straight handlebars instead of drop bars and the same wheel size as a touring bike. Hybrids are best for comfort and performance combined. They often have suspension in the front fork. Although they are meant more for leisure than high performance, they are great bikes for long-distance cycling trips.
They aren’t really suited to off-roading, but they can handle moderate gravel trails ok.
If you are unsure which bike is best for you, head to a local bike shop and get feedback from expert cyclists in your area. Whichever bike feels the best for you will be the one you want to take.
Read more: Hybrid vs Road bikes
There you have it, everything you need to know to tackle a long-distance bike trips.
There’s a lot to take in, we know. It’s probably a good idea to talk to someone in a reputable bike shop to get more info on what type of bike is for you. If the bike bug bites then don’t be surprised if you end up with more than one bike!
Everyone loves a new bike day 😊
Did you enjoy this list? Remember to make a list of what you need to pack and review these tips multiple times before your trip. There is no such thing as over-preparing. Happy biking!