Planning Your Bicycle Touring Route: The Different Types Of Tours

Like any style of travel, planning a bicycle tour can be one of the most exciting elements of the entire trip. If it’s your first tour, it could also be one of the more stressful and discouraging things you’ve done in quite a while. As I’ve said in previous posts, bicycle touring quickly makes you realise just how big the Earth is — and that feeling can start to set in with daunting gravity once you break out the map and start counting up distances. 

Okay, so this is going to be a slightly longer post than usual. There are a lot of variables to consider when planning your route. But have no fear: this is all just general overall stuff, and the day-to-day details of life on the road do tend to work themselves out with pretty minimal planning. So to start with, we’re going to go through a few different categories of bike tour. It’s important to note that while some of these types of routes (like the so-called “Bikepack Overlander”) are only really feasible for certain types of bicycle tourists (ie. someone with an offroad-worthy mountain bike), most are open to any style. You can do most of these types of trips with a fully loaded touring rig, or with nothing but your road bike and a credit card. 


This is part of The Complete Guide to Bicycle Touring series. For a full directory to this growing library of material, click here. For updates about future posts in this series, sign up here:

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I’m going to structure this little section of the guides as a two-parter. This time we’ll talk about what you actually want to do and see, which might hopefully stimulate some sparks in your imagination. In the next post, we’ll discuss some more practical considerations to factor in once you’ve decided on where and how you want to structure your trip. 

Sound good? Right, let’s jump in. 

A rough approximation of my route through the south-western U.S. on my first really big bicycle tour. I had started in Vancouver, Canada and wanted to see San Francisco, Yosemite, Death Valley and the Grand Canyon. This is how I made it work. Oh also, the Tioga Pass Road over the Sierra Nevada had been closed by snow, which is why I had to loop south through Tehachapi to get to the desert.

The Join The Dots Tour

Looking back, my first really big bicycle tour was a “join the dots” tour. I landed in North America with only a general, open-ended plan: ride south towards Patagonia. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t make it.) But when I pulled out a map, I realised I also wanted to see Mount St. Helens, the Oregon Coast, redwood forests, San Francisco, Yosemite National Park, Death Valley and the Grand Canyon. These are all big ticket tourist attractions that most visitors to the U.S. want to see and, indeed, when I arrived at each place I was surrounded by roadtrippers, guided bus tours and hikers from all over the world. 

The magic of the Join The Dots Tour, however, is what happens in between those dots. Not only did I see Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, but I watched the landscape change from steep granite mountains to sandy desert to high, dry plateau in between. The two are linked in my mind by the endlessly morphing landscape, and the changing wildlife and cultures of the people who inhabit it. When we entered Mexico, we did exactly the same thing. 

It’s pretty easy to plan a Join The Dots Tour — simply plot out the geographic location of your “must see” places and find a logical route that links them together. If you’re smart (or lucky), your route might take you in a relatively straight line, or in a big loop. In my case, it sent me zig-zagging across Mexico and the western United States. 

The Destination Ride

This one’s super simple: you’re in point A and you need to get to point B. Maybe you’re heading to a big birthday party several states or provinces over. Maybe it’s a city you’ve always wanted to visit. Maybe you’re going to fling yourself at the feet of the love of your life. Whatever it is, the Destination Rider needs to get there — and, because they’ve chosen to get there by bicycle, they’re open to having a ton of fun along the way. 

I can attest to the joys of riverside riding.

The Geography Tour

If you can’t figure out where you want to go or what you want to see, let the Earth be your guide. Simply picking a geographic feature out on the map — a river, a coastline or, for the ambitious, a mountain range — and following it can be a great way to define your route. In fact, some of the most popular cycle touring routes in the world could be defined as Geography Tours, including the United States’ Pacific Coast and Europe’s Danube Cycle Path

Personally, I’ve recently enjoyed picking a single island and spending all my time there. It’s a great way to anchor a smaller bike trip, because the geography restricts you to a smaller area that can be enormously fun to explore. Further exploration in the Puget Sound islands of the northwestern United States is on my list, along with Newfoundland in eastern Canada, the galaxies of islands that comprise countries like Greece and Indonesia and Australia’s Bruny Island, as is a two-wheeled return to Corsica.  

A hedonist’s beach tour of Oaxaca comes highly recommended.

The Themed Ride

Picture yourself wobbling your way through wine country. Perhaps you’re interested in taking certain train rides along your route, or you’ve got plans to follow the summer festival season. Or maybe you just want to wear a single tuxedo for the duration of your tour. Welcome to the Themed Ride. 

On a recent tour through the United States’ Puget Sound, we themed our tour around ferries and bridges to link our route across the region’s intricate archipelago of islands, peninsulas and waterways. But different types of transportation are just one of a potentially infinite array of themes. Personally, I have a dream of someday getting some friends together for a “bikes and beers” ride from the Netherlands through Belgium and into northern France, wherein we stop at a different brewery each afternoon to load up on quality beer, a kind of rolling party tour. (This particular idea came from H’s genius mind — she’s a relative newcomer to cycle touring, but she’ll go far.) The bicycle is a portal to adventure, and a well-chosen theme can add an additional lens to your experience.

The Bikepack Overlander

Bikepackers are a rapidly growing subset within the bicycle touring community. These riders (quite rightly) scorn the idea of sharing asphalt roads with motorised traffic and instead opt for rugged single-track trails in the wilderness. A lengthy bike tour of any kind is bound to incorporate a little off-roading at some point along the line, but the Bikepack Overlanders specifically seek out winding trails that can go on, in some cases, for thousands of kilometres. While an experienced rider on a hardy touring bike can usually negotiate a reasonably rough trail in a pinch, bikepackers who specifically set out on multi-day trips in the wilderness are best served by specialised mountain bikes and a packing system that won’t catch on the rocks and logs that can snag a low-hanging pannier on a narrow track. 

I’m not an expert on bikepacking, so we aren’t going to go into a bunch of detail on it in this series. But for the purposes of route planning, it’s important to note that there are a bunch of amazing trails out there — especially in North America — that are growing in popularity. 

The Cross-Country/Continent Tour

These are the famous rides that capture the imagination of any long distance cyclist, often beginning on the shores of one ocean or the streets of some great city and ending at another. Riding across Australia or the United States has long been a popular goal for long distance cyclists, for example. And then there are the truly monumental routes: Cairo to Cape Town; Prudhoe Bay to Ushuaia; the Silk Road routes that, at their greatest length, can link Australia with the British Isles. Nowadays, each of these are well-worn trails, exhaustively documented by blogging cyclists of all types. Seek them out and use their knowledge to inform your own route planning. 

Cross-Country/Continent rides come in all shapes and sizes, and tend to reflect the personality of the cyclist. I have met cyclists who treated such a ride as an endurance challenge, who put their heads down and booked it from Patagonia to Alaska in less than nine months. I have also met cyclists who took multiple years to cover the same route, at a leisurely pace, stopping for weeks at a time whenever it took their fancy to do so. On my first really big ride I was a budding Cross-Continent Tourist until I became — ahem — distracted and chased other adventures elsewhere. 

That’s Leo and his dog Sassy Max, who you can kind of make out on his rear rack. By the time I met him in Arizona, Leo claimed to have been on the road for ten years.

The Open-Ended Rambler

This type of tour is for the cyclists who don’t like to constrain themselves to a planned-out route. Having perfected the art of living on practically no money and with plenty of time on their hands, the open-ended rambler will wander wherever a tailwind or the promise of better weather might take them. Right now, there are cyclists on the road who have been doing this for years. In my experience, they are slightly mad and extremely happy. 

***

Okay, I think that’s a pretty comprehensive list of categories that you can use to help flesh out your planned route. Next time, we’ll go through a few of the variables that I think are the main factors you should consider when planning your bicycle touring route.


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