Cycling is often considered the ultimate form of travel, as it is the fastest way to travel by human power, but slow enough to allow the type of local immersion that is impossible with mechanized travel. The low cost of cycle travel (usually just food and accommodation) is also attractive.

Multi-continental trips are relatively common, such as from tip to tip of the Americas, but cycling can also be enjoyed in month-, week-, or even weekend-long trips. Some routes, such as the Karakoram Highway, are extremely challenging, but an infinite number of safer and easier routes are also available.

On level terrain, without a headwind, a cyclist of average fitness on a touring bike can comfortably cover 60-120 km a day, depending on the number and length of stops. Distances of up to 250 km a day are feasible, but anything much beyond 120 km will require considerable physical strain and not allow many stops to enjoy the things on they way. For many, 80-100 km a day will be the optimal distance to aim for, as it will give a sense of achievement and also leave plenty of time to stop for meals and activities.

Be aware that a full load will slow you down. You may average 25 km/h on your unladen bike, but being loaded up with panniers can reduce that to 15 km/h or less.

For a seven day itinerary, aim to cover about 400-500 km. It is a good idea to take a break on the third or fourth day, to allow sore buttocks and leg muscles to recover, perhaps stopping in a city or engaging in a different outdoor activity, such as kayaking or swimming.

Routes with steep hills will greatly reduce your range, in exceptional circumstances to as little as 20 km a day. Watch the altitude lines on your map closely, both for individual gradients and total altitude differences.

Gradients of more than about 5% are difficult to overcome on a laden touring bike. A rule of thumb is that for every 100 metres of altitude you climb, you should add an extra 15 minutes to your journey time.

In hilly or mountainous regions, the easiest routes for cycling are downstream along major rivers, as overall they will be downhill. A long, roundabout route along a river will usually be easier than a short, direct route over a hill or mountain pass. However, it is worth bearing in mind that the most scenic routes often come from hilly terrain. If you are feeling up for a challenge, try some hillier routes. Start small, your legs will get used to it and the views will be worth the effort.

Motor traffic is often worth avoiding as much as possible, for example by planning your cycle trip in less densely populated regions (unless it is in a country that offers exceptionally good cycling facilities, such as The Netherlands or Denmark), by choosing minor roads over trunk roads, and staying away from larger cities unless they offer good cycle paths. Not only can it be dangerous to share the road with large numbers of cars and trucks, it will also reduce the quality of your trip.

Ideally you will have maps showing the contours of the region you are visiting, along with tourist attractions, accommodation, campsites and other useful places. However, these maps tend to be quite detailed and only cover small regions, and if you are covering any kind of distance you will find yourself buying rather a lot of them, which can prove rather expensive and heavy. A good compromise in this case is to buy a road atlas of the country or countries you are planning to visit, tear out the necessary pages and only take those. You’ll often find you can get a good 1:100000 map fairly cheaply, but still showing minor roads, campsites and marking out any steep hills.

Cycling for extended periods requires somewhat more than a basic set of wheels, and both comfort and convenience can be improved with a few standard add-ons, however every piece of extra weight you pack is going to require extra energy to move around.

  • A kick stand adds weight, but can be handy in places where it’s impossible or inconvenient to park your bike against a wall or post (especially if you’ve got heavy saddlebags, in which case avoid the more flimsy models).
  • For mountain-bikes, horn-style handlebar extensions can reduce fatigue and act as impromptu racks for light items like clothing and helmets.
  • An odometer is essential for long tours when you need to gauge distance traveled against maps and road signs, preferably calibrated in local units (miles in the United States and United Kingdom, kilometers everywhere else). A simple GPS may be preferable, as it displays more accurate information and does not require a mechanical trigger on the wheel, and has other benefits as detailed below.
  • Unless you’re a very light packer, you’ll want a set of panniers to put your gear in. Backpacks raise your center of gravity and will kill your back over time, so a rack with bags mounted on either side of your rear wheel is a much better alternative. Another option is to carry your luggage in a separate trailer.
  • Take specialist cycling maps of the area you plan to cover, and a compass to navigate them. Cycling maps are often also included in cycling travel guides. If cycling maps aren’t available, use maps at a scale of 1:50,000.
  • A Wi-Fi-, UMTS- and GPS-equipped PDA is a wonderful piece of equipment for longer cycle tours. It will set you back about US$600, but offers several advantages: a) You won’t need to take large numbers of maps with you, adding to weight and cost. b) As your position is displayed on the map in real time, you don’t need to make frequent stops to look for directions, and you’re less likely to cycle the wrong way c) It doubles as an altimeter and odometer d) You don’t need to take a heavy paper travel guide e) You can browse the Internet while you’re on the move, even in more remote areas, which allows you to book accommodation in advance, book train tickes, look up phone numbers, check the weather forecast, and write your travel blog. PDAs can be attached to the handlebars using special brackets; make sure you encase it in sealed, water-proof plastic cover.
  • A good saddle can really help reduce saddle-soreness, and is worth spending a little extra money on. Don’t go for the biggest, squishiest gel saddle you can find – often the soft seats can rub a lot more against your delicate parts. It’s best to go for the “sculpted” saddles that are designed to support your sit-bones. It’s a very personal choice, so it’s a good idea to find a saddle you’re happy with well before you leave.
  • You may want to consider a clipless pedal system, in which a cleat on your shoe locks into the pedal. This will give you better pedalling efficiency. If you choose this, you might also want to take a lightweight pair of flip flops for walking around off the bike, to prevent the cleats from getting worn down.
  • These days a lock is essential in most most parts of the world. A small D-lock is prefered by some as it’s compact, hard to break, and suitable for locking the bike to a solid object; others prefer cable locks which, although not as strong, allow you to lock up your bike to a wider variety of things.
  • A repair kit, pump and one or more spare inner tubes.
  • A small multi tool for adjustments and repairs of bicycle parts.
  • Bottles for storing water in. You can also get backpacks with a large bladder you can fill with water: these have a tube that sits on your shoulder so that you can sip water easily.

There is a variety of cycling-specific clothing that can make your trip much more comfortable and/or safe:

  • Helmet – required by law in some jurisdictions. Although some studies question their value, they are widely recommended as an important safety precaution. They also offer some protection from the sun.
  • Jacket – wind- and water-proof layer for protection from precipitation and cooler temperatures.
  • Cycling shorts – special shorts with padding around the crotch to increase comfort and reduce chafing.
  • Tights – for cooler weather than shorts; more comfortable than pants and less likely to get caught in the chain. Usually come with reflective markings at the ankle.
  • Gloves – usually padded to minimize pressure on the hands during long rides. Use cut-off style for warmer temperatures, full-finger for cooler.
  • Eye protection – UV protection is better for the long term health of your eyes and makes for a more comfortable ride. Detatchable lenses allow you to use the best lens colour for different conditions (such as yellow for cloud cover or clear for nocturnal riding).

Camping gear

  • Tent, sleeping bag, and bedroll – if you’re not intending to stay in a town each night, and/or want to minimize costs.
  • Cooking equipment (stove, pots, utensils) is used by some to avoid restaurant eating, although it is common to buy ready-to-eat groceries.

Stay safe
There are some simple and important precautions you should take when planning a bicycle trip:

  • Familiarise yourself with basic repairs, especially puncture repairs.
  • Make sure you’re carrying enough fluids: you may consume around 1 liter per hour of cycling.
  • Even when cycling under cloud cover, sunscreen is essential to protect your skin in the short term (sunburn) and long term (skin cancer).

Get in
Getting your bicycle to the start of your intended cycle route can be an adventure in itself. You will need to do some research in advance about which carriers let you take your bicycle on board.

  • Airlines may require any or all of the following: that you fix the pedals in position; that you deflate your tires (although there is no good reason for this); or that you pack your bicycle in a special box (most bikeshops are happy to give you the sturdy cardbord box bicycles are delivered to them in). Airlines vary about permitting a bicycle as a free item of checked baggage: some allow this, some require that you pay an extra fee for bicycles as difficult to handle or oversize baggage; or as sporting equipment. Shop around before buying a ticket. In almost all cases you need to inform the airline in advance that you wish to check a bicycle. Read the regulations yourself before checking in, as the airline’s staff may attempt to charge you when the bicycle should be carried for free.
  • Buses may have luggage compartments under the seating area, which may only have room for one or two bicycles, or they may have cargo areas inside the bus, or roof-racks, or they might not carry bicycles at all. Buses may also require a bike to be dismantled and placed in a case or box. Again, check at the time of booking.
  • Trains may have lots of space for bicycles, for example if they include special cars for freight, and at the opposite extreme they may not carry them at all. If the train requires that you book a seat, you may need to inform them at the time of booking that you will be carrying a bicycle. If you’re travelling on a service that doesn’t require booking try to avoid peak times; many commuter services either charge extra for bicycles at peak times, or simply do not have room in the carriages for bicycles.
  • Ferries tend to be a very bike-friendly form of transport and most will carry bicycles without a problem. Some will charge a small extra fee for this. On a car ferry, you will usually ride on and off with the rest of the vehicles and be directed to an area where you can place your bike, normally with ropes to secure it. Some ferry companies will let you leave panniers on the bike during the voyage, but be sure to take everything you need for the trip, and anything valuable.