Planning a route for your bike tour is almost as much fun as the cycling itself. It can also be a little overwhelming the first time you find yourself staring at a map, wondering where to go.
Don’t worry; we have lots of tips for planning the perfect bike tour.
Local people who you meet along the way will be happy to help you plan a route! Photo by Chris & Liz
Adventure is not in the guidebook. Beauty is not on the map. Seek and ye shall find.-Terry & Renny Russell
1. Check The Seasons
Weather can have a big effect on your happiness so research the seasons to get an idea of what you’re in for. You can deal with almost any weather, as long as you know what to expect.
Look up things such as the average temperature, rain fall and the direction of prevailing winds.
Take note: the ‘best’ season for general tourism is not always the best for bike touring. You may prefer to go just outside the high season, when the weather is still reasonable but with fewer crowds and cheaper prices.
Even if the weather is a little chilly, you can usually deal with that reasonably well on your bike. Pumping those pedals keeps you warm during the day and it’s easy to slip on a pair of gloves or a few extra layers if you’re cold. At night, just make sure that your camping gear is suited to the lowest temperatures you expect to encounter.
2. Calculate Your Distance
We have a simple formula for determining how much distance can be covered on a bicycle tour.
First, consider how far you’d expect to go on an average day. For us, this is about 80km, give or take 20km depending on the terrain.
Start with a distance closer to 60km if you’re new to bike touring or even 40km a day, depending on the circumstances. For example: bike tours with young children (who will want to take lots of play breaks), a route that is particularly mountainous or a desire to stop frequently to take pictures or indulge in other interests.
Most importantly: take your own energy levels into account. We have met cyclists of all kinds. Some can easily cycle 120-130km a day. Others prefer a snail’s pace. One person’s ‘invigorating day on the road’ is another person’s torture so it’s up to you to judge where you fall along the distance scale. If you have no idea, try a few day and weekend trips. That will give you a good idea of what you’re capable of.
When you’ve come up with an average daily figure, multiply this by 5 for every week you plan to be on the road. This should give a good idea of your total possible distance, while still leaving room for rest days, bad weather and sightseeing along the way. You might want to plan a slightly longer loop or an optional detour, in case you find you’re making better time than expected.
If taking a plane to your destination, count on one non-cycling day on each end of the trip to prepare for the flight (e.g. reassembling or packing the bicycle, recovering from jetlag, getting oriented in a new place).
Heading into the mountains? Allow a bit more time for the climb to the top, although you’ll make some of that up on the way back down! Photo by Friedel & Andrew
3. Get A Good Map
A good map is crucial if you want to find the best roads for cycling.
For paper maps, a scale of 1:200,000-1:500,000 gives a good overview of the terrain and secondary roads. These maps can be expensive if you need to buy several for a longer tour but it’s sometimes possible to get entire atlases that cover a whole region in good detail for a reasonable price. You can then just rip out the sheets you need and throw away parts as you go.
If you prefer electronic maps, start with Google Maps to get a broad overview of the area you’re planning on visiting and search the web for GPS tracks from other bike tourists in that region as well as useful waypoints like campsites or attractions. Sites like Bike Route Toaster can turn a route on Google maps into a .gpx track for your GPS. A good starting place for free, open-source country maps is Open Street Map.
Our thoughts on GPS and the model we use
Make the most of GPS on a cycling trip
Excellent list of free GPS maps
4. Outline Your Route
Once you have your map, start outlining the route you’d like to take. We generally begin by making notes on a piece of paper. Once we’re reasonably sure of our route, we grab a highlighter and outline it on the map.
Remember: you’re not looking for the most direct route, as you might on a car trip, but rather the one where you won’t be constantly annoyed by the sound of vehicles racing up behind you.
As you’re considering various roads, research what you’d like to see in the area, where the campgrounds are and where you can get food and water. Jot this down on the map or in a notebook.
Look as well for clues to the landscape. Sometimes mountain peaks are marked. Different colours can indicate topography as can water sources. If you’re following a river to its source, you’re often going uphill. vineyards also tend to indicate heavily cultivated land and steep slopes.
5. Plan. But Not Too Much.
Some people love detailed itineraries. They mark each day’s distance and destination in a spreadsheet. Others pick a start point and an end point, plus a few milestones along the way. They then let the finer details of the trip work themselves out.
We prefer the second option. By planning too well, you risk losing the spontaneity that adds so much to the bike touring experience.
You don’t want to turn down an invitation to spend some time with a new friend or push yourself too hard through a heatwave, all because you ‘had’ to get to the campground marked on your schedule.
That said, planning becomes more imperative if you have a limited amount of time, especially when you have to catch a flight back home. In this case, leave plenty of slack when calculating your distance to allow for the unexpected. It’s also wise to research options for getting yourself and your bike back to the start or end point by public transport, in case you run out of time and can’t cycle the whole route.
6. Variety Is Key
One final note on planning: a contrast in experiences and sensations helps keep the tour exciting and enjoyable.
If you’re planning three days of riding in the middle of nowhere, schedule a rest day in a larger town or city for the fourth day so you can clean up with a hot shower and treat yourself to a great meal.
Similarly, national parks give you a chance to get off the bike, park your tent and go hiking for a day. Coastal routes can often by broken up by inland detours that will let you discover a different landscape, just a few miles away from the ocean.