Bike Touring Mistakes To Avoid

Camping amidst alpine flowersThink back. Think waaaaaay back, to the day you first tried to ride a bike.

Remember that? Think about how hard it was to stay upright, trying time and time again to find your balance until finally, hours or even days later, someone finally let go and you wobbled off into the world.

Bike touring is no different. Okay, you already know how to ride a bike but the ins and outs of life on the road can be a bit of a mystery until you get some miles under your wheels so here are a few tips on what NOT to do.

Avoid these pitfalls and soon you’ll be flying down those roads, as carefree as the day you learned to ride a bike.

Mistake #1 – Rushing It
If you remember one thing about bike touring, make it this: speed and distance are not your main goals.

Relaxing afternoonYou don’t want to be like the Dutch man we met in a campground in Europe, who rolled his bike into the tenting area and then promptly collapsed on the grass. When he recovered a few minutes later, we asked how his tour was going.

“Terrible,” he said. “I’m going to quit and go home.” A few questions later we found out why things were so bad. His 5-week planned route was so ambitious that he was forced to cycle over 100km a day. Because he was also determined not to shorten the trip at all, he was also skipping lunch to achieve the daily distance and he certainly wasn’t stopping to chat with the locals or see the sights. And all this in 30°C heat. No wonder he wasn’t having any fun.

So, remember the Dutch man when you’re on tour and take it easy. Don’t push yourself so hard that you end up hating your tour. If you’re feeling stressed, cut 20km out of your day and stop to read a book or savour an ice cream cone. Years down the line, you won’t remember if you cycled 80km or 100km on any given day but you will remember how great that ice cream tasted.

Mistake #2 – Not eating enough
Pizza in MilanIt sounds obvious but you’d be surprised how many people neglect the simple act of eating. When you start touring, you’re not used to consuming vast amounts of calories. You’re also probably not accustomed to keeping a stash of food on your bike, in case you don’t find a supermarket, or the signals your body sends when its energy stores are running near empty.

To make matters worse, delirium and irritability increases with hunger, so the longer you ignore these signals, the less able you are to make a rational decision. It can feel a little like this…

“My hands started to shake and I was filled with an irrational rage and urge to throw things. I had become a two year old. It was obviously time for lunch.” -Tara, Going Slowly

A break for oranges after a tough climbAvoid reaching this state by eating well and often. Keep a good supply of snacks like nuts, fruit and chocolate on the bike and graze on them frequently. We try to snack every 2 hours when we’re touring and it’s not uncommon for us to have 4 meals a day. Second breakfast, anyone?

At meal times, eat heartily and eat well. Don’t settle for just a plate of french fries or a sugary drink. Finally, keep an emergency meal in your bags like pot noodles or a pack of crackers and peanut butter. That way when the supermarket is closed, you’ll still be able to make the next town without collapsing in a heap.

Mistake #3 – Listening to the Naysayers
44-nighttimecolours.jpgBike touring remains an unfamiliar enough activity that it tends to evoke strong reactions from the general public. Some people will use words like “amazing” and “inspiring” when you tell them of your plans but plenty of others will try to dissuade you.

“You’ve never done this before. What makes you think you can do it?” was one question we were asked by a critical colleague. “You’ve gone crazy. It’s a stupid idea,” was another blunt assessment of our plans. Then there were the reactions to specific destinations. As we travelled, we never failed to meet at least one local who assured us the next country on our list was dangerous and filled with immoral people who would be sure to rob and harass us.

It’s easy to be put off when you hear things like this but before you decide to unpack your panniers and stay at home, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does this person have first-hand experience with the situation? If not, take their comments with a large pinch of salt.
  2. Is there anything I can do to reduce this risk? Sometimes the suggestions are valid but you can do a lot about them. If someone says you should be worried about traffic, make a note to get a mirror and neon clothes.
  3. Is the risk any greater than what I face routinely at home? This is about keeping things in perspective. The unknown always seems a little scary but staying at home doesn’t put a 100% guarantee on your safety either. Just using the common sense you routinely rely on every day will go a long way to keeping you happy and healthy on tour.

Do you have a common mistake to add to the list? Tell us about it by leaving a comment.


  1. Nancy Buswell
    1st January 2010 at 3:35 pm #

    I hosted two Belgian cyclists from the Warm Showers List and
    Couchsurfing. Melanie encouraged me to stop thinking and reading
    dreaming about cycling, and just start doing it! She quoted the
    three things on this page to me. I’ve been to your page a time
    or two before, but now I’ve got it bookmarked!

    (ZHET on the Thorn Tree)

  2. friedel
    1st January 2010 at 6:18 pm #

    Hi Nancy, we look forward to hearing about your bike touring adventures! I’m sure you’ll love it 🙂

  3. Andrea
    17th May 2010 at 6:49 am #

    Taking too much gear. I suspect nearly everyone does this at least once. Having too heavy a load is one sure way to make the going hard. Less is definitely more but having 10kg of tent, mattress, sleeping bag and tripod, plus a 2kg laptop, 1+kg camera in addition to my otherwise spartan collection of belongings took its toll. I guess if you are using it all, you can put up with it but if you are not using it, you’ve got to get rid of it asap.

  4. Stephen
    18th January 2011 at 1:11 pm #

    In October 2010 I made a tour thru’ Austria and as far as SW Germany. Several of the points you make above were key to how much I enjoyed it (which was lots!).
    1. I really like taking a tent and camping wherever (preferably where it’s legal); it gives huge flexibility. However, I learned shortly before going on this trip that most camp grounds were likely to have closed for the season. So, I abandoned the tent and went for guest houses and pensions. Excellent! Made the luggage lighter for one thing, and brought me into contact with some very interesting locals.
    2. Second breakfast is almost standard practice for me. And on a vegetarian diet, I believe I’ve had trouble in the past with becoming increasingly tired, even as I became fitter. Sounds contradictory? I now think I didn’t have the reserves of iron to sustain the energy supply. Leading up to the next tour, I’m taking iron supplements and generally trying to make sure I’m eating well.
    3) I usually take my time. All right, there are days when I push it along, but generally I don’t hurry – anyway, hurrying is mostly in the mind – and there usually seems to be plenty of time in the day to do what I want. In Austria I stopped off to take cable cars up mountain sides, checked out waterfalls, took long lunch breaks, and finished early some days, and still covered good ground. Then, when it was evident there just wasn’t time to travel the whole distance by bike and also have a week to visit friends, it was just as enjoyable to alternate cycling with a train 2 or 3 times.
    This is a good topic. Why no more replies?

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