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Travel By Bike

A few tips to get you started on a bicycle tour

I've written a fair amount about traveling with your bicycle, bringing a bike on your trips, whether by car, plane, bus, train or even on a cruise. I'm a firm believer a bike can be a great addition to almost any trip. I'm about to depart for a bicycle trade show, and I'm bringing my Brompton folding bike (in part because of the annual Folder Frolic ride at the show). But I'm also a big fan of traveling BY bicycle, or what is commonly referred to as bicycle touring. 

There's quite a range of options when it comes to bike touring. To many, the term conjures up images of gritty individuals strapping all their belongings onto their bike, and striking out on their own, camping and cooking their own meals, finding their own way. And while it's true some folks do just that. There are at least as many that choose a more "civilized" approach. This can range from simply adding some inns or hotels to the “rugged” approach, to a fully supported commercial tour, in which all your needs are catered for, aside from having to pedal from place to place each day. And most fully supported tours even provide a "sag wagon" to pick you up and carry you, your bike and your belongings to the end point for the day, if need be.

Of course, if you opt for one of those trips, there's probably not much I need to tell you, as the organizers will take care of everything, except getting you to the start point. So I’m going to give some tips for those who are planning to go it more or less alone, whether camping or staying in more civilized accommodations.

First, don't think you have to dive right in and embark on an epic expedition across the USA (though many folks did exactly that in 1976 for the Bikecentennial ride). In fact, it's best if you start small. An approach that's become popular in the last decade or so is the "Sub 24 Hour Overnight" (S24O). Basically, the idea here is to simply depart late in the day from your home or work to a place within easy riding distance, setting up camp, relaxing for the evening, then heading back in the morning. This might be just the introduction you need to bike touring — simple, easy, and short in duration. Or, perhaps, if you have a bit more time, a couple of nights is a good start. Just keep it simple and short in duration, and it should go smoothly.

So what sort of equipment do you need to try bike touring? If this is your first time, don't run out and buy a bunch of fancy new stuff ... you may find that it’s just not for you. Borrow what you can from friends, if possible, or rent from an outfitter. If you have to buy, buy basic items, nothing high end. Sure, if you were going on a week or longer tour, lightweight, high quality gear would be a plus, but until you know whether you really enjoy traveling by bike, you can make do.

Obviously, you need a bike. Guess what? The bike you have already will almost certainly suffice, particularly if you have the typical hybrid bike that most Americans ride. A mountain bike will work, too, as will some road bikes, but the more "extreme" they are, the less suitable they might be. Whatever sort of bike you use, you're going to need some way to carry stuff — preferably on a rack of some sort, as carrying enough gear, even for just one night, on your back just isn't going to be much fun. Sure, you can do it if that's your only choice, but do try to come up with a way to put the load on your bike instead of your back. Your favorite bike shop can probably help you figure this one out, without breaking the bank.

So what do you need to bring? The bare essentials are water, food (unless you eat out the whole time) and a change of clothes, but most folks are going to want a few more creature comforts. I'm going to assume you're camping, as the hotel set really doesn't need much more than the essentials.

In this area, a tent of some sort is really a good idea. While sleeping under the stars is a lovely idea, for much of the year here the insect population will make you wish you had at least a rudimentary shelter. A compact "bivvy sack" (basically a form fitting tent that encloses just your sleeping bag and you) might work for you, or you might want a real tent for extra comfort. Try to pick one that's relatively small and compact, easy to carry on your bike. 

A sleeping pad under you at night can also make your night a lot more comfortable, both cushioning the ground and helping retain body heat in cooler temperatures. A basic foam pad is cheap and light and easy to carry.

A flashlight is essential, though your bike headlight might do double duty. Some sort of small camp lantern is also quite nice, though not essential. Even a few candles can suffice, as long as you are careful with them. I like a compact battery lantern or candle lantern, with an enclosure that makes the candle both brighter and safer.

Finally, if you're going to be out for more than 24 hours, you're probably going to want to be able to cook something, so a compact camp stove comes in handy. You can spend hundreds of dollars on a fancy backpacking stove, but there are many more affordable options from simple lightweight alcohol stoves (you can even make your own from a soda or beer can) to an affordable, single-burner compressed gas stove, burning propane or butane. Don't forget a pot and utensils. Visit your local thrift store for a small cookpot and cheap fork, spoon, and knife, as well as a simple bowl.

The final question is when and where to embark on such an adventure. Well, there's no time like the present! Seriously, while most people associate travel with the summer season, the fall is actually my favorite time to go on a bike tour. In this region, the weather is ideal — cool but not cold, with typically not too much rain, and the bugs have begun to die off for the season. To top it all off, if you time it right, you can catch the autumn colors!

As to where, there are any number of options, but try to choose something that avoids major traffic. You want to relax and enjoy yourself, not grit your teeth and endure nerve-wracking interactions with motorists. A good way to ease into bike touring is to pick a route that's on an off-road trail, such as my personal favorite, the C&O Canal. Running 185 miles from D.C. to Cumberland, Md., with campsites spaced at convenient intervals, on a basically flat route, the Canal is an ideal introduction to bicycle touring, perfect for anything from overnights to multi-day rides. And for the really ambitious, couple it with the Great Allegheny Passage, for a trip just shy of downtown Pittsburgh!

So what are you waiting for? The nights are starting to get cool, the days are sunny and dry. Carve out a free night or two, grab your bike and go!

Wien September 14, 2012 at 02:57 PM
Biked the entire C&O Canal twice, makes for an amazing (and pretty easy) trip with a two people on bikes, each with a rack and a couple saddle bags. Also nice that it's so close to us; did the trip once over three weekends, knocking out ~60 miles each weekend to make it easier on packing only one night of gear. Such a great resource in our backyard essentially. The Great Allegheny Passage is next on the list.
Ted Marz September 14, 2012 at 08:42 PM
C&O / GAP does not go "Just a few miles from downtown (Pittsburgh)" any more - it goes all the way there, almost exclusively off-road. From the base of the GAP, you connect to the Steel Valley trail. There is a short on-road section in McKeesport between the two, but it is marked for bikes. Steel Valley Trail with take you to the downstream end of Sandcastle. (You ride through the Sandcastle parking lot, but this is a negotiated right-of-way) There is a short segment where you probably need to walk your bike along the side of the railroad tracks, past a water infrastructure construction project. You are then on a trail that can take you down past the old Pittsburgh Union Station (trail on River Left side of the Mon and Ohio), but also connects, via the Hot Metal Bridge, to the Eliza Furnace Trail. This trail will take you all the way downtown to Grant Street. If you want to get down to the Point, then there are a few more blocks of on-street riding on 5th Ave. A year ago we did PIT-->DC from our house in Squirrel Hill to Georgetown - credit-card touring. From there, we overnighted at Rosslyn, got over to Union Station, and took the train back to PGH. From the PGH AMTRAK station, we rode on the "Jail Trail" (as Eliza Furnace is known in PGH) back home - a great ride.
Tim Fricker September 16, 2012 at 06:27 PM
Ted - Thanks for the tips! I was basing what I wrote on the GAP website, which states: "Trail is complete from Cumberland, MD to Homestead, PA, a distance of 141 miles. The trail ends at the Waterfront shopping district in Homestead, PA. We do not recommend riding Route 837 from the Waterfront to the Hot Metal Bridge: this well-traveled highway has poor sight lines in many areas and non-existent shoulders." But from what you wrote, it sounds like there are good routes into the city. I've lived much of my life in the DC area, as well as a few years each in Frostburg, MD, and Pittsburgh, so the existence of a bike route which connects all three is quite wonderful to me.

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