This article focuses on issues around preparing daily bicycle touring routes. When creating a route we want to know the start and end points. We need to know about the accommodation, the more bike-friendly routes, the daily distances and accumulated climbs, while avoiding taking luggage we don’t end up using. We need a smartphone but not a sim card. And we need occasional free WiFi.
The smartphone has a GPS but it does not come with all the world’s maps. Google Maps (for example) shows us a detailed map but only if we are on line and we won’t be during the bike ride. So we get an app such as OSM and the GPS locator then appears on your map that you got for a country, through the app. In places not familiar to you, you can prepare a route in advance, download it to the device so that it appears on the map.
This article is about working out where to go on a day-to-day basis. It’s pretty simple, but important.
A Bit of History
VWR bikes began evolution in Australia in the 1970s. It was all camping then. Front and rear panniers, billy hanging off, compass and paper maps. But as the internet, smartphones with GPS chips, google maps and OpenStreetMaps arrived, we have always been keen to try them.
In the ‘70s, bike touring was a “youthful and idealistic journey of discovery”. After the big trip people “settled down”. Got a mortgage perhaps. Was bike touring a phase? Or has it become a life-long life-style option?
With a quality bikes, a bit of forethought, and digital resources, anyone, including those in their 60’s or 70’s are able to take off on a bike tour. It is within everyone’s grasp to tour most parts of the world, using modern developments that let you be quite light in weight and flexible from day to day. We are not anti “roughing it”. But if you want to do that you don’t need us to teach you. However, many people could use some reassurance about practicalities. Below are some tips. It is limited of course, and its primary focus is route and stop planning and associated navigation on the bike.
Noel, VWR’s founder, Danny and Noel’s sister Judy. 1978.
Trip Duration and the Resulting Level of Flexibility
If you are on an annual holiday eg, two-three weeks, you need to be certain you’ll reach your departure point in time, normally with one day to spare. Use a resource like Wikipedia to check the climate to be sure there is minimal risk of rain or overly hot or cold weather. Cold is ok but it means more bulky luggage. A bit of rain is ok but less if you are likely to be on dirt.
If you are lucky to be on a trip of more than a month you have a lot more flexibility. If you are on a “never ending” bike ride you will be wanting to travel at the lowest cost so you won’t mind if your daily distances are short. You’ll take it as it comes. You’ll carry luggage to suit different climates and be set-up for camping.
Even for a short trip, avoid the “hire a bike when you get there” idea as those packages typically include accommodation and it is your bad luck if it rains all day. You still need to make it to your booked and paid-for lodging. Not as big an issue if there is no accommodation in the package.
Rest Day Planning
It is wise to build in a rest day per week but not be too rigid about where or if it is taken. You have it up your sleeve. If you are battling headwinds or rain, take the rest day. If your buddy gets sick, take the rest day. If you have gorgeous weather, you might keep going. You don’t need to take a whole day to see a museum. You can have a short day or a late-start day and still see it.
If you fly into a city in a totally different time zone you may, depending on the arrival time, take a day to settle in and can do those sorts of things on that day. However, we generally get on the road the first morning and the exercise helps us adapt faster to the local time zone. We often come into an airport and don’t go into the city it’s attached to. We head out from the airport. Cities are more challenging. The countryside is a good way to slip into a place.
Camping v Lodging
Do you choose a tour route and then work out what set-up you need for it? Or do you start by saying
- (a) we will take the full camping set-up,
- (b) we will take just the emergency sleeping set-up or
- (c) we won’t take even a sleeping bag, and then choose routes that are compatible with the kit?
At the risk of slight oversimplification, let’s divide the world into regions.
- you have to camp: outback Australia
- camping is generally not possible (wild camping or campgrounds): most of SE Asia, India, Middle East, Africa
- Wild camping is less possible but campgrounds are available (although possibly heavily booked in summer): Western Europe
- there is a choice between campgrounds, motels/hotels and Airbnb: NZ, east and SE Australia, Europe, USA
- Warmshowers: See website for locations
There is little point in taking a tent etc to India, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam. Consequently, you can manage with rear panniers and handlebar bag easily. Meanwhile, on an around Australia ride, unless you are able to do massive daily distances, you need front panniers and a full kit. With the regions where there are all the options, your choice gets down to the trip duration and your finances. It is amazing how economical paid lodging can be in most parts of the world.
A touring bike is made to handle front bags. But front bags produce more wind resistance and we only take them if we need to. On flat country it’s the wind, not the weight. We recently met a guy in Latvia who had ridden from the Arctic circle. He had front and rear bags and more. But he said he had not pitched his tent a single night since he began 2,000km back. He wanted ideas about routes through Germany and it was soon clear he was motivated mainly by his need to avoid any climbing. He just had so much stuff. There are some riders setting out on long trips with luggage that later on they realize they have not used at all.
For a 2-3 week trip in a country with all the accommodation options, an idea is to not use front panniers but to pack a 5-600gms sleeping bag (like a Mont) and a high-end compact mat such as an Exped Synmat UL LW which weighs 650gms with the inflater and packs to only 2.6 litres. Plus a compact pillow. These three items can get you out of needing front bags yet provide an emergency yet super-comfortable emergency sleeping solution down to zero degrees. Your body heats up the air in the mat. In the tropics don’t take the bag. But planning a little ahead allows you to skip this luggage altogether.
Advantages of staying in lodging include, travelling with less luggage, having electric light at night, recharging your gadgets, hot showers, water boiling, fridges, washing clothes, security, wifi and proximity to food shopping. Oh, and clean white sheets. The best place to be might still be in the bush with the millions of stars but that is a treat.
Travelling around Australia there is a strong temptation to camp on watercourses. Then you don’t need to cart water plus it is nice there.
Distances between towns with accommodation tends to be compatible with daily cycling distances. Say 50 to 120km. If you want to stay back in the 50-60km per day range you can just stick to more settled and less mountainous areas (such as down long river valleys). Of course, staying in lodging is easier and this means aligning your route’s town-to-town distances with your daily riding distance preference.
Knowing what Accommodation there is in a Town. From Afar
If you are riding 6-7 days a week in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, you want to be able to work out where accommodation is. Fortunately, Google, Airbnb and TripAdvisor are there to help. Just as it is uncommon to see a café without a free seat, it is rare to find a town without an available bed, especially if you are looking 24 or 48 hours out. At VWR we are a bit negative on the booking sites after countless trips where we have booked directly with the actual place we stay at. Use the hotel’s own site if it is a hotel. We are not saying they (booking sites) don’t normally work but for example they make out there is one room left when it is not true and if you do have a problem you have to talk to the booking agency (not the hotel).
This link is a good way of soon spotting if there is a hotel chain of interest. We don’t want resorts or luxury. Economical and an extensive coverage is good.
In different parts of the world there are some great chains. In Japan there is Toyoko Inn. Remarkably economical for its quality. In Europe there is Accor with Ibis, Ibis budget and F1. And of course, effectively a massive chain in its own right, there is Airbnb. In all cases, you establish an identity with them and you become familiar with their websites. We routinely book only one night in advance.
In many countries the lodges are small and don’t not have a website. They are not bookable on line. Take India as an example. Tourist places like Hampi and Goa might have something on the web, but they are the exception outside of the cities. Mostly you have to walk in the door. If you can get to the town by 4pm you’ll general find rooms. The problem is more knowing in advance if there is any lodge at all.
Sparsely settled India is the best part but where to stay? On the Deccan there are lots of small places with nowhere to stay. Fortunately, in recent years, google maps have been increasingly reliable in showing bed symbols. They can’t have them all and sometimes Google Maps misses a significant lodge which is annoying. Overall though they are reliable. If they don’t show even one bed symbol even when zoomed right in, there is likely to be nothing.
TripAdvisor is also a good resource although we never use it for booking. Just to research. If we are going to ride into a small city the next day we will pick 2 or 3 targets. We’ll look for an area with hotels and pick a few where we have seen their presentation (and price) on TripAdvisor.
We have had an experience (2013) when Google Maps did not show any bed symbols but we got onto YouTube and found a video clip taken in the town (Ispir in eastern Turkey). We saw a hotel sign in the video. We stayed there.
Towns that are district HQ, with a courthouse and a hospital always have something. If we are struggling we’ll look (on google maps) around major road junctions out of town.
Experience has taught us that there are more actual lodging options, especially at the one and two star end of the range, than is apparent from google. If google says there is even one place to stay, we know there will be more.
In the US, Canada, Australia and NZ, there are motels on the way into and out of the towns and generally arriving by 3.30-4 is going to allow you to find a room. The bigger your group, the more this becomes a problem though. Peak season and Saturday also make it harder. In NZ we never book for the towns. Only for the bigger cities. NZ must be the motel capital of the world.
Warmshowers is a further option which seems good but we don’t really know much about it.
Overall, this is not just about having a new place to stay each night. It’s about having a destination for tomorrow’s route. When you are coming into a big city especially, it is a great help to have a route marked on your device leading to an actual destination.
The Advantage of Last-minute Routes or Scheduled Flexibility
A road closure or an unprecedented lack of accommodation due to a festival or weather can force us to change the schedule. A case in NZ comes to mind. Heading south from Napier one morning there was a fierce headwind. We’d stayed just North of the town centre and stopped at a café in town to consider the situation. There is free town WiFi in Napier.
A look at metservice.com revealed that today’s headwind would become a tailwind tomorrow. So rather than the planned 100km day we just went 20km to Hastings and the next day fairly flew south. Once, on the Danube path in Austria going south, having struck rain at only 10am, we stopped to wait it out but it just kept raining so we stayed at that place which happened to have rooms. The next day was beautiful. At the first coffee stop that next day there were four Americans on a package deal with prepaid lodging and hired bikes. They had ridden the whole day in the rain as they had no choice. We had our rest day up our sleeve and used it on very short notice.
There is often public transport
OK, not at Longreach. Nor at many places in Australia, US, NZ, Canada. But where it exists it could allow you to catch up a day. And it potentially offers you a way of ending the bike tour somewhere other than the departure city and training or bussing to that city. For these reasons, it is wise to make yourself aware of the local system for bikes on trains. It is easy in Europe of course. Pathetic in the US where most Amtrak trains don’t have a baggage car. In Africa, as in India and SE Asia, you can get your bike on a bus although sometimes you need to be assertive, often pay extra, be ready to move fast and also watch that the bike is handled properly. Watch out for your disc rotors.
You Really Want WiFi
Having wifi makes a massive difference. If there are two Airbnbs and one has wifi and one does not then you more likely book the one that has it. Indeed, a big advantage of Airbnb is that the speed of the internet is generally much better than what you get in hotels.
Recording Route Plans as They Develop
VWR rides begin with a simple word document set out day1, day2, etc and the date alongside each day. This avoids the very real risk of booking accommodation with the wrong date. Start off with just the name of the town or city as a target. Particularly for a trip under a month this helps ensure you can get to the departure in time.
We like to plan on google rather than OSM because google is commercial and for example identifies lodging. On Google Maps, check the distance between the proposed start and end for a day. For much of the world you can use the cycling mode (top left above the start and endpoints in “directions”) and if it is not offered then use the walking mode. That will always be offered. This avoids roads where bikes are banned such as the “blue car” roads in Europe. Google is told what the routes are by local government bodies and the paths or roads include GPS tracks and altitude, meter by meter. Car mode won’t tell you the climb. Only cycling and walking modes will. You should know it, especially if you are the ride leader/navigator. Not so much if you are in a flat country or if you know it is downhill.
Depending on your condition and that of your companions, and how much luggage you have, there will be an accumulated climb for a day that you should not exceed. 2,000m is a lot with luggage. 1,500m is a lot but maybe OK if the day after is not hard, if the weather is OK and if the road shoulder is good. 1,000 is generally OK for riders that are in condition. There are countries that are so hilly everywhere (eg Turkey) that you simply can’t ride in them if you are not able to climb 1,000m a day. It is also true that there are some people who can’t go uphill at all and that has to be respected. Bike paths down long river valleys for them!
As the ride unfolds we hard-paste into the word doc the target (booking or not) for the next night (or this night). Until a booking is made we may have a proposed address pasted in there but preceded by “NOT YET BOOKED”. Or we may just have the name of the town/city which was part of the plan to ensure no day was too long, not too much of a climb and not to a town without lodging.
Following the Route
Having a route to follow is very helpful. You don’t have the stress of trying to work out road signs and so on. If you do deviate from the route, it is either intentional or it is soon noticed by regular checking of the gps device.
There are some good smartphone mounts that allow you to check easily. This is a Rokform.
We have focused on Google Maps for route planning. You can also get GPS “tracks” that are already developed. They may be great but the global scale of google and OSM is fantastic for independent cycle touring.
The route proposed by google is a composite of sections that are given to them by local government along with the sections’ statii, hopefully including each section’s cyclability. In some parts of the world (especially in most of Europe) you can have faith in the route from A to B that is proposed by google. In Europe, all bike paths and even most forest tracks will come up as options to be used by google in developing you’re A to B route. This will often include tracks through farms.
When you are doing the ride you don’t need to religiously follow the route. OpenStreetMap or MotionX maps on your smartphone show the side streets etc. Because your route is easy to see and your GPS locator shows you where you are and your compass tells you which way to hold the smartphone; you are not going to get lost. If the path suggested by Google Maps is rough and there is a smooth road in the same direction not far away, and you can see on OSM/MotionX that road goes the same way, if there is not too much traffic you might go on the road rather than the path.
The route you are now going to embed in your smartphone is simply the URL at the top of the Google Map screen which has the blue line from you’re A to your B for a single day. The A and the B could be hotels, campgrounds, friends’ homes, Airbnbs, Warmshowers, whatever. You just want them to be actual start and endpoints if possible.
Use the “Creating and Uploading a route” article to get the route onto your smartphone so it is still there when you are off-line. That is the critical thing to do. If you don’t embed it, it will drop out for sure.
Smartphones Losing Their GPS Signal
If you find that your current position does not show, if it seems your GPS has just stopped working, don’t fear. It is probably a very simple fix. On an android at least. Settings/network connections/ Location. Make sure it is ON. These have been known to turn them selves off for no apparent reason.
Not Running Your Battery Down
If you turn WiFi OFF and airplane ON during the day you will save a lot of power. If you need to receive calls during the day you’d need to have airplane OFF. If possible, take two smartphones. You may have an old one or a fiend might have a spare.