Bicycle Touring for Beginners

Most bike club members ride with the club on day rides but there are a few of us who gained an interest in traveling longer distances to see new and interesting places or simply to get to get away from the day-to-day routine and “travel the road less traveled”.  And even here there are various types of travel by bicycle to consider.

I got the itch early when I first took up more serious bicycle riding around 1980 and I’ve traveled with my bike across the USA several times and also in Canada and France … so far.  But if you’re just looking into it I can make a few suggestions that might help you decide if traveling long distances (defined as more than a day ride around the local area).

First of all, just to get into bike touring you do NOT need a special bike or a whole lot of gear because just about any type of bicycle will do and you do not need a whole lot of preparation or special clothing because whatever works for you now should do fine for the the first trip or two and if this does not discourage you then it might be time for a bicycle to carry more gear.  

Next, decide where you want to go and for how long and how you are going to get back and of course round trip to the start is the easiest but takes more time and energy.  I suggest a round trip of 1-2-3 days will work fine for your trial.  Pick a place you want to visit and if you have friends or relatives so much the better because you can ‘crash’ with them for a night or two and reward them with stories of your adventure. Bike to York, Lancaster, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C. and stay a day or two and then ride back or have someone drive you back to the start.

I usually find getting dropped off at the place I want to see is the easiest because then I see what I came to see and then I'm forced into doing what I set out to do or beg for mercy.

Next decision, do you go with someone else or try it solo?  I will warn you finding people who share your particular madness for seeing something you want to see at the time is often fruitless.  It's a whole lot easier to just do what you want when you want leaving most of your energy for accomplishing your immediate goal which is to convince someone to drop you off or pick you you up at your destination.

Carry as much gear as you need for your initial trip and in subsequent trips you might consider adding a few things.  Full tour you’ll want panniers to carry more gear and if you’re really adventurous room for a tent, sleeping bag, cooking gear, water filter, etc.

Try “Credit Card Camping” … this is where you stay at hotels, motels, and bed & breakfasts and get all your meals from cafes and restaurants along the way.  And it’s the alternative much preferred by many bicycle travelers.  Or mix it up with a couple nights camping at a state park or private campground.

If you’re unsure of the roads and uncomfortable with sharing the road with large, fast moving vehicles give the local trails a try.  Stoney Valley Creek, Lebanon Valley, River, and Heritage Rail trails are all ideal candidates for a camping or credit card adventure (you can’t legally camp on these trails but camping and hotel facilities are readily available).  And did you know you can actually bike from Stoney Valley to the other trails using the trails and low level roads?  Make an interesting long weekend adventure and stay close to home.

Another source for planning bike travel is the Pennsylvania Bicycle Routes which can be found via www.penndot.gov.  There are several trails here that go border-to-border East to West or North to South or vice versus or you can use parts of the to plan a long distance ride within our Commonwealth.  “Bicycle Route J” goes from our Southern border with Maryland all the way to our Northern border with New York State and from there you can pick up the NYS bicycle routes.  

There is also J-1 and J-2 that can be used to get from Harrisburg to Gettysburg and Lancaster.  

Route “S” goes from near Pittsburgh and The Great Allegheny Passage to Washingtons Crossing on the Delaware River.  Lots of American history noted all along these trails too so if you have young ones a trip like this could be considered a learning tool for greater knowledge and growth (applies to us seniors too).

Bicycle South Central PA lists many good resources for cyclists and has posted bike routes on www.bicyclecouthcentralpa.org that take you between many of the cities in our region.

Suggestion … next year’s Finger Lakes event in Geneva, New York.  You could bike to it and credit card camp several days for an initial touring experience.  Start on Route J (City Island) and bike to Sayre and then take the NYS bicycle routes to Horse Heads, Watkins Glen and Geneva.

And another suggestion … RAGBRAI 2018 held the third week of July ...registration begins November 1.  About 450 miles from a town on or near the Missouri River to another town on the Mississippi River and it takes seven days and most people camp but you can have your gear hauled by “charter”.  www.ragbrai.org or you can ask me for more details.  Good place to start bicycle touring is Iowa because it’s flat and naturally slants downhill from the West.  Lots of HBCers do this trek each year (but most not 14 times like me!).  

One final thought (for now) the potential bike tourist might want to try the easiest way to get introduced to bike touring and that’s with one of the many private companies offering tours of various places we all want to visit in our lifetime.  I’ve done one of these and I’d recommend it seeing and touring many scenic places in a relatively comfortable style. 

Almost all of these packaged tours (with a couple exceptions like Adventure Cycling) carries all your gear and prepares all your meals and the only drawback seems to be that all want a lot of your money for the experience.  Well, there is one more drawback I can see … you are going to go at their pace and see what they decided for you to see and you miss out on some of the spontaneity of traveling at your own pace at the distance you decide and fixing all those things that can happen to you out there on the road.  

Jeff McPartland

Camp Hill, PA

Note: I biked with a Newbie to HBC a couple times lately and he had an interest in bicycle camping and I thought since I've done more than a few of these adventures involving different kinds of bike touring (solo, organized, credit card, camping and/or hotels, free loading on friends and relatives) including three I led for American Youth Hostels way back when I'd start writing down my rambling thoughts on the topic and see what I come up with.  

It would be nice if other HBCers who have traveled long distances by bicycle might share their experiences here too.