[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: Types of Touring Cyclists and Bicycle Touring Trips
Bicycle travelers may all look similar at first glance, but they actually may be traveling on very different tours.

Why can meeting another touring cyclist be more of a surprise than you thought it would be? Why do bicycle tourers travel at different speeds? How can a different cycling speed lead to unhappiness? What is the problem with wanting to stop at different locations? What are some solutions to these bicycle touring incompatabilities? What kinds of touring difference are unresolvable? How can cyclists travel without camping? How can groups of cyclists travel without carrying pannier bags? Where do cyclists camp who aren't prepared for camping in the wild? Are there cycling travelers who prefer the wild? Are there some people who look like cyclists but have a somewhat different orientation? How can some people spend a lifetime traveling by bike?


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Types of Touring Cyclists and Bicycle Touring Trips

When traveling down the road on your touring bike, you may run into a cyclist who has a bicycle, bags, and clothing that look very much like yours. The first impression is "Here is a person after my own heart." But as you ride together, you find differences and differences and differences. Your differences in pacing and resting may be great enough that you can't stay together long, your differences in where and what to eat may be great enough that you can't share a single meal, and your differences in where you spend the night may make your first day your last. You may even be offended by the other's choices, and you may be puzzled because you thought we were all doing the same thing. These differences can even create major problems when making a trip with friends and those you love. Let me enlighten you ahead of time.

The first noticeable difference is in the pace, that is the speed of travel. The usual causes are the weight of the tires and the weight carried on the bikes, the fitness and strength of the riders, and their riding styles, although other factors, such as coping with an illness or having a bad day, could be responsible. Regardless of the cause (which really must be guessed at), if you average 15 mph and the other cyclist averages 10 mph, neither of you is going to be completely happy. Either one will be straining to keep up, or the other will feel bored and unchallenged. Likewise with pacing, if one person prefers to get off of the bike every 15 minutes, and the other likes to ride half the day without dismounting, somebody's going to be uncomfortable. And where and why do you stop to rest? Your friend may want to stop to play video games, while you prefer to stop at scenic locations far from the madding crowd.

The problems with pace, pacing, and stopping are the least serious, but they often affect married couples or otherwise compatible friends. There are several solutions for the pace problem. The simplest solution is for the faster cyclist to ride in front to block the wind, and to make the little side trips that are sometimes necessary, giving the other more chance to rest. With a somewhat greater difference, the two could ride together at a slower pace during part of the day, and the stronger rider could make side trips in the morning or evening while the other rests in camp or at the motel. A touring tandem is a perfect solution for some cyclists, as it eliminates the speed difference; however, some find a tandem too binding. As another alternative, the faster cyclist could pull a trailer containing most or all of their combined gear. Finally, the two riders could spend the night together but travel separately during the day. The slower rider, for instance, might leave earlier, and the stronger rider could then play catch-up, ensuring that the less-strong rider would have help in case of difficulty. Traveling separately would ensure that each could stop wherever, whenever, and whyever they wanted to.

These differences are usually resolvable, but there are also unresolvable differences, differences relating to money and lifestyle. Henry Thoreau wrote, "I heard it proposed lately that two young men should travel together over the world, the one without money, earning his means as he went, and the other carrying a bill of exchange in his pocket. It was easy to see that they could not long be companions or co-operate, since one would not operate at all. They would part at the first interesting crisis in their adventures."

We can divide touring cyclists into several types, based on where they spend the night, where they get their food, and how much gear they carry. To have a logical order, I have arranged these types roughly according to how much the trip would cost and how self-sufficient the cyclist is, starting with the traveler who spends the most and is the least self-sufficient. Of course, true self-sufficiency is not possible on a bike; nonetheless, some can travel a week or more without supplies while others must purchase every meal. Remember that these types are for the purpose of explanation only and are not stereotypes, since many tourers would not exactly fall into any type, as others would use various styles depending on the circumstances or trip.

The Non-Camping Bicycle Tourists

Touring without camping is very popular. When traveling in Quebec, I saw many dozens of these tourers, easily distinguishable by the single pair of bags on their bike (although some non-campers carry as much gear as campers). Usually, these bike travelers have a good income and limited vacation time. They enjoy the beauty of Nature on the bicycle, not in the camp. They plan their trips out carefully to be sure to find a B&B (bed and breakfast), motel, or hostel at the end of every day's ride. They eat their meals in restaurants. Some travel over a hundred miles a day, and others are content with thirty miles or less.

Sag Bike Tourers

This is perhaps the most common type of cyclo-touring in the US. These cyclists may sleep indoors or do light camping, but they are not interested in carrying much weight on their bikes. As a result, they make arrangements with a touring company that shuttles their gear for them from stop to stop. The company also provides them maps and possibly guides and mechanics, and arranges for their stops at night, whether light camping, B&B's, or motels. The day's trip may be a local ride or cover a long distance, and some of these groups cross the USA. I have only twice encountered such groups, but I received a great deal of information from a friend who spend several summers on such cross-country trips. With his group, one person would drive a sag wagon with all their gear and some spare parts and would stop to help or pick up anyone who fell behind, while another person was driving ahead and making arrangements for the night and producing and photocopying maps for the next day as they went. Anyone who was sick, had unresolvable mechanical problems with the bike, or who was traveling too slowly would have to ride in the van. Sometimes riders took turns driving the sag wagon, for which they were compensated by having their fees reduced. Usually, nights were spent in school gyms, so they could have showers and sleep indoors if necessary, while campgrounds were avoided, due to the cost and their desire to remain together. While one of the main attractions of such a trip would seem to be traveling with a large group, my friend told me that the cyclists traveled alone or in small groups during the day and only got back together in the evenings. Food was an independent choice during the day, and at night the group would most often order pizza, if it was available.

Light-Camping Bicycle Tourists

These touring cyclists are also very common. They carry a tent and simple cooking and camping gear, but they lack the desire or experience to find their own free camping sites and instead stay at campgrounds. Commonly, meals are prepared from mixes and are of the simple, drop-into-hot-water type. Restaurants are patronized whenever possible. These cyclists tend to travel on well-trodden routes, such as the Adventure Cycling routes. It's sometimes possible to identify these cyclists by their loads, as they will be carrying a tent and sleeping bag but will not have especially large bags. Sometimes they will travel in small groups, but it's more usual for them to travel in pairs.

Adventure Cycling uses a variation of light camping. I am grateful to Lynn Brucker for furnishing me with a description. The groups consists of from 10 to 15 people, with one person a trained leader, provided with notes from other trips about the route and about places to camp along the way. The leader is charged with arranging the overnight stops and rest days ahead of time and with managing the money for food, camping fees, and some extras. The leader also has to help people solve their problems, personal or otherwise. The group cooking gear (five fuel bottles, three stoves, two large and two small pots, a frying pan, and various other items) is furnished, but everyone on the trip has to help carry it. Each day, two people have to do the cooking and two others the cleaning, the leader included. Everyone helps carry groceries after they are purchased in the evening. Breakfast is usually cold, and lunches are usually sandwiches, such as peanut butter and jelly. During the day, the cyclists ride in groups of two to four cyclists.

Self-Sufficient Tourers

These individualists have a high degree of outdoor skill, and they feel as comfortable in the woods as in their home, perhaps more comfortable. They are not afraid of mountains, weather, wilderness, or people. They can cook a meal from scratch and travel for days in remote areas without buying groceries. They prefer to plan their own trips, and they are willing to change their plans as they go. Of course, this type of traveler carries every necessary tool and piece of equipment and yet manages to keep the total weight reasonable.

This is my kind of travel, and while I consider it superior, I don't consider the other kinds of bicycle travelers to be inferior. Each person must make a realistic choice based on time, money, touring area, and experience.

Hobo Bike Travelers

Years ago, tramps and vagrants traveled by train from place to place, but that method of travel became very difficult, so the highway became the next choice, and thumbing became the preferred method. However, few people are willing to pick up hitch-hikers any more, so some have taken to traveling by bicycle, of which I have met at least three. The problem of acquiring a bicycle is not that difficult, as Goodwill will sell a bike for $5, and many people will give one away for free. Clothing can also be purchased very cheaply, and food can be found in dumpsters. Any necessary cash can be earned by working for a few days or by accepting handouts. Finding a place to spend the night is no problem if the traveler is not particular; in fact, none of the three carried a usable tent, nor did they carry cooking gear. One should not suppose that these people look like bums, as they have learned that looking presentable is important. On the other hand, they wear almost no cycling gear.

I suppose some people would really look down on these last travelers; however, it must be pointed out that they are causing no one harm, and if, at the end of thirty years travel, they have nothing to show for it except their experiences, the same is true for most low-paid wage earners. There was a time when I could not find a job and was about to lose my land that I thought about living on the bike myself.

I must also point out that many bicycle travelers with plenty of money have pretty much taken advantage of people's sympathies. Along the heavily-traveled bike routes (and along the Appalachian Trail), there are many residents who expend time, money, and love on the travelers, who they feel are absolutely dependent on their help. And I have met cyclists and backpackers who have really taken advantage of such help, often getting people to drive them long distances and to do other unusual favorites. I dislike the idea of the cyclist portraying himself/herself as a victim, as I see bicycling as a grand and superior method of transportation. It is the motorist who is to be pitied, not me.

The World Travelers

Here, I am not referring to those individuals who make occasional overseas bicycling trips or who have made a single "round-the-world" trip but to those rare individuals who travel the world for years or even throughout their lives. As dumpsters aren't full of food and residents aren't wealthy in the third world, these travelers have to be super-resourceful.

These cyclists are quite distinctive in their choice of bicycles and gear, as they are no longer concerned with speed but with reliability and usefulness. It's not unusual, for instance, for this kind of traveler to be on a single-speed bike and to have it equipped to carry a hundred pounds or more of gear.

My son was fortunate enough to encounter such a cyclist in Japan. His name is Heinz Stücke, and he was in Japan to sell copies of a pamphlet about his trip to finance further travels. Having made several long tours covering many countries before, Heinz left Germany on his world tour in 1962 and did not return home until July 2001. He writes, "I did not see why I should spend the rest of my life doing something I did not care for very much just to make a living." Fortunately, he has been able to make enough money while traveling to continue. His bike is a very heavy three-speed with super-heavy carriers, and he carries up to 110 pounds of gear, including lots of photographic equipment, cameras, and slides. He carries a tent and cooking gear, but he has slept in every kind of building. On the trip, he taught himself English and Spanish, but he says he forgets what he has learned of most other languages as soon as he leaves the country. Fortunately, many people want to practice their English with him. He averages about 6,000 miles a year by bicycle (lots of other miles as well) and had visited 192 countries as of 1996 (the date of his pamphlet).

I suppose I could have added one other type to the list. Some cyclists have a car, van, or even RV traveling close behind them, with the driver and occupants taking care of their every need. Of course, the motor vehicle ends up driving many more miles than if the person had simply left the bike at home. In my opinion, this is not touring but bicycling with a support vehicle, and I fail to see why the person should be congratulated for crossing the US in this fashion. It would take more courage to ride to work every day and would likely cover more miles. Of course, I realize that racers and RAAM cyclists get this kind of support, but their trip is hardly a bike tour. In addition, I have meet a cyclist with a severe physical disability who was making a once-in-a-lifetime trip with such support, and I was very sympathetic under those circumstances.


What Is Touring?  A discussion of the different kinds of touring (including day touring) which covers similar ground.

The November 2001 Bicycle Touring Survey  I wrote this article without any evidence to back up my point, but here is a survey completed by 173 touring cyclists which shows the full range of differences in their trips, which might explain why most go either alone or with one other person.


Touring@phred.org  Discuss touring plans and gear with experienced cyclists of all different types. Receive e-mail messages one at a time or get a once-a-day digest.

Heinz Stücke's Around the World by Bicycle  The photos and account on this website are taken from Heinz' pamphlet verbatim while I briefly summarized the same information.

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