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How to Prepare for and Save on Long-Distance Bike Rides

My day job keeps me planted in front of my trusty laptop for hours on end. On nice days, when the glare isn’t too bad, I take my stuff outside to a deck or nearby coffee shop patio.

But writing my latest credit card review or how-to guide in the bright sunshine isn’t quite the same as getting away on a true outdoor vacation.

When I really need a break, I like to disconnect as completely as humanly possible for a few consecutive days. The fewer distractions, the better. I put together a guide to preparing for a long-distance hike for just this purpose (along with a separate roundup of the best long-distance hiking trails in the U.S. – some of my favorites are on there).

Explore the World on Two Wheels

In this guide, I’ll explore another popular fitness vacation idea: a long-distance bike ride.

This is new territory for me. I’m an avid bike commuter and regularly take long rides for fun, but I didn’t complete my first multi-day ride until the summer of 2017.

In the sections below, I’ll share everything I learned in the months leading up to that week-long adventure, along with tips and best practices from experts with far more experience than moi:

  • How to train safely and sustainably
  • How to choose your ride type and route, if applicable
  • Basic logistical and safety considerations before, during, and after your ride
  • Equipment and supplies you’ll need for a safe and fun experience

Train for Your Ride

If planning a long-distance bike ride isn’t enough to get you on the regular exercise bandwagon, what is?

You’ll need to adjust your personal training regimen to account for your:

  • Age
  • Baseline fitness level
  • Medical status, including chronic conditions and prior sports injuries
  • Time horizon (time between training start date and ride start date)
  • Total ride length and duration
  • Ride difficulty (total elevation change and daily distance)

Successful training programs follow this format:

  • Build Over Time. You can’t start training the week before your journey and expect to be ready in time. For a week-long ride averaging 50 miles per day, you’ll need to start training at least three months before the start date, and more if you’re starting from a low fitness baseline. You’ll start slow, riding perhaps 10 miles per day, four times per week, and build from there.
  • Taper at the End. Your toughest training week will be the second- or third-to-last week before your journey. By the last week, you’ll want to taper, so that your muscles are rested and ready for a sustained ride. On the last three weekends, you’ll drop your single-day ride length from, say, 60 miles, to 30 miles, to 15 miles, respectively.
  • At Least Two Days Off Per Week. Even at the height of your training regimen, you need to give your body time to recover. Take at least two days off per week; less aggressive training regimens recommend three.
  • Longer Rides on Weekends. Most people have more time to train on weekends. Plan accordingly: Pair moderate-distance rides on weekday mornings or evenings with half-day weekend rides that cover 30, 40, 50, or more miles. By your peak training period, you should be at 60 to 70 miles per weekend day.
  • Supplemental Strength Training and Fitness Exercises. Supplemental strength training is always a good idea, especially for older or out-of-shape riders for whom it’s recommended to prevent overuse injuries. Same goes for supplemental fitness training on treadmills, ellipticals, exercise bikes, or all three. You want your whole body to be ready for your big ride, not just your legs.
  • Emphasis on Road Cycling Over Gym Work. When you’re training for a road ride, there’s no substitute for road cycling. As long as the weather cooperates and your equipment is roadworthy, you should always favor an outdoor ride over an indoor spin – supplemental training notwithstanding.
  • Dietary Changes. Sum your training diet up in one word: “more.” More carbs, more protein, more fluids. If you’re vegan, you’ll need to pay close attention to your protein intake; for meat-eaters, the charge is pretty straightforward. And the week leading up to the ride is all about carb-loading. For specific advice that accounts for your personal needs (weight, body type, dietary restrictions), consult a dietitian.

This training tip sheet, published by British outfitter Discover Adventure, is as good an example as any. Use it as a rough guide for your own training regimen and customize as you see fit.

Choose Your Ride & Route

Long-distance bike rides fall into three buckets:

  • Sanctioned rides
  • Outfitted rides
  • Independent rides

Sanctioned rides are backed by official organizing bodies with sponsors, employees, and volunteers. Riders’ entry fees cover basic ride costs, such as support staff wages, vehicle fuel and mileage, lodging expenses, and the like. Riders generally need to bring (and finance) their own equipment and supplies, but organizers take responsibility for basic logistical matters like reserving accommodations and attending to injured riders.

Outfitted rides are organized and supported by outfitters that provide a broader range of services, such as carrying bags and setting up tents. On some outfitted rides, participants need do little other than pedal from point A to point B. Outfitted rides are more expensive than sanctioned rides – sometimes by an order of magnitude.

The line between hands-off sanctioned rides and outfitted rides isn’t always crystal clear. Major sanctioned rides typically attract organizer-approved outfitters that go the extra mile for riders willing to pay a bit more.

Independent rides are planned and executed by the participants themselves. A solo trek across your home state counts as an independent ride. So does a tour organized and financed internally by you and a dozen of your work colleagues. Independent rides are DIY affairs that require participants to handle everything – logistics, equipment, know-how, you name it – themselves.

Find and Pay for Sanctioned & Outfitted Rides

As cycling’s popularity increases, so too does the prevalence of sanctioned rides. No matter where you live, you’re probably not more than a half-day’s drive from a sanctioned ride’s starting point.

Find Sanctioned Rides
My wife and I always had one particular sanctioned ride in mind: RAGBRAI, one of the country’s oldest and best-known group bicycle tours. We didn’t even bother to look for other organized rides.

Had we not been set on RAGBRAI, we needn’t have looked too far. If you know nothing other than that you’d like to take a multi-day bike ride organized by people who know what they’re doing better than you, check Biking Bis, an independent website featuring a comprehensive list of legitimate sanctioned rides in the United States. The Across State Bicycle Tours page lists state-specific rides, usually with links out to the sponsoring organization’s website.

Pro Tip: Sanctioned rides take measures to exclude unauthorized riders, or “bandits.” At minimum, you’ll receive a coded wristband or numbered jersey that identifies you as a paid rider. The organizers may outline other asks or requirements as well. In the run-up to your ride, follow compliance requirements very closely, promptly bring questions or issues to organizers’ attention, and don’t lose your wristband or jersey.

What Do Sanctioned Rides Cost?
It depends. Factors that can influence sanctioned rides’ costs can include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Ride duration
  • Ride location
  • Ride size (participant count)
  • Cost of lodging
  • Services and support included in entry fee

Big, bare-bones sanctioned rides can cost as little as $25 or $30 per day, per person. RAGBRAI’s 2017 entry fee was $175 per person, for instance, or $25 per day. Smaller rides cost more: The eight-day iteration of the Michigander Bike Tour costs $530 per person, or about $66 per day. Longer rides usually cost less per day.

In general, I’d expect to pay at least $50 per person, per day – if it’s less, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Do be prepared to make purchases not included in the entry fee. At minimum, you’ll have opportunities to shop in the towns or settlements you pass through. If the ride isn’t catered, you’ll need to cover your own food costs. Other expenses could arise too – on RAGBRAI, for instance, shower trucks cost $6 per use. (For those willing to brave long lines, the high school at each stopover point opens up its gym showers for free.)

Should You Use an Outfitter for Your Sanctioned Ride?
Again, it depends.

If you’re an experienced camper who’s spent multiple consecutive days in the field, you know what it’s like to rough it without some of the creature comforts you enjoy at home.

But that’s not quite the same as biking from campsite to campsite. If your sanctioned ride doesn’t carry your luggage, you’ll need to be prepared to carry at least 20 pounds of stuff: at minimum, extra clothing, spare tubes, snacks, toiletries, and your tent. That doesn’t include the water you’ll need each day – and it assumes a small, lightweight tent.

Outfitted rides involve far less effort after the ride too. Most outfitters set up riders’ tents, cook up post-ride meals, provide extra cargo space (if not provided by the ride organizer), and set up charging stations for personal electronic devices. If the thought of pitching your own tent after a 70-mile day sounds unappealing, an outfitter might be worth the added cost.

For what it’s worth, my wife and I decided to use an outfitter on our RAGBRAI adventure. It cost approximately $80 extra per person, per day – far more than the ride itself – but the literal and figurative weight off our shoulders was well worth the expense. We went with a hands-on outfitter that provided a lot of extra services. Some are significantly cheaper – in the $50-per-day-range.

Find Outfitted Rides
Small-scale outfitted rides are much more common than big sanctioned rides.

Start your search on an aggregator site like Biking Bis, or check directly with a larger outfitter like Adventure Cycling Association. Adventure Cycling Association’s guided tours page includes more than enough detail about each ride to support an informed decision on your part.

Pay close attention to each ride’s degree of support: “Self-contained” means the group is basically on its own, while “fully supported” indicates the presence or availability of non-cyclist helpers. Note “rest days” too: Some tours include non-riding days during which riders can catch their breath and take in nearby sights.

What Do Outfitted Rides Cost?
As a rough rule of thumb, expect to pay at least $150 per day, per person, for a basic outfitted ride.

Some rides cost far more. Ride length is obviously a key determinant of the final cost, but accommodation type and level of support (in that order) hold more sway over the per-day cost. Adventure Cycling Association’s nine-day Mid-Atlantic Countryside Tour, a campsite-to-campsite journey, costs $1,259 per person. Its simultaneous, eight-day Outer Banks II – Fall Tour, an inn-to-inn ride, costs $2,059 per person – near as I can tell, the bulk of the difference is attributable to the cost of comfortable indoor lodging.

Pro Tip: Popular tours fill up quickly, so make arrangements for your outfitted or sanctioned ride as soon as you can. You don’t want to be denied a spot on the only ride that works with your location and schedule – or, worse, stuck on a waitlist for months, only to find out you didn’t make the cut. My wife and I bought our RAGBRAI passes and made reservations with an approved outfitter within a week of the first day to register.

Plan Independent Rides

If you’re willing and able to provide your own support, an independent multi-day ride is likely your most cost-effective option. Since you (and any fellow riders) are responsible for its planning and execution, it’s also likely the most flexible. Subject to practical limitations, you can go anywhere and see anything at any time.

The most important factors affecting your independently planned ride:

  • Total amount of time (number of days) you have to ride
  • Riders’ fitness level
  • Type of route (point-to-point or loop)
  • Non-negotiable destinations or points of interest

You’ll need to use these and other factors to plan a manageable ride that achieves your goals without trying to do too much. Consider:

  • Terrain. What’s the terrain like along your route? Use Google Maps or a maps-based fitness app to calculate each day’s total elevation gain along your route. The greater the elevation change, the more effort you’ll need to put in to cover the same distance. In hilly or mountainous areas, you’ll want to keep your daily distance lower.
  • Road or Trail Conditions. Will you ride primarily on paved roads, paved bike trails, unpaved trails, or some combination of the three? Use Google Maps or an app like Map My Ride to find suitable road or trail types along your route. Keep in mind that road biking requires sharing the road with cars, and that you’ll be more exposed to traffic than on a sanctioned ride, where there’s strength in numbers. And remember that it’s not advisable (nor pleasant) to ride road bikes for long distances on gravel or dirt.
  • Overnight Lodging. Will you camp, stay in hotels or inns, or something else? Your overnight plans will greatly influence your ride’s total cost and packing list. Campsite-to-campsite rides are generally easier to plan at the last minute, though peak-season rides through popular tourist areas may necessitate reservations in advance (if sites aren’t first-come, first-served). You’ll almost certainly need to make advance reservations for inn-to-inn rides, especially in remote areas with limited lodging options.
  • Average Daily Ride Length. Separate from limiting factors like rider fitness and terrain, ask yourself how much ground you actually want to cover on your ride. Is your goal to ride as far as you can in as short a period as possible? Do you prefer a leisurely experience that lives up to the cliché, “The journey is the destination”? Or can you settle for something in the middle?
  • Sightseeing Along the Way. Are there any mandatory stops, such as natural features or historical markers, along your planned route? Depending on their location and accessibility, you’ll either need to plan your route such that you encounter them in due course or allow enough time for side trips (such as a hike up to a viewpoint) or activities (such as a visit to a museum). Since sightseeing stops can really slow you down, you’ll need to balance your desire to see as much as possible with the immutable reality of your schedule.
  • Rest Days. Do you want to (or can you) stay in the same place for more than one night in a row? A rest day is a great way to get more familiar with a noteworthy stopover, such as a vacation town or national park. It’s also, well, restful.

Logistical & Safety Considerations

Even outfitted bike rides are logistically challenging. Poorly planned independent rides are absolute nightmares. Use this checklist to anticipate and address logistical and safety issues that could (and, in many cases, will) arise before, during, and after your adventure.

  1. How Are You Getting Yourself and Your Bikes to the Starting Location? Transportation to and from your starting and ending locations is a vexing proposition. If you’re not starting from your home base, you’ll need to drive or take appropriate common carrier conveyance (such as a passenger train with space for bikes) to your starting location. If you’re not ending in the same place, you’ll need to make arrangements for extraction from there too. Sanctioned and outfitted rides generally make arrangements for long-term parking, possibly for an additional fee, and arrange transportation to the start point if the parking area isn’t in the same location. (At RAGBRAI, we paid $75 to park for a week at the ending location and got a free bus ride to the starting location.) On an independent ride, you’ll want to find a lot that allows long-term parking, such as a commuter lot (usually free or cheap) or a state park’s overnight lot.
  2. Where Are You Staying Each Night? Time for a gut check. When it comes to your overnight accommodations, what’s absolutely non-negotiable? Are you willing to rough it at an unimproved campsite without electricity or showers? Or are you looking for a cozier, more refreshing experience – perhaps a hotel, inn, or short-term rental (Airbnb)? The nicer the stopover, the more you’ll need to budget, and the longer in advance you’ll need to make reservations. If you plan to camp, you’ll need to bring a lot of extra equipment: tent, stakes, tarp, sleeping bag, pillow.
  3. Do You Know How to Perform Basic Bike Repairs? Even on a fully supported ride, you’ll want to know how to perform basic bike maintenance and repairs: changing and patching tubes, greasing and reattaching chains, applying tape, setting up and removing frame-fixed gear, such as carrying racks and water bottle holders. I’m no fix-it whiz, but I learned how to do most of this stuff either by watching how-to videos on YouTube or asking a friend to show me. If you plan an unsupported independent ride, you’ll need to know more and carry a larger array of tools.
  4. Do You Have Backup for Repairs That You Can’t Handle on Your Own? If you lack the skills or tools to complete a necessary repair on your own, who’s backing you up? On supported rides, repair crews should eventually get to your bike, though you’ll probably need to wait a while on the side of the road. On independent rides, your best bet is roadside assistance. Auto insurance companies, membership grounds, such as AAA, and premium travel rewards credit cards include roadside assistance in their policies or benefits packages. AAA has limited on-the-road bike support – the roadside assistance crew usually just takes your bike to the nearest repair shop – but it’s free with your $100 annual membership. Insurance companies and credit card issuers may have more on-the-road capabilities, but you generally have to pay per use.
  5. How Are You Catering Your Ride? Are you preparing most or all of the meals you’ll eat on the road, or will you eat a combination of preserved foods (such as energy bars) and packaged or prepared foods purchased at restaurants and grocery stores? On sanctioned and outfitted rides, the need to cook independently is generally minimal. RAGBRAI is famous for gigantic, very reasonably priced pancake breakfasts and grill-outs, for instance – riders need only provide small, lightweight snacks to fill the gaps between meals. On independent rides, especially in remote areas, you’ll likely prepare more food yourself. That’ll add a lot of weight: coolers, ice, cooking equipment, and the food itself.
  6. Do You Have Enough Pack or Storage Space? The more weight you carry, the more cargo space you’ll need. Independent, self-supported rides are necessarily more burdensome, since you’re responsible for carrying everything you bring. Sanctioned and outfitted rides generally have motorized luggage-carrying vehicles – with advance planning, you can put most of what you need in those vehicle packs and bring just the bare essentials (repair kits, water, snacks, phone) with you on your bike. I’ll have more details on cargo in the following section.
  7. Do You Have Access to Safe Water? This shouldn’t be an issue on most long-distance rides, where you’ll likely encounter campsites or taps supplied by potable water. In remote areas, though, you need to make plans to purify naturally occurring water. If you have space for a pot and access to a fire pit or other heat source, the cheapest way to do this is simply to boil water for at least 15 minutes. If you don’t have heat or cookware, water purification tablets (usually iodine-based) are the next best thing. You can find them for as little as $5 per bottle (good for at least 25 quarts) on Amazon.
  8. How Will You Address Minor Injuries and Medical Needs? On a multi-day bike ride, minor injuries – cuts, scrapes, pulled muscles, bad sunburns, overuse injuries – are almost inevitable. You can address musculoskeletal issues with regular stretching, over-the-counter painkillers, and medical tape. Cuts and scrapes require antibacterial gel or spray, sterile bandages, more medical tape, and medical scissors. Before your ride, throw all these (lightweight, compact) items into an ad hoc first aid kit. We built a first aid kit for our week-long ride wholly with medical supplies we already had on hand. Had we purchased everything new, I estimate we would have spent about $20 – an acceptable investment in our collective peace of mind.
  9. How Will You Address Medical Emergencies? A homemade first aid kit can’t address every single medical emergency. A bad sprain or broken bone effectively ends your long-distance bike ride and necessitates speedy extraction from the field. A more serious medical emergency, such as a stroke or heart attack, necessitates emergency triage and urgent hospital care. Ask your sanctioned ride sponsor or outfitter whether they’re carrying any lifesaving equipment, such as automated external defibrillators, and always know where the nearest hospital is. (In truly remote areas, where traditional cell coverage is lacking, consider bringing a satellite phone or confirming that the outfitter has one.)

What You’ll Need – Equipment & Supplies

Exactly how prepared you need to be for your long bike tour depends on what type of tour you’re taking. On an outfitted ride with full support, you can safely carry a lot less equipment than on an independent ride through a remote part of the country or world.

Still, for safety and convenience, every long-distance rider should carry certain equipment and supplies. What follows is a laundry list of such items, with rough price ranges based on my research and personal experience. Modify or expand it as necessary to accommodate your plans.

Pro Tip: This list assumes you’re planning your long ride during the warm season. It doesn’t include any winter biking equipment, such as pogies and chain housing. If you’re planning a long ride during the winter and aren’t sure how to prepare, check out my guide to biking in winter and cold weather.

  • Communication Equipment. If there’s any chance you’ll become separated from your group, make sure you have reliable communication equipment on hand. In areas with reliable cell service, your smartphone should work fine. More remote rides require backups not dependent on spotty mobile networks; the Sena R1 Smart Cycling Helmet is a great choice.
  • Refillable Water Bottles. Even if it’s not particularly hot, you’ll need lots of water. Bring at least two refillable water bottles. Better yet, take a body-mounted hydration pack. I found small (two liter), off-brand hydration packs for less than $13 at Walmart, and you might do even better at discount online retailers.
  • Sun Protection. If you have fair skin or sensitivity to prolonged sun exposure, plan accordingly. Bring high-SPF sunblock ($3 to $15, depending on brand, SPF rating, and container size); sunglasses ($5 to $10 for cheap, functional pairs); and a hat or helmet (less than $10 for a cheap hat and $10 and up for a cheap helmet).
  • Cargo Capacity. On a sanctioned or outfitted ride with vehicle support, you won’t need to carry most of your stuff, but you’ll still need something to hold it. I’d recommend soft but sturdy duffel bags or oversized backpacks. If you’re bringing a tent, take the original bag as well. Mind any weight or item restrictions – RAGBRAI limits each rider to two bags, for instance. If you’re riding independently, you’ll need panniers (saddlebags), handlebar bags, under-seat bags, and probably at least one bike trailer that hitches to your frame. Good panniers can be pricey – expect to pay at least $50 per bag. Handlebar bags ($15 and up) and under-seat bags ($10 and up) are cheaper, in my experience. Cargo trailers are big-ticket items here – expect to pay at least $80 for a sturdy trailer with ample capacity.
  • Bicycle Repair Gear. Your repair and maintenance gear needs will depend on your ride’s support infrastructure. At minimum, you’ll want several spare bike tubes ($5 to $10 each for unspecialized options); a tire iron (less than $5 for a basic iron); a hand pump (as little as $7 or $8, but good pumps typically go for $15 and up); chain lubricant ($5 and up per small container); and possibly spare spokes (less than $1 per spoke), which can be tougher to repair than they look.
  • Tent and Supplies. If you plan to camp out, you’ll need camping supplies: a tent, tarp, rain fly, stakes, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, pillow. Expect to spend at least $150 to buy these items new. You’ll almost certainly need panniers or a trailer to carry all this stuff – an added expense.
  • Food and Cooking Equipment. To minimize weight and simplify your ride’s logistics, it’s in your best interest to prepare as little food as possible while you’re on the road. If you do plan to cook, you’ll need lightweight cooking implements and utensils: a camp stove, pot(s) and pan(s), tongs and spatula, silverware, plates, bowls. Basic, compact mess kits (not including the stove) cost as little as $13 to $15 online. Expect to pay another $25 for the stove. Again, the main issue here is cargo space: All but the most compact stoves aren’t likely to fit into your saddlebags.
  • Appropriate Clothing. Your clothing choices will depend on the weather forecast and your own personal preference, but will likely include: bike shorts (at least $20 per pair, and more often $30 to $50); comfortable outerwear (ranging from cotton tees that cost a few dollars each to bike jerseys – like this Maloja short-sleeve jersey – that cost $50 or more); sweat-wicking underlayers (for colder conditions – $15 to $50 or more, depending on brand and technology); and rainproof athletic outerlayers ($35 and up for a functional rain jacket). Unless you have reliable access to running water, you’ll want at least one pair of bike shorts for every two days you spend on the road, and plenty of underlayers and tees too.
  • Appropriate Footwear. Many long-distance cyclists use clip-in bike shoes and pedals, which are much more efficient on paved roads than traditional pedals and athletic shoes. (I personally don’t like clip-ins because they’re hard to get out of in a jam, but I think I’m in the minority.) Expect to pay at least $50 for a pair of basic clip-in shoes and at least $30 for a pair of clip-in pedals, which may require a mechanic to install. High-performance shoes, like those powered by the BOA Fit system, but their superior output is well worth the investment. If you’re fine without clip-ins, snug running shoes and your bike’s factory pedals will do fine. In wet or humid conditions, consider sweat-wicking socks, which typically retail for $3 to $4 apiece in packs of three or six.
  • Toiletries. Don’t forget toiletries: toothbrush, toothpaste, liquid soap, shampoo. You likely have these items lying around already – just throw them in a plastic bag and you’re good to go. If you want to conserve space, consider travel-site toothpaste, soap, and shampoo. Expect to pay $0.50 to $2 per tube for those. If you won’t have space to dry towels between uses, consider disposable (biodegradable) towels, which cost roughly $15 for packs of six.
  • Electronics. Don’t forget your essential electronics (especially your phone, which could come in handy in an emergency) and charging devices. If you’re unlikely to have regular outlet access, bring a portable battery charger for your phone. I’ve found single-use portable chargers for as little as $5 apiece, but it’s worth paying more for a rechargeable option capable of delivering multiple charges between re-juicings. I’m particularly partial to Mophie battery packs, which work seamlessly with increasingly plentiful Qi wireless charging systems and fit a host of popular mobile devices. I’d also recommend bringing a rugged smart watch with GPS capabilities, like the Casio WSD-F20A. If you plan to get completely off the grid, opt for a solar-powered wristwatch like the Casio PRG330.
  • Bike Lock. If you plan to leave your bike for long periods, especially in populated areas, bring a sturdy bike lock and key. Solid metal U-locks (starting at less than $10) are preferable, but they’re quite heavy; a light(er)-weight cable lock ($5 and up) is fine for weight-challenged riders, but be warned that it’s much easier for thieves to cut through.

Final Word

A few years ago, I’d have laughed at anyone who told me I’d be physically and mentally prepared for a week-long bike ride across 400-plus miles of farmland and prairie in the blazing July sun.

But I was. My wife and I followed an aggressive training program, made necessary clothing and equipment purchases well in advance, selected a quality outfitter, and carefully gamed out the logistical implications of our trip (including arriving and parking in the ending location – a nightmare in a small town not equipped to handle thousands of extra vehicles on its narrow streets). If we could do it, you can too.

Have you ever taken a long-distance bike ride? How did you prepare, and what do you wish you’d done differently?

Brian Martucci writes about credit cards, banking, insurance, travel, and more. When he's not investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, you can find him exploring his favorite trails or sampling a new cuisine. Reach him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.