You’ve seen them on the streets and bicycle trails, those cyclists with panniers (saddle bags, to the uninitiated) loaded with gear out for a grand adventure. You think: I like riding my bike, but I could never do that!
The nonprofit Adventure Cycling Association, among others, and a host of enthusiastic cyclists who share trip reports online say that you can do it. Here’s how.
To support its mission “to inspire and empower people to travel by bicycle,” the association, based in Missoula, Mont., is a one-stop resource for bike travel — from long-distance touring to one-night stays — and offers bike-focused maps covering nearly 47,000 miles of the United States.
For people interested in on-the-ride training, it runs introductory tours aimed at first-timers for both on-road and off-road trips. (Off-roading focuses on dirt roads, not single-track trails.)
Conducted around the country, the tours typically include two days of instruction and four of cycling, and cost $669.
“We’ve found that some people new to bicycling, and maybe going on a longer adventure, want to have their hand held a little bit at first,” said tour director Arlen Hall, who schedules five to seven training tours a year, including one exclusively for women.
“Because our regular tours are group tours, we teach people how to cycle as a group, how to ride and share resources together, and how to shop for food as a group, but of course you can leave that behind if you’re a solo tourist,” Hall said.
The information includes nuts and bolts such as bike selection, gear, lodging (camping, hotel or “Warm Showers,” a kind of couch surfing for bike travelers), food preparation, basic bike maintenance and first aid.
Not surprisingly, many first-timers are worried about traffic safety, Hall said. The Adventure Cycling Association’s maps try to nudge riders away from high-traffic areas, but that’s not always possible.
“Something I really promote for beginners are separate trails, ” Hall said. “You’re away from traffic and you can’t get lost.”
In the Washington area, BicycleSPACE shops give occasional clinics and presentations on overnight bike travel; four staff members recently completed an off-road tour in Death Valley, Calif. REI stores regularly hold classes in on- and off-road biking, including specialties such as overnights and cross-country trips.
One of the biggest trends Hall has seen is a move toward shorter trips. The shortest Adventure Cycling tours are five-night “Family Fun” outings. (Of the 119 tours on the 2018 calendar, nearly a quarter are labeled “best tours for beginners,” which might include luggage-shuttle service and even inn-to-inn accommodations.)
“I see more and more people wanting to get away for just a long weekend,” Hall said. “The beauty of that is you don’t have to do a lot of preparation, and it’s a lot less expensive. You just go out and you can have an equal experience.”
Attesting to that are Jim Willis and his son Jay, of Red Bank, N.J., who cycled from Harpers Ferry, W.Va., to the District along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in the summer of 2016, when Jay was 12. It was Willis’ first bike tour in decades and his son’s first.
“You could not pick an easier place to start than the C&O Canal,” Willis said. “It’s widely recognized as the gateway toward bike touring. You can just camp pretty much anywhere, and if you don’t want to camp, there are plenty of places to stay off the trail.”
He read touring tips on several websites, including pathlesspedaled.com, run by a husband and wife who have cycled extensively and also consult with destinations to help bike tourism grow.
“I did have to buy a few things, like panniers and waterproof stuff-sacks, but it ended up not being a lot of money,” Willis said. After a few short-distance training rides, they were ready to go.
On the trip, he carried the heavy gear while Jay toted his fair share. They rode 10 miles the first day and camped, but dined at a nearby restaurant. They’d planned to camp one more night, but impending thunderstorms encouraged them to finish their three-day trip in two. To beat the storm, they cycled 50 miles in one day — a record his son still wears as a badge of honor. They plan to do another bike trip this summer along the Pine Creek Rail Trail in Pennsylvania.
Still, to many beginners, a 60-mile ride along the C&O Canal sounds daunting. So maybe they should consider a trip in their own neighborhood, as Roberta Paul of Lorton, Va., did.
A self-described suburban mom and lover of the outdoors, Paul took her four children, ages 11 to 16, and their two dogs on a two-night bike trip in 2015. Their destination was only eight miles from home, at Burke Lake Park in Fairfax Station, but camping and being carless made the weekend unique, she said.
“We’d done some biking with the Scouts and I thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could leave our house without using a car and go on a trip?” she said. “We had enough gear already that we could carry what we needed on our bikes.” As for the miniature pinschers, she bought a used Burley bike trailer and did a few test runs in the neighborhood.
They reached the park mostly by using paved multiuse trails away from traffic, though they did have to go through a few intersections with cars, Paul said.
“For my kids, it was great. They got to be independent but also dependent on each other, because they shared duties. We made full use of the park’s amenities and had a lot of fun. I have this visual of my stepson just grinning from ear to ear. I think one thing that makes it feel like an adventure is that, even with a little trip like this, you can’t get that great feeling without working for it.”
If even two nights is too long, you can always try an S24O (pronounced S-Two-Four-O), a term coined by Grant Petersen, who owns Rivendell Bicycle Works in California and wrote the book “Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike.” An S24O is a sub-24 hour overnight bike camping trip. (But no one is forcing you to camp.)
One bicycle shop in Brooklyn, 718 Cyclery, via its 718 Trips and Tours, added one-night “micro-tours” to its listings of occasional week-long tours three years ago and attracts 25 to 50 riders a month from April to November. Riders pay a fee of $25, carry their own gear and camp.
“We leave on Saturday and come back Sunday,” said owner Joe Nocella. “A month before, we have an orientation session. On any given trip, half the people have either not camped or not ridden with gear. We want to show people how easy this is. It really results in a lot of empowerment for people, thinking they could never do that.”
To encourage and document quickie adventures, Adventure Cycling set up the website bikeovernights.org, with the motto “Don’t wait to go cross-country. Go overnight.”
For an inspiring source of off-road primers and trip reports, try bikepacking.com. Bikepacking is a relatively new term that typically means taking an unpaved ride, often with ultralight gear mounted on the bike, that involves camping. The boom in bikepacking and “gravel travel” has fueled interest in biking.
To entice riders to try an overnighter, the Adventure Cycling Association founded the Bike Travel Weekend in 2016. Last year’s event included 935 overnight trips in all 50 states and in 20 countries, with nearly 7,000 participants.
For example, one 10-person group in the District, organized by volunteer Elizabeth Hearn, cycled about 15 miles along the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail and camped at Cherry Hill Campground in College Park, Md., and enjoyed “a huge feeling of accomplishment,” Hearn said.
Bike Travel Weekend 2018 is scheduled for June 1-3. Information and free registration is available at biketravelweekend.org.
Daniel is a writer based in the Netherlands. Her website is bydianedaniel.com.
More from Travel: