Notes from Shawn and April's Touring Workshop

I went to a workshop at Freewheel last weekend hosted by Shawn Granton and his partner April Wiza.  Shawn wrote the Urban Adventure League's Cycle Touring Primer zine and blogs hereApril's blog is here.  The two of them have toured extensively together and are currently in the midst of a cross country bicycle tour through the US and Canada.  It was a pretty good overview of what you really need to start touring, including a lot of good information about the type of mentality you need to have when touring and things to look for in riding partners in addition to all of the good information on gear.  Keep reading to hear my full notes from the workshop.

Introduction to Touring

They started off the workshop with some banter about Portland and some history.  Shawn has been touring for about 6 years, and he and April have been touring together for 2 years, and on this particular tour they have been traveling for 3 months.

The first question that you have to ask yourself is 'Why bicycle touring?' Most often the answer is "It's the next level" of bicycle riding, taking things further and longer and carrying more stuff.  The end of each tour is a refinement of your needs and goals with regards to gear and distance for the next tour.  Shawn gave a good description of the difference in what you see in regards to different modes of transportation, planes vs cars vs pedestrian vs bicycle, and gave a convincing argument that bicycling was really the best way to see the country out of any of these.  He also noted that for a full cross-country tour most people end up allocating about 3 months. 

April joined in with her take on touring - she's a big fan of just going and doing it with whatever you have, then getting back from the trip and figuring out how to do it better.  Just doing the touring is the big thing - you need to stop waiting until you have all the gear, you can just borrow from friends if you don't have everything. 

They talked about where to tour, and noted that we're lucky because there are lots of options around here.  The west coast is also apparently very popular and easy, and while you're touring there you'll see other cycling tourers all the time.  You should take the west coast north to south because of the prevailing winds, though storms come from the south.  The roads are also sometimes narrow and only have room for a shoulder on one side of the road, they will put this on the south bound shoulder because they know that side will be getting the most cyclists.  They really liked one section in Alberta from this trip, too, called the Ice Fields Parkway that is apparently really spectacular.  It's also really hilly and you want to stop all the time to look at the views so you only do 40 mile days on that stretch.

Adventure Cycling is an organization from my home town of Missoula, MT that publishes several routes including the "Trans Am" which is a cross country route started in 1976.  It's one of the more popular routes, and there are places all along it catering to cycle tourists. 


Planning Your Tour

The first step to planning a tour is figuring out the route.  To do that, you can go to a variety of sources.

1) The Internet

Use the Internet to try and find real people that have toured in this area before.  Shawn recommended mplsbikelove.com, mapmyride and bikely.

2) Books

The library is a good source, try to find books on the area you are interested in.  There are apparently several books for Minnesota, I have a couple of them but I don't know how easy they would be to use.  The books tend to have single routes or 'day loops' in them, without real context on which area of the state they are in or how to get to or from the start and end of the trail.  You'd probably have to be really good with looking in indexes I'd think.  REI is apparently another good source of books.  With the books you also have to be careful to make sure they're not really too roadie specific - the roadie ones will be like 'oh it's a great route with lots of nice rollers and a few good hill climbs' to challenge roadies, this is exactly what you DON'T want when you are fully loaded.

3) Maps

Shawn and April don't use GPS, and say that even if you have GPS you should bring good maps as a backup because technology fails, and it fails when you most need it.  Lots of states put out bike maps, he pointed out that the Minnesota ones are about 10 years out of date, and a check today confirms that the last state map was put out in 2001.  These state maps have a lot of nice features you don't find on other maps.

  • They will show you traffic volumes for the roads
  • Some will show the exact grades or just where the hills are, which can help a lot in planning
  • Some show the width of the road shoulders
  • Some show camping

Sometimes you can also get county maps that show bicycle routes.  Wisconsin bike maps has a pdf of each county.

Maps for entire states typically don't have the level of detail you will want, but you can get them for free at welcome centers on the state border instead of paying 5 dollars at a gas station. 

For the really intense detail you can go with topographic maps, which are based on quadrangles.  These have a great deal of detail but they are expensive and pretty limited, and if you only use a little corner of a map you still have to pay full price for it.  These types of maps are typically good for off-road touring or touring on dirt roads.

4) Bike Shops

You might be able to call in advance to towns along your intended route and ask the local bike shop if they know which road would be best.  Typically for this you'd want to be pretty specific in what you ask I think, you don't want to annoy some mechanic with a bunch of silly questions.  But if you don't know which road through town is the better route, the local knowledge will typically be great at a bike shop because presumably they are people that get out and ride on the roads around town.


After you have figured out your route, you need to know what type of touring you want to do.  Do you want to do this solo, or in a large group of people?

Solo Touring

Touring solo means it's all you, all the time.  All of the triumphs are your own, which can be a great self confidence booster.  But the flip side is that all of the pitfalls are also all your own.  It does mean that you can just ride however you want with no consequences, so if that is important to you then maybe solo touring is nice.  They did say that when things go wrong it can be really nice to have someone else with you, "misery loves company."  I think in general they didn't make it sound all that appealing to travel solo.

Group Touring

With two people you have someone to talk with, and it's also cheaper to eat with two people.  It's easier to carry the tent when you can split the load every other day, and it's best if you have someone to help keep you warm at night.  It can be hard not to get really frustrated with and want to hit snorers and whiners.  You really need to know your touring partners, hopefully they will be people that have similar riding goals and styles.  You want a partner that likes to do breaks at about the same distance/time intervals, likes to get rolling at about the same pace as you in the morning, likes to eat at about the same pace, etc.  Compatibility is key to a pleasant cycling experience.

They noted that larger groups tend to become self-contained units, there is not as much interaction with the local people when you have a large group.  A person that might approach two cycle tourers and offer a meal and a place to crash for the night probably wouldn't make the same offer to a group of six for instance.  So you are more approachable as a solo person or as a couple. 


When to Tour

Summer is the peak season, even though the bugs kind of suck.  Daylight hours are the key - in June you have 16 hours.   Even May is pretty good too.  But by this time of year (mid September) you are looking at only 12 hours.  Shawn and April set their tour to chase a 9:30 sunset.  There is a "Shoulder Season" that exists before Memorial Day or after Labor Day.  In this time period, several places will already be closed, meaning you might not be able to get water or use facilities at campgrounds.  You have to watch out for this if you are touring in that time period.


How Far to Travel / Daily Mileage Goals

They like to shoot for 50-60 miles, some people like to do centuries every day, some people like to do 30 miles in a day.  It's all in what is comfortable for you, what you want to do.  On a longer open ended tour like they are doing it's also easier to just give up and throw in the towel halfway through a day if everything sucks, often you can't do this on a shorter vacation tour, you have to make your planned distance or you might not catch your flight home for instance.  They say that whatever you do you should start modest and work your way up, and remember that it's fully loaded touring, it's not a light bike.  Be realistic about mileage when you are planning, and remember that you need break days for anything over a couple of weeks.  5-10 days of riding then a day off is what they shoot for, sometimes they are three day long breaks in some cities. 

Hillier days also mean less miles.  9 miles an hour is the speed to keep away from mosquitoes - if you slip below this they will eat you as you ride.  Plan for headwinds - these can be worse than any hill because at least with a hill you can see the end.  You can get maps for prevailing winds from the weather service.  You have to figure out how to map your planned mileage goals into actual rest stops and camping as well - just because you want to ride 70 miles down a road on a particular day doesn't mean that there will be a nice campground waiting for you 70 miles down that road.


Places To Stay

This really breaks down into two categories - stealth and official.  On long bike tours you have to be flexible.  There is also a lot of variation in campsites, with the general rule being that the more expensive the campsite is the worse it will be to stay at.  State or National Parks are the best. 

  • State parks have showers and water
  • National parks have no showers and often water.
  • Provincial Canada doesn't even have drinkable water
  • Oregon has "Hiker Biker" sites, $5 per head per night
  • East coast state parks will turn you away if they are full
  • It can be hard to reserve a park while on a tour because you don't know exactly when you will be there
  • National Forest generally you can camp anywhere if you meet certain criteria
  • National Parks you must be in an official campsite
  • Some areas have 'municipal campsites' but these are often poor areas with land they can't do anything else with and are geared more towards RVs.
  • Some city parks can be nice
  • Private campgrounds are generally mediocre and almost always geared towards RVs

Stealth Camping

Shawn and April don't do a lot of this.  Often you can go the the bike shop or food coop in town and simply ask people for a place to pitch your tent.  If it's on a major bike route like the Trans Am you can even simply knock on people's doors.  Churches are another good place to find spots.  The basic rule of finding a spot is to give people a chance to help you - you'll often find that instead of just a place to stay you end up with a free meal and a shower too. 

Hotels / Motels

They view these as luxury items, I think I would too.  They do them maybe once a month just to get a change of pace.

Hostels

There aren't too many of them around here to go to.  If you do go to one bring earplugs.  They had photos of several nice looking hostels along the route in Canada and the Northwest.

Internet Temporary Housing Sites

There are two websites for this, couchsurfing.org and warmshowers.org.  Couch surfing you can narrow down the search parameters to only search within cyclist friendly people or other cyclists.  Warm Showers is a all bicycle website dedicated to hooking touring cyclists up with places to stay.  They had several photos of simply amazing places that people had built along major routes for people.  One place had a yurt set up for people to stay in and a sauna I think.  Another had put a second floor on their barn with bunk beds and I think a kitchen.  I forget what was at each place, but they were all super cool.  They said that if you planned it right you could easily do tours around here with all Warm Showers trips.  I haven't really looked into this but it sounds really interesting.

On Bike Camping In General

They say this is a dangerous road / slippery slope.  Best to just go with whatever you have.  Ask to borrow stuff.  Look for backpacking stuff vs car camping stuff because it will be much much lighter.  This is only true up to a point though - a cycle tourist should never really be a weight weeny.  Anything you buy will easily weigh less than your water bottles or your food rations.  Spending that extra 200 dollars for something that is lighter and is going to break more easily is probably not a smart investment.  Food is often going to be your biggest/heaviest bulk item.  Tents sizes are calculated by the number of people they sleep, but you will always figure the size of the tent is size minus one to factor in for everyone's gear.  Also look for tents with openings on both sides so you don't have to climb over each other to get in and out of the tent.

 


 

Cooking

Basically this is 'do you do it or not' because if you are going to do it, then you have to carry the gear to actually do it.  Shawn and April like the flexibility of cooking their own meals, plus April really needs to have a meal in her belly before they hit the road.  They actually bring two stoves, both for redundancy so one can run out of fuel or break and they still have a backup, and so that they can make coffee and breakfast in the morning.  If you are going to cook on your tour, there are four types of stoves.

  1. Canister Fuel - this is what they use.  They suck in any kind of wind.  Canisters are not recyclable so it's not environmentally friendly.
  2. Liquid Fuel.  This is good if you can't get to canister fuel.
  3. Alcohol Fuel. Runs on "Heat" which you can pick up in any gas station.  Alcohol is not as hot, so it takes longer to heat up water.  Good for heating food or making coffee but not to good for any complex cooking because the flame is not too adjustable. 
  4. Solid Fuel.  This is a foolproof way of getting a flame, you light the chunk of fuel and it just burns at a constant temp until it goes out. Single use, hard to find fuel and stoves.

For utensils it's all in what your comfort level is in cooking.  They know someone that tours everywhere with a cast iron skillet.  Coffee is another thing some people can't live without - they actually bring along a press pot and a hand crank and grind the beans fresh every morning.  I wondered when they talked about that how hard it would be to make chai every morning.  Might be a bit much, or maybe I could be like these guys and just make it over an open fire.


Packing

Everyone has a different strategy on this, but there is one hard and fast rule.  No matter what you do you will do it wrong. Whatever you want at any given moment will always be at the bottom of your bag under everything else, and you will have to dig everything out to get to it.  Mostly what you have to pack is clothes, tools, camping gear, food and cooking gear.

Clothing

At the bare minimum you need one pair of on the bike clothes and one pair of off the bike clothes.  They like to ride with two on and two off outfits plus outerwear and rain gear.  You will need winter clothing for mountain passes even during the summer.  More thin layers are better than less thick layers, both from a packing standpoint and a warmth standpoint. You don't want anything that is cotton.  Synthetics will melt with sparks from the campfire.  They really prefer wool to synthetic and most of their gear was wool.  Ibex makes a lot of wool bike stuff including shorts and underwear. Io Bio makes a wool sports bra that is apparently pretty good. Smartwool also makes a lot of stuff.

One woman from the audience gave us a tip that you should store your wool stuff inside of cotton pillowcases or something similar because the moths can't eat through cotton. 

Overall technical wool is kind of a niche market right now but it is growing pretty fast.  Many major manufacturers of technical clothing are realizing that they are behind the curve and are starting to come out with more stuff.  It does cost more and because it is a relatively new market for quality wool products there isn't a lot of it out there used.  I imagine this is also because you just keep using the stuff until it disintegrates, at least that's how I use my wool stuff. 

Toiletries

This is a really personal thing, just bring whatever feels right for you.  Dr Brauners Castile soap is really great to use - you can use it for nearly everything.  It's really good for washing wool and washing cyclists.  Don't use it as toothpaste or as birth control, which apparently was a prescribed use way back in the day.  You should get a camp towel instead of a regular towel - they dry tons faster.  You can even use them to dry out clothing by putting your wet wool inside of the towel then twisting up the towel.  Regular towels don't dry fast enough, you have to hang them off your bike all day and then they get covered in road grit.

First Aid Kit

This is something you should definitely have to some degree, I ride pretty well stocked myself.  Painkillers are the main thing to keep stocked, Ibuprofen is best unless you are allergic.

Radio

They carry a small solar powered radio that is also powered by a hand crank.  It has a weather band, which can be nice in areas with no cell phone or internet service.  In a pinch apparently you can use it to power a cell phone, but it's really just able to get you like a minute's worth of battery on an older cell phone, not really viable as a charger.

Camera

This is something that's really nice to have on a trip.

Cell Phones / Computers

Only in the last couple of years are people really starting to ask about this.  Nobody cared about this stuff in 2001, they just got on their bikes and went for a ride.  In small towns often the library has a computer and wifi, you can often get wifi outside of the library even if it is closed for the evening. On a longer trip you might want to bring a netbook or something similar, though be wary of breaking it.  All McDonalds now have wifi - you don't have to go inside or buy anything to use it.

If I do any kind of extended touring I will probably be trying to do something where I ride for a week or ten days, then stop and work for a week or two, then pick up and start riding again.  Now if I can just figure out some sort of work arrangement that would allow such a lifestyle...

Books

These are another comfort item - if you want it you want it and should take one.  April loves to have a book to read.

Music Device for an Ipod

Having speakers to play music can be really nice on long open stretches of road.  Of course batteries do wear out.  You don't want to be using headphones with a riding partner though - make sure you have something so the two of you can hear. 

Electricity

You can generate electricity off the grid in several ways, or glean it from the grid in several ways.  There are solar panel kits that are really expensive and it's kind of hard to use them on a bike.  There are many different kinds of generator hubs, they didn't go into much detail on what the differences were.  The German ones are the most expensive and the best engineered, the other ones are made by Japanese companies that outsource the actual construction.  Shawn said Clever Cycles in Portand sells a 99 dollar prebuilt generator hub front wheel that sounded like it might be a great investment. They make a kit for most wheels that will convert the power to something that will power any USB powered device.

You can often get electricity in coffee shops and other places you might stop, too.  Often campgrounds have power outlets in the shower areas - you can plug your phone in while you shower, or sometimes even in the west you will see people who just leave their blackberries charging unattended.  That's more trust than I'm willing to do.  Some people they know actually carry an extension cord to take with them at campgrounds and they will run a line outside from the showers when possible.

 


 

They finished up the talk with some descriptions of the differences between a touring bicycle and a regular bicycle in terms of geometry and braze-ons.

Overall I was pretty impressed with the amount of information they were able to provide in a pretty easy to digest format.  It seemed like they covered most every angle that you would need to think about touring from while at the same time making it not seem like a complicated thing that you can't do.  That's a fine line to tread, and I think they showed how you have to have some of your stuff together, but you can still do it even if everything isn't perfect.  The overall thing to remember about touring at the end of the day is that it's supposed to be fun.  If you're not having fun, do something else.  Figuring out what works for you to make touring a pleasurable experience is a work of constant progress, you will be refining your methodology and gear choices constantly throughout the entire time that you are a bicycle tourist. 

Now the only thing that's left to do is figure out where the next trip will be.

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