Travel Tip: Any bike's a touring bike

Before graduating to two-wheelers, I had to apprentice by driving tractor.

When I was twelve and growing up in Iowa, a friend and I were granted permission to ride our bikes out to a nearby state park where my family was camping for the weekend. The distance was only 7 or 8 miles, over low-traffic paved and gravel roads, so our parents weren’t too concerned about us riding in traffic.

Though it wasn't necessary, we wanted to haul our own sleeping bags and other personal gear -- a change of clothes, toothbrush, rain jacket, etc. -- all of which fit, if not neatly, into our canvas Boy Scout knapsacks. Our sleeping bags were the old bulky kind, not today's easily squishable down-filled variety.

Off we went, on Friday afternoon, packs on our backs. Freedom!

Now, a lot of people think Iowa is flat, but that does not include anyone who has participated in the uber-popular RAGBRAI. Those many thousands who have bicycled across the state know Iowa is hilly. Especially around the river valleys, like the valley of the Des Moines River, where my friend and I were headed. Getting to the valley bottom was easy and fun; getting out of it two days later was neither easy nor all that much fun. We had to walk, pushing our bikes for a mile or two. (Truth be told, we would have accepted a ride home in the car, but lack of room for the bikes precluded that option.)

I didn’t comprehend it back then, but my buddy and I had become bicycle travelers. We were using our bikes to self-propel ourselves to a destination. And we sure didn’t have specialized touring bicycles, if such a thing even existed in 1963. My bike was a Schwinn Tiger, a two-speed with coaster brakes. Technically, it featured a Bendix two-speed automatic “kickback” hub; I gently backpedaled to shift gears. I don’t recall what brand of bike my friend was on, but I do know that with two gears I had twice as many as he had.

A rather long way of making my point, which is: Any bike is a touring bike. Don’t resist tackling a Bike Overnight simply because you think that old beater in the garage isn’t up to it. Pump up the tires or, if necessary, equip the bike with new tires and tubes; lube the chain; tighten the bolts. Then hit the road or trail. You can carry your gear in a small backpack like we did, or add a rack or basket to your bike. Heck, you can even make gear-hauling panniers out of spent kitty litter boxes!

A lot of people get hung up on fancy bicycles and expensive gear. Maybe you're already one of them. If not, my advice is to leave any potential obsessing for later, and enjoy a Bike Overnight right now, with what you already have.

Get more information about bike overnights.

Photo by Max McCoy

8 responses so far ↓

John Payne - Dec 14, 2011 at 6:36 AM

Oh, the freedom of the road! My brother and I didn't carry our gear but we did a similar ride over similar roads to our family campout at a local lake when we were kids, at a distance not much further than your ride. I still remember the feeling of elation we both had when we made it there. A grand adventure. Thanks for reminding me of it.

matt picio - Dec 14, 2011 at 8:17 AM

This is exactly what Cycle Wild, http://cyclewild.org, teaches in our Bike Camping 101 class and the materials on our website. A full set of Ortliebs or Arkels on a "touring" frame are great, but you can tour just as well on an old Gary Fisher with a rear rack, a milk crate, and velcro strips. (that was my first "touring" rig) There is no one "right" way to tour.

I recently completed a tour across the US. Along the way in Nebraska, I ran across two people touring together - one had the typical "touring" setup, but her friend was riding an old road bike with a stock rear rack and an old suitcase bungied on. (and he was having the time of his life) He'd already ridden from central Illinois all the way across Iowa and into the middle of Nebraska. Tour with what's comfortable, or what's available - the most important thing is to get out and ride! (and some basic safety, of course!)

Jim Fisher - Dec 15, 2011 at 11:27 AM

Those early experiences are what form character(s). My brother and I used to take all day to ride from Rochester, MN to Faribault (family lakeshore cabin) 70 miles on our schwinn varsity's. I think the wheel sets weighed more than what some people think a bike should weigh now. Did my first solo in 7th grade up MN52 west on 60, now days I am afraid to drive my car on it let alone ride a bike!

Tom Kabat - Dec 15, 2011 at 7:47 PM

I agree that Touring on any bike can be a fun adventure. And I like the recumbent tractor in the picture. I may have to make one of those.

Tom Shaddox - Dec 22, 2011 at 10:12 AM

You can accomplish a trip that meets the broad and general definition of "bike touring" on any bike.

But IMO it's a disservice to say any and every bike is a touring bike.

Michael McCoy - Jan 17, 2012 at 7:23 AM

Guys, thanks all for the comments. Tom S., I'm definitely not trying to say that any bike is as good as another -- just that you don't have to own the latest & greatest to head out for an overnight. All four of the bikes I own today are far superior to my Schwinn Tiger of yesteryear -- but not necessarily any more fun than the Tiger!

eli bishop - Feb 11, 2013 at 9:50 PM

The Path Less Pedalled made me feel a lot better about my bike when I read this: http://pathlesspedaled.com/2010/11/youre-doing-it-wrong/

Daniel - Feb 12, 2013 at 8:27 AM

My first tour, in 1984, was on a 1976 Motobecane Nomade Sprint with stock gearing. It was hardly a touring bike but I could put a rack on it and carry gear. The ride was from St. Albans, VT to the Connecticut Valley in Massachusetts via the Champlain Islands, much of it along VT 100 and over Smugglers Notch. There was nothing flat about the ride and it was easily possible with out touring (24/34) gearing. I did buy a Trek 520 a couple of years later for a 7 week tour. But I had a lot more to carry.

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