First bike tour
May 1, 2015 9:26 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to do my first little bike tour and although it's only a few days, I would love help understanding the mechanics of how this actually works. Advice and also recommendations for other books and online resources would be very helpful!

I'm planning to go from Oakland (where I live) to Ukiah where I'll meet up with my partner and we'll pick up the kid from summer camp. (So I have to do the South-North direction). This will be in July which is slightly worrisome to me as it gets pretty hot farther north.

I have specific questions, but also welcome random unsolicited advice on this plan.

- I'm not in a rush so I was thinking of doing it over 4 days. Sound reasonable?
- I've only ridden 30 miles in a day before. I have limited training time because work full time/parent/etc. My hill skills are mediocre. I can do hills, but pretty slowly. How much do I need to "get in shape" for this?
- I have camped and bike-camped before and I have most of the basic supplies (tent, bag, light stove and cooking stuff), but I'm not the most experienced camper. Anything I should think about?
- How do I figure out my route? Just use google maps?
- How do I figure out where I'm going to sleep each night? Do I have to reserve campsites in advance?
- What else should I think about?!

Thanks all!
posted by latkes to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: try to get in some miles when you can - try going longer than you have before. the important part is comfort on the bike, and fueling yourself - eating and drinking.

if you're reasonably comfortable on your bike, and have ridden 30 miles before, then yeah, doing 120 mi in 4 days is totally reasonable. how much you need to get in shape depends on what kind of shape you are in, so that's a hard question to answer. but, if you're in reasonably good health and if you're in decent shape, if you're comfortable on the bike, you can probably ride all day as long as you pace yourself and fuel yourself.

Route: look at Strava's heat map to figure out roads/routes that are popular with cyclists. google maps works, and you can look at streetview to see if a road is worth riding on (sometimes it's hard to tell on the map if something is a shitty county highway, or a lovely country road with a big shoulder. streetview helps you discern).

camping - sure, reserve campsites. or look for out-of-the-way places when you're on the road.
posted by entropone at 9:43 AM on May 1, 2015

What's you're total distance? 120mi? It's not clear in your question. Anyway, the better shape you're in, the more you'll enjoy yourself. A surefire way to wreck a trip is to tell yourself that you'll get in shape during the ride. That way lies pain.

You should have a rough idea about where you plan to stop each night. I prefer a looser, book-as-you go style of travel, but even so, I try to set a goal based on how far I know I can go so I'm not totally hozed at the end of the day. Some people swear by reservations, but I'm happier with a looser schedule and the ability to stop wherever. This is a personal choice, and both work. One caveat however is popular park campgrounds. In those cases reservations are typically essential.

A good guess, I think, particularly for new tourers, is to figure out what you can do in a half day and use that to plan your route. Four or five hours effort is a quite doable for most, and gives you time to see your stop, to have a comfortable meal and not feel super sore the next day. I've done eight, nine, even ten hour days on a bike and that's an enormous grind day after day. You just get off the bike, grab a bite, then you want to sleep. Half days, otoh, mean a trip that can be a lot of fun without feeling rushed.

If you don't already know about it, the Crazy Guy on a Bike forums are great resource. For route planning, equipment to bring, and just general support, they're a great bunch.

Google maps is a decent starting point, but any mapping/gps program isn't going to tell you how wide the margins are on the roadside, where debris on the road/puncture vines are bad, and so on. I've been caught a couple of times on terrible utility/access roads with no paved shoulders because it looked like it would save a few minutes on a map. My best route planning tools have been on-line forums like CGoaB and old duffers in our local clubs.
posted by bonehead at 9:47 AM on May 1, 2015

Hey! I can help with this! I'm on the tail end of a tour right now!

In the past I've used google maps to plan my routes, but I've actually grown really fond of using Strava's route-planner, since it uses bike-frequency-data and stuff. In really crowded areas (like downtown SF), it's not so helpful, since all the streets are frequently used, but outside of town? It turns out that roadies like quieter, scenic roads over less-attractive, heavily-trafficked roads.

4 days to do 110-140 miles seems pretty reasonable, since it averages out to 30 to 40 miles a day. Some people would say that's on the slower side, but (after being out for two months) I think it's ideal - it gives you time to stop and smell the roses, and if anything comes up and you have to cut out a day, you can make it up.

(Regarding your route, I would maybe consider skipping a bit and taking the BART as far north as you can, or taking the ferry to Vallejo, if possible - I've biked from Oakland to Napa a few times, and it just gets substantially nicer north of Vallejo. It takes away a little bit of the "I just rolled out of my house and left!" fun, but it saves a couple of hours of gross traffic.)

Re: camping, it's the summer, and it's not like we're getting much rain. So even if you totally screw up camping (I've forgotten my tent before, even), you'll be fine. You're only going to be out for a few days, so you have some safety in both direction (over and underpacking): if you bring too much, eh, it's only 100 or so miles. If you bring too little, it's only for a few days.

I haven't done much summer camping in CA, so campgrounds might be crowded. Depending on where you're going, you might be able to pass by places with hiker/biker sites, which are usually first-come, first-served.

If you have the time, do a couple of days of riding in a row with a load comparable to what you expect to bring on the trip. It doesn't need to be 30-40 mile days; but a weekend where you go out and do 20 miles of riding both days, or maybe a 30 and 10, or whatever, should let you know if you're on track or if you need to make some adjustments.

There isn't any shame in going slow! I've been out for two months and I still only go about 5mph uphill. I'd rather go slow than wear myself out.
posted by you could feel the sky at 9:50 AM on May 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't touch on equipment because that's very much a preference thing, and the CGoaB forums will have far more information than you require on the topic, but one thing I will recommend is water. You want at least 2 full-size bottles on the bike, and I prefer 3. You can bike in almost any amount of heat, as log as you have a good water supply.

I really hate camelbacks, because they make my back wet and icky, but some people love them. Again, personal preference.
posted by bonehead at 9:51 AM on May 1, 2015

I was going to recommend the book "Bicycling the Pacific Coast", but Ukiah is pretty far inland, sooo...

I assume you've already seen choosing the "bicycle" option for Google Maps directions? There are ways to stick closer to 101, especially now that there's the MUP and access road combination parallel to 101 from Novato to San Antonio road, to that are probably faster, but not as pretty.

My issue with getting on my bike and clocking off the miles is always how sore my butt gets. I can not have ridden in months, hope on the bike and clock out 70 miles no problem, but the next day? Yeah, I don't want to get that butt anywhere near a bike seat. On the other hand, if I've been riding regularly putting 8 hours in the saddle for consecutive days is no problem.

The issue with 4 days and splitting this into about 35-40 mile days is: Where are you going to camp? China Camp in San Rafael might make a good first day (or since Google Maps suggest going out through Nicasio to get to Petaluma, Samuel P. Taylor). But that'd be a slightly short day. Next day you'd want to make it at least to Santa Rosa, third to Cloverdale, and then into Ukiah. Figure out your places to stay (I'd offer a back yard in Petaluma, but we've got a long-term houseguest already and the place feels cramped and is causing friction).

State parks have some set of first-come first-served bike camping that's dirt cheap, but I don't know what you'd do from those two parks to Ukiah. Might look at the dollars for "credit card touring"... 3 nights in motels could be worth the premium...

Remember that the gear on the bike changes how far you feel like riding. Front panniers change handling a ton, the heavier bike doesn't climb as nicely as just you and the frame and wheels.
posted by straw at 9:55 AM on May 1, 2015

The distance looks closer to 220 miles if you take the coast. Which is 55 a day. That is very doable. Remember the touring mindset is different. I rode 8 mph for 10-12 hours a day down the coast. What really matters is how comfortable your bike is (saddle adjusted properly? Handlebars in the right place? loads on your bike are balanced?). Hills will be hard but I just got used to taking lots of breaks and sitting in my saddle at 5 mph.

For your route, I would consider taking bart to Embarcadero, crossing the golden gate, riding up through Fairfax, and joining highway 1 at Bodega Bay. Then it looks like you can take 128 back inland (check Strava for details). This will be far more scenic. There should be a few hiker-biker sites on the way up. In July, headwinds start up mid-day so you'll probably do most of your riding early and then quit in the afternoon. You can easily get 6 hours in if you start at 7a.

For such a short trip, see if you can get away with leaving the stove at home. There are lots of diners and restaurants to eat at. You'll have to stop to buy food at a grocery store anyhow. Bring a light cable lock with you so you can lock it up in front of restaurants. Carry at least 2 liters of water on you (you can fill up at restaurants). Remember that hydration means proper salt intake as well. There should be salt in your snacks while riding.

Hiker-biker sites are walk-in and you're likely to find one if you're getting in earlier in the afternoon anyhow. Travel as light as possible! I assume your partner is bringing up anything you're not carrying yourself.

And if you don't have them already: bike shorts, gloves, sunglasses.
posted by just.good.enough at 10:04 AM on May 1, 2015

I would recommend looking at Raymond Bridge's Sierra Club guide to bicycle touring. Some of the info may be overkill, but in general it is very useful. He gives general advice on things like route planning, and specific info on what to pack (depending on your needs). Get the recently revised edition (even better, get your public library to order it!).

I don't know the area, but a good rule of thumb for route planning is to figure out the route that drivers would take and then avoid that route. It might add distance, and in some places it might be impossible. But when it's possible, it will provide a much nicer experience than having cars whiz by several times a minute.

You can often get useful advice by reading Crazy Guy on a Bike journals for the places you'll be riding. I have linked to their California journals; you can choose the counties through which you'll be traveling (if the journal authors have tagged them), or search the site for place and road names.

One final tip before I run off to a meeting: a couple weeks before your trip, load everything you think you'll want on your bike, and go for a 20-30 mile ride with some hills like the ones you expect to encounter. Then, when you get home, spread all your stuff out and decide what you really won't need and can leave behind.
posted by brianogilvie at 10:35 AM on May 1, 2015

I did some long rides years ago in California. My method for finding places to sleep was -- in the late afternoon -- to start looking for out-of the way, secluded spots along the road, or where it seemed there was access from the road, places that looked like they could be bivouac sites. We're talking 2-lane through roads, hilly, rural areas or edge-of-small towns, plenty of cover, no streetlights. Need only room to throw down bicycle, pull out sleeping bag, munch a bit, not cook, crash till dawn.

Each time I passed one, I'd remember it, and file that away as a potential return-to location. As I passed better ones, put that in the stack. When I was ready to stop, I'd look for a last one, or go back to the nearest prior prospect.

This always worked. Of course, if a nice campground or park came up, take it, but this opportunistic bivy worked nicely. After twilight it's very difficult for most people to see you if you have cover and dark, keep quiet, set no lights or fire.

Slept in a cemetery near Sutter Creek one time, using this method.
posted by lathrop at 5:39 PM on May 1, 2015

Best answer: The coast is a long detour, and coming back across from Highway 1 up north of Fort Ross could involve a ton of climbing, which is going to be harder than you think 3 days into a tour when you're used to 30 miles a day.

So back looking at the Google Maps route... I can give turn-by-turn suggestions on the route up through Marin, out through Nicasio, into Petaluma via D street, and then up to Santa Rosa (I ride Stony Point from Santa Rosa to Petaluma home from work occasionally).

But I also notice that there's an alternate suggested route that goes up through the Napa valley. There's camping at Skyline Wilderness Park in Napa, and Bothe-Napa Valley State Park between St. Helena and Calistoga. Looks like there's camping in Cloverdale.

So I'd suggest your first day is a slightly longer push to Napa. Camp there. Take a leisurely bike up the Silverado trail to Calistoga, stop in at the Bale Grist Mill State Park, enjoy the day. Camp at Bothe-Napa Valley State Park.

Day 3, head over 128 to Cloverdale, looks like there's an RV park that'll take tent campers.

Day 4, up the last 30 miles to Ukiah. Sure, there's a little stretch on 101, but the shoulder's wider there, it isn't really freeway.

30-40 miles a day (trivial for an experienced cyclist, with you and a loaded bike that'll be a nice day that won't tax you too hard). Well spaced campgrounds. Places to stop and goof around if you're ahead of schedule.
posted by straw at 9:24 AM on May 2, 2015

The Bike Touring Facebook group is a great resource. Read through some old questions and ask these or others there. You'll get great advice.
posted by saul wright at 9:45 AM on May 2, 2015 is a lifesaver, especially if you get stuck in bad weather or find yourself with no real camping options. Everyone on the site is a touring cyclist and familiar with what it's like to get stuck, and it's a community that's incredibly generous putting people up for the night. I've never failed to get a quick response.
posted by puckish at 1:29 PM on May 2, 2015

Response by poster: Hey all, these have been really concrete, helpful answers. I'm not sure I can mark a "best" until I try some of these suggestions but the whole thing is useful. I will definitely look at these route suggestions (not interested in the coastal detour) and also like the idea of doing a couple long rides in a row with a fully packed bike to evaluate my gear and stamina.

I'll keep referring to this thread as I get ready. Thanks!
posted by latkes at 6:36 AM on May 4, 2015

Response by poster: Oh, one more specific question: How do people look at maps while touring? Do you have a paper map taped to a handlebar bag? If you use your phone, how do you program your route in advance? (Haven't dug into Strava yet - is that something I can do there?)
posted by latkes at 7:07 AM on May 4, 2015

I have generally taken a couple of binder clips large enough to go completely over brake/shifter cables and clip the cue sheet on with those.

I have had a bike mount for my smart phone. One good pothole and the phone went tumbling (and I've seen friends w/expensive bike computers have the same problem), and battery life is a thing.
posted by straw at 8:23 AM on May 4, 2015

Paper map in a ziplock bag, held by a couple of built-in straps on the top of my handlebar bag.

Paper has the advantages of never turning off, being visible in bright sun and rain and being really light.
posted by bonehead at 11:21 AM on May 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Which is 55 [miles] a day.

That's a significant distance on a fully-loaded bike for a beginning tourer. In hills, you might find your average speed drops below 12 mph. 55-60 miles becomes the major part of the day at that point. The estimates above of 30-40 miles are much more achievable and, likely, enjoyable.
posted by bonehead at 11:28 AM on May 4, 2015

Not used it myself, but this cell-phone handlebar bag just popped on Cool Tools today. Particularly if you don't want a big bar on the bars, looks like a good option.
posted by bonehead at 5:30 AM on May 5, 2015

Response by poster: Hi folks, I did it!

I was pretty proud of myself as this was the most biking I've done in a go. I ended up doing a long day my first day: My front door in East Oakland to Skyline Wilderness, which was about 45 miles. Then I went about 30 miles the next day to Bothe-Napa. I felt pretty hosed after that so I spent two nights there and messed around in Calistoga for the day. Then I got up early and did about 55 miles to the Real Goods Store/Solar Living Institute in Hopland (which was cool except when the sprinklers came on in the middle of the night on top of my campsite) then my last day was 17 miles to the Ukiah Food Coop where my girlfriend met me.

That Napa/101 route ended up not really hilly and I was able to do a lot more than I thought I could and had a delightful time!

I marked a couple best answers that I ended up drawing on the most regarding route and preparation, but thank you all for your encouragement and suggestions. For anyone coming to this thread in the future who is similarly new to this stuff, I encourage you to go for it, it was way easier than I thought, even carrying food/stove/bedding etc, and it felt totally safe and fine doing this solo given that I was always in cell phone range and could have called a cab if worse came to worse!

posted by latkes at 5:53 PM on August 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

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