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A guide to cycle touring by Ordnance Survey

Travelling by bike guarantees a fantastic adventure and allows you to discover much more than in your regular holiday. This guide to cycle touring will explain what it is and how to do it. 

Why cycle touring?

Cycle touring covers the whole multitude of cycle travel and, of course you can do this on any bike, but a sturdy steel-framed touring or hybrid bike with panniers are particularly well suited to the job. A cycle tourist often carries all their gear (in the panniers) but some organise for their luggage to be transported for them, enabling them to travel further and faster.  

Cycle touring generally uses roads to travel with the occasional gravel/off-road section. Bikepacking is a type of cycle touring that involves off road bikes, such as gravel bikes or mountain bikes with lighter, more compact luggage, making them more suitable for off-road routes.

Unique advantages of cycle touring 

The most obvious appeal is that riding a bike is incredibly good for you. Cycling is a low-impact form of exercise which means cycling day after day can be enjoyed by anyone with a reasonable level of fitness.  

Each day you’ll benefit from the wind in your hair and the extra endorphins from all that cycling. There really is no better feeling than being out on the open road, even if it is blowing a hooley – it all adds to the adventure. Burning so many calories, you’ll need to keep yourself fuelled, which is why cycle touring is great if you enjoy coffee and cake! 

Then there’s the fact that you’ll see far more of the world by bicycle as you can stop and admire a view whenever you wish, and you’re likely to meet some interesting and helpful people along the way.  

Finally, cycle touring allows us to reduce our carbon footprint and save a lot of money. Once you reach your start point, there are no tickets or fuel costs required (apart from the occasional ferry ticket, some bike oil and tools), meaning that traveling by bike can barely cost you anything, especially if you explore from your front door! You can of course choose to stay in luxury hotels and eat at restaurants if you wish. This will increase the cost of cycle touring, but you’ll still be saving money on transport! 

Choosing your cycle touring route 

Where do you want to go and what do you want to see? These are questions easier mulled over than answered. If you’re new to bike travel, it’s a good idea to start local and have a microadventure closer to home.  

Great Britain has so many incredible cycle routes for you to choose from. When you’re choosing your cycle touring route, consider the parts of the country that you’ve never visited; is there a way that you can string together as many of these destinations as possible? Get yourself a map suitable for cycle touring like the OS Landranger maps (for longer distances) or OS Explorer map (for shorter distances), to help you devise a route or plan your journey online. You can search from thousands of tried and tested on and off-road cycling routes in OS Maps or have a go at plotting your own. OS Maps also has a Sustrans National Cycle Network layer, helping you to easily view the UK’s wide network of signed on and off road paths and routesis handy for those wanting to explore this country by bike  

One of the great things about cycle touring is that it can take you anywhere! Some people enjoy the challenge of cycling across a country or island while others take on the epic challenge of cycling around the world. If you are inspired by a global adventure, then OS Maps now offers standard mapping across the globe, with topographical mapping also available in Australia and New Zealand, with more countries to come soon.

If you don’t know where to start your adventure, it might also be beneficial to read some of the cycle touring adventures had by others, especially if you’re looking to go abroad. Search for the specific cycle routes you wish to take and read what other people have to say, so that you get a better idea of where to go, what to avoid, what to take, and what you can expect. You could also sign up to a cycle touring forum, such as the CTC Forum or Cycling UK and chat to other keen cyclists for tips and advice. 

If it’s your very first time heading out on a long-distance cycling tour and you’re looking for a more relaxing trip, it might be worthwhile looking into guided and semi-guided tours. These are run by cycling experts who can help you get the most out of every destination you ride through. They can help with route planning, booking accommodation and restaurants and support you while you ride.  

When to go on your cycle tour? 

Like any holiday, planning a cycle tour will require different things depending on the time of year you wish to go. Cycling in the heat of summer can be tough on the body and there may be more cars on the road. However, summer cycle tours require less clothes and a lighter sleep system, so you’ll carry less weight. 

Cycling in winter through heavy rain and wind is equally challenging and you’ll need good kit to keep you warm and dry. The weather forecast will impact the equipment you’ll need to take with you, but as we all know, the weather can easily change so it’s best to cover all bases and pack waterproofs and warm clothes just in case. 

If you only have a certain time frame for your trip, it’s important to have a rough itinerary of your schedule before you set off. This will give you an idea of how much distance you should be cycling per day to stay on course and allows you to make the necessary travel/accommodation arrangements in advance. The beauty with cycle touring is that it’s incredibly flexible, especially if you plan to cook and camp along the way. 

Where to stay on your cycle tour 

Sleeping under the stars will give you a real sense of adventure and a huge amount of freedom and flexibility. If you’re looking for a more luxury holiday, you may wish to stay in accommodation along the route. However, this does mean you’ll need to be sure you can reach your accommodation before the end of the day, so a little more planning may be required. You can also use sites like Warm Showers where generous cyclists across the world offer a shower/ bed/meal to those travelling by bike. If you do plan to camp on route, please do so responsibly and leave absolutely no trace.  

Preparing for your cycle tour 

You’re not going anywhere without your two-wheeled friend, but how do you choose which bike will serve you the best? 

Well, that all depends on the type of tour you’ve decided to take, the time of year, the terrain and how much luggage you have. The most common type of cycle touring involves a touring or hybrid bike. A steel frame is incredibly robust and will handle the weight of your luggage well whilst an aluminium frame will be much lighter and easier to manoeuvre. 

In terms of the equipment, of course here at Ordnance Survey, we would argue the most important items are your map or route.  On a bike people may prefer to follow a digital route. This could be on a GPS Device, or via OS Maps app on your phone, but we’d always recommend a back up paper map as well.   

. There are other bits you’ll need, including your bike pump/tools (including spare inner tube) and a water bottle, and  if you’re planning to camp and cook along the way you’ll have more to pack. Don’t forget you could split this type of kit may be between a group if you’re not riding solo. 

Basic kit list 

How much or how little you take is personal preference, it all depends how much you’re willing to carry. Here’s a suggested kit list which is relatively low in weight and will be suitable for most spring/summer cycle tours.  

  • Paper Map, GPS, phone for mapping with OS Maps, plus power bank for charging 
  • Bike and luggage bags – can often be hired if you don’t have your own 
  • Bike tools, pump, spare tubes, helmet, water bottle 
  • Spare clothes – to save weight have just one on-bike outfit and one off-bike outfit for the evenings/if you get wet. Two pairs of socks/underwear is a must. Padded shorts highly recommended! 
  • Gloves, hat, buff – even on summer trips in Britain, these will help you keep warm if the weather does turn 
  • Toiletries – You can get away with the basics; sunscreen, toothbrush/toothpaste, wet wipes, tissues, deodorant 
  • First aid kit along with any medication you may need 
  • Mini towel – perfect for washing/drying your face in a river! 
  • Sleep system if camping – sleeping bag, liner, mat, tent/bivvy/tarp 
  • Cooking gear if cooking on the road – stove, pot, gas 
  • Knife, spork, lighter – even if not cooking these come in handy for preparing supermarket food 
  • Sandwich bags – often come in useful, from transporting left over pizza to taking your waste with you. 
  • Bungee, electrical tape and cable ties – can fix just about anything 
  • Emergency snacks – peanut butter, flapjacks and isotonic tablets make great fuel 

Cycle touring really is the greatest adventure! So, whether you’re thinking about swapping four wheels for two on your next holiday or just peddling out for a night under the stars, dive into the world of bike travel and you’ll never look back!  

Visit osmaps.com or download the app for free on IOS or Android, and unlock unlimited mapping and discover existing routes for inspiration and planning.  

Visit shop.ordnancesurvey.co.uk for paper maps and a range of equipment to help with your next adventure.  

Don’t forget CSSC members receive a discount on 10% discount OS Maps premium subscription and 10% discount on any OS Explorer or Landranger paper maps.