Off road cycle touring

Off road cycle touring

There are a host of tracks and trails for you to discover on your mountain bike. Off road touring offers all the advantages of walking in the countryside - sights, smells and sounds but it also allows you to cover more distance in a day. This article covers how to pack your bike and where you can ride at home and abroad.

 Without a doubt mountain bike touring can take you to places that few other people visit. You have the opportunity to see so much more than when in a vehicle: you have a wider field of vision and you are travelling at a speed much more conducive to spotting details along the way. It's arguably better than walking too: you can slow down easily to look at the views, yet also cover much greater distances with ease.


You can slow down easily to look at the views, yet also cover much greater distances with ease

On a bike it's much easier to make contact with people. No matter how seemingly remote, you are likely to meet locals or other travellers and you immediately have a common topic of conversation ('How did you get here!') and most people appreciate anyone who can get around under their own steam. In some areas you may find that your bike will be the topic of conversation even if the locals don't understand the intricacies of the latest gear shifter or pedal system.

Both the UK and abroad offer fantastic opportunities for the off-road tourist. The National Cycle Network and its European counterparts makes route finding, linking locations and travelling into European cities very easy and all with a minimum of traffic. 

Don't expect to cover vast distances when touring. The terrain and your luggage, and perhaps route finding, may slow you down. But riding great distances shouldn't be the point for the tourist. Ride at a comfortable pace that you can maintain without feeling breathless (although hills may prove more taxing with your luggage). You're not in a race, so take the time to savour your surroundings. An early start, perhaps with a rest later on in the hottest part of the day - or even pitching camp by mid afternoon- is often the best way to travel.

The UK has some fantastic distance trails; like the C2C (Sea to Sea) across the north of England, the West Highland Way in Scotland, or of course you can make up your own. It's great fun to travel totally independently and be self-sufficient. If your route is 'point-to-point it may be possible to take a train one way and cycle home (or vice versa) of if you can persuade some friends to join you, you might be able to coerce someone into driving a back-up vehicle to meet you once or twice during the day and be your transport home after your ride.

It's great fun to travel totally independently and be self-sufficient

You can tour on your mountain bike virtually anywhere: to experience the cooler climes of Iceland or the heat of India, the cultures of Morocco and China, or the jungles of Tasmania and South America. You will often find that the more remote your location, the more support you will receive from local people.

You can get some good ideas for places to visit by getting information from wilderness expedition organisers, or from the Cyclists' Touring Club (CTC). The CTC and many adventure tour operators now offer off-road cycling holidays and these are a great way to experience foreign territories. There is the added advantage of travelling in a group that hassles and worries will be taken care of by someone else. The organiser may even arrange to have your luggage taken on to the next night's stop so you can ride unencumbered to really enjoy the route.

On the other hand, you may wish to make up your own itinerary and enjoy the freedom to change your plans as time, conditions and your mood dictate. It is, however, a good idea to check the Foreign & Commonwealth Office website (www.fco.gov.uk) to make sure that your route is not entering civil war zones or other problem areas.

One of the most difficult things to do when mountain bike touring is organising the equipment you carry. If you are travelling in 'western' or 'civilised' areas and you have the cash, you could tour with just a credit card and a change of clothes! Exploring more remote areas may require you to pack camping gear, warm clothing, food and water and a medical kit in case of emergencies.

You will often find that the more remote your location, the more support you will receive from local people

To avoid bike-handling problems, especially over rough surfaces, you must keep your load to a minimum, and have it well secured on the bike. It's best not to carry a rucksack on your back. Panniers are better as they keep the load low for greater stability and allow you to be fully manoeuvrable to stand up, stretch or turn around when sitting on the bike, but they will make riding tricky or technical terrain almost impossible. Take care to balance the front and rear bags as well as each side of the bike.

Gaining popularity are cycle trailers - especially those with a single wheel. Apart from their weight (about 5-6kg) and that of the extra luggage you may be tempted to carry (up to 70kg!) these are an excellent way to transport your daily necessities for weeks or months at a time as they keep weight off the rear wheel (always vulnerable to spoke breakages) and have little adverse affect on the bike's handling. If you can minimise your luggage to travel light, a good mix of bags is a handlebar bag for your immediate needs (maps, cash, camera) with smaller panniers on the back for your end of day bits and pieces, to allow you to still ride some technical trails with elative ease and safety.

Equipment to consider before embarking on your off road expedition may include:
  • At least two or even three water bottles - possibly more are needed if you are heading anywhere where the water availability may be limited, or if you are riding in hotter climates. Choose the larger sizes (750ml or bigger) and consider using a Camelbak or Platypus hydration pack (though these are difficult to keep clean on expedition).
  • A map board on the front of the bike makes for easier navigating on the move, and eliminates the need to stop to check the route at every junction.
  • If camping, check your stove fuel will be available in the country you are going to. Multi-fuel stoves are a good idea but if you are unsure, then petrol is fairly universal.
  • In short, cycle touring is a great experience and riding off road brings a whole new set of sights and smells compared to riding on the road. Choose the UK, Europe or the World. On a bike you can do it all.

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