How to Prepare for and Save on Long-Distance Bike Rides

My day job keeps me planted in front of my trusty laptop for hours on end. On nice days, when the glare isn’t too bad, I take my stuff outside to a deck or nearby coffee shop patio.

But writing my latest credit card review or how-to guide in the bright sunshine isn’t quite the same as getting away on a true outdoor vacation.

When I really need a break, I like to disconnect as completely as humanly possible for a few consecutive days. The fewer distractions, the better. I put together a guide to preparing for a long-distance hike for just this purpose (along with a separate roundup of the best long-distance hiking trails in the U.S. – some of my favorites are on there).

In this guide, I’ll explore another popular fitness vacation idea: a long-distance bike ride.

This is new territory for me. I’m an avid bike commuter and regularly take long rides for fun, but I didn’t complete my first multi-day ride until the summer of 2017.

In the sections below, I’ll share everything I learned in the months leading up to that week-long adventure, along with tips and best practices from experts with far more experience than moi:

If planning a long-distance bike ride isn’t enough to get you on the regular exercise bandwagon, what is?

You’ll need to adjust your personal training regimen to account for your:

Successful training programs follow this format:

This training tip sheet, published by British outfitter Discover Adventure, is as good an example as any. Use it as a rough guide for your own training regimen and customize as you see fit.

Long-distance bike rides fall into three buckets:

Sanctioned rides are backed by official organizing bodies with sponsors, employees, and volunteers. Riders’ entry fees cover basic ride costs, such as support staff wages, vehicle fuel and mileage, lodging expenses, and the like. Riders generally need to bring (and finance) their own equipment and supplies, but organizers take responsibility for basic logistical matters like reserving accommodations and attending to injured riders.

Outfitted rides are organized and supported by outfitters that provide a broader range of services, such as carrying bags and setting up tents. On some outfitted rides, participants need do little other than pedal from point A to point B. Outfitted rides are more expensive than sanctioned rides – sometimes by an order of magnitude.

The line between hands-off sanctioned rides and outfitted rides isn’t always crystal clear. Major sanctioned rides typically attract organizer-approved outfitters that go the extra mile for riders willing to pay a bit more.

Independent rides are planned and executed by the participants themselves. A solo trek across your home state counts as an independent ride. So does a tour organized and financed internally by you and a dozen of your work colleagues. Independent rides are DIY affairs that require participants to handle everything – logistics, equipment, know-how, you name it – themselves.

As cycling’s popularity increases, so too does the prevalence of sanctioned rides. No matter where you live, you’re probably not more than a half-day’s drive from a sanctioned ride’s starting point.

Find Sanctioned Rides
My wife and I always had one particular sanctioned ride in mind: RAGBRAI, one of the country’s oldest and best-known group bicycle tours. We didn’t even bother to look for other organized rides.

Had we not been set on RAGBRAI, we needn’t have looked too far. If you know nothing other than that you’d like to take a multi-day bike ride organized by people who know what they’re doing better than you, check Biking Bis, an independent website featuring a comprehensive list of legitimate sanctioned rides in the United States. The Across State Bicycle Tours page lists state-specific rides, usually with links out to the sponsoring organization’s website.

Pro Tip: Sanctioned rides take measures to exclude unauthorized riders, or “bandits.” At minimum, you’ll receive a coded wristband or numbered jersey that identifies you as a paid rider. The organizers may outline other asks or requirements as well. In the run-up to your ride, follow compliance requirements very closely, promptly bring questions or issues to organizers’ attention, and don’t lose your wristband or jersey.

What Do Sanctioned Rides Cost?
It depends. Factors that can influence sanctioned rides’ costs can include, but aren’t limited to:

Big, bare-bones sanctioned rides can cost as little as $25 or $30 per day, per person. RAGBRAI’s 2017 entry fee was $175 per person, for instance, or $25 per day. Smaller rides cost more: The eight-day iteration of the Michigander Bike Tour costs $530 per person, or about $66 per day. Longer rides usually cost less per day.

In general, I’d expect to pay at least $50 per person, per day – if it’s less, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Do be prepared to make purchases not included in the entry fee. At minimum, you’ll have opportunities to shop in the towns or settlements you pass through. If the ride isn’t catered, you’ll need to cover your own food costs. Other expenses could arise too – on RAGBRAI, for instance, shower trucks cost $6 per use. (For those willing to brave long lines, the high school at each stopover point opens up its gym showers for free.)

Should You Use an Outfitter for Your Sanctioned Ride?
Again, it depends.

If you’re an experienced camper who’s spent multiple consecutive days in the field, you know what it’s like to rough it without some of the creature comforts you enjoy at home.

But that’s not quite the same as biking from campsite to campsite. If your sanctioned ride doesn’t carry your luggage, you’ll need to be prepared to carry at least 20 pounds of stuff: at minimum, extra clothing, spare tubes, snacks, toiletries, and your tent. That doesn’t include the water you’ll need each day – and it assumes a small, lightweight tent.

Outfitted rides involve far less effort after the ride too. Most outfitters set up riders’ tents, cook up post-ride meals, provide extra cargo space (if not provided by the ride organizer), and set up charging stations for personal electronic devices. If the thought of pitching your own tent after a 70-mile day sounds unappealing, an outfitter might be worth the added cost.

For what it’s worth, my wife and I decided to use an outfitter on our RAGBRAI adventure. It cost approximately $80 extra per person, per day – far more than the ride itself – but the literal and figurative weight off our shoulders was well worth the expense. We went with a hands-on outfitter that provided a lot of extra services. Some are significantly cheaper – in the $50-per-day-range.

Find Outfitted Rides
Small-scale outfitted rides are much more common than big sanctioned rides.

Start your search on an aggregator site like Biking Bis, or check directly with a larger outfitter like Adventure Cycling Association. Adventure Cycling Association’s guided tours page includes more than enough detail about each ride to support an informed decision on your part.

Pay close attention to each ride’s degree of support: “Self-contained” means the group is basically on its own, while “fully supported” indicates the presence or availability of non-cyclist helpers. Note “rest days” too: Some tours include non-riding days during which riders can catch their breath and take in nearby sights.

What Do Outfitted Rides Cost?
As a rough rule of thumb, expect to pay at least $150 per day, per person, for a basic outfitted ride.

Some rides cost far more. Ride length is obviously a key determinant of the final cost, but accommodation type and level of support (in that order) hold more sway over the per-day cost. Adventure Cycling Association’s nine-day Mid-Atlantic Countryside Tour, a campsite-to-campsite journey, costs $1,259 per person. Its simultaneous, eight-day Outer Banks II – Fall Tour, an inn-to-inn ride, costs $2,059 per person – near as I can tell, the bulk of the difference is attributable to the cost of comfortable indoor lodging.

Pro Tip: Popular tours fill up quickly, so make arrangements for your outfitted or sanctioned ride as soon as you can. You don’t want to be denied a spot on the only ride that works with your location and schedule – or, worse, stuck on a waitlist for months, only to find out you didn’t make the cut. My wife and I bought our RAGBRAI passes and made reservations with an approved outfitter within a week of the first day to register.

If you’re willing and able to provide your own support, an independent multi-day ride is likely your most cost-effective option. Since you (and any fellow riders) are responsible for its planning and execution, it’s also likely the most flexible. Subject to practical limitations, you can go anywhere and see anything at any time.

The most important factors affecting your independently planned ride:

You’ll need to use these and other factors to plan a manageable ride that achieves your goals without trying to do too much. Consider:

Even outfitted bike rides are logistically challenging. Poorly planned independent rides are absolute nightmares. Use this checklist to anticipate and address logistical and safety issues that could (and, in many cases, will) arise before, during, and after your adventure.

Exactly how prepared you need to be for your long bike tour depends on what type of tour you’re taking. On an outfitted ride with full support, you can safely carry a lot less equipment than on an independent ride through a remote part of the country or world.

Still, for safety and convenience, every long-distance rider should carry certain equipment and supplies. What follows is a laundry list of such items, with rough price ranges based on my research and personal experience. Modify or expand it as necessary to accommodate your plans.

Pro Tip: This list assumes you’re planning your long ride during the warm season. It doesn’t include any winter biking equipment, such as pogies and chain housing. If you’re planning a long ride during the winter and aren’t sure how to prepare, check out my guide to biking in winter and cold weather.

A few years ago, I’d have laughed at anyone who told me I’d be physically and mentally prepared for a week-long bike ride across 400-plus miles of farmland and prairie in the blazing July sun.

But I was. My wife and I followed an aggressive training program, made necessary clothing and equipment purchases well in advance, selected a quality outfitter, and carefully gamed out the logistical implications of our trip (including arriving and parking in the ending location – a nightmare in a small town not equipped to handle thousands of extra vehicles on its narrow streets). If we could do it, you can too.

Have you ever taken a long-distance bike ride? How did you prepare, and what do you wish you’d done differently?

Categories: Health and Fitness, Lifestyle, Travel

Brian Martucci writes about frugal living, entrepreneurship, and innovative ideas. When he’s not interviewing small business owners or investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, he’s probably out exploring a new trail or sampling a novel cuisine. Find him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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