For almost any long bicycle tour there are online resources to help with planning. For example, when I planned my first self-supported trip on the Erie Canal I used Parks and Trails New York and I purchased their guide book. There is a good web site for the Great Allegheny Passage with maps and other information. I used Adventure Cycling Association resources to plan my trip in the Adirondacks.
Of course, before you start planning the route, you need to choose the region and determine the “point A” and “point B”, the beginning and ending points of your tour. I usually start that thought process with a series of exploratory web searches. There is lots of information to help decide the general region and route for your tour from reviews and blogs to the planning resources themselves. I start with an abstract idea of the kind of tour that I would like or the accomplishments that I want to achieve. Do I want hills or level terrain? How many miles and how many days do I want to travel? Are there specific attractions that I want to see? Do I want to constrain myself to a particular part of the country?
I was attracted to the Erie Canal as my first tour because it makes its way through mostly populated areas so that the availability of services was not a concern. I chose the Great Allegheny Passage because it does not have a challenging grade, follows some beautiful rivers, and has interesting and large historical structures. The Adirondacks interested me because of the hills and the lakes in the area as well as the challenge of sparse services and moderate grades.
Once you have decided to tour, the detailed daily plan needs to be done. Start with a map and plan to pedal a specific distance each day. The distance is determined from your training experience as well as other important tour factors. Your training gives you the best indication of your potential daily mileage. That assumes that you have taken one or two 50 mile training rides before you begin your tour. I train on mostly flat rail trails and I need to take that into account when I plan a tour on hills. The distance that you plan to ride may vary significantly from day to day depending on the anticipated conditions and other factors.
The daily distance should account for grades. Some maps, such as those from Adventure Cycling, include grade graphs. Be careful interpreting those graphs. The graph on the Great Allegheny Passage web site is a scary sight at first. When you study it more closely, you see that the elevation gains and losses occur over many miles so that the grades on the GAP are around 1% to 1.5%. That is an easy grade to negotiate with a fully loaded bicycle. The Adirondacks are a different story and the Adventure Cycling maps are a great tool for understanding the grades. There are some significant grades in the Adirondacks and they are not avoidable. Grades don’t intimidate me because for every uphill climb, there is a downhill run. However, for me, the downhill runs don’t completely make up for the time it takes to climb. That is taken into account when I plan my daily mileage.
Side trips and visits to local attractions need to be included in your daily distance estimate. You don’t need to account for occasional stops to take in a view and shoot some photos. You should plan several stops for planned breaks along the way as well as plenty of time for eating. You need to know that you have time to stop when you see the occasional ice cream or hamburger stand. There may be some significant excursions that you want to include. When I toured the Adirondacks I allowed time for a slight detour and a visit to Fort Ticonderoga.
The planned stopping points at the end of each day are most important. Sometimes you will need to reorganize your daily plan so that you can achieve you daily stopping point. I determine these stopping points by trying to find towns with support along the route. The support that I try to find includes restaurants, camp sites, and hotels. My preference is a town with camp sites and nearby restaurants. My next choice is a camp site with a town before or after where I can get dinner or breakfast or both along the route. In that case I would eat before I arrived at the campground in the evening. In the morning I would be able to breakfast after leaving camp and returning to the trail.
If you make a lot of adjustments and can’t identify dinner and breakfast options when camping, you should consider cooking in camp. This approach adds volume and weight to your panniers, but may be the most reliable way to get a needed meal. For example, when I did my self-supported trip on the Erie Canal, I knew that there were many small towns along the route with restaurants and diners in each. In the Adirondacks, on the other hand, there were many camp sites that seemed isolated, so I brought food and a stove, which was a good decision.
Even when travelling through well populated areas, I carry what I call “emergency food” as well as snack food. This includes peanut butter, canned beans, and energy bars. This food is handy as a contingency when circumstances leave me too far from a restaurant. I use the snack food during mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks.
While I don’t want to spend a lot of money on hotels, I sometimes like to use them as a break from camping. Sometimes this is forced because there may be few camping opportunities in some areas. Other times I just like to get out of the elements and into a bed. The shortcoming of a lot of motels is the lack of a restaurant for dinner and lack of a substantive breakfast menu. Many motels offer a “continental” breakfast that includes cereals and sweets, but that is not enough for the morning ride when you would like to achieve 30 to 40 miles before noon. Personally, I need protein in the morning in addition to the carbs. A bed and breakfast is good because you are assured of getting a good breakfast.
The final route and daily plan is the function of a lot of independent variables. You know that you have the final plan when you review it and you are confident that it meets all of your needs each day. To be sure, things go wrong on bicycle tours. The advantage of a good plan is that all of the hard work that goes into it is also the background for workarounds that are necessary when things go wrong on the road. On my first Erie Canal tour, I had personal issues one day and could only muster the strength to ride 25 miles instead of the 50 to 60 originally planned. That was not a disaster because with my knowledge of the route, I was able to develop a great recovery plan.
I use my itinerary as a planning tool. There is an entry for each day that states the date, the starting point, the ending point, and the distance. I use the itinerary to keep notes, list potential places to have breakfast, lunch or dinner, and identify features along the route where I may want to stop. The destination campground or hotel is the final entry for each day along with confirmation numbers, addresses, and phone numbers. I add and delete entries as I iterate the plan and I try to keep the entries chronological so that everything flows with time and distance. When my itinerary is finalized, I give a copy to my wife so that she knows where I plan to be each day in case I can’t reach her personally.
Many tours will take you over well marked trails or routes. When a trip takes you over the road, personal queue sheets can be helpful. These are difficult to do unless you have a source document. For example, on my Adirondack tour I used the Adventure Cycling maps to derive my turn-by-turn queue sheets. The Adventure Cycling maps provide turn-by-turn and the distances between turns. The only thing that you need to do is tailor them for the distance that you plan to ride each day. If you start from a raw map, it would be more difficult, but not impossible. As a minimum, I would have a map supplemented by notes.
When you hit the road, you need good tools to find your way because a wrong turn on a bicycle can take you miles out of the way, which is painful to recover. Whether you use queue sheets, maps, or a combination of the two, the point is you need something that is accurate enough to keep you going in the right direction. If you ride five miles before discovering that you made a bad turn, you may ride ten miles total to retrace and recover.
Apps versus Maps
On the road, I use the hard copy queue sheets, maps, and itinerary to supplement the electronic navigational aids. You could have those things on your smart phone. Personally, I like the paper because it doesn’t rely on battery life. I also like the queue sheet that I’m using to be on the handle bar and available at a glance.
My smart phone and handheld GPS also get a lot of use on the road. I like the smart phone when I’m looking for local information or maps to local restaurants and attractions. I also use my phone to make trip notes as I go. My handheld GPS works better than a smart phone for recording the trip because it has better battery life. The GPS maps are always available even when there is no cell coverage. It has an odometer function that is helpful in determining the distance to the next turn.
You can get bicycle trip computers that provide basic speed and distance data. For me, they are adequate for training, but don’t have enough capability for touring. My GPS provides my distance and speed in addition to other useful functions.
You need to determine the approach that will work the best for you.