Why travel by bike when you could go by car?
Bicycle touring challenges your physical limits and opens your world to the sights and people you might not otherwise see while traveling by car.
“The bicycle breaks down the barriers that we set by cars and phones,” says Seattle-based adventure cycling writer and speaker Willie Weir. “The magic of the bicycle is that you’re vulnerable. It’s a window into the humanity that we’re missing.”
Bicycle touring can be done alone, with friends and family or on a tour group, and even with your dog or baby. The activity is suitable for all ages, especially with the rise in popularity of electric bikes. You can stick to dedicated bike paths, country roads or dirt trails. The adventure is entirely up to you!
With the right gear, a decent bike and familiarity with the rules of the road, cycle touring options in Washington state are plentiful, including beginner-friendly overnight trips right from your front door. Here’s how to get started.
Styles of bicycle touring
Whether you prefer trails, the road or dedicated bike paths, enjoy sleeping under the stars or in a cozy bed, bicycle touring offers a wide variety of options.
“Credit card” touring means staying in hotels and dining out, which increases the cost but minimizes weight. Check in advance that your lodging will accommodate bicycles.
On a self-supported tour, you will camp and cook most of your meals. Your load will be heavier and you’ll need to stop more frequently for food.
Look for $5 hiker-biker camping spots set aside for human-powered travelers in state parks or consider “wild camping” in U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land. Just be sure to check their websites for rules before you depart.
Cycling along a dedicated bike path means fewer cars and likely more amenities along the route. A great option for beginners is the Olympic Discovery Trail, which spans across the northern part of the Olympic Peninsula from Port Townsend to La Push. Riding on dirt trails, known as bikepacking, requires solid navigational and bike mechanic and outdoors skills.
Gear for cycle touring
Bicycle touring doesn’t require a fancy-schmancy bike. Just about any bike in good condition will do. If it’s been collecting dust in the garage, then make sure to take it to your local bike shop for a tuneup and a fitting before you start your trip. And it doesn’t hurt to take it on a practice run before you venture too far from home.
Look for a sturdy frame that can handle the weight and low gears to power you up hills. Fenders will keep the mud off your bags and your body. You’ll want tires to match the terrain. Various options, sizes and textures exist for different terrain, so it’s best to first determine the surface you want to ride and then talk to your local bike shop for size options.
You’ll carry your gear in panniers, or saddle bags, that attach to bike racks. Seattle-based Swift Industries makes quality bags for touring. A handlebar bag is also nice for personal items like your phone, wallet and camera. Your camping and cooking gear should be the same as what you would bring backpacking.
For clothes, again pack as you would for backpacking. Bring plenty of layers and rain gear, including pants, waterproof shoe covers and gloves.
You’ll also want to bring essential bike tools, like tire levers, an Allen wrench, spare bike tube and tire, chain links, a pump, chain tool and lube.
“That’s a big one that a lot of beginner bike tourists miss,” said Paul Tolmé, content strategy and media relations manager of the Cascade Bicycle Club, the nonprofit organization that hosts the iconic Seattle to Portland ride, among other events, including supported multiday rides. “They need to figure out how to deal with the easy repairs, flat repair, adjusting the derailleur and changing the chain.”
If you’re new to road biking, it’s also not a bad idea to take a road safety course before you head out. The Cascade Bicycle Club offers learn-to-ride classes, including refresher programs to learn the rules of the road, safety considerations and bike maintenance skills.
Staying safe on the road
Sharing the road with cars can be nerve-racking, especially on serpentine roads or those with no shoulder. Wear bright-colored clothing or a yellow vest and use a rear flashing red light on windy, high-traffic and no-shoulder roads.
You may also want to consider a mirror that attaches to either your helmet, sunglasses or handlebar. Visit your local bike shop and test out the various options.
Preparing for a bicycle tour
The low-impact nature of cycling doesn’t require months of training. However, the more you ride in advance, the more enjoyable the trip will be.
“Group rides can be great as a training platform for those who need motivation to help them advance,” said Tolmé. “It’s also a nice way for people in the Seattle-area to find rides in and around the Puget Sound region.”
You can find bike clubs throughout the entire state that host regular rides.
A short, local overnight from your front door is a terrific way to dip your feet into the world of cycle touring.
Marley Blonsky, a sustainability manager and adventure cyclist, enjoys riding from her home in Seattle to Faye Bainbridge Park. “It’s an 8-mile ride from the ferry dock in Bainbridge and provides a perfect escape from the city.” She adds: “You can even have pizza delivered to your campsite if you don’t want to mess with cooking.”
Blonsky leads overnight Bike Camping for Beginners courses, starting in May.
Ready to go? Try these classic Washington cycle touring destinations
Washington boasts plenty of idyllic roads and routes for all kinds of touring. Here are a few classic rides for those just getting started with touring.
San Juan Islands Ferry-Hopping
Island-hop among the bicycle-friendly San Juans and visit breweries, distilleries, wineries, farms and dine on fresh seafood. Many campsites are situated right on Puget Sound, so keep an eye out for orca whales while you enjoy the view. Inter-island ferries are free for walk-on passengers.
Palouse to Cascades Off-Road Adventure
If you want to try off-road touring, consider biking 285 miles across the state on the Palouse to Cascades Trail. Travelers will need to plan ahead and bring extra gear and provisions. Currently there are a few bridge crossings that require detours; however, the gaps should be closing up this summer.
Walla Walla Winery Tour
For a hub-and-spoke style of tour, there’s no better place than Walla Walla. Set up base in town and pedal around the picturesque country roads that lead to some of the best wines in the state. Visit Walla Walla has a great bike map.