Imagine pedaling along scenic coastlines or walking from one charming medieval village to the next. What could be more idyllic than joining a walking or cycling tour, whether here or abroad? Ah, but the best laid plans…
We’ve all heard stories from friends or relatives who thought their bike trip in Southern France, for instance, would be leisurely, cycling from village to village while nibbling on baguettes and cheese and stopping at atmospheric cafes along the way, only to find that the journey was more like an exhausting Tour de France.
Here are some things to consider before you sign up, to ensure that your next active vacation doesn’t resemble an episode of “Survivor.”
1. What is the trip’s “activity level”?
Each tour company has its own classification or ranking system (for example, levels 1 through 5) that denotes whether a trip is meant for a beginner, a moderate walker/cyclist, or someone desiring a challenge. Among the components considered in the ranking are the miles traveled each day and the gain in elevation (see below). Some trips are designed for people at any level. Ultimately, though, there is a lot of subjectivity as to how the trip is classified. Your best bet is to ask the tour operator if the trip you are considering is a good fit for you.
Keep in mind that if you want a physical and mental challenge, signing up for a more advanced trip may sound good in theory, but if your pace is slow, it may cause problematic group dynamics, or make it difficult for you to arrive at your accommodation before dark. Worse yet, it could result in physical strain and injuries—and ultimately less enjoyment for you.
2. What is the terrain?
Is it flat or rolling? Does it include mountain passes? What is the altitude? A flat, 30-mile bicycle ride may be a piece of cake for you, but 30 miles of cycling that includes pedaling up a 2,000-foot mountain may be way too challenging. If the tour is described as having undulating terrain, that means you will be climbing and descending mile after mile, day after day. Adding to the challenge is cycling or hiking at high altitude, namely 5,000 feet above sea level or higher.
Consider also if you are skillful or comfortable enough to deal with uneven terrain or scramble over rocky terrain. On bike trips, if the tour is fully or partly off-road or even includes just a short off-road section, ask what that means. Dirt tracks with deep fissures, rocks, and roots, as well as stream crossings, require good mountain biking skills to avoid a spill. Even if there's no off-road section, people cycling in developing countries should be prepared for variable and possibly unpaved or poorly paved roads that are sprinkled with gravel, dirt, rocks, or even massive potholes.
3. What other conditions might you encounter?
If traffic bothers you, ask how much time will be on heavily used roads; some tours involve mostly dedicated bike paths. If you have any specific fears or phobias, such as of heights (acrophobia) or animals, find out beforehand if you might encounter any triggering situations. Some hikes involve negotiating “via ferrata,” a climbing route that features ladders bolted onto sheer rock faces—a potential nightmare for someone with fear of heights. In many national parks and elsewhere, a hiking path or mountain bike trail may turn precipitous or require crossing a narrow suspension bridge. And depending on where you go, you may encounter all sorts of animals on the road, from feral dogs to untethered horned cattle.
4. How flexible is the program?
Some tours provide mileage or route choices every day, so that you can walk or ride a shorter or flatter option. Many also have a support vehicle (a “sag wagon”) to pick up cyclists who are tired or injured or would rather just take it easier; some tours can pick up walkers or hikers at designated points. And some tours provide an option of an electric assist bike, which can be a big boost, especially on uphill sections.
5. Who carries your bags?
Human-powered locomotion is strenuous enough. You may not want the additional strain of having to carry a loaded backpack when walking or having to cycle with your gear packed on the bike—what’s called self-contained touring. Cycling with all the gear on your bike also changes the way the bike handles, especially on curves and downhills. If you’ve never biked, walked, or hiked with all your gear, don’t choose a trip that requires that, unless you’ve trained a couple of months or so before (see below). Instead, pick a tour that involves day treks from a base hotel or one where your gear is carried by a vehicle to your next destination.
6. Is the tour guided or self-guided?
There are advantages to each. In a self-guided tour, you are given a detailed set of maps with directions. This provides more freedom and flexibility and is less expensive, but it’s not for the navigationally challenged. Group tours, with at least one leader, are best for beginner walkers, hikers, or cyclists. They are certainly more regimented, but the guides provide a wealth of information on the landscape and you also have the camaraderie, if that’s appealing to you.
7. What equipment is recommended?
On a walking or hiking trip, using two walking poles reduces strain on your legs and hips and also assists with balance when crossing rivers or streams or going over rocky terrain. On a bike trip, the bike itself is often provided, but you may want to ask what kind of pedals they have if you have a preference for one type over another—that is, plain flat pedals vs. pedals with toe clips or cleats. Bring padded bike gloves to take pressure off your hands when riding. Most tour operators provide dial-adjusted helmets, but if your head is especially small or large, consider taking along your own. If you bicycle at home with a comfortable seat, you might also want to bring that on the tour because the provided bike seat may not fit your anatomy ergonomically (most modern bikes and modern seats are swappable).
Also see 12 Tips for Better Cycling.
Published October 18, 2017