Things I Wish I Knew Before Planning My First International Bike Tour

Over the last eight years, Ryan Wilson has been traveling all over the world by bike on an extended tour and has learned plenty of lessons planning trips along the way.  Below, Ryan dives into some of the most frequent questions that people ask when they’re looking to plan their first bike tour.

Back in 2015, I was living my normal adult life in Los Angeles, California.  I had never traveled outside of North America or even owned a passport.  I had only ever camped a handful of times in my entire life, and I didn’t speak any languages outside of English.  I’d gotten into road cycling and would use any scrap of time away from work that I could put together to travel around the Western US in my car looking for cool mountain roads to link up on big day rides. But as time went on, I couldn’t help but feel like I needed to expand my horizons and see more of the world.

I’d saved up three whole weeks’ worth of PTO at work at that point and told myself I was going spend it on something that was totally outside of my comfort zone.   These chances don’t come around a lot in ‘Murica, where we’re taught that work is your life’s purpose, so I didn’t want to squander it.

Hours of randomly scrolling around Google Earth (my favorite pastime) brought me to a place called Huascarán National Park in the Andes of Peru.  The size of the mountains on the elevation profile was hard to fathom.  The culture couldn’t be more different than what I was used to growing up in Michigan.

Still, I found myself thinking that Peru was just a pipe dream and pushing it to the side.  Maybe that would be one to shoot for a few years down the road, once I got my feet wet in a more “practical” place.  It’d be a much easier and “safer” first trip to head off to Europe or somewhere that felt a little closer to what I was used to.

But as time went on, I just couldn’t shake the dream of those mysterious Peruvian Mountains out of my head.  So, on a whim, I booked a no-refund flight to Lima that was 5 weeks away, not giving myself a chance to be “rational” and talk myself out of it again.

That 2015 trip to Peru was the thing that inspired me to quit my job just six months later to head out on what was supposed to be a year-long tour, which I’ve managed to stretch out for eight years (and counting) at this point.  Oops!

With that in mind, I wanted to tackle some questions that I frequently get asked by people who are bike-touring curious,but have some lingering fears or concerns that have prevented them from making the jump.

Going Solo

For a lot of people, this is going to be the biggest barrier.  Trying to coordinate a considerable chunk of time that I could be away from work and normal life to go on a trip with when my friends could do the same became a thing that felt like it would push this endlessly into the future.  The moment I booked that flight to Lima, I decided that I wasn’t going to wait for the stars to align.  The window was already open and I was going to jump through regardless.

Having now spent long stretches of the last eight years riding and traveling solo as well as other long stretches travelingwith other people, I can say that there is no wrong or right way to travel by bike.

Solo touring certainly brings on a heightened reliance on yourself.  There isn’t someone there when you get sick in the middle of nowhere and can’t summon the energy to get out of your tent in the morning, or you need a spare hand (or brain) while fixing a mechanical issue on your bike.  You don’t have someone there to share all of the ups and downs that come with life on the road.

But there is an elevated experience that comes with traveling solo in other ways.  It is naturally a vulnerable position to be in.  You are out in the elements, with your bare minimum possessions, and only your legs to get you to your next destination.  No one else to rely on.  This is something that local people can naturally empathize with.

I can say that when I am by myself I am much more likely to get invited into someone’s home for tea or simply approached and talked to when I’m in town.  Being in a group of foreigners speaking a non-local language with each other can be more likely to put an unapproachable bubble around you.

Of course, I say all of this from the position of being a 6’2” white man, which doesn’t come with some of the safety issues that women can face while traveling solo.  Yet there are many women out there who have done big solo tours that are good sources of inspiration and knowledge on the topic: Claire Dezcallar Camino, Ana Zamorano Ruiz, Laura Killingbeck, McKenzie Barney, Weronika Szalas, Carla Bella, and Hera van Willick just to name a few.

Gear Stress

It’s easy to get bogged down worrying about what gear you have.  First is the idea that you need some purpose-built rig just for bike touring.  My recommendation would be to pick your first trip based on a bike that you already own.  A hardtail MTB can take you just about anywhere, and these days there are loads of options to strap bags to your bike without it having a bunch of dedicated mounting points.

Only have a road/gravel bike?  There are plenty of nice places to travel with those too.  Better to see how you like it first, than commit a bunch of money just to find out touring isn’t your thing.

I’ve met tons of people on the road traveling on bare-minimum budgets, with milk crates for panniers and old tubes that have more surface area covered in patches than not, and I can tell you they’re having just as much fun as I am with my super dialed-in setup.

The main gear that I would be focused on is having appropriate clothing and sleeping kit for the conditions you’ll be in.  You don’t want to be camping high up in the Andes with a summer sleeping bag and an uninsulated sleeping pad.  Still, you don’t need the most cutting-edge, über light gear on the market.

The other is your gearing!  If you’ve never ridden a fully loaded bike in the high mountains, it can be a shocker when you get there.  A smaller chainring or a wider range cassette than you think you’ll need is crucial.  You’ll be a lot more bummed about not being able to pedal up the climbs than you will be if you’re spinning out on the descents.  With that extra weight in the bike, you’ll be plummeting down those mountains without pedaling anyways!


Another thing people worry about is being out in the middle of nowhere in the Peruvian altiplano or wherever and having a mechanical failure that you fear you don’t know how to fix yourself.  Even today, I am no master mechanic, but I definitely was not when I left for my first tour, and it’s not as big of an issue as people think it is.

First, in the vast majority of places I’ve ever traveled, you can just about always find someone to help get you to a town if you have an emergency.  In Peru, even on some very remote roads, there’s almost always a mini-bus that goes by once or twice per day to reach the smallest villages or mining camps, and they won’t leave you stranded.  Then, once you get to some sort of village, you’ll always be able to connect bigger towns with bike shops.

Here are a few suggestions to ease these fears:

  • Download YouTube videos on how to fix any mechanical issues you might have.  Broken derailleur cable, chain, spoke, etc.  Then you can use that as a reference if you’re out of signal.
  • Bring a few spare long TPU straps that you can use to lash your bike to the roof of a bus or the bed of a pickup truck if you run into a problem that you can’t fix and need to get to a bike shop.
  • Carry some spare cash to offer a driver for saving your butt (even if they may refuse to accept it).  Side note: I keep an extra $100 USD in 20’s tucked away that I never access, just in case.  This can also help if a lone ATM is out of service in a town, as you can often find people who will exchange/accept dollars.
  • I always bring an extra day or two worth of emergency food if I’m heading to an area without resupply.  This tends to be in the form of a few extra packs of ramen noodles that can get stuffed to the bottom of my bag and weigh nothing and things that I always keep stocked up like nuts and dried fruits.  I’ve walked my bike for days through the desert with a broken rear axle and those noodles and nuts came in very handy!


Man’s Best Friend, Bike Tourist’s Worst Enemy?

Dealing with dogs is another thing I get asked about constantly.  I’ve touched on this in the past when talking about how to approach Türkiye’s infamous Kangal shepherd dogs, but it applies everywhere.

  • Patience is key.  Trying to outrun them is almost always a bad idea, in my experience.  I very rarely get chased because I give them nothing to chase.  The first thing I do is stop when I see a dog running straight at me.
  • If the dog’s human is around, it’s best to keep a distance and wait for them to try to get control, which doesn’t always work.
  • If the owner isn’t nearby and they’re giving a particularly aggressive vibe, I’ll dismount and put my bike between the dog(s) and my body.
  • Since locals in many places throw rocks at aggressive dogs, the simple threat of a rock is often enough to get them to back off. Many times, just bending over to pick one up is enough. If not, faking a throw with a rock in your hand will pretty much always buy you a little time to move forward.  Sometimes, you have to keep repeating this over and over until you can inch your way out of their territory.

With these steps, I don’t have a big fear of running into dogs while riding; they’re just a bit annoying to deal with in places where you have to go through this process 20 times per day, which is rare.

Of course, in places with a lot of dogs, you’ll also run into tons of sweet dogs that just want to be friends (and hopefully butter you up to snag some of your snacks).

The Language Barrier

In today’s age of phone translation apps, this really should not be a barrier for most people.  Of course, it is important to learn some basic phrases in the local language, but it is not important to be fluent.  It’s just about putting in some effort, which locals always appreciate.  Even as simple as learning basic greetings or how to ask how much something costs in a shop, where to find water or a bathroom.

If I need to dive deeper than what I’ve learned, I use the Google Translate app, which has an offline mode for many languages.  This is necessary in a place like Mongolia, where the language is extremely difficult to grasp, and even sounding out the characters is impossible for me.  Loading up the local language keyboard onto your phone is also a good idea so you can type something out and switch over for them to be able to respond.

Wild Camping

While I’d like to get into the art of pre-planning potential wild campsites more in-depth in the future, I can touch on some of the basics here.

This can be very intimidating at first, but it does get a lot easier with time and has turned into one of my favorite parts of bike touring in general.

My strategy depends quite a bit on the place I’m in as there are some areas where I don’t mind camping in locationswhere people might easily spot me and other places where I do everything to avoid that.  Still, my first option is always to find a place where I won’t be spotted, and that would be my recommendation when you have any doubts.

Apps like iOverlander can help, especially in areas with a lot of private land, difficult terrain, or windy conditions for camping.  Users can leave a marker on the map with info on spots to camp that are out of sight from the road, have a wind break in the form of abandoned buildings, or have a water source nearby.  It can also be useful in towns for finding hotels or restaurants.

Unless I’m in a place like Mongolia or Kyrgyzstan where the whole countryside is one giant wild campsite, I tend to scan the topographical map for small flat areas along my route and then check satellite maps to get an idea of what’s there.  As long as there are no buildings nearby, I’ll drop a marker on a few of these spots before my day starts to have some options as I go.

Of course, if all else fails and you’re struggling to find a spot, ask a local. I cannot think of a single time in 8 years when I’ve asked someone if they have a place I can pitch my tent and they’ve turned me away. Often, these experiences turn out to be highlights of the trip.

Do I Need to be a Superhuman Cyclist?

In a word, No!  Even in places that are challenging to ride, you can always plan out your days to be manageable at a level you’re comfortable with.  That’s the beauty of bike touring.  As long as you plan for it in terms of supplies, you can stop almost whenever you feel like it, because you’re carrying everything you need.

I’ve met people on the road who were not cyclists at all who randomly decided one day to buy a $300 bike, a set of Ortliebs, and hit the road.  After a couple of weeks, they were well into the flow, and you wouldn’t know that they were brand new to riding.

Planning Routes

This is a topic that I plan to dedicate a larger piece to specifically, but for someone who is just looking to get their feet wet, I would look at some pre-established routes where re-supply points and route info are already well known.  You can check out my 8 favorite touring routes around the world, or do a simple Google search of a country/region you want to go to combined with “bike touring” or “bikepacking” keywords, and you’ll inevitably find something to work with.


If you have any other questions, feel free to reach out in the comments below, and I’ll be sure to respond as soon as I’m able to!