Even before I started my trip, a lot of people were asking me the same question: what roads are you going to take? At the time, I wasn’t sure. There are a lot of possible ways to plan your route on a bike trip. I have found a method that works for me, but I am sure there are better ways out there.
If someone is considering a long tour for the first time, Adventure Cycling Routes are probably the way to go. This is THE organization for long-distance cycling tourists. They publish excellent maps with routes cross-country and along both coasts. These detail bike shops, hotels, police stations, hospitals, and camping grounds. They give cue sheets and brief snippets on local nature and culture. They are amazing.
But I don’t use them. Adventure Cycling is great if your goal is to go on a long tour. They are not great if your plan is to see friends in random cities dispersed through out the East Coast and couchsurf between them. Most of my trip has not been along the roads featured in the maps available. I have had to rely on other methods.
The first thing I do is fire up Google Maps and look at the bicycle route between my two major destinations. For this trip, my major cities were Boston, New York, Philly, DC, Raleigh, Charleston, and Savannah. These are the places that I had friends at, so I knew I needed to go through. And yes, Google Maps has a bicycle function. This function is useful, but it has its problems, which I will cover later. So I bring up Google Maps and I find a possible route between New York and Philly. I then look at the total amount of miles. Anything over 70 miles needs to be broken up. For the most part, I am looking for 50 to 70 mile segments. So I look at the map and find towns that would be between 50 and 70 miles. Then I fire up Couchsurfing.com and search in those areas. So far, this has worked almost every time. I pick my first stop, email a few hosts, then look back at the maps. I then find another town about 50 to 70 miles away. I repeat this until I get to the major destination city.
At this point, I have a rough route sketched out. Then I fire up Google Maps again and look at the bicycle route they suggest between the city I’m in and the next one I’m going to. I usually do this about about 11PM the day before I depart. I go along the route and see how I can make it shorter. Google is always trying to get cyclists off the main roads. To do this, it will have them turn into neighborhoods, ride for half a mile, then get back on the highway again, then repeat this process ten times during a 40 mile ride. This is confusing and causes me to get lost. I’d rather stay on the highway. So I look at the route and try to simplify it down. Then I make myself a cue sheet. I write down the directions line-by-line. L on Greenbriar, R on 44. L on 56. In Pepperville, R on Grant. SL on Belmurphy. Things like that. Sometimes I will write the mileage on the streets if I am not too tired. However, usually, but the time I am mapping my routes, I am just ready to pass out from exhaustion. I should probably route plan earlier in the day.
Once I am on the road, I often change my directions. Sometimes a person will tell me a better way. Sometimes, I miss my turn and I just pull out my paper maps and pick the simplest highway route. Sometimes, I just don’t understand what I wrote down from the night before. Generally, I have enough time in the day to get lost for a few miles and still make it to my next city in time.
The roads I ride on vary a lot. I would say I am more traffiic-tolerant than a lot of cyclists, but I think this might be normal for touring cyclists. When you are only in your hometown, of course you aren’t going to get on the highway, but when you are traveling between cities, sometimes it is really the most obvious option. I LOVE wide shoulders. Those are the best. It is probably dangerous, but even if the road it busy, if the shoulder is wide and clean, then I feel safe. Often near cities though, the shoulder is filled with glass and debris. Then shoulders are not good. Between cities though, shoulders seem like bike lanes without the markings. Two lane roads are okay if they are not busy, but I almost always prefer four lanes. I want the cars to be able to get over to pass me with plenty of space. At times, my route will seem to dangerous. I have encountered heavily trafficked roads with no shoulders. So far, I’ve always been able to find another route by asking people. Usually, the road conditions have improved a few miles down the road.
Trails are good because they have no traffic, but they are confusing because they are not marked as well. The quality of the trail can also vary a lot. For my bike, they are fine, but if someone had a dedicated road bike with skinny tires, some trails would be bad ideas. I like trails because they are usually scenic and end some of the monotony of highway riding, but I go on them expecting to get confused and possibly lost.
Another great asset is the East Coast Greenway. This is a marked route from Maine to Florida. They actually have signs posted in most places that people can follow. However, like Google Maps, I found that there were too many turns. I did find myself riding on it by chance many times when I was in the Northern States. I haven’t seen it in a while, so I imagine it went East to the Coast. It would be another good option for people who are less traffic-tolerant and more directions-capable.
Finally, I had a choice before my trip on whether or not I should carry a GPS with me. I wish that I had. For some trips, they would not be necessary. If you were not trying to get somewhere by a specific day and you were not couchsurfing, then getting lost could be fun. You would have just changed your route. However, for me, getting lost just puts more pressure on my day. I don’t know that I would recommend buying one for a trip, but if you had an extra one you could take and you had deadlines, it would be a useful tool. I guess for many people, their smart phones would take care of this problem as well.
So in summary, how do I plan my routes? I still don’t know. I have my method, but it certainly isn’t set in stone, and it definitely doesn’t seem efficient. However, it’s gotten me 850 miles so far.