Mapping Your Tour


Mapping a cross country bicycle route can be a daunting and time consuming task. It is much different than plotting a route to drive in your car. In a car you really do not care if the road has a shoulder or how busy it is.  Hills are not a problem and weather is not a big an issue either. These and many other factors play into building a good cycling route. Hopefully sharing some of our mapping techniques on this website will help you plot a route.

Using maps from Adventure Cycling or other organizations is much easier than building your own route from scratch. Just order the maps and off you go.  The maps they provide are on well traveled cycling routes and for the most part have you on decent roads. They have researched the locations of motels and campsites for you.  They also have bike shops and other points of interest listed. Using maps like this will certainly make life easier as long as they fit into your plans.  We have used some of these routes on other tours with good results.

For us though, using these predetermined routes takes some of the challenge and excitement out of the ride. We have found maps like these tend to keep you on roads that are less physically demanding.  You are usually never too far from a bike shop or town. They tend avoid the big mountain climbs that we look for opting for the flatter route. You will never find yourself 100 miles from nowhere on one of these maps.

Another method is to utilize a combination of both your own maps and AC maps. We have found this to also be a useful way to plot a course. But even doing this we will still "tweak" the Adventure Cycling maps.

First you need to determine what the main goal of your journey is.  Are you just trying to get from point A to point B as fast as possible or do you have specific places you want to visit? Do you want to ride on all asphalt or is gravel ok? How many miles a day can you travel? Are you planning to camp, stay in motels or a combination of both?  All of these factors and more have to be squeezed into the time you have allocated for the trip.

Once you have determined your primary goals and time restraints it is time to get down to business. Be patient though, this takes a lot of time. It is almost hard to believe but well over 250 hours went into plotting and mapping the 4500 mile Wild West Tour II route!


This is a biggie.  How far you can travel on any given day will determine a lot about your tour.  Mileage = Time and we all know Time = Money.  We normally do not plan any rest days into our trips. We always figured a rest day will come from some unforeseen reason like a mechanical breakdown or really terrible weather.

So how many miles are you capable of riding with a 70 pound bicycle day after day?  You need to know that before you leave. All of our rides are figured on 100 miles a day.

 One thing you need to understand is the daily distance traveled is relative to where your sleep spots are. Just because you are capable of riding 100 miles does not mean you will advance 100 miles each day.  If there is a motel at 87 miles and the next one is at 145 miles you will most likely be riding 87 miles that day. Where you will spend the night determines the distance you will travel. Still you need some kind of a number to work with so decide what your average daily goal will be. Remember there is a difference between riding 100 miles for 3 days in a row and 100 miles for 30 days in a row. Know your capabilities.

Motel vs Camping

One of the first things you need to decide before you get started with your route planning is where you plan to sleep each night.  Some people like to camp or stay in a hostel others like motels or a combination of them all.  Each has its good and bad points.  Camping can be fun and it brings you closer to nature.  Sitting around the campfire at night under the stars is hard to beat. Of course being close to nature means you are close to what ever is wandering around outside your tent at night. Bugs, bears or whatever, when you are in the wilderness, you are in their house. Most campgrounds have shower facilities but some do not.  After 100 miles of riding you need a shower.

Motel rooms are definitely more expensive then campsites. When you stay at a campsite you cook your own meal. If you stay at a motel most likely you are going to eat at a restaurant.  The motel may not have the campfire to sit by but it will have a bathroom with a shower and a remote for the TV.

At first glance the motel seems to be much more costly than camping.  But in reality it is not as bad as you may think especially if you are not traveling alone.  Almost every campground has a fee to spend the night. Some even charge extra to use the shower facilities.  If you are camping you are carrying a tent, sleeping bag, cooking equipment and other camping specific items.  These items add bulk and weight to your bike that can slow you down.

If you stay at a motel “setting up camp” is asking for the room key.  When morning rolls around and it is time to “break camp” all you have to do is leave the key on the dresser.

 Setting up your tent making a fire to cook with and doing the reverse in the morning takes time and time is miles.  If you spend  an hour between setting up and breaking camp each day that is one less hour of riding. Multiply this by 7 days and you could have lost almost a days riding in one week.  One hour is a very conservative amount of time too.   Almost every motel offers a continental breakfast that is included in the room’s cost and we always take full advantage of this. We eat enough so we can skip lunch which is another thing to consider when evaluating the cost between the two.


Route Plotting the Big Picture

Next get a map of the United States and rough plot your planned route.  From this you can get a general idea of how long the ride will take.  If you do this part carefully distance estimates of +/- 15% are easily obtainable. Now is the time to add or trim off sections to meet your needs.  

If you are not a member of the AAA auto club now is the time to join. This is a terrific organization to be a part of.  They offer free maps to members and discounts on motels and travel.  Well worth the small membership investment if for nothing else but the maps. We always start our planning with AAA maps.   A paper map is much easier to work with than a map on your computer for roughing in a route. Once you have your route plotted on the USA map now it is time to transfer it onto the smaller state maps. Remember you are still in the "rough" planning mode. After you have transferred your route onto the state maps it is time to check mileage again.  You should easily be able to get your route within 5-10% of the actual distance now.  Again make the necessary changes to meet your time restraints.


Time to Email

Now that you have a route plotted on the state maps it is time to start emailing.  I email every state I plan to ride in requesting cycling information.  Most states have maps available for free that are useful to cyclist.  These cycling maps can show prevailing winds, traffic volume and shoulder width.  But remember one thing while reviewing these maps. Most likely the mapmaker was NOT a cyclist.  The maps were created using data obtained from the state's DOT and the weather service.  Just because they say it is a "good" cycling road it may not be. These maps are only a part of the arsenal needed to plot a good route.

Once I have the basic route on paper it is time to use the Internet.  I use the Net to locate local cycling clubs and email them for additional road information.  You would be surprised how helpful fellow cyclist can be.  Nobody knows what a good cycling road should be better than a cyclist. The information they can offer you is invaluable.  They know the roads, traffic, shoulder widths and the wind patterns.  Some may even want to join you along the route when entering their turf. These cyclists know the roads well and I plot according to their information with great results.  Some of the best roads we have ever traveled came from fellow cyclist.

Another good idea is to research other peoples "home turf" routes. Again most cycling clubs have a collection of cycling routes listed on their sites.  It is time consuming to look at all the map files but it is an important step towards building a good route.  Another good place to look for routing is on the RUSA  website. From here you can be directed to the maps of brevets and other long distance rides.  Most RUSA routes are on very good cycling roads and we tend to use them.

Time to Call

The next thing I do is look for bicycle shops in the towns I plan to ride near or through.  After finding their telephone number online I give them a call.  Again fellow cyclists are always willing to help.  Have your specific routing questions ready and try and be as brief as possible on the phone.  Remember you are calling a business and they may have customers waiting.  Bicycle shops have been a very useful tool for picking the right road to ride.  I will even call a town hall to ask about a specific road if no cycling shop is available.

GPS Mapping

We have moved away from the use of paper maps on our tours.  Paper is bulky, heavy and hard to use. After you have used a programmable GPS device like Garmin has to offer you will never carry a map again. These hand electronic devices have loads of other features that a cyclist would find useful.

From our paper maps we then begin the transfer of the data into the GPS mapping software.  Road by road intersection by intersection we trace the route. Here is where you need to spend some time checking your route for errors. Using satellite imagery from Google Earth we zoom on each road for a look. With Google Earth we are able to look for a shoulder, asphalt and traffic patterns. Many of the roads that our maps and software claimed to be asphalt are actually gravel when viewed in Google Earth. Some dirt roads are as good as blacktop but you cannot be sure.  You are always better to plot on blacktop.  Should you see a dirt road that will cut off some miles along the route you can grab it when you get there.  But if you plot on dirt to find out it is impassable with a loaded bike you would be in trouble. 

Locating Sleep Spots

Whether you plan to camp or stay in motels some pre trip planning will make things easier.  Remember your “sleep spots” determine how far you will travel each day.

After your route is plotted spend some time locating campsites or motels along the route.  If you are using Adventure Cycling maps they have already done this work done this for you. The ideal situation would be to have located places to sleep every 25-30 miles but of course this is not always possible.  That way no matter what type of mileage day you are having you know a sleep spot is not far away.  This work is time consuming but well worth the effort.  On the Wild West Tour II for example we had the location, phone number and even the rates for almost 400 motels, Cabins and B&B along our route.