Keeping the Tank Full: Meal Planning and Nutrition for Bicycle Touring

road touring at the peak

A 30-mile climb rises out of the prairie in front of you. The last town is 50 miles behind. The next is on the other side of this mountain. Your stomach grumbles. It’s going to be a long day.

Among the touring cyclist’s worst nightmares, the dreaded bonk comes in near the top. Any cyclist with some miles on his or her wheels knows the feeling. It comes on fast and without warning. One minute you are cruising and the next you can barely muster the strength to pedal on. Next comes the mental fatigue, compounding the problem to the point of wanting to throw down your bike and take a nap right in the middle of the road.

Thankfully, bonking is largely avoidable. The key? Eat and eat often. Stay hydrated. Sounds simple, right? If only it were so.

Avoiding the Bonk

As a touring cyclist I have this problem. My mind and body are so focused on the task at hand that together we forget to eat. I don’t mean the basic three meals a day. I mean the constant stream of snacks that must come between. See, between those meals the hunger doesn’t always set in. My body burns up the fuel before my stomach tells me it’s time to fill up. The result? You guessed it. I bonk and bonk hard.

Force yourself to eat.

On my tours, I tend to burn on average anywhere from 3000 to 4000 calories per day, or the equivalent of nearly twice the recommended daily intake of 2000 calories. The caloric deficit quickly adds up. Great if you are on a weight loss regimen, not so great if you have a 4,000-mile tour to conquer. Trust me, the weight will come off regardless of how much food you manage to stuff into your mouth.

While three hearty meals and multiplied portion sizes will get you most of the way there, it’s the even distribution of calories and other nutrients throughout the day that will keep you in top riding condition. So load up on snacks: Clif Bars, trail mix, nuts, jerky, fruit, chips, candy, whatever.  It’s great if you like to eat healthy, but at a certain on the trail anything goes. Plan to eat a couple hundred calories every hour or so. Pro tip: keep your snacks in your handlebar bag and you won’t even have to stop.

And don’t forget to drink your water. You might even sneak in a sports drink or powdered mix along the way.

Preparing Meals vs. Dining Out

Cycling tourists typically find themselves in one of two camps: pack your meals and prepare them on site or buy as you fly. The latter is typically associated with credit card touring and often frowned upon by those that consider themselves truly hardcore road warriors. I won’t get into that; my compatriot Matt sums it up nicely with his thoughts on “slow food” and credit card bikepacking.

There are merits to both methods. If you will be traveling mostly off the grid, you might not have the option to stop at a restaurant or eatery. If you have the resources to purchase all meals, you shave a few pounds off of your rolling weight. In reality, most will get by on some combination of both, especially on longer excursions.

What to Pack

For shorter overnight or weekend trips, I typically pack my meals in advance. These trips, for me at least, are as much about the cycling as they are the back-to-nature camping aspect of the whole thing. The cycling tourist can take many cues from our hiker and backpacker friends. Freeze-dried, just-add-water meals are available at most outdoor outfitters. Similarly, grocery store favorites include Knorr’s Pasta Sides (plenty more than a side when you eat the whole bag) and Bear Creek’s Pasta Mixes.

road touring camp stove dinner
Photo Credit: Lee Cumberland

Oatmeal makes a great breakfast and is plenty pack-able. For lunch a classic among distance hikers and bikers is the string cheese tortilla roll. Flour tortillas are a good source of carbs and pack in better than a loaf of bread. String cheese, despite what the package might tell you, has a surprisingly long shelf life out of the fridge. Add in some pepperoni slices or another cured meat, roll it all up in the tortilla, and two or three make a pretty solid lunch. For preparing dinner, some olive oil will go a long way.

A tip for packing: take everything that you can out of its packaging. No need for bulky cardboard boxes taking up precious cargo space. If you want to get really organized use freezer bags of various sizes to portion out meals for each day of your planned excursion. If you are on a longer tour, making a grocery stop every few days opens up your options a bit and allows you to branch out. Just make sure you remember to place your food out of the reach of animals, or you might wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of raccoons devouring your breakfast, lunch, and dinner (true story).

One downside to preparing your meals is the need to carry the extra equipment, including a camp stove and mess kit. Then you have to clean it all. On the plus side, the more you eat the lighter your ride gets.

When You Don’t Want to Cook

Let’s face it: after a grueling 80-mile day in the sweltering heat, setting up camp is enough of a chore. Having to spend more precious energy and time preparing your meal to satiate your incredible hunger? Don’t even get me started. When the opportunity arises or the trail food becomes monotonous, I–covered in sweat and still in my spandex–feel no shame in saddling up to a diner counter in small town America and ordering two entrees plus a dessert.

On especially long tours (several weeks to months) eating out offers not only a break from preparing dinner, but it also gives you a chance to experience the regional cuisine, rub shoulders with the locals, and get inside and out of the elements. If you’re lucky, some kind soul will take interest in your story and pay for your meal (another true story).

You will also become intimately familiar with the finer food offerings of the mini mart. If you are like me, you will eagerly look forward to the next gas station and the promise of a chocolate milk, ice cream, and more.

Have a Drink

Road Touring Lunch Break

Next to kicking off the bike shoes, perhaps the greatest pleasure in the world after cranking off 4,000 calories is cracking open a beer and taking that first sip of liquid gold. For the cyclist, it’s both delicious and nutritious, or that’s at least what I like to tell myself. There is no denying that a few beers will help you replenish some carbohydrates, and the pleasant buzz sure does help you forget all the little aches and pains accumulated over a tour. For me, one of the greatest experiences of making the trek across the USA was the chance to sample local beers from breweries east to west.  However, that’s a post for another day.

Keeping your body fueled for the ride is one of the most important aspects of touring. The excessive need for calories is both a blessing and a curse. Eat too little and you might be bonking before the day is out. At the same time, touring by bicycle affords you the opportunity to eat and drink with reckless abandon. No need to worry about too many calories because there is no such thing. Just don’t let the habit carry over after the tour ends.

Kevin Krause is a writer, musician, and  avid cyclist from Baltimore, MD. Among other road touring experiences, in 2015, he completed the TranAmerica Trail. He is the editor of the Woodworking Tool Review

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