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Which is better? Bike trails/paths or the hard shoulder of highways?

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Which is better? Bike trails/paths or the hard shoulder of highways?

I've been debating with my self. Which is better staying on bike paths or the side of major highways.

Bike paths : Pros : Safer, further away from public and possible danger. Quieter.
Cons : Longer, more complicated, Routes are harder to follow and have more twists and turns. Easier to get lost or go the wrong way. Check mapquest and type in get directions from one place to another. Switch between the car and the bike and check how many directions there are.(you'll see what I mean)

Highways : Pros : Faster, much less turning, more straight aways, easier to memorize, shorter route directions, save on printer ink. X-D
Cons : Not sure if it's legal, dangerous to be next to massive multi-ton vehicles. Loud, easily seen, police pull overs :-(.

I talked with my sister about this and she STRONGLY advised to stick to bike paths. I hope I don't get lost on them. They seem super complex and have waaay too many twists and turns in them.

What do you think? Has anyone ever toured on major highways? Bike trails? Both?

Please give me some feedback.

Thanx. :-D

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Highways vs Bike routes

You don't mention which country / continent you will be traveling on so I'm going to assume you are in the US.

In most, if not all, of the states east of the Mississippi River you cannot legally ride on the interstate. West of the Mississippi it seems to be okay.

I'd rather not ride on the edge of a highway with all the truck traffic much less the inattentive drivers going 80 mph. On the other hand, if you have shaky map skills and find yourself lost more often than not . . .

Do you know about the Adventure Cycling Association routes? They are very well documented but the maps are fairly expensive. You might be able to trade something for them with riders going the opposite direction but that's not something you can count on.

Most states still offer paper road maps for free at welcome centers. If you can get these you might ought to. If nothing else you will develop mad map reading skills.


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Thanx Mark.

Yep I'm riding in the United States. Between Illinois and southern New York state.

I've heard of Adventure cycling. But don't know enough about the maps yet.


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ACA routes

On a computer, when you first log in to the Warmshowers site on the Home page you'll see a map. On the left, just above the search box, is a check box labeled "Load US Adventure Cycling Routes."

If you check that box and wait a bit you'll see a new set of different colored lines appear on the map. Those are the ACA routes.

As another member suggests, use whatever you can and ask local riders what routes to take. Don't bother asking drivers as they will only send you into Cager Country and you won't be welcome. ;-)


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your question

my advice is not to get locked into one or the other. use whatever is available and enjoy your trip

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Bike Paths or Highways


I've done a lot of riding all across the country. I've used the Interstate, two lane highways, country roads, back roads, gravel roads, paved and unpaved bike paths, hiking paths, I feel like I've seen a lot of variations for bike travel.

Riding the Interstate wasn't nearly as much fun as all the other stuff I've mentioned. Sometimes I had no choice. It's quick, easy grades, usually lots of shoulder space, sometimes a lot of gravel, glass and garbage, lots of noise and traffic. It's very isolating and lonely even though there are tons of motorists out there with you. It's not my favorite.

Busy (non freeway) highways are almost like the Interstate, only sometimes with less room for a bicycle. When there's a good shoulder, it's not so bad.

As you move to the country roads there is less traffic but usually steeper grades and less shoulder space. Sometimes I've been on those kinds of roads and had them pretty much to myself. The occasional car would come along and it can end up pretty desolate. Though occasionally lonely, those have almost always been nice rides. I've had backroads turn to gravel and that's not so good if the gravel is loose. I've been stuck with miles of deep loose gravel and it can get to where it's impossible to keep the bike upright. I've had to walk at times and pushing all that weight, it wasn't very relaxing but it sure made me appreciate a nice paved road.

Bike paths, as you note, can be very hard to follow. Google Maps and other tools can really help with this. But you're right, you need a lot of instructions for some of them. I've lost many a bike path. The other problem with bike paths is that the quality can be in question. Some of them are nearly impassible to a loaded touring bike. On one occasion, I ended up on a trail that was very dangerous and it took a lot of strength and concentration to keep my bike from going over the side of a cliff and into a very deep lake. Even with a good bike path, the surface can be a challenge at times. Roots put creases in the pavement and that can shake the fillings right out of your teeth. I've been on some gravel paths that were nicer than paved ones. I've also been on some very poor gravel and even dirt surfaces. It's so hard to tell what you're going to get until you get there.

Stealth camping is easier on bike paths but often there are many fewer services immediately available as many of the paths follow old railroad grades. One nice way to check out a path is to go to Images.Google.Com and type in the name of the bike path. For example, type in "Burke Gilman Trail", or "Galloping Goose Trail", or "Iron Horse Trail Washington" and you get a pretty good idea what you'll be dealing with. Keep in mind that there are sometimes multiple trails by the same name. Walnut Creek, CA has an Iron Horse Trail and it's not connected to the one we have here in WA.

I think that what is best depends on your goals. If you're just looking to get from point A to point B, I'd run with the well traveled highways. If you're looking for an experience and you don't care about making miles, run with the bike paths and back roads end enjoy yourself. They're always more interesting and quieter.

There are times when I just want to make miles and get to the next big town, get a shower and re-provision. At those times, I avoid anything that isn't direct and easy. Otherwise, I try to stick to routes I think I'll enjoy.

The other caution I have is about asking people for possible routes. Advice is so inconsistent and subjective. Some people will say, "There's a terrible hill just out of town..." and it turns out to be a 100 foot climb while other times, it's a 2,000 foot climb. I also get, "Oh, it's all downhill for about 20 miles..." and sometimes it's not at all like that -- and so on. And people will say, "I would never ride a bike over that road..." and it's fine -- or you get there and you see that it really is terrible. People do the best they can with their observations but so many things affect how they see things. A bad hill or a bad road is so subjective and things always look different from a car than from a bike. Even you and I would probably have very different ideas of what is acceptable or enjoyable on a bike and that standard could change with our mood or based on the last road we went over. Asking two or three people is a good course of action when using local information.

I hope this helps.

Happy Cycling,


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Dude!!! Your comment is pure awesomeness!
Also would you have any thought on
Printing out a map of my route vs getting a state map.

Right now I only have the directions from map quest. But the more I think about it.
The more I want the actual map in front of me. IN COLOR. I'll try to print it out but I'm not sure if a printed google or map quest map will be accurate enough.

Tips? :-)

Btw Ziploc bags are a must. Lol. X-D

Thanx so much dude.

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Which is better?

-- Dude!!! Your comment is pure awesomeness!

Thanks. It was a good question and it got me thinking. There really are trade-offs no matter what choices we make on a long ride. Sometimes, I sit at a fork in the road (literally) and debate about which way to turn. Should I go left and have a nice highway to ride on or should I go right and shave about 8 miles and deal with some gravel? Is there a "right" choice? I never know.

-- Also would you have any thought on
-- Printing out a map of my route vs getting a state map.

The best map experience I've ever had was here in my home state. I went into a convenience store and I bought a Gazetteer for Washington State. It cost me $24 (and it wasn't exactly light weight) but I figure I could save $24 in campground fees in the first night or two. What it does for you -- that Google Maps and Mapquest won't do (please anybody correct me if I'm wrong about that) -- is to show you what roads are dirt, gravel, paved, and so on. It gave the elevation of towns and what areas were farmland, what areas were forested, and so on. It had every road on it and it was easy to tell where I was on the map. When I went off the beaten path, I was seldom surprised by the road surface or the terrain. There was a lot of information in that book. I removed pages from the book and put them in my map case as I cycled across them.

I crossed the state diagonally from Bellingham, WA (NW) to Clarkston, WA (SE) and I didn't stay at one single campground the whole way. I'm very low budget and the less I spend, the longer I get to stay out there. Campgrounds are noisy and they have fees that can be as high as $30 per night. I prefer to avoid them as I can buy a lot of food for $30 and I've stayed the night in industrial parks that were quieter than campgrounds.

DeLorme boasts a Gazetteer for every state. I found one on the net for $16 for New York and I'm betting you could go to the library and use one there for your area for free. I've made photocopies of the route and left the Gazetteer behind and that works out okay but it's not as good as those map pages out of the book. When photocopying, I like to leave a lot of overlap from map to map and number the corners, (1 of 6, 2 of 6, and so on...). I did find the photo copies a bit difficult to manage. I kept them in groups of no more than 5 or 6 and I would go from group to group. I would fold them in half as a group and write on the outside of them. So I'd have set "A", 1 through 6, set "B" 1 through 5, set "C" 1 through 6 and so on. It was hard to manage them at times.

Here is what DeLorme says about their product: "About New York Atlas & Gazetteer --
Perfectly suited for travel planning, navigation, and reference. The first choice of outdoors enthusiasts. Beautiful, detailed, large-format maps of every state. Perfect for home and office reference, and a must for all your vehicles. Gazetteer information may include: campgrounds, attractions, historic sites & museums, recreation areas, trails, freshwater fishing site & boat launches, canoe trips or scenic drives. Categories vary by state."

Most of the boat launches in Washington and Idaho had pit toilets complete with toilet paper. So I tried to time my stops to coincide with those.

-- Right now I only have the directions from map quest.

I've done that but I found it very hard to follow without a visual. Too easy to misunderstand the directions, miss a turn, and lose the route. I found that frustrating because I don't follow directions very well anyway, just ask my ex wife. Even drawing your own maps would be preferable to just following written directions.

-- But the more I think about it. The more I want the actual map in front of me. IN COLOR.

You've got that right!

-- I'll try to print it out
-- but I'm not sure if a printed google or map quest map will be accurate enough.
-- Tips? :-)

I've printed stuff on ink jet printers and then had rain (or even condensation) get on them. The result isn't very readable. Photocopies seem to hold up okay to moisture though.

-- Btw Ziploc bags are a must. Lol. X-D

You bet! I don't know how people ever got along without them. I use the gallon sized bags for my maps. I used to have 25 year old Lone Peak panniers but last year, I bought waterproof panniers and donated my old Lone Peaks to somebody just starting out at cycle touring. That felt good and now my gear stays a lot dryer.

I still use the Ziploc bags to keep my gear organized within those cavernous single pocket panniers.

-- Thanx so much dude.

Hey, thanks for asking the question. It got me thinking -- and that's usually a good thing.



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Scott gave you lots of great

Scott gave you lots of great tips. I find roads and bike paths very different places emotionally, so I would ask which one you enjoy the most. There are lots of roads that are lovely and nothing like an interstate, and at that point, I feel safer on the road.... but YMMV Either way, for trips, I usually try to have an 'escape hatch' at different points in case things are no longer fun.

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Which do I enjoy the most?

I would agree that the feeling you get on a bike path is very different than the feeling you get on a road. I've ridden on some quiet country roads that I have really enjoyed. I've been on some nice bike paths and I've also been on bike paths that have run between two chain link fences through an industrial area.

Given a nice bike path or a quiet country road, I think I would prefer the road. Given an unattractive bike path or a busy road with a poor surface, I'd take the bike path.

I think you're right that a nice quiet road is safer than a bike path. My worst accident was on a bike path. I've had friends who have also had accidents on bike paths. They feel safe because they are away from cars but I think your odds of a problem are higher on a bike path. But I think it's a lot like flying. You're statistically safer on an airplane -- unless something goes seriously wrong, then you're in real trouble.

I'm a Plan B kind of guy too. I like to be able to bail out on something that isn't working out well. It's not always possible though and when it's not, I just grit my teeth and get through it.

Highway 12 from Idaho to Lolo, MT had places where the traffic was very scary. There really isn't any other way to go over Lolo Pass so you just ride on. Luckily, the traffic did thin out but there were times I would have loved to get off on some alternate route.

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Scott's comments are excellent. We just did a tour that used a fair amount of highways. It was much less pleasant than the quieter roads. Yes, we had more services and easier route- finding. The states vary considerably too, so Adventure Cycling maps are very helpful.

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just to add - about to do Route 66 for charity and have mapped my route - much of which seems to follow the frontage roads - will repost when have completed with how that turned out. Legally it seems that certainly further west, if there is no alternative it is legal to ride on the interstate.

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Thank you so much everyone.
I truly appreciate the advice being given. :-)

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