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Bicycle touring is a unique form of cycling because you do more than just ride a bike. You live in the shoes you bring, not just push the pedals. Walking around town, a stop at the grocery store, a quick day hike all part of your daily routine. Just what sort of shoes should you buy for this trip? The unexpected is to be expected on a bike tour and it is wise to be prepared for whatever comes your way. The trick is to decide what shoe, or combination of shoes, will work for your style of bike tour, without taking up too much room in your panniers. See also Touring Bicycle Pedals
Bike shoes vs. Walking shoes
Cycling shoes and walking shoes are constructed very differently. A good bike shoe has a stiff sole that does not compress or flex. This way all of the foots downwards motion is transferred into the pedal and converted to efficient forward motion. Typical tennis shoes have softer soles that compress with each pedal stroke and have energy robbing flex. Stiff soles have other benefits. They support the full length of your foot to reduce fatigue and cramps. But stiff soled shoes are terrible for walking around in. They're slippery on hard surfaces and make a racket like a tap-dancing horse.
Bicycle touring shoe options
Commuter/Touring/ Casual Bicycle Shoes The newest emerging style of bike shoes. These shoes attempt to offer a good balance between foot support for pedaling and flexibility for comfort off the bike. The soles are compatible with SPD systems. They have recessed mounts for mountain-bike cleats, although you don't have to use them. The touring/commuter bike sandals have become very popular. I've met several bike tourists who completely swear by their bike sandals. The open weave keeps your feet cool, the covered toes offer crash protection, and you can pair them with waterproof socks for a rainy ride.
Road cycling shoes The racing flats that you see worn in the tour de France. Highly impractical for cycle touring.
Mountain Bike Shoes The popularity of mountain biking brought a whole new category of shoes for cyclists to choose from. Mountain bikers often find themselves pushing their bikes through sand and over obstacles like logs. They want the efficiency of a road shoe with a rugged outsole to provide traction for off-bike maneuvers.
Most mountain bike shoes feature a recessed cleat allowing you to walk around more comfortably. The SPD (short for Shimano Pedaling Dynamics) cleat and pedal system is the industry standard, and therefore the easiest to find replacement parts for internationally.
In the past I have used just mountain bike shoes. I found the stiffness of the sole comfortable for short walks only. Still, if you're planning on a fast tour and spending most of your day in the saddle, mountain bike shoes are the way to go.
Everyday Tennis shoes This is probably the cheapest and simplest option for beginning bicycle tourists. A light hiking shoe or trail running shoe, in combination with a wide platform pedal is perfectly adequate for touring. Experienced cycle tourists have ridden around the world with this same set up. Non-cycling shoes don't offer the stiff sole, nor will they work with an SPD pedal system. You can experiment with toe clips or straps. Personally, I find them cumbersome and fiddly, but you may come to a different conclusion.
Camp sandals Whatever cycling shoe you choose, you'll still need a pair of camp shoes for the end of the day. I like a slip-on sandal that can be worn with socks. Slip-ons are easier to manage when leaving the tent in the middle of the night, and they protect your feet from fungus-filled showers. Cheap rubber flip-flops will do the job.
What I have
I carry three pairs of shoes. Mountain-bike shoes, a pair of Trail Runners, and a pair of sandals. The mountain-bike shoes are great for riding in, not so much for walking. At the end of the day, it's nice to switch to a different shoe. The running shoes are good for days off the bike, when I want to hike or wander around town. The sandals are for showers and beaches and late-night trips to the bathroom. I admit, three pairs is a lot. I could do with less, but I since I live on tour permanently, I find myself carrying more shoes for the extra comfort.
What to avoid
Non-SPD pedal systems - This isn't to say these aren't fine pedal systems, but hard-to-find gear does not mix with bicycle touring. SPD is the industry standard and readily available in high-end bicycle shops around the world. If your non-SPD pedal or cleat breaks, you might find yourself waiting a long time for replacements to be mailed out.
Complicated shoe parts - Some styles of mountain bike shoes have ratchet closure systems. Great for a tight fit for racing, terrible if the ratchet breaks on the road. Especially if your tour is extended or includes developing countries, look for Velcro or lace closures.
If you're new to cycle touring and not sure what shoes to bring, go with a tennis shoe and a wide pedal. If you're interested in moving up to SPD, give yourself considerable time to set up your pedals and get accustomed to riding in cleats. If you're already using cycling shoes at home, you'll probably want to go with a mountain bike shoe or touring shoe, since let's face it, once you've ridden with cleats, it's hard to go back to tennis shoes.
I have another page about touring bicycle pedals
I have used several brands of bicycle panniers and
highly recommend Ortlieb.
See Why I switched to Ortlieb waterproof Panniers?
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