Northern Tier Route; Statistics & Planning Considerations - CycleBlaze

Bicycle Travel Forum

Northern Tier Route; Statistics & Planning Considerations

George Hall

I'm posting this to make it easy for someone in the future to do research on the Northern Tier route.  Please reply if you wish and add your own stats or thoughts based on your experience riding the Northern Tier route, and that way this thread could become a great resource for others who may be contemplating riding this route.   My journal from last year (2021 Northern Tier Adventure) has some of the "usual" statistics listed in the Epilogue.  I recently took a trip down Memory Lane and revisited the journal, and I realized that there were also some "subjective stats" that may be of interest to others contemplating this route - so here we go.  The following statistics are based either on me having noted it in the journal, or something I said in the video that accompanied most day's journal entry, or my own memory of the day. 

Weather is always a concern when planning for any tour, and of course it will vary from one year to the next and have variable impacts on a cycle tourist depending on their strategy for dealing with it.  Nonetheless, the following is what I experienced.  You should note that I rode from east to west commencing in early May.

Rain.  There were 8 days when I noted rain as being a factor.  These were days when it was necessary to don the rain jacket; sometimes it may have been just a moderate rain shower and sometimes it was a drenching downpour from a storm.  There were probably at least that many days when the rain was gentle and maybe only lasted for such a wee bit that I didn't even put on the rain jacket, and I'm not including those days in the total.  At least 1 rest day was taken to avoid riding in the rain, and it was a wise decision because it rained hard all that day.  

Cold Weather.  "Cold" is a subjective term, of course, and what's cold to one person may not seem so bad to another.  My riding partner on last year's tour, Doc, is smaller and skinnier than me, and he would probably say that we experienced more cold days than I noted.  Regardless, I noted that it was cold for at least part of 10 days.  Most of the time this just consisted of the early mornings and once the sun came out the cold got chased away.  But there were some days early on in Maine when it was cold most of the day, and we got drenched and cold at least twice riding in the rain.  When you are in the mountains, it's sometimes cold in the early morn and then becomes hot in the mid-afternoon, so there are at least a couple of days when I noted it was both cold and hot.   Even when we experienced record heat in North Dakota and eastern Montana, sometimes it was a bit chilly in the early morn.  You should consider this to be a "minimum" statistic - it's likely that there were days when it was cold in the early morning but I didn't note it in the journal. 

Hot Weather.   I personally think the heat is the biggest enemy you will face in a coast-to-coast ride.  I noted the heat as being a significant factor in 28 days of the journal. Again, you should consider this as being a minimum statistic.   Also, you should consider that I start very early in the morning to avoid the afternoon heat; many days the alarm was set for 3:00am and I was rolling by 4:00am.  The early start helped me avoid the worst of the afternoon heat.  If you awake at a more leisurely hour, then you would be subject to more afternoon heating.  So this number is definitely a minimum statistic.

Adverse Wind.  I use the term "adverse wind" instead of "headwind" because a buffeting sidewind can be just as troublesome as a headwind.  I noted 11 days when we were beat up by the wind.  A day that I noted as being "the hardest so far" occurred in western Illinois due to battling a headwind all day - it was very much a surprise to us because we didn't anticipate that the wind would be a significant factor until we hit the high plains of North Dakota and Montana.  Indeed, the wind became a very significant factor in North Dakota, and our hardest day of the trip was likely the day we traveled from Enderlin to Gackle.   We climbed less than 1,500 feet during the 74 mile day, but the 100 degree farenheit heat combined with the crazy wind was enough to beat us up pretty good.  

                     A Note About the Wind; it's a common misconception that the wind blows predominantly from the west in the High Plains.  We were traveling from the east to the west, and indeed we did experience headwinds throughout much of North Dakota - most of the time it was a buffeting sidewind or a quartering headwind, but it was definitely "adverse" to our travel.  But the situation reversed in eastern Montana and we had tailwinds that helped us move along.   In North Dakota we met cyclists coming at us who were delighted with the wind assist, and in Montana we met cyclists who were crying about the headwind they were battling that was pushing us westward!  So don't plan a tour across the High Plains based on the direction you hope the wind will blow - sometimes it may be your friend and sometimes it may not, regardless of the direction you travel. 

Insects.   I noted 7 days when we had significant issues with the bugs.  Black flies were a new experience for me, and they caused me a lot of grief from the numerous bites I got before I realized I had been attacked.  The 7 days I listed is a bit misleading; these were the days we were actively fighting against bugs (black flies, mosquitoes, gnats, whatever) but don't include days that we were dealing with the aftermath of the black flies.  I was itching horribly for days afterwards and applying benadryl for many days to ease the symptoms.  If you travel this route during black fly season, take along some DEET spray - "Backwoods Off" works pretty good - use it liberally down your legs.  

Navigation.  The ACA maps work well, but they aren't perfect, especially in Maine.  We managed to get lost 5 times that I documented.  I say "we" but it's mostly my fault cause I was usually riding in the front.  The ACA route sometimes follows the USBRS routing, and sometimes it doesn't, and this can help you get off track.  Since the USBRS routes are signed in Maine, and since the ACA route usually is the same, you can get complacent and follow the signs.  But honestly, I'm just making excuses - the fact is that sometimes I thought I knew the right path and we took it for a couple of miles before we realized we had erred.  And it wasn't just in Maine - the fact is that I am capable of getting lost in most any state.  Taking the wrong road after eating in a diner is one of my common mis-direction actions.   This probably won't happen to anyone else, but just be aware that you can get lost even when the way seems obvious. 

Climbing Stats.  My journal includes a daily note of the amount of climbing, but I thought a summary might be of interest.  The amount of climbing you experience per day is going to depend somewhat on your itinerary.  I say it will "depend somewhat" because there are times when you have little choice but to travel from town A to town B and you will simply have to climb whatever passes are on the route.  At any rate, here's the stats from our trip;

  • Days Elevation Gain was 0 - 500 feet;            4 
  • Days Elevation Gain was 500 - 1,000 feet;   13
  • Days Elevation Gain was 1,000 - 1,500 feet; 16
  • Days Elevation Gain was 1,500 - 2,000 feet; 14
  • Days Elevation Gain was 2,000 - 2,500 feet; 9
  • Days Elevation Gain was 2,500 - 3,000 feet; 8
  • Days Elevation Gain was 3,000 - 3,500 feet; 5
  • Days Elevation Gain was 3,500 - 4,000 feet; 2
  • Days Elevation Gain was 4,000 - 4,500 feet; 2
  • Days Elevation Gain was >5,000 feet;                

The above may be a bit too detailed, so here's a simpler summary;

  • Days Elevation Gain was < 1,000 feet;              17
  • Days Elevation Gain was 1,000 - 2,000 feet; 30
  • Days Elevation Gain was 2,000 - 3,000 feet; 17
  • Days Elevation Gain was 3,000 - 4,000 feet;  7
  • Days Elevation Gain was  > 4,000 feet;              3

The elevation gain certainly doesn't tell the whole story regarding the climbing difficulty, because it doesn't factor in the grade.  We were surprised with the steep grades we encountered along and near the coast of Maine, so some of these days were more difficult than the elevation gained statistic alone would indicate.  You should note that the summaries above don't include the final day wherein I rode less than 10 miles and had an elevation gain of less than 400 feet. 

The statistics below are found in my journal and I'm repeating them here to make it easy for others to find. 

  Riding Days; 75

          Rest Days; 10  (4 were for medical recovery; 2 for a cold, and 2 for recovery from a wisdom tooth infection)

          Average Mileage On Riding Days;  56.8 - 57.6  (depends on whether you count the ceremonial last day wherein I only rode 9 miles as a "riding" day) - I think it's safe to say the average was approximately 57 - 58 miles/day.

          Days Rode Less Than 40 miles; 3

          Days Rode 40 - 49 miles;   19

          Days Rode 50 - 59 miles19

          Days Rode 60 - 69 miles23

          Days Rode More Than 70 miles11

          Days in B&Bs; 2 (3 for Doc)

          Days in AirB&Bs; 1

          Days in Hostels; 4 (counting Oxford Junction, IA as a hostel since they regularly host cyclists)

          Days Camping;

          Days in Hotels; 71 (not counting the 3 travel nights to get to the start and 1 at the end to get to my flight home)

          Flat Tires; 0, absolutely none. 

          Mechanical Issues;  The only issue of significance was  a broken shift cable.  It happened while climbing Going-to-the-Sun road on the way to the continental divide crossing at Logan's Pass, and it took only 15 minutes to fix. Most of that time was used in removing and replacing the panniers, handlebar bag, water bottles, etc.  Fortunately I had a spare shift cable.  

          Cost; $9,500  -My credit card statements, plus the cash I took, indicate that I spent right at $9,500 for everything; transportation, food, and lodging.  Doc and I split the transportation cost to the start and all the lodging until we took different routes from Newport, WA.  So the last 12 days of lodging was all on me.  Additionally, there were 2 days earlier when we were temporarily separated wherein the lodging cost was all mine.  So then; we split the lodging cost for 74 days and I paid the full cost of lodging for 14 days (those numbers include the travel to the start and extra day at the end as I was awaiting my flight).  I had an unexpected cost of $420 to rent a 1-way car from Dallas to Tulsa on my return flight, and this is also part of the $9,500 total; so if you deduct that portion I would have spent $9,100 for the adventure.   This was a "luxury" bicycle tour (if there is such a thing), and certainly the cost could have been much lower if we camped a lot more and we didn't eat in restaurants so much.  

If others reply with their statistics and useful information about their own Northern Tier tour, then this thread could become a very useful planning tool.  I may do something similar for other established routes I have traveled.  

Best wishes to all as you plan your future tours.

Reply    Link    Flag
1 year ago
Wayne EstesTo George Hall

It boggles my mind that you pedaled the Northern Tier in 15 fewer days than when I did it at age 28.

Reply    Link    Flag
1 year ago
George HallTo Wayne Estes

Well, a couple of things to consider; 1.) since the Canadian border was closed, we couldn't take the loops up and back and that shortened the distance a bit, and 2.) my riding partner and I were both 68 so we had the advantage of 40 extra years of maturity!   You may have slowed down and took side trips and enjoyed the journey more at age 28 also - I've no doubt that your 28-year-old self would have outran us older gents if you wanted.   I don't think I have passed another cyclist in many years, but lots blow past me like I'm standing still.  I may need to leave earlier and arrive later than others, but I get there...  

Reply    Link    Flag
1 year ago
Gregory GarceauTo George Hall

Hi George,

I must compliment you on the statistics you've compiled.  You clearly put a lot of thought into it.  The only thing I can add from my Northern Tier (*) experience is that some of the best parts were when I strayed from the official ACA route. 

My four statistics:

-About 1,000 miles of off-route riding 

-Zero bike tourists on those excursions

-Lots of fun improvising my own routes

-Two thumbs-up to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame

(* Yes, there is an asterisk--I had to divide my trip over two summers.)

Reply    Link    Flag
1 year ago
George HallTo Gregory Garceau

Wow Greg - an extra 1,000 miles of off-route riding is pretty amazing! Most of us just stray a few miles now and then to see some sight.  No wonder you did it over 2 summers, that's still a lot of miles per summer.   I'm reading your journals now, thoroughly enjoying them.

Reply    Link    Flag
1 year ago
Gregory GarceauTo George Hall

No, no, no, NO.  The 1,000 miles off-route were not additional miles--they were just DIFFERENT miles.  If anything, they made my trip across the country shorter than the actual Northern Tier.  Family considerations, not distance, was the reason I didn't do it all in one summer.  Just wanted to clear that up.

Reply    Link    Flag
1 year ago
George HallTo Gregory Garceau

OK - my bad for misunderstanding.  I'm reading your journals now, very much enjoying rehashing some of the same paths I traveled last summer.

Reply    Link    Flag
1 year ago
David HeisnerTo George Hall

Thankyou George for all of this.

I've decided to do about half of the NT solo starting with flight arrival in Seattle on June 5, then back to Illinois.

I'll probably have some questions but looks like you have covered much of the detail. 

Reply    Link    Flag
3 weeks ago