10 Tips for Adventure Cycling Trips
By: Akweli Parker
Could you ever see yourself turning your back on a normal job and living the life of a nomadic free spirit for a week, a month or even an entire year? How about traversing countries and continents so that you really got to know the world, one tea-sharing villager at a time?
One week you’d be in your cubicle dutifully filing TPS reports, earning your final paycheck, and the next week you’d be free, carrying all your means of survival on a bicycle. How life-altering would it be to pedal alongside Mongolian yaks in the historic stronghold of Genghis Khan? Or to trade the vapid voyeurism of “reality” television for real adventures of your own? Sound like a fantasy? The truth is that ordinary people find a way to do it all the time.
While the Vogels’ case is pretty extreme, many people are finding similar, if much shorter, bicycling trips to be the perfect fit for vacations ranging in duration from a long weekend to a few months.
Welcome to the world of adventure cycling, a form of recreation that indulges wanderlust in a similar fashion to backpacking, while offering the speed and mobility of pedal power.
If your idea of a perfect vacation is to loaf on white sand beaches at a sanitized resort, sequestered with other tourists and segregated from the locals, then adventure cycling probably isn’t for you.
On the other hand, if you enjoy relying on your own wits to survive, camping out, interacting directly with people from other cultures, and don’t mind a fair bit of physical exertion, then this type of bike riding may sit just as well with you as a gel-padded saddle.
The precise of definition of “adventure cycling” varies widely. But most practitioners would agree it’s a type of long-distance, overnight bicycle touring that can have a profound effect on riders. Tim Barnes, creator of the online Adventure Cycling Guide, describes the hobby as: “An easy way for ordinary people to experience extraordinary adventures…It’s cheap, easy to organize and you don’t have to be superfit. By far the hardest bit of a 12,000km (7,456 mi) bike ride is finding the courage to set off” [source: Barnes].
Adventure cycling requires some commitment and investment to do safely and enjoyably. But don’t let limited funds or other wimpy excuses keep you stuck daydreaming on the couch (or in that cubicle). Plenty of cyclists have crossed countries and continents on beater bikes and thin budgets.
Over the next few pages, we’ll take a look at 10 indispensable tips to heed before embarking on an adventure cycling trip of your own.
We should make a disclaimer here that there’s probably no such thing as the “wrong” bike for adventure cycling. The focus should be on the experience, not necessarily your equipment. If you wanted to unicycle across Uganda, for instance (not that we recommend it), you would probably garner a lot of attention and have lots to write home about. It just wouldn’t be the most comfortable or efficient way to travel.
The point: try to suit the bike to where you’ll be going. Mountain bikes, road bikes and tourers all have their strengths and weaknesses, which is why many dedicated cyclists own more than one type of bike. If you’ll be sticking almost exclusively to paved roads, you can get away with riding a bike with skinnier, smoother tires that allow you to ride faster.
If your adventure is likely to traverse paths with dirt, gravel and possibly mud, you’ll want a bike with better off-road capability — starting with thicker and grippier tires. A full-blown mountain bike is probably too extreme — its high-rolling resistance wheels would be a hindrance on the open road. But you can convert one to be more multi-mission capable by swapping out parts. Alternatively, you could buy a hybrid bike, which blends the strengths of road and trail bikes. While it excels at neither task, it doesn’t suck at them either, making it a good all-around transport. But you might need to buy stronger rims to bear the weight of your gear.
Keep in mind the bike will be supporting more weight on an adventure cycling trip than it would simply ferrying you about town. A certain class of bikes — touring bikes — are purpose-built with this in mind. They boast beefier construction, built-in attachment points for carrying stuff, and extra clearance for your cargo. They also carry a beefier-than-normal price tag: $600 to $1,500 and beyond! For that reason, many people start with a more affordable bike and adapt it to touring by adding stronger rims, more versatile tires, and appropriate accessories.
Specific things to look for include a sturdy, steel frame (heavier, but easier and cheaper to fix than aluminum or titanium); front suspension to absorb bumps (but skip the rear suspension); and 26″ wheels (easy to replace worldwide) if you plan to ride outside of North America.
Expect to pay around $200 or $250 minimum for a decent starter bike — retail. Try to stick with well-regarded brands such as Trek, Giant, Cannondale, and the like, or specialty manufacturers that have a good reputation among cyclists. While these bikes are more expensive than your typical discount store offering, they more than make up for it in the quality of their construction. If money is an object and an obstacle, look on Craigslist or in your local classifieds before you plunk down your hard-earned coin at a bike shop. You’ll be shocked and amazed by how desperate people are to part with name-brand, next-to-new bikes in exchange for very little cash. That little factoid, by the way, applies to just about all the equipment mentioned in this article!
If you own a smartphone or even simply know how to use the internet, there’s really little reason any more to get lost while traveling — at least, little reason to stay lost. While losing your bearings may add drama to later re-tellings of your cycling “adventure,” it’s no fun when you’re actually fumbling with maps or hazily understood directions (and perhaps cursing while you’re at it).
Minimize needless pedaling and swearing by mapping out and knowing your route ahead of time. If you’re part of a commercial, “supported tour” group, the tour operators have already done this for you, so all you have to do is keep up with everyone else. If you’re cycling independently though, you’ll want your own map(s) and will have to plan your own logistics.
The creatively named Adventure Cycling Association has catalogued more than 41,000 miles (65,983 kilometers) of bike-appropriate routes in the United States and offers them on maps that include locations of bike shops, food and water stops, and overnight accommodations (including camp sites) [source: Adventure Cycling Association].
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) is at work on a federally recognized U.S. Bike Route System (USBRS) that would connect the patchwork of established trails in individual states. More than 40 states are working on developing their own U.S. Bike Routes. The Adventure Cycling Association provides a map and state listing that shows where individual states stand in participating in the USBRS [source: Adventure Cycling Association].
If you live in an area fortunate enough to have a regional bicyclists’ advocacy group, chances are they publish route maps that can help you plan a trip. If your cycling ambitions extend outside your own country, you’ll be glad to know there’s a trove of advice online, including travelogues, videos, and complete books that deal with adventure cycling abroad.
In the days before GPS was available to the masses, people relied on compasses, the sun, and yes, fold-out, paper maps to find their way around. Obviously, any technology that can help you stay on course, stay safe, and navigate strange lands with confidence is worth investigating.
In a sense, it defeats the purpose of an adventure cycling trip to carry around a Brookstone catalog’s worth of electronic doohickeys. Part of the thrill with adventure cycling is supposed to be in stripping away the soft, inessential creature comforts of home. That said it probably isn’t a bad idea to carry at least a few modern-era conveniences, if only for the sake of safety.
Consider, for instance, the now near-ubiquitous cell phone. This one should be pretty self-explanatory. In addition to the obvious safety benefits of a cell phone, you can find plenty third-party apps that cater to cyclists.
The other smart piece of tech to have is some type of GPS navigation system. Obviously, you don’t have to have one, but it will save you time and incalculable frustration if you do. There’s a robust debate brewing over whether you should buy a standalone GPS system — as part of, say, an electronic bike computer — or simply use the GPS functionality (or specialty bike apps) available for many cell phones. We won’t attempt to answer that here, but you should know that each approach has its merits and disadvantages.
Gadgets are great, as long as they work, and they can get you out of some serious binds. They also have drawbacks: they need power, which you’ll have to source if your trip lasts more than a couple days (solution: yet another gadget, the portable solar device charger). They add weight and take up space; even the miniscule can make a noticeable difference on a bike, where room and loading are at a premium. Figure out what’s essential for you to bring along, and then be ruthless about leaving everything else behind. You can always pick up that electric cuticle scraper at a drug store along the route if you discover you absolutely can’t live without it.
Bikes are Machines. And as beautifully simple and reliable as they are, even these Machines are prone to wearing out. You need not be a master bike mechanic to enjoy adventure cycling. But it certainly will boost your confidence and decrease your worry if you know how to take your own bike apart and put it back together.
It shouldn’t be too difficult for you to find a bike maintenance and repair class or to find loads of instruction on the internet.
The longer the distance of trip you plan to take, the more you should plan to bring in the way of tools and spare parts. For short day trips, you’re probably fine just to bring an inner-tube repair kit, a spare tube, and a small air pump to fix flat tires. For longer trips — several days and more — experts recommend bringing spare sets of brake blocks, spare brake cable, a chain breaker, extra spokes, allen wrenches in all the sizes found on the bike, a small tube of lube, and a small toolkit capable of servicing common repairs on the bike [source: Barnes/The Adventure Cycling Guide].
If something really major goes wrong — the frame snaps or a rim breaks — your best option is to find a bike repair shop (or a welder) on the road. Fortunately, these services are fairly common in decent-sized cities and towns around the world.
And on that note, consider carefully whether you really want the feather-light titanium frame, innovative Rohloff Speedhub gears, and stop-on-a-dime disk brakes for an adventure cycling trip. They do make your bike special, but if they fail on the road, they could be difficult to service. And the more remote and exotic your trip, the harder it will be to find non-standard parts and people who know how to install them. Just something to think about.
People, believe it or not, are Machines, too. At least, that’s how you should think of yourself while adventure cycling. You require fuel, downtime for repairs (rest), and protection from harsh operating conditions and contaminants.
Almost inevitably you or someone in your group will “breakdown” at some point, on some trip. Whether it’s one of you running completely out of energy (known in the cycling world as “bonking”), or getting hurt in a tumble from the bike, physical challenges are simply a part of cycling. The best defense is to guard against them by carrying a first aid kit, taking frequent opportunities to eat and drink and knowing who to call if someone needs immediate, professional medical attention.
Now brace yourself: Here’s where you need to take care of some dull, administrative stuff. Long before you hit the road, find out what your insurance will or won’t do for you if you need medical treatment while cycling, especially if your trip is in a different country. Will you need an extra rider (no pun intended) on your traveler’s insurance? Will you need immunizations or special medicines, like anti-malaria pills, while you’re there? Do you expect the water to be safe for drinking? These are all things you definitely don’t want to learn by surprise.
Another one of those near-inevitabilities: one person will be slower than another if there’s more than one of you. This can prove highly frustrating to the slower person and downright annoying to the faster one(s). Everyone just breathe and relax. Remember that it isn’t a race. You’re there to enjoy the scenery, the camaraderie and the journey.
Finally, know the limits of your own skills and equipment. Just because you saw a rider hammer that suicidal downhill like she was a mountain goat doesn’t mean that you can do it, too. In adventure cycling, discretion is often (usually) the better part of injury avoidance.
Few things ruin a ride worse than getting soaked in a downpour while you’re still miles from any shelter. One thing that is worse: getting soaked in a downpour when it’s cold out. Of course, storms can materialize seemingly out of nowhere and you can’t always call them. But for the most part, you can plan ahead what time of year will offer the best temperatures and least precipitation for an adventure cycling trip. Weather radar available today can show you at a glance if clouds are menacing your area and you should stick close to town, or if it’s instead a clear and beautiful day, ripe for racking up the miles.
Another meteorological consideration: wind. On a bicycle, wind poses a powerful force to reckon with, especially if the bike is loaded down with stuff and that big sail known as your torso. Few people seem to mind wind at their backs. But a strong-blowing headwind can suck the fun right out of an otherwise pleasant trip leg. A headwind literally saps your energy, since you must work harder to overcome it and maintain forward speed. That’s why when you’re checking the weather, you also want to check the prevailing wind direction and speed.
Many tour companies offer what’s known as “supported tour” adventure cycling packages that only require you to bring your body and your bike — everything else, like catered meals, overnight hotel stops, and support vans (“sag wagons”) — are either included or optional for riders.
If you prefer a more independent adventure, however, you’ll want to take care of those things yourself. Think of the experience as backpacking on a bicycle. Some standard equipment includes these items:
New products are coming out all the time to make riding safer, more convenient and fun for cyclists, so check enthusiast sites, forums, and bike blogs for reviews of specific brands and products. Before you spend a lot of money on what could become an expensive paperweight or coat rack, check out the amazing bargains available online. Ebay and Craigslist, not to mention deals from members of local cycling groups, can save you tons of money.
Reports of terrorism, abductions, and unspeakable atrocities against travelers litter the news. And that’s just the domestic headlines we’re talking about! If your only source of information were the mainstream news media, you might guess that stepping beyond your front door equaled a death sentence.
In reality, the world is full of decent, kind people who go out of their way to welcome and assist travelers. You just have to use your head and a little common sense to stay safe. For instance, heed State Department advisories about countries and regions deemed not safe for tourists. In general, know your surroundings and cultivate a sense of what the military calls “situational awareness.” Avoid boisterous crowds that don’t appear to be parades or festivals. Act dumb and non-threatening if confronted.
Now that we’ve fulfilled our legal requirement to scare you half to death, consider that you will likely encounter far more “road angels” — strangers willing to go the extra mile to help a cyclist– than highwaymen.
Nancy Sathre-Vogel writes on her blog, “Hundreds of people from all walks of life have reached out to us with trust and kindness, and showed us the ‘other’ side of mankind; the side not portrayed in the morning paper or nightly news.” (On a side note, the Vogels’ site offers a jackpot of knowledge on how to plan, finance and finagle an adventure cycling lifestyle; a must-read if you plan on doing this) [source: Sathre-Vogel/Familyonbikes.org].
Beasts of the field: A few words about animals: Yes, they make for great photo ops. But they’re called “wild” animals for a reason. Even domesticated species can be unpredictable. Use your best judgment with animals that are other people’s pets. As for everything else, understand you take a risk when you get close…and that rabies shots are a lengthy and painful course of treatment. The good news is that on a bike, there’s a good chance you can out pedal most creatures that might chase you — if you start off with enough separating distance.
Dealing with bike-stealing scum: Thieves love bikes. In the United States, bikes serve as another form of currency in the criminal underworld. In developing countries, a bike is akin to a car. Not every place you visit will have bike thieves, but it’s safest to assume they all do. What can you do to keep their grubby mitts off your ride? Keep your bike in your sight (or hidden) at all times, for one. This is where having a cycling partner comes in handy. One person can keep an eye on the bikes and equipment when the other has to enter a building to conduct transactions, use the restroom, and so forth.
Thieves also like easy, juicy marks that yield big paydays. So anything you can do to not appear like a rich out-of-towner works in your favor. Eschew flashy jewelry, stylish clothing, and ostentatious displays of high-tech gadgetry to reduce your chances of being profiled. Here’s also where an unassuming-looking bike is an asset. You don’t necessarily have to spray paint your frame a flat, dark grey to deflect attention…though it probably wouldn’t hurt. Finally, lock your bike to something secure at night (or bring it indoors, if possible).
One of the great things about adventure cycling, notes author Tim Barnes, is that you can eat anything you want and not gain weight. You don’t need special (and expensive) energy bars or scientifically formulated “power” drinks. Just adequate calories to fuel the furnace your bike-riding body has become.
Your other major requirement is to stay hydrated. You probably already know that just a few days without water for us humans will result in death. And the exertion of cycling causes you to lose water much faster than you would typing at a desk.
The thing is water weighs a lot. Therefore, how much you carry with you should depend on how easily available water is along your route. If you pass by or through multiple towns with convenience stores in a day, you’d need to carry much less water than if you were crossing Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.
How much water you will need, exactly, is one of those annoyingly fuzzy “it depends” questions: it depends on the individual, on the environment, on activity levels and other factors, too. Mayo Clinic says 3 liters (about 13 cups) is an adequate daily water intake for men, while 2.2 liters (about 9 cups) is adequate for women. Throw sustained exercise into the mix, however, and that amount jumps significantly. Before you hit that long stretch of road devoid of civilization, fill up those water bottles with a bit more than you think you’ll need [source: Mayo Clinic].
This might sound like a no-brainer, but think about it. How many times have you been on a “fun” excursion only to have the joy extinguished by one person’s neurosis, complaints, slavish devotion to the itinerary, disorganization, laziness (insert your own traveling pet peeve here)?
If you answered more than “zero,” congratulations, you’re normal! Still, you don’t want that on an adventure cycling trip, where you might have to put up with someone for weeks or months on-end. While you can’t necessarily control other people’s behavior, you can focus yourself on appreciating each moment of your adventure cycling trip.
When stress intrudes — someone’s chain breaks, or a sign tells you it’s 30 miles (48 kilometers) to your next encounter with civilization, those are perfect moments to laugh, snap a photo or roll your video camera. Life (and vacation photos) without some tension is boring!
Take advantage of the abundant reflection time in the saddle. We live today in an over stimulated world, where it’s hard to pay attention to any one thing. On an adventure cycling trip, you’ll enjoy long stretches where the only inputs are the sun and wind on your face, the view of the countryside rolling by, and the sounds of your own breathing accompanied by a background chorus of birds and insects. You’ll be free to daydream or think about nothing at all.
When the trip comes rolling to an end, you will have returned, literally a changed person: enriched by exposure to a different culture, more appreciative of our natural environment, and imbued with a sense of pride at your achievement.
Many people go on vacation to relax, only to endure major stress a month later when the credit card bill comes due. When you tally the costs of transportation (both getting to the destination and getting around once you’re there), lodging, meals and excursions, the cost of getting away from it all really starts to add up. To add physical insult to financial injury, there’s also the possibility the pounds could add up as well — from all that liberal vacation eating with little exercise.
“Adventure” cycling offers antidotes to all these problems that more traditional leisure travel presents. For one, it doesn’t take a big budget to get started. For another, being on a bike provides you mobility and independence. And if anything, you’ll likely end your trip in better physical shape than when you began. On top of all that, it’s environmentally friendly.
Over the years, I’ve ridden, loved, lost, abused, rehabilitated and communed with countless bicycles, but never built a vacation around one. learning the tips and stories of so many resourceful and intrepid cyclists for this article showed me you don’t need a bunch of hoity-toity equipment or unlimited time off to enjoy the adventure of a lifetime. As someone often in need of a vacation but with just modest means for taking one, adventure cycling sounds just my speed.
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