Bicycle Touring Far From Home

Here are ten handy rules to follow when you’re going on a long-range bike tour, especially one far from home.  This is based on my own experience and I update it as I learn.

The number one rule:

Never hurry anywhere, ever.

Are you late for that train connection on the other side of the city?  Too bad.  Cancel the reservation and remake it for later.  Even if it costs you money.

The daily routine of a long range cyclist is to bicycle from the safest possible place to the next safest possible place, along the safest possible route, at the safest speed.  Usually when you’re on an adventure there will be days when you have to deviate from one of these conditions, and you’ll get away with it, but if you deviate from two at the same time you’re flirting with disaster.

This is the difference between riding for three days and getting your spine broken by a truck on day three, and riding for three years and rolling into the driveway back home on the last day without a scratch on you and a head stuffed full of amazing memories.

Not hurrying also applies when you’re off the bike.  Do your best to avoid getting into situations where you have to hurry to pack your gear, unpack your gear, lock your bike, choose your route, book your next destination, cook, eat, set up your tent, and so on.  Fixing a mistake you made when you were hurrying will often cost far more time than it would’ve taken to slow down in the first place.

  • Items left behind,
  • flats from under-inflated tires,
  • prematurely dead batteries leaving you disconnected or in the dark,
  • a hanging strap chewed up into your gears

… All way more costly than the time it takes to avoid them.

Don’t mind the conversation.

Riding that loaded bike, you’re a curiosity to almost everyone you meet, including other travelers.

That high visibility adds to your safety.  People will want to talk to you, and if you are friendly in response they will often want to help you as well – offering food, a ride, even money or a place to stay.  You can trust these people almost universally. Ask for anything you need, as long as you don’t feel like a jerk for asking.  The worst they can do is say no.  Consider printing (or hand-drawing) a little stack of contact cards so you can hand them out.

It’s the people who don’t approach you – the people who keep their distance and stare, or who point you out to their friends but don’t engage directly – that you need to be careful around.

Sometimes it’s best to embrace the first kind of people as protection against the second.  For example, accepting a ride from the kind elderly couple in the back of their pickup, just to move a few miles down the road from that creepy group of teenagers eyeballing you and your bike at the restaurant.  After enough time on the road you’ll develop a gut sense for when people aren’t responding right.  Don’t ignore it.

There’s also a more specific version of this rule:

Get into the habit of asking for advice.

If you see a cyclist coming the other way, stop for a friendly chat and ask about the road ahead.  Then tell them about the road you’ve already cycled, so they get the same benefit.  You’ll be teaching a good habit by example as you go.

At destinations and pit stops you can also ask drivers for advice, but take anything they say about conditions or hills with a grain of salt.  Drivers usually know less than they think about roads, even the ones they drive every day.

Get a good-sized rear view mirror and learn how to use it.

In many situations, snapping your head around for a quick look is just too much to coordinate.  Besides,  you might be whipping it right into the side mirror of a truck!!

Being able to instantly see that you should just roll off the road and wait for an especially big vehicle to clear some narrow chunk of road can save your bacon.

Use intercom devices.

If you are cycling with partners, get radio intercom devices for your helmets, if you can afford them.  They are astoundingly useful.  Coordination will be much easier and the trip will be way more fun.

Almost all the intercoms for bicyclists are adapted from products used by motorcyclists.   Motorcyclists wear head-enclosing helmets (at least the sane ones do) and the intercoms attach to the inside, but a bicyclist gets a more open-air design, with straps or rods that place the speakers near the ears without blocking them entirely.  This is because external sound is very important:

Keep your ears open.

A little advance notice is essential when cars approach from behind or around blind corners.  Even the quietest electric car will still make noise as its tires roll over the pavement.  (You can’t rely on it, but it’s useful when it’s there.)

I won’t go so far as saying never wear headphones – I wear headphones regularly when I bike – but I will say keep your music at a low volume and find some way to shelter your ears from the noise of the rushing wind. Vortex-generating attachments on the outside of your headphones or helmet can actually reduce the wind so much that you can hear better than you would with your ears uncovered.

There are rancorous discussions all over the internet about whether headphones are an acceptable risk when biking.  Just use common sense.  Take them off when you’re trying to navigate in a city.

Try not to forge new paths

This is strange advice to give to bike tourists because they’re an adventurous bunch.  But, consider this:

The internet has changed bike touring immeasurably by letting cyclists widely share route recordings.  Any time you want to go somewhere new, tap into those online collections and see if someone else has already forged a path ahead of you.  Chances are high you’ll find something to use as a reference.

Routes with flagged points of interest, or comments, like “this was insane and I’m never doing it again”, are especially useful!

Make your gear easy to carry all at once.

When you’re traveling in a group this doesn’t matter, but when you’re going solo you’ll feel much better if you can lock your bike, then unload it in one go.  It’s easy to lose something (to oversight or theft) if you’re leaving one pile of gear unguarded while you go back for another pile.

Usually all you need to do is put shoulder-length straps on one pair of bags, so you can wear those and pick up the other pair of bags by their handles.  Instead of a rack-top bag consider a backpack.

Get a cheap spare phone.

A cell phone is an incredibly useful and convenient tool on a bike tour.  It’s easy to become dependent on one without realizing.  A compass and a few printed paper maps in a bag can mitigate that risk, but there’s no denying how devastating it can be to lose your phone.

So, consider buying a really cheap, ugly looking smart phone to bring along as a spare.  Wrap it in a waterproof sack, tape it shut, and hide it somewhere in your gear.  If you’re out in the wilderness and your fancy one gets waterlogged or smashed, all you need to do is switch the sim cards and carry on.  Even if your regular phone drops into a ravine or goes to the bottom of a lake, the backup phone can still be used as soon as you find wifi.

Take a few more breaks than you think you need to.

Sure, you could push those pedals nonstop for an entire afternoon.  You’re a touring cyclist – you’ve got stamina up the wazoo.  But if your wazoo starts to hurt after the fifth consecutive hour, it will keep hurting for the rest of the day no matter how many breaks you take.

Why spend half the day with a painful wazoo?  Stop every hour at least, and stretch or lay down or do a few cartwheels, because you’re on a tour and you can stop whenever the heck you want.

It is what it is

Comparison of three Heimplanet tents

Small tent (The Fistral)

  • About 2 minutes to inflate with small pump.
  • Makes its full shape only after using at least two guy lines.
  • Great for single-night stays and time spent mostly on the bike in unpopulated areas.
  • More risky because far more equipment needs to stay outside under the tent flaps.
  • Not good for remaining indoors during rainy days, due to low ceiling and lack of room.
  • Great weight-to-space ratio.
  • Not great for rain or snow.
  • Line of pockets at front is good for small items but additional after-market hanging storage should be added.

Medium tent (The Cave)

  • About 3 minutes to inflate with small pump. Can easily be inflated and then staked down after.
  • Least reliant on guy lines, keeps its full shape without any.
  • Easy to move and reposition even for one person.
  • Four pockets, two on each side, make a division between sleep gear and outside gear.
  • Poor weight-to-space ratio. Almost twice as heavy as Fistral with 2x the space.
  • Single round door is small and very awkward to use.
  • Relatively poor ventilation.
  • Vestibule area is relatively small but reasonably secure from rain.
  • Good in rain and wind and snow without using guy lines.
  • Extremely good performance in high wind when staked down.

Large tent (The Backdoor)

  • About 3.5 minutes to inflate with small pump.
  • Decent weight-to-space ratio. Twice as heavy as Fistral with 3x the space and a higher ceiling.
  • Pocket arrangement has indoor/outdoor division, same as Cave.
  • Large enough to deploy a large bed, unpack gear, and comfortably use a chair at the same time.
  • Almost enough vestibule space to enclose an entire bicycle!
  • Semi-reliant on guy lines.
  • Good in rain and wind and snow if guy lines are used.
  • Has a very large footprint:
    • Too large for almost all indoor deployments.
    • So large it may upset other people competing for space.
    • Difficult to find a patch of flat ground this large.
  • Color scheme matches my bike!

Based on the above, it seems to make the most sense to travel with the Fistral through remote areas, use the Cave for more rural camping, and use the Backdoor only when traveling with two or more companions.

This is a little disappointing, since the Backdoor is luxurious to use. Lots of ventilation, tons of space, room to work inside, a giant vestibule for cooking… It’s too bad it weighs so much, because if I’m going to be living in a tent for months at a time, I’m going to need a place that can feel like a home.

Since my first few rounds of using the Fistral I’ve discovered that it’s possible to clip a small lightweight tarp to one side of it and use the tarp to cover a bicycle parked parallel to the tent. By tying down the tarp on the opposite side of the bike, it creates a large semi-indoor area safe from rain that is easily accessible through one of the doors in the tent.

It also conceals gear a little better, and is still ventilated enough for cooking. Plus, with the bicycle visibly concealed and staked down it is far less likely to be snatched by thieves. With the tarp attached, the Fistral is basically a good-sized one-man tent with a rear vestibule that’s larger than the living space — just what a cyclist needs.

Sometimes you cannot find the truth unless you reach for it

It’s already obvious that I am pretty obsessed with bicycle touring.  As time and funds have permitted in my life, I’ve taken longer and more complicated trips, the longest being about two months. Occasionally I hear about other bike tourists who are so hardcore and obsessed that they have cycled across entire continents or even around the world. That idea has always felt bold and intimidating, but not for me. The last time it came up was seven years ago, and it dropped into the back of my head and percolated there until I forgot about it.

Fast-forward a bunch of time, to 2018. Last year, I was feeling stagnated in my job, tired of my living space, and bored with the geography of the Bay Area. I’d been obsessively playing the computer game Civilization V, and the art deco monuments and colorful pastel mountains and rivers had colonized my imagination. The world was full of light and conflict. I’d just finished a loopy sci-fi novel by Stephen Baxter about spacefaring Roman legions and moon-dwelling Incan tribes, and though the premise was absurd, the collision of remote culture and high technology was inspiring. It came up again in a surreal novel by Dan Simmons: Quantum technology and the siege of Troy, on Mars! My mind was an avalanche of sandstone and granite ruins knotted with ivy and wildflowers, teeming with people in exotic clothes, trading or fighting or building together.

I was seized with the urge to take a vacation, and go far out into the world and touch the artifacts of history. But while I was still working, it would have to be a typical Silicon Valley “get away from the desk” vacation, and I knew how those usually went. I’d be in a rush, moving between various modes of transport, skipping across thousands of miles to hit a packaged highlight reel of well-traveled attractions, trying to use the experience as a hammer to smash some dents into a brain shaped by months and months of software engineering. The vacation would not be for its own sake, it would be to prepare me for another six months back at work.

I knew that would not do. These ideas were calling for a bigger change. I spent several weekends biking around and sketching in the beautiful Mountain View cemetery at the end of Piedmont Avenue, enjoying the fresh air and the quiet, sun-warmed granite monoliths. I began browsing around in Google Earth, tracking down the cities I’d conquered and the wonders I’d built in Civilization, and reading about the history and geography of far off places. Samarkand… In the first edition of Civilization it’s the seat of power of the Mongolians. In Civilization V it’s a powerful, independent city-state usually located in desert. Where is it really? Here it is, in Uzbekistan. There’s a country named Uzbekistan? Wow, I didn’t even know that. How could there be a country that I do not know the name of, at my age?

I started thinking a lot about my picture of the world, and how much of it was based on unverified assumptions, convenient metaphors, current political fashions, and apocryphal stories. I felt intensely ignorant and confined. I needed to break out of my routine, and experience the world outside in a direct and personal way. I needed to crowbar myself out of an existence that was too comfortable. If I didn’t have the means now, when would I ever? Suddenly, the idea of a long-range bike tour popped up from the depths of my mind, threw confetti in my face, and said, “hey idiot, remember me?”

At first I didn’t know what to do. The idea was equal parts enthralling and terrifying, giving me a sense of ambivalence, but it was also sticking hard in my brain like a flyer glued to the windshield of a car. A real long-range bike tour means leaving the Bay Area for a long time. It means spending my savings, and it means I need to rent out my current place to help pay for the house, otherwise my savings would vanish immediately. It means quitting or renegotiating my job. It means being away from my friends and family. Most important of all, it probably means breaking up with my girlfriend and going it alone, because what girlfriend in her right mind would actually be interested in a crazy journey like this?

For a while I hoped the idea would diminish, as it had before, so I wouldn’t have to confront its practical details. But it just set up camp and grew larger and rowdier like a Greek army laying siege to my mind. Eventually, during an intense discussion with my girlfriend where we both encouraged each other to take risks, I made vocal shape of it outside my head for the first time. I also confessed that by doing so I was afraid I would give the idea a reality that would make it even harder to combat.

To my surprise and relief, she said the idea was compelling to her too.

So. We intend to begin a long bicycle trip together, carrying our belongings, starting in Iceland, with a destination of England. Perhaps by then we will be sick of traveling. Perhaps we will settle in England, or return to California. Or perhaps we will continue on, through Spain and France. Perhaps we will circumnavigate the planet. Who knows?

The tentative departure date is 100 days from now.

This raises a lot of questions, like “Are you crazy?” and, “How long will this take?” and, “Are you aware of these things we have, called cars?”, and of course, “Do you know how dangerous this is?”

I’ll answer that last question up front by saying, yes, this is dangerous.  In the coming months I’m not going to talk about the danger much, because it’s not something I want to dwell on, but I want to be clear that if I do end up frozen solid in a snowdrift, or dead at the bottom of a ravine with my equipment scattered around me, or – most likely – squashed flat by a truck like Wile E. Coyote, that this is something I accepted as a possibility when I started.  And I chose to do it anyway.

I know this is a morbid train of thought, but bear with me. In the time leading up to this journey I have become so obsessed with the idea of attempting it that it has started to feel like an inevitability.  Like a part of my identity.  If I was any less obsessed maybe I would choose to stay at home. Keep circling in that worn-down trench between house, workplace, and supermarkets; maybe take a series of smaller risks. But I honestly feel like I don’t have that choice any more. That Greek army outside is not going to lay down arms. If I am fated for the snowdrift, or the ravine, or the logging truck, then so be it!

And of course there’s the possibility that I will hate the trip. After three or four months on the bicycle, toiling up hills in the middle of nowhere, I may suddenly snap, dump my equipment in a pawnshop, and buy a ticket back to the states.  Or my girlfriend may declare the same. That is an acceptable outcome.  But I’m also pretty stubborn, so — we’ll see! We must, most definitely, see.