A Hiker’s Guide to Bike Touring
You can’t hike away from your past. So it is with embarrassing moments, old nicknames, and long distance athletic pursuits.
In 2009, I spent three months cycling across America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And despite my long term love affair with hiking, I have been having vivid fantasies of my old paramour – bike touring. The symptoms are manifesting in the usual way – I find myself sneaking peeks at bike blogs and touring websites. I go on a casual trip to EMS for hiking gear and linger a little too long in the bike section. I have been caught stroking the panniers on a bicycle leaning against the wall of our town pub.
So I gave in to my desires. I explained to hiking that I needed space; I thought we should try an open relationship. There will always be a place in my life for hiking, but if I allow it to hold me back, that frustration and negativity will compound to tear us apart. On the summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Whiteface this Sunday, I told hiking we need to take a break.
I suppose it’s a testament to my black heart that there was no remorse period. I went straight home, passed the wine rack without flinching, and began planning my bike tour. This also involved a lot of the usual steps – booking bed and breakfasts, picking out skimpy clothing, and, of course, purchasing lubricant for my nethers.
With the prospect of cycling Nova Scotia’s Cabot Trail ahead of me, I am just too preoccupied with the mental image of bike touring to write about anything else, so I thought I would take this opportunity to (perhaps cruelly) compare my two interests publically on the internet.
If you have been thinking about making the jump from long distance hiking to bike touring, or vice versa, I recommend checking out this basic guide for what you’ll need to change – and what you can keep the same.
Budgeting – Here’s the unfortunate reality. When you go from hiking to bike touring, you’re moving up in your economic class. On a three month bike tour, I spent almost twice my Appalachian Trail budget.
Your biggest expenses (after gear) are food and lodging.
You can cut costs by cooking your own food on your camp stove. But the siren call of restaurants is tempting, and you will pass dozens of them each day. For anyone with the hiker food mentality, this is a tough habit to break. For those moments when your willpower dissolves, I recommend stopping at diners for breakfast – It’s the most affordable meal and cooking eggs over your camp stove can get pretty ugly.
As far as lodging goes, you will have to plan a lot and stick to your plan to avoid spending. Stealth camping is often possible in more remote areas, but in a more developed area even camping quickly becomes expensive. My advice is to take advantage of warmshowers.org and couchsurfing.org, buy your adventurecycling.org maps, avail yourself of the hospitality of friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers, and, most importantly, research the area. Some places are more cyclist friendly than others. In the Midwest, for example, most towns allow tourists to sleep in their parks for free. Once word spread in town that cyclists were at the park, locals would actually drop by with food or the offer of a clean bed for the night.
Yup, the old beast is back. Only, unlike in hiking, chafing is an absolute inevitability. It isn’t pretty, but you’ll need to have some kind of lube with you. Bagbalm works well, and bike shops all carry chamois sticks or butter (Once, in desperation, I bought udder cream for cows in the dairy belt. I’m going to save you the pain by just telling you it doesn’t work.) At least you’ll be reminded of the humility of hiking when you’re greasing your butt at 6AM in the tent you set up behind a WalMart.
The Food – Guess what? You’ll still eat a lot!! In fact, when you’re bike touring you can actually eat fresh food. Weight isn’t as much of a concern with the bike helping you to do the work, and you will be able to stop almost daily for food at grocery stores and restaurants. You don’t even need a cook set – although I definitely recommend one to cut costs.
The Gear – You’ll be shifting your thought process a little here. You will be less concerned with weight and more concerned with maintaining your bike. A few extra ounces in your panniers does not register the same as a few extra ounces on your back, and if your stuff gets wet, you’re hitting a town on most days so you will almost always be able to get to a laundromat / inn / hotel.
What you should care about is that you have the necessary gear to solve any bike issues. These are your must-haves. Everything that isn’t on this list – including clothing – is optional.
-Patch kit with plastic tire removers and patches
-Extra tubes and spare spokes – make sure these fit your bike
-Allen wrenches to fit the hex bolts on your bike – make sure you have the right size ahead of time.
-A chain tool
-A Swiss army knife (Forget the toothpick – it has two screwdrivers, a bottle opener, and a corkscrew – all of which you will want if your bike is really busted.)
-A small, portable bike pump
*For longer trips: a little wheel truing tool will save a trip to the bike shop if your wheel gets wobbly.
(optional: a bike light. You may just want to use a headlamp, though.)
I like to take the individual tools I know I will need because multi-tools have unnecessary add-ons, but if you want to do some one-stop shopping, you can find a multi-tool for your bike almost anywhere – bike stores, gear stores, or even Walmart / Target. While there are some deluxe versions, the cheaper ones will also work for most bikes.
Elevation Profiles – These will stay the same. Up means it’s harder. Down means easier. The nice thing is that you will be biking primarily on paved roads, so the grades will rarely be so steep that you struggle with them. As long as you have enough gears on your bike, you can make the machine do the work. So don’t panic. Unless you’re in Vermont or Seattle. The roads there were graded by demented black-diamond-skiing civil engineers who want to watch the world burn.
The Wind – Surprise! Unlike in hiking, where you can judge the difficulty of a day by the elevation profile or at the very least by terrain reports, cycling comes with a completely unpredictable obstacle: Headwind.
Headwind is an invisible force that was picked on in highschool. As a result, it is horrible to everyone and everything in its way now. I have been knocked off my bike by headwind in North Dakota. Actually pushed off of it. I can honestly say that it is easier to bike in a hail storm than heavy wind. When you are researching your bike tour, one of the first things you will hear about is which way the wind blows more frequently, so just make sure it’s at your back.
The Bodily Effects
The good news: your knees will not sound like a box of Rice Crispies after a bike tour. They should be in great shape, in fact. Cycling also builds more muscle than hiking, so enjoy your Incredible Hulk legs.
The bad news: Due to prolonged pressure against your bike, you may lose feeling in two areas of your body – your hands and your groin (hence the padded shorts and gloves). Sorry guys, but fair warning is fair warning. Just don’t panic (or, as my friend did, wake up your cycling partner in the middle of the night in a fit of hysteria when you realize your crotch is numb) – you will return to normal after a few weeks away from your bike.
Navigation – While you do technically follow white blazes on both trips, the ones on the road won’t always deliver you to the right destination. You will probably want your map visible in a front pack so that you can follow it closely, as navigation with bike touring is much trickier. On the AT, the primary reason you need maps is to plan out the logistics of your trips – not to stay on the well-marked trail. But when you’re bike touring, those maps are your only hope for not getting completely lost. They also keep you on bike friendly roads and prevent you from ever accidentally ending up on a major highway where you really don’t want to be. Check out Adventure Cycling for some good route options (and also this sweet map case).
The Community – This is the biggest difference. The community in bike touring is small. You will often go days without seeing anyone. When you do actually see another bike tourists, you will wave, stop, and have a whole conversation with them, maybe even planning to meet up that night if they are going the same way. Other bike tourists are rare, and so you will mostly be talking to locals in the towns you pass.
This means you will have many variations on the same conversation: “Yup, I’m biking from x to x. About x miles a day. Saved up and quit my job. Don’t know what I plan to do afterwards. Carry it all on my bike. A tent or people’s couches. Why yes I would love to eat dinner at your house.”
It also means you will want to bike tour with someone because, although you won’t always be alone, you will crave conversation with people who are going through what you’re going through. It’s hard to get up day after day, squeeze your sore, lubricated bottom into damp bike shorts, and grit your teeth for the first few cold miles until you warm up. Having someone to joke with and talk to in the evening makes it a hundred times easier.
The wildest thing about the Appalachian Trail, to me, was never the bears or rattlesnakes; it was the people. There is a true community on the AT (which this blog is testament to) and the fact that such a community can exist on a long distance trail is a remarkable rarity. One that I was extremely grateful for while hiking. Cycling, I felt like a weirdo; half of the people I saw thought I was homeless, the other half thought I was some kind of elite athlete. Although these mistaken labels also occasionally found me on the AT, most of the time I just felt like a member of the group.
…And I didn’t even have to lose feeling in my crotch.
So biker beware! You may just fall in love with the fast-paced, mile crunching life of a bike tourist once you make the jump from hiking. Just remember: It’s OK to have multiple hobbies.
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