Categories
On The Road

How To Wild Camp Anywhere For Free And Not Get Busted

It’s that time again — another ‘how-to’ sharing the essential tools of the adventurous cyclist’s trade. This time I’m going to deal with what is often a stressful thought for every rider:

“Where the hell I am going to sleep tonight?!?”

Sleeping is a right, not a privilege

I believe that it is every human being’s nature-given right to sleep without having to pay for the privilege.

Some would consider the reality of doing so delinquent, idealistic or impossible. But, in my experience, the belief creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Absolute faith is the first thing you need on the journey to the as-yet-unknown place where you’ll rest your head. You will find it sooner or later.

This rule has never let me down in over ten years of two-wheeled adventuring.

And I mean anywhere

My introduction to wild camping was crossing Europe back in 2007, when a lack of money made it a necessity. In four months of cycling from England to Turkey, I spent a total of five nights in paid accommodation.

It was difficult and stressful – at first. But soon, the realisation that it was not only possible but actually relatively easy was a true revelation. Since then, I’ve spent over a decade relying on the wild camp for overnighting during my travels on six continents.

The initial drive to do this came from the decision not to even consider paying for accommodation from Day 1. There were sound financial reasons for this:

If I’d stayed at the cheapest hostels available at an average of £10 a night, my first four months would have cost an extra £1,200. That was about 25% of my entire round-the-world trip budget for four years (I had £3500 in the bank and 800 euros in cash when I hit the road).

Another way to put this is that a durable £300 tent would pay for itself within one month of wild-camping across Europe. (And you can get a decent tent for much cheaper than that.)

That’s not to mention that I was no longer restricted to places where accommodation was available. As a cyclist, I spent 90% of my time in the countryside between settlements – which is of course where all the best wild-camping opportunities are anyway.

Since that first trip, practice has made perfect, and there’s nowhere I’ve not found a free spot to rest at night when I’ve tried.

Here are a few specific strategies I’ve developed which help the process of finding a place to wild camp on a bike trip:

1. Talk to local people

If you’re unsure about the safety of your surroundings, or whether wild camping will be tolerated, stop and talk to whoever is around. 99% of the time, the people you meet will be very happy to help you find a suitable spot for your tent, and if you’re near a settlement it’s always best to have the locals’ blessing if possible.

Often you’ll find that this will lead to social encounters and occasionally full-blown hospitality, and this is one of the enviable experiences that few but the independent bicycle traveller have the opportunity to enjoy.

(If there’s nobody around, of course – great! Wild camping couldn’t be easier!)

2. Know when to stop

If you’re cycling in open country, allow at least one hour to locate a suitable campsite; more while you’re still learning. If you’re in or approaching a town or city, you need to consider whether you need to stop for anything, and if you’ve got time to make it through and out the other side.

You’ll also need time to check the area and set up your camp before dark. Spending a few minutes absorbing the vibe of the area is usually a good idea (I’m talking basic human intuition here, not ‘energies’ or ‘auras’).

The amount of time you need will depend to a large extent on where you are – sometimes you’ll be spoilt for choice, but if you’re not in a particularly remote area, chances are you’ll need to ride for a while before you find the beach/woodland/pasture you’re looking for.

If you’re in a busy area, scout a spot, have dinner, then sneak off to your campsite after sunset. It’s not ideal, but you’re unlikely to be noticed after dark, unless you wave your head-torch around a lot, which putting up your tent in the twilight is a good way to avoid using it.

This isn’t the ideal situation, but sometime you’ve just got to sleep. Wild camping rarely results in the best campsites you’ve ever slept in, even if Instagram makes it look that way.

3. Get to know yourself better

Wondering why you’re afraid and panicky on your first attempt at wild camping? You’re not alone. Even people with thousands of nights under canvas feel like this – because we as a species have evolved to see potential threats everywhere and avoid them. Our survival in the past depended on our overactive imaginations, which were (and still are) great at cooking up wild fantasies of savage beasts and hostile tribes hiding behind every rock.

The simple truth is that you have to get over it, and the easiest way to do this is to do more wild camping! (Mindfulness meditation also really helps.)

Once you’ve got over the hump, you’ll start seeing potential camping spots everywhere, and boring your friends by incessantly pointing them out.

Yes, there’s stuff living out there – mostly dogs and ants, in my experience (and, if in England, fluffy little bunnies). And if a dog finds you in your nylon cocoon in the woods, it’ll leave you well alone (after noisily swiping your breakfast if you left it outside).

But almost no animal will come to you looking for a fight, because random aggression hasn’t generally been an evolutionarily stable strategy. (If you’re American and you’re about to mention bears, you’re right, and you already know how to camp in bear country.)

And humans don’t roam the fields and forests at night brandishing lethal weapons. Why? Because, like you, they’re afraid of humans roaming the fields and forests at night brandishing lethal weapons!

Once it gets dark, people are uninquisitive of anywhere outside the places they know by daylight. (The exception is border guards and other security forces, so don’t camp near them.)

Now, of course, we’ve slaughtered or contained the man-eating wildlife and have (mostly) got used to living in each other’s company, so it’s safe to chill out. I’ve been hiding my tent just out of sight of roads all over six continents for months on end and have never encountered anything more than an invitation to come and sleep somewhere warmer and/or enjoy a glass or two of the local tipple (except for one black bear in Washington). And this kind of experience is entirely typical of bicycle travellers.

Actually, you’ll be surprised where you can get away with putting a tent, sleeping rough or blagging a horizontal surface! Sometimes, in ’emergencies’, it’s been fun seeing what’s possible in this regard. I’ve slept in bus shelters, inner-city parks, building sites, roadside verges, subways, empty garages, petrol stations, fishing boats, tramps’ hovels, hotel gardens, under tables, drainage pipes, storage sheds, abandoned buildings – even about five metres from a busy main road in full view of anyone who cared to stop and take a look!

Sure, the last one wasn’t ideal – the mud was really sticky – but I still got my head down undisturbed for a few hours.

Of course, if you’re out in the Sahara or crossing the Mongolian steppe, you can put a tent anywhere you please. The world is your campsite. Enjoy it!

4. Practice the art of invisibility

Not being seen while wild camping is not just a practical concern – if you’re confident in your own inconspicuousness, you’ll also sleep much better. Luckily, there are a few simple things you can do to make yourself as invisible as possible.

The first is perhaps the most basic: get away from anywhere there are likely to be people. For most cycle tourists, that means getting off the road and well away from the beams of passing headlights. Avoid places that are obviously popular stops for motorists. A good rule of thumb is to keep going until the litter stops, then go a bit further. (Bikepackers camping in the backcountry tend to have less to worry about in this department.)

If you’re planning on sleeping in a tent, try to get one in a natural shade of green. This will serve you well in a wide variety of environments, because if it’s green, stuff grows there, and if stuff grows there, people probably live there, and people can’t see a green tent in a green field at night. (Other colours will get you by as well, just not as stealthily.)

Unstitch any shiny labels on the outside of you tent. Replace the guy lines for ones that aren’t luminous and ultra-reflective. Remember how useful you thought the reflective bits on your bags & tyres would be at night? Well, now they’re useful for showing passing drivers exactly where you are. Make sure they’re facing away from the road, or cover them with Gaffa Tape.

I often bring a dark-coloured poncho on longer trips, as a waterproof in heavy rain, a picnic blanket when it’s sunny, and finally a cover for my bike and gear to keep it dry and inconspicuous at night.

5. Consider alternative sleeping systems

These days I often travel with a bivvy bag. It’s a lot smaller and lower to the ground than a tent, and I much prefer the feeling of sleeping outdoors than that of being cooped up ‘indoors’. Many bikepackers save valuable space and weight by bivvying.

(For the uninitiated, a bivvy bag is a breathable, protective shell for your sleeping bag, ideally roomy enough to slide your mattress inside as well. I personally use an Alpkit Hunka with thin summer sleeping bags or an army surplus Goretex one if I need more space.)

For added protection from the elements, learn to rig up a poncho or tarp as a shelter (or a ‘basha’ in military-speak) using a bit of light cord and/or a few cargo bungees such as the ones that might be strapping stuff to your bike. Slide under this in your bivvy bag and you’ll stay dry even in a downpour. (Again, Alpkit make a good range, or get a cheap army surplus one.)

For the full military experience, you can leave your boots on inside your sleeping bag as well.

In summary: Relax, it’ll be fine

The main message that I’m trying to get across is that you should prepare as well as possible, and then, when you’re on the road, never give up the belief that there’s a place waiting for you, and all you’ve got to do is find it.

That kind of unshakeable faith is one of the most powerful motivational strategies known to man. (See religion.)

Once you’ve got the hang of it – and it will take a few attempts – you’ve got a dependable tool for getting a good night’s sleep anywhere in the world. For free.

Just imagine the possibilities…!

Perhaps you’re an experienced wild-camper already? Why not share your top tips with us in the comments below?

Categories
On The Road Planning & Logistics Technology

Is Komoot The Most Powerful Route Planning App A Cycle Tourist Could Wish For?

Full disclosure: Komoot was mentioned repeatedly in response to my 2018 round-up of apps for cycle touring. I got in touch with the team and they offered to make a modest contribution to my ride around Armenia in return for a detailed report on my experiences. Here it is.

Lots of people have been asking about the route planning smartphone app I’ve been using on the road in Armenia. The app in question is komoot (with a lowercase ‘k’), the creation of a Berlin-based team of developers, which is finding increasing favour with recreational outdoor users, and just happens to be an excellent tool for cycle tourists.

First things first: why would you use an app for route planning and navigation on a cycle tour?

There are obvious reasons, the main one being to get where you’re going without getting lost. Less obvious are that such apps are now clever enough to calculate – in many cases – better routes than those you might pick on the ground. By better, I don’t mean shorter or more direct, like Google Maps might suggest. I mean quieter, prettier, with gentler gradients, with road surfaces appropriate to the bike you’re riding, and passing by more points of interest along the way – in short, routes that are more cyclist-friendly.

This kind of functionality was hard to come by until pretty recently, and is one reason I’ve never bothered with previous generations of such apps and websites until now. It’s also because I generally like to go low tech. But for this trip I had some specific aims, and

The komoot app (Android/iOS) is free, as is the first of the regional offline basemaps you choose to download. From then on, additional maps are chargeable at £3.99 each, but world travellers might prefer to buy the complete package (£29.99) which covers the whole globe for a one-off purchase.

I’ve been using komoot daily for nearly a month, and my impressions so far have been very positive. There are a couple of caveats which I’ll mention in detail below, but none are deal-breakers – indeed, komoot has become my go-to app for route planning and navigation on cycle tours, and I plan to continue using it for the remainder of this extended tour of Armenia, and likely into the future too.

So what exactly are komoot’s strengths?

To my mind, it isn’t a single feature but rather the package as a whole. Rather than trying to do everything for everyone and cram in every possible piece of functionality, the developers’ goal seems to be simplicity of use combined with powerful key features. To that end, the app’s functionality is broadly split into three parts: route planning, navigation, and social media. Let’s go through each in turn.

Planning mode uses routing algorithms to generate optimal routes between any number of points of your choice, which can be searched for, selected on the map, or chosen from categorised listings of nearby places. The routing happens server-side; you’ll need an active internet connection to carry out this step, but saved routes can then be followed offline.

The resulting routes are generally excellent – I particularly like that I can switch between cycle touring, road biking and mountain biking, which produce different routes based on different criteria – and the database of points of interest is extremely comprehensive.

Of particular use to cycle tourists is that generated routes are displayed not just with elevation and gradient profiles but also track type breakdowns, so you can see in advance what proportions of a route are on dirt or asphalt, highway or provincial road, etc, and adjust as necessary depending your preferences. Also generated are statistics concerning distance, estimated ride duration based on your fitness, total ascent/descent, average grade, highest/lowest elevations, and the like (though in uber-mountainous Armenia these numbers usually give me a sinking feeling!).

It’s worth mentioning that the app has a matching web interface for planning routes in a bit more comfort. Routes planned and saved here are then synced to the app.

In navigation mode, the app is unobtrusive and as accurate as the mapping allows (see below); I prefer to use the audio prompts (turn-by-turn navigation) with the screen switched off, which saves a lot of battery power. The fact that this works offline for pre-planned routes is a big plus. Your actual route is automagically logged, regardless of whether it matches the route you planned, and can later be exported as a GPX file.

The most innovative element is perhaps the social media side of the app. Once you’ve logged your day’s activities, you are encouraged to highlight your favourite spots and sections on the route, and then to share your recommendations with the app’s other users, who can then upvote them. Popular highlights then begin to show up when other users plan routes in the same area, thus enabling them to benefit from good recommendations. Public trips also become searchable and show up on your profile.

You can also embed them in your blog…

The result is a community-generated database of routes and curated highlights which might not otherwise appear on a regular basemap. (On a gamification tip, you also get badges and whatnot for being an active contributor.)

It’s a nice, simple system that seems to have the spirit of exploration at its core, rather than that of competition or showmanship as with some other cycling apps. Does it work? Well, the app has 5 million users to date, so komoot must be doing something right!

I mentioned earlier that there are caveats. Komoot asked for an honest report, so here they are in detail.

The most visible issue stems from the app’s reliance on the OpenStreetMap database and open-source elevation data to provide the underlying data. All of the route planning features depend on it. This means that the functionality will only ever be as good as the data. And while the open-source data is extraordinarily good in some places (including the app’s native Germany, the UK, and most other European countries that dominate its user base), in Armenia it is far from perfect.

To be sure, it’s a lot better than it was – we added or updated more than 5,000km of track data in 2016 alone with the Transcaucasian Trail project – but there are still quirks, mostly relating to road names (which affect the audio prompts), the misclassification of dirt roads as paved (which affects routing for road biking), and the low-resolution elevation model (which creates discrepancies in elevation and gradient profiles).

Of course, komoot is by no means alone in suffering from incomplete or inaccurate mapping data. In fact, the same issues affect all apps using OpenStreetMap (which is most of them). But coverage and accuracy continues to improve worldwide, and a bit of common sense is enough to overcome most routing issues – and it’s practically a non-issue in much of Europe nowadays. That’s why it isn’t a deal-breaker. The fact that it even has such sophisticated routing features is already a game changer – find me an app five years ago that could do that!

And if the map really is blank at any point, you can draw a straight line between A and B, or switch the basemap to aerial imagery and trace the routes you see. This much-requested new feature is called ‘off-grid routing’ and surfaced in an update midway through the most recent leg of my ride. It has given komoot a big leg-up in the planning of intrepid, off-trail routes, though I am yet to make use of the feature myself.

On the topic of routing, komoot does have a particular type of user in mind with these features. While they are extremely powerful given good underlying data, users who like doing fine-grained, turn-by-turn route planning themselves will find the algorithms too dominant and the ability to micro-adjust a route too cumbersome, necessitating adding endless additional points to ‘force’ the app to take the route you want.

But this would be missing the point: komoot’s focus is clearly on making the routing feature as strong as it can possibly be and appealing to people who will utilise it rather than try to override it.

(Case in point: I’ve found plenty of new routes in Armenia that I wouldn’t have known about had I not followed the app’s suggestions.)

There are a few minor niggles that could be improved:

  • It is somewhat fiddly to add new points to a route mid ride; I’d prefer to be able show preset categories on the map at all times and then simply tap to add them.
  • I’d like to be able to join a pre-planned route midway, rather than replanning it with a new starting point (necessitating an internet connection).
  • If I make an intentional detour, I’d like the app to recognise this rather than instructing me to make a U‑turn for the next several minutes.
  • If I’m going (downhill?) too fast to be able to hear the audio prompts, it would be cool if the app would detect this and show a visual prompt as well.
  • And if my phone’s screen is locked, I would prefer to be able to unlock it without pausing my tour to do so.

The specific phone I’ve been using – a cheap Huawei Y6 – also has a habit of terminating the app at unpredictable intervals when the screen is off. Having looked into the issue I believe it is an issue with Huawei’s proprietary version of Android, rather than a fault with the app itself. It doesn’t happen with my Google Nexus 6P, which runs the regular flavour of Android.

Finally, I don’t believe I’ve got the best out of the social features, purely because of where in the world I’m located. I think I’m a komoot Pioneer in Armenia by default, as nobody else here seems to be using it (yet).

View this post on Instagram

Kiss my Meghri Pass! (2,535m) . This was always going to be the big one. My GPS recorded 1,890m total ascent today, helped along by a surprise giant pizza at a roadside cafe and a great aerial view of Armenia’s mining capital, Kajaran. The following descent took more than an hour and consisted of freezing cold rain and multiple stops to warm up numb fingers by stuffing them down my shorts (apologies for the graphic imagery). Tomorrow: Meghri and the Iranian border! . #tomsbiketrip #cyclingarmenia #kissmypass #meghri #meghripass #kajaran #kapan #syunik #armenia #caucasus #lessercaucasus #zangezur #mountainpass #cycling #cycletouring #bikepacking #bikewander . cc @polarisbikewear @terranovaequipment @konabikes @alpkit

A post shared by Tom Allen (@tom_r_allen) on

The verdict?

Komoot is certainly the most powerful route planning app I’ve come across to date – as long as you let it do its thing and don’t try too hard to override it. And if you’re cycle touring in new places and you don’t know the area, who wouldn’t want optimally calculated routes together with curated community highlights?

Throw in offline voice navigation and you’ve got one of the most powerful apps a cycle tourist could wish for. My only regret is that I didn’t know about it when I was riding across southern Thailand earlier this year.

If you’re keen to see how it actually works, check out my public komoot profile, which includes all my tracked rides (and a few hikes) in Armenia so far. Onwards to the north!

Categories
On The Road

20 Hard-Earned Survival Tips For Cycling In Winter

This piece originally appeared in BikesEtc Magazine.

“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing”, Sir Ranulph Fiennes once said. I don’t imagine he got the idea from winter cycling, but the same holds true: there’s nothing stopping you pedalling through darkening days and sub-zero temperatures, as long as you dress for the occasion – and bear a few other key points in mind.

I learned all this the hard way when I spent a memorable February cycling a thousand kilometres north through Norway and Sweden, past the Arctic Circle and into Lapland, lugging all my gear along with me. Unpleasant at first, it soon proved to be a magical experience, and one I constantly refer to when encouraging others to give winter cycling a try.

Rejoice, then, in the fact that you do not need to go to such extreme lengths as I did to enjoy yourself on two wheels this winter. Here’s how to survive the season:

1. Layer Up

Inappropriate clothing will leave you shivering, sweaty, or both. While you can simply crank up the pace to stay warm in autumn, winter requires a different approach. Combine warm yet wicking long-sleeve baselayers – ideally merino – with breathable microfleece midlayers, windproof shell jackets, and insulated winter tights. Versatility is key.

2. Vent Moisture

The harder you ride, the more you’ll sweat, and if sweat accumulates in your clothing at sub-zero temperatures you will literally freeze in your saddle. Good quality breathable and wicking clothing can only do so much, so ensure that your windproof outer layer has plentiful venting options, including a full-length front zip, armpit zips and adjustable cuffs.

3. Drop Your Pace

You can reduce sweat build up in another way: by slowing down. If you’re used to a nippy fair-weather pace, it’s often tough to change your habits, but the last thing you want is moisture freezing in the fibres of your clothing. Use the winter as an excuse to take longer, slower rides and work on endurance.

4. Control Exertion

Exertion and moisture isn’t just about pace, and other factors are amplified in winter when the equilibrium is more delicate. Pay attention to gradients, speed and windchill, sunlight and shade, cold sinks at the bottom of valleys, and time of day; all of which will affect your body temperature. Anticipate and adjust your exertion and layering appropriately.

5. Protect Extremities

Fingers and toes are vulnerable to cold with little blood flow. Prevent the worst by wearing ‘two-fingered’ mitts, woollen socks and neoprene overboots. If it’s really Arctic, wear plastic bags between liner socks and thick socks (I’m not joking), and consider ‘pogies’ for your handlebars. Your ears and neck are superconductors, so wear a beanie and a neck gaiter. And don’t forget that ‘other’ extremity – a spare glove or sock works well…

6. Winterize Your Bike

Clean and lube your drivetrain after every ride – particularly if you’re riding after the gritting lorries have been out, as salty road-spray will eat it for breakfast. Use a synthetic winter lubricant. Treat any exposed steel with anti-rust spray. Make sure cables are well-sealed and uncontaminated. You don’t want brake cables freezing up on icy roads.

7. Break Out The Winter Accessories

Mudguards may be unfashionable but they’ll keep your drivetrain and backside untarnished while you’re riding in slush or on salted roads. Consider thermal wraps for your water bottles, or bring Thermos flasks instead – or, if it’s stupidly cold, wear a Camelbak under your outer layer. A nice warm saddle cover might sound like a good idea after your first couple of sub-zero rides, too.

8. Don’t Slip (Or Sink)

Drop your tyre pressure a little for better traction in slush or on wet roads. Skinny tyres often cut through slush and snow better than fatter tyres and make better contact with the tarmac. If it’s truly iced up, however fit studded tyres, which work unnervingly well, as I discovered in Sweden while riding across a frozen lake. On the other hand, if there’s deep snow outside your window, the higher-volume your tyres the better. (That’s why fatbikes were invented.)

9. Don’t Stop (For Long)

It’s easy to forget that the colder the air temperature, the more rapidly that hard-earned body heat will be sucked away from you. Keep rest breaks short, and never stop at the top of a long, shaded descent! Watch out for ice patches when dismounting, too – your studded tyres may not slip, but you yourself may end up a sprawling pile of limbs if you’re not careful.

10. Protect Your Lungs

In seriously cold conditions, a neck-warmer serves an important dual function as a membrane through which to breathe and protect your lungs from cold, dry air, which can cause respiratory problems and even nosebleeds in the unprepared.

11. Protect Your Eyes

A white snowy landscape under direct sunlight will divert far more UV rays towards your eyeballs than even the brightest of summer days. Protect your eyes appropriately with wraparound sunglasses with UVA/UVB filtered lenses. Some consider orange tinted lenses to help with contrast in snowy environments. Extreme cold may even call for goggles over glasses.

12. Understand Sunlight

Particularly further north, you’ll notice that the sun hangs lower in the sky as a result of Earth’s tilted axis. When planning a ride, consider where the sun is going to be at different times of day. You don’t want to be pedalling into a setting sun at rush hour, for example, when both your and other drivers’ abilities to see what’s ahead is seriously impaired.

13. Understand Moonlight

A full moon above a snow-covered landscape at night is a thing to behold, and the glow is quite enough to ride by. This is one of the greatest draws of the otherwise faintly ludicrous idea of winter night-riding: you will see familiar landscapes quite literally in a whole new light, one that is quite magical. Don’t forget lights for visibility of course; on which note…

14. Get Lit Up

Winter days mean a higher likelihood you’ll need lights to see and be seen – whether because the sunlight is weaker, or because there’s a chance you’ll misjudge the short daylight hours and be caught out in the dark. When choosing, remember that lithium batteries don’t like cold weather. Consider an inexpensive set of backup lights, and always check everything’s fully charged before you set out.

15. Get Fuelled Up

Your body will burn more calories to keep your core warm, as well to keep your legs spinning. This, of course, means eating ever bigger slices of cake during your breaks. If you take snacks with you, keep them in an inside pocket so they don’t harden or freeze. Finally, don’t forget to hydrate – even if cold water is the last thing you feel like drinking, you still need it.

16. Avoid The Verge

Otherwise rideable hard shoulders become a frozen mess of slush and debris in winter, meaning you’ll do well to stay further away from the edge of the road than you might be used to. It’s better to force motorists to give you a wide berth than to put yourself in a dangerous position, so don’t be afraid to take the lane – as many drivers will expect you to do in winter anyway.

17. Revisit Old Routes

Blankets of snow and the long shadows of winter give even the most familiar landscape a magical shroud, and you can’t beat a good ride to make the most of it. Not only that, but the roads will be much quieter than you’re used to as the fair weather cyclists stick to their turbo trainers – and you’ll discover new places to stop that really come into their own in wintertime.

18. Explore New Routes

Of course, there’s nothing to reinvigorate the senses than exploring somewhere new, and again, given the right preparation, your bike can take you places nobody else would think to ride or drive on the coldest and snowiest of winter’s days – even more so on icy roads with spiked tyres.

19. Camp Out!

I’m aware this will convince very few, but I really don’t think cycle touring is restricted to fair weather any more than road riding is. Wait for a clear, fine night; throw an extra-thick sleeping bag, a couple of woolly hats and a hip-flask of single malt into your panniers; then ride up to that excellent look-out point and bivvy out under the stars – better with company, of course.

20. Endure The Cold, Enjoy The Warmth

Above all, go forth and pedal in the knowledge that even if your water bottles do freeze solid, your toes go numb, and you make most of your descents on your backside rather than in the saddle, you’ll never be far away from a hot shower, a cup of tea and a massive slice of cake – which will all be that much more satisfying for the misery you endured while earning them.

Anything I’ve missed? Add your best winter cycling tips in the comments!

Categories
Equipment On The Road

How To Go Ultralight Bikepacking (A Fully Loaded Cycle Tourist’s Perspective)

Ultralight cycle touring – a.k.a. bikepacking – is something I’ve been asked repeatedly to cover on this blog.

As luck would have it, lightweight bikepacking is also something I’m getting more and more interested in, especially now I’m based in a place with endless potential for dirt road adventures in the mountains. Exciting plans are brewing for this style of adventure cycling. But a trial run is always a good idea…

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Luckily, a couple of weeks back, I found myself with the unexpected luxury of an empty week in my calendar, a touring bike in need of a workout, and an appointment to keep on the other side of England. With an unbroken run of fabulous weather on the forecasters’ cards, it was the perfect opportunity to experiment with bikepacking.

Here’s the rig I used to follow a rough route from London, along the south coast of England as far as the New Forest, and cut across to Bristol:

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It’s pretty much the lightest I’ve travelled by bicycle for more than a couple of days. The feeling of being unburdened yet self-sufficient was a fantastic luxury.

I made a few mistakes, and learned a lot, as you tend to do when trying something new.

But before I go into any more detail on what I did discover about bikepacking, let’s tackle the fundamental question of ‘why’ you might go ultralight with your two-wheeled travels. After all, when the classic pannier-laden rig has been tried and tested for decards, what’s the point of changing it?

Good question. Given good roads, flat terrain and merciful weather, and all else being equal (fitness, patience, navigation skills, etc), the only thing you’re gaining by losing weight is pure speed, and therefore the range of distances you can cover.

But as we all should know, smiles are not a function of miles. So this is only an advantage if speed and distance are truly important, which in my experience describes only a fraction of cycle tourists, generally those from a road-racing background, or with a particularly masochistic streak.

No. The big draw for me was, instead, the range of terrain I could cover, not the quantity. Given a sufficiently versatile touring bike (and Tom’s Expedition Bike was built for versatility), the potential for taking an ultralight touring rig off the beaten track – and (gasp) having fun with it – is massively increased.

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When I think back to the significant swathes of the planet I’ve crossed on dirt roads – or no roads at all – in Africa and Mongolia primarily, but also in Europe and the USA, I find that my strongest and most treasured memories are inevitably from these times.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise, for mountain biking was how I came across cycle touring in the first place. Indeed, the first touring bike I built was a Frankenstein’s monster of a mountain bike, adapted to carry loads of luggage (thus ironically rendering it deeply unsuited for off-road riding).

In many ways, then, going ultralight on an all-terrain bike is an optimisation of all the things that originally attracted me to the bicycle as a mode of transport, combined with a rectifying of the mistakes I made when touring off-road over the last few years.

And I’m not alone on this – in fact, I’m rather late to the party, as a quick search for ‘bikepacking’ will reveal.

(For those in search of vicarious dirt-road bikepacking adventures, Cass Gilbert’s blog is an unbeatable place to start.)

So much for the ‘why’. Let’s look at the ‘how’ of bikepacking.

Now, a week of it hardly makes me an expert. But I’ve been watching the bikepacking scene from the sidelines for years. And as with so many things adventurous, there seems to be an enormous emphasis on gear when discussing how to go ultralight with cycling adventures.

Yes, the advances in gear technology have been startling and impressive. Without these innovations, I certainly would not have been able to cram the following list of items into the luggage you see in the picture below:

  • Bag4Bike saddle pack: Exped Hyperlite M camping mat, Exped AirPillow UL, Alpkit Pipedream 250 sleeping bag, Alpkit Hunka bivvy bag (should have got the XL), waterproof jacket, fleece, thermal Buff, 2x underwear, 2x socks, off-bike shirt & trousers
  • Biologic Tour bar bag: Digital camera (Sony NEX‑7 + 18–200mm Tamron lens), Zoom H1 voice recorder, smartphone & charger, head torch, personal valuables, Kindle, knife, wash kit & medical kit, snacks
  • Small backpack (not pictured): Laptop & charger
  • b’Twin frame bag: Pump, chain lube and touring toolkit

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(I could have done away with all the gadgets and halved my quota yet again, or added more warm clothes, but I had work to do en route.)

The brilliant thing about what’s listed above is that I could travel in more or less temperate climes pretty much indefinitely with it. And it’d be a luxuriously light and nimble way to ride.

“But what about a tent and stove, among other essential items of cycle touring gear?” I hear you ask, in an impressive display of literary English.

This, I feel, is where the other half of the equation comes in.

Ultralight bikepacking doesn’t just mean buying ultralight bikepacking luggage, like the Bag4Bike saddle pack I used on this trip. And it doesn’t just mean buying ultralight camping and cooking gear to stuff inside it.

It means fundamentally reassessing what you need versus what you simply want.

If you want the guaranteed shelter of a two-person freestanding tent… if you want to cook your own elaborate meals every night… if you want to change your clothes every day… if you want to bring your entire digital world along with you…

…then I am sorry, but no amount of money spent on the lightest and most packable example of each item of gear will change the fact that you simply have too much stuff in the first place.

It seems to me that ultralight bikepacking is, for the most part, the art of leaving things behind. Stripping things down to their barest essentials. Not buying gear.

I only went half way – as mentioned before, I could have ditched all the gadgets and devices and used a smartphone in place of all of them.

The problem is that in doing so, most of us will need to break our habits and do things differently, and if there’s one thing humans are good at, it’s resisting change.

This manifests in all sorts of comical ways. Fear of bivvying out in the open is understandable (though curable with practice or with company).

But getting wound up about the prospect of cold food for dinner? No tea or coffee in the morning? Wearing the same clothes every day? Or, quite simply, feeling uncomfortable because you’ve never carried so little stuff before – surely something must be missing?

These are psychological obstacles to overcome; aspects of going ultralight that gear manufacturers will never be able to invent a solution for.

Luckily, overcoming these obstacles is a simple case of going out and doing it, in spite of any misgivings.

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Crossing Southern England isn’t the obvious place to try out ultralight bikepacking.

But why not? The South Downs Way runs for a hundred miles along ridgelines overlooking the coast. The New Forest is riddled with endless shared-use trails. Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset can be crossed almost entirely on ‘trailways’ – old railway cuttings converted into off-road cycle routes by Sustrans, finishing up with the UK National Cycle Network’s first ever route, the Bristol-Bath Railway Path.

And the odd country road to link it all up – well, this is England, where, outside of rush hour, the country roads tend to be a joy to ride.

If that isn’t a candidate for the perfect application of ultralight bikepacking, I’m not sure what is.

Categories
On The Road

What & Where To Eat On A Cycle Tour – Options For Every Kind Of Budget

One of the great pleasures of cycle touring is that you may eat whatever and as much as you like.

You’ll reimagine food as fuel, and the more in the tank, the further you’ll go. You may indeed gain weight, but only in your thigh muscles. Cake lovers rejoice!

By the same token, the number one rule of feeding yourself on a bicycle adventure is to listen to your body.

Your metabolism will adapt to become a highly-efficient furnace. Misjudge your intake and you will experience hunger like nothing on Earth, and finding the next bakery will be your sole reason for existence.

Many people get hung up about the prospect of feeding themselves in other parts of the world, fearing that food as we know it may be somehow unavailable.

But wherever there are people, there must be something edible nearby to keep them alive, and as long as you continue to put calories into your body you will continue to be able to turn the pedals.

Nutrition, in our five-a-day culture, is another common worry. But while man/woman cannot live on jam sandwiches and instant noodles alone, he/she can still last a good few weeks. Food on the road doesn’t have to be interesting; it just has to keep you pedalling. Vegetables are for rest days.

Where To Find Food On A Cycle Tour

There are several ways to approach feeding yourself, and they’ll mostly depend on circumstances, budget, and personal preference, in that order. Let’s have a look at them.

Foraging

Fairly uncommon but worth mentioning for the benefit of those really on a zero budget is the practice of finding free food.

Foraging for watercress in Lympstone

‘Foraging’ here is defined as broadly as possible; as well as true wild food, consider fruit from trees, vegetables gleaned from fields, and tasty surprises uncovered in dumpsters behind supermarkets and bakeries.

While difficult to rely on in an ever-changing landscape, such practices can certainly supplement, if not form the basis of, a resourceful adventurer’s diet, with the obvious warning that you should only eat something if you’re 100% sure it’s edible.

Picnicking

At the bottom end of the budget scale for those who actually have money is the picnic option.

Last of the supplies

You’ll rely on local grocers to keep your panniers stocked, preparing your meals on the kerb, in parks, or wherever the fancy takes you. You might carry a stove for variety, but it’s by no means essential. This DIY approach is also the standard fall-back for all cycle travellers when nothing else is available.

In populous areas, buying food can be done on a meal-by-meal basis, keeping a few snacks handy for the miles between. Sparser populations and fewer shopping opportunities require planning ahead for pannier space and ingredients. Even if food is abundant, shopping can still be a chore; consider a ritual of buying a day or two’s food each time. (You’ll learn what constitutes a day’s food pretty fast.)

Finally, if you’re wondering how things change in more exotic lands, the short answer is that they don’t. Bread, cheese, eggs, pasta/noodles, fruit and sugary soft drinks are pretty much global resources.

And cake.

Dead Fly Cake from The Old

A few picnicking tips for cycle tourists:

  • Always keep a knife handy.
  • Try (carefully) carrying condiments and seasonings to liven things up.
  • Many foods we refrigerate – butter, cheese, yoghurt, cooked meat – will happily last several days in a pannier.
  • Stoves aren’t just for dinner; make porridge for breakfast, soup for lunch, and tea or coffee on breaks.
  • Learn how to use that can-opener on your multitool before you actually need it.

Street Food

The snack bar is another worldwide staple food source, and a wonderful way to try real local cuisine and get some variety in your diet.

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This can still fit a relatively low budget if you choose wisely, as such places often cater for nearby workers. It doesn’t take long to figure out the ‘standard’ street food formula for a region and the going rate for meals on offer.

All the usual rules of food safety apply; if in doubt, choose the busiest joint.

Cafes & Coffee Shops

Hot beverages (and cakes) are an inexpensive luxury for many cyclists, particularly if it’s cold and wet, when it’s as much about being indoors as slurping on a tea or coffee.

Cappucino

Such establishments can also double up as morning ‘facilities’ for people who surreptitiously slept behind a hedge last night. (We’ve all done it.)

Restaurants

Those with more to spend will be in for a real treat if restaurants are in abundance on their chosen route, given the limitless appetite of the cycle tourist. If this is you, make sure to budget for extra portions of fries. (And cake.)

Breakfast at last

In some countries, restaurant visits can be affordable even for the budget traveller, so don’t write them off before checking prices. In France, for example, restaurants are obliged by law to serve a hearty workers’ lunch – the menu du jour – for just a few Euros, including wine.

Hospitality

No curious-minded cycle traveller is likely to make it more than a few days in any direction without ending up in someone’s kitchen or living room, being presented with more food (and often alcohol) than they could possibly hope to eat.

Staying with an old Hungarian couple

Needless to say, while you can predict that this will happen with a high degree of accuracy, when it will happen is a different question altogether. And so it is wise to assume that it won’t, prepare appropriately, and enjoy it when it does.

What & When To Eat

Pedalling a loaded touring bike is, for the most part, a low- to medium-exertion activity, but because it is prolonged, it’s necessary to maintain your energy levels, and this largely comes down to what and when you eat.

Road kill

What to eat boils down to calories, so in a reversal of standard-issue dieting advice it’s carbohydrates and fat that’ll provide your energy needs (which is, of course, why cyclists love cake).

Snacks in particular benefit from being dense with energy; dried fruit, nuts and chocolate all count!

When to eat is another question. A huge meal will knock you out while digesting, so some riders keep breakfasts and lunches light, supplementing them with snacks as they do their day’s riding, and saving the big hearty meal for the evening. Some enjoy pigging out at lunchtime and using it as an excuse to have a nap. Some skip lunch and snack all day long. Some eat four smaller meals a day.

So design the routine that best suits you. Or just eat when you’re hungry. But always listen to your body, and give it what it wants.

Cookery

Cooking on a bike tour can range from the simple to the elaborate.

French toast on a campfire

The camper’s standard hot dinner – a pot of pasta with a can of something – can boost morale and warm you up before crawling into your sleeping bag, and on longer trips it may be worth bringing cooking gear for this alone.

A little ingenuity, however, can yield impressive results. Pop your own popcorn. Use a frying pan to make toasties. Juggle two pans on a single burner. Bring flour, yeast, oil and sugar and deep-fry your own donuts.

If there are more of you in a group and thus more stoves and pans, there’s nothing stopping you cooking up a veritable feast each and every evening. You’re limited only by your imagination and the ingredients and equipment to hand (and, I suppose, your cookery skills).

With cooking comes washing up, of course, so don’t forget your scouring pad!

Bonus: 5 Tips for Better Cooking On A Cycle Tour

Big thanks to Tara Alan – author of Bike. Camp. Cook.* – for this contribution.

1. Carry a spice bag.

I carry an ample number of spices with me, each in its own little baggie, all stored together in a larger plastic zipper bag. My spice bag is light, compressible, and easily packable. Best of all, it enables me able to transform almost any ingredient into something tasty!

2. Be on the lookout for small packaged items.

The next time you go shopping for food, keep your eyes peeled for various packaged items that have a long shelf life. Can you find cans of tuna, salmon, or other fish products? How about tiny jars of Thai curry paste, Mediterranean olive paste, or sun-dried tomatoes? Always be ready to supplement your food supply with small, long-lasting packages of interesting edibles.

3. Use a non-stick pot & pan.

With one pot and one pan, you can make pretty much anything! Just make sure they’ve got a non-stick coating – it makes cleanup a total breeze. The time and elbow grease required to scour burnt-on messes from other types of cookware is monumental!

4. Get inspired by local cuisine.

Shop at markets in the areas you’re travelling through, and always buy local spices. Chat or mime to food vendors and street cooks, and let them know you’re interested in their dishes and techniques. You’ll find that nearly everyone, regardless of mother tongue or nationality, can bond over a mutual love of food.

5. Think versatility.

Whether you’re looking at dishware or spices or canned goods, shoot for multi-purpose items over single-use items. For example, get a plate that doubles as a cutting board, and pack individual spices as opposed to pre-mixed spice packets so you’ll be able to mix and match them.

How do you feed yourself on a cycle tour? Any tips you’d like to share with budding adventure cyclists?