Livin' on the road!!!
Yowzers! In my two year round-the-world trip, I dreamed many times of writing this page! And here I am, at a library computer in the middle of the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts, doing exactly that. This page is FUN...I hope you'll read it, add to it, ask any questions or make any suggestions you have from your experiences touring, short or small. How I live on the road is a guide, but only that. Have a look at what others (you!) suggest, too.
Life on a bike for a day or a lifetime
(I) Livin' on the road: wild camping.
In many areas you will have campgrounds available, and these are usually worth the price for the security and services (showers, drinking water, etc) that they provide. This is esepcially the case if you are traveling with one other person and can split the cost of a site. While some campgrounds charge by the person and not just for a place, usually the former kicks in only after 3 or 4 occupants take a plot. Much the same can be said for motel rooms, which can be very very inexpensive outside of Europe and North America.
If you have selected your touring routes carefully and headed for them thar' hills, often you will find yourself in wooded areas and pasturelands. Here the problem is one of plenty: so many sites beckon..where to go? The sun is sinking in the west...where do i stay the night? Only a few probelms are likely to arise.
- If you are climbing a steep grade towards a mountain pass, you may encounter what James XXXX called the 'pickle problem': a mountain on one side of the road, a cliff on the other! Or at least such steep walls you can't camp on either side. This is common throughout the Cascades and Sierras, the rocky mountain west, and other similar regions. There are two solutions to this. You can camp at the top of the pass if its not too far off. The top is psychologically satisfying and ya start downhill the next day. The top is likely to be a 'saddle' of some sort, and the terrain should be reasonably flat on both sides for a while. There often are pastures and fields, maybe even a park with an overlook, where you can tuck yourself away without much fuss.
If you can't reach the top very soon, there may be a few places where the road levels out as it crosses minor ridges along the way up (or down). Often these bluffs and saddles have trees and scrub which will hide you, as well.
If you want to be cool, try and camp where a stream or ravine comes down from up above...cold air will funnel down it during the night. If you wish to be warmer, avoid such areas. This can easily make a difference of several degrees centigrade, so don't overlook it.
- In hilly forested rolling country typical of the eastern USA, central Europe and SE Asia you job is easier. In the rural areas you should have no problem at all. As you approach towns or skirt suburban regions, however, most land is clearly privately owned and its very difficult to find a secure place. Several possibilities are popular with bikers.
- ask at a local church if you can stay on its grounds. Often the rector/priest will allow you to stay indoors, if you wish!
- ask at a local police station if there is a small park where you can camp for the night. They will keep an eye on you and will steer you away from parks popular with teenagers and troublemakers, though this may be an impossible task on weekends. They also may have a small plot of land where you may stay. Ditto for fire stations.
- Colleges and Universities often have dormitory space available for passing travellers, in the summer season. I have stayed at Sterling College in Kansas, SUNY Plattsburgh, and Punjab University in Lahore, Pakistan.
- If you are clearly a 'stranger in a strange land' (also known as a 'foreigner'!) you will encounter tremendous goodwill from the locals, almost anywhere in the world. In this case it should be easy to find a place to stay by asking almost anyone, or by setting up your tent in a fairly quiet area and dealing with the locals in a friendly fashion when they show up. I did this for weeks on end in India. With 1 billion people, even the 'rural' areas of India are swarming with people. I would set up my tent in a field or wooded area and inevitably, along would come a group of oldsters, children, farm animals, and all sort of inquisitive folks. I never was refused permission to stay on any land, anywhere! That is the way in India, where people are about as friendly as they can be. Much the same applies for Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.
- In Pakistan and India finding a place to stay is a biker's dream. Here, almost all the roadside restaurants are open to the world and have 'rope beds' where they will allow you to sleep the night, often for no cost or a modest fee. And ya get those wonderful Indian/Pakistani/Tandoori meals, to boot! Not only THAT but most of them have a well nearby where you can wash yourself and your clothes, and let them dry in the sun or overnight. I spent almost 5 months in India and Pakistan, and these rope beds were just paradise. Sometimes the rope beds were too small for me (i am 6'3") so I would wild camp across the street in a field, as i mentioned above. It is also quieter.
(II) Livin' on the road: wild cooking.
Well, i don't mean wild cooking; I mean, I mean cooking for yourself. Get a MSR stove or something similar: the only thing i insist is that the stove have a built in mechanism to ream out the fuel hole. If you don't have this it will jam, no matter what fuel you use. If you do have this, you can run your stove on ordinary gasoline and will have no problems. Once ya got the stove..here are Roughie the roadside gourmet's cooking tips.
- for Breakfast: many people don't cook at all, and often I don't either, being content with cereal, yogurt and biscuits, bread or rolls, granola, along with fresh fruit. etc. Still, I like to start the day with a warm meal in cooler regions. Eggs
are easier to carry than you think and will keep, uncracked, for several days unless the weather is very warm. If you are carry bread, you can scramble the eggs and make french toast. Every once in a while i have a super breakfast of eggs, bacon, home fries (cooked in the bacon fat...arf!) and instant coffee, as shown here in the High Sierra of California.
Most cyclists buy their breakfast and dinner stuff just before they reach their camping site the night before, so your breakfast food can be quite fresh.
Many times I stop in for coffee shortly after starting my day even IF I have cooked my own breakfast. Its a great time to intereact with the locals (who are their best mood in the AM..even those rednecks in Idaho and Montana like to have a good morning in America!), get updates on the weather, roads under construction, etc. This is especially the case if ya drop in at truck stops and similar places, which are everywhere in the world these days. To me the coffee shop/cafe is the greatest human invention since fire and the wheel.
- Lunch: most cyclists eat out of grocery stores/convenience stores for lunch, though you can carry some things in your packs for sandwiches and such. Popular are peanut butter sandwiches, stuff from the deli if there is one, as well as cookies and chips. In cooler weather you can have soup, which is cheap, but often a hot coffee does the trick.
Let me stop and say that when you are on the road a long time your body begins to tell your brain what it wants...and the word is simple...CARBOHYDRATE! Cyclists gobble pastas, cookies and grains, bread, noodles, whatever fills that craving for bulk and energy. Bananas are popular fruit having some fiber and needed magnesium, which helps prevent cramping. Don't worry...you'll burn the calories, easily! I regularly trim down on tours, and on my world tour I shed 35 lbs. and 4 inches off my waist! [I hope to keep it off :) ] But don't be surpirsed if you get weird cravings for things like potato chips--your body is telling you it wants to go CRUNCH..as well as get some salt. My best story about food cravings comes from Iran. Of course its a Islamic country and Pigs are unclean to Muslims, so you don't see much pork. I had a dream about cooking and bringing to the table a crown roast of pork complete with apples baked atop each bone and smelling of spice and crackled fat! I woke up hungry, but also laughing!
- Dinner: I'll be honest and say that dinner is the most important meal of my day, and especially while cycling. It is my chance to SLAM! my appetite before I go to bed, and let my body replace all the nutrients I need for the next day. Yet many cyclists are uncreative and limited in their preparation of this meal, which tends to focus exclusively on endless boiling of pasta and rice dishes. LIVE A LITLE! Get yourself a small teflon frypan (unbolt the handle, you won't need it). Just before you reach camp, buy a small piece of meat or better yet sausage, an onion, a potato, a tomato and maybe a mushroom. Stir fry the sausage, slice and add the other veggies with maybe a bit of water, cover it and let it simmer for half an hour, maximum. BOOM! Stew! Have it with quick cooking ramen or other noodles and its a feast. I top it all off with a couple packs of cookies (I am NOT kidding) to get the carbos I need, wolf down the water i'll need to digest it all night long, and sit writing my journal while its all just a pleasant memory.
(III) Wild Cooking in mountainous areas.
If you are traveling in remote areas in the mountains, you'll need to carry food for perhaps a few days. Cycling is not like backpacking...coming to a place where food is sold or served is bound to happen sooner or later. You are on a road after all; not a trail to some lofty summit. I often have cyclists ask me about Mountain House or similar vacuum dried foods! BAH! Not only are they outrageously expensive, loaded with salt and preservatives, and TOO SMALL A PORTION (unless ya buy 5 or six of them for one meal), but they taste about as good as the package which contains them. Other cyclists have actually asked me about MREs, the military 'meals ready to eat'!!! Far far better alternatives exist.
- NOW you'll need that pasta I was chuckling about earlier. I carry macaroni and cheese from Kraft! Separate the noodles and the package too save space and weight. You don't need to add either milk or butter to make the 'cheese mix' palatable...ordinary water will do just fine. Of course you can make your own noodle dishes as well, and bulk noodles are a lot cheaper than Kraft. Many cyclists thror in extra noodles and extra water with their Ramen, for example.
- Ramen noodles and similar 'Chinese' food will cook up real quick with just boiled water, and can even be eaten raw in a pinch. 90% of the worlds' mercenaries subsist on this stuff, and given the brushfire wars raging all over the place, they seem to have more than enough energy. Toss in an egg for substance; this will also kill the salty flavor.
- Cans of tuna fish can be stacked in your panniers and will give you both lunch and dinner. Have them out of the can for lunch, with crackers and cookies for carbohydrate. Cook them up with the pasta meals above for a bit of extra flavor.
- powdered tomato sauces, soups, and dried vegetables are now sold in many areas. These can be used to quickly put together a soup stock or sauce for vegetables and pastas. You do not have to buy the meals pre-packaged and complete...the latter is much more expensive.
(IV) Defensive Cycling Skills
Get a helmet and a rear view mirror and the cycling skills and pointers I give here will become second nature to you. Enjoying safety on the road is a full time job, and its not as simple as 'finding a rural area with light traffic.' It only takes one car or truck to kill you! And don't forget country lanes are often narrow and winding...heck, thats half the fun! But its also all the danger.
Your task is simple. Use your helmet mounted rear view mirror-- which should be clearly in your line of sight with only the slightest need to 'warp' your eyeball in order to look behind you-- to take regular glances at the road behind you.
(V) Livin' on the road: beating the rain
I talked alot about 'beating the rain' in the previous section when I covered clothing, specifically Waterproof Raingear. Here I talk about beating the rain for the rest of your equipment. Obviously the bicycle is going to get wet and the moisture will slither its way into your bearings and bottom bracket. Your only choice here is to wait sunnier times and repack your bearings then. It'll do no good to repack them just to have them get wet the next day after day. The chain, freewheel and chainrings sure could use a spray of WD-40 during these morose periods, but the stuff wears off pretty quick if the rain is heavy or the roadway is wet. Face up to the fact that your BIKE will have a pretty miserable time in miserable weather. But then again...misery loves company, doesn't it?
- If there is nobody back there: Well well well...aren't we the little pretty, as the wicked witch would say if she road a bike instead of a broom! In this case, enjoy as much of the road as you can. I ride far enough into the road to enjoy the better surface and reduced grit. The reduced wear on your tires and fewer flats is very noticeable. On a misty day this section of the road is higher and bit drier than the puddled area often found by the shoulder.
You really notice the advantage of doing this if you are on a road that has very little, or no shoulder, and has a ragged, broken tarmac edge with a dropoff of several inches. Hugging the edge of the road here is dangerous! If you slide over to the edge you rish having the bike completely fall from under you..and you will surely fall into the roadway if this happens. Steer clear of this type of shoulder when it exists, which is quite often on single lane, minor roads that Cycling magazines sing virtuousos about.
- When you FIRST SEE someone coming: now your skills and professionalism as a cyclist can start to take over. Even here we must subdivide the possibilities (by the way if ya haven't noticed I like outlines! Or maybe I just like the HTML 'unordered list' tag???)
- Of course, first, just how far back are they when you first see them? If its a winding road they might not be far back at all. In this case of course, try not to wander too far into the roadway to begin with. Nothing intimidates a driver more than a rider who wavers all over the place in the road. But assuming you are not smack in the middle of the lane, hold your ground. See if the vehicle behind you is ready and willing to give you the road space you currently have. Put yourself in the driver's place: would you be willing to edge over to the left under those circumstances? If they DO, great...and you can make life a little easier by edging to the right a bit just as the vehicle passes and waving them by with your left hand as you do so. Most drivers will be so flabbergasted you have a rear view mirror they'll often honk and wave back. Truckers, especially, are likely to appreciate this gesture.
If they do NOT move over a bit to the left, then its time for you to start edging over, slowly, to the right. Scan the road ahead for rough spots if you have that ragged shoulder I was talking about, and gradually take your proper place in the far right of the roadway. I tend to put my hands on the brake levers at this time to get ready for any unforeseen need to stop suddenly.
- Second: how many cars are coming up from behind you? here again a rear view mirror is a godsend...your ears cannot tell you how many (or how big/wide) the traffic is back there. If its a line of cars, you have to be more defensive. The 2nd, 3rd, and subsequent cars in the line may not be able to see you, their view obstructed by the leader- especially if it is a truck or bus. Granted, they may see the leader edging to the left (if he's one of the nice guys! ) but they may not know the reason and stay in their current position. From your standpoint, a line of cars takes time to go by and probably generates more of a draft than just a single vehicle, so be more careful.
- Third: if at the same time there are oncoming vehicles, you must learn very quickly one of the nastiest lessons on the road. You have no right to expect a driver to edge over toward the lane of oncoming traffic if they feel it is threatening. Maybe they will still edge over a bit...but don't count on it. This is where your mirror can save your life! You must make a judgement about the cars coming from behind and in front of you and try and avoid the worst of all possible worlds: one where
====>You, the passing cars and oncoming cars are all at the same point at the same time! <===I call this the 'gruesome threesome.'
In this case...nobody has anywhere to go. But the situation is not hopeless....yet. Can you speed up a bit, or slow down some so that this situation does not arise? It doesn't take much effort to do this, especially if you see it coming pretty far in advance. Here again a rear view mirror helps. If you slow down, the sudden approach of your bike (from the perspective of the driver) may be frightening, when in fact you are trying to HELP! Let them know you want them to pass...again..wave them by! That was your whole point in slowing down to begin with. Don't be surprised if truckers, who are likely to understand completely the favor you just did them, honk and thank you profusely. I once had a guy in shake my hand for letting him by when he was grinidng up a steep hill. A car came over the bluff up ahead, he was kind of in the passing lane to go by me, and suddenly he had to cut back fully into the right lane which was narrow. I sensed the situation immediately, dashed over into the (fortunately) small shoulder, and waved him on. At a truck stop about 15 minutes later he bought me my coffee--a BOTTOMLESS CUP OF COFFEE!!! (we arent talking Starbucks here, folks.)
What if you can't avoid the gruesome threesome? If the road shoulder or edge is level with the roadway, you have a place where you can ditch out and stop if you need to. If you have that ragged tarmac edge I referred to earlier, you have to cut into it sharply in order to avoid your bike from sliding out from under you.
My worst situation with the gruesome threesome was on the PanAm highway in Mexico. I had just joined the road, having cut across the Sierra Madre from Durango, and hit the highway just south of Mazatlan. The traffic was heavy, much truck traffic, and the road was two lanes wide. Two, narrow, poorly paved and graded lanes wide! This was the PanAm for pete's sake! And....to make matters worse..there was a 3 or 4 inch dropoff from the tarmac to a narrow shoulder 3 or 4 inches wide of bumpy gravel and loose sand. AND (orchestra roll, please...) beyond that few, precious inches of sand, was a wall of marsh vegetation that was thick enough to hide venomous snakes and vipers and beasts of all description! Well...with the heavy truck traffic the gruesome threesome happened more often than I care to imagine. And with nowhere really to ride it all through, I had no choice but to constantly stop and straddle the bike--even leaning the whole thing to the right occasionally!! It was not pleasant, but I made it. Fortunately the road got better further south and I abandoned the PanAm entirely south of Puerto Vallaarta as I returned to the mountains I so dearly love. I can only say I was alot better off knowing for certain when to give ground, which the mirror enabled me to do. Otherwise this website might be written posthumously.
The equipment in your panniers is another matter. There is no reason for the stuff in your bags--especially your journals, camera, documents, and such-- to get wet whatsoever. They should be kept sealed inside fairly thick mil plastic bags. Try to remove them as little as possible when the weather is lousy so that they don't get dripped to death while you are on the road.
Clothing and your sleeping bag are the real crucial things to keep dry for as long as possible. In a sustained stretch of rainy weather all your clothing will get wet evwentually: what you wear today gets wet..then tomorrow..then the next day. Its a death spiral of misery, folks! You need to have a warm enough, clear enough and low enough humidity day that you can dry your clothes..unless of course you stay indoors (which is not out of the question by any means in many areas) where it is warm from time to time.
This tempts many cyclists into trying Waterproof panniers. This is a mistake: water resistant, breatheably nylon panniers give you more flexibility. With waterproof bags, of which Ortliebs are the most notable, yes..what goes in dry stays dry. But also, what goes in wet stays wet. And in fact what goes in wet gets everything else wet, too, UNLESS YOU PUT THE WET STUFF IN A SEPARATE PLASTIC BAG..which voids the whole point of Ortliebs to begin with. It is far better to use much lighter nylon breatheable panniers and use plastic bags to keep your dry stuff dry, and your wet stuff separated in plastic bags of their own.
Yet a lot of dissatisfaction is encountered in this system. In my experience there are several reasons for this.
Don't jump the gun and stay indoors during rainy or showery weather sooner than you have to. Remember this: Even if you stay at the Waldor Astoria, if it is still pouring when you leave the next morning, in an hour or so you'll be just as miserable as if ya spent the night camping! Maybe even more so as you remember the soft pillows and hot shower. In contrast, if the next day is sunny you'll kick yourself because you can dry your stuff in the sunny weather! So save the motels or hostels for those times when you get a real chain of dreary days. The more cycling experience you get, the more tolerance for dreary conditions you will develop...it is just part of the ferociousness that long distance cyclists get after a while. I have my share, but am by no means as rugged as some I have met.
- Make sure the plastic bags are big enough to fold over the material you put in them so that they form a good seal. Some people use ziploc bags.
- Make sure the bags are a thick enough gauge or mil to be really effective. The very paper thin plastic you get in grocery stores, while 'technically waterproof', is not as effective as the thicker stuff you can find.
- wrap your wet items in one bag (or one bag for each wet item if they are large like sweaters or long shirts) and your dry items in a different set of bags. IN TURN it helps to have one overall large bag which fills the entire pannier..many people small garbage bags for this. The latter prevents additional mositure from seeping into your already soggy equipment. If all this sounds heavy...take all the bags and hold them in your hand sometime! They might total an ounce or two!
- in damp rainy weather the lack of a source of warmth is really discouraging if you are wild camping day after day. Carry a few candles and light them in your tent at the end of the day-- it'll work wonders. You can heat your tent with your MSR stove as well, but the fumes need to be vented out and you'll lose the heat quickly. You are better off cooking warm soups and tea too keep yourself warm.
- As soon as the weather becomes amenable to drying things, seize the day (or as preppies say it, carpe diem. Take your wet things out of the plastic bags one at a time and put them on top of rest of the stuff in your panniers. Leave the dry stuff in the bags so it stays dry. With zipper bags (another reason not to use Ortlieb) you can open the zippers a bit and the warm moving air can start to dry your stuff. Yes..some things can be put on the back of the bike on top of your camping gear. But don't get carried away. You are a touring cyclist, not a two wheeled bag lady!
- I often dried my stuff by spreading it out over the bike while having lunch. The midday sun is the best, of course. Unfortunately, even the slightest haze will drastically reduce this effect. This is why riding with partially open double zippers (which many panniers have) is more effective.
Of course any place larger than a small town is likely to have a laundromat, so a couple of quarters and you are back in the saddle! Camping grounds often have them also, in the USA and Europe.
Don't get imtimidated by all these possibilities and look on the bad side. Its the exact opposite...something will always be in your favor. If its just a period of intermittent showers, dry off in between them. This was common on my trip in France, the alps and into the balkans. If the rain becomes persistent and steady, in settled areas you can use laundromats; I did this along Spain's Camino Santiago, where i had drippy weather for almost ten days. In rural areas you can just light a small fire at the end of the day. And then when ya finally cave in and stay indoors or somewhere warm and cozy, you can feel you earned it by doing the best you could up to that point!