Tips, Tricks, Advice and Pearls of Wisdom. Here’s a few things we have learned over the last two years of bike touring, travelling, camping, commuting and having fun. This list will also include things that we would do differently when travelling again.
Deciding to cycle tour through New Zealand was one of the best decisions of my life. Travel by bike opened my eyes up to the world and made me realise that things are better done when you do it yourself. The air is fresher when you move under your own steam, the nights are more magical when you setup your own camp and food tastes better after a day in the saddle. For me, it felt like I had found freedom.
Although fun, it was never easy. Touring taught me many things about patience, endurance and self sufficiency. I also learned practical lessons in bike mechanics, problem solving and planning (routes, food sources, accommodation, budgeting). Luckily I wasn’t alone. Jasmin has always been by my side (my partner in crime since long before NZ and bike touring) and together we strengthened our understanding of companionship, team work and love.
Upon returning to Germany over a year ago we settled in to life after touring. Slowly and reluctantly some of the racks started to come off, then a third bottle cage wasn’t needed and then the panniers and dry bags found a new home in the wardrobe and so on. But this isn’t all bad. Time between tours has given us time to improve our bikes, rethink setups and plan future trips.
Anyway, I could go on but here’s the list of tips/tricks/advice/pearls of wisdom:
On our first day of touring we loaded up our bikes outside a hostel in Hastings, NZ. We were horribly overloaded. I had a 70L backpack strapped on over my panniers and Jasmin had a hers on her back. We wobbled out of town, Jasmin in tears, doubting that this trip would be possible at all. We continued like this for a week, slowly gaining balance and confidence with every rotation of the pedal until finally we met some people that let us store our excess stuff at their house and gave us light weight dry bags instead. Although we were still carrying a lot of stuff, the lighter load made the trip so much more enjoyable. If doing a big trip again, we would aim to go much lighter. Half the weight if possible.
For now we only have experience with cycle touring but we are intrigued by the relatively modern idea of Bikepacking. Bikepacking gets rid of the classic pannier setup altogether and in place uses clever luggage solutions such as frames bags, top tube bags, seat post bags and handlebar rolls. With the use of bigger tires, more robust bikes and lighter luggage, bikepacking is geared more to off-road travel than on-road travel.
The ability to sleep for free is a major asset to extending the length of a trip, especially if you are on an extremely tight budget like we were. More so, camping is a lot of fun. Being out in nature, setting up camp and being alone sure beats paying $30 a night for a 8 bed dorm, full of drunk, farting backpackers. The locations for camping can also be breathtakingly beautiful.
Things to consider when choosing a tent. Size and weight. A good size to weight ratio is important. Our first tent was great in the sense that it was light and packed tiny but it was too small for two people once pitched. It also had only one opening which was normally packed to the top with our panniers. This made it hard to make a quick exit to the toilet at night. Arriving on the South Island we sold our first tent and invested in a better one. The new one was much more generously spaced inside and had openings on two ends which meant that Jasmin had her stuff on one side and I had my stuff on the other. The down side to having all this room was that the new tent was over 1kg heavier than the old and took up much more space when packed
Although we didn’t quite master the art of wild camping, we still did our fair share. Good places to consider when looking for a camping spot are forests, lake sides, river sides and beaches, just watch out of the tide coming in. This was a problem for me when camping in Australia one time. In New Zealand DOC (Department of Conservation) campsites also great options. The are normally located in areas of exceptional beauty and you only have to pay a small fee of around $6 which goes to the up keep of the campsite. Basic facilities are sometimes provided but not always so bring enough water or be prepared to boil some if its near a water source. Other cyclists that we met along the way recommended asking farmers or people with a big garden if they could camp on their property, although we never tried this, it sounds like a great option as well.
You are the engine and food is the fuel. When you cycle a bike that weighs 40 kg for 60 or 70 kilometres a day, everyday, you can afford to have a savage appetite. When Jasmin hit the slump and just couldn’t any more, we used to stop and eat 4 or 5 big spoons of peanut butter and within a couple of minutes she was back riding her steel horse up hill at a gallop. It really worked. Energy in = energy out.
One day we stopped at a bench on the side of the road next to Lake Hawei and I ate a full loaf of bread with peanut butter and cheese.
Eating peanut butter and chocolate all the time is nice but its not the diet you should rely on to keep you healthy, especially when you have the physical demand of cycling a heavy bike everyday. We didn’t make too much of a fuss about our diet but did try to eat enough and almost always made sure breakfast and dinner were healthy. For breakfast we tried to pack in as much carbs as possible and for dinner we ate something warm with lots of vegetables and some form of protein (veggie steaks, soy products, tofu). We also tried to drink lots of water.
Heres a typical break down of what we ate on a day cycling
Breakfast – Cooked on camping stove
porridge with chopped fruit, nuts and seeds
Snacks – Eaten on roadside
Peanut butter, muesli bars, snickers, nuts, dried fruits (banana chips, mango), fresh fruit (apples, bananas, plumbs) or ice cream
Lunch – Eaten on roadside or sometimes in cafés
Sandwiches with peanut butter, cheese, jam, nutella, cucumber, tomato (any combination)
Left overs from yesterday’s dinner
Dinner – Cooked on camping stove
Pasta with tomato sauce and vegetables sometimes with tofu or veggie sausages chopped in
Fried potato with onion, mushroom, cheese and a fried egg
Large curry with rice and vegetables
If we stayed at a hostel we would often cook up a massive dinner and pack half of it for eating the next day. We also ate at cafés and restaurants along the way if it was convenient to do so. Although it was a lot of extra weight we normally had a good supply of fresh food in our panniers. Sometime we would have a bag of onions, potatoes, mushrooms and other vegetables weighing us down but we were always glad to have a lot of food at meals times. And of course the load also got lighter as we went on. We normally carried a litre of rice milk with us instead of normal milk as it lasts longer when not refrigerated.
We always tried to have enough food with us to last two days in case we got stuck in bad weather in a town with no stores. Sometimes, especially on the South Island, the cycle between major towns would be three days with limited possibilities to stock up on the way. In these cases we would carry enough food for four days. On the longer trips we also had to carry lots of water, sometimes up to 8 litres, enough to drink while cycling and to cook with at night and in the morning. Normally we found that 2 1/2 litres each was more than enough for a day if the towns we passed had good facilities. We only ran out of water once when the only establishment for 80kms refused to let us fill our water bottles. Luckily our campsite that night was beside a stream even though the water required boiling before drinking.
On occasion a few bottles of beer or a bottle of wine would find it’s was into our bags.
Freezing Temperatures make Plastic Brittle
It was the peanut butters fault as well.
You should start a relationship with your saddle. If you are touring you are going to be spending many intimate hours with each other. It is very important that you feel comfortable when you are together.
For us Brooks Saddles are the way to go. Although the thought of sitting on a hard leather saddle may not be appealing to some people, anyone who has a Brooks Saddle will attest to their comfort. Initially you need to break the saddle in (or the saddle needs to break you in!). This process can take a while to achieve. Some say you need to ride 1000 km, others say it takes a month or so but the beauty of breaking in a saddle is that it gets more comfortable the more you ride. So if you buy a Brooks Saddle, refrain from cursing the damn thing on your first couple of rides and be reassured that as the saddle breaks in and your ass toughens up, the saddle sores will reside and you will have a new best friend to sit on everyday.
The rigidity of Brooks Saddles help to support the sit bones as you ride. The more common gel or cushioned saddles allow them to sag or drop into the material. Having the sit bones unsupported can lead to injuries such as lower back pain and hip pain, your legs may also tire out more quickly and knee problems can also occur. It can also mean that you may be resting to much on your private parts instead of you hips.
Other saddles may be just as good but we are a bit biased when it comes to Brooks. We can only compare our saddles to others we used when cycling on borrowed bikes and ours were so much more comfortable. I rarely ever get saddle sore when using my saddle, only if I’ve ridden for a lot of hours. They can be a bit pricey, especially the fancier models, but they are an investment in comfort and I guarantee you won’t regret getting one…after you’ve broken it in of course.
We talked about having a comfortable seat, the next thing to get right is your hands. A good handlebar should have a comfortable grip and give you good control over the bike. The position of the bars in combination with the saddle should promote a straight spine. You definitely don’t want to slouch when travelling large distances.
Handlebars are very customisable and everyone will have there own idea of what works best. For me, I like drop handlebars. They give me lots of different positions for me to put my hands in so when I start getting tired in one position I just move to another. The aero bars are a new edition to my bike and so far are a lot of fun. Jasmin is very happy with her Ergon grips but she would like a handlebar that offers more hand positions. She is not a fan of dropbars but she thinks the Jones Loop Handlebars in combination with her current grips would be a good setup for her.
Every now and then you need to pack your bike into a box to board a plane. Normally on the way to your country of desired travel or heading home. Every airline has a different policy for how they transport bikes. Some charge an extra fixed price, some let you check it in as part of your luggage and almost all of them insist that it is completely concealed.
We flew with Emirates for a total of three flights to get us from New Zealand back to Germany. Emirates accepts a bike box as a part of your check-in luggage which is nice because you don’t need to pay an additional fee to get the bike on board but in our case an additional fee would have been easier. A year earlier we arrived in the country with only backpacks and now we were leaving with the same backpacks plus two bikes, two full sets of touring luggage, lots of new camping gear and lots of bike accessories including tools. All of which had to come in under the 30 kg limit we each had for our check-in bags. Being a bit over weight at the check-in desk wasn’t an option for us. The penalty with Emirates is you have to pay about $25 for every kg over, for each flight, plus taxes. We had three flights ahead of us so we were looking at a potentially hefty fine. It became apparent as we were packing the boxes in Auckland that we were going to have to leave a lot of things behind.
The main thing to consider when packing a bike box is that everything is very well protected and clean (places such as Australia don’t want any contamination coming into their country). Airline luggage handlers are notoriously rough with bike boxes so its important to take precautions. We wrapped all moving parts with packing foam, we padded the side of the boxes with camping gear and filled empty spaces with clothes. The end result was two densely packed boxes that weighted 22 kg and 23 kg. Not leaving much for the rest of our stuff that had to come in under 30 kg.
Next time we need to take a bike on a plane I imagine it will be for a dedicated bike trip. All equipment, bikes included, will be packed in boxes and be within the weight limit. Everything else will be taken as carry on luggage in small backpacks.
These are just some of the things we have learned along the way. I hope that what I have written here will be of some help. My intention is that you take these tips as food for thought for planning your own bike tours and adventures. Any criticism or elaboration on this article is greatly welcomed as I still have a lot more to learn continuing along on my bicycle exploration.
Part 2 coming sometime in the future as the learning continues.