In recent years there seems to have been a trend for plotting routes, mapping them and then creating a gpx file we can all download and follow like sheeple. And of course, I myself am guilty of this with some of the articles I write.
That aside for the moment, travelling with your bike gives you the chance to step away and go your own way, if only for a short time. And not just from the normalities of everyday life; but the ever-increasing way that society feels the need to shepherd us.
Remember that wonderful sense of innocence you were born with, that abundant joy in the discovery of new things, the thrill and anticipation to be had from the wonder of what else there was outside the confines and restraints of your life?
That purity of thought is still there, buried some-where deep within your psyche, waiting to be rediscovered, screaming to be released.
My advice is don’t download that file, look at it yes, and perhaps take some ideas from it, but don’t blindly follow it. Instead take your own path wherever that might take you, it doesn’t matter if dozens of people have ridden it before, what matters is that it is new to you and every turn, crest or rise brings a different vista.
What’s the worst that can happen? It might just come to an end, and if it does, so what? You can turn around and head back. And does it matter?… of course it doesn’t, at least you’ll have ridden something differ-ent, if only for a short time.
But it might not end, it might take you somewhere new, a piece of single track far better than any trail centre can offer; or a spot to pitch for the night with a view that you’ll carry with you for ever. You won’t know unless you follow it.
So, leave your Garmin or navigational device at home, switch off your phone if you’re not comfortable with leaving it behind and just ride your bike. Take that path alongside the river, and into that valley. Camp in the woods, then in the morning ride over that hill and see where it takes you.
Carrying on from last month’s article, I was talking about the bike. Picking up on that, don’t waste your money or indeed, your time on a new bike, initially just use the bike you have until the time comes (after a few trips) that you realise that perhaps it is not ideal and you need something more suited to lugging your kit around, or maybe it is, in which case spend your money on some good kit.
On that note, it might sound rather elitist but don’t buy what you can afford now, instead save and buy the best, that piece of kit in Aldi’s might have seemed a bargain at the time, but when the zip or stitching fails I guarantee you’ll be cursing those Germans. Good kit is expensive for a reason, it won’t let you down.
Tarp or tent? Personally, having used both over the years, I tend now to opt for a tent as the bene-fits are worth the (slight) weight burden. Also, if the weather turns a tent is without doubt more com-fortable and practical, particularly if the weather gets really nasty and you find yourself ‘stormbound’. Also, if you do fancy a night under the stars (and there’s nothing bet-ter) you can always sleep on the groundsheet.
Modern tents are lightweight and whilst you might be travelling solo, it’s worth considering a 1+ tent (or a 2+ if you’re travelling with a part-ner) to give you room to stow your kit or possibly the bike with the wheels off.
There are two schools of thought here, down or synthetic. Down is lighter, packs away smaller and is possibly warmer. The advant-age of a synthetic bag is that it’s not the end of the world if it gets wet, whereas a wet down bag is hope-less and difficult to dry during a trip. Personally, I always use a down bag and carry it inside a dry-bag.
Gas, multi fuel or meths? These are your choices and there are some good brands out there. MSR and JETBOIL come to mind, but don’t be put off by the lowly TRANGIA, a beautifully simple, incredibly low maintenance piece of kit with some very intuitive and clever adaptations available if you choose to use the burner only and then take your own pans. Don’t forget matches and a lighter!
It goes without saying, do your research on what weather to expect and take what you feel is appropriate. Obviously, you won’t need the same amount of clothes for a September night on Cefn Bryn as you would for a January night on the shores of Loch Fannich. Also, take note of what to expect after sunset, for example, even though you might be heading to the Sahara where the temperatures can be a tad warm in the day, it can get bitterly cold at night and whilst some will laugh when you pack a duvet jacket for a trip to Africa, you’ll be the one comfortable in the night. Stay away from manmade fabrics if you can, wool and silk for me win every time and can be worn for days on end without smelling like a pair of socks that have been left damp in the bottom of your frame-bag for a week. Give gloves some serious thought (socks too) as there is nothing worse than cold fingers. Silk gloves (as indeed are silk socks) are particularly good as a liner, or thin merino. Beware of gloves that claim to be 100% waterproof, many aren’t. I’m going to name and shame here, SEALSKINZ gloves are not, they are for an hour or two but after that are next to useless.
Neoprene socks whilst very ‘uncool’ (for those of you who are bothered) are particularly good in the winter especially when worn in conjunction with a silk or merino pair. One advantage they have is that your feet stay warm when wet though prolonged rainy days can lead to trench foot.
Padded liners. Avoid them if you can, they are a hotbed for all sorts of fungal bacteria, particularly on a long trip. Instead, go for Merino or birch bark underpants (HOWIES make an especially good pair and are based in Wales). Try and avoid 100% Merino as they soon lose their shape, instead go for a Merino / polyester / elastine combination. Make sure they have a gusset and are seamless where it matters most.
Another advantage of pants over a liner is they take up less room in your bags and dry far quicker when washed. Whilst riding without a liner is initially uncomfortable, stick at it and you will get used to it.
Always take fresh if you can, avocado, peppers, mushrooms, salmon etc. This will take you through the first few days before relying on the staples – couscous (uses less fuel to prepare than rice or pasta), tinned mackerel, salami, wraps, porridge, nuts, cheese, dried fruit mix, homemade flap jacks, peanut butter / Nutella / tahini depending on your taste preference, Belvita biscuits, Mars bar, tea coffee and cake. etc., etc. Herbs and spices are light to carry, take up very little room when bagged and add a welcome taste to otherwise bland meals. Food needs to be nutritious, compact and robustly packed. Vacuum packed food is a great way of taking meals, not those ridiculously expensive sachets you find in outdoor shops, but your own cooked meals sealed. People raise an inquisitive eye when you turn up at a bothy having obviously been away from civilisation for a few days then proceed to cook lasagne on your stove. A vacuum sealer can often be found in the aforementioned Aldi’s and is relatively inexpensive. Of course, it goes without saying, don’t forget to pack a hip flask
If in this country, and indeed in Scotland I am quite comfortable filling my bottle from a stream, usually after having scouted five metres upstream and down first and always from fast running water. This of course leaves you wide open to various waterborne diseases, but so far, I have been lucky and within the UK have (yet!) to suffer any ill effects. Abroad it is different, and unfortunately water can contain all manner of unpleasant things including bacteria, viruses and parasites. So, what do you do? There are some excellent filtration systems out there from the likes of Sawyer, MSR, LifeStraw etc. which all claim to rid 99.9% of bacteria. There are also tablet treatments and whilst I always carry some ‘just in case’, I find these do tend to leave a taste. I prefer the filtration system and am currently using a Sawyer filter. Do your research, read the reviews and if you can, try a few different models before making your choice.
The photo showing Tracey pulling a bucket made from an old tyre from a well was taken in the Western Sahara and the well was over thirty metres deep. At that point in the trip we were getting worryingly low on water and were rather pleased when we came across the well. I think it’s fair to say, once we had pulled the ‘bucket’ out’, both our resolve and the Sawyer filter were tested to their limits. The water was rank, and not exactly clear. But after we’d filtered it through it was fine to drink and neither of us suffered any ill effects. The modern filters really are very good.
Don’t worry if you have packed some clothes or extra food for those ‘just in case’ moments, whilst your riding buddy has spent the entire day gloating that their bike is 3kg lighter because their ‘cool’ and being minimalist. When the wind turns, the temperature plummets and the rain kicks in, they’re lying there in a super lightweight bivvy with an ultra-light sleeping bag under a tarp, chewing on an almost indigestible energy bar, soaking wet, freezing their nuts off; whilst you’re sitting in your tent, warm and dry holding a warm cuppa nursing a rather pleasant feeling of contentment looking forward to your fresh veg and a comfortable night’s sleep.
Carrying your kit
Most people will have a rucksack of some sort or can certainly borrow one so this will be your first go to remedy. However, you will soon learn that it makes sense to let the bike carry the load leaving your body unencumbered and comfortably cool.
If you find that travelling with your bike is some-thing you really take to, there is a whole array of kit available to you from frame bags to racks, many of which can be sourced in the UK. One thing to mention here is that whilst there was a trend to front load the bike carrying only light kit in a bag mounted on the saddle and seat post; to my mind it makes sense that the bike is balanced, this makes for a more stable ride. And the best way to test this is to pick up the bike when it is loaded, by doing this it will be obvious whether it is back or front heavy. Frame bags win every time over panniers and allow you to put your heavier kit in the bottom close to the bottom bracket thus keeping the centre of gravity low.
Common sense really, though one thing that is worth mentioning, carry a small dry-bag (under the bars or on a fork leg) that is easily accessible in which to keep kit you might need quickly, waterproofs for example.
These are things that you might never use but should always carry, just in case. The one that comes to mind is a First Aid Kit, absolutely essential. Wound dressings, triangular bandage, a roll of plaster tape rather than individual ones, non-absorbent dressings, medi-wipes, Steri-Strips, Cannesten cream etc. There’s no need to go overboard, you’re not attending an RTA just be able to look after yourself or your companion.
A length of para cord and some pegs are always worth taking.
On the tools front, a spoke key, zip ties and duct tape are all worth their weight in gold. A spare inner tube, and a toothpaste tube in case you shred your tyre, a tubeless repair kit, spare nuts and bolts and a spare gear cable / brake cable in addition to the normal things like a multi-tool and chain-breaker, etc.
If you’re planning a longer trip and are likely to be isolated for days at a time, whilst you obviously can’t cover all eventualities, you can allow for most. There’s a small compact tool I have yet to use but always carry called a NBT2, Google it!
Plan your route
For the UK, you can’t beat the wonderful OS maps, if you’re heading further afield, Google earth, Maps ME plus many others are available. There is an absolute joy in spending hours looking at maps and planning your trip, however don’t assume because the track is marked on the map it is there on the ground. This is where Google earth comes in, but beware, that satellite image your looking at was taken on a sunny dry day, and that track that looks so appealing on the screen can be a completely different beast on a wet day.
If you’re going to download a gpx route onto your phone, Garmin or other navigational tool, always take a paper map as back up.
Cycle from your door if you possibly can, and whilst not always practical it does bring a real joy to the beginning of your trip. Also, don’t be averse to following a track that catches your eye, even if it doesn’t appear on your map, it’s quite exciting heading into the unknown. And after all, you can always turn back if you’re uncomfortable.
Where to sleep
Now you’re on your way, where will you sleep? Bothy, hostel, tent, a shelter belonging to a Bedouin nomad, an abandoned bunker, garden shed, a cave, a hide? Don’t laugh, they’re all places I’ve spent time in. Obviously with all that is currently going on, the first two aren’t an option, but the others certainly are.
If you choose to camp or bivvy, look for somewhere that offers some shelter, preferably near a stream and with a clear view eastward so you get the benefit of the warmth of the sun as it rises.
This is important particularly on trips of longer than two days. Toothbrush and paste, flannel, a bar of natural soap and biodegradable wet wipes are all things that you should never fail to carry. For any trip of a week or less you can get away with washing in streams, rivers or even the sea if you’re not averse to a salty body. Though bathing in a cold stream in November might not suit everyone and this is where the wet wipes come into their own. Whilst perhaps not as thorough they are certainly an alternative.
Once you’re into your second or third week though you start to miss a hot shower and even running water. I remember in Albania after two weeks it was a novelty sitting under a warm shower then having dried myself off standing in front of a basin with taps, I found myself turning the tap on and off, simply because I could!
This is only meant as a rough, introductory guide and you’ll soon find what works best for you. One thing I hope you will discover is that there is a certain joy to be had from riding a loaded bike, you’ll see things differently and rediscover the joy of the journey. And though initially it will feel heavy and sluggish, you’ll soon get used to it. And every time you do you’ll embark on an adventure. It doesn’t matter if it’s just overnight or for a month or if it’s to some far-flung place or the hills of Wales, the joy is the same, it is just the view and the language that is different. I’m sure you will love the escapism and freedom travelling with your bike gives you.
The community of cycle tourer’s out there are a great bunch, friendly too and with some interesting stories to tell of their experiences. Join them, you’ll meet some good people and even if you decide it’s not for you, there’s a good chance you’ll have made some lifelong friends.
Now what are you doing this weekend, watching TV? Going to the pub? Or…..sleeping under the stars?!