One of the most liberating experiences of my life is biking out of my town, loaded up with all the gear and supplies to be self-sufficient for days on end. With the wind in my hair and the sun at my back, I feel truly free. Even in a group it’s empowering to know that every member is transportationally autonomous AND cross-compatible with other modes. If a couple people want to spend an extra day somewhere or speed ahead to the next attraction, everyone can have their way.
In addition to the inherent liberation and autonomy, bike touring introduces you to the places you go more intimately than other modes of travel. Your routes can’t be just interstate X from this city to that city, and the side streets and low-traffic roads that cyclists must take are inevitably the roads less traveled. Being “out in the open” also facilitates interactions with locals that you would otherwise miss. In contrast to most other modes of transportation, bike touring is more about the journey than the destination.
To some people, a do-it-yourself bicycle tour is a tour that you plan and execute without a guide service or a non-profit you are fund-raising for. I congratulate anyone whose tour is their own. For people who are already taking more time and effort to travel, I recommend taking the DIY approach one step further. You will be more self-reliant, and you can save a lot of money, too.
Here I offer some DIY tips for three aspects of touring: Mechanics, Food, Lodging and Building and the “Touring Bike.” Even if you have top-of-the-line equipment and stay in hotels when you travel, consider this advice as back-up planning for unexpected challenges…such as your bank deactivating your debit card because you crossed a state line and didn’t tell them (this happened to me). There is also a peace of mind that comes from riding your own handiwork from place to place on a route you make yourself..
You can save a lot of money by doing your own repairs. You also won’t have to depend on a kind motorist giving you a lift to the next town if you can work through your own breakdowns. At the very least I recommend knowing how to patch a tube when it goes flat. Most bike shops offer classes. If there is a community bike co-op where you live, you may be able to learn while volunteering and even exchange hours for parts. A tip for the road: bike shops often put partially used equipment out back (tires with half their tread, patchable tubes).
If I am not in an urban area I will just find an inconspicuous wooded area and camp out. If I am in an urban area where I don’t have pre-existing social relationships, I usually turn to a website and community found at www.warmshowers.org. Similar to couchsurfing.org (but for bike touring), users create profiles for themselves, whether touring or hosting, and find each other and network to provide mutual aid in the form of housing, food, tool/parts/maintenance help, even vehicular rescue. In a pinch (and for fun) I have camped on the flat rooftops of businesses that have a ladder in the back, but scrammed in the morning before the owner called the cops.
Dumpster-diving on a bike tour is very practical because it reduces net waste and saves money. It’s also more interesting because it’s usually not the same-old dumpsters that you’re used to back home. If you don’t dumpster-dive, you can still save money and waste by preparing your own food (with or without a stove) rather than eating at restaurants all the time.
DIY “TOURING BIKE:”
If you have a bike that was made for touring, you still might find this section interesting. Listed below are most of the defining features of traditional touring bike designs. Most are accompanied by a work-around or “hack” that tells how you can achieve the same goal without having to shell out for a bike that was made for touring.
“Heel Clearance,” or enough space so your heels don’t hit your camping gear in the back: I recommend either getting a rack that extends further back or ziptying one of those wire shelving grates on either side to keep your gear out of your spokes. Cat litter buckets also make great panniers.
Low enough gears so that you can climb hills when fully loaded: I recommend either putting mountain bike gears on your bike or just touring on a mountain bike.
Comfortable seat, handlebars, and positioning of these relative to each other. I ride with cruiser style handlebars attached with a mountain bike stem to a road bike frame, but practice-rides will define comfort for you.
Front rack capability: use a rear rack on the front of your bike unless you really want to shell out the cash for a “front rack.” Since bike-tour-specific components are a niche market, front racks tend to be expensive.
Other useful pieces of DIY touring equipment: busted innertubes as bungee cords, box-wine “space-bags” to carry water (they also make great pillows).
There is a more complete list in my 56-page zine, “HOW TO DIY BIKE TOUR” which is available online for free at www.zinelibrary.info/diy-bike-tour or at an infoshop near you. If you know any tips or tricks, I am always searching for new ones to tinker with: email@example.com. I am also very open to suggestions and criticism, constructive and otherwise.
Bicycle touring is very liberating, and it’s also a lot easier to stop and smell the roses when you’re going 15mph on a bicycle. Whether stealth-camping, dumpster-diving, or customizing your bike, the more that you do yourself, the more you are empowered and prepared for whatever adventures await you.