Tips and Tricks for Bicycle Touring
NOTE: This page will present fairly randomly many of the little solutions I have found to small problems. Most of them will be tips, but some will undoubtedly seem a little tricky, hence the name. You won't find all of them useful, and you may already be doing others, but you may find some worth thinking about.
Carrying Soap on a Bicycle Tour
Soap can end up having a considerable weight penalty on a trip if one carries 1) hand soap, 2) shampoo, 3) dishwashing detergent, 4) soap for washing clothes, and 5) a degreaser. To save weight and yet have all the soap I need, I carry a single bottle of concentrated dish detergent. It is an excellent hand soap and has anti-bacterial properties and seems to clean my hair just fine and of course works on dishes. A small amount washes my clothes without being harsh on them, and I will explain how to use it as a degreaser in the next tip.
One environmental note of warning: never discard soapy water into or use soap in a stream or lake. Instead, wash yourself and your pots away from the water and rinse away from the water too. I have found that a good swim in a creek or lake will clean the body fairly well without the use of soap. All that soap does, anyway, is to dissolve grease, and there is only a small amount of skin oil on our bodies.
Washing on a Bike Tour
A number of cyclists in the touring list have stated that they must stay at a campground or motel because they have to have a shower.
For many people, getting to use a shower justifies paying a fee of from $7.00 to $23.00 to camp or from $35 on up to stay in a motel for the night, but many others need to economize. How can someone get clean if free camping?
I was reminded of the need to write this by a cyclist who told me that she gets washed up (and especially gets her hair clean) by going into a fast-food restaurant during the off-hours and using their bathroom sink.
While I have used fast-food sinks for a quick wash, I have never washed my hair there, but I have learned how to wash myself off very completely (including my hair) using just a sink, outdoor water fountain, stream I can't swim in, or just a bike bottle that has been in the sun for a while. In fact, one year when going to college, I didn't have enough money to get the gast turned on (hot water only), so I bathed in the sink for the entire school year using just a small amount of hot water from the electric range. On a few occasions when traveling, I have been unable to find a completely secluded place in which to wash up, so I have done a fairly satisfactory job of washing up with my clothes on.
Occasionally on my trip, I run into a stream or lake suitable for swimming. These make great places to bath, although as I reported above, I don't use any soap to avoid polluting the water. However, in most of these places, it's not possible to entirely get out of the public eye, yet I don't want to carry a swim suit everywhere. What is the solution? My solution is to wear underwear which is not white, so that it does not look like underclothing from a distance. I can clean up in my underwear, dry off in the sun a little, and put my clothes back on knowing that the clothing will quickly dry out. On some days when it's hot, I will soak my shirt anyway before leaving. Of course, since I'm just swimming in underwear, I can't mingle with the public, but I am in the water for a different purpose anyway.
Even those who stay in a campground or motel might find it desirable to wash up and cool off using one of these methods later in the day.
Getting Dirt and Grease off of the Hands
I once discovered that WD-40 was excellent at removing dirt and grease from the hands, but then friends warned me that the solvents can penetrate the skin and get into the blood. Therefore, this method must be avoided. However, I soon found a better solution. I squirt a few drops of concentrated soap onto my hands and work it in good before applying any water. Then I add just a little water and do the same. Finally, I add more water and rinse it all off. The concentrated solution of liquid is much more effective at removing stubborn grease than is a dilute solution.
Standing a Bike Upright without a Kickstand
I really liked having a kickstand on my bike, but the bottom-bracket generator and the kickstand never got along very well, and I finally decided that the generator was more important. However, I can't lay my bike down just anywhere, and besides I like to include it in photos, so what's the solution?
Fortunately, I have known of a simple way to make a bike stand pretty much on its own wherever there is a curb or other low, curb-like object, such as a low wall, raised flower bed, or suitable rock. For this trick to work, the curb must be higher than the lowest place on the pedals' rotation and lower than the highest place; it works best when the curb is about three to five inches high.
First, the bike is placed against the curb, with the rear wheel touching, the front wheel slightly turned into the curb and touching also, and the bike slightly leaning away from the street. Then the crank is rotated backwards until the curbside pedal is flat against the curb. The bike will stand on its own, balanced by the two tires and the pedal. The bike can't move backwards or forwards due to the tires and the pedal. However, if the bike is carrying a heavy load, it's important that not too much of the weight be on the pedal.
Keeping Bugs and Light out of the Eyes
In my area, there are frequently little clouds of insects that I bicycle through. I had a great deal of trouble with them getting into my eyes, sometimes painfully. I tried sunglasses, but the air flow around them allowed the bugs to get in my eyes just as bad. My current method is to use the brim of my cycling cap. By adjusting the cap, I can get the flow of air to miss my eyes. The same brim is effective at blocking the light of cars at night and the sun during the day. I know the cap works well because I haven't had a painful eye experience in years.
Acquiring Toilet Paper
I used to be able to purchase a small package of tissues, but these packets are now usually only sold in large quantities. So, I have developed the habit of gathering a supply for two or three days when I visit a public toilet. I just fold the paper into a square and then fold the square once again before tucking it into my pocket. I hardly consider this grand larceny, as I am very sparing in my use of paper, and I carry off less than what some people use to cover the seat.
Using Toilet Paper
I am shocked when I stop in many areas to find human waste exposed on the top of the ground. This unsanitary practice is a great way to spread disease. Unfortunately, most books on camping suggest digging deep holes, something that would require heavy digging tools and possibly dynamite in the rocky soil of a mountainside. However, deeply buried wastes don't decompose anyway. The best practice is to get away from the trail and areas frequented by people, and water supplies, dig a cat-hole with the heel of your shoe, and cover up when you finish with dirt and leaves. Wastes left just below the surface decompose very rapidly.
There are two kinds of waterproof bags: plastic and waterproofed nylon. The second will never tear, but it will allow water to seep in, especially as it gets older. The first is watertight, but can easily develop a tear. For electronic items easily destroyed by water, I use both. For items that need a tough container but that can tolerate a little water, I use just nylon bags. For maps and papers, I use plastic only, but a couple of layers.
Rather than buy ziplock bags, however, I use the bags given away at every store with one's purchases. While I refuse as many of these bags as I can, I still end up getting several a day, so I have constant replacements for any torn or damaged bags. Although I can't seal the bags, I tied the openings closed and use one inside the other with the openings on opposite sides. I've never had anything damaged through using this method, not even in violent storms.
Going Downhill Faster
When going around downhill bends, I apply my brakes very lightly. The effect is similar to gearing down a car. Since some traction is maintained on the bend, I am able to turn faster -- and if an emergency stop is necessary -- brake quicker as well. For a longer explanation, see How to Ride a Bike Downhill.
Carrying Cords for Packages
Wherever I go, whether on a long trip or around home, I always carry some pieces of polyethylene and/or nylon cord on my bike. Then, I always have a means of tying an extra load to the racks. My polyethylene cord is almost as thin as string, but it is much stronger and tougher and won't rot. It's somewhat better than nylon cord for small loads, as it won't stretch much, making knots easier to untie. My nylon cord is much fatter, but still very light. It has to be stretched tight or the package will work loose. It's somewhat better for tying a heavy package because of its bigger knots which won't pull as tight. A cord is lighter, more compact, more adaptable, and safer than a bungee cord. A bungee cord can easily get caught in the spokes if one end works loose while you are not carrying anything.
The extra cord can also come in handy on a touring trip if I need to extend a tent rope or hang some clothes out to dry.
Marking the Leak in a Tube
The most frustrating moment in repairing a tube by the side of the road is losing sight of the leak. It's easy to see a leak when the tube is blown up and ducked under water. It's very difficult to mark the tube and even more difficult finding that tiny hole after the tube is dried and deflated. The other day, when dealing with such a problem, I reached into my pocket, looking for a pen, and I found a toothpick instead. I stuck the toothpick into the hole, and voila, losing sight of the hole was now impossible. From now on, I am going to carry a toothpick in my patch kit. The toothpick is also handy for puncturing the tube of glue.
When no water is available for finding the leak, I pump the tube very full and see if I can detect an airflow against my skin. The lips are especially sensitive. This only works, unfortunately, for a fast leak.
I have my bike equipped with Schraeder tubes. I prefer them to Presta for touring because the valve stems are more rugged and the tubes can be found in any town. However, for some strange reason, the 27" tubes made by many manufacturers are an inch or so too long for a 27" wheel (and would be even longer with a 700c wheel). The extra length makes installing the tube more difficult, and then the tire is likely to have a bump in it, caused by the extra length. My cure for the bump is to completely deflate and then reinflate the tire (without messing with the tube) when I stop for a break. After doing this several times, the bump is likely to disappear.
However, a solution I like even better is to use a 26" tube. Of course, it must be the narrow 26" tube, designed for tires from 1 1/8 to 1 3/8, as the fatter tube won't work at all. Look at the box carefully. This tube has to be stretched to go over the rim, and I have found that the simplest way to do this is by partially inflating it, which actually helps getting it inside the tire. However, when closing the bead of the tire, it is best to first let most of the air out of the tube.
Using a Handlebar Bag
A handlebar bag is very handy as it allows me to get some of the things I need in a hurry very quickly and without bother. For example, I keep a notepad and pens in the bag so I can jot down quick notes without having to stop, get off of the bike, prop it up against something, then open up and go through my main bags to get out a larger note book or my laptop, make my notes, and finally have to close everything up again before getting back on the bike. Instead, I stop, partially unzip the bag, get out my notepad, and make the notes immediately. The bag is also a handy place to keep all the items I use often, especially the ones I sometimes use without getting off of the bike: my camera, spare film, binoculars, spoon (handy when getting yogurt), fork and knife (used occasionally at quick stops), scissors, stamps and cards (one never knows when one is going to encounter a post office), flashlight, spare bulbs, compass, mirror, chapstick, and comb. I also keep my needle and thread and other odd items there as well, so it's sort of a junk drawer. However, it's important to keep the weight down (affects handling) and to avoid placing so many items in the bag that one must stop and sort through everything to find anything.
I have designed my own handlebar bag so that it rests on the front carrier rather than hanging from the handlebars. This provides a surer attachment and prevents any problems from swaying. See my article on touring bags .
Stopping at Someone's House to Ask about Water or Camping
Having once been a door-to-door salesman for a very brief period, I can predict that people can be quite defensive and unpredicable when you knock at their doors. Your arrival is an interruption, and they have no way of knowing whether you're telling the truth or not. There's also the problem that if you are a man, a woman might be afraid of you and if you are a woman, a man might be aggressive. In addition, a cyclist can lose a lot of time stopping at empty homes with angry dogs.
To avoid problems, my usual practice is to ride along looking for people outside their houses. Since I can see them, and they can see me, we have an opportunity to size each other up before we even speak, which makes both sides more comfortable. I look for people whose demeanor marks them as being open and friendly. And I don't pedal right up to them but speak from a comfortable distance.
Asking for Help
This is a trick rather than a tip. Some of us were taught to never ask anyone for help -- I know I was. However, not asking for something such as drinking water or a place to camp can get you into a world of problems, so what do you do? One solution is to ask another question which will allow the person to volunteer to help you. For instance, instead of asking the person for a drink of water or a place to camp, ask them if they know of a place where you can get water or put up a tent. By being asked more indirectly, people are more likely to help you too. Rather than putting them on the spot, you have enlisted them into solving your problem.
Please note that I said "put up a tent." If you say "camp," they get another picture in their minds, and they will be thinking about campgrounds. Or if you said, "sleep for the night," they will think about a room. When you make it clear that you only need a little space and won't be chopping down trees and building fires, they are more likely to suggest a local woods or their backyard.
Also, don't be too quick to ask your question. If the people first want to know about your trip, be sure to tell them about it, as they are much more willing to help if they know a little about you. They probably have already guessed that you want to ask a favor anyway, and they want an opportunity to size you up.
Refusing to Answer Questions
Sometimes, it is in our best interest not to answer questions, as we learned as kids from reading Red Riding Hood. Unfortunately, it's difficult to know for sure who is dangerous and who is not. One also runs into the dilemma of whether to lie or be rude, either of which is not nice, and either of which could lead to trouble. So if asked a too-personal question, it's better to provide a friendly and semi-truthful answer:
"Do you carry much money on you?" No, I carry traveler's checks, which can't be stolen. Note: I did not mention the cash in my pocket.
"Where do you plan to camp tonight?" I'm not sure; I haven't decided yet. Note: I might have a clear idea of where I want to camp out; still I'm not 100% certain until I crawl into the tent.
"Does anyone keep up with where you are?" Yes, I phone home frequently and tell them where I am. Note: "frequently" might mean once a month.
"Aren't you worried about someone stealing your expensive bike and equipment?" No, my bike and gear are both worn and old, and I'm sure that if I was robbed that it would get good TV coverage. Note: I do have things on the bike that would be very much worth stealing.
Of course, most of the people asking such questions are quite innocent of any harm and by being nice to them, I often get useful suggestions. For instance, people often suggest places where I can camp.
How to Get Correct Information
One truth that the bicycle tourer will either know before the trip or find out the hard way on the trip is that many people will give you incorrect information. Some kinds of errors happen because they have never ridden a bicycle along the road they're telling you about, thus you can expect information about traffic on the road and the steepness of hills to be wrong. In Virginia on my '88 trip, I met cyclists traveling by motor vehicle with their bicycles in racks and asked them about the road ahead, and they gave me the same wrong information as the motorists. I should have recognized that they would since they were traveling a long distance to find a flat place to bicycle. Other information is wrong because people often ignorant about the world around them. Locals sometimes don't know where the road they are living on goes to and will route you way out of your way to get onto a heavily trafficked road. Indeed, locals tend to feel that the back roads are dangerous, having read such statements in the newspaper, and think you should be on the superhighway (most of the fatal accidents on backroads happen late at night). Kids and some adults, when they don't know the answer, will go ahead and supply one anyway. My favorite example doesn't involve bicycling: Back when I was working for the labor union, the vice-president asked me to give him some advice about starting a beehive. A woman cut in and started explaining everything she knew about bees. I left, and when I returned two hours later, she was just winding down, so she say, "But you better ask him, as I don't know anything about bees anyway." We quickly agreed to talk again some other time when he wasn't so run down. Finally, some wrong directions are just due to faulty memory. While touring through South Carolina in '91, I stopped to look at a state atlas because I didn't want to miss my turn, an obscure road which would save me five miles. A local motorist stopped and explained that he did a lot of bike touring also and knew the area intimately. He told me that I should turn where the train track crossed the road on a trestle. I missed my turn because there was no trestle anywhere along that track. He evidently was thinking about somewhere else. By the way, I have never had anyone refuse to provide information or to supply false information deliberately.
One trick that I use when asking directions or other important information is to ask two or more people separately. If the first two answers are close, I feel pretty confident, but if they don't, I ask more people. In addition, when asking about ****, ask for facts and not opinions. That is, don't ask if the road ahead is OK for bicycling, ask about the amount of traffic, if there are shoulders, if other cyclists are using the road, etc.
The Value of Following a Route
In traveling long distances, especially in areas with many confusing turns, it is wise to follow a highway route, as the route signs are everywhere and all turns are carefully marked. Most of my cross-country travel is on routed roads, and I save a great deal of strain by following them, even if I do sometimes get more traffic than I would like. This does not mean that I don't occasionally pick an unmarked road as an alternative, especially in areas where the main road is likely to be crowded and where the unmarked road parallels the main road and is marked on a map. Fortunately for cyclists, the tendency to provide road markings for minor roads has been increasing.
Sending Post Cards
I have to admit here a great weakness of mine -- and how I solved the problem. As I traveled and met people along the way, many of them wanted me to send them a post card after I got to where I was going, so they would know if I arrived safely. There are several problems with this: First, I had already promised post cards to friends and family, sometimes having as many as two dozen cards already promised. Second, the cards and stamps, while not individually expensive, added up to a big bill. For instance, one day when I arrived in Canada, I quickly spent $15 on cards and stamps and did not nearly have enough. Third, with post card in hand, I really didn't know what to say to people I met for just a few minutes. On the other hand, I needed to send fairly long messages to my mother and other dear ones. Fourth, I had little time while traveling to find a place that sells post cards, then the post office, and then to compose messages. People don't realize how busy the day of a cyclist traveling 70 miles a day is, and it was easy to lose half a day over the damn cards. And finally, with the messages that were to be sent back when I got home, I found no place locally that sold picture post cards, plus I had a ton of stuff that had to be done right away, often with school starting in just a couple of days anyway. I might add, that once school started, I was usually too buried in work to be able to to any other work until Christmas. There were often major disruptions too, as I sometimes returned to real crises in the family or at the school.
So, I must admit shamefully that sometimes I did not get the cards out. On a few occasions, I wrote up a complete account to send to everyone, and not all of these went out either.
However, before my year 2000 trip, I realized a way out of this dilemna. I had a printing shop make up business cards for Ken Kifer's Bike Pages, with a short description of the contents, the url, and my email address. Now I no longer have to worry about someone pining away because he or she doesn't know if I arrived.
My solution is as follows: First, I explain that I no longer write cards. Second, I give the person my card, and explain that a full account of the trip will be published on that web site, often while I am traveling. Third, I point out that my email address is on the card, so he or she can write to me at any time, ask any question, and I will be glad to answer. Finally, if the person does not have a computer, I point out that almost every public library has a computer set up to visit web pages, etc. In fact, the last person who asked for a personal message met me right outside the library as I was leaving, and I told her that she could go in at any time and read about my trip.
This may sound like a cold, hard solution, but it is the exact opposite. I frequently meet a dozen people or more in a day who are anxious to know more about my trip. It would take me more time than I spent talking to them and more money than the combined help they gave me was worth to write each of them a few sentences. This way, they have the opportunity to read about this trip, the last trip, and every trip and to look at pictures I made along the route too. This way they can write and ask any question they want without spending a cent, although very few end up doing so. And this way, I can be spending the time on the trip doing the things important to me to do, rather than to be visiting curio shops, which I never visit, hunting for post cards, which I would otherwise never look at, and writing cards, on which I don't know what to say.