You can do endless research before embarking on a bike trip, be it a single day ride or a multi-year expedition in a faraway corner of the world. In fact, some riders never end up taking a trip because they feel as though they haven’t done enough research and are underprepared.
This is where the art of minimal planning comes in. It's the ability to say, "I know enough, I can figure the rest out as I go," and then walk out the door.
I've never been a good planner. I lined up for the Tour Divide without ever having looked at the paper maps, only with a GPS and a list of the mileages between towns. Scott and I rode all of the bike-legal portions of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) by planning and researching our route from the town that we were currently in to the next town, and no farther. Many of my wandering day rides are more like concepts than actual routes when I set out.
And thus far, I've found that being able to be flexible and to react to the situation in front of me appropriately is far more important than scouring the Internet or guidebooks for as much information as possible.
When we go on a bike trip, we're opening ourselves to situations that we have very little control over. We become vulnerable to the weather, to an unknown environment, to the locals. If everything is planned out, we're so focused on what we expect to happen that we close ourselves off to the serendipitous things that occur when there's not much of a plan.
So, in the world according to me, what are some of the important things to consider before heading out on a trip?
Having a general idea of where you want to go is always a good start, but be open to the idea that halfway through, you might hear of something else you want to explore, and you'll have to abandon your original idea to check it out. Having tunnel vision about a goal doesn't let you see all the shiny and exciting things that might pop up in the periphery as you go. Go see the shiny things.
If you're trying a route for the first time, know that there's a chance that you'll run into “Private Property” signs, impassable death mud, roads that no longer go through or trails that are covered in debris. Be okay with turning around and trying something new or going someplace completely different.
If you’re riding a route that someone has already mapped and ridden, Yahtzee! You can proceed with a fair amount of certainty that you won’t run into these problems.
Food + Water
If you're bike touring in New Zealand, you can probably go weeks without having to carry any water because there are creeks everywhere. If you're wandering around central Utah or southern Arizona, water research is important. Over-carrying water is always a good bet, even if you don't think you’ll need it. Even if you find a nasty water source that you'd only filter out of if you're dying, it's not a bad idea to fill a bottle of water, just in case. You can always dump it out later when you find better water. I've filled a water bottle from a tank on the CDT with a decomposing rodent in it, only to dump it out 30 minutes down the road when I ran into a trail angel with fresh water and sodas. I was still glad I grabbed the water.
Trying to count out calories to eat every day on a trip has never worked for me. Some days I'm ravenous, some days I don't eat a whole lot. Some days all I want is chips. Other days I'm stoked on sweets. Trying to predict what's going to sound good never works. Toss a variety of food in your bags and know that if you're hungry enough, you'll eat it. The "leftovers" box at the Rohn checkpoint on the Iditarod 350 is always filled with goodies like smoked salmon, which I gladly took. Some racer in front of me had packed it, and then decided it didn't sound appealing—it was delicious.
A bit of over-packing will keep you fed if you're out for an extra night or keep the bonk at bay on a longer-than-expected day. I find it a good policy to pack a little bit of high-calorie food that I know I won't eat, "just for fun." Think: gross energy bar. You'll appreciate it when everything else is gone, but you'll only eat it under dire circumstances.
Being uncomfortable is part of bike travel. While you could take a full Gore-Tex suit to put over a down onesie to keep warm and dry, it's just not practical. Take clothing that will keep you mostly comfortable for 80% of situations and accept the fact that your toes may get cold at night. While you're out, keep an eye on the weather forecast and you can often sit out the worst of any storm. I once left a perfectly good town in New Zealand with a three-day forecast of rain because I was over-eager to get some miles in. It was definitely a poor life decision.
Agonizing over the weather forecast also isn't going to do you any good. You'll get hot, you'll get cold. You're never going to get the "perfect" weather window, so you might as well just go when it looks moderately okay to go.
You can spend entirely too much time and money pondering your gear choices. In the end, you don't need a special bike for bike travel. Chances are, whatever bike you have will work great. That being said, don't take a road bike on the Arizona Trail, and a fat bike with studded tires may not be appropriate for a road tour through the Alps (but it would work!).
Unless you have unlimited dispensable income (and time), you don't need the lightest of everything. There are people who count grams on sleeping bags, pads, and cut their toothbrushes in half to save weight, but just focus on buying gear that is reliable and that won't blow your trip budget before you even finish packing.
In the end, you'll have better memories from carrying a slightly heavier stove than sitting around pondering the pros and cons of buying an MSR PocketRocket over an alcohol stove.
Very rarely does everything go as expected on a trip—and that's part of the fun. Know enough to be reasonably safe, moderately comfortable, and welcome any changes in plans with open arms. Spending your time and energy out on a trip dealing with the unknown will be immensely more satisfying than staring a computer screen reading yet another trip report.
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When Eszter Horanyi was in second grade, living in Tucson, Ariz., her dad bought the entire family Schwinn mountain bikes; she’s been riding ever since, dabbling in racing disciplines from road, to cross, to track and mountain biking. Most recently she’s loving adventurous long rides, bikepacking and exploring the world from two wheels. zenondirt.wordpress.com